The Harvest Ritual

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1769

Sam Shepard has often been called a mythic playwright, one whose work summons the contradictory images and archetypes of American life—killers and cowboys, Hollywood and farmsteads, rock n' roll and the open road. He is, as Wynn Handman, the artistic director of the American Place Theatre once remarked in an interview with Newsweek, ‘‘like a conduit that digs down into the American soil and what flows out of him is what we're all about.’’

What often flows out of Shepard are characters and stories that are at once exciting and recognizable as American allegories as well as shocking and repulsive for what they tell us about human instinct and behavior, regardless of cultural background. His is the gift of sight where many fear to look—a sort of witch doctor of modern America or, as Jack Gelber wrote in his introduction to Shepard's Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class & Other Plays, a shaman. ‘‘Anthropologists define the shaman as an expert in a primitive society who, in a trance state induced by drugs or music or other techniques, directly confronts the supernatural for the purposes of cures, clairvoyance, the finding of lost objects, and the foretelling of the future,'' Gelber explained. ‘‘Sam Shepard … is a shaman—a New World shaman. There are no witches on broomsticks within these pages. That's the Old World. Sam is as American as peyote, magic mushrooms, Rock and Roll, and medicine bundles.’’

Shepard's unique brand of American shamanism has led him to explore the thoughts in the mind of a murderer seated in the electric chair in Killer's Head (1975), and the hip, dexterous verbal wit of dueling rock musicians in The Tooth of Crime (1972). He has plumbed the depths of the film industry and pop culture in plays like Angel City (1976) and True West (1980), and wrestled with quirky relationships in Cowboy Mouth (1971) and Fool for Love (1983). One of the most interesting features of these plays is their portrayal of recognizable rituals. From the seemingly random rules of engagement Hoss and Crow observe in The Tooth of Crime to the Indian bones and totems used by Rabbit to jump start the creation of a stalled disaster movie in Angel City, rituals of one kind or another figure prominently throughout Shepard's work.

Perhaps nowhere, however, is ritual as important as in Buried Child. On its surface, the play seems like a fairly typical, if somewhat dark, family drama, but surprises lie in wait below. In an article for Modern Drama, Thomas Nash noted, ‘‘here, behind the seemingly trivial squabbles and musings of a typical Midwestern family, are the shadows of sacrificial rites and the shades of dying gods.’’

The ‘‘sacrificial rites’’ found in Buried Child, though perhaps not immediately obvious, parallel primitive agricultural rituals associated with planting, tending, harvesting, and celebrating crops, activities which were essential to non-industrialized agrarian societies. As Venetia Newall noted in an article for Man, Myth, and Magic, ‘‘It is difficult for us to realize nowadays, with tins and frozen foods available throughout the year, and imported tropical fruits on our tables even in the middle of winter, the anxiety which our ancestors felt as they waited for the annual harvest.’’

To help relieve their anxiety, and to rejoice as a community when their efforts met with success, early farming cultures developed a variety of rituals meant to bless the earth and the seeds that were sown, appeal to the various gods that represented elements necessary to crop growth, such as rain and sunshine, and preserve the spirits that inhabited...

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the fields and their bounty from year to year. Such rituals have surrounded the planting and harvesting of wheat, corn, and rice—the principal crops of most of the earth's population—for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, for example, worshiped Demeter, the goddess of grain, and developed rituals designed to please her, keep her spirit alive within their crops, and promote its renewal each spring. American Indians developed Corn Dances, while many European communities from the Middle Ages to the present day make dolls from the last sheaf harvested, or leave a few ears standing in the field until the next planting. Once the harvest left the field, it was time for rituals of gratitude, which typically involved fellowship in the community and great feasts. To this day, the Jewish community celebrates Sukkot—the Feast of the Booths—and most Americans and Canadians observe Thanksgiving in the fall, during harvest time, just as the Pilgrims may have done in Plymouth Colony in 1621.

In Buried Child, Shepard draws upon the essential elements of these rituals—fertility and nourishment, growth and maturation, death and resurrection—and symbolically provides each a chilling dual meaning. One of the most important and recognizable sacrificial rites dramatized in Buried Child is the death of the old Corn King and the birth or, in this case, resurrection, of a new Corn King. Behind this ritual, shared in one form or another by many different cultures, is the notion that a spirit inhabits the corn plant, and the spirit must be kept alive from the time the plant is harvested until the following year, when a new field is planted, in order to ensure a bountiful new crop.

The plot construction and characters of Buried Child contain echoes of this ancient corn ritual. Outside the house lies a fallow field, which hasn't been planted in years. Inside, sickly and near death, lies Dodge, the patriarch of the family and, in ritual terms, the symbolic ‘‘Corn King’’ whose spirit must be kept alive until a successor is found. Like the old man with a long beard, leaning on a scythe, who is the symbol of the Old Year, annually dying on December 31, Dodge is almost helpless, and entirely dependent on his wife and sons while waiting for the infant New Year or, in this case, a young, strong new Corn King, to replace him. The play reaches its climax when the old Corn King dies and a new one, the outsider, Vince, assumes the throne.

Early in the play, one of Dodge's sons, the emotionally disturbed Tilden, covers his sleeping father with the husks of the corn he has mysteriously brought in from the field. Although he will not inherit the role of new Corn King at the end of the play, Tilden is nevertheless a symbolic part of the ritual. He represents the youth and virility his father, now dying on the stalk, once had, making him a threat to the old Corn King. To amplify his role as his father's aggressor, and possible heir to his throne, Tilden is able to reap more than just crops from an empty field. Years before, he managed to impregnate his own mother, long after she and Dodge had stopped ‘‘planting the field’’ as it were. ‘‘We weren't planning on havin' any more boys,’’ Dodge admits to Shelly late in the play. ‘‘We had enough boys already. In fact, we hadn't been sleepin' in the same bed for about six years.’’

Dodge's middle son, Bradley, is another candidate for the title of new Corn King, though he is even less likely to wrest the office from the cantankerous patriarch than Tilden. When Bradley is first mentioned by Halie, Dodge expresses contempt for his offspring, who has the unusual habit of sneaking into the house and cutting his father's hair while he sleeps. ‘‘You tell Bradley that if he shows up here with those clippers, I'll separate him from his manhood!’’ Dodge warns. But Bradley has already been symbolically castrated. He lost a leg in a chainsaw accident and, though he bristles and blusters as loud as any playground bully, without his leg he is reduced to a whining, pre-pubescent schoolboy.

Still, just as Dodge feared, Bradley appears after the old man falls asleep. Standing over Dodge's rumpled, wheezing form stretched out on the sofa, Bradley mutters, ‘‘Harvest's over, Pops,’’ and proceeds to savagely cut his father's hair, as if he were husking an ear of corn. With this act, the old Corn King falls even closer to his death.

Vince's appearance on the scene in Act II finally signals the arrival of a potential new Corn King. Young, strong, and untouched by the terrible family secret that has crippled the rest of the men in the household, Vince introduces a renewed spirit of hope into the grim ceremony. For a time, Vince is at once the buried child, the lost Ansel, and himself—all the missing sons of the family. Perhaps recognizing the seriousness of the threat Vince represents, Dodge, the old King, and Tilden, a contender for the throne, claim not to recognize the boy, though both are eager to win the favor of Shelly, the new female Vince has brought into the male-dominated homestead.

To formulate a plan of attack, and perhaps steel himself for the battle to come, Vince leaves the house on a mission for Dodge, his symbolic nemesis in the fight for the Corn King title. While he is away, each of the inhabitants of the house makes a play for power. Halie returns home with a man from the outside—Father Dewis, who turns out to be completely ineffectual and metaphorically impotent. Bradley's bullying turns to whimpering when Shelly takes his artificial leg and wields it like a weapon. Tilden, left with no other choice, leaves the scene to exhume the ‘‘buried child,’’ the root of all their troubles.

When Vince finally returns home from his overnight driving odyssey through the symbolically purifying rain, he cuts his way through the porch's locked screen door and steps through, like a baby emerging from its mother's womb. Nash observed: ‘‘Clearly, Shepard has used this dramatic moment as a symbolic rebirth, calculated to correspond to the exact moment when Tilden, alone in the rain, must be pulling the decayed corpse of the buried child from the mud of the cornfields.’’ In terms of the symbolic ritual he is reenacting, he has returned just in time for the new season's planting. With his dying words, the old Corn King (Dodge) wills the house and fields to the new Corn King (Vince). Outside, after the cleansing rain and nourishing sunshine, the crops miraculously begin to burst through the soil of the fields. Inside, after a long season of blight and decay, hope is renewed as the buried child is carried upstairs for a homecoming with its mother, and a new Corn King reigns from his living room throne.

Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999. Glenn is a Ph.D. specializing in theatre history and literature.

Shepard's Choice

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2063

Challenging the camera over a period of thirty years, Sam Shepard's face appears in sepia and black-and-white on the jackets of three newly issued books. The chiseled bones, the two deep furrows in his forehead, the uncombed mane and dimpled chin are physical constants. What the camera also reveals is how the acid of years and circumstance have etched radical mutations in Shepard's appearance. Something more than passing time is responsible for his transformation from the youthful hipster depicted in Bruce Weber's unposed photo for The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, to the engaging, rather shy young man of Weber's cover shot for Simpatico, to the unshaven, haggard, vaguely anguished figure in Brigitte Lacombe's portrait for Cruising Paradise, to the harrowing, glowering desperado in Richard Avedon's recent celebrity mug shot for The New Yorker. Avedon's black-bordered photograph shows the face and neck of its now middle-aged subject weathered by outdoor and indoor experience, his brow threatening, his mouth drooping at the edges with surly contempt. You can almost sense him tapping his foot, an unwilling subject, impatient to return to his horses and the open air, who doesn't know what in hell he's doing in a New York studio.

Why, he might be asking, is a man who prided himself on being a private, even reclusive writer now willing to cooperate with this cosmopolitan world of hype and fashion? Once a mysterious presence behind a wealth of cryptic plays, today he finds himself a highly publicized celebrity, not through his theater work, which never managed to draw a mainstream public, but largely as a result of screen appearances, beginning with The Right Stuff, which brought him momentary fame as the new Gary Cooper. It is true that Shepard's movie roles have been occasional, even desultory lately, and that the once-prolific dramatist has only produced three plays in more than a decade. Yet, we are told, this will be Shepard's jubilee year. He has just enjoyed his first Broadway premiere—a revised version of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child in the splendid Steppenwolf production (which will soon be closing). The Signature Theatre will stage a series of Shepard works next year off-Broadway, some old, some revised, some newly written. And Knopf and Vintage are issuing a series of Shepard volumes, the latest among them a collection of “tales” called Cruising Paradise.

Reading Cruising Paradise after seeing Buried Child (Brooks Atkinson Theatre) reinforces the impression that Shepard's writing is becoming increasingly autobiographical, if not self-absorbed. By common consent, his masterpiece, Buried Child was the beginning of a relatively new phase in Shepard's work. Not long before he was discovered by Hollywood, he turned away from the rock-and-rolling hallucinogenics of Tooth of Crime and The Unseen Hand(‘‘impulsive chronicles,’’ as he now calls them, ‘‘representing a chaotic, subjective world’’) to compose domestic plays in a relatively realistic style. It was around the same time that this itinerant road warrior settled into domesticity with Jessica Lange and permitted the studios to replace his broken front tooth. What was jagged and chaotic and parentless in the Shepard persona was now turning familiar and familial.

Indeed, Cruising Paradise suggests that the characters depicted in Buried Child (and other plays of the period: Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind, Simpatico) bear a family resemblance to Shepard's own ancestors. As a matter of fact, a few Buried Child character names—Dodge, Vinnie, Ansel—are mentioned (though in different guises) in these brief stories, along with the weird names of some recurrent Shepard locales (Azusa, Cucamonga).

The name of Dodge, a cantankerous drunkard in Buried Child, reappears in the stories as his great-great-great-grandfather, Lemuel Dodge, who lost an ear fighting for the North and an arm fighting for the South. (These amputated parts may have inspired Bradley's prosthetic leg in Buried Child.) But Dodge, the dramatic character, is probably much closer to Shepard's own father, whose bourbon-soaked presence dominates the first half of Cruising Paradise. In ‘‘The Self-Made Man,’’ Shepard remembers his father as a World War II fighter pilot in a silk scarf, who mournfully concluded that ‘‘aloneness was a fact of nature.’’ In ‘‘The Real Gabby Hayes,’’ he recalls him as man who loved the open desert and loaded guns, two passions inherited by his son. In ‘‘A Small Circle of Friends,’’ he describes the way his father gradually estranged all his close companions as a result of his drinking bouts and temper tantrums. At one point, he attacked a man he suspected of having an affair with his wife, smashing his face on his raised knee and splitting his nose. And in ‘‘See You In My Dreams,’’ Shepard recounts (in an episode recapitulated in A Lie of the Mind) how his father was run over by a car in Bernalillo after a three-day binge of fighting, fishing and drinking with a Mexican woman. His son buried his ashes in a plain pine box in Santa Fe's National Cemetery, feeling ‘‘a terrible knotted grief that couldn't find expression.’’

Most of these stories, like many of his plays, take place in motor courts—Shepard may be the most inveterate chronicler of motel culture since Nabokov made Humbert Humbert chase Lolita through the back lots of America. (Both writers recognize that nothing better suggests the bleak rootlessness of American life than a rented room.) In one of the stories—‘‘Hail From Nowhere’’—a man (the author?) is looking for his wife in a motel room, and discovers that she has abandoned him. He can't remember what they fought about, but in a companion piece, ‘‘Just Space,’’ the woman describes him to her mother as someone who ' 'carries guns’’ and tried to shoot her. I was reminded of a time when Shepard, having driven to Boston with a brace of shotguns in his trunk, threatened to use them on a Herald photographer who was stalking him and Jessica Lange through the streets of Beacon Hill. Rage, alcohol, and a profound respect and awe for trackless nature—these constitute the basic Shepard inheritances.

They also constitute the essence of Buried Child. Set in central Illinois in 1978, the play is about an alcoholic couch potato (Dodge), his hectoring unfaithful wife (Halie), two dysfunctional sons (the half-wit Tilden and the sadistic amputee Bradley), a grandson (Vince) and his girlfriend (Shelly). Some past nastiness is afflicting this family, a secret that is gradually exhumed (along with the child) in Ibsenite fashion: Halie has borne a baby out of wedlock by her own son, Tilden.

Shepard monitors this story through strong and violent metaphors. At the end of the first act, Bradley cuts his father's hair until his scalp bleeds, and, at the close of the second, thrusts his fingers into Shelly's mouth in a gesture equivalent to rape. When Vince returns to the family, no one recognizes him. He responds by drinking himself into a stupor with his grandfather's whiskey. By the end of the play, Dodge has quietly expired, Vince has inherited his house, and Tilden—who earlier carried corn and carrots to dump them into Dodge's lap in some vague vegetative rite—enters with the decaying remains of the child who was buried in the garden. It is a remarkable moment, contrasting fertility and drought, invoking the lost innocence and failed expectations not just of a family but of an entire nation. Buried Child reverberates with echoes of The Waste Land, Tobacco Road, Of Mice and Men, even Long Day's Journey Into Night, but it is at the same time an entirely original Shepard concoction.

And the production that director Gary Sinise has fashioned with his Chicago company is a corker—easily the finest staging of a Shepard work I have ever seen. Robert Brill's vast set is composed of an endless staircase ascending to nowhere and wooden slatted walls decorated with the head of a lopsided moose that seems to be as drunk as the owner. The accomplished cast fills this space entirely, investing this dark gothic concerto of a play with elaborate comic cadenzas. James Gammon, a quintessential Shepard actor, is especially powerful as Dodge, rasping his part as if he were swallowing razor blades. Leo Burmester as Bradley drags his leg along the floor like Walter Slezak stalking John Garfield in The Fallen Sparrow. Terry Kinney plays the lobotomized Tilden in filthy boots and trousers, as if he had just been plucked from the earth himself. And Lois Smith is an eerie, frenzied, nattering Halie.

While Buried Child uses the family as a commentary on an entire nation, Cruising Paradise is oddly insulated from anything but Shepard memories. In most of these stories, this is not a pressing problem. Whether told in first or third person, they are drenched in a powerful nostalgia. ‘‘I found myself lost in the past more often than not,’’ Shepard writes in ‘‘The Devouring Lion,’’ which may explain why he has chosen the reflectiveness of narrative rather than the immediacy of drama for evoking his family history: the short tale is the perfect medium for reminiscing about yourself and your ancestors.

It is not, however, an ideal medium for talking about your experiences as a movie star. And what weakens and finally enfeebles Cruising Paradise is the self-regarding, oddly conflicted nature of the final stories. Here, in a series of twelve impressionistic vignettes, mostly written on location in 1990 for a film he was shooting at the time, presumably Volker Schlondorff's Voyager, Shepard goes by train to California for an initial meeting with the German director, then by car to Mexico for the filming. ‘‘I'm an actor now,’’ he writes. ‘‘I confess, I don't fly. I've been having some trouble landing jobs lately because of this not wanting to fly; plus, I refuse to live in L.A.’’ He also doesn't own a fax machine or a word processor, and he won't do ‘‘press junkets.’’

During appointments with costume and makeup, he realizes that he is going to be thrown together with perfect strangers on a long shoot. This makes him want to ‘‘either run or puke.’’ He gets in a hassle with an assistant to the director who, because of Shepard's fear of flying, is required to make arrangements for a special limo. These arrangements are complicated by Mexican border regulations and Shepard's taste in cars. ‘‘I don't need a limo. Just get me a Chevy,’’ he remarks. The L.A. weather reminds him of murder, ‘‘the perfect weather to kill someone in.’’ Passing some ‘‘very chic people’’ in the hotel, ‘‘sinking into paisley, overstuffed sofas, reaching for silver trays full of cashews and almonds,’’ he again thinks of murder. He remembers what Céline said in his very last interview: ‘‘I just want to be left alone.’’

Since he won't fly, or use technology, or engage himself socially, Shepard manages to create as much trouble for the studio as the most demanding star. He harasses his Austrian driver because he insists on wearing a tux while driving through the desert. He feels alienated from the director when, sick with ‘‘la turista,’’ he cries over a lost love (‘‘I barely know the man’’). In short, he behaves like a royal pain in the ass.

He arrives in Mexico finally after a series of harrowing adventures. The limo is stopped and stripped by some narcs looking for drugs. Shepard can only get a work permit by lying to a female bureaucrat, telling her he's Spencer Tracy. ‘‘I'm not an actor. I'm a criminal,’’ he muses. ‘‘Maybe there is some inherent crime attached to pretending.’’ These last stories contain some finely observed paragraphs about the Mexican landscape, the local villages and the Indian extras, but the very act of writing them while acting in a movie suggests the effort to maintain a literary identity.

Shepard knows that there is something inherently contradictory about his twin careers. It is a little jarring to find a man noted for his reserve and taciturnity talking about ‘‘this scene I'm playing now,’’ about having ‘‘no idea whatsoever how to play this character.’’ He has elected to follow the career of a public personality without sacrificing his privacy as an artist. This is not an easy choice. The face in the Avedon portrait suggests it's a choice that is tearing him apart.

Source: Robert Brustein, ‘‘Shepard's Choice’’ in the New Republic, Vol. 215, no. 3 & 4, July 15 & 22, 1996, pp. 27-29.

The Good Shepard

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

Buried Child is Sam Shepard's best play. It is what the French call misérabiliste theater, but as good of its kind as they come, as much of a classic as Christina's World or a George Price cartoon. The central concept of a rural American family going down the drain because of—literally—a skeleton in the closet may be a bit schematic and the symbolism-cum-absurdism a tad dragged in by the cat. Even so, the flamboyant blend of the comic and the horrific, the verbally teasing and visually terrifying—in short, the hair-and-hackle-raising humor—takes you to a Shepard country where, laughing and shuddering, you never know when you'll be rolling in the aisle or scared out of your wits.

It is useless to try to retell the plot, minimalist yet convoluted, but sense can be made of the seemingly preposterous: Shepard gives us his family's and his country's history as reflected in a fun-house mirror, the very distortions grinning their way to the core of an insidiously incisive truth. The couch-bound grandfather (James Gammon), cursing his family and world as he revels in his filth; the mild-mannered near-idiot son (Terry Kinney) who keeps bringing in things that grow or fester outside; the one-legged and violent elder son (Leo Burmester) who practices petty viciousness on other people; the grandmother (Lois Smith) who berates everyone and hangs out with an addled priest (Jim Mohr); the grandson (Jim True) who escaped to the city, returning years later with his saxophone and a girlfriend (Kellie Overbey) who wants out of this madhouse in which none of the family recognize her boyfriend— all of these compel us to join their metaphysical staggers between farce and melodrama.

Gary Sinise has directed this Steppenwolf production with the trademark Chicago athleticism whose physicality sometimes detracts from the deeper meaning; he also introduces non sequiturs such as Grandma's leaving white-haired and returning a flaming redhead. But he does keep the mayhem spinning, even if the finish is less devastating than it might be. In the remarkable cast, only Jim True strikes me as too dopey a beanpole for what is, after all, the nearest thing to an authorial alter ego.

The set by Robert Brill, costumes by Allison Reeds, and lighting by Kevin Rigdon are fittingly, frighteningly good. And to think that it took Shepard's masterpiece 18 years to reach Broadway! But at least it gets there in style.

Source: John Simon, ‘‘The Good Shepard’’ in New York, Vol. 29, no. 19, May 13, 1996, p. 60.


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