Geography of a Horse Dreamer Analysis

Sam Shepard

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Geography of a Horse Dreamer begins in darkness. The audience hears the sound of galloping horses, at first faint, then growing stronger. A slow-motion color film of a horse race, gradually brought into focus, is projected on the rear wall; as the picture sharpens, the sound becomes louder. There is a yell, the film stops, and the lights come up, revealing a run-down hotel room. Against the rear wall, Cody, dressed in jeans and a cowboy shirt and wearing dark glasses, lies on his back in a bed, handcuffed to the bedposts; it was he who yelled. Santee, in dark coat and gangster-style hat, sits in a chair perusing the Racing Form, a pistol in his lap. Beaujo, wearing a wrinkled pinstriped suit from the 1940’s, practices pool shots on the floor, equipped with a cue and three balls. By their dress and manner, Santee and Beaujo appear to be gangsters.

Cody is gifted with a peculiar form of precognition. In his dreams he is able to “see” horse races before they actually happen; in his trancelike state he is the first to speak, calling out the results of a race in the manner of a trackside announcer. Later the audience learns that Cody was kidnapped by gamblers from his native Wyoming some time before the action of the play begins, and that for a while he was able to predict a steady succession of winners. By the time the play starts, however, he is mired in a long losing streak.

The first act, “The Slump,” is animated by a conflict between Cody’s keepers. Santee, who blames Cody for their fallen fortunes, has no sympathy for Cody’s pleas to be released from his handcuffs; he fears that Cody will try to escape, as he almost did once before, thereby depriving his abductors of their gold mine. Santee regards Cody as a dream machine, mocking his requests for time off by calling him “Mr. Artistic,” “Mr. Sensitive.” This resentment increases when the boss, Fingers, hands down orders (by means of an offstage telephone call) that Cody must start dreaming dog races instead of horse races—an order that Santee regards as the ultimate humiliation. Beaujo, on the other hand, is inclined to listen sympathetically to Cody’s requests, even if he is afraid to grant them. Cody vainly pleads, for example, to be allowed to play his record: “It’s a source of inspiration, Beaujo.”

Above all, Cody insists that he needs to know where he is if he is to create the imaginative space needed for his dreaming. During this slump, his dreams have been dominated by the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Geography of a Horse Dreamer directs the playgoer’s attention to the interior experience of the artist through a variety of dramatic devices that invite metaphoric as well as literal interpretation by the audience. At the beginning of the play, for example, the film clip of the horse race is Cody’s dream, which becomes evident to the audience as soon as Cody yells, the film goes off, and the lights onstage “bang up.” Having established a connection between Cody’s mind, on one hand, and the “external” stage setting (and the characters that populate that setting), on the other, Shepard has linked the play’s “geography” with that of the artist’s mind—both Cody the dreamer’s and Shepard the playwright’s.

This correlation is immediately sustained and strengthened by the focus of the first act’s dialogue—Cody’s need to know where he is and his keepers’ refusal to inform him—undergirded by metaphors of place that objectify the artist’s interior experience: Cody says that he needs a “better situation,” that Fingers does not understand “the area I have to dream in,” that Fingers fails to consider his “position.” Beaujo, after hinting where they are, fears that he has “overstepped his bounds” and later accounts for his sympathetic treatment of Cody: “I keep putting myself in his place.” The Doctor notes that “the territory [Cody] travels in” allows him to live “in several worlds at the same...

(The entire section is 566 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bigsby, C. W. E. “Sam Shepard.” In Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Brustein, Robert. “The Shepard Enigma.” The New Republic 194 (January 27, 1986): 25-28.

DeRose, David J. Sam Shepard. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Herman, William. “Geography of a Play Dreamer: Sam Shepard.” In Understanding Contemporary American Drama. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

King, Kimball. Sam Shepard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1988.

Marranca, Bonnie, ed. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1981.

Sessums, Kevin. “Sam Shepard: Geography of a Horse Dreamer.Interview 18 (September, 1988): 70-79.

Wilcox, Leonard. Rereading Shepard. Basingstoke, England: MacMillan, 1993.