Geography of a Horse Dreamer

by Sam Shepard
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651

In this portrait of the artist exploited by big business (a recurrent theme with Shepard, who nevertheless found a commercial outlet for his talents quite early in his career), the artist is a dreamer, and his dreams are his art. The hero, Cody, has been kidnapped by thugs, who cull race winners from his dreams, moving him from place to place. As in all Shepard’s two-act plays, the two acts bear likenesses to each other that underscore their differences. In act 1, it is horse racing that Cody dreams about, but in act 2, he has switched to dog racing. Once the thugs understand the switch, they continue to let the dreamer do his work. Cody’s brothers rescue him from the Doctor (a sinister figure representing cold-blooded murder) in a violent ending, which unfortunately seems almost tacked onto the mood of the rest of the piece.

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A displacement from one’s locale, another standard Shepard theme, is what makes the dreams so vivid and so destructive. When Cody is removed from his (Western) homeland, he suffers. Shepard is saying that the artist has been displaced from his “geography,” in this case the American West, where much of Shepard’s own youth was spent. From the play’s opening, Cody has been dreaming of the past rather than the present (the opening act is called “The Slump”). The thugs will be in trouble with their boss, Fingers, if Cody (“Mr. Artistic here”) does not come up with some winners soon. The whole operation has fallen on hard times since Cody’s failures; they have gone from fancy hotels to this cheap motel, where even the wallpaper goes against the grain of dreaming.

The hero-artist, handcuffed to a bed, is a commodity in one of its sinister forms; when the dreams turn from horses to dogs, the artist is exploited even more. The disorientation caused by the boarded-up windows and the blindfolded travel have caused him to lose his sense of place. The fact that his brothers save him, rescuing him in the only really violent scene in the play, is important. The goons of society, milking and draining the artist, will eventually be overcome by the irresistible force of brotherly comradeship.

As in Shepard’s other two-act plays, the mirror images of the two acts help the reader to understand each of the images themselves. Cody needs a sense of geography to keep his dreams intact; when he dreams of dog races, the implication is that he has been moved, possibly to Florida. (Shepard worked on this piece while in London; he raised and bred racing dogs during this period.)

If there is significance to the pair of hoodlums watching Cody, it lies in the contrast between them; there is the hard-shell Santee, against whom the more sympathetic Beaujo offers relief. They are there for exposition more than for plot, because neither character serves as more than an instrument; there are no significant changes in their personalities. The drama is not about them. Fingers, a sinister offstage figure until the end of the play, is the real antagonist, and Cody remains in his power until freed by his brothers. The Doctor, a symbol of death as much as an integral part of the crooked gang, has the real power, however, as shown by the deference paid to him by Fingers. Until the entrance of Fingers and the Doctor, the reader is led to believe that Fingers is the main force, but in fact it is the Doctor who figures as the main evil.

As ingenious as the basic plot idea is, the possibilities of the situation do not seem to be fully exploited; the piece remains stationary until the climax. It is essentially the staging of a large metaphor: The artist, who dreams of possibilities, is held captive by money interests, displaced and disoriented, until rescued by a return to his roots.

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