The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The first act of A Lie of the Mind consists of a series of short scenes, the first scene focusing on Jake, the second shifting to another locale and focusing on Beth, the third shifting back to Jake, the fourth to Beth again, and so on. The play begins with a phone conversation between Jake, a jealous man with an explosive temper, and Frankie, Jake’s brother, in which Jake gradually reveals that he has badly beaten—perhaps killed—his wife, Beth. Although she has suffered brain damage and utters an inarticulate garble of sounds and words, Beth is in fact recovering from the beating in a hospital, where Mike, her brother, comforts her. In a motel room, Jake tells Frankie why he beat his wife. Beth, who had taken a part in a play, was preparing for her role by wearing provocative clothes and perfumes, but Jake does not believe in the line that separates acting from reality. Since actors “try to believe so hard they’re the person that they actually think they become the person,” Jake was certain that Beth had been unfaithful; therefore, he beat her. Still, Jake realizes that his whole life is lost with Beth gone, and he blacks out.

At the hospital, Beth resists Mike’s insistence that she forget Jake, for the image of her husband-lover remains locked in her mind: Jake is a part of Beth’s essential self. Having brought Jake back to his boyhood room, Frankie leaves him in the care of Sally, Jake’s sister, and Lorraine, Jake’s smotheringly protective mother, who imperiously decides to cure Jake by keeping him in his room for a year. Beth’s parents, ranchers from Montana, arrive at the hospital. Baylor, the father, a gruff, aging cowboy, shows more concern for his mules than his daughter, and Meg, the mother, avoids facing her daughter’s condition. In Jake’s room, where Lorraine is baby-feeding him, Jake violently revolts against her mothering, snatches his soup, and stomps it into his bed. Lorraine arouses Jake’s jealousy by telling Jake that Frankie has gone to Montana to see Beth. Jake wants to follow Frankie, but Lorraine has hidden Jake’s pants in order to confine him to his room. Finding his father’s flight jacket, funeral flag, and ashes, Jake inquires about his father’s death. Lorraine, confused, reveals that Jake was present at his father’s death. The first act closes as Jake has a vision of Beth seductively oiling herself.

The second act of A Lie of the Mind opens with Beth and Meg overhearing Mike’s argument with a man—Frankie—who wants to come up to the ranch house. Still suffering from the beating, Beth wants to see the man she thinks is Jake, but Mike prevents her. Then Baylor enters, supporting Frankie,...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Of the several dramatic devices in A Lie of the Mind, the most obvious, and perhaps the most important, is Shepard’s use of the acting space. Although much of the action has an aura of realistic presentation, the stage directions are insistent reminders of the isolated and theatrical quality of the characters’ actions and thoughts. The play occurs in a space which suggests that all of its actions are pageants that briefly reel through a void, then disappear. Only a few props appear on the stage to mark locales; the main effect “should be of infinite space, going off to nowhere.” This impression of emptiness is underscored by the use of lighting as the opening stage directions suggest: “Impression of huge dark space and distance between the two characters with each one isolated in his own pool of light.”

The line between acting and being is consistently blurred. Beth claims that the world of acting is “more real than the real world,” that “ordinary is empty,” and that “pretending fills.” It was Beth’s immersion in method acting that provoked Jake into beating her. The costuming also suggests that meaning in the play is primarily metaphoric. The costume Jake wears when he escapes from his room—boxer shorts, his father’s flight jacket, and an American flag—signifies the mixture of roles directing his actions. The flag suggests that Jake is wrapped up in the myth of the American male—strong, independent, unable to...

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(Great Characters in 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.

Bottoms, Stephen J. The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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

Graham, Laura J. Sam Shepard: Theme, Image, and the Director. New York: Lang, 1995.

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.

Mottram, Ron. Inner Landscapes: The Theater of Sam Shepard. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.

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

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