Sam Shepard Shepard, Sam (Vol. 6) - Essay

Shepard, Sam (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shepard, Sam 1943–

Shepard is an American dramatist, screenwriter, and author of short stories. At the center of Shepard's uniqueness as a playwright is the fact that his characters are more animations of ideas than people, their "dialogue" more "hip metaphysical chat" than naturalistic speech.

Sam Shepard is clearly emerging as a revivifying influence on the English fringe…. [He brings us] nearer to the popular culture of the young than any equivalent entertainment…. Cowboy Mouth, [is] a vivid evocation of the bizarre landscapes of the American adolescent imagination. Cavale, a funkily aggressive young lady with crazed eyes, kidnaps Slim off the streets in an endeavour to transform him into a rock 'n' roll star…. Cavale … is as much a despairing American dreamer as Tennessee Williams' Blanche Dubois—except that the former's fantasies take on a very different appearance. Cavale is high on romantic French poets, 'marvellous thieves like Villon and Genet', and the rock stars who meet an early death—gods in fact who choose to speak to her through 'a cowboy mouth'….

It's a pity that the role of Slim is given less concrete force by Shepard—apart from failing to rise to Cavale's expectations he has little to do but react to her impulses…. Little Ocean … like Geography of a Horsedreamer … suffers a little from Shepard's recent attempt to create a kind of geographical limbo—a theatrical halfwayhouse between America and England. The three women in Little Ocean never quite agree on whether they are in London or Detroit. The play was a touching series of sketches surrounding the three girls' attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth. Yet, it proved to be a very different occasion from Sylvia Plath's highly fraught Three Women…. (p. 45)

Peter Ansorge, in Plays and Players (© copyright Hansom Books 1974), May, 1974.

There is a distinct family resemblance between Sam Shepard's plays and those of Eugène Ionesco, although (as is often the case with relatives) they would quarrel over details. One dramatist has an American accent, an American education, is younger and has been steeped in a brew of dreams and jargon, of commercial slogans and late-night radio. The other, a refugee in Paris, would not bother with such fashions. Unlike Shepard, Ionesco concentrates on the logic of his symbolism, occasionally dragging in topical references in a dismissive way as if to prove that the local absurdities only reflect tritely the vaster absurdity of living at all. Ionesco is arrogantly unsure of himself: Shepard is modestly self-confident. Ionesco stays in the same place, trying to grow roots in shifting soil: Shepard can afford to travel, living now in London, now in California, confident that his roots will stretch to whatever landscape he chooses to visit.

And yet their work is related, uncle and nephew perhaps, rarely meeting but never too far apart, both ethnically linked to that wary iconoclasm which has become a religion of our age…. As the title and the genre [of Shepard's Action] suggest, action means no action. Two men with shaven heads and greatcoats sit with two domestic women around a wooden table, enduring the last few gasps of the American dream. They eat a remaining turkey (without vegetables), while a Christmas tree flashes on and off mournfully, like a lost lighthouse. Their cute homestead is surrounded by snow: their table is littered with corpses, turkey bones and a filleted mackerel, miraculously dragged up from their well. As with Ionesco's Exit The King, civilisation is whimpering 'Over and out'.

But the mood is not one of despair, far from it. They are lucky to have the turkey. Their conversations, which rarely actually converse, are of happier things, of Walt Whitman and 'communities', though nobody can remember what a community was. They practise soft-shoe dancing sitting down. They try to read a book out loud, but cannot find the place where they stopped reading. When Jeep … gets upset, for no apparent reason at all, he smashes a chair and Liza … calmly fetches another one from the backyard. Like Ionesco, Shepard is fond of ideas which escalate from bad to worse, and beyond. With all the spare chairs smashed up, Shooter … collects the last one, an armchair, which Jeep decides to do without. Shooter sits in the chair: it becomes his home, a final refuge. He tips the armchair over his back, like a tortoise shell, so that he cannot be seen beneath it. The play ends with this upended armchair crawling around at the back of the stage, while the two women slowly hang washing on a movable line and Jeep concludes, after much examination of the situation, that 'there's no escape'.

It is easy to react against this sort of play. Action is an apparently inconsequential collection of images, it is neatly pessimistic and most of its effects have been tried often enough before. Do we need another play about the downfall of civilisation and man's inability to communicate? There are, however, qualities about Shepard's writing which are not easily found elsewhere. One is his dry sense of humour. Jeep watches Lupe … energetically soft-shoe dancing: 'I suppose there's something to be said for not doing something well,' he remarks philosophically, 'it brings things out into the open'. He pauses, and adds kindly: 'Even Nijinsky went nuts'. Another is Shepard's musical sense, the way in which he balances one sound against another, the scraping of the chair against the movement of the washing line. The play begins with the plaintive sound of whales calling to one another, cries and mews which resemble the conversation of another dying species, man. (pp. 405-06)

John Elsom, "American Cousins," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), September 26, 1974, pp. 405-06.

Tooth of Crime [suffers from] the clumsiness of its structure and the thinness of its nostalgic fantasy. There is no reason why the story of how one pop-singer is toppled from his pre-eminent position by a younger one should not make a good play, or a worthwhile restatement of a human situation beloved of poets and anthropologists alike, or a comment on one aspect of a technological media-directed civilization. But Mr. Shepard's attempt to embody it all, with side-references to the old West, gangsters, old movies and more in a stylized duel set in a black, metallic Pluto's kingdom [makes] for very heavy going…. (p. 45)

J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Autumn, 1974.

Many of Sam Shepard's plays document the alienation of characters from their environments and past lives. Outside, the world has changed, displacing homey values and submerging the illusions of youth. In The Unseen Hand, we stared at the barren landscape itself, watched the cowboys flounder; in Action … the outside processes are sinisterly shaded while we close in on two men and two girls in a spartan room…. The world has chased them, we gather, to this Arctic desolation.

By the end of the play (only 65 minutes running time) nothing has changed…. [Uncertainty], the feeling of being at the edge of a precipice, runs throughout the play. The quartet seem to be coralled in a post-American limbo where the relationships between people are dangerously out of joint….

I do not wish to spoil the enjoyment to be had at this delicately hypnotic play by an over-kill of description. It is, apart from anything else, one of the funniest pieces Shepard has written….

As the lights faded, I fancied that I could hear in the clatter of pneumatic drills and the distance, on the imaginable wastelands, grunting of disturbed whales. A small play, but how delightful it is, and how infectious. (p. 29)

Michael Coveney, in Plays and Players (© copyright Hansom Books 1974), November, 1974.

I was riveted, troubled and in a way tormented by Sam Shepard's two new one-act plays, Killer's Head and Action…. That is probably what Shepard wanted….

In most traditional art, symbolic significance emerges from a context of action (or imagery) "imitating" or suggesting a continuity of recognizable behavior and phenomena in a real world. In these Shepard plays the symbols are only notations or abstractions. The context which they are presumed to denote is taken for granted. We are supposed to agree that our lives mean little; that they are hardly more than a series of spasms or jerks….

Many of [the] images are theatrically arresting. There are also several speeches that are poetically allusive. One of the men tells a story about a family of moths fascinated by a flame. Most of them avoid a close approach. One of them is bolder. "He embraced her [the flame] completely," the recital goes, "and his whole body became as red as fire. The leader of the moths who was watching from far off with the other moths saw that the flame and the moth appeared to be one. He turned to the other moths and said, 'He learned what he wanted to know but he was the only one who understands it.'" True knowledge is acquired only through union with what is outside ourselves—often powerfully consuming and sometimes lethal—in other words, through a "mystic" embrace.

There is a telling perception in this, but I wonder whether Shepard and those who write in his manner really have plunged into the "flame" and united themselves with it, or whether, in this instance, the "flame" exists. I mean that, though it has become something of a convention to say that our lives are empty, one may doubt that such statements or inferences have been objectively validated through a close mingling with and participation in the substance of actual fact….

What too often occurs in dramatic abstractions of the latest stripe is that, while much is alleged about "life," life itself is absent. And by life I here mean intimate contact with the sensory, social, historical, psychological, spiritual world, bodied forth so that a sense of concrete involvement has been experienced on all these levels. Life is a "mystery," but it is more or less always present for us: felt, touched, smelled, acted upon as it acts upon us. It makes for a consciousness of ourselves and of others—no matter how befuddled we may find ourselves….

In most art nowadays, and in avant-garde theatre especially, there is an inclination to abstract from the already abstract. The tendency is generally a mode of escape without the courage, energy and passion of "the moth who merged with the flame." For myself, I am tired of the expression of futility; I am tired of tiredness. I am nauseated by the cry that all is nothingness. We act, we produce an infinity of splendors, we play, sing, we try to earn a living, we protect our children and we strive, as we should, for more and greater life!

None of this is said in condemnation of Shepard's new plays. He is an undoubtedly gifted person of considerable stage intuition; most of his plays are ironic protests against the common ache we now suffer. Even more, there is a buried religious strain in them. Killer's Head and Action once again sound the moan of devastation in our consciousness, but it worries me that in Shepard's mythmaking so much of the actual world is missing and so much generalization is pictured in minimal flashes.

In Operation Sidewinder and The Tooth of Crime Shepard was beginning to add certain realities to his symbols, fantasies and abstractions. I wish he would go further in that vein; otherwise he will remain congealed in the situation the artist in his Melodrama Play declared himself to be. (p. 542)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 3, 1975.

I wish I understood ["Action"] more clearly. It is the most abstract of any of Mr. Shepard's plays that I've seen, and it must, I suppose, be considered in abstract terms. The themes, I think, are restraint or captivity and fear and sudden release. One of the men says he has been to prison, but who knows? All we can tell is that each of the men seems to be his own prisoner. The mystery, never solved or demonstrated, is what is going on in those bald heads. I don't know. I don't know what went on in Sam Shepard's head. Some authors may have earned the right to be taken on trust, and the enigmatic Mr. Shepard—after "Chicago," "The Unseen Hand," and "The Tooth of Crime"—is one of them. Baffling as it is, "Action" … is frequently funny and playful, and it holds one's attention to the end. (p. 81)

Edith Oliver, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 5, 1975.

Killer's Head is the spoken thoughts of a young Californian in the electric chair just before the juice is turned on. But, there never was an electric chair in California, and Shepard's play is no gas. The whole ten-minute bit (heavily padded with silences) is a bright idea that should have been put out of its misery before it put us into ours…. Action, is a deliberate misnomer: an hour-long inaction about four people doing weird but insignificant things at table … while talking or not talking with equal uncommunicativeness. It is all flagrant but mindless borrowing from Beckett, with a sprinkling of Pinter; but in Beckett, the seeming meaninglessness conveys essential significance, not empty derivativeness. (p. 94)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), May 5, 1975.

"Geography of a Horse Dreamer," yet one more work of Sam Shepard's incomparable dramatic imagination,… is edged with mystery, satire, fantasy, parody, and tongue-not-quite-in-cheek nostalgia for the Old West and for old Westerns. In other words, we are in Shepard country—a poet's country. There is much action; there is a lot of comedy and suffering, too; and many thoughts—witty and serious—are expressed. (pp. 60, 62)

Edith Oliver, "Shepard's Play," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 22, 1975, pp. 60, 62.

Shepard is one of the better of our young free-wheeling playwrights. His writing is vernacularly colorful, at moments even eloquent; he possesses an extravagant imagination. There is in him an old-time American saltiness, a quasi-mysticism mixed with a present-day metropolitan vulgarity that manages to be rather sympathetic. He has little discipline, a certain wildness is inherent in his dramatic behavior and very few of his plays hold together. Geography of a Horse Dreamer is not his best work, but there is a personal authenticity in it. (p. 27)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 10, 1976.