A Lie of the Mind

by Sam Shepard
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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

In Sam Shepard's play A Lie of the Mind, humans are revealed as ill-equipped to deal with painful truths. Rather than work to accept them, our minds create alternate realities—lies of the mind—fictions that we can more readily accept and use to explain our pain or misfortune. This is especially true when we are hurt by someone we love and need some way to come to terms with that pain but do not want to accept that it has come at the hands of one for whom we care so deeply. It is for this reason, for example, that Beth creates a fiction in her mind that her family has had her brain removed, as she tells Frankie when she shows him her nonexistent scar. It is easier for her to believe that her family has made her the way she is rather than her husband, who she loves. It is also for this reason that Lorraine creates a fiction in her mind about not caring about her dead, good-for-nothing husband. Though she kept all his belongings and ashes, she claims she only did so for her son Jake. Rather than come to grips with the fact that her husband repeatedly tried to abandon her and their children, it is easier for Lorraine to say that she actually never thought much of him. She even blames her daughter, Sally, for the fact that Jake runs off. Rather than believe the truth that he desperately wanted to escape Lorraine herself, Lorraine tells Sally that "He won't come back now. Thanks to you." It is easier to make it Sally's fault that Jake has escaped rather than admit that she smothered him and that he does not seem to appreciate or love her.

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There is a quotation from Cesar Vallejo before the play begins; it reads,

Something identifies you with the one who leaves you, and it is your common power to return: thus your greatest sorrow. Something separates you from the one who remains with you, and it is your common slavery to depart: thus your meagerest rejoicing.

In other words, we become bound to one another when we love, and when the one we love leaves us, we can always go back to them—this is a terrible sorrow as it will likely cause suffering. However, even when we are together with one in love, we are always somehow separated, alienated from them, and so eventually we must leave them; this results in very little happiness. In other words, we seem damned if we stay with the one we love, and we seem damned if we go; either way, we will be unhappy.

The relationships in the text play this idea out. The marriage of Baylor and Meg is unhappy; he is embittered by his life with her, and when he kisses her cheek at the end of the play, she says that he has not kissed her in twenty years. The marriage of Jake and Beth is also unhappy; he beats her so badly that she sustains significant brain damage, and this is, apparently, not the first time he has done so. However, even when she is in the hospital recovering from her injuries, she says of Jake, "HEEZ MY HAAAAAAAAAAART!!!" She continues to love him and even thinks, toward the end of the play, that Frankie is Jake, confusing their voices and bodies. Even the relationships between parents and children are fraught with tension and pain. Ultimately, relationships are our greatest source of pain, yet we cannot resist them.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1099

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, whom Baylor has mistaken for a deer and shot in the leg. Mike objects to Frankie’s presence, but Baylor decrees that Frankie will recover from his wound in the house. Beth’s damaged mind identifies Frankie as Jake, the man she loves. Back in Jake’s room, where Jake seeks Sally’s help in escaping, Jake has a vision of Beth, shirtless, wrapping up Frankie’s wounded leg. The vision proves true when Beth so ministers to Frankie. Beth’s delusion has deepened; Frankie and Jake have inextricably coalesced in her mind. Obsessed with seeing Beth again, Jake—clothed in his underwear and his father’s flight jacket, with the American flag used in his father’s funeral around his neck—crawls out his window.

Act 3 of A Lie of the Mind begins with Sally recounting how she and Jake found their alcoholic father living in a ramshackle trailer in Mexico. Jake, always compelled to compete with his father, proposed a race—the first one to reach the United States, with a stop for a drink in each bar along the highway, would win. According to Sally, Jake challenged his father because he “had decided to kill him.” The race ended when a truck splattered the father “all over the road like some lost piece of livestock.” Sally and Lorraine finally realize that the men in their family will never return. In Montana, Meg suspects that Beth—like Meg’s mother, and like her family in general—is cracking up. Beth enters in an outlandish costume, intending to marry Frankie, who because of his wound is a captive groom.

As Meg and Beth plan for the wedding, a shot rings out. Mike enters, boasting that he has captured Jake and will force him to apologize for beating Beth, but Beth is now totally submerged in her delusion and embraces Frankie. In the last scene of A Lie of the Mind, Sally sorts through the family mementos and Lorraine, travel brochure in hand, fantasizes about a trip to Ireland, where her family originated. When Sally wonders how they will clear out all their junk, Lorraine tells her not to worry: They will simply burn the house down. Calmly, she strikes a match and lights the pile of photographs, papers, and paraphernalia that Sally has been tossing into a metal bucket.

While the fire burns on one side of the stage, Mike enters the ranch house, driving Jake like a horse with the American flag between Jake’s teeth. When Mike tries to force Beth to face Jake so that Jake can apologize, Beth refuses, and Mike and Beth struggle. Baylor, roused by the ruckus, objects to Mike’s abuse of the flag and grabs it away from him. Mike breaks away from Baylor, grabs Beth, and forces her to confront Jake, who stammers out his apology: “I—I—I—I love you more than this earth.” Shaken and confused, Beth returns to Frankie; Mike, disgusted, exits into the darkness. Baylor and Meg begin folding the flag, heedless of the surrounding action. As Frankie watches, Jake crosses to Beth and confesses, “These things—in my head—lie to me. Everything lies. Tells me a story. Everything in me lies. But you. You stay. . . . You are true. I love you more than this life. You stay. You stay with him. He’s my brother.” Beth and Jake kiss, then Jake exits into the darkness. As Frankie screams for Jake to take Beth with him, Beth embraces Frankie. Baylor and Meg finish folding the flag and kiss. Beth continues to embrace Frankie as Meg catches sight of the burning mementos and describes the play’s last tableau: “Looks like a fire in the snow. How could that be?”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

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 deal with women, and violent. In donning the flight jacket, Jake has assumed his father’s masculine preference for danger and solitude, yet Jake’s lack of pants undercuts both his virility and sexuality. The outfit worn by Beth in act 3, a cross between the wardrobe of a cheap hooker and a 1950’s bobby-soxer, represents her inability to reconcile society’s conflicting demands that she be both wholesome and sensual.

Different levels of reality or meaning are suggested by Shepard’s use of simultaneous action at critical points in the play. When Jake sees Beth seductively oiling her shoulders and breasts, the moment is clearly a manifestation of Jake’s thoughts, since Beth is isolated from the rest of the action by a pool of light. When Jake’s vision of Beth wrapping up Frankie’s leg with her shirt is reenacted at the ranch house, however, the repetition of the gesture suggests that Jake builds a personal reality from his perceptions just as surely as Beth creates a wholly different reality from the fragmented images that surge through her mind. The fire that burns throughout the last scene punctuates the interpenetration of simultaneous action. Since Sally and Lorraine literally burn all of their ties to the past and to their men, the fire represents the violence that concludes all the relationships in the play. However, the fire also represents the passion that brings Beth and Jake together for the last time, and it signals a renewal of warmth and life in the frozen Montana wilderness. That a fire can burn in the snow is the critical paradox that informs A Lie of the Mind.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

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.

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Critical Essays