Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494
The Late Henry Moss is, as are numerous other Shepard works, ripe for Freudian brain-picking: The deistic father has spun his dysfunctional American family web and then disappeared, leaving the fractured unit members to replay the past with longing, with resentment, and with climactic and uncontrollable violent episodes. The post-traumatic stress is as acute for the offspring as it is for the survivors of battle. As Earl Moss tells the audience, he remembers the past and family life “like a war.”
The brothers Moss relive the battle, however, in more than panoramic flashbacks: Where in True West the sibling rivalry and ultimate role reversal are depicted with an overkill of toast and beer contrasted against the homey desert dwelling and the vociferous crickets and wolves, The Late Henry Moss is represented by the warm and musty womb of the Mexican hovel as it is intruded upon by the living specters of their father’s past few hours (the taxi driver who drove him to the piers, the father’s Indian prostitute/girlfriend, the menudo-wielding friend), by the ever-constant flow of bourbon, and by foreshadowing and flashback-instigating family photographs.
While the character motivation shares a subliminal aim—brothers playing out parts as badly imprinted by a father who has abandoned them and who is dead (and whose death has brought the two disparate siblings back together after seven years)—that motivation is exacerbated by the exponents of a death which is the focus of the play. With the appearance of Henry Moss, the play departs from True West but piggybacks Fool for Love, in the style of Hamlet.
The Shepard signature language and landscape of The Late Henry Moss are consistent with the playwright’s spectacular and yet understated American emotional iconography, blended with the dysfunction of a finally broken home: In the opening act, for example, the dialogue reveals the violence and chaos that was childhood for Earl and Ray, who refer to Mother as only “she” and Father as “he,” in that detached and distancing way that broken adult children might. The conventions that Shepard produces so masterfully are the absurdist comedy-lovers’ dreams come true: The comic relief at least temporarily takes the pressure off the cooking pot of volatility and the contradictions and suspicions (Ray suspecting that his older brother has more information on Henry’s death than he will give up, for instance) that keep audience members grinding their teeth for the rest of the play. All devices, as ever, are aligned perfectly for the psychoanalyst in Western residence: The obvious but slowly developed onstage hatred for the father, for each other, and seemingly for anyone involved is arguably some of the most abrasive and compelling in American theater today. Shepard has his finger not only on the pulse of working class, underclass, and überclass psychoses but also on the jugular of the sons who live (and grow to repeat) the war that is family life with womanizing, booze, and abuse.
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