A Lie of the Mind

by Sam Shepard

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Critical Context

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A Lie of the Mind belongs to the second phase of Shepard’s career, in which he moved away from the expressionist style and episodic structure of his early works toward a linear (and ostensibly causal) dramatic structure. The influence of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist plays on Shepard’s early work is quite apparent in Cowboys #2 (pr. 1967, pb. 1971). The heroes of Cowboys #2, Stu and Chet, have no past, no future, and no existence beyond the confines of the stage—they are characters, not realistic projections of human beings. Further, the play’s action is a series of unlinked vignettes about acting: Chet and Stu begin as urban cowboys trapped in a modern metropolis, transform into a pair of old-timer cowboys who repel an attack by a Native American, and finally become observers who watch two unnamed actors enter and begin reading the script of Cowboys #2. The Tooth of Crime (pr. 1972, pb. 1974) uses the context of a verbal duel between Hoss, an aging rock star, and Crow, the usurper, to examine the interplay between the reality created inside the theater and the reality that exists outside the theater. In Geography of a Horse Dreamer (pr., pb. 1974) Shepard uses the play’s central figure, Cody, a clairvoyant whose ability to predict winners in horse races is exploited by those around him, to explore the problems of artistic creation.

With Curse of the Starving Class (pb. 1976, pr. 1977), however, Shepard began to shift away from expressionism toward a more conventional realism in order to find a medium to explore the foundations, myths, delusions, failures, and triumphs of the American family. The action of Curse of the Starving Class issues from nominally realistic circumstances. Ella, the mother, wants to sell the house in order to escape from Weston, her alcoholic and abusive husband. Their children, Wesley and Emma, also fantasize about escaping the family. As Weston’s spiritual return to the family suggests, however, none of them can escape the biological ties that entrap them. Even though Curse of the Starving Class has a verisimilar surface, expressionist techniques permeate the play. Dialogue often breaks down into monologue, and the play is centered on a metaphoric image system. The empty refrigerator symbolizes the family’s spiritual and emotional dearth; the final image of the eagle and the tomcat tearing each other apart represents the family’s destructive interdependence.

This combination of a realistic framework and a metaphoric or mythic center is refined in four more plays that constitute a distinct group of family dramas in the Shepard canon: Pulitzer Prize winner Buried Child (pr. 1978, pb. 1979), True West (pr. 1980, pb. 1981), Fool for Love (pr., pb. 1983), and finally A Lie of the Mind. This phase of Shepard’s career was heralded as a major breakthrough in American drama as well as deplored as a reductive compromise that eliminates the freshness of the earlier plays. Either way, Shepard’s plays are rarely met with indifference. Shepard’s capacity to challenge both audience and critic keeps him at the forefront of the American theater.

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