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Sam Shepard 1943-

(Born Samuel Rogers Shepard) American playwright, screenwriter, short story writer, director, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Shepard's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 17, 34, 41, and 44.

Shepard is considered one of the foremost playwrights writing for the off-Broadway stage, having won eleven Obie Awards, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child (1978). His works, including over forty one-act and full-length dramas, convey a surreal vision of contemporary American society in which myth frequently collides with reality. Shepard's plays examine a wide range of topics, most notably the spiritual dissolution of the family, the corruption of the artist by commercialism, the disintegration of the American dream, and the vanishing Western frontier and its culture. His interest in the legends and myths of the American West dominate his dramas, as do references to jazz, song lyrics, drugs, Hollywood films, and other components of American popular culture.

Biographical Information

Shepard was born on November 5, 1943, to Samuel Shepard and Elaine Rogers in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. His father was in the Army Air Corps and, after World War II, the family shuttled between various military bases before settling in Duarte, California. Shepard began his acting career in California, but in 1963, he moved to New York City and became involved with several off-off-Broadway theater groups. His first one-act dramas, Cowboys and The Rock Garden, were part of the first Theatre Genesis show at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery in 1964. Although virtually dismissed by critics, the plays attracted a sizable cult following. Between 1965 and 1970, Shepard continued to write prolifically, completing more than fourteen plays. In 1971 Shepard moved to London where he pursued his interest in music, directed several productions of his own plays, and wrote a number of new works, including The Tooth of Crime (1972). In the mid-1970s, Shepard resettled in California, becoming the playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child, which also won an Obie Award. Eleven of Shepard's plays have won Obie Awards, including Chicago (1965), Icarus's Mother (1965), La Turista (1967), The Tooth of Crime, and Curse of the Starving Class (1976). A Lie of the Mind (1985) won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, the New York Drama Desk Award, and the Outer Critics' Circle Award for outstanding new play. Shepard was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986, and in 1992, he received the Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy. In 1994 Shepard was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. A revised version of Buried Child opened on Broadway in April 1996 and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Shepard has also worked as an actor, screenwriter, and director in several motion pictures. His screen acting career began in 1970 with the film Brand X. He was nominated for a best supporting actor award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1983 for his performance in The Right Stuff, and later appeared in several films, including the screen adaptation of his play Fool for Love (1983), Country (1984), Thunderheart (1992), and Black Hawk Down (2001). Shepard has written and directed two films—Far North (1988) and Silent Tongue (1993)—and has written a number of screenplays, most notably Paris, Texas (1984; with L. M. Kit Carson), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

Major Works

Shepard's early one-act plays—such as Cowboys, The Rock Garden, and Chicago—are abstract and absurdist explorations that have been compared to the works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. The plays are marked by their disjointed structure, visual imagery, and long monologues typically loaded with obscenity. For example, The Rock Garden culminates in a verbal outburst by a teenager who details his sexual techniques to his dumbstruck father. These works combine wild humor, grotesque satire, myth, and a sparse, haunting language to create a subversive pop art vision of America. Shepard continued to explore various combinations of sight and sound in his early full-length dramas as well. His first full-length play, La Turista, is a comedy about a couple who fall prey to intestinal illness while vacationing in Mexico. Operation Sidewinder (1970)—which satirizes the social and political upheavals of the 1960s—features a giant rattlesnake-shaped computer as the central figure and ends with a prolonged burst of machine gun fire.

Theatre scholars often mark Shepard's move to London in 1971 as the beginning of the second stage of his playwriting career. Shepard's most notable work from this period is The Tooth of Crime, which Shepard later revised as The Tooth of Crime (Second Dance) in 1996. The play tells the story of two rock musicians, Hoss and Crow, whose battle for prominence in the music industry resembles the actions of gunfighters in the Old West. Language plays a crucial part in the play, as Shepard employs urban slang, rock lyrics, and other pop idioms in place of the conventional weapons of gunfighters. At the conclusion, Hoss, realizing that the language he uses for “dueling” is dated, commits suicide, leaving Crow in command until the next challenger comes along. Shepard's residency at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco began a new stage in his career—the plays from this period typically focus on an artist's pursuit of identity and creative freedom, as well as the struggles that result from this search. Suicide in B-Flat (1976) suggests the stifling of creativity in the life of a jazz musician, while Angel City (1976) satirizes the film industry and the corruption of young writers.

Shepard's major plays of the late 1970s and 1980s are domestic dramas in which working-class families become victims of self-perpetuated violence, guilt, and abnormal fantasy. These works reject the cartoonish imagery in Shepard's earlier works in favor of more realistic plot lines and characterizations. Shepard uses the dissolution of a southern California family in Curse of the Starving Class to symbolize the demise of the Western frontier and American society in general. The action in Buried Child unfolds when a man named Vince returns to his midwestern home after a long absence. He is confronted with a dangerously unbalanced cast of relatives who harbor secrets of incest and murder. Eventually, these secrets are discovered along with an unwanted infant buried in the backyard years earlier. True West (1980) highlights the struggle between the dual natures of two brothers, Austin and Lee. Austin, a reserved screenwriter, has returned to their mother's house to finish a long overdue script for his Hollywood contact, Saul. Lee is a charismatic and violent criminal who lives in the desert and surprises Austin by arriving unannounced. After impressing Saul with stories from his sordid past, Lee pitches Saul his own idea for a movie. Saul immediately buys the idea and breaks his agreement with Austin. The thematic concerns in several of Shepard's later plays culminate in Fool for Love, which examines obsession, betrayal, myth and truth. The plot develops through alternating submission and rejection between two lovers who may be half-brother and half-sister. A Lie of the Mind continues Shepard's exploration of American families in emotional distress. The work centers on a married couple, Beth and Jake, whose violent relationship both destroys and redeems their families. Beaten to the point of brain damage by Jake, Beth is slowly recuperating under the watchful eye of her loveless parents and her vengeful brother. Jake, thinking that he has killed Beth, hides in his boyhood home under the care of his over-protective mother. Although the two characters become geographically distant, they remain emotionally bonded by their obsessive love for each other. Throughout the course of the play the true nature of both families is probed and revealed.

Shepard's plays dating from 1990 to 2000 continue his examination of the American family, the nature of father-son relationships, and the search for love and personal identity. In States of Shock (1991) a nameless American colonel and an amputee soldier named Stubbs arrive at a restaurant to celebrate the anniversary of the death of the colonel's son. Simpatico (1994) follows the tensions between two ex-partners, Vinnie and Carter, who once made a fortune by fixing a horse race. Years later, Vinnie threatens to blackmail Carter, now a successful horse breeder, with evidence of their past crime. In Eyes for Consuela (1998)—a two-act play based on the short story “The Blue Bouquet” by Octavio Paz—a vacationing American is assaulted by a knife-wielding Mexican named Amado, who wishes to present his lover Consuela with a bouquet of blue eyeballs. In The Late Henry Moss (2000), two brothers return home to confront each other and their violent past after the unexpected death of their father.

Shepard has published several collections of prose and poetry in addition to his plays. Hawk Moon (1973) and Motel Chronicles (1982) each contain a variety of prose pieces, poems, and speeches, while Rolling Thunder Logbook (1977) reprints a journal based on Shepard's experiences traveling with musician Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Cruising Paradise (1996) and Great Dream of Heaven: Stories (2002) contain short stories exploring themes of solitude and loss. Shepard has also written a number of screenplays, including the award-winning Paris, Texas, Far North, and Silent Tongue.

Critical Reception

Overall, Shepard's work has received largely enthusiastic reviews, although critics have at times had difficulty clearly delineating the merits of his unconventional methods. His initial plays have often been dismissed as poor imitations of the works of earlier absurdist playwrights, with detractors complaining about the obscure nature of his work. Others have since championed Shepard's plays, recognizing them as part of the postmodern departure from traditional literary modes. Works such as The Tooth of Crime and Cowboy Mouth have been commended for imaginatively employing elements of popular culture and for critiquing the American obsession with fame and celebrity. Likewise, the nonrealistic elements of Shepard's dramas have been acclaimed for focusing attention on the act of performing and on the audience's role in the artistic process. In general, his later works have received positive responses and have been touted for their greater emphasis on content rather than form. However, the preponderance of masculine characters and archetypes in Shepard's plays have led some critics to question his ability and desire to portray strong female characters. Despite these reservations, reviewers have frequently granted Shepard a pivotal role in contemporary American theater, applauding his ability to create accessible dramas while pioneering nontraditional techniques.

Principal Works

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Cowboys (play) 1964

The Rock Garden (play) 1964

Chicago (play) 1965

Icarus's Mother (play) 1965

Red Cross (play) 1966

Cowboys #2 (play) 1967

Forensic and the Navigators (play) 1967

La Turista (play) 1967

The Holy Ghostly (play) 1969

The Unseen Hand (play) 1969

Operation Sidewinder (play) 1970

Zabriskie Point [with Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Fred Graham, and Clare Peploe] (screenplay) 1970

Back Bog Beast Bait (play) 1971

Cowboy Mouth [with Patti Smith] (play) 1971

Mad Dog Blues (play) 1971

*Blue Bitch (screenplay) 1972

The Tooth of Crime (play) 1972; revised as The Tooth of Crime (Second Dance), 1996

Hawk Moon (prose, poetry, and speeches) 1973

Action (play) 1974

Geography of a Horse Dreamer (play) 1974

Killer's Head (play) 1975

Angel City (play) 1976

Curse of the Starving Class (play) 1976

The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife (play) 1976

Suicide in B-Flat (play) 1976

Rolling Thunder Logbook (journal) 1977

Buried Child (play) 1978

Seduced (play) 1978

Tongues [with Joseph Chaikin] (play) 1978

Savage/Love [with Joseph Chaikin] (play) 1979

True West (play) 1980

Motel Chronicles [photographs by Johnny Dark] (prose and poetry) 1982

Fool for Love (play) 1983

Superstitions (play) 1983

Paris, Texas [with L. M. Kit Carson] (screenplay) 1984

A Lie of the Mind (play) 1985

The War in Heaven [with Joseph Chaikin] (radio play) 1985

True Dylan (play) 1987

Far North [director and screenwriter] (film) 1988

Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard: Letters and Texts, 1972-1984 [edited by Barry V. Daniels] (letters) 1989

States of Shock (play) 1991

Silent Tongue [director and screenwriter] (film) 1993

Simpatico (play) 1994

Cruising Paradise (short stories) 1996

When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable) [with Joseph Chaikin] (play) 1996

Eyes for Consuela (play) 1998

The Late Henry Moss (play) 2000

Great Dream of Heaven: Stories (short stories) 2002

*The screenplay was adapted for the stage in 1973.

†Based on the short story “The Blue Bouquet” by Octavio Paz.

Robert Brustein (review date 27 January 1986)

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SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “The Shepard Enigma.” New Republic 194, no. 3706 (27 January 1986): 25-6, 28.

[In the following review, Brustein offers a mixed assessment of A Lie of the Mind, noting that the “plotting is a little too undisciplined.”]

A Lie of the Mind is Sam Shepard's most ambitious play to date, the closest he has come to entering the mainstream of American drama. Directed by the playwright in association with professional producers, it has been mounted at the Promenade Theatre with a strong cast. Like David Rabe's Hurly-Burly, which also played that off-Broadway theater with box-office actors, it stands a good chance of moving later to a Broadway house. Thus Shepard seems to be following the pattern of all serious American dramatists since O'Neill—beginning with a small but passionate coterie of devoted admirers, and then achieving popular support and media recognition. In Shepard's case, this recognition has been enhanced, and complicated, by his celebrity as a movie actor, which has exacerbated the tension between his public and private careers. A similar tension was partly responsible for that neglect suffered by most reputable American playwrights after their greatest success (followed perhaps by a revival of interest when the playwright died or reached some venerable birthday). Clifford Odets got smothered by Hollywood; Arthur Miller ran out of usable material; Tennessee Williams lost control of his form; William Inge turned to increasingly hysterical plots; Edward Albee sacrificed his absurdist power for mythical drawing-room comedies modeled on T. S. Eliot. On the other hand, O'Neill, with whom Shepard is most frequently compared, wrote his greatest plays years after Broadway had abandoned him.

For that reason, any cautionary remarks about Shepard's future are premature, though I must admit I found A Lie of the Mind disappointing—a big canvas on which the colors run in smeared, sometimes slipshod fashion. True, Shepard's play writing has never been neat, but then it has never been very accessible either. What is strange for Shepard enthusiasts is how closely this one resembles a play by Lanford Wilson or Tennessee Williams. Ever since Curse of the Starving Class, Shepard has been moving away from extravagant characters, dream actions, and hallucinatory riffs into a more domestic style. With Buried Child, arguably his finest work, he managed to make the family play a structure for subterranean probes into the American nightmare. Now, however, those relationships between violent and sensitive brothers, loony mothers and children, fathers and alienated sons, husbands and estranged wives, have increasingly moved to the center of his plays, while whatever was fantastic and demonic has gone to the fringes. A Lie of the Mind goes delightfully haywire in the last of its three long acts, but for most of its four-hour length the action and the characters are relatively recognizable, even endearing eccentrics.

In short, Shepard is beginning to domesticate himself as a writer—ironically at the very moment when, as a movie actor, he is being catapulted into legend as the iconic lonely Westerner. Composing more and more out of his actual as opposed to his dream experience, Shepard is moving inexorably toward the heart of American realism, where audiences have the opportunity to identify him as a family member like themselves—son, brother, lover, husband. This has advantages: greater clarity, concentration, and recognition. It also has disadvantages, in that Shepard is now displaying what he has in common with the spectator rather than what the spectator unwittingly shares with him. Another disadvantage is that as Shepard's life gets increasingly familiar from interviews, his work seems to get increasingly biographical—and confined. The brothers in A Lie of the Mind remind us of the ones in True West; the husband and wife recall the brother and sister in Fool for Love. The California family comes from Curse of the Starving Class, the Montana family from Buried Child. Worse, one finds oneself speculating about more personal links: whether the enmity between the dead father and his son is based on Shepard's own published filial feelings, whether the hero's jealousy over his actress wife has any bearing on his relationship with Jessica Lange, whether the character's brain-damaged dialogue has been influenced by that of his close friend Joseph Chaikin, a recent stroke victim. One is tempted, in short, to confuse fiction with reality, imaginative creation with biographical gossip.

A Lie of the Mind begins with a frenzied telephone call from Jake to his brother Frankie, saying that he has killed his actress wife, Beth. Objecting to the way she identified with her roles, Jake imagined that, Method-like, she was sleeping with her leading man, and beat her about the head. Beth, however, is alive, though the assault has damaged her brain; hospitalized and visited by her own brother, Mike, she can speak only nonsense syllables (“I'm above my feet. … How high me? How high up?”). Jake is having his problems too; he refuses to believe Beth has survived and suffers catatonic fits. His mom, a menopausal vamp, tries to cure him by feeding him cream of broccoli soup, but he is in a fever of jealousy over a past affair he imagines between his brother and his wife.

Meanwhile, Beth has moved from a California hospital to her Montana home, where her father spends his days hunting venison. When Frankie arrives to try to reconcile Beth to Jake, her father, Baylor, mistaking him for a deer, shoots him in the leg. (“In my prime, you'd have been dead meat, son.”) Beth's family, particularly Mike, is primed for vengeance. Beth, alternating between moments of clarity in which she confesses her love for Jake and periods when she thinks they cut out her brain, dresses up like a hooker and tries to seduce the wounded Frankie, while Mike gleefully hauls in the hind end of a deer and drops the carcass on the living-room floor.

Back in California, Jake is preoccupied with the ashes of his own father, an alcoholic Air Force officer who had abandoned the family. In a long revelation scene, Jake confesses his responsibility for the death of his father, whom he led from bar to bar, then encouraged to run down the middle of the highway. When Jake finally goes to Montana to find Beth, Mike trusses him like a horse, putting an American flag in his mouth for a bit. (Baylor is mighty upset by this desecration of the “flag of our nation.”) While Baylor and his dotty wife carefully fold the flag, Jake announces his love for Beth—“I love you more than this earth. … Everything lied—you—you're true. I love you more than life.” Then to prove it, he delivers her to his brother Frankie and leaves in the snow.

This is essentially the plot of the play, though there are dozens of other scenes, many irrelevant, including one in which Jake's mom leaves home with her daughter and, in order to avoid packing, sets fire to the house. (In Montana, Beth's mother thinks she sees a fire in the snow.) It may seem odd to describe such idiosyncratic characters and bizarre behavior as normal or domestic. Yet the eccentricities, while often amusing, sometimes seem willed, like the studied gothic in Beth Henley or Tennessee Williams, and at the heart of this work is a rather conventional, even somewhat banal, love story. “I love you more than this earth” is not a line one would ever expect to find in a Shepard play.

Nor would one expect to find such crude symbolism as the flag business at the end. Even his title lacks the customary, instinctual Shepard resonance. What A Lie of the Mind could use is a really exacting editor, one who might have persuaded the playwright to pare away irrelevancies and obesities from his rather bloated text, while encouraging him to examine more closely its themes and situations. This is a director's function; and much as I admire some of Shepard's work with the actors, I think it was a mistake for him to stage his own play. The setting, for example, apart from being crude and unsuggestive, leaves the central area of the stage virtually unused, with most of the scenes being staged in the two rooms on the sides.

I did not see Harvey Keitel play the part of Jake; perhaps to counteract his image as a woman-beater (following a similar role in Hurly-Burly), he was away with his own wife as she gave birth to a child. Instead, his understudy, Bill Raymond, performed Jake, script in hand, in a display of guts and talent that drew cheers, though it made one attend more to the achievement than the play. People have a tendency to miscast Amanda Plummer, and she seemed to me again miscast as Beth, too spiritual and stentorian to capture the steamy voluptuousness of the character. As Frankie, Aidan Quinn adds to his growing stature as an intelligent performer. Will Patton is a strong, vaguely simian Mike, roaring out the fury of an unsatisfied revenger; and James Gammon brings a hoarse crude authority to the deerstalker, Baylor, whether having his bare feet rubbed with an ointment made to soften leather boots or giving his wife her first kiss in 20 years.

But the acting honors of the evening belong to the two moms, Geraldine Page as Jake's mother and Ann Wedgeworth as Beth's. Her talent and control increasing with her age, Miss Page is a fearless and accomplished actress. She brings a bleary dissociation to the role—her belly swollen into a pot, bobby socks on her feet, a flower in her ear, whining like a fire siren—that tells us more about Jake's genetic disorders than Shepard's writing. As for Miss Wedgeworth, equally amnesiac about the facts of her past—demure, wan, trembling on the edge of hysteria—she emerges somehow as the most delicate member of the family, and the sanest too, for all her flakiness (“Please don't scream in this house; this house is very old”).

But ultimately, despite the felicities of the acting and the writing, this play wears you down rather than works you up. The dialogue is a little too declarative, the plotting a little too undisciplined, the characters a little too unforgettable, to persuade you that the motor energies come out of inspiration rather than will. Critics are saying that Shepard's double role as playwright and movie actor is providing that missing link in American culture between high and popular art. I wonder. It must be very hard to write plays when people are staring at your hands to see if your nails are dirty. How does one perform the private act of creation under the blinding glare of publicity? How do you base your work on experience without making it a subject of gossip or speculation? How can Shepard find the freedom to separate himself as a writer from the role determined for him as a movie star? Perhaps those Pirandellian questions might form the subject of his next play.

Gerald Weales (review date 14 February 1986)

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SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Great Divide: Shepard's Lie of the Mind.Commonweal 63, no. 3 (14 February 1986): 86-7.

[In the following review, Weales criticizes A Lie of the Mind, objecting to the “cartoon atmosphere” of the play.]

Sam Shepard's new play, A Lie of the Mind, runs for more than four hours, but its length does not herald structural innovation in his drama. He is still working in short scenes, as he has been since he turned up off-off-Broadway in the 1960s. In the new play, he cuts back and forth between two families and their homes on opposite ends of the stage, jumping from one painful or comic sequence to the next. The play, as one expects with Shepard, is absorbing, but a kind of attenuation has set in. It has no images as sharp and compelling as the corn shucking in Buried Child or the nude man with the lamb in Curse of the Starving Class; nor does it manage the intensity of True West or Fool for Love, even though many of the scenes are two-person encounters.

Shepard is on familiar ground in A Lie of the Mind, dealing once again with the disintegration of the American family, as in Curse and Child, and with the violence and mutability of sexual love, as in Fool for Love. The event that triggers the minimal action of Lie is Jake's jealous beating of his wife, which sends him back to his home thinking he has killed Beth, and sends her, brain-damaged but slowly recovering, to her family. Both homes are loveless, Jake's father having long since walked out on his mother and died in a drunken accident for which Jake may have been responsible. Beth's mother is servant and burden to her husband, a Montana rancher who seems to prefer the deer he hunts to his family. Jake's mother dotes on him and tries to return him to the womb of his childhood room, evicting his sister in the process. When I used the adjective minimal with action, I intended to suggest that there was no dramatic development of importance. There is incident aplenty. Beth's father shoots Jake's brother, mistaking him for a deer, when Frankie comes to see if Beth is alive or dead; Beth, who perceives in fragmentary ways, decides to marry Frankie and gets herself tarted up for the occasion. Jake has made his way from California to Montana—that is, has crossed the stage—where, after having been tortured by Beth's brother, he begs everyone's pardon and gives Beth to Frankie.

The play is sprinkled with moments in which a character displays love, affection, protectiveness toward another, but the effect of the play as a whole is to suggest the impossibility of a happy relationship between a man and a woman or a healthy closeness within a family. At the end of the play Jake's mother, on one side of the stage, is burning her house down and getting ready to go to Ireland with her daughter to visit probably non-existent relatives; on the other side, Frankie and Beth embrace in an ending that would be a more comforting final clinch if her parents were not laboriously folding an American flag into the triangle that suggests a funeral; and the mutilated Jake and his mutilator are somewhere in between, each self-exiled from his uncongenial family circle. In the final moment, Beth's mother looks across the stage and comments on the fire which is presumably burning hundreds of miles away, thus providing the connection-disconnection image which indicates that the lie of the mind is not simply the false promise of love, but the geography of shared loss.

The most startling thing about A Lie of the Mind is the broad comedy in it. Vincent Canby, reviewing the movie version of Fool for Love (New York Times, December 15, 1985), called the original play “a live-action Maggie and Jiggs cartoon for which there is no exit,” a label that he intends as descriptive, not pejorative, since he admires the play in preference to the film. I had not thought of Fool for Love in those terms, although the comedy in it, as in the other Shepard plays, is often center stage. With A Lie of the Mind the cartoon quality of the characters becomes pervasive, so much so that the knockabout often robs the play of the kind of powerful image that Shepard so often comes up with when a potentially comic situation or character turns suddenly painful or lyric. Since Shepard directed Lie and presumably chose the performers, the excessiveness in the production must be what he wants. Will Patton, as Beth's brother, gives a frenetic physical performance as though the character's anger has gone to the actor's nerve ends. At one point, he stiffens like a board and falls flat on his back; at another he throws himself on the ground and drags himself under the step in a single fine sweep of exasperation. All of the characters are overstated, but none of them has quite the flamboyance of the two mothers. Shepard has been having a run on peculiar mothers—in Curse, in Buried Child, in True West—but the two in A Lie of the Mind win blue ribbons for eccentricity. Ann Wedgeworth plays Beth's mother as a gently demented women, nervously upright in her fluffy mules. Geraldine Page, as Jake's mother, mugs and punches relentlessly, as though she were finally getting a chance to perfect her Marie Dressler imitation, a reading which should suit Shepard. After all, he seems to have built his performance as Eddie in the Fool for Love film out of bits and pieces of Gary Cooper.

On the night that I saw A Lie of the Mind, Harvey Keitel was out of the cast. His replacement as Jake was Bill Raymond, who had just been hired as understudy and had to work with script in hand. He knew the business, he knew the character, he even knew most of the lines, and the pages he carried interfered with his performance only once. Jake throws a tantrum, knocking a bowl of soup out of his mother's hand and ripping his bed apart; in the process, Raymond lost script as well as bed linen and had to scramble around to retrieve the pages, which he did without ever losing Jake or his histrionic bad temper. It is possible, I suppose, that Raymond's presence disoriented the production to some extent, but the disconcerting broadness in so much of the show was clearly a deliberate decision of Shepard and his cast.

A major new Shepard play is always an occasion, but A Lie of the Mind seems to have extended Shepard's staying power without enriching his art. In the past, he has used his taste for caricature in the interest of dramatic or visual truth. Here the serious side of the play is so compromised by the cartoon atmosphere that Shepard sometimes seems to be mocking the themes that have given substance and force to so much of his recent work.

David Wyatt (essay date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Wyatt, David. “Shepard's Split.” South Atlantic Quarterly 91, no. 2 (spring 1992): 333-60.

[In the following essay, Wyatt explores the ambivalence of the characters and the world view in Shepard's body of work.]

Sam Shepard does not write dramas of recognition. His characters renounce insight and resist growth; they seem, instead, the scene for their author's projection of violent, contradictory, inchoate emotions. Shepard's language remains acutely aware of this, but it is an awareness in which the characters scarcely participate. Few of the characters believe in any existence apart from a role, and one purpose of the plays is to explore this. Yet it also seems a limit by which the characters are bound, a repetitive irony through which the playwright asserts his superiority over his players. The conception of life is essentially dramatic, as Richard Gilman argued about Shepard in 1981:

[W]e either take our places in a drama and discover ourselves as we act, or we remain unknown (as some indeed choose to do). In the reciprocal glances of the actors we all are, in our cues to dialogue, the perpetual agons and denouements that we participate in with others, identities are found, discarded, altered but above all seen. Not to be able to act, to be turned away from the audition, is the true painful condition of anonymity. But to try to act too much, to wish to star, the culmination and hypertrophy of the common desire, is a ripeness for disaster.

This seems so brilliantly right as nearly to forestall the need for future criticism. If it speaks to the basic thematic tension in the work, it also reveals a stance toward tension, Shepard's stubborn—almost willful—ambivalence. Ambivalence has been less his subject than his mode: his imagination craves what it spurns. “I think we're split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal,” he has said. This torn mind has given his work its thrilling and irritating air of irresolution; he seems to like being split. “To be right in the middle of a conflict—right exactly in the middle—and let it play itself out where you can see … well, that's where things begin to get exciting. You can't avoid contradictions.” Only in the most recent work for the stage does he begin to move beyond this habitual ambivalence toward a vision of resolution, of a world offering the possibilities of change and even choice.

Shepard's plays explore the troubled relation between our fear of performance and our lust for attention. They do so by taking the careful measure of the spaces between us; there is nothing casual about the physical positions of the bodies on his stage. The blocking explicit in his stage directions and implicit in his scene dynamics advances a complex argument about the possibilities for character and action in his world. Exits and entrances reveal themselves as perilous moments of definition or self-loss. Characters seek without knowing it an instant of distinction or notice. Shepard's management of “where we stand” in respect to others reveals his conception of life as an unending and often unwilling competition for space and love.

Shepard's most celebrated play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, takes its power as much from how the actors move as from what they say. The subject of Buried Child could be called “the stark dignity of entrance.” The phrase is from the William Carlos Williams poem in which he imagines the way a new shoot shoulders the earth crumbs and pushes up into the light. Buried Child ends with Halie's great speech about how shoots and people come into the world:

Good hard rain. Takes everything straight down deep to the roots. The rest takes care of itself. You can't force a thing to grow. You can't interfere with it. It's all hidden. It's all unseen. You just gotta wait til it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong though. Strong enough to break the earth even. It's a miracle, Dodge. I've never seen a crop like this in my whole life. Maybe it's the sun. Maybe that's it. Maybe it's the sun.

If Shepard ends the play with this appeal to a sustaining natural order, it is because the cultural space of the family has so utterly botched the task of nurturance. What makes us grow, draws us out? The play foregrounds such questions by focusing on the birth of each character into the space of the stage. The moment of truth is the one of coming on to the set.

A set summary of Buried Child might read like this:

Lights come up on a living room, with stairs upward to the left and a screen porch to the right. Wife Halie begins speaking upstairs, unseen, and husband Dodge talks back from his seat on the couch at center stage. Dodge yells for son Tilden and Tilden “enters from stage left, his arms loaded with fresh corn.” Halie finally enters slowly, down the stairs, and “continues talking.” She does so after introducing by report another character we will never see, dead son Ansel. Near the end of act 1, son Bradley drags himself in on his wooden leg. He slips, enters from the screen porch “laboriously,” shaves and bloodies his father's scalp. Act 2 begins with Shelly's offstage laughter. She and her boyfriend, long-lost grandson Vince, enter the house unnoticed. The final entrance is effected by Tilden as he again carries something on, the bundle of the buried child, the last character to be granted entrance.

If kinds of entrance bespeak types of character, we get this reading of the play: Halie is the perpetually absent mother, a voice that speaks without loving or noticing. Dodge is the present but absent father, the paternal force who never leaves the stage and whose death occasions no notice. Memory-ridden Tilden carries the family burdens. Ansel exists only as rumor, the fantasy child who replaces the one his mother actually conceived and buried. Bradley's noise and violence measure his actual impotence. Stranger Shelly sneaks on and off, and so will fend off this uncanny family by finding it temporarily “familiar.” Vince must revise his unremarked first entrance with a second, forcing the recognition—only Halie briefly grants it—his initial homecoming fails to evoke. The buried child appears in the play's last scene—its father presents it to its mother—so as to bring an end to the repressions set in motion in the first scene.

The major interruption in the play is Vince's second entrance; as act 3 winds down he cuts his own door through the screen and climbs, knife in mouth, into the central space. By doing so he also cuts short the recognition scene, Dodge's articulation of the story of the buried child. But interruption may be too strong a word. No one picks up the dropped stitch of Dodge's narration; attention simply shifts to Vince. An interruption can best occur during a continuing and focused act of attention, and this is what Shepard's plays do not provide. Instead, the inattentiveness of character quickly schools the audience to expect a series of arresting distractions. I once attended a production of Buried Child in a theater in the round, a space with fewer than two hundred seats. At the end of act 1, as Bradley began to shave Dodge's head, a man in the front row fell into a seizure, his breath short, his head tipped back. The audience soon noticed him, called for the lights. The lights came up and the house manager announced a ten-minute pause. A policewoman strolled in; the man's wife stroked his head. The house went dark; the lights came up on act 2. Nothing felt lost—only added. Asked to accommodate an unlooked-for interruption, the play did so as it had its other entrances, by revealing that its very structure was built out of whatever next thing managed to make us watch it.

“Me to play”: Hamm's first line in Beckett's Endgame might well be the motto for Shepard's people. They insist on playing, on keeping the performance alive, without any solid faith or even interest in being comprehended or known. Attention without recognition; this is what they unhappily, desperately want. In Buried Child, “recognize” proves the operative verb. The verb gets attached to Vince, the unremembered son and grandson, but it extends to everyone, from the Halie who “doesn't really notice the two men” in her living room to the death of Dodge, “completely unnoticed,” against the TV. “I recognize the yard,” Vince says. “Yeah but do you recognize the people?” Shelly replies. Tilden's answer to the question “Do you recognize him” refuses Vince any fatherly recognition: “I had a son once but I buried him.” Shelly persists in forcing the issue with Dodge, but he turns it into a comic interrogation:

(watching T.V.) Recognize who?
What's to recognize?

To learn, see, know again—this is the burden of the verb. Shelly insists on keeping alive the fiction of recognition in a world in which no original cognition occurred. Recognition is the promise of drama, the experience Aristotle thought distinguished it from other literary genres. Shepard's conception of drama is so pure that his characters have been reduced to the desire to perform in spite of the absence of an action to be imitated. The outcome is no outcome, no anagnorisis or cognitio. The recognition that would lead to catharsis and hence to the end of drama and the need for drama—this is what Shepard's plays do not give.

While watching a Shepard play we are not present, then, to a world of character isolated by a deed. Things happen; there is plenty of noise and motion on the set. The scenery is relentlessly domestic or mundane; we are not allowed the escape hatch of thinking the action merely an allegory or a dream. Props play an abundant part. The major elements onstage at the end of Buried Child are less the actors than a wooden leg, a blanket, a rose bouquet. It is as if in the moment of discovering the expressive possibilities of the physical space of the stage this playwright had lost faith in the conventions of drama. The surviving given is the impulse to perform. Shepard's theater thus becomes not a space for the imitation of an action but one for acting out.

The space beyond roles, beyond the imperative “to act,” is the unknown space within the self, the frightening realm of the “personal.” This is the space Shepard has recently begun to explore. Jake uses the word “personal” in A Lie of the Mind (1985) to describe the part of himself he would never tell. It is a space he can conceive, yet one he refuses, consciously, to inhabit. He does this by refusing to remember. Through a recovery of Jake's lie of the mind, Shepard goes beyond the staging of behavior into his first sustained analysis of the motives for why we stage it. This inquiry into his characters' reasons for acting is made possible by his own deepening understanding of his reasons for writing.

Shepard's longest play, A Lie of the Mind, takes four hours to produce onstage. Its three acts trace the collision of two families linked by marriage. Each family has four members. Lorraine absentmindedly mothers sons Jake and Frankie and daughter Sally. The father is mysteriously dead. Meg and Baylor maintain a Montana ranch where their son Mike still lives, and to which their daughter Beth returns to convalesce from one of her husband Jake's near-fatal beatings. The action follows the two brothers, Jake and Frankie, as they work their way back toward Beth and into a forgotten past. At the play's end, the major characters have assembled around Beth, and, as they slowly exit, she is left in the arms of her brother-in-law, Frankie.

Repression is the lie of the mind, and Shepard's play turns upon the words “forget” and “remember.” The story features two crimes Jake could keep in mind: his beating of his wife Beth, and his “murder” of his father. The first crime is as much “in” Jake's mind as the second is out of it. “You remember the night he died too, don't ya?” his sister asks Jake about his father. Jake answers: “That's the part I forgot.” It is possible to wonder whether Jake abuses Beth because he killed his father, thereby submerging the taboo role of parricide into that of wife beater. (In his “Notes on Scenes” for A Lie of the Mind. Shepard himself asks the leading question: “What's the connection between Jake's break up with Beth & his quest for his dead father?”). Forgetting—hiding a part of the mind from the whole—is what people do in this play, how they get by, live onward. Both mothers forget that their children have married. Baylor triumphs over anger and ennui by remembering how to fold a flag. “HOW COULD I KNOW SOMETHIN' THAT I DON'T KNOW?” This is Jake's rhetorical question, and Shepard's emerging definition of the human. To know what we don't know, to be perpetually threatened by the irruption of memory—this is the painfully anxious state that energizes performance and drives people deeper into their roles.

Except Beth. Through an irony so violent that it may be intolerable, she has had forgetting knocked out of her head. Jake has beaten her into a permanent state of remembering, a mind, perhaps, without an unconscious. She is returned to the eloquence of primary process; her work now is to “never forget.” And she knows it, or at least says it. “This is me. This is me now. The way I am. Now. This. All. Different. I—I live inside this. Remember. Remembering. You. You—were one. I know you. I know—love. I know what love is. I can never forget. That. Never.” Beth lives “in” the permanent presence of her once and future feelings—in a state of terrifying mental health. It is a freedom we might also call madness, one no doubt purchased at too great a price.

Beth's oneness with her mental state defines by contrast the nature and necessity of performance in her play and in Shepard's work as a whole. Beyond pretending, she can speak now about its pleasures. “Pretend. Because it fills me. Pretending fills. Not empty. Other. Ordinary. Is no good. Empty. Ordinary is empty.” Frankie responds to this with “You liked acting, huh?” and reminds us that the action of the play is set in motion by the response to a play. Jake claims that he beat up Beth because she had fallen in love with an actor she was “in love” with in a play: “I know what that acting shit is all about,” he tells Frankie.

They start doin' all the same stuff the person does!
What person?
The person! The—whad'ya call it? The—
Yeah. The character. That's right. They start acting that way in real life. Just like the character.

So, according to Jake, Beth goes crazy before he makes her lose her mind. This is madness for Shepard: to believe and become one's part. Yet it is also the way of life; it is nearly impossible to locate a “person” in his plays who does not mistake himself for a “character,” who does not reduce and perfect himself in a role. Shepard's people mount performances that presume a massive act of forgetting; they become lost in what they “pretend” to be.

So is self-hate at the bottom of it all, and is the action of the mind a sort of guilty hiding? Yes, in part. Shepard's plays about families and their psyches operate to expose a secret, a buried child. Not the one out in the backyard, but the one within, the angry and therefore guilty and therefore repressed survivor of early loss. The plays are remarkable not in their grasp of this human pastime but in their sense of the vigor and variety of performances that lying minds can conjure up.

Shepard's play about lying turns upon an act of physical abuse, a chillingly beatifying exercise of male power, and yet its basic fantasy is of a confusion of family and even gender roles. Sally takes Jake's place in bed; Mike claims Frankie and Jake are “the same person”; Frankie even stands in for a deer. Baylor maintains that “a deer is a deer and a person is a person,” but he's just shot the one for the other. Identity can so easily be mistaken because it is so haplessly confined to the role words—“brother” “daughter” “wife” “son”—ticked off by Frankie in act 3, scene 2. But the one division Shepard most diligently explores is that between woman and man.

Beth imagines something one hasn't seen before in Shepard, a “woman-man.” She does so in her pretending with Frankie, the man whose wounded thigh has left him in her care:

Pretend to be. Like you. Between us we can make a life. You could be the woman. You be.
What was the play you were in? Do you remember?
(Moving toward FRANKIE) You could pretend to be in love with me. With my shirt. You love my shirt. This shirt is a man to you. You are my beautiful woman. You lie down.

Beth tries to push Frankie down on the sofa; he resists, and tells her he's come on Jake's behalf:

Your other one. You have his same voice. Maybe you could be him. Pretend. Maybe. Just him. Just like him. But soft. With me. Gentle. Like a woman-man.
(BETH starts moving slowly toward FRANKIE. FRANKIE stands awkwardly, supporting himself by the sofa, on his bad leg.)
I need to find some transportation out a here! I need to find my car! I can't hang around here, Beth.
(Moving toward FRANKIE) You could be better. Better man. Maybe. Without hate. You could be my sweet man. You could. Pretend to be. Try. My sweetest man.

This is an astonishing scene from a writer so concerned to shoulder the burden of American manhood, for better or for worse. A Lie of the Mind can shock in the way Hemingway's The Garden of Eden did, an unlooked-for outcry against the cost of the performance of being male. Yet both careers leave many signs of uneasiness along the way. Here, Shepard projects a fantasy, in the voice of a battered woman, that ought to become central to his future work. (It will not become so by simply clearing the decks of testosterone and then asking, as he does so endlessly in Far North, “Where's all the men?”) But it is also a fantasy so embattled that he conjures here as its nemesis one of his most scary self-characters, Beth's brother Mike.

Mike inhabits the stage as the insane playwright, staging a revenge that requires Jake to memorize his lines. He compels performance and respects only roles. He lives within the myth of a solidarity (a family) that can be “betrayed.” “I'm the only one who's loyal to this family!” he screams, and one hopes that, after Mike, Shepard himself will let his own loyalty lapse. His plays present the family, in Robert Stone's phrase, as “an instrument of grief,” and yet he remains on record as stubbornly attached to it:

Family—in the truest sense of people related by blood, knowing they are in a relationship with one another from birth to death—that's unbelievably awesome. … There's no way you can deny it. If a person denies it, he only ends up like Faust, you know?

No matter what your family situation is—whether it's wonderful or chaotic—you have to accept it as part of the process of life. You can't jump out of it and say, “I'm free. I'm an individual.” If the family exists in some kind of hell, that means you have to live in hell. Family is the soil you're born into. You gotta use it. You got to get through it. You can't run away from it.

Whatever Shepard's future take on the family, he has exposed in A Lie of the Mind the limits of a structure in which men “protect” women, brothers avenge sisters. Here Beth speaks to her brother Mike:

(Stiffens, stands back) No! You make—you make a war. You make a war. You make an enemy. In me. In me! An enemy. You. You. You think me. You think you know. You think. You have a big idea.

Mike is a male who forces entry; he has no respect for Beth's “in.” He thus becomes the double of what he sets out to punish, abusing what he is “tryin' to protect.” Yet if the brother-avenger is merely an extension of the husband-abuser, it remains the case that Beth has been put into the position to be avenged and hurt and inspired by a man. Jake's act has “killed” her, as he says, but it has also created her, shifted her into a new vision and language. Upon this unresolved irony the play terribly turns, and so continues to betray Shepard's ambivalence about the fruits of male power.

The manuscript versions of A Lie of the Mind suggest that Shepard has become committed to revision of his work as well as to the revisions of lives within it. If early on Shepard thought that revision was “cheating,” by the 1980s he had become fully committed to its possibilities. True West (1980) was revised thirteen times. The papers on deposit at the University of Virginia contain at least five manuscript versions of A Lie of the Mind, from the “Notes on Ideas for Plays” he sketched on 10 May 1984 to the final script from November 1985, one in which the pencilled cuts and revisions make their way into the typed text of the play. Two complementary motions of mind are revealed by these versions: one away from the “expository,” and one toward the fusion of the themes of repression, revenge, and manhood. An examination of these manuscripts shows a writer hard at work changing both his stance and style.

Shepard's working drafts make much more room for a discursive imagination than does his finished work. In June 1984 he jotted down a list of “intrinsic necessities of the play.” Foremost was “the need to allow the thing to tell its own story without bothering it with asking its meaning every step of the way.” He didn't want the play to ask obvious questions: “What scenes are too expository right now?” Yet it seemed useful to ask about meaning at the start. A handwritten list of characters reduces them to themes:



Insanity—(Meg, Lorraine)


Revenge—(Sally, Mike)

Time, Tradition—(Baylor)



Lyle and Lou-Ann would get discarded; Frankie, the pivot man, is missing here. The earliest list of characters included Frankie, but not as Jake's brother. It is dated 10 May 1984:

The Man

The Woman

The Friend of the Man

The Brother of the Woman

Translated into the play's final terms, this list would read: Jake, Beth, Frankie, Mike. Here character gets reduced to gender or relational roles. Shepard begins with the function each character will essentially express. A third list can be found among Shepard's notes for the play:

Imaginary Roles

Heart Sick

Real Life


Play Acting

The War in Heaven

Pretending to Die



On the Borderline

A Lie of the Mind


Believing a Lie

These proposed titles are handwritten on a piece of white typing paper. Shepard made the right choice; none of those discarded pose themselves as a kind of riddle that governs the play without explicating it.

If A Lie of the Mind explores the logic of the unconscious, Shepard chose not to make that easily plain. In act 1, scene 3, Jake insists upon Beth's hanky-panky as an actress: “I knew what she was up to even if she didn't.” Frankie responds: “So, you mean you're accusing her of somethin' she wasn't even aware of?” In the “First Version” of the play (dated May-August 1984), the reply read this way: “You mean this was all unconscious on her part?” Strike the analytical term when everyday words will do. A more substantial revision involves the original act 1, scene 9, a scene eventually removed from the play. Why did Shepard cut it? First, because it contains the discarded character Lou-Ann. Lou-Ann is an actress who was to have replaced Beth when she is forced by Jake to drop out of her play. Second, the scene is relentlessly thematizing: in Shepard's words, “too expository.” In it, Lou-Ann does a monologue from the part she has inherited from Beth, and what she talks about is something called “a lie of the mind.” The play within the play here becomes too obviously an exemplum of the whole, and Shepard decides, unlike Hamlet, not to have his “mousetrap” snap so sententiously shut.

A final example suggests how Shepard allowed the play, in his words, “to tell its own story.” In act 2, scene 3, Shepard reaches for the most radical emotion of the play, Beth's attempt to convert Frankie into her “woman-man.” In what he labels the “True Second Version” (dated 5 November 1984), Beth tries to get Frankie to remember “making love to me.” He cannot, because she has imagined it. She then says: “Nobody needs to have brain damage to wipe things out. You just chop it off. You just take someone in your arms and if it doesn't work you chop it off. You cancel the whole thing out like it never happened.” These lines are crossed out by Shepard's pen. If repression is a kind of self-castration, as these rejected lines suggest, it was a case Shepard chose to make through staging and action rather than through strict exposition.

Shepard sought to protect his themes from his own literal intelligence; he did not stint, however, from amplifying them through the careful elision and revision of scenes. Three major scenes—they are the three on which my reading has focused—had to be invented or substantially altered after he had completed the first version of the play. These scenes were to become:

Act/Scene Date
1.7 Jake and Lorraine: “How was it he died?” 24 August 1984
2.1 Beth, Mike, Baylor, Meg: “You make a war.” 5 November 1984
2.3 Frankie and Beth: “Like a woman-man.” November 1985

The order in which these scenes compelled his attention suggests that Shepard had to work his way through many versions to his deepest and most original material.

The Jake we see onstage represses nearly everything about his father's death. “How was it he died?” he asks his mother. He does remember one thing, about the ashes. “Where's that box?” The focus here is on the fetishized remains. The end of the scene, where, in the original stage production, Harvey Keitel blows lightly into the box and sends his father's ashes up into a beam of light, has been called by Frank Rich the “play's most overwhelming theatrical moment.” All that can be remembered is that remains remain. In the original version of the scene, the reach of memory does not stop with the ashes (Mrs. Willis will become mother Lorraine):

Where's he?
MRS. Willis:
He's gone. He's been a long time gone.
Dead? I remember him. [handwritten]
MRS. Willis:
He's dead. [handwritten]
MRS. Willis:
Yes, he is. [handwritten]

Jake's active remembering here—his volunteering of the word “dead,” a word Shepard typed and then crossed out—does not prove compatible with the emerging pattern of his lying mind. So Shepard adds the business with the ashes, and the talk about the father's unremembered death. The theme of repression is protected and amplified through these changes.

Beth gets to say two wonderful things to her brother and her brother-in-law: “You make a war” and “Like a woman-man.” The first makes a point about what men do for and to women; the second, about what they could become with them. These central sayings are part of dialogues that did not exist in Shepard's “First Version.” It was in Charleston, West Virginia, in early November 1984, that Shepard wrote the scene in which Beth confronts Mike and tells him that his “love” makes a war. And it was not until November of the next year that Shepard pencilled these lines into the “Final Script”: “With me. Gentle. Like a woman-man.” He worked away on act 2, scene 3, even as the play went into production, as five pages of green-lined paper torn from a notebook attest. In the archaeology of Shepard's imagination the most radical material proves the most deeply buried, or difficult to retrieve. His discovery that the male avenger could become the androgynous lover was truly that, an emerging fiction he wrote his way toward over the eighteen months he worked on A Lie of the Mind. Shepard's growing willingness to revise suggests that self-editing may someday replace self-assertion in his work as the exemplary human performance.

Shepard's continual reimagining of A Lie of the Mind leads him into a complex of insights about the relations between performance and male power. And he locates these insights within the voice and experience of a woman. Everyone complains that up until Beth, his women characters aren't given much to do. They inhabit the stage as objects or audiences. Shepard has said that “the real mystery in American life lies between men, not between men and women.” Shepard seems to be tiring not only of the mystery “between men”—True West's struggle of the brothers—but also of the entire ethic of performance, of the desperate “vying” such a mystique expresses and entails. But to give up performing—to cease the lie of the mind—is also to risk being unmanned. This is the dangerous territory into which he has now strayed, as he evolves from the poet into the critic of American manhood.

David Leverenz has written that if “women writers portray manhood as patriarchy, male writers from Melville to Sam Shepard, David Mamet, and David Rabe portray manhood as a rivalry for dominance.” A woman's experience of men differs from a man's experience of being a man, and while the latter certainly carries its cultural privileges, it is not without its pains and burdens. Why recent American theater has been centered around these men and their preoccupation with being male is a question perhaps worth exploring. It is a theater dominated by hurt or angry sons. Try as we will to incorporate Beckett, we seem to end up recapitulating O'Neill.

Shepard's stance toward experience is an openly “male” one, confrontational, aggressive, penetrating. Entering “into” something is a recurrent figure of his speech. “So rather than avoid the issue, why not take a dive into it?” He asks this in response to a question about his supposed “macho” image:

Just because machismo exists, doesn't mean that it shouldn't exist. There's this attitude today that certain antagonistic forces have to be ignored or completely shut out rather than entered into in order to explore and get to the heart of them. All you have to do is enter one rodeo event to find out what that's all about … and you find out fast—in about eight seconds! So rather than avoid the issue, why not take a dive into it? I'm not saying whether it's good or bad—I think that the moralistic approach to these notions is stupid. It's not a “moral” issue, it's an issue of existence. Machismo may be an evil force … but what in fact is it?

The imagery of ordeal may be no more persuasive here than the work done by prepositions like “in” and verbs like “enter.” Shepard brilliantly begs the interviewer's question by answering in a language that presupposes that the world is a place requiring a certain kind of courage, one willing to get to the heart of things. It's a courage possessed by persons seasoned through many falls, persons—and here is the circularity of the argument—who usually happen to be men.

But there is another Shepard, one that antedates the uneasy machismo of A Lie of the Mind, one that even in his oldest surviving play longs for a different stance and style. This counterpressure issues in what I call the dream of liquidity.

The first image from the earliest play Shepard chooses to reprint is of spilled milk. “(The Girl drops her glass and spills the milk.)” It is the same milk Gatsby's father spills from the glass he is handed at his son's funeral, the same “incomparable milk of wonder” Gatsby forsakes when he kisses Daisy and enters fallen time. The dream of the imperial self—of being an eternal suckling—tumbles out of the glass at the novel's end, and so marks an end. Shepard begins with this moment. From the start the self is spilled, scattered, lost to wholeness or a sense of origin. Yet spilling and being spilled also appeal in early Shepard: they afford escape from the hardness of identity, the need to “practice” and perform. The closing monologue of The Rock Garden captures Shepard's ambivalence about overflow:

(A long pause)
When I come it's like a river. It's all over the bed and the sheets and everything. You know? I mean a short vagina gives me security. I can't help it. I like to feel like I'm really turning a girl on. It's a much better screw is what it amounts to. I mean if a girl has a really small vagina it's really better to go in from behind. You know? I mean she can sit with her legs together and you can sit facing her. You know? But that's different. It's a different kind of thing. You can do it standing, you know? Just by backing her up, you know? You just stand and she goes down and down until she's almost sitting on your dick. You know what I mean? She'll come a hundred times and you just stand there holding on to it. That way you don't even have to undress. You know? I mean she may not want to undress is all. I like to undress myself but some girls just don't want to. I like going down on girls, too. You know what I mean? She gives me some head and then I give her some. Just sort of a give-and-take thing. You know? The thing with a big vagina is that there isn't as much contact. There isn't as much friction. I mean you can move around inside her. There's different ways of ejaculation. I mean the leading up to it can be different. You can rotate motions. Actually girls really like fingers almost as well as a penis. You know? If you move your fingers fast enough they'd rather have it that way almost. I learned to use my thumb, you know? You can get your thumb in much farther, actually. I mean the thumb can go almost eight inches whereas a finger goes only five or six. You know? I don't know. I really like to come almost out and then go all the way into the womb. You know, very slowly. Just come down to the end and all the way back and in and hold it. You know what I mean?

Here a Shepard speaker first steps into wild verbal space. The verbal transgression matches the sexual one; the boy's saying is above all a disturbance of speech, a protest against and relief from the talking past each other of the play. Shepard has said that “The Rock Garden is about leaving my mom and dad.” Just as little in family life prepares us for the shocking discoveries in sex, so nothing in the play has signaled the boy's latent verbal power. The fantasy here is of control (“holding on”) and the challenge, as ever in Shepard, is to “go in.” But what arrests and amazes the boy is his own capacity for meltdown, the self “like a river.” In the very act of proving his manhood he dissolves it, confounding the categories of loss and gain.

Men in early Shepard often turn to juice. “Juice” is a big word in Hawk Moon (1981), Shepard's most violent meditation on the liquification syndrome. Chicago (1965) imagines “a mound of greasy bodies rolling in sperm.” Icarus's Mother (1965) turns upon a pee on the beach. In the unfinished Machismo Sagas (1978), Frankie fantasizes about being able to “vomit like a man.” Red Cross (1967) ends with a white world stained red, the blood that streams down Jim's forehead. La Turista (1973) has Kent reduced to a “stream of fluid” by dysentery. Here Shepard goes beyond liquification to “abjection.” This is Leonard Wilcox's judgment on Red Cross. He reads the suddenly bloodied face as a castration “upwardly displaced,” the agony of a man caught between the maternal and patriarchal orders. If Jim is Shepard's sacrifice to such pressures, Kent seems to have passed beyond them. In the second act of La Turista his affliction gets refigured into a “thing of beauty” as he passes into a vision of a completely unsolid and unsullied self.

Shepard shows that for a straight man the experience of sex requires entrance into another and an alien body, and that achieved union with that body requires a transformation of his own. Solid flesh melts. Hamlet puns this into a kind of suicide, and frequently Shepard's meltdowns mingle ecstasy with extinction. Hawk Moon delivers up a catalog of exhausted males: “An orgasm would be nice but not all the love making preparation.” This book poises stick shifts and guns and guitars against salt water, semen, blood, milk, urine, gasoline, sweat. The violence against women (“bleeding pussy”) expresses the persistent fear of and desire for the loss of self in a woman's body: “I keep waking up in whoever's / Body I was with last.” Shepard's anger at sex flows from the sheer fact of sex differences (“Boy or girl?” he asks), from a universe in which “The Sex of Fishes” could even be an issue. These unlike bodies compel some into an act of fusion as momentary as it is unforgettable. Sex risks the perpetual fulfillment and frustration of the human desire to be, as expressed in the last line of Curse of the Starving Class (1978), “like one whole thing.” And on the insufficient dynamics of this act the culture has built an entire further set of expectations and demands. Better to be beyond desire and its consequences, the despairing Hawk Moon suggests, better to be a “Stone man.”

Shepard's sexual material, like Hemingway's, expresses anxiety rather than bravado, a felt need for alternatives, not a smug posturing from within an embraced stance. They both see and see through early the imperative of performance. As the act that requires of the man the assertion and the loss of control, sex ought to provide a model for performance itself. But of course for Shepard's characters it does not. It is precisely the “give-and-take” of which the boy speaks in The Rock Garden (the 1970 Operation Sidewinder inverts the phrase: “[I]t's all about take and give”) that is absent from these performances, especially the mutuality of verbal exchange.

Dialogue becomes like liquidity, then, a desired and feared thing in Shepard, a state which, if achieved, could signal a scary break-through to a new way of being. “You gotta talk or you'll die,” Tilden says in Buried Child. No one fails to talk in these plays, or at least to make noise. They are “Dyin' for attention,” in the words of The Tooth of Crime (1972). These characters speak like actors, bypassing the intimacy of conversation for the insistence of monologue. Speech is directed outward, forensic, not to be heard but overheard. Talking forces with little to say press for a piece of turf onstage. The most poignant of questions may be Salem's, in La Turista: “Are you listening?” The typography of the play's final pages gives an answer: two columns of print each assigned to one speaker. The lines are meant to be spoken simultaneously; here the “back” does not wait for the “forth.”

These are style matches, and victory depends less on physical strength than the invention and mastery of a unique language. In The Tooth of Crime the duel unfolds between two visions of the status and power of words. For Hoss, language expresses; for Crow, it constitutes. Hoss displays a psyche; Crow inhabits a discourse. The values of sincerity and authenticity vie with those of arbitrariness and recombination. The price of victory is utter loneliness; Crow “wins” and becomes stellified, a star revolving in unpeopled space.

But these contesting plays—and True West is the other strong example—actually eschew victory for standoff. At the end one man has beaten or talked down another, but the real situation is parity, a kind of endless struggle of the brothers. True West gets divided into nine scenes, with each scene in turn divided into mood units by “pause.” The lack of strong act or scene divisions or even of a simple rising action testifies to repetitive rather than climactic outcomes. The appearance of the mother near the end of True West confirms this. This may be the most astonishing entrance in Shepard's work. It is as if Lee and Austin have been fighting in order to grab a little of her notice, and this is what she cannot give. Her focus relentlessly elsewhere, she is the ever-present Shepard absent mother, the one for whom there is no here. Shepard's plays explore the uncanny continual return of the prodigal parent:

(Austin makes more notes, Lee walks around, pours beer on his arms and rubs it over his chest feeling good about the new progress, as he does this Mom enters unobtrusively down left with her luggage, she stops and stares at the scene …)

It will take five utterances from the sons before Mom finally speaks: “I'm back.” If the moment of coming onstage is epiphanic for a Shepard character, none enter with a greater sense of diffidence than these perpetually missing persons, the women whose bland, insistent, unnoticing voices seem beyond the register of dramatic change or effect. “I don't recognize any of you”: the voice is Shelly's, in Buried Child, but she speaks for most of Shepard's characters and virtually all of his parents, especially the female ones. These are anti-Oedipal dramas which deny that the self can be found—recognized—at home. So many of his plays dramatize the avoidance of love because for Shepard, as Joseph Chaiken has written, “the human experience of love” risks “the difficulty of expressing tenderness, and the dread of being replaced.” People keep exiting and entering in the hope that they will be uniquely loved, but at the beginning of things stands a woman who refuses to be an audience for her child.

To forget; to be male; to be loved, or, at least, noticed: the drive toward performance is perhaps Shepard's most overdetermined, one pressed upon him by all the complexities of his being. And although this last incentive seems to me the most comprehensive, performance for Shepard is finally an excess, a gratuitous human impulse beyond explanation or the need for it. That we perform is his redundant truth; why we do so, he, this least analytical of dramatists, usually doesn't wonder. As Shepard says of Bob Dylan: “The point isn't to figure him out but to take him in.”

Increasingly, then, the interest in the career lies less in the will to perform than in its consequences. Shepard's reluctant celebrity is one of the more curious stances of our time. He dislikes interviews, and grants them. He prizes privacy and models for a photo spread in Vanity Fair. He has written brilliant plays but expends his time on mostly mediocre movies. Sam Shepard aspires to the very status his best work imagines to be death to the spirit. He wants to be a star.

In the small brown notebook where he sketched out ideas for A Lie of the Mind can be found an early draft of the song Shepard wrote with Dylan for Knocked Out Loaded. “Brownsville Girl” ends with a lament for a time “long before the stars were torn down.” The song centers around Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, a movie that images the price of celebrity as continual and failed vigilance against the murderous admiration of fans. After Peck gets ambushed by a rising young punk, the dying curse he passes on is that his murderer shall never escape the notice of those who will, in turn, try to supplant him. So Shepard teams up with the biggest star he can imagine in order to write about the cost of being one.

Is stardom simply one more cultural option that must be gone “into”? There seems more than a touch of bravado in Shepard's expense of spirit in a waste of fame. As he says, “So rather than avoid the issue, why not take a dive into it?” Anonymity is an anxiety for our time, one producing a craving for notice at once stimulated and resolvable through the media. As Frank Lentricchia has written about Don DeLillo's media-driven characters, especially Lee Harvey Oswald, “to be real in America is to be in the position of the ‘I’ who would be ‘he’ or ‘she,’” to abandon our obscure first-person lives and to enter the realm of the “third-person singular,” where we can speak of the self as an object of common attention, not the subject of our private fantasies. To make oneself something unique, to overcome the fury over likeness, to be irreplaceable—this dream drifts back over us as a collective wish, one Shepard has gone into with a reluctance almost self-sacrificing.

Between movies and drama Shepard now not only divides his time, but his imaginative needs. The pattern reveals an amazing fusion of talents; American life contains no precedent for an artist who is playwright, screenwriter, director—and actor. This more than double career allows Shepard to explore what it feels like—rather than means—to project an image.

It is as an actor that Shepard has become famous, and it was as an actor that he perhaps most dramatically confronted his ambivalence about performing. On 29 April 1971, Shepard's Cowboy Mouth had its American premiere. Shepard played the lead opposite Patti Smith. The next day Shepard disappeared, and Smith had to apologize to the audience for the no-show. “I attempted to play a part once,” he explained a few years later. “Opening night was the only time I did it. I was in a state and ran off to New England, which wasn't very responsible. I like experimenting with acting, but I don't like the performance part of it. That's where it seems to get deadly.” Since 1971, Shepard has performed in thirteen movies.

Things were tense the night he took off. Cowboy Mouth was presented as an afterpiece to Back Bog Beast Bait. Bait starred O-lan Johnson, Shepard's wife. Smith was his new girlfriend; he had been living with her at the Chelsea Hotel. The play rationalizes the predicament. Slim believes himself kidnapped away from his wife and child into a life of rock & roll stardom. “I ain't no star! Not me! Not me, boy! Not me!” These are Slim's words, spoken that one and only night by Shepard. Just what was he running from, as he fled to New England? Perhaps not so much the split between but the awesome fusion of art and life, the terrifying convergence of the twain. Who is the character, and who the author here? And what of the double compulsion acted out by both—to mount and renounce a performance? The one split Shepard cannot maintain is the one he seems most deeply to desire, the split between the on- and offstage worlds. It has proven even tougher to maintain the split between the on- and off-screen worlds.

The work in film Shepard has done since his first screenplay (nineteen movies from the 1967 Me and My Brother to the 1991 Defenseless) can be read as a meditation on the difference between life on a stage and life on a screen. First and last, in America movies make you famous. Plays don't. When Shepard does his Gary Cooper imitation in The Right Stuff (1983) and rises phoenix-like from the burning plane, one of the ground crew sees a speck in the distance and asks, “Is that a man?” The other replies, “Yeah, you damn right it is.” In this moment Shepard strides into focus and also into stardom, an actor who has earned, as the script acknowledges in these lines, his culture's most minimal and therefore highest term of praise. “Man.” In a further twist of fame, he also insures through this performance Chuck Yeager's ability to finance his golden years by hawking engine lubricants on TV.

Since Shepard has been most successful in movies as an actor, his sense of the difference between movies and plays comes down to what it's like to be “in” them. The key variables are continuity and dimension. Movies lack much of either. They are made in lurches, short takes. The movie actor never acts, on one evening, his entire role. Moreover, while movies are acted in actual space, they are projected onto a two-dimensional plane, one the actor and audience cannot enter. The scale of a movie screen is inversely proportional to its accessibility, its vulnerability to intrusion or surprise. Shepard wrote the script for the brilliant Paris, Texas (1984). At the movie's end, a man in search of a woman finally finds her, and she is hidden behind a mirror. The climax in the movie reenacts the experience of a movie; when Harry Dean Stanton gets to Natassia Kinski, it is an encounter simply with a screen. Movies provide, for the audience, the illusion of space (dimension) and time (continuity) without affording for the actor the experience of either. Yet they continue to share with plays the emphasis on speaking bodies that are seen. They thus allow the actor—Shepard—to keep on projecting an image without having to risk the open-endedness of an actual historical occasion, or a performance in “three dimensions.”

The 1982 Motel Chronicles contains Shepard's most extended inquiry into the ironies of working for the screen. The movie actor in Texas tries “to keep his mind on his business. What the scene they were shooting was about. Where it fit into the continuity.” He can find no fit, and so drives away, out of the movie but into the character he was slated to play. Later a screenwriter remarks that “I've abandoned my film.” “What happened?” a voice asks. “I lost the continuity.” The continuity that a movie must evince proves shockingly fugitive in life, as the spliced-up structure of Shepard's book implies. One of its male voices simply intones, “The most intimate things were very broken off.” There is a link here between formal structure and psychological concerns; one can see it in the typed manuscript versions of Motel Chronicles. Originally titled “Transfiction” or “Transfixion,” the book was begun in 1978 and composed over some three years. By replacing the “c” with the “x,” Shepard links fiction-making and suffering—writing becomes a kind of crucifixion. By finally abandoning both titles, he backs off from the melodrama in the claim. But he does not back off from the personal. Motel Chronicles begins and ends with memories of the mother; the speaker's birth; a mother's final illness. The last section on his mother-in-law's stroke was added late—on “9/29/80.” The opening about Shepard's mother was added on the first day of that month. So the book moved toward the classic fictional openings and closings—birth and death, origins and ends. Yet these memories provide not continuity but merely arbitrary starting and stopping points. The most powerful impression of the mother comes in a fantasy of seeing her body after the speaker's birth: “I watched her body. I knew I'd come from her body but I wasn't sure how. I knew I was away from her body now. Separate.” This is a discontinuity that cannot be edited into shape. Movies are not “as dumb as life,” because they project a seamless continuity in which parts of the story are not broken off.

But the price of continuity is impotence, the powerlessness of an audience to share, enter, or alter the movie's space. Space is what plays provide. Kevin J. O'Connor says of Shepard that “most of his plays were meant to take place on a proscenium—he writes for that—or a space in front of you. He sees things coming on from the side or going off from the side—that's part of the world he's creating.” Shepard's stage directions are detailed and architectural: he maps out the walls, doors, rooms. But despite his affection for the dimensional world, Shepard's plays also express a desire to escape its mortal limits. They thus advance a subtle rationalization for his own professional shift from stage to screen, outlining as they do so a pathology rather than a poetics of space.

The pathology is distinctively American. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America from Folsom cave to now.” So Charles Olson begins his 1947 Call Me Ishmael. “I spell it large,” he says, “because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” (Paris, Texas opens with a “lone man” crossing a “fissured, empty, almost lunar landscape—seen from a bird's-eye view.”) Large, Olson seems to be saying, like Moby-Dick. Olson's American stands toward space as Ahab does toward the whale. “We must go over space, or we wither.” There is not a little phallic ambition in Olson's call for a continual westering, as if Manifest Destiny were a massive repression of castration anxiety. D. H. Lawrence would have agreed, and had already supplied the word “phallic.” But he was less sanguine about the prospects for fulfillment in space, in America's “true west.” As he says in Studies in Classic American Literature: “Absolutely the safest thing to get your emotional reactions over is NATURE.” It is a big claim, like Olson's, and each writer capitalizes his key word. SPACE. NATURE. Like Mike in A Lie of the Mind, they “have a big idea.” Big words. And today, Shepard seems to be telling us, nearly dead words.

Olson's book celebrates the discovery of a new American space: the Pacific. Lawrence's details the sentimentalization of a continent. We persist in both activities. America now lives in the era of the Pacific Rim, and there is no dearth of pieties about the renovating powers of the increasingly abused natural world. But to the immediate data of consciousness, the continuing colonization of space and valorization of nature are mere sideshows, distractions of history. To live in America as the century ends is to have withdrawn from the realm of the outside. We suffer from a greenhouse effect that owes more to the voracious will to enclosure imagined in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep than to excess carbon dioxide. We suffer, Shepard's work argues, from a sort of national agoraphobia—a fear of space.

In the southern California where Shepard grew up, the spaces inhabited had names like these: playground, downtown, driveway, front yard. The words imply a scene of relation and proportion between institutions in a built world of schools, roads, stores, and free-standing homes. Beyond all that lay the found world, what can be called the landscape. For many of us these words and spaces have become unrecognizable. We inhabit another order of terms focused on an interior world; in the True West of today, we can hear the sound of the crickets in the hills, but nobody leaves the house. If the primal American scene has heretofore been a body in a landscape—Wallace Stevens's “empty spirit / In vacant space”—then in the 1990s it has become a pair of eyes staring at a screen.

The new words are VCR, television, computer, FAX machine. People seem reluctant to leave them behind, to go outside, into space. I am married to a woman who owns a repertory movie theater. People have stopped coming; attendance was down in 1989 by seven thousand. Perhaps it's an aversion to going out at night into “cities under siege” in order to sit with strangers in a large, dark space. Our audience apparently prefers to stay at home and manage the screening of experience on a reduced scale. (In 1990 70 percent of American homes owned one VCR; 25 percent owned two.) The bunker mentality has triumphed, and we live less in space than in representations of space. What we increasingly have in common is not the physical landscape around our homes, but, in Michael Herr's words, a “glamour space” projected onto a screen. This is where we live, and move, and have our being.

Since The Tooth of Crime, Shepard's plays have argued that the price of the celebrity we most value—stardom on a screen—is dislocation, the erasure of specific identity in local space. Because such stardom relieves us of an even greater anxiety—“Dying,” as Tympani says in Angel City—it is a price we are perhaps willing to pay. The play in which Tympani appears gives this paradox its most elegant expression. The action of the 1976 Angel City follows a crazed Culver City production company as it tries to make a hit disaster movie. At one point, script-doctor Rabbit and musician Tympani enjoy this exchange. Rabbit asks, “What is the most terrifying thing in the world?” Tympani replies: “(blankly) A space.” Space scares because it is the medium of vulnerability, even mortality:

So now you're just taking up space?
I'm facing my death.

The human choice presents itself here as between facing death in space or achieving a dimensionless immortality on-screen. Rabbit states the case for the power of film:

The vision of a celluloid tape with a series of moving images telling a story to millions. Millions anywhere. Millions seen and unseen. Millions seeing the same story without ever knowing each other. Without even having to be together. Effecting their dreams and actions. Replacing their books. Replacing religion, politics, art, conversation. Replacing their minds.

If Rabbit tries to control this process, and its effects, Miss Scoons is content simply to be its victim:

I look at the screen and I am the screen. I'm not me. I don't know who I am. I look at the movie and I am the movie. I am the star. I am the star in the movie. For days I am the star and I'm not me. I'm me being the star. I look at my life when I come down. I look and I hate my life when I come down. I hate my life not being a movie. I hate my life not being a star. I hate being myself in my life which isn't a movie and never will be.

The recognition that Shepard's plays honestly refuse to provide is not even a promise of the movies. The self is lost while watching a movie, merged into the infinite “I am” of the star. The cycle of watching and coming down produces in the viewer an endlessly aroused and frustrated fantasy of imperial being.

Angel City sets out to show, despite its rhetoric to the contrary, that a screen is the most terrifying thing in the world. The play begins on a “Basically bare stage. Upstage center is a large suspended blue neon rectangle with empty space in the middle. The rectangle is lit from time to time. … Upstage, directly behind the rectangle, is a narrow platform. … When the actors enter on this platform they have been framed by the rectangle.” This framing rectangle is the play's key protagonist, a kind of ever-present movie screen that treats the characters, as they enter, to a momentary apotheosis as a star. There is the illusion of being “captured in celluloid.” It is a pleasant illusion, until it becomes fully literalized in the play's action. The company has been trying to introduce something “totally new”—something “three-dimensional”—into the medium of film. But the reverse happens. At the end, producer Wheeler gets trapped in the movie of his own imagining; one of the most terrifying moments in Shepard is when Wheeler's staff becomes an audience that watches him but refuses to wave back. They know that people on the screen cannot see people watching it. The terror here is that everyone collaborates in treating the stage as if it were a screen, as if it were not three-dimensional, as if Wheeler had passed from the space of drama's struggle to the nonspace of projected form. But this is what Shepard's characters typically do. They refuse the option of action and dialogue in a fully dimensioned space and play their parts as if they were audiences to—at best actors in—a movie. If “the plays,” as Shepard said in 1977, “were a kind of chronicle I was keeping on myself,” then his movies are perhaps a fable he is composing about us. Movies are for Shepard in his plays and prose a metaphor for American life as so often it is lived, and it is this urge toward withdrawal into the amplified, the dimensionless, and the continuity-ridden that he has set out, from the beginning, to place before us on the stage.

The conflicts that drive Shepard's career are not resolved—they are staged. By stepping with such willing reluctance into the felt tensions of American life, he continues to perfect his role as one of his country's leading cultural agonists. He takes things on, goes into them, acts them out. Experience must be overcome. The decision to write has been, he says, “a process of overcoming a tremendous morning despair. It's been diminishing over the years. But I still feel a trace of this thing that I can't really track down.” The best way out is always through, and the end is not understanding, or reconciliation. The end is to keep the forces that make the play at play. Shepard remains willingly conflicted, generously divided. As he says of the Old Man and his feeling for the lovers in Fool for Love: “From his point of view, there's a danger of wholeness. Once they become whole, it shatters his entire existence, which depends on being split. … But there are a lot of different ways of looking at it.”

Donald L. Carveth (essay date fall 1992)

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SOURCE: Carveth, Donald L. “The Borderline Dilemma in Paris, Texas: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Sam Shepard.” Mosaic 25, no. 4 (fall 1992): 99-120.

[In the following essay, Carveth explores Shepard's examination of the human “self” in Paris, Texas.]

As early as the 1950s, psychoanalysts began to report significant changes in the forms of psychopathology that appear to have emerged in response to a sociocultural situation characterized by Martin Buber as one of metaphysical “homelessness” and by Peter Berger and other sociological descendants of Emile Durkheim as one of an increasingly pervasive “anomie.” In contrast to the intrapsychic or neurotic conflicts of the relatively structured personality of an earlier era, the variety of psychic suffering typical of our postmodern condition takes the form of the sense of fragmentation, estrangement and emptiness characteristic of what Christopher Lasch has called “the narcissistic personality of our time.”

The preoccupation with the personal and interpersonal dilemmas of the contemporary disordered self that typifies the work of the American playwright, Sam Shepard, is clearly reflected in the central themes of Paris, Texas, a film directed by Wim Wenders (who collaborated with Shepard on the screenplay) and which was awarded the Palme d'Or for 1984 at Cannes. In the following essay, I wish to discuss the screenplay in the light of two contrasting psychoanalytic theories of the origins of pathological narcissism: one which, following Herbert Marcuse and Jacques Lacan, locates its roots in the breakdown of paternal authority in society and the family; and the other which, following post-Freudian object-relations theory and the psychology of the self, traces it to a wider failure of empathic responsiveness on the part of the early (maternal and paternal) “selfobject” environment of childhood.

Just as some caretakers are more successful than others in enabling children to develop what Erik Erikson called “basic trust” and R. D. Laing referred to as “ontological security,” and which is the necessary foundation for the “cohesive self” of Heinz Kohut's self psychology, so some societies are better able than others to provide their members with a coherent world-view, a sense of confidence and belonging, and an integrated system of meaning and value as the foundation of both personal identity and social order. Under conditions of rapid social change and resulting widespread sociocultural dislocation and “anomie,” a society's capacity to integrate, socialize and provide its members with a meaningful identity (that is, its capacity to fulfill what Kohut called a “selfobject” function) is impaired; in such a situation numbers of individuals are forced to endure the condition Erikson called “identity diffusion,” which is characterized by a sense of isolation, meaninglessness, fragmentation, diffuse anxiety and “emptiness” depression.

It is a commonplace of that stream of classical social theory summarized, for example, in Robert Nisbet's The Sociological Tradition, that since the rise of both capitalism and science caused the break-up of what David Riesman labeled the “tradition-directed” medieval agrarian social order, such large-scale social processes as rationalization of production, industrialization, urbanization and bureaucratization have inexorably undermined the social basis of the religious world-view (Berger's “sacred canopy”) which had hitherto provided the foundation of both social integration and personal identity. In this view, despite continuing religious revivals which attempt to stem the wider tide of disbelief, the overall direction of modernization has entailed what Max Weber viewed as the increasing “disenchantment of the world” (307). Although a few visionary nineteenth-century artists and thinkers, such as Nietzsche, were able to anticipate “the coming of European nihilism,” for most people in the West this recognition was long obscured by the apparent continued viability of Judeo-Christian values, albeit cut loose from their transcendent foundation, and by confidence in the capacity of human reason, science, industry and technology to fill the gap left by an apparently absent or non-existent deity.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries communities and families could continue to live, as it were, off the borrowed capital of a religious world-view increasingly regarded as outmoded. Despite increasing secularization, a degree of social integration was nevertheless maintained on the basis of common values (which appeared, at least for a time, to stand despite the loss of their transcendent foundation), on belief in the “Protestant ethic” of virtuous achievement, and on faith in the inevitability of both social progress and individual advancement through industry and science. Riesman's so-called “inner-directed” personality with its firmly internalized values and goals was the product of a normatively integrated family life sustained by a social order still confident in the virtue and viability of its essentially materialistic vision. According to Marcuse, it was in this social and psychological context that Freud created psychoanalysis as the psychology of the inner-directed bourgeois character, with its rationally calculating ego endeavoring to work out practical compromises between the pressures of external reality, the demands of its firmly internalized superego, and its energetic and unruly id.

As many observers of the Western “encounter with nothingness” have pointed out, in the course of the present century our secular substitute faith in progress through science and technology has been severely shaken, not only by the evidence of human irrationality provided by the spectacle of two world wars of unparalleled destructiveness and by growing doubt concerning our capacity to control our own inventions, but also by what William Barrett has described as “the encounter with finitude” arising from developments within the most advanced of Western sciences, physics and mathematics, which “have in our time become paradoxical: that is, they have arrived at the state where they breed paradoxes for reason itself” (37). Faced with these challenges to our surrogate faith, as well as by the continued socially disintegrating effects of secularization and modernization, the coherent identity, confidence and “inner-direction” of the bourgeois individual increasingly gives way to the identity diffusion and “other-direction” characteristic of the contemporary narcissistic or schizoid character and to what George Steiner perceives as a widespread “nostalgia for the absolute” (5). In this perspective, the central psychic difficulty of the postmodern personality is less that of containing the conflicting elements of a structured self than of maintaining any sense of a coherent or integrated identity at all.

In its focus upon conflict, repression and neurosis, classical psychoanalysis amounts to what Kohut described as a psychology of “Guilty Man” (Restoration 132-33). It accurately reflects the society in which it arose, a society with sufficient normative integration to sustain a family life with enough coherence and stability to permit its offspring to develop the relatively well-structured or cohesive self and the internalized superego, ego-ideal and ego-identity characteristic of the “inner-directed” personality of Freudian theory. Among those who perceive a relative decline of this type and the emergence of the unstructured personality, some seek to explain these changes in terms of the diminution of paternal authority in both the family and society at large; that is, they offer an explanation in terms of what Lacan would see as a relative failure of “the paternal function” (179-255) normatively to structure the personality in accordance with the social law.

Marcuse, for example, argues that due to sociohistorical changes in the structure of the nuclear family in post-industrial societies which have significantly undermined the authority of the father as an object of identification, “the ‘individual’ as the embodiment of id, ego, and superego has become obsolescent in the social reality” (44) and a new personality type has emerged whose ego-identity is diffuse and shifting due to its lack of inner support from internalized values and ideals. In this situation, the “mediation between the self and the other gives way to immediate identification” while “the ego shrinks to such an extent that it seems no longer capable of sustaining itself, as a self, in distinction from id and superego” (47). In a society characterized by what Alexander Mitscherlich sees as a condition of fatherlessness, the “inner-directed” character formed in the struggle against and the identification with the father gives way to an “other-directed” personality; this character-type is oriented less by the “gyroscope” constituted by internalized values and goals than by a wish to achieve a positive self-image in the mirror constituted by significant others and by a radar-like sensitivity to their expectations and responses.

Whereas Marcuse locates the social roots of identity diffusion in a condition of fatherlessness, writers in the traditions of psychoanalytic object-relations theory and self psychology (such as Balint, Bowlby, Fairbairn, Guntrip, Kohut, Mahler, Suttie and Winnicott) offer an account which emphasizes not merely the father's emotional absence, but that of the mother as well. It is the empathic unavailability or unattunement of the early caretakers—that is, of the “selfobject” milieu in general—which constitutes the psychological basis of the disordered self, the “Tragic Man” of Kohut's self psychology. Kohut himself suggests that whereas the more extended and integrated family of the nineteenth and early twentieth century may have overstimulated children and promoted the structural conflicts that are the focus of the classical psychoanalytic understanding of neurosis, the modern nuclear family—isolated from wider kinship ties, subject to social and geographical mobility, pressed by the need for two incomes and by the desire of both parents for careers outside the home, and faced with the threat of separation and divorce—may well provide an environment in which children are understimulated and deprived of the emotional responsiveness essential for the formation of a cohesive self (Restoration 267-80).

The themes of homelessness, anomie, interpersonal disconnection and personal disintegration, as well as of deprivation of fathering and mothering, are richly developed in Paris, Texas. The film opens upon a scene of Devil's Graveyard, Big Bend, Texas, “a fissured, empty, almost lunar” desert landscape through which Travis, a strange, derelict figure, trudges toward a settlement just over the Mexican border in Texas. Having regained consciousness after collapsing in a cantina, this broken and in some ways Christ-like character, who has emerged on bandaged feet from the desert wilderness, remains silent in the face of a physician's interrogation regarding his identity and the causes of his mysterious injuries. Travis's younger brother Walt, an average, middle-class businessman living in Los Angeles with his French wife Anne and their adopted son Hunter, is notified, but just before Walt arrives to fetch him, Travis wanders off into the desert again. Walt manages to catch up with him as he marches determinedly into the nothingness of the desert landscape and, despite his resistance to being touched, finally succeeds in getting him into the car and takes him to a motel. When Walt leaves briefly to buy him some new clothes, Travis prepares to have a shower but, catching a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror, he heads straight out the door and back into the desert. Once again, Walt catches up with him and persuades him to return.

For some time during the drive through the Mohave desert to Los Angeles, Travis continues to refuse to speak, but finally, in the face of Walt's impatience, he utters the word “Paris” from the back seat of the car. He asks Walt if he has ever been to Paris and could they go there now. Walt naturally thinks he means Paris, France, but Travis, smiling to himself, traces the location of Paris, Texas on a road map. Soon, having “returned to the land of the living” by resuming speaking and eating, but not yet sleeping, Travis is permitted to drive while Walt sleeps, but he turns off the main highway (in search of Paris, Texas?) and they wind up in the middle of nowhere.

It turns out that Travis has been missing for four years. His wife Jane had also disappeared around the same time. Their four-year-old son Hunter had been dropped at the door of Walt and Anne's who had cared for him as their own ever since. Every month Jane had been depositing varying amounts of money in a Houston bank account in the name of her son. Now four years later, Travis is introduced to Hunter as his real father, but he is initially unable to evoke any recognition or acceptance from his son. Partly as a result of a viewing of a home movie Walt had taken some five years earlier, depicting an ecstatically happy vacation by the sea in which Travis, Jane and Hunter seemed happily united, and partly as a result of Travis's efforts to master the father role, the father-son relationship is reestablished, much to the regret of the boy's surrogate mother Anne who fears her marriage to Walt may disintegrate if they lose Hunter.

Having set out together to contact Jane when she makes her monthly deposit in Houston, Travis has Hunter telephone Anne and then hang up on her, leaving her distraught. Spotting Jane at the bank, father and son follow her to her workplace, the Keyhole Club, where, downstairs, the customers are able to hold private conversations via one-way mirrors and intercoms with women of their choice in fantasy booths of various types (“Hotel,” “Poolside,” etc.). After talking to Jane and, without revealing his identity, attempting to establish whether or not she is willing to meet her customers outside the Club, Travis leaves and, with Hunter, drives to a bar where he proceeds to get drunk. Father and son wind up for the night in the sitting room of a laundromat. While his eight-year-old son sits behind him in a big leather chair, Travis reclines on a couch and proceeds to “freely associate” (in an ironic allusion to psychoanalysis?) about his shy and sensitive mother who was embarrassed by her husband's jokes about her being “a fancy woman” from Paris.

The next day, Travis returns to the Club, this time telling Jane the story of their life together in a way that gradually leads her to recognize him. It is not until the concluding monologues that we learn that Travis's paranoid jealousy and possessiveness had led him constantly to quit his jobs to be with his much younger wife; that Jane had felt trapped by the arrival of her child; and that by the end Travis had taken to tying a cow-bell to her ankle to prevent her from escaping from their trailer-home while he slept. One night she did manage to sneak away, but Travis caught her and dragged her back and tied her to a stove. Falling asleep despite her screams and those of their child, Travis later awakened to find the trailer on fire. Stumbling through the flames “toward the only two people he loved,” Travis, finding them gone, ran into the wilderness “until every sign of man had disappeared” (92). At the film's conclusion, Travis arranges for a reunion of Hunter and Jane at the Meridien Hotel but, as he explains in a tape he leaves for Hunter, he cannot participate in this reunion and, instead, drives off alone into the night.

From its opening scenes of desert wasteland, this film is pervaded by images of absence, anonymity, geographical and mental vacancy, interpersonal disconnection and personal isolation. As a speechless, identityless derelict trudging through a parched and barren landscape, Travis is the ultimate symbol of human brokenness in general and of the particular predicament of the postmodern individual who, in what Buber viewed as our current epoch of homelessness, “lives in the world as in an open field and at times does not even have four pegs with which to set up a tent” (157). A man without language, memory or identity, Travis is in search of his lost origin, the point at which he understands he might have been conceived, but having turned off the main highway somewhere that “didn't have a name,” he ends up in a place where “the emptiness is broken only by some randomly dumped, rusty car wrecks” (28-29).

In marked contrast to the historical tradition and the rich cultural heritage of the “old world” (Paris, France), is the “new world” (Paris, Texas) created by modernization, a world symbolized here by a vacant lot in the middle of the desert, by miles of highway dotted with tacky motels and hamburger joints, and by rusted car wrecks signifying the dead-end of a materialistic, technological society. Reminiscent of Nietzsche's madman who enters the marketplace and proclaims the death of god, Travis encounters a psychotic on a bridge over a freeway shouting into the void below his prophetic warnings to the socially adjusted who have blinded themselves to the nothingness he sees at the center of being:

You will all be caught with your diapers down. I promise you that. … They will invade you in your beds, they will snap you from your hot-tubs, they will pluck you right out from your fancy sports cars. There is nowhere, absolutely nowhere in this godforsaken valley. My voice is reaching you from here where I'm standing to clear out into the goddamn Mohave desert and through this Vale of Tears all the way to Arizona. … Not one square foot of that will still be a safety zone. There will be no more safety zone. I can guarantee you: the safety zone will be eliminated. Eradicated. You will all be extradited to the land of no return. You'll be flying blind to nowhere.


As a number of the critical essays collected by Bonnie Marranca suggest, much of Sam Shepard's dramatic work can be read as an account of the failure of the American Dream. Certainly, Paris, Texas can be viewed as a critique of the alienation and anomie characterizing an uprooted and traditionless commercial technological society which falsifies experience through advertising and media images and reduces human relations to essentially anonymous encounters mediated by a cash nexus: Walt is a manufacturer of advertising billboards which cover the natural landscape; it is implied that the images of happy family life in the film within the film are about as real as those of Hollywood, since at the time the home movie was made relations between Travis and Jane had been severely strained for years; the father image is something one finds in a magazine and practices before a mirror; the mother-child contact is maintained through cash transfers and their reunion is initiated at a computerized drive-in bank; the mother is employed in a porno-palace catering to voyeuristic fantasies (the film industry?) in Houston, the point from which the technological society will launch its nothingness into the emptiness of space.

At the same time, as members of Riesman's “lonely crowd,” Travis and Jane are representative of the growing numbers of those who, in the face of the disintegrating forces of contemporary social life, are able to sustain neither relationship nor identity, let alone a stable family life capable of adequately nurturing children. In Travis we see someone whose inner emptiness renders him unable to tolerate any separation from Jane. As the indispensable, albeit archaic, selfobject support for his disintegrating self, he attempts to keep her in a state of literal bondage, an act that ultimately results in the type of explosion and conflagration that not infrequently marks the desperate finale of such primitive, sadomasochistic relationships.

The attempt on the part of Travis and Jane to overcome their inner emptiness through what Margaret Mahler would regard as a pathological fusion or symbiosis would be viewed, in a Lacanian framework, as symptomatic of fixation in the narcissistic or Imaginary realm originating in “the mirror stage” (1-7) due to regression from, or “foreclosure” of accession to, the more differentiated order of the Symbolic. In the perspective of the early Kohut this would be seen as an “archaic merger” and in current selfobject theory as a primitive type of self-selfobject bond. Such longings are beautifully conveyed in the film in a shot which shows Travis's reflection super-imposed upon the image of Jane's face seen through the one-way mirror in such a way that “his features are reflected in hers” (93) and the two images fuse into one. In keeping with Lacanian ideas, it would seem that the only way they can sustain a symbolic space between them, a space in which they can remain separate enough to speak to one another, is by turning their backs to each other, as if the separation by the one-way mirror and intercom are not enough to resist the lure of a regressive merger. This longing for merger (or, more accurately, for mirroring and empathic selfobject responsiveness) is again expressed in the scene of reunion between Hunter and Jane at the Meridien Hotel: not only are their images mirrored in the floor to ceiling glass windows, but they appear as mirror-images of one another: as they turn, face to face, in one another's arms, recapitulating the scene of joyous dancing by the sea in the film within the film, their similarity in appearance, coloring and dress makes them seem almost indistinguishable.

At the root of the relational difficulties of characters such as Travis and Jane is what the British School of psychoanalysis (Klein, Fairbairn, Winnicott, Guntrip and Laing, among others) describes as a schizoid condition, one which Kohut conceives as a fundamental deficiency in the cohesion of the self, and Mahler attributes to impairment in the area of self and object constancy. Travis, for example, speaks of an inner gap that cannot be healed. As he explains in the tape he leaves for Hunter (communication, typically, occurring at one remove): “But I can't stay with you. I could never heal up what happened. That's just the way it is. I can't even hardly remember what happened. It's like a gap. But it left me alone in a way that I haven't gotten over” (86). Earlier in the film, while looking at the family photograph album together, Hunter asks Travis whether, after his father died, he could still feel him “walking around and talking some place” (49). In the next shot, the two examine a photograph of an arc of water issuing from a garden hose in which the ordinarily invisible gaps separating the intermittent streams of water are clearly visible (50). Similarly, Jane explains that she had to give Hunter up because “I didn't have what I knew he needed. And I didn't want to use him to fill up all my emptiness” (94). For a long period after their separation, Jane remained inwardly involved with Travis, until one day his image seemed to disappear from her psychological universe altogether:

I … I used to make long speeches to you after you left. I used to talk to you all the time, even though I was alone. … I even imagined you talking back to me. We'd have long conversations, the two of us. It was almost like you were there. I could hear you, I could see you, smell you. I could hear your voice. Sometimes your voice would wake me up. It would wake me up in the middle of the night, just like you were in the room with me. Then … it slowly faded. I couldn't picture you any more. I tried to talk out loud to you like I used to, but there was nothing there. I couldn't hear you. Then … I just gave it up. Everything stopped. You just … disappeared. And now I'm working here. I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice.

(95; Shepard's ellipses)

Due to her own inner emptiness, for Jane human contact must either assume the archaic, symbiotic form of the relationship she shared with Travis, or that of the impersonal pseudo-relationships she has with anonymous men safely distanced from her by the barrier of the one-way mirror of the Keyhole Club.

In Lacanian theory this haunting sense of inner emptiness and the regressive longings for merger to which it gives rise would signify a failure of oedipalization resulting in insufficient recognition and acceptance of the inevitable gap separating subject and object in normal mental functioning. In contrast to this view of the sense of inner absence as an intensification of the socialized individual's normal sense of “lack” arising from an inability to master separation, current object-relations theory and self psychology would regard it as evidence of a failure to establish the confident sense of inner connection that makes normal self-regulation possible (and, hence, separation tolerable) due to early environmental failure and the child's resulting inability to internalize what Howard Bacal describes as an “optimally responsive” selfobject. The film provides evidence supporting both theories: the former which locates the causes of identity diffusion in the decline of paternal authority (the condition of fatherlessness) and consequent failures in differentiation or oedipalization; and the latter which traces it to a more fundamental failure on the part of the early selfobjects (both fathers and mothers) to demonstrate the “response-ability” essential for the child's development of faith in the ultimate reliability or fidelity of the Other and of Being itself as the essential foundation for confidence in the integrity, value and viability of the self.

Despite what many regard as the obvious structural weaknesses of his plays, which frequently seem fragmentary, unfinished and inconclusive, Sam Shepard is often considered one of the most significant American playwrights of his generation, a situation which leads us to try to account for the enormous appeal of his work. This appeal derives, at least in part, I believe, from the fact that, through his characters with their disintegrated selves and torturous relationships and even through the fragmentary structure of his drama itself, Shepard has succeeded in representing the predominant forms in which the psychopathology of our time, as opposed to Freud's, finds its characteristic expression.

In his popular biography of Shepard, Don Shewey draws attention to the collaborative nature of this film. Wenders had been wanting to work with Shepard for some time and felt that the latter's Motel Chronicles could serve as the basis for a film, but instead of adapting this work, they decided to start the story from scratch and worked together on the screenplay: “Although the script was complete before Shepard left … Wenders started changing it almost as soon as shooting began. He brought in screenwriter Kit Carson to help with daily re-writing. … Toward the end Shepard started phoning in … with new scenes, including the crucial last scenes of the movie” (Shewey 182).

This type of collective production, which is rather the rule than the exception in film-making, causes difficulty for those who would apply to the analysis of film one of the major strategies of psychoanalytic literary criticism, namely the psychobiographic method of viewing the creative product as a reflection of its author's psyche, analogous to one of his dreams or symptoms, a view which justifies decoding the text in light of the author's personality, his typical conflicts, obsessions and the like. The trouble is that a film like Paris, Texas emanates from the interaction of several psyches (Shepard's, Wenders's and Carson's, among others) so that to see it exclusively in the context of Shepard's previous work or his personality is problematic. Despite these reservations, however, I think we can clearly detect in this film the major themes that have tended to characterize much of Shepard's work: the absent or defective father; the precarious, artificial, insubstantial and divided nature of the self; the problematic nature of language and communication; the obsessive exploration of symbiotic and sadomasochistically enmeshed relationships.

Like Shepard's play Fool for Love, Paris, Texas concerns a father who leaves. Around the time when he was working with Wenders on the film, Shepard also reestablished contact with his father through a visit to New Mexico that Shewey thinks probably formed the basis of a father-son encounter described in Motel Chronicles:

He was sitting hunched over in a Maple rocker with stained pillows strapped to the seat and back. He was just sitting there in a barren cement room. … He hadn't been visited in quite a while. On the floor beside him was a bottle of Dickel's Sour Mash in a brown bag, a white plastic plate overflowing with cigarette butts and a small cardboard box with newspaper sticking out the top of it. … The father reached down and picked up the small cardboard box. He began pulling objects out of it wrapped in newspaper and revealed a black and white plastic horse with a rubber saddle. He handed it to his son. The father kept unwrapping more objects. A silver belt buckle with a star and the words State of Texas running around the star in a circle, a small green ceramic frog with somebody's initials carved into the bottom, a black rock from the High Desert. The son kept collecting all the objects in his lap and wished he'd brought something for the old man. He took off his straw Resistol cowboy hat, reached over and placed it on his father's head. It fit perfect.


In Motel Chronicles, Shepard wrote: “My dad lives alone on the desert. He says he doesn't fit with people” (56). In Paris, Texas, Travis says: “I am looking for the father … just a father. Any father … I just need one” (45). According to Shewey:

His father's death was devastating to Shepard. After fighting with the old man all through adolescence and keeping his distance throughout much of his adult life, he was just beginning to make peace with his father, to care for him as a person, to recognize in his father many aspects of himself. Especially now that he had an adolescent son of his own, especially now that he had left his son's mother to go live on the edge of the desert with another woman, Shepard found himself becoming his father in ways he'd never dreamed of, and he felt a new compassion for this wizened, helpless old man he'd judged so harshly for so long. And now he was gone.


The theme of father-son reunion between Travis and Hunter in Paris, Texas would appear to echo these preoccupations of Shepard's, especially the scenes in which an emotionally wounded man struggles to assume the paternal role for his son, and those in which, in a reversal of roles, the son performs the paternal function for his drunken or disoriented father. Such themes are reminiscent of Marcuse's notion that the decline of paternal authority is at the root of the contemporary problem of identity, as well as of Lacan's idea that the paternal function performed by the symbolic father (the father) is essential to the formation of social identity and that the failure of this function leaves the subject enmeshed in a narcissistic state of fusional identification with the mother and with mirror images of the self.

The theme of the absent or defective father in Shepard's plays is closely associated with another of his major preoccupations: the elusive, shifting, contradictory and fabricated nature of personal identity.

Shepard was born on 5 November 1943, while his father was with the U.S. Army in Italy. Named Samuel Shepard Rogers III, he was called Steve. In Motel Chronicles Shepard wrote:

My name came down through seven generations of men with the same name each naming the first son the same name as the father then the mothers nicknaming the sons so as not to confuse them with the fathers when hearing their names called in the open air while working side by side in the waist-high wheat. The sons came to believe their names were the nicknames they heard floating across these fields and answered to these names building ideas of who they were around the sound never dreaming their real legal name was lying in wait for them written on some paper in Chicago and that name was the name they'd prefix with “Mr.” and that name would be the name they'd die with.


But not Shepard. Having spent the first years of his life with his father absent, and after his return enduring a stormy relationship with him, Steve Rogers would later abandon the Name-of-the-Father (which, in Lacanian theory, as le-nom-du-pere is homophonic with le-non-du-pere, the No—i.e., the Law—of the father). Shewey quotes from an interview with Shepard: “I always thought Rogers was a corny name. … But Samuel Shepard Rogers was kind of a long handle. So, I just dropped the Rogers part of it. That had gone on for generations, that name, seven generations of it. It kind of shocked my grandparents more than anybody, I think, 'cause they kind of hoped I would carry it on. Then I called my kid Jesse, so that blew it entirely. Now in a way I kind of regret it. But it was, you know, one of those reactions to your background” (30-31). To the extent that the name we derive from our fathers (in our patriarchal and patrilineal culture) is central to personal identity, Shepard's rejection of the paternal name offers, beyond its obvious oedipal significance, a clue to his preoccupation with the elusive nature of personal identity.

“In Shepard's early plays,” writes Shewey, “the characters change a lot, play different roles … and go through different moods. …” It has been suggested that from the Open Theatre, Shepard picked up the technique of “transformations” in which actors were asked to switch immediately to a new scene and therefore to wholly new characters. However, “Shepard carried the idea of transformations much farther … by actually writing them into his texts … [so that] characters became wholly different in abrupt movements within the course of the work …” (51). Shewey reports that in the 60s in New York, “Some found it disturbing the way Shepard could switch personalities from one moment to the next, and in fact he frequently popped tablets of niacin, a vitamin used to treat schizophrenics, saying ‘This is my together drug’” (38). Regarding his play True West, Shewey quotes Shepard as follows: “I wanted to write a play about double nature … one that wouldn't be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It's a real thing, double nature. I think we're split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It's not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It's something we've got to live with.” (141)

Perhaps of all Shepard's works, Paris, Texas most explicitly and dramatically represents the problem of identity. Initially without language, memory or a name, in the course of the film Travis recovers each of these, but in a way that dramatizes Shepard's sense of the artificial and socially constructed nature of human identity—the father, for example, being an image one takes from a magazine and a role one assumes before a mirror, coached in its proper performance by others, a matter of costume and bearing, a persona that, at the end of the film, Travis may be in the process of discarding as, I at least imagine, he heads back to the desert.

Both in his conviction regarding our “double-nature” or intrinsic two-sidedness and in his view of identity as a range of artificially and socially fabricated images, Shepard is in agreement with Lacan who viewed the split between the “subject” and the “ego” as an inevitable feature of the “decentred self,” the “ego,” or “specular image” itself being regarded as a product of the subject's misidentification with its mirror-image and the images of others in “the mirror stage” (1-7). From the standpoint of psychoanalytic object-relations theory and self psychology, however, the divided or contradictory quality of the self, as well as the sense of its imaginary, artificial or fabricated nature, would be seen as symptomatic of schizoid or self pathology. Although at times Lacan's “ego” and “subject” appear to resemble Winnicott's “false self” and “true self” respectively, whereas Winnicott regarded the splitting of the psyche entailed in false-self development as a sign of psychopathology (at least when it went beyond the necessary evolution of a socially functional persona), Lacan universalizes this splitting as an inevitable feature of the human condition. And while Lacan regarded mirroring as central to the development of the “ego” (Winnicott's “false self”), Kohut, like his British precursors Suttie, Fairbairn, Balint and Winnicott, drew attention to the importance of empathic mirroring and recognition by its significant others for the child's development of its “true self,” just as they emphasized the splitting and fragmentation that result from significant empathic failure on the part of the early selfobjects.

The debate between those, in object-relations theory and self psychology, who regard the divided self as a manifestation of schizoid pathology relative to particular environmental failures and those, like Lacan (and Shepard himself), who regard our “double-nature” as a universal feature of our “broken” human condition, is a reflection in psychoanalytic theory of the wider philosophical disagreement between historical or sociological as opposed to ontological theories of the sources of human suffering and evil. Traditionally, those psychoanalysts, like Freud and Melanie Klein, who have opted for the ontological side of this debate (while admitting that the universal flaw is exacerbated by unfavorable environmental conditions) have done so on the basis of a questionable biological reductionism that finds the root of the corruption in human nature in somatically-based, anti-social instinctual drives of sex and aggression or Eros and Thanatos. In so doing, they diverge in a fundamentally gnostic or Manichean direction from the Judeo-Christian understanding of our “fallen” nature as arising not from the drives of our bodies which, as a part of the Creation, are good, but rather from our uniquely human capacity for self-centeredness—that is, from what in psychoanalysis is regarded as our narcissism. In the biblical view, the problem of human nature arises not in connection with our animal selves (the Freudian “id”), but rather from what Lacan called the specular “ego” or self-image which forms the basis of an idolatry of the self which estranges us from the Other. In bringing the psychoanalytic understanding of the human predicament into congruence with the biblical critique of the “original sin” of pride, Lacanian theory can meaningfully be read as the Catholicization of psychoanalysis in the process of its belated assimilation into the French intellectual milieu.

Aside from his personal decision to change his name, Shepard's drama also reflects his sense of the artificiality and inauthenticity of words. Shewey observes that Shepard speaks of language as “a veil hiding demons and angels which the characters are always out of touch with” (14). Especially in his early works, Shepard seems to struggle to find a direct, spontaneous and authentic mode of speech capable of capturing the immediacy of experience without falsifying it. This suspicion of words and language was characteristic of the antinomianism of the youth culture of the 1960s which shaped Shepard's sensibility; it was expressed in longings to break through the screen of language and of the personal selfhood constructed by it in order to reach some deeper and more authentic self somehow existing in a state of unity or harmony with the whole of nature. This suspicion of language went hand in hand with the longing to shed a separate identity in favor of ecstatic fusional experiences sought through meditation, drugs, orgiastic sex or frank psychosis. From a Lacanian perspective, such longings would be seen as symptomatic of a failure of oedipalization and a consequent narcissistic regression from the Symbolic to the preverbal or Imaginary level of experience. From the perspective of contemporary selfobject theory, however, such wishes would seem rather to be distorted expressions of the desperate hunger of a disordered and fragmenting self for recognition, holding and mirroring by an empathically responsive and harmoniously attuned selfobject.

In Lacanian theory, it is precisely through the child's entry into the Symbolic order, through the learning of language and the internalization of the Name-of-the-Father as the medium of the patriarchal law against incest, that the subject is liberated through the oedipalization process from its illusory fusion with its mirror-image and the images of others, as well as from the binary oppositions, envy and sado-masochism which characterize experience in the Imaginary. Hence, it is only to be expected that a preoccupation with fatherlessness, the elusiveness of personal identity, and fixation upon symbiotic relationships, would be accompanied by a sense of the problematic nature of language and communication. For Lacan, these themes reflect different elements of a single psychic complex in that the failure of oedipalization—that is, the failure to internalize the Name-of-the-Father—is at the same time a failure of symbolization resulting in the subject's inability to transcend both the identity confusion characteristic of the Imaginary ego and the extremities of the all-or-nothing thinking which underlies the symbiotic and sado-masochistically enmeshed relationship.

In his later work, Shepard's focus appears to shift from the problem of the domination of experience by language to “the very difficulty of finding a language of social communication and a means to express feeling” (Shewey 98). The problem now is not that language obscures communication, but rather that communication is distorted or blocked due to the absence of a common language. In A Lie of the Mind, for example, one of the central characters is aphasic, having suffered brain damage as a result of a beating by her husband, and she struggles, very like Travis, to remember the words for things and to make herself understood. People misunderstand and talk over, around or past one another. Whereas in Paris, Texas communication is at one remove, distanced by technological devices like telephones, tape recorders, walkie-talkies, intercoms and one-way mirrors, or interfered with by verbal ambiguity of various types (Paris, France or Paris, Texas?), in A Lie of the Mind the message often fails to get through altogether.

In play after play, Shepard returns to the theme of the symbiotic and sado-masochistically enmeshed relationship, the couple who can neither live with nor without one another, whose relationship embodies the need/fear dilemma or approach/avoidance conflict characteristic of the disordered self. In such “borderline” personalities, painful states of inner isolation, disintegration and emptiness drive the subject into a binding attachment to another who, as an archaic selfobject, supports its fragmenting self. Paradoxically, however, even while sustaining the self on the one hand, sooner or later (if not from the outset) this selfobject comes, on the other hand, to be experienced (due to transference distortion or actual repetition) as a representative of the original bad or persecutory object and, hence, appears to threaten re-traumatization and self-annihilation. Threatened with the fragmentation of the self—either through the absence of response or through the presence of the wrong responses—and being unable, owing to the repetition compulsion, to obtain the essential empathic attunement—or even, often enough, to recognize or make use of it when it is available—the disordered self is truly caught in a double-bind. Either the good (selfobject) is unavailable, or being available inevitably turns out to be bad: in no case, short of successful therapy, is a good self-selfobject relationship attainable.

Perhaps this pattern is most clearly delineated in Fool for Love where the incestuous pair seem fated endlessly to repeat their pattern of reunion and explosive separation, their pathological version of the Fort! Da! game of disappearance and return that Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, reported having observed in his little grandson, a version of the early Peek-a-Boo game enjoyed by mothers and their infants. Here, however, rather than a game lovingly and voluntarily engaged in, we witness a violent and compulsive repetition. On the one hand, Shepard's text supports a Lacanian reading: it is the repeated abandonment of both children and their mothers by the Old Man (that is, the failure of the paternal function) that appears to lie at the root of their incestuous entanglement. On the other hand, current self and object-relations theory would suggest that this failure on the part of the father (Kohut's “idealized selfobject”) is insufficient to account for this level of psychopathology and would tend to view the paternal failure as exacerbating or failing to compensate for an earlier narcissistic injury in the relationship with the mother (the “mirroring selfobject”). In this perspective, a fundamental failure to internalize an empathically attuned and responsive primary caretaker as the basis for both secure attachment and a cohesive and positive sense of self has led to a hostile, sado-masochistic dependency upon external objects as sustainers of identity and self-esteem. Such objects are needed far too much to be genuinely loved, and because, in the transference repetition, they inevitably come to represent the original bad objects, they must be perpetually destroyed and then, in the face of intolerable separation and annihilation anxiety, brought to life again.

This pattern of hostile dependency is clearly evident in Paris, Texas in the symbiotic or archaic self-selfobject relationship between Travis and Jane. At the outset, Travis, the archetypal borderline personality, wanders out of the desert, the land “without language or streets” (92), into a border town called Terlingua, the land of language, where, after asking him if he knows which side of the border he is on, a doctor searches in vain for any clue to his name or identity. In the course of the film, Travis experiences a type of resurrection, rebirth or resocialization, a re-entry into the Symbolic order after an existential or psychic catastrophe, a sort of crucifixion, has led to a profound regression to a preverbal level of experience tantamount to a kind of psychological or spiritual death. In accordance with Lacanian theory (and for that matter with Kohutian theory as well)—and at this point one begins to suspect that Wenders, if not Shepard, has been consciously influenced by Lacan—the initial phase of the development of identity involves the process of mirroring. It is his encounter with his mirror image in the bathroom of the first motel that sends Travis back into the desert, as if this reminder of the problem and burden of identity is simply too much for him to bear. Throughout the film, there is repetitive recourse to mirror images and images of mirrors: the mirror in the bathroom of the first motel; the one in the second motel room; the recurrent shots of Walt and Travis in the rear-view mirror of the car; the mirror held up to Walt, Anne, Travis and Hunter by the film within the film; the mirror before which Travis rehearses the father role; the one-way mirrors in the Keyhole Club; the mirrors constituted by the windows in the Meridien Hotel which mirror Hunter and Jane even as they mirror one another.

Once again, in keeping with Lacanian theory, Travis's reintegration into the Symbolic order involves the gradual relinquishment of his mutism and his initial use of words. Significantly, and in keeping with semiotic theories as well as with the nature of psychotic speech disturbances, Travis is fascinated by verbal ambiguity, puns and double meanings. Echoing his father's joke, Travis speaks of Paris and is amused by Walt's misunderstanding. There is further miscommunication regarding whether Travis had purchased a photograph of an empty lot or the land itself. While both enjoying and being frustrated by the polysemy of language, Travis is unable to accept that automobiles, like verbal signifiers, are substitutable for one another: as far as he is concerned, the car, like Winnicott's “transitional object,” is unique and non-transferable: “We need the same car, Walt. How are we going to go in another car?” (24).

Whereas the automobile is a transitional object, the shoes and boots Travis collects, shines and arranges one morning, seem to have a phallic significance evident both in Travis's comparison of the size of his boots with Walt's, who at this moment represents more of a father than a younger brother, and in his desire to switch boots with him, representing the son's desire to fill his father's shoes, so to speak. At this point in the film, there is a redistribution of roles. Hunter now represents the son in an idealizing relation to Travis who struggles to represent a suitable father figure and an appropriate paternal ego-ideal. Travis's initial overture toward his son is rejected. This setback necessitates that he study up on the father role by looking in a magazine (that cultural reservoir) for suitable paternal imagery. In keeping with the Lacanian theory of le-nom-du-pere, or the paternal metaphor, it is evident that in order for a son to be successfully oedipalized a viable father-image, a symbolic father, must be internalized. Travis's own vulnerability to narcissistic regression might suggest, to a Lacanian at least, a relative failure of the oedipalization process in his case.

Travis rehearses the father role before a mirror. The maid informs him that there are only two kinds of fathers, rich ones and poor ones—that is, phallic fathers and castrated ones, those capable of performing the paternal function for their sons and those who are not. And what is the paternal function? Again, in keeping with Lacanian theory (179-255), the film makes clear that the (symbolic) father's mission is to break into and disrupt the symbiotic connection between mother and child. Anne senses this and reproaches Walt for encouraging “this father-and-son business between them,” but in keeping with Shepard's valorization of biological paternity, Walt argues in favor of the inviolability of the natural tie between father and son: “It's no business! Travis IS his father! And Hunter IS his son!” (51). Anne's worst fears are soon realized. Having succeeded in attracting Hunter into a mirroring and idealizing relationship with him (witness their mutual imitation and mimicry on the walk home from school), and having introduced him to his patrilineage through the medium of the photograph album, Travis takes Hunter on a quest for his biological mother. In a scene heavy with symbolism, Travis has Hunter telephone Anne and when the message has been delivered instructs him to “Just … hang up!” on her (63; Shepard's ellipses), which he does, figuratively breaking the psychological umbilical cord connecting him to one mother, even as they set out to reestablish the link to another.

On the one hand, the film's depiction of the father's disruption of the mother-child symbiosis is congruent with the Lacanian theory of psychosis as arising from a failure of this (oedipalization) process and a consequent “foreclosure” (179-225) of the gap normally opened up between subject and object by the primal “castration” inscribed in the Name-of-the-Father. In addition, such themes as that of the quest to reestablish the connection between Hunter and Jane, Travis's intense archaic selfobject transference wishes, and his reminiscences of and displaced longings for his mother, are congruent with the Lacanian idea that the failure of oedipalization results in fixation upon the narcissistic quest to be the “phallus” for the mother—that is, to be the object of her desire, that which satisfies her “lack.” On the other hand, contra Lacan, theorists working within a self and object-relations framework would tend to view such intense narcissistic longings, whether directed toward the father or the mother, as symptoms, not of any failure of differentiation per se (that is, failure of the paternal function), but rather of an inability to consolidate a separate self due to insufficient phase-appropriate empathic responsiveness on the part of the early mirroring and idealized selfobjects.

According to Kohut, the very intensity of the need for a paternal identification may be a symptom of the child's earlier failure to consolidate a cohesive self through empathic mirroring by the mother. In turning to an idealizing relationship with the father, the child may not primarily be attempting to escape what Lacan views as a universal, pre-oedipal narcissistic enmeshment with the mother but, rather, seeking to remedy the defects in the self arising from maternal selfobject failure. In seeming to suggest that the psychological basis of the relational difficulties of characters such as Travis and Jane lies in a failure in the area of self and object constancy, the film conveys an understanding of the borderline dilemma that, I believe, is superior to Lacan's; for the need/fear conflict arises as much from a failure to establish a confident inner sense of ongoing human connection as from any “foreclosure” of differentiation or separation—that is, from any lack of an inner sense of “lack.”

In actuality, the profound longings for and rage toward the mother which characterize both borderline and narcissistic personalities (the latter merely employing a manic or grandiose defence against identical deficits and conflicts) do not simply reflect the normal pre-oedipal child's desire to be the object of the mother's desire, only pathologically retained due to failure of the paternal function. On the contrary, such longings represent the pathological intensification of the normal desire for “merger” or selfobject responsiveness arising precisely from the failure to establish in childhood the necessary confidence that one was, in fact, the “apple of the mother's eye.”

Indications of a profound fixation on the mother are prevalent in the film. The theme of the quest for identity as a quest for one's origin, which is ultimately a quest for the mother, is clearly evident, supplementing the theme of identification with the father. Having been permitted to drive while Walt sleeps on their return home through the desert, Travis turns off the main highway, apparently in search of Paris, Texas (“where I began. Me, Travis Clay Henderson. They named me that” [30]); for Paris is where he was told his parents first made love and where, he supposes, he might have been conceived and, therefore, where he might somehow refind and reinscribe himself in the Symbolic order, the land of language and streets.

Yet again, in keeping with the idea of the family romance as a search for one's true identity through the discovery of one's authentic origins, Travis and Hunter set out in search of Jane, Hunter's mother, who at the same time symbolically represents that of Travis as well. Just prior to taking Hunter in quest of the mother, Travis is seen standing on a scaffold adjacent to one of Walt's billboards depicting a reclining female figure with the mid-section missing creating a gap where the womb should be. Travis, whose middle name is Clay, is afraid to leave the ground, Mother Earth, in an airplane—just as, according to Shewey (13), Shepard is afraid of flying. As they drive toward Houston, the point from which man is launched away from earth into space, Hunter (who is hunting for his mother) lectures his father over a walkie-talkie from the back of their pick-up truck about the arcane mysteries of the origins of the universe. In the final scene at the Meridien Hotel, as Hunter and Jane recapitulate the oceanic scene of joyous dancing by the sea in the home movie, their similarity in appearance, coloring and dress makes them seem almost indistinguishable. It would seem that Travis has succeeded in reestablishing a blissful mother-child reunion mirroring that earlier scene of harmony which turns out to have been Imaginary. However, even as the film now portrays an ecstatic reunion, it simultaneously depicts its opposite: the exclusion and isolation of Travis as he drives into the night alone.

While I think it would be a mistake to view this mother-fixation in predominantly oedipal terms, certain classically oedipal themes are clearly evident in the film. For example, echoing the Freudian concept of the family romance, Hunter discovers that Walt and Anne are merely surrogate parents and, having reunited with his actual father, together they embark on a quest for the mother. They finally locate her in a quasi-brothel where she is initially confused with Nurse Bibs (a pregenital mother imago?) and where her sexual morality is, to say the least, in question: is she a madonna or a whore? Travis's oedipally-tinged anxieties regarding Jane's fidelity echo his father's jealous delusions regarding his wife who, despite her shyness, he accused of being “a fancy woman.” Yet while the father only joked about marrying a woman from Paris, his son Walt enacts the fantasy: his French wife Anne is thus a transference representation of the mother. Far from suggesting that these oedipal themes outweigh narcissistic issues of identity or the self, I would argue that the former are themselves manifestations of the latter; the pseudo-sexual longing for instinctual gratification from the mother is frequently, if not always, profoundly infiltrated by a more fundamental longing for recognition, harmony, holding and empathic mirroring by the maternal selfobject.

Compounding the conflict reflected in the film regarding the paternal versus the maternal bond is a wider ambivalence regarding the respective value of apparently normalized or oedipalized relationships, such as that of Walt and Anne, as opposed to regressive, sado-masochistic bonds such as that which unites Travis and Jane. On one hand, in contrast to the biological parents, Walt and Anne are represented as realistic, protective and responsible caretakers; yet their marriage is depicted as both conventional and literally barren, tenuously held together as a triangle by the presence of Hunter as a third. On the other hand, the arrival of Hunter as the third who disrupts the dual union of Travis and Jane only adds to the latter's sense of entrapment and intensifies her need for escape. And what Travis and Jane possess in the way of intensity of involvement is offset by their irresponsibility and incapacity for realistic and mature modes of relatedness.

If any third alternative is represented in the film, it is only that of the nothingness of the land of no return, the void or gap allegedly existing at the center of being or of the self, figuratively represented by the desert from which Travis emerges at the outset and of which he and we are reminded by the psychotic on the freeway overpass who shouts his prophetic warnings to the socially adjusted passers-by who have, at least temporarily, managed to deny it. Whether ultimate reality truly amounts to a void (a “devil's graveyard”), or rather a plenitude mistaken for a void, or even in some mysterious way both plenitude and void, or something transcending these binary categories altogether—these are questions we may certainly wish to raise in response to Shepard's essentially nihilistic vision. In the world of Paris, Texas, however, the only alternatives to the nothingness of the desert or of space are, on the one hand, a socially adjusted but devitalized life characterized by what Joyce McDougall has called “pathological normalcy” (463-86) and, on the other, one of intense but destructive relationships lived on the margins of both society and sanity. Either one relates to no object at all; or one engages in conventional, but somewhat superficial and dispassionate object relations; or one experiences passionate but narcissistic and sado-masochistic pseudo-relations with bad objects. In no case is there an authentically good self-selfobject relationship.

On the social-historical plane, Buber observed that in epochs of homelessness in which the social order fails to function as a psychic container for its members, they are torn by a range of apparently insoluble existential conflicts and dilemmas (subject/object, mind/body, good/evil, masculine/feminine, etc). Likewise, the experience of the subject estranged from the empathic responsiveness of its selfobject milieu (interpersonal, communal and metaphysical) is fragmented or split into a range of opposing psychic and emotional states and enmeshed in a paralysing ambivalence. Perhaps the historical and ontological understandings of human suffering can be reconciled after all. If salvation from the crucifying contradictions of our nature requires a kind of containment or holding of the self by others (or by the Other)—a healing response through which we may be resurrected from deadening conflict to creative life—it is also true that such grace appears to be mediated by historically situated social institutions and conditions. If we are largely dependent upon the containing or selfobject function of the social surround for access to the “safety zone”—the middle ground or “transitional area,” the “area of faith” or “field of Being” that exists between, beneath or beyond the polar opposites—then it is the significant failure of this function in contemporary culture that gives rise to the dilemmas of the fragmented self in a society in which the development of a cohesive personal identity and stable interpersonal relationships has become increasingly problematic.1


  1. Earlier versions of this essay, co-winner of the 1992 Miguel Prados Essay Prize of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society, were presented at meetings of the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society and the Canadian Psychiatric Association. I wish to thank the many colleagues whose comments have informed its revision.

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Robert B. Heilman (essay date fall 1992)

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SOURCE: Heilman, Robert B. “Shepard's Plays: Stylistic and Thematic Ties.” Sewanee Review 100, no. 4 (fall 1992): 630-44.

[In the following essay, Heilman provides a thematic overview of Shepard's plays, highlighting his literary style in each play.]

Any playwright with such a highly individualized manner as flashes out at us in the plays of Sam Shepard is likely to be called unique. There is of course no need to deny the uniqueness of Shepard's work. Even in his life, one can observe some shadow or flavor of uniqueness, or unusualness, or elected difference. Born Samuel Shepard Rogers, Jr., in 1943, he chose to be Sam Shepard. He began writing one-act plays, and having them produced, when he was twenty. By 1967, when he was twenty-four, he did his first full-length play, La Turista, and from then on he kept turning out numerous one-act-ers and full-length plays at the rate of almost one a year. In early years he went to a junior college, worked at a race track, and was drummer in a touring rock-pop band. One could imagine his turning toward the life of a professional outsider in the Kerouac manner.

Yet the overall Shepard career is hardly unique. It follows the lines of an American success story that is almost trite. He starts modestly and then makes it big in the manner of an American folk hero. The early career is small plays, small audiences, small off-off-Broadway productions. Then the later career is all success by the usual standards—production all over the country, wide critical discussion, and, when Shepard is thirty-five, the Pulitzer prize for Buried Child (1978). He is Dickensian in productivity (the only rival to Joyce Carol Oates, five years his senior), and in having energy for diverse activities—writing songs (words and music) for some plays, acting, making movies. And the once race-track handyman would later raise Appaloosa horses on a California ranch.

Again, if the plays often strike us as hallucinatory—discontinuous in action, mysterious in motivation, bizarre in humanity, incontinently dashing from puzzling shock to shocking puzzle, preferring madness to cliché—there are recurrences that suggest, if not positive coherence and even system, at least a recognizable sense of scene, movement, and human style. Since Shepard's career follows the design of the American success story, it is interesting that the materia dramatica often seem to critics to be quintessentially American. Of course Shepard does not use European or Asian or South American scenes, but American playwrights rarely do. Perhaps the idea is that he seldom uses metropolitan or cosmopolitan scenes. (The action of Angel City [1976] takes place in Hollywood, and of True West [1979] in a Los Angeles suburb; these are infrequent uses of an urban milieu.) He does not often use well-to-do, professional, or “successful” individuals as characters. What “American” apparently comes down to, then, is mostly rural scenes and characters who can be described variously as common people—marginal, dispossessed, wandering, lower middle class, and so on. The scenes are set repeatedly in the Southwest, Mexico, the desert, Louisiana bayou country, the beach. Shepard occasionally shows an interest in cowboy types, western singers, rock-and-roll musicians (he uses their kind of song in several plays; for the songs in one play he wrote both music and words), would-be writers, Indians, football players, farmers, racketeers. Often he specifies that a character is to wear blue jeans. He devotes one whole play to a phantasmagoria of hopes and yearnings in American events and characters that are now almost mythical: the Gold Rush, buried treasure, Paul Bunyan, Jesse James, Mae West, Marlena (Mad Dog Blues, 1979, an Americans-only version of Tennessee Williams's Camino Real). He can base a play on a common ailment of American travelers (La Turista) and include a madly fantastic satire of doctors, who appear as medicine men (or witch doctors) and as pretentious phonies.

Shepard is often described as a self-conscious critic of the American life that appears in his plays. It is a possible reading, but I am not sure that it gets to the heart of things. Shepard is too original to be simply another censorious observer of a highly organized, institutionalized, technological, commercialized credit-economy life. Such matters may appear, but they do not seem primary. When he deals with a rich old man, Henry Hackamore, in Seduced (1979)—a recluse who makes us think of Howard Hughes—Shepard presents him not only as a miserable medley of paranoia and delusions of power, but also as the possessor of a kind of mysterious hold on people. Shepard does not fall into the obvious romantic alternative of glorifying the primitive: while he may see in it an unsophisticated close-to-nature kind of goodness (as in the Indians in Operation Sidewinder [1970], and the cowboy rescuers in Geography of a Horse Dreamer [1974]; he can also see in it a superstitiousness and a capacity for bestial violence [Back Bog Beast Bait, 1971]). One doesn't have to be rich to be wretched: misery of one kind or another is widespread in Shepard's cast of characters. If one looks at them sociologically, one can find plenty or evidence of a malaise often ascribed to American life: noncommunication, isolation, alienation. Action (1975) parodies a Christmas dinner: four participants seem to live wholly in private lives, talking to but almost unaware of each other. In various plays, including Rock Garden (1964) and Buried Child (1978), the characters sometimes talk at cross purposes, or as if no one else were there, or as if they did not hear or could not make sense of what others say. Such separateness may lead to total withdrawal or to hostility, and hence to the family infighting that is one staple of Shepard drama (and one that I will return to later). In this dramatic material Shepard gives a special flavor to a theme that Arthur Miller has dealt with in several plays beginning in 1949, and that two other playwrights had used brilliantly just a year or two before Shepard's first one-act-ers: Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (1962) and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) and The American Dream (1961). Many critics have, as it were, picked up Albee's title—The American Dream—to denote what they believe Shepard is poking full of holes. Maybe he is, but it is doubtful that this is a primary or principal objective of his, or even a side effect of his theatrical style.

For one thing various aspects of his plays, as other critics have noted, suggest affiliations that lie outside the narrow arena of national debunking. More than once what Shepard does reminds us of European writing. For instance Operation Sidewinder (1970), a fantasy in the sci-fi style, has resemblances to R.U.R. (1920) by Karel Capek, a Czech. In Capek's play, robots manufactured by men acquire “souls”; in Operation Sidewinder a new master computer in the form of a snake seems to be in tune with cosmic rhythms or transcendental forces, and thus can serve in a Hopi Indian snake ritual presaging a new vitality of nature immune to the hostility of organized society. The Indian as a natural being with special powers is a D. H. Lawrence conception. Likewise Lawrence is brought to mind by Shepard's Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974), a play about the artist exploited by commercial interests, for Shepard's central situation is almost identical with that in Lawrence's short story, “The Rocking-Horse Winner”: a character with a special intuition or extrasensory perception or clairvoyance can “see” which horses will win races, and so he is mercilessly or even destructively victimized by gamblers. The interpolation of songs, which Shepard uses in several plays, is a technique made familiar by Bertolt Brecht. While Shepard is justly credited with an unusual ear for speech rhythms, his frequent reliance on an apparently characterless dialogue that is made striking by flatness and repetitiousness is remarkably like that of Pinter and Beckett (Waiting for Godot). Like these two playwrights Shepard uses such dialogue as the unlikely context for extraordinary, puzzling, apparently nonrational events, a combination that also reminds some readers of the fiction of Franz Kafka. The use of a familiar everyday scene in which there is an air, occasional or persistent, of the ominous or sinister, is standard Pinter; such a scene as the background for flamboyantly out-of-the-ordinary actions is written in the manner of Jean Genet. It makes sense to think of Buried Child as T. S. Eliot's Family Reunion (1939) filtered through Pinter's The Homecoming (1965). The pattern is that of a son or grandson (one with a wife, one with a girlfriend) returning to a home where all is not serene, where past or present mysteries seize our attention, where a parent dies, and where one of the newcomers departs for a different life. In Cowboy Mouth (1971) characters quote W. B. Yeats and various innovative, antitraditional French poets, notably Gerard de Nerval (1808-55), a wandering, highly productive, periodically insane poet and prose writer who often wrote in a striking nonrealistic, even grotesque vein, re-creating fantasies and visions. Thus de Nerval—and a little later Jarry—was a precursor of such movements and fashions as surrealism, expressionism, dadaism, and automatic or hallucinatory writing. The simplest over-all term for this long succession of radical antirational modes is symbolism. Though Shepard does not like this term and its synonyms, it serves very well to describe what he does in many plays. At times he uses a realistic style (characters talk and act in ways that come logically out of personalities and situations), and at times a symbolic style (actions and events seem to have their source elsewhere than in the “normal” probabilities of character and situation, and we have to go outside our expectations in order to get their drift).


We can sense a connection between this effect and the writing process as Shepard describes it. For him, he insists, writing is an “unending mystery,” based not on “ideas,” but on an “inner visualizing,” a “picture … moving in the mind and being allowed to move more and more freely as you follow it.” He feels as if “something in me writes but it's not necessarily me.” The result is an “open-ended structure where anything could happen,” not a “carefully planned and regurgitated event.” Behind this lies “the real quest of a writer,” which is “to penetrate into another world.” Thus we get, so to speak, a familiar “this world” and “another world” that may be surprising or puzzling. “Ideas emerge from plays … not the other way around” (The Drama Review, 21 [1971]).

We need not take too seriously Shepard's claim that his work is not “carefully planned.” But it is probably right to think of him primarily as spontaneous producer of “pictures,” images or “visions” of people in action. He is fertile and energetic in his productivity. In Buried Child the products of his rich imagination are generally clear enough: there is a troubled family with a dark event in its past, a great deal of dissatisfaction and quarrelsomeness in its present, and a reliance on different consolations—liquor, religion, and a “security blanket” that several adults quarrel over. These are shown in various fresh and unusual ways, although the situation is realistic in its basic outlines and indeed in most of the details. Insofar as the technique is symbolic, the symbolic drift is often a byproduct or implication of basic facts that are plain enough. When one son is dead, another an amputee, and a third apparently brain-damaged, they represent both a defect in the family life and a defeat of the hopes that parents attach to the next generation: the atmosphere in this house “cripples” the children. This situation and its meaning could be the work of Eugene O'Neill (the former football player as retarded or permanently immature appears both in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and in this connection we think also of Jason Miller's That Championship Season). But other Shepard “visualizations” lead to a free-wheeling, usually startling, symbolism that lies outside the realistic: often we cannot make literal interpretations but have to let the symbols soak into our imagination and work as best they may. In Buried Child we can usually sense the drift of the nonrealistic symbols. Bradley's hair-clipping is a resentful man's style of attack and triumph; his putting his hand into Shelly's mouth a kind of triumph-by-rape. Everyone's failure or unwillingness to recognize Vince and to pay attention to Shelly suggests the self-enclosure of the others, their shut-off-ness from their kind, the elusiveness of identities. When Halie goes out to lunch dressed in black, and comes back a day later dressed in yellow, we can, if we want to, speculate about what happened literally; but the main point is that she has undergone a striking change of mood. Vince's mad “war games” when he returns belong to a battle of moods which ends in his decision to stay. Finally Shepard takes the worn-out figure of speech, “skeleton in the closet” (compare Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad), and revitalizes it as a literal skeleton in the back yard, and one that appears shockingly. But the point is not the detective-story surprise or the criminal charges that might follow in a literal account. Instead, the skeleton gives physical reality to a destructive family life, and at the same time, we assume, its being brought to light exorcises a dark past. (Here we remember a similar exorcism of the past—ironically the killing of a fantasy life—that may be conducive to peace in the present—the final scene of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.)


Symbols and myths are interconnected, as we know; one can think of myth as the extension of the symbolic element into a narrative structure in which the individualized tale reveals an archetypal pattern of experience. Shepard is drawn to myths, but, as we might expect, he pulls away from a feared triteness (in a sense his whole career is a campaign against triteness, though perhaps more instinctive than planned). By myth he means, he says, “a sense of mystery and not necessarily a traditional formula.” He constantly achieves the “sense of mystery” through characters' actions that conform, not to our everyday expectations, but to hidden forces of personality or to meanings that the personality illustrates, often quite obscurely. Still, while Shepard naturally backs away from the stereotype, his “not necessarily” allows him some leeway to explore traditional patterns of action that may stimulate him. At least we can find him elaborating plots in which appears, however disguised, a “traditional formula”—i.e., a style of action that embodies some constant of human behavior. In one play he actually reworks an ancient mythic theme that he reveals in his title, Icarus's Mother (1965). Icarus's mother is of course the earth. Shepard's Icarus is an airplane pilot, and he seems to some young picnickers—some of the time on the beach—to be interested in them. And they in him, apparently through the clandestine smoke signals sent up by several men, and more unmistakably by two girls who, having taken down their panties to urinate on the beach, make sexy gestures in his direction. His plane finally roars into the sea with a tremendous luminous explosion that outdoes the formal fireworks display expected by the young people. Since “fireworks going off all around” is a standard idiom for experiencing orgasm, we can understand that the pilot is entering, or reentering, the mother in a climactic death (we can't help remember the older meaning of dying as sexual climax). Thus the action alludes to the best-known Greek story of mother-son incest, a subject to which we will return.

The Icarus myth is latent in another death of a high flier, Henry Hackamore, in Seduced. Likewise there are traces of Everyman in Henry's hanging on to his riches, and their supposed power, at death's door. Shot dead but apparently immortal, Henry, as it were, flies untouchable in the skies, so strong an embodiment of popular aspirations that even his murderer helplessly surrenders to the vision. Here Icarus flies on, a symbol of man's dreams of going up in, and having power over, the world. Immortality is conferred by popular imagination.

If in Seduced it is people in general who exercise the creative imagination, the traditional possessors of that gift, the artists, draw Shepard's attention more than once. The myth of the artist is a recurrent theme of his. In Angel City the artist is overcome by Hollywood values. In Geography of a Horse Dreamer he is exploited by money-making agencies but rescued by cowboy brothers (an American embodiment of the classical deus ex machina) and taken to safety in Wyoming (another American myth: safety and purity in the big-sky country). The Tooth of Crime (1972) embodies a much deeper vision: a young artist, a popular singer, defeats an old established one in personal combat. Though this battle seems wholly contemporary (and could indeed dramatize Shepard's own fantasy of rising to the top of the world of popular music and drama), it is especially interesting because it actually employs an ancient mythical pattern. The archetypal version occurs in the introductory story of Frazer's Golden Bough: an older order, represented by a priest or ruler, is upset by a new, more vigorous one as the young aspirant fights and kills the old incumbent. The very form of the battle between Shepard's two singers—they conduct a verbal duel technically known as the flyting—goes back to the practice of ancient epics in all cultures. For this flyting Shepard invents a strikingly weird language which reminds us a little of the gang “slanguage” in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.

When he again takes up the problem of the artist four years later—in [Suicide in B-Flat] (1976)—Shepard turns to a more difficult problem than that of the struggle between rivals and generations: the integrity of the artist in the development of his own career, and in his relationship with a public and critics who are almost hostilely on his trail, trying to pin him down, come to grips with him, “detect” him, as it were. Shepard manages this theme with great originality. At the beginning he startlingly flings us into what looks like another version of the detective myth: Louis and Pablo, two detectives, are investigating the apparent death of a musician which may be a murder, a suicide, or a planned disappearance. Though they differ and even quarrel, they are full of the clichés of loyalty, justice, and a job to be stuck to until finished. Then, in a sort of play-within-the-play manner, the central figure Niles, the musician who may be killer or suicide or neither, is brought on to enact (as a sort of play for the temporarily blacked-out detective group) the prior events that led to the detectives' investigation. We see Niles, directed and aided by a young woman, undergoing several ritual “deaths” that signify his turning away from earlier phases of his career as a musician: the need to cut off the old, grow, try the new. The arrows that she shoots into him leave him unharmed but also strike and “kill” the detectives: the critics are done in by the changes that leave them unable to understand the changing and growing artist. But they recover and still seek to “arrest” him—i.e., stop and control him. The young woman—his “soul”?, his spirit of independence?—cries that he is in a “trap” and flees, and he is handcuffed to the detectives. This artist, we assume, is finally a “prisoner” of public and critics, or at least in some essential way not free of them. But this bald summary of the contents of the action hardly does justice to the extraordinarily original use of the detective myth in this new version of a recurrent theme of his—the myth of the artist.

Shepard is drawn both to a myth of decline and death and to the myth of recovery and survival. In La Turista and Angel City the movement is all downhill. In The Curse of the Starving Class (1977) the father is “reborn,” but apparently too late. As in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, to which Shepard's play has been compared, the farm is taken over by a new order, but Shepard's incoming regime is that of strange Pinteresque racketeers rather than that of a hard working, upward-bound ex-serf. When we find the note of ring out the old, ring in the new in Shepard, we are always aware of the ambiguity. The troubling, weird, and shocking events that are Shepard's staples prevent any triteness in images of recovery, and they may even obscure his sense of cycles in human experience, of a kind of regeneration that may follow decay, or a peace that may follow conflict or disaster. In Operation Sidewinder the Indian ritual suggests a drawing upon the forces of nature for an enduring order in contrast with our technological one. In Mad Dog Blues (1971) and The Unseen Hand (1970) various characters settle into an apparently satisfying ordinary existence, the former after fantastic trials in a no-man's land, the latter after rebellion against an Orwellian “Nogoland.”

Shepard's ability to imagine either downfall or rebirth appears very clearly in his attraction to the myth of the curse on the house. In this, as elsewhere, we see Shepard, for all of the exciting and disturbing uniqueness of his surfaces, drawn to recognizable themes with a long history: in the West the curse on the house appears, as we need hardly say, in the Greek myths of the House of Thebes and the House of Mycenae. In The Curse of the Starving Class the key word is in the title, and it occurs several times in the dialogue, once in reference to the sad state of the family. The physical messiness of the place is a dim reminder of Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which house means both family line and dwelling place. The skinning of the lamb is a parody of the crucifixion of the Lamb of God, but in this version of the myth of salvation, the death has no redemptive value, and the spiritual hunger is unsatisfied.

In The Buried Child the curse on the house is made concrete in the self-centeredness, in the various animosities, and especially in the distant murder that symbolize the human failure of the family. If the dead infant was, as one critic suggests, the product of an incestuous union, we have specific echoes of the Oedipus story: the same wrongdoing long ago, and the purgative effect of bringing it to light. A new spirit, however, appears to enter through a visitor from an outer world—a suggestion of another mythical pattern. Since the visitor is a member of the family, we tend to think of the return of the prodigal son. Over all these events there hangs Shepard's recurrent sense of the cyclical: the old order passes (the grandfather dies), and the new takes over. Perhaps Vince's future is an ironic illusion, but it is possible that the hope and promise are genuine. Surely regeneration is implied by the vegetable that Tilden brings in, by the new sunlight, and by the announcement that green goods are again growing like mad in the long-barren area. These events are of course symbolic rather than realistic: if we cannot explain them by literal cause and effect, we can understand them as signs of a new vitality and of available sustenance. The fertility myth may not completely possess Shepard's imagination, but it has a hold on it.


When we say “house,” we think of generational continuities, the influence of the past, the presence of forebears and their actions in the living. But if you can't have a house without a family, you can have a family without a house, that is, a domestic drama conceived only in terms of the present. In an early one-act play, Fourteen Hundred Thousand (1967), Shepard dealt with some limited husband-wife tensions. Then in the 70s there were two plays we have just looked at—The Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child: Shepard was, as it were, discovering a theme in which he found growing congeniality. For in the 80s three major plays are rooted in intense intrafamily conflicts and passions—True West (1980), A Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1986).

While one of these plays, True West, uses raw materials that are specifically American (the idea of the West and Hollywood's use of it), they are primarily addressing, not specifically regional or American matters, but an ancient universal theme—the modes of conflict between spouses, parents and children, and others in the realm of kinship. In this Shepard is being Aristotelian. Aristotle specifies that the best tragic plots are those that occur within families: “But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another—if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, or any other deed of the kind is done—those are the situations to be looked for by the poet” (Poetics, XIV, 4, trans. S. H. Butcher). We should not overlook the double significance of Shepard's choice of such materials. For one thing it underscores a Shepard direction easily overlooked: away from local color, regional themes and styles, and national problems and toward basic human realities that transcend geographical boundaries and present times. Further the surface uniqueness of Shepard's theatrical method—disconcerting shifts, psychic shocks, baffling symbolism, nonrealistic plunges, and characters like those of D. H. Lawrence, of whom it has been said that they represent not traditional portraits of identifiable whole personalities but novel outbursts of unpatternable instinctive passions and drives—should not blind us to the recognizable centrality of the human modes and interactions that are his true business. If his people are strange in visible behavior and audible speech, they are central in psychological reality. To put it another way, he avoids clichés, but he hits upon traditional patterns of human conduct (or, in other words, archetypes without stereotypes).

A Fool for Love (1983) does happen to involve two generations: a love in the second in some sense duplicates a love in the first, or carries it on in a new dimension. But the stress is on the present rather than on influence or recurrency (as in plays about the house). In the past a married man had a long affair with another woman. On a visit to the second household, he once took along a young son, who thus met the daughter of the other woman. Half-brother and half-sister fell in love then, and the main burden of the play is the dramatization of the intense and enduring feeling between them—a feeling that survives long absences by the man, his other affairs, and much jealous quarreling and recriminating and even physical blows when the pair are periodically together (for the meeting that provides the action of the play, the man claims to have driven 2840 miles). They could be a common-life Romeo and Juliet who, without external bafflements to face, have lived on into young adulthood. But the big difference is that the affair is technically incestuous or close to it. Shepard is not only working in a traditional domain of intense passion, but he successfully creates a sense of mysterious bonding that, though it is not explicitly defined, makes the stormy but apparently unbreakable relationship seem inevitable. Unlike John Ford in his 'Tis Pity She's a Whore Shepard is not setting up rival moralities and exploring an issue, and neither character is case-making. There is no theoretical issue at all. Shepard is simply dramatizing the powerful feelings that are the central determinants of two lives. In dealing with an ancient theme, Shepard once again finds a fresh and original staging: the ghost of the father is present throughout, occasionally making interpretative comments: and the inner human tempests are weirdly set off by flashing headlights from without the building, shots, broken glass, and other disturbing effects.

Oddly enough the Romeo-and-Juliet analogy that one thinks of vaguely in reading A Fool for Love is also suggested by A Lie of the Mind (1986), which centers on a young couple and hostile families. On each side, however, we also see the intrafamilial conflicts and animosities that give the play an exceptional complexity of plot. But the more fundamental Shakespeare analogy is with Othello: Jake unjustifiably jealous of Beth (the Cassio is Jake's innocent brother Frankie; there is no Iago), so badly beats Beth up that he thinks he has killed her. He does not know the truth, since both stay with their families in different communities, isolated in the sense that no one seems to think of ordinary communication (mythical wastelands, as it were, where vagueness of outer identity perhaps intensifies inner realities). Othello's primitive action leads to his death; Jake's to a morose, testy withdrawal that is close to moral or spiritual death. Beth recovers from the beating but seems a strange inhabitant of another world—her form of mental death. The fabric of the play is woven of three strands of action: the life in Jake's family, the life in Beth's family, and the interplay of these two households, side by side on the stage, but mysteriously distant in the reality represented. Each family exists in a mode of disorder generated by Jake's wife-battering—a cohesion without coherence as they stick together in constant indeterminate disharmonies. Jake, moody, edgy, combative, in effect a cripple/invalid, is quarreled over by his mother Lorraine and his sister Sally; they really compete for the role of nurse, caretaker, baby-sitter, and intimate. There is a strong suggestion of incestuous feeling, such as A Fool for Love centered in; and since one of the female rivals is the man's mother, we feel the presence of the Oedipus story. In the other family Beth's brother Mike is so tirelessly and violently vengeful against Jake that it is difficult not to sense an incestuous feeling for his sister. Again we have ancient patterns of human behavior in modern dress.

The action takes a new turn when Jake's younger brother Frankie, determined to find out the truth about Beth, sets out on a mythic action, the quest, and actually reaches Beth's family home. But he is accidentally shot in the leg by Beth's father Baylor, and he mysteriously becomes a permanent patient-inmate in Beth's house, untreated, the infected wound making him constantly weaker and sicker. Beth is attracted to him, but he resists valiantly and pleads the cause of her husband, whom Beth seems not to remember. Then Jake follows Frankie in the quest for Beth, finds the place, apparently worn out, is captured by Beth's brother Mike, and is so beaten up physically and mentally by Mike that he becomes virtually a beast on all fours. Mike lets him into the house only to give a Mike-dictated apology to Beth. She does not recognize him and turns again to ailing Frankie. Thus the life-in-death termini of jealous Othello and sweet Desdemona. And Beth's parents and Jake's mother and sister drift off into striking irrelevancies for which Shepard has an extraordinary flair. They are, as it were, checking out of the myth and perhaps achieving a peace, all passion spent.

The intrafamilial tensions that turn partly on semiunderground psychological attractions have one other manifestation. We have seen Jake's mother wanting virtually to move in with him as nurse and caretaker and thus to achieve an intimacy perhaps beyond her own understanding of it. The Oedipus outline is filled in a little more with a flashback in which Sally describes to her mother Lorraine the death of their husband-and-father down in Mexico years ago. Jake and his father had got into a mad relentless competition of drinking in bars and racing from one to another on public streets. The father had staggered, fallen, been run over by a truck, and killed. Sally says outright that her brother had “killed” her father. Since this happened on a public highway, we have a literal replay, with variations in detail, of the Oedipus-Laius confrontation in which Oedipus murdered Laius. And later Oedipus-Jake is desired by Jocasta-Lorraine. While portraying family strife, Shepard virtually reenacts a great myth of forbidden, but persisting, relationships.

We cannot help wondering whether A Lie of the Mind (where lie could mean both set and falsehood) is a more overt treatment of a theme that had been lingering in Shepard's imagination. In one action the later play reminds us of a much earlier one—The Holy Ghostly (1970)—in which a father and son meet in a desert. The son is supposed to be helping his father against ghosts, but they quarrel, in a manner a little reminiscent of Goneril/Regan against Lear. The son shoots the father, but the singular thing is that the father is already dead. It could be a soft-pedaled version of the patricide that occurs, albeit only in a later report, in A Lie of the Mind.


Though True West preceded A Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind, I deal with it last because it is very rich in traditional and mythic materials and uniquely combines these with some uproarious farcical effects. Shepard remarkably brings together the family theme, the myth of the artist that has attracted him periodically, and some rollicking fun.

The recurrent family theme takes a special form: the rivalry and antagonism of two brothers. Holed up temporarily in his mother's home in southern California, Austin is trying to complete a film script that has been tentatively accepted by a cliché-bound Hollywood mogul, Saul Kimmer. Austin's brother Lee drops in from his desert hangout and abrasively and contentiously asserts himself as a rival film-concocter, a connoisseur of the “true West.” He brazenly takes over Saul Kimmer, sells Saul his plot idea, and thus gets Austin's offering rejected. The pattern becomes clear: Shepard is doing the Cain-vs.-Abel myth, with Saul Kimmer as a wonderfully vulgar version of the God who evaluates the brothers' offerings. Things take an unbiblical turn when the brothers get drunk and trash their mother's house (she is a delightful ironic observer who, instead of going to pieces in the mélee, quietly opts for a motel). Shepard innovates by merging or at least alternating the Cain and Abel types. Lee's nasty truculence suggests Cain, and Austin's mild self-possession, Abel. But drink turns the apparently unflappable Austin into an agile aggressor; he wraps some telephone wire around Lee's neck and extorts various promises from him. Lee, the winner with God Saul, is not killed, but we do not know what will happen in the hostilities that appear to lie ahead. Nothing is prefabricated.

Shepard extraordinarily unites the Cain-Abel myth with his recurrent subject, the myth of the artist; and in this fourth treatment of it he really approaches it from three directions. There is some reminiscence of the Angel City formulation: the corruption of the artist by Hollywood, personified in Saul's mechanical money-making formulae of judgment. When Lee first boasts about his original “true West” ideas for a script, he seems to be, perhaps, a speaker for Shepard's own originality. But Saul's approval of Lee's ideas tells us that they are only the conventional in another key. The war is not between disinterested and profitable art, but between two money-making competitors, with different formulae.

Then Shepard explores the myth of the artist from a wholly different point of view. Lee has an idea, not a script, and he wants to pay the technician Austin to turn his rough plot into usable studio form. Austin refuses, Lee takes on the task himself, and what he really wrestles with is this: the relation between raw materials and artistic form, between the true West as he has seen or imagined it, and the representation of it in the verbal and dramatic medium. In part the problem is his own ineptness and impatience, but the underlying issue is the larger one dramatized in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author: the disjunction between reality as experienced or perceived, and the transfiguration of it by the artistic medium that has its own conventions: the resistance of history to poetic incarnation. Lee is so frustrated by this problem that he bashes his typewriter—a splendid farcical expression of revenge for his defeat by an intractable problem of art.

The third phase of Shepard's myth of the artist has to do with the romantic sense of the artist as outsider, a Rimbaud in at least petty matters. Thus Lee prefers stealing to buying things, and he arrives at his mother's home with a stolen radio. He derides Austin for not achieving such symbolic proofs of creative independence. Nettled, Austin rambles through the neighborhood and returns with ten stolen toasters—a charming stage send-up of Genet anti-society-ism, especially when the toasters go into action and spray toast all over the place (a masterly scene in the Ayckbourn idiom).

Finally True West makes two allusions to a social myth—the myth of the rustic paradise, an innocent Arcadian refuge from the corruptions of the world. As the brothers get drunker, Austin begins to feel that he would like to join Lee in the desert for a simpler and better life. Lee argues that it simply wouldn't do for Austin: the out-of-town world is only for those who know it, not a never-never land for disillusioned urbanites. And finally Lee, anticipating his own return to the desert, makes a gesture at assembling supplies. As for dishes, he wants china, not plastic. Walden is best when you have the best from home. These are neat puncturings of an aspect of the romantic primitivism that emerged in the latter eighteenth century: the dream of the pure golden life in unspoiled nature.

Shepard not only employs a wide range of mythic materials in this play and does it with great originality, but he also innovates by treating traditional materials with rich comic and indeed farcical devices. To have certain recurrent issues and ideas bandied about by a pair of drunks is a beguiling way of avoiding scholastic solemnity without denying the significance of the issues.

Its range of theme and tone makes True West a good closer to this survey. I have been trying to place an original artist on some ground that will neither make his uniqueness solipsistic nor ascribe to him a style that too much narrows the broad range of his raw materials. His surfaces, strange events on stage, his surprises and apparent inconsecutiveness, his mysteries, his upsettings of standard theatrical expectations—all these are individual enough. But they are not singular: in them we can see a theatrical tradition—antirealist, symbolic, absurdist—that in one form or another has had almost a century of life. Still Shepard goes on to add some novelty to familiar new rules, the rules that deny traditional rules. So, in seeking to place him, we sometimes identify him as a wholly American voice, one that harps on specifically American frailties. This cuts him back too much. Of course he uses American scenes and ways, notably those of the West, as his foreground materials. In this he does only what every writer does—speaks through the ways of life that he himself knows best. But they are not what the plays are “about,” any more than southern novelists, using southern scenes and characters, are simply making statements about the South. The regional materials are agencies of a vision of realities not bound by geography. I have tried to identify the beyond-the-regional, beyond-the-national substance of Shepard's work by showing how his plots repeatedly embody materials of a mythic order—literally in the Icarus play, all but literally in the plays that present or imply oedipal relationships; and recognizably in the plot that turns on the troubles of the house, the war within the bonds of kinship, especially in the Cain-and-Abel rivalry, and in the various plays that present the ways and ideals of the artist—his relations with the economic world, with the raw materials to be transformed into art, with other artists, with himself. Such matters were once called “timeless” or “universal,” terms now too sonorous for an age deep in various skepticisms. But, call them what we will, they are realities beyond ordinary boundaries of space and time, and Shepard is drawn to them, deny them though he may seem to do by a singularly vivacious unexpectedness of the dramatic medium.

Sam Shepard and Carol Rosen (interview date March 1993)

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SOURCE: Shepard, Sam, and Carol Rosen. “Emotional Territory: An Interview with Sam Shepard.” Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (March 1993): 1-11.

[In the following interview—which is excerpted from Rosen's book Sam Shepard: A Poetic Rodeo—Shepard discusses his theatrical style and stage imagery as well as his concepts of rhythm, myth, voice, and character.]

Sam Shepard is, of course, a conundrum. He is undoubtedly one of the most intuitive practitioners of what Cocteau called “poetry of the theatre,” creating a personal, concrete, physical language of the stage to be apprehended sensually. This encoder of American signs onstage is also an actor's playwright, among the most subtle and sympathetic chroniclers of characters' emotional states since O'Neill. Yet although he occasionally still produces a new play, most recently States of Shock in 1991, Sam Shepard now works primarily in prose and films. He has just completed filming Silent Tongue, a “truly different Western” about an 1870s Indian Medicine Show, which he both scripted and directed.

Shepard feels incredibly “lucky.” He often says so, and he often laughs. His gift for writing is one he accepts; he never expects to run dry and will easily discard work that strikes him as gone awry; this gift has delivered him from his demons. His demons—“actual demons” he used to feel in the air and in his life—have mercifully left him in peace. Like one of his own characters who crashes through a rear wall of the stage, leaving a jagged silhouette in his place, he has escaped.

Trying to maintain some degree of privacy, Shepard consistently turns down requests for interviews. For my book on his work, Sam Shepard: A Poetic Rodeo, forthcoming from Macmillan, however, Shepard graciously talked at length about myth, character, music, food and women in his plays; his influences in the theater and his method of writing and revising; his work as a film director and prose writer; the Gulf War; broken pacts and emotional territory. Apologetic whenever he hears himself sounding “esoteric” or “intellectual,” he is, of course, both. With Shepard, famous for “burning bridges” and “escaping” to “new territory,” every conversation is a discovery. He is, after all, the most original and vital playwright of our age.

Here, in the following abbreviated “soundbites” from our interview (which was previewed in the Village Voice [August 4, 1992]), are excerpts pertaining to Shepard's theatrical style, use of stage imagery, concepts of rhythm, myth, voice, and transformations, and his continuing sense of character as fluid, among other topics of interest to Modern Drama readers. The full-length interview will be included in my book on Shepard's work. It is the first interview of substance Shepard has granted in over a decade.


[Rosen]: Have you as a director developed your own particular way to communicate with actors? Is there a Shepardesque actor?

[Shepard]: When I started, with the first play I ever directed in London, I was terrified of the situation because I'd never done it before. So I immediately conferred with two people who I thought were the best directors in the world. One was Peter Brook and the other was Joe [Chaikin].

I sort of talked to them at length about the process and all that kind of stuff. When I went in, I found myself sort of trying to imitate certain things from their points of view, but discovered that it was futile, that you have to deal with the actors that you've got right in front of you and find out what the experience is like: directing. You can't use a formula to approach it, so I never developed a formula for it. …

I like actors who are incredibly courageous and enthusiastic. I think [John] Malkovich is a good example: extremely intelligent, fearless and enthusiastic. Just does not give a shit about how this fits into somebody else's idea of what it should be, just goes for ideas that are completely off the wall. They may be wrong but he'll go for them.


But it's very clear, there are certain things you can do on film that you can't do on stage or in a novel. There are several images in Far North, for example the loon, the shot of an eagle flying with a horse, the shot of the horse's profile turning into Katie's profile—certain images that are filmic, certain visual techniques that can't be achieved onstage or in a novel.

One thing that's great about film, I think, if you actually are lucky enough to get to make one, is the thing of parallel time, which is very difficult onstage. I tried it in A Lie of the Mind to a certain extent, but it's very cumbersome. It works, but with film it's immediate. You go: here's a story, and then you cut and here's another story.

And you can follow these two stories parallel. You can follow three or four stories in parallel time, because film allows you to do that. It's like music; you just move into time. Or you can go to the past or the future or wherever you want. Whereas onstage, it's much more awkward to do that kind of instantaneous time shift.

On stage, flashbacks have to emerge from language.

Or from some sort of standard shadow of the character in the background Back lighting, whatever.

You know all the tricks, right?

Well, I've been doing it for twenty-five years.

Yes. That's why it seems so interesting that critics second-guess your work and your choices onstage. I would assume you know what you're doing, and that if you choose to structure a play a certain way, you have made a conscious choice. It's not that you haven't figured out any other technique. Are you aiming for different effects?

Not effect so much, it's territory, emotional territory. I'm interested in effects only to the extent that they serve some purpose, some purpose of emotional terrain. Developing a new style of theater is not something I'm interested in.

You've used that term “emotional territory” in the past to suggest the destination of your plays. Which of your plays do you think go there? To emotional territory.

Oh, they all do.

All of them.

Yes, but some of them do it better than the others.

Which ones “do it better”? That's always the destination, right?

Yes, hopefully, when you start out, when you begin, your great hope is that it moves into something that is true. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn't happen. Like with Fool for Love, it began to move into a certain kind of territory. I don't think it eventually succeeded at it. It became too formal toward the end. But it attempted to move into a certain kind of emotional terrain that was true to itself. It depicted itself. That's what I'm looking for: something that is its own feature.

So it's not imitating something else?

Right. Or it's not trying to represent something else. It becomes its own animal.


Much has been made about that eagle and tomcat story in the monologue [that ends Curse of the Starving Class].

Probably, yeah.

So, what do you make of it?

I didn't intend it as a metaphor. It was just an image, which actually happened. I remember that happening, not exactly as it was written, but I remember that was the case. When you castrated ram lambs, there would always be a hawk or something around.

And then I think later I came across a story similar to that in an old western magazine, about an eagle. But I think it was with calf testes. I just kind of adapted it. But I didn't mean it as a-metaphor. It can be taken that way, if you want. …

It's not about masculinity or anything like that. Unless you want it to be.

I'd like to ask you about all your imagery of food.

(Shepard laughs.)

I can't think of a single play of yours where characters haven't been having breakfast, or boiling artichokes, or burning toast, or spilling cream of broccoli soup all over the bed or—

Well, it was an interesting thing, because I don't think I really discovered the meaning of it, if you want to put it that way, until I worked with Joe [Chaikin] on Tongues. In Tongues we have a little monologue about hunger, where he gets into: do you want to eat, why do you want to eat now? You know, I have a hunger. And it builds into this momentum.

When we got into that, Joe started to talk about it in a way that suddenly revealed what it really was to me, I think. Because I don't think I'd really understood it before. But his sense of it was that a person's profound emptiness, the profound sense of emptiness in a person's life is answered by eating in many ways. Somehow, when you eat, food fills some kind of void that's not only physical but emotional. And I think that there's something to that. People who have the hunger for anything—the hunger for drugs, the hunger for sex—this hunger is a direct response to a profound sense of emptiness and aloneness, maybe, or disconnectedness. And I think that there's some truth to that.

Yes, but you dealt with food long before you wrote Tongues.

Yes, I know it. But I think there's something connected there, maybe unconsciously.


There's a lot of slapstick in True West. When Malkovich played Lee, he seemed just crazy. It was as if he was going to destroy the stage.

Yes, with the golf club.

With the golf club. And then there was slapstick when the toast was hurled everywhere. Do you aim for that kind of anarchy in production?

It's a controlled anarchy. It's not: everybody go crazy and have fun; it's really controlled. Like for instance, when Malkovich hit his partner, Gary Sinise [who played Austin in the Steppenwolf production of True West], Sinise had glasses on, and Malkovich tapped his glasses with the golf club. That's controlled; that's absolute control. The character is freaking out, and the actor has the ability to be able to draw that stroke with the golf club so that he can tap his glasses like that and not hurt somebody. That's what we're looking for.


I want to ask you about myth

You've never seen that word in one of my plays. It comes up after the fact.

After the fact. You once said a myth is a lie of the mind.

Yes, but our language has been so laundered that we don't—we can say the same word to each other and not know what we mean.

That's why I ask you what you mean.

There's myth in the sense of a lie. There's myth in the sense of fantasy. There's myth in all those senses. But the traditional meaning of myth, the ancient meaning of myth is that it served a purpose in our life. The purpose had to do with being able to trace ourselves back through time and follow our emotional self.

Myth served as a story in which people could connect themselves in time to the past. And thereby connect themselves to the present and the future. Because they were hooked up with the lineage of myth. It was so powerful and so strong that it acted as a thread in culture. And that's been destroyed.

Myth in its truest form has now been demolished. It doesn't exist any more. All we have is fantasies about it. Or ideas that don't speak to our inner self at all, they just speak to some lame notions about the past. But they don't connect with anything. We've lost touch with the essence of myth.

A lot of the characters in your plays try to connect with that essence, don't they?

Fruitlessly, yes.

In Buried Child Vince has that speech about the face reflected in the windshield. And in Far North Katie has a very similar speech as she drives, tracing her lineage.

Well, those instances are more in terms of just immediate hereditary things, having to do with family. But see, myth not only connects you and me to our personal families, but it connects us to the family of generations and generations of races of people, tribes, the mythology of the ancient people.

The same with the American Indian: they were connected to the ancestors, people they never knew but are connected to through myth, through prayer, through ritual, through—dance, music, all of those forms that lead people into a river of myth. And there was a connecting river, not a fragmented river.

And that's gone.

It's gone, yes.

Does Wesley attempt to create a ritual that will lead into a river of myth in Curse of the Starving Class? He fails.

Yes, but all contemporary efforts will fail. They have to be connected to ancient stuff. They can't be just contemporary or else it will come apart. It will become a fashion show, like rap music.


In terms of musical structure, do your plays end the way music ends?

I hate endings. You have to end it somehow. I like beginnings. Middles are tough, but endings are just a pain in the ass. It's very hard to end stuff.

I thought Lie of the Mind ended perfectly.

Yeah, I found a good ending for that. I liked the ending of True West.

Yes, but True West doesn't end.

No, but that's why I like it.

A Lie of the Mind ends with a silhouette, one of those images that Peter Brook talks about in The Empty Space.

Yes, I finally discovered an ending for that. Endings are so hard. Because the temptation always is a sense that you're supposed to wrap it up somehow. You're supposed to culminate it in something fruitful. And it always feels so phony, when you try to wrap it all up.

That's why it seems more like music, because music is not supposed to wrap it up at the end. It's supposed to keep going in your mind.

Yes, I think that's the right kind of ending. That it leaves you on the next note. See, what interested me is the seven-note scale. That the first and the seventh are the same note, just an octave higher, so things are cycled. So that you go through something that you are really returning to: the place you began.

But then you get into scales from other countries, like China or Japan, and they go on—what are they, thirteen-note scales or twenty-one sometimes?


Do you ever think about Far North or A Lie of the Mind as feminist pieces?

What does that mean? What is a feminist piece? Following the feminist cause or something?

That they perceive the world from the point of view of women as opposed to superimposing a male view on history.

To a certain extent, yes. But what became curious for me was—there was that certain period of time, and now I think it's actually over, or it's changed into something else—but there was a period of time when there was a kind of awareness happening about the female side of things. Not necessarily women but just the female force in nature becoming interesting to people.

And it became more and more interesting to me because of how that female thing relates to being a man. You know, in yourself, that the female part of one's self as a man is, for the most part, battered and beaten up and kicked to shit just like some women in relationships. That men themselves batter their own female part to their own detriment. And it became interesting from that angle: as a man what is it like to embrace the female part of yourself that you historically damaged for one reason or another?

So from that point of view, it was interesting to me. But not from the cultural feminist point of view because I don't really understand that. I would never try to be a spokesman for it.

Starting with Emma in Curse of the Starving Class, you create some really vibrant women characters. And in A Lie of the Mind and in Far North, you explore the female side of character, even in the men.

I felt that, too. That was one of the big changes for me in those few pieces, that the women suddenly took on a different light than they had before. Because before it felt so sort of overwhelmed by the confusion about masculinity, about the confusion about how these men identify themselves. That sort of overwhelmed the female. There wasn't even any room to consider the female, because the men were so fucked up. You spent the whole play trying to figure out what these men were about, who had no idea themselves. But then, when the women characters began to emerge, then something began to make more sense for the men, too.

To explore the “female side of things” did you ever think of doing True West, for example, with women? Two sisters?

No. People get funny ideas about writers, like for instance, Beckett stopped a production of Endgame that was a black production. Now, he didn't stop it because he's a racist, he stopped it because he wrote it with a certain inclination. And to cast it black, regardless of how good the actors are, is going to completely throw something else into it. … He's just protecting his play.

I wouldn't want to see True West done by women because it's a scam on the play; it's not the play. Not that—I don't have anything against women. I'm just telling you it would distort the play.


The way characters shift and change in your plays suggests the idea of “transformation” in performance. Do you remember that Open Theater exercise in transformation?

Yes, it influenced it to a certain extent but then, see a lot of the things that they used in the Open Theater were actually techniques that you can't really transpose to a play without it looking like a technique. You know what I mean? (snaps his fingers) That an actor suddenly jumps from one thing to another. As a technique in an actor, in the Open Theater, working with pieces of writing, it looked great.

But I can't just turn around and say I'm going to write a play—going to appropriate its transformation. Because then it looks like a play exercise.

There are notions inside that of instantaneous change that I think are legitimate. Like can a character suddenly speak in a totally different way? Or move into a whole other world?

In Angel City and in other plays, you sometimes leave characters, as you've put it, “marooned with language,” isolated with long reveries of transformation.

Yes, that was—it was that whole severe break with so-called naturalism that happened back there. And I think it was a healthy thing. Why should we be anchored to these notions of Eugene O'Neill and all this burden of having your character be believable from the outside in terms of the artist saying well, he really is in a living room serving tea to his mother. And he's really talking the way he would be talking in real life.

What the hell is that? Where is that going to take us? (laughs) Why doesn't he pour the tea on her head and start screaming and carrying on, climbing walls and then come back and sit down and—you know what I mean?

Why not just jump through the wall?

Yes, or whatever. And I think that a lot of those breaks back then had to do with incredible frustration, the straitjacket of that kind of theater that we had been told was great theater.

Dead theater.

Dead theater, yes. Living room theater.

Is character larger than personality?

Well see, I don't think character really has anything to do with personality. I think character and personality are two entirely different animals. Really. When you get right down to it.

See, I think character is something that can't be helped, it's like destiny. It's something that's essential. And maybe it includes personality, but personality is something so frivolous compared to character they're not even in the same ball park. Personality is putting on a different hat.

But character is permanent?

Yes, I think character is an essential tendency that can't be—it can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can't be ultimately changed. It's like the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.

Is character also the same for a whole family?

I think, yes, there is a character, characteristics, if you want to call them that, that run through families that are undeniable. So many people get screwed up because they try to deny them, try to say I'm not like my father, I'm not like my mother, I'm not going to be this way. I'm not going to be that way. When, in fact, there's nothing you can do about it. (laughs)

So many of your plays revolve around the hopelessness of ever getting out of that bind. Unless a character embraces that family character or accepts it he's doomed.

Yes, I think so. I think that there is no escape, that the wholehearted acceptance of it leads to another possibility. But the possibility of somehow miraculously making myself into a different person is a hoax, a futile game. And it leads to insanity, actually. (laughs)

In the plays?

No, in people. People go insane trying to deny what they really are.


There are other plays and films around that recall Angel City, plays about the artist/hero, exploited and devoured by movies.

Yes, but they've been singing that song forever. What was the great—Day of the Locust? It was such a brilliant book. There's no reason—I mean, that says it all right there. That book says the whole thing about Hollywood and dealing with Hollywood and dealing with the machinery of it. And the thing of it is, Hollywood is impervious to criticism. You cannot puncture the skin of that mechanism. Even more so today. It's like steel armor. You can't even get next to it, because it's so completely locked up, guarded by the mechanism.

I thought you got around that with Paris, Texas by working with Wim Wenders, a German filmmaker who sees America the way you do. You don't see America the way an American does. You step away from it and look at it from a distance.

(laughs) Right. It's true. Europeans, particularly Germans, have a very critical eye—not a critical eye but it's an eye that embraces a certain thing about America that I don't think Americans have. For the most part, I think Americans have lost the compassion for their own country.


What brought about States of Shock? Where did that come from?

I was in Kentucky when the war opened. I was in a bar … and it was stone silence. The TV was on, and these planes were coming in, and I had the sense that—it just seemed like doomsday to me. I could not believe the systematic kind of insensitivity of it. That there was this punitive attitude: we're going to just knock these people off the face of the earth.

And then it's devastating. Not only that, but they've convinced the American public that this was a good deed. … the notion of this being a heroic event is just outrageous. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it. I can't believe that, having come out of the sixties and the incredible reaction to Vietnam, [that voice] has all but disappeared. Vanished. There's no voice any more.

But States of Shock doesn't only respond to the Gulf War.

No. I wanted to create a character of such outrageous, repulsive, military, fascist demonism that the audience would recognize it, and say, “Oh, this is the essence of this thing.”

I thought Malkovich came pretty close to it. Just creating this monster fascist.


Should theater be real, and dangerous in the same way as the rodeo, for example?

Well, to a certain extent. You don't want to hurt anybody. I don't believe in theater that hurts people physically at all. I don't think that's what Artaud meant by “the theater of cruelty.” And I don't like to see people maim themselves or do anything ridiculous.

But on the emotional level, there can be a comparable experience without hurting anyone. I don't think you should hurt anyone. What's the point in that?

On the emotional level, are you aiming towards Artaud's idea of theater exteriorizing latent cruelty? Your plays do put the audience in touch with things they don't think about when they think about themselves as civilized.

Yes, hopefully, although it sounds high faluting when you couch it with Artaud, because Artaud has become so misused, I think, over the years. He's become an excuse for a whole kind of theater that he probably wouldn't endorse if he was alive today. He'd laugh at it. Or maybe he wouldn't, I don't know because I never met the man.


Are you still fond of any of your early plays?

Yes, I like Action.

And I like Rock Garden all right. The funny thing about Rock Garden is, if you look at that play—it's surprising to me even because when I look at it, I see the germ right in that little play of a whole lot of different things. The germ [is] in that play of many, many to come, much more so than Cowboys, for instance, or a lot of those other plays.

Rock Garden was sort of the beginning of something that reverberated from there, which I didn't realize at the time.

There's a recipe in Rock Garden for Angels on Horseback, which would be a very nice subtitle for Far North.

Angels on horseback, yeah, it would be.

And why are you fond of Action?

Because it was such a complete breakaway from anything I'd done before. It's completely in another domain. The play itself surprised me, the way it moved and the idiosyncrasy of it and the way it shifted.

I thought it was a satisfying combination of slapstick and something more serious. I don't know what you call it, realism or something like that.

Action has that haunting speech about the moths.

The moths and the breaking of the chair and the clothes on the clothesline and things like that. And I think it's an interesting play.

And in fact, States of Shock is probably an outcome of that play, in form, in structure, in its quirkiness, its instant changes. Things like that.

And do you have any fondness for Tooth of Crime?

To some extent. But I think it's dated now. A lot of that early stuff I couldn't really say was dated. But it [Tooth of Crime] seems too topical. Underlying it, the combat thing is interesting, the clash of forces, but then the whole thing about pop culture kind of turns me off. There's this pretense of being a commentary on pop culture.


I've read that you've wished you would never have to write another play.

That was a little period I was going through.

But not any more? You no longer feel that it's some kind of curse, that you have to write and you would like to be free of it?

No, not necessarily, no. Because see, the thing that's interesting about writing is if it really is something that you get in your blood, it keeps opening and opening and opening. It doesn't shut down. I think to a certain extent the play thing has narrowed. But then there's other writing, there's other kinds of writing that have opened up as a result of that narrowing down.

And you get involved in that and then maybe, who knows, the playwriting all comes back up again. You can't really predict that stuff.

You can't turn your back on a gift like that.

It's not only a gift, it's a kind of way of life. I feel lucky that I have something like that where experience can be shuffled back into another form, as opposed to not having a form or structure to put an expression into. I suppose you do that with anything but with writing—it's really lucky to be a writer, I think.

Susanne Willadt (essay date March 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10230

SOURCE: Willadt, Susanne. “States of War in Sam Shepard's States of Shock.Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (March 1993): 147-66.

[In the following essay, Willadt analyzes the structure of States of Shock, emphasizing Shepard's sense of machismo and his portrayal of relationships between men.]


After a six-year silence, Sam Shepard, formerly one of the most prolific and most produced American playwrights, finally returned to the American theater with States of Shock. The play was first presented by The American Place Theatre in New York City on April 30, 1991, for a very limited run.1 As has been the case for so many other Shepard plays before, States of Shock was eagerly anticipated by New York, theater critics as an opportunity to fight another critical war about Shepard. Shepard has always had what Walter Kerr, the “high priest” of the New York theater critics, once named his “cult audience.” However, the surprising fact is that the Shepard cult is split in two: he is either loved or hated, and both with equal passion.2 (Kerr, needless to say, hates him!) Consequently, much Shepard criticism can hardly be called objective. It seems that Shepard, who once said that he is not interested in an intellectual but only in an emotional response to his plays, has reached his goal, at least in view of the emotionally charged reactions of the critics. With States of Shock, Shepard's supporters, i.e., Frank Rich, Jack Kroll and Michael Feingold, at first reacted with relief to the simple fact that he had at least written a new play. Above all, they saw the play as proof that Shepard's productive phase, against all speculations, has not yet come to an end, much to the regret of Shepard's harshest critics. John Simon, for example, who renamed the play “States of Schlock,” finds it wholly pointless “except for adding to the Shepard myth”; Mimi Kramer, still “in search of the good Shepard,” finds the play is simply “an index of the bankruptcy” of Shepard's theatrical vocabulary.3 Even Shepard's defenders, though, have to admit that something was not quite right with the play, that in the end, in keeping with the war imagery in it, “it blows itself up,” “like a defective grenade” (Kroll). Never before was the general critical response to a new Shepard play as negative as in the case of States of Shock. Shepard is conscious of this fact. He tries to explain it away as the result of frustrated expectations, since States of Shock is, according to Shepard, “so radically different from A Lie of the Mind,” and of the difficulty that most critics have in categorizing the play: “They couldn't find a place to put it. They couldn't put it … Some of them called it absurdism or … They couldn't fit it into anything” (Rosen, 34).

However, States of Shock does make one wonder if Shepard's once extraordinary theatrical talent has not actually imploded. By looking closely at the structure of the play, the states of war dramatized, and Shepard's intentions, the following analysis will try to show that Shepard has finally become a victim of his most prominent personal and artistic obsession: his fascination with machismo and with the “mystery” he finds solely in relationships between men.4


Shepard once said that he was not interested in the “American social scene at all”5 and that he doesn't have “any political theories.”6States of Shock, which was first staged right after the end of the Gulf War, is his first overtly political play, a play “on war and machismo,” in Frank Rich's words. Shepard does not consider it “unfair” to read a political or social meaning into his plays but finds it “an incomplete, a partial way of looking at the play” if it is reduced to only one of these meanings (Lippman, 9). He wants to reach what he once called a “much wider dimension,”7 one that goes beyond a mere political or social meaning and reaches “emotional territory” (an expression he just recently used in an interview with Carol Rosen, [34]). Some of Shepard's early plays, i.e., Icarus's Mother (1965), Forensic and the Navigators (1967), The Unseen Hand (1970), or Action (1975),8 as well as his later plays dealing with the disintegration of the American family, can nevertheless be called political plays. But, even in his more overtly political work Shepard's attitude is both critical and nostalgic; his condemnation of civilization and modern technology in contemporary America is always connected with some nostalgic longing for its pastoral past. Moreover, even in these plays Shepard is mainly concerned with psychological, moral and personal obsessions, obsessions which dominate most of his work and which, underneath its political surface, can also be found in States of Shock.

The crux of States of Shock is that Shepard seems to have lost track of the “much wider dimension” he is searching for. Before completing this play, he had obviously gone through a dry spell in his writing career, not having produced a new play in six years or published one in seven.9 One gets the impression that States of Shock was put together in haste right after the end of the gulf War because Shepard somehow felt obliged to give a personal comment on the present state of the American nation. For the first time he took an actual event as the starting point for a play, reversing his former artistic credo that “Ideas emerge from plays—not the other way around.”10 The effort, to write a play on the Gulf War at a time when this war was interpreted as a kind of successful replay of the Vietnam War, is in itself laudable. Shepard says he cannot but feel outraged by the general reaction to the Gulf War in America:

The notion of this being a heroic event is just outrageous. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it. I can't believe that, having come out of the '60s and the incredible reaction to Vietnam, that voice has all but disappeared. Vanished. There's no voice anymore. This is supposed to be what America is about?

(Rosen, 39)

Shepard willingly lends his own voice to help examine from a different angle what America is about. But, for a writer who has always been praised for his visionary and poetic qualities, he is trying very hard and sometimes with very obvious means to fulfill his mission. Never before has he come so close to narrow preaching, bringing to mind Bertolt Brecht's didactic rigidity or Arthur Miller's moral finger, and giving the play an outdated, even “isolated,” quality, as if it had been written “at a reclusive distance from the ongoing torments of life,” as Michael Feingold observes.

For all its (intended) relation to the current situation, however, the play could have almost been written in the sixties, at a time when it still seemed possible to change the course of politics in America and to change society itself. Although seeming somewhat old-fashioned, States of Shock actually does show what Jack Kroll calls “a political passion badly needed in American theater,” and it truly is “written with the earnest … conviction that the stage is still an effective platform for political dissent and mobilizing public opinion” (Rich, C1). Shepard, after all, did begin his career in the sixties and is one of the creators of the American drama of that decade. His early plays overturned theatrical conventions and brought a poetic voice to the American theater, who were either connected with Joseph Papp's Public Theatre or, like Shepard himself, with Joseph Chaikin's Open Theatre, whose transformation theory probably had the most profound influence on Shepard's (early) writing. Shepard has always wanted to give the impression that he existed sui generis, without any artistic roots, debts, or relations to any theatrical tradition, but States of Shock seems to investigate his theatrical origins in the sixties.

In one of his rare theoretical essays, “American Experimental Theatre—Then and Now,” Shepard defines what he regards as the most profound influence of the sixties on the theater in general and on his own writing in particular:

To me the influence of the sixties […] was a combination of hallucinogenic drugs, the effect of those drugs on the perceptions of those I came in contact with, the effect of those drugs on my own perceptions, the Viet Nam war, and all the rest of it which is now all gone.11

Drugs were a part of Shepard's life-style in the sixties and, from the beginning, a part of his free-form writing habit. (In 1965, he escaped the draft by pretending to be a heroin addict.) Many of his early plays deal with hallucinatory states, drug-induced or not. In their own way these plays are expressions of the general atmosphere of the time. They all have apocalyptic overtones and end with catastrophes, but none of these plays deals explicitly with the Vietnam War. States of Shock, however, almost immediately recalls American anti-war plays of the sixties (and the seventies) dealing with that event.12 Shepard's portrayal of a mutilated and mentally disturbed war veteran sitting in a wheelchair also brings to mind what seems to be the prevalent image of the homecoming veteran depicted in so many American films.13

As another reminiscence of the sixties, States of Shock sometimes comes close to a musical or multi-media show through the use of video, music, dancing and sound effects.14 It also often works more as performance art than theater, as, for example, in the final tableau where Stubbs threatens to decapitate Colonel while the other characters sing “Goodnight Irene,” or when Glory Bee repeatedly walks across the stage in slow motion.15 Some of these elements and other aspects of the play clearly also fall into the range of Absurd theater.

States of Shock is a strange conglomerate of different reminiscences and analogies. Nothing that happens in this play is exactly predictable, but everything is recognizable in a way, not only from the analogies mentioned above but also from prior Shepard plays. It might actually be the beginning of a third period in Shepard's writing, a combination of his early plays and his family plays, a period that Michael Feingold is hesitant to call “late Shepard.” The experimental atmosphere of the play, with its shifting realities and absurd, though mostly apocalyptic, overtones and Shepard's use of sometimes bizarre visual and verbal imagery, has much in common with his early writing. Shepard himself sees a connection to Action; he thinks that States of Shock is “probably an outcome of that play, in form, in structure, in its quirkiness, its instant changes” (Rosen, 41). But, its subject matter also recalls Shepard's more recent naturalistic family plays, dealing only superficially with war in the political sense of the word. Underneath its surface hovers Shepard's most pronounced obsession. States of Shock is a dramatization of a ritualized war between two men and, as in so many other Shepard plays, it is a war between a father and his son.


States of Shock takes place in a coffee-shop, a “family restaurant,” as is repeatedly emphasized in the play (e.g., 8), presumably somewhere in the South of the United States. The play dramatizes a conflict between a man simply called Colonel, a choleric character, whose explosive personality dominates the whole play, and a younger man called Stubbs, a veteran of an unidentified war who is bound to a wheelchair decorated with small American flags. Stubbs may or may not be Colonel's son. Colonel insists that his son died heroically in combat. Stubbs, he says, is his son's best friend who was severely wounded by “friendly” artillery fire while unsuccessfully trying to save the life of his son (27). Colonel has apparently kidnapped Stubbs from a hospital and brought him to the restaurant to “celebrate” the anniversary of his son's death. The conflict between Colonel and Stubbs intensifies when Colonel wants to go through what seems to be an old ritual for the two men (Colonel says, “I know we've done this before,” [12]). He asks Stubbs to reenact the battle scene in which his son was killed and Stubbs himself was wounded, by means of toy soldiers, tanks, airplanes, cutlery (shore lines) and a sugar dispenser (a mountain). Stubbs, at first, plays Colonel's game. But, his frustration builds, and he then accuses Colonel repeatedly of having “invented my death” (e.g., 33). Stubbs (rightly) suspects that Colonel cannot accept him as his son because he returned from the war severely wounded and, what is more, impotent. He does not embody Colonel's picture of a war hero and a real American man. To prove that he is a man and worthy to be Colonel's son, Stubbs starts to flirt with the waitress, Glory Bee, and finally feels his “thing” coming back, which is to say his long lost and yearned-for manhood (36). His “thing” also brings back his memory and finally gives him a stronger position in his conflict with Colonel. Colonel feels he is losing control over the situation and, most of all, over Stubbs. At the end, Colonel still does not want to admit that Stubbs is his son, but he admits that they could be “somehow remotely related” (35). To escape the danger of losing his power over Stubbs he promises to take him back and even to “make it official,” but Stubbs seems to be determined finally to free himself from Colonel (39).

During the course of the play, the two men fight a duel-by-language that ends in a physically violent showdown typical of almost every Shepard play—to the sheer amazement and total lack of understanding of the two other customers in the restaurant, an older middle-class couple called the White Man and the White Woman, who are appropriately dressed all in white. Their main problem is that they have trouble getting service from the waitress, presumably because they didn't order the “Express” (11). The White Man and Woman appear to be in a “deep state of catharsis” (Shepard's stage direction); they are like “cadavers” (5). Their presence hardly adds anything to the principal action, barely even connects with it. They merely act as some kind of commentary to it. This negative portrayal of the emissaries of the middle class, the representatives of the establishment for whom Shepard only has contempt, recalls similar middle-class Shepard characters, such as the priest in Buried Child, the lawyer in Curse of the Starving Class, or the film producer in True West, characters whose main function is to embody Shepard's condemnation of modern civilization. Glory Bee, the waitress, repeatedly walks across the stage in slow motion in her hapless efforts to serve coffee, banana splits and clam chowder to her customers. She adds a lot of entertainment to the play with her choreographic interludes, her crawling back and forth on the stage, her dancing with Colonel, her rolling around on the floor with Stubbs and her musical numbers (at one point she starts to sing). She cannot be called a rounded character; but, contrary to the White Man and Woman, she serves a real function in the play. She is another one of Shepard's female messengers of eroticism; her sexual function is her most important one and in this respect, it does not matter that she is working as a waitress, even though she has been inept at carrying things “since I was very little!” (9).

Like so many other Shepard plays, States of Shock has no real ending, no solution. Apart from the fact that Shepard admits that he has difficulty finding endings for his plays—“endings are just a pain in the ass,” he says (Rosen, 36)—he also thinks “it's a cheap trick to resolve things. It's totally a complete lie to make resolutions” (Lippman, 11). For him, a solution at the end of a play is not an ending but a “strangulation” (Lippman, 11). States of Shock, like True West, almost ends with a literal strangulation topped by the threat of a decapitation. Like Lee and Austin in True West, the two male protagonists in States of Shock stand frozen in a position of eternal confrontation and hostility—it is not clear whether one of them (Stubbs) will kill the other (Colonel), and even at the end it is not absolutely clear if Stubbs is or is not Colonel's son. Given Shepard's work, he most probably is, but Shepard never gives one the satisfaction of being sure.


States of Shock deals with “states of war” on several levels, the political as well as the personal and individual. The play's initial metaphor is no doubt taken from the Gulf War. But, the real war that is going on in this play takes place on battlefields known from former Shepard plays: in the family (between male family members), and between the sexes.

The war in which Stubbs was injured is never specifically identified. It could be any war. The timing of the production of States of Shock and a few features of the play—references to a war taking place on land and sea that everybody thought “would all be done in a day” (16) and to soldiers who are killed or wounded by friendly artillery fire, and the presence of a big cyclorama showing pictures of a war recalling coverage on CNN—indicate that Shepard was thinking of the Gulf War. At the same time, Shepard has also emphasized that he was searching for the “essence” of what is happening in and through a war in general (Rosen 39). Accordingly, Colonel is dressed up in a “strange ensemble of military uniforms and paraphernalia” (5) taken from America's war-making past, from the Civil War, the Second World War and the Vietnam War. Images of war are ever-present, on both the visual and the verbal level. The cyclorama upstage, covering the entire wall, brings the war home to an all-American family restaurant. It repeatedly shows pictures of an unidentified war, tracer fire, rockets, explosions, a whole “war panorama,” (5). Sounds of explosions alternate with the driving rhythms of two live percussionists, situated extreme right and left behind the cyclorama, attacking the audience's ears and probably meant to give a taste of what war sounds like.16 At first, the war scenes shown on the back wall seem like somebody's dream or memory, but the war is actually much closer to the restaurant than one first believes. The family restaurant itself is under siege: we learn from Glory Bee that the manager has died (19) and that the cook has been wounded (22). The White Woman, who is angry about Glory Bee's service, insists that “She ought to be shot” (15), and Glory Bee keeps a supply of candles for “the black-outs” (18). Glory Bee at one point says that she misses the “‘quiet times’ just before the sirens[.] Way back when it first started” (33). “It” obviously stands for a war during which the restaurant was invaded and “the first wave of missiles hit us” (34). All the characters on stage seem to have learned to live in a “state of war” and accept it as something quite normal. Towards the end of the play a wagon loaded with gas masks is rolled on stage. Thinking nothing of it, the characters put on the gas masks and the White Woman says, “Shouldn't we be getting under the table by now? Shouldn't we be tucking our heads between our knees?” (35).

Stubbs is living proof of the reality and the effects of war, though in his case one that did not take place on American territory (he remembers the sea that “didn't smell American to me. It smelled like a foreign sea” [17]). Stubbs sits in a wheelchair, his legs covered by an old army blanket. He was severely wounded in the war and repeatedly shows his red chest wound to the other characters on stage or directly to the audience. He says that he is “eighty per cent mutilated” (e.g., 13), not only physically, it seems, but also mentally. He acts and talks as if he still is in a “state of shock” because of some horrible experience in the past. One gets the impression that he has either lost his mind or been brainwashed. Stubbs, at first, is unable to communicate. To make his presence acknowledged he either blows his whistle relentlessly or keeps repeating the same, mostly senseless, phrases. At the beginning, his recollections of the war and of his own past are more or less reduced to one simple statement (also his very first words in the play), which he keeps repeating in slight variations throughout the course of the play: “When I was hit—It went straight through me. Out the other side. Someone was killed. But, it wasn't me. I'm not the one. I'm the lucky one” (8). With the sad picture of Stubbs in mind, it is hard to believe that he thinks he is “the lucky one.” He could only be called lucky in one respect: he lives in an absolute “state of oblivion” that has even made him forget what he had to endure in and after the war. Only Colonel's wish to re-enact the battle scene in which Stubbs got wounded slowly brings back his memory. In short glimpses he then remembers the fear he felt at the moment when he stood in the middle of the cross-fire that finally hit him (30-31) or the other dead and wounded people around him, friends and enemies alike (24).

But, contrary to the homecoming war heroes of other plays (and films), there are no indications that Stubbs is haunted or brought to an existential or moral crisis by what he did and experienced in the war, friends he lost, people he might have killed, etc. Strangely enough, or maybe not for Shepard, the horrors of war are reduced to the single fact that the war has made Stubbs impotent, the only fact that he is really conscious of even at the very beginning of the play. There is one phrase in States of Shock that runs through it like a leitmotif and gives it a totally different drift from what one would expect from an anti-war play. It is Stubb's outcry “MY THING HANGS LIKE DEAD MEAT!!!” (11), which is repeated in several variations either by Stubbs himself or by Colonel, and which makes States of Shock another Shepard play on what it takes to be, or rather to become, a “real man,” namely, a “thing” that “grows straight and strong and tall” (29).

Stubbs survived one war just to come home and fight another, and this one really is existential for him. He has to fight his worst enemy: his father. For both men this fight is a matter of life and death. In the beginning, Stubbs seems to have no chance against Colonel, who has used “all those horrible long days without the enemy” to prepare himself for his return (33). Now, Stubbs is back and Colonel knows that “the enemy has the same hunger for me as I have for him” (34). Both men repeatedly agree to the fact that “WITHOUT THE ENEMY WE'RE NOTHING!” (e.g., 13). For them, only male competition and aggressiveness lead to a truly male identity, and this is what both men are aiming at. For Stubbs, Colonel even seems to have power over life and death: Stubbs believes that Colonel has “invented my death” (e.g., 20). Colonel's inability to understand and, what is more important, accept his son for what he is, has “killed” Stubbs. Thus, according to Shepard, Colonel is following an archetypal male tradition that goes back to the Bible: “Abraham, maybe. Maybe Abraham. Judas,” says Stubbs (37-38), who is searching for the “original moment” that triggered the everlasting war between fathers and sons (37).17 Because Stubbs thinks that there is “No way of knowing for sure” why fathers kill their sons, he is full of resignation:

Best way is to kill all the sons. Wipe them off the face of the earth. Bleed them of all their blood. Let it pour down into the soil. Let it fill every river. Every hole in this earth. Let it pour through every valley. Flood every town. Let us drown in the blood of our own. Let us drown and drink it. Let us go down screaming in the blood of our sons.


Shepard may be drawing a direct parallel to another anti-war play, Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1947), which, like States of Shock, deals with the subject of war through a dramatization of a father-son conflict. In All My Sons, the father Joe Keller, sold cracked cylinder heads to the American Air Force, an act that caused twenty-one airplanes to crash and twenty-one pilots, among them maybe even one of his own sons, to be killed. Stubbs, like the second surviving son in All My Sons, yearns to understand why his father has forsaken him (33). It is not the bullet that hit him and left a hole in his chest, but rather his father's betrayal that has put him into a complete “state of shock:” “When you left me it went straight through me and out the other side. It left a hole I can never fill” (20). Like Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, Colonel is willing to sacrifice his son Stubbs to the God of War. It is a sacrifice for a violent concept of manhood, for the belief that fighting in a war is a manly and heroic deed. The son, however, cannot measure up to this concept because he himself has become a victim of it. On a metaphoric level, Shepard is saying that America is the father willing to sacrifice all the sons for what he considers to be a “hoax” (Rosen, 39). According to Shepard, “the betrayal is definitely on the side of the father” (Rosen, 36).

Colonel is a man of war through and through. His military rank has even replaced his real name. Shepard said that with him he wanted to create a “monster fascist,” “a character of such outrageous, repulsive, military, fascist demonism that the audience would recognize it and say, ‘Oh, this is the essence of this thing’” (Rosen, 39). For Colonel it is an “American virtue” to fight willingly for one's country. His battle cry is “A soldier for his nation!” (21). If one dies for his country, one has “not died in vain” but followed a great American tradition: “We can't forget that we were generated from the bravest stock. The Pioneer. The Mountain Man. The Plainsman. The Texas Ranger. The Lone Ranger.” For Colonel, American men have “a legacy to continue” (21), which is to prove that one is a “real man” because “This country wasn't founded on spineless, spur-of-the-moment whimsy” (17). Colonel is confident that he himself plays a worthy part in this legacy. He understands his “purpose in the grand scheme of things” and is convinced that he is “a God among men” (28).

By personifying this male American legacy, Colonel clearly dominates the play with his explosive and violent actions.18 Like all of Shepard's father figures, he lives in his own fantasy world, has a taste for alcohol and prefers to eat alone (“I've loved to eat alone. I've gone out of my way to eat alone. I've walked miles in search of empty restaurants” [20-21]) and, above all, to live alone: “I was born in isolation. If I can't have companionship it won't kill me” (33). The only thing he really needs is the enemy, somebody to measure his strength against. Colonel's most characteristic feature, however, is his penchant for violent outbursts. For Colonel, “aggression is the only answer,” and for him, as for most of Shepard's male characters, violence is the preferred method to prove his manliness (33). In an interview Shepard once admitted that violence is “the source of a lot of intrigue” for him:

I think there's something about American violence that to me is very touching. […] In full force it's very ugly, but there's also something very moving about it, because it has to do with humiliation. There's some hidden, deeply rooted thing in the Anglo male American that has to do with inferiority, that has to do with not being a man, and always, continually having to act out some idea of manhood that invariably is violent.19

With the exception of one incident where Colonel even threatens Glory Bee with “a good beating,” his acts of violence are directed against Stubbs (28). Every time Stubbs does not function the way Colonel expects him to, he threatens to punish him. Colonel asks for “total, absolute, unconditional submission” (36). He treats Stubbs like a little boy who needs a “good solid thrashing” or a “good spanking” (23), if he doesn't do what father tells him. At first, Colonel is only verbally violent, but later on he does not hesitate to whip Stubbs savagely with a belt, spank him or slap him in the face (24-25). Every time, Colonel's violent outbursts are accompanied by the sounds of explosions and/or by pictures of war shown on the cyclorama. Shepard makes the connection between male violence and war obvious, but he also makes it clear that, for him, the real war rages on a personal, interhuman level.

In States of Shock, as in all of his plays that dramatize a father-son conflict, Shepard's sympathies lie solely on the side of the son. Stubbs is one of his typical questers for identity and States of Shock dramatizes his initiation journey. At the beginning of the play he has no idea who he really is. He is a tabula rasa, a white sheet of paper ready for Colonel's inscriptions. (The color white is associated with Stubbs several times in the play.)20 His identity and memory are totally dependent on what Colonel has told him about himself. “Stubbs,” it seems, is not even his real name (Stubbs says to Colonel: “You had my name changed!” [37]). He must have received this name from Colonel because the war has turned his limbs into stubs. Like Fool for Love, States of Shock is a story-telling-duel. The character telling the most convincing story is the one supposedly telling the truth. Since Stubbs, most of the time, either is speechless or speaks words that do not make sense, Colonel's story seems to be the real one, especially since Colonel insists, “That's the truth of it. Pretending is not for us. What we're after is the hard facts. The bare bones” (14).21 Each of Stubbs's attempts to defend his own point of view is dismissed by Colonel as hallucination (36) or imagination (“Your imagination has done you in, Stubbs” [33]). For a long time Stubbs, too, believes Colonel's story, since he has no memory of his own. This brings him into a difficult position. If he is not Colonel's son, as Colonel says, he has no role model to follow. For Stubbs, as for so many Shepard “heroes” before him, the only way to find an identity is to follow the role model of the father and finally be accepted by the father as a worthy successor. Colonel knows this, for he asks Stubbs to “Imitate my every move. I'm your only chance now” (35).

Stubbs fights two wars at the same time: one against his father, and one against a fantasy brother. In many Shepard plays, two brothers fight out a war over inheritance and the rightful succession to their father.22 The archetypal fight between two hostile brothers is most convincingly dramatized in one of Shepard's best plays, True West (1980), where Lee and Austin embody complete opposites. Their fight is a modern version of the fight between Cain and Abel. In True West, Shepard intended “to write a play about double nature,”23 so that Lee and Austin can also be seen to represent two complementary sides of one and the same person, the two sides of a “divided self.”24 Stubbs's adversary in States of Shock is not, however, a real brother. Like the female characters in Shepard's gender-conflict plays, Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985), and Paris, Texas (1983; the screenplay for Wim Wenders's film), Stubbs has to fight against an imaginary opposite. The female characters in these plays are victims of the male characters' inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The men confuse their real wives or lovers with the fantasy creatures they have created out of them.25 Stubbs in States of Shock suffers from the same circumstances. He has to compete with Colonel's fantasy son. To maintain the illusion that his real son was a courageous war hero and a real man (just as he sees himself), unlike the mutilated and impotent Stubbs, Colonel has “invented” Stubbs's death. Stubbs knows that he can never measure up to Colonel's illusion. Consequently, he is afraid that Colonel will “wipe” him out, or “erase” him (30), the same fear that haunts May in Fool for Love, who uses exactly the same words to express this fear: “You're gonna' erase me. […] You're either gonna' erase me or have me erased” (22). To defend or rather to find his own identity Stubbs has to kill Colonel's fantasy of his heroic dead son by telling him his recollections of what happened on the battlefield. The following passage, where Stubbs speaks about himself as if he were divided into two different persons, shows the profound split in his identity:

Your son. Your son. I remember him running. Crazy. Running toward the beach. Throwing his rifle in the green sea. Throwing his arms to the sky. Running to the mountain. Back to the beach. Screaming. I remember his eyes. … I remember him falling. Picking him up. Dragging him down the beach. Screaming his head off. Carrying him on my back.


Stubbs's revelation threatens Colonel's fantasy world. In the last third of the play, it is Stubbs who, after having regained his memory, tells the more convincing version of the story. He overturns Colonel's concept of manhood and the principles that he thought were “enduring” (17). In order to emphasize that the power has shifted from one man to the other, Shepard created one of his typical role changes. Suddenly, it is Stubbs who is back up on his feet staggering around the stage (31) and Colonel who sits in the wheelchair (33). As a last way to prove that he is the only man in charge and that Stubbs could not possibly be his son, Colonel plays on his own virility and Stubbs's impotence: Stubbs cannot be his son because “No son of mine has a ‘thing’ like that. It's not possible” (29). At this point both men try to prove their manhood with the help (or, rather, use) of a woman.

The principal action of States of Shock takes place solely between Colonel and Stubbs. The two female characters in the play, the White Woman and Glory Bee (and for that matter also the White Man), are present mainly for decorative purposes. In the presentation of the female characters, States of Shock clearly falls into the range of what Felicia Londré once called Shepard's “mindless macho period.”26 Women characters in Shepard's plays, as in States of Shock, very often are marginalized and portrayed mainly by negative stereotypes. They have no part in the men's search for identity, except that they represent everything that the male characters want to avoid. States of Shock is about “men's business.” However, in plays by other authors dealing with the homecoming from a war, there is not only a father but also a mother or wife to come home to. In States of Shock, there is a (would-be) father but not the slightest indication of a mother (or wife) at all.

However, the White Woman actually recalls Shepard's former mother figures in her total lack of interest in and understanding of the existential crises of the men around her. She is interested only in worldly things like shopping, and she repeatedly complains about the service or tells on Colonel when he drinks alcohol in a family restaurant. One of the few times she seems to notice what is going on around her is when Colonel slaps Stubbs across the face. She seems to enjoy this, because she says, “Give it to him! You should have done that when he was just a little boy. All of this could have been avoided” (25). Later on she even follows Colonel's example when she yells at her husband and finally “whacks [him] across the head with her purse” (34). Like Colonel's outbursts, this act of violence is also accompanied by the sound of “An explosion in the distance” (34). The White Man does not react; he is obviously used to his wife's sadistic spells. He is in an even deeper state of “catharsis” (Shepard's word) than she is and gives the impression that he is completely under her control. (Michael Feingold calls him a “passive nitwit.”) If the two represent what Shepard thinks is the average middle-aged, middle-class American couple, they give a sorry picture indeed, one that could definitely not be seen as an alternative to Colonel's preferred isolation. When Stubbs once directs his speech to the White Couple to explain why he suffers so much from his impotence, his words sound like pure irony:

The middle of me is all dead. The core. I'm eighty per cent mutilated, The part of me that goes on living has no memory of the parts that are all dead. They've been separated for all time. They'll never have a partner. You're lucky to have a partner.


The second woman in the play, Glory Bee, follows the Shepard stereotype of the sexy, dumb woman. The way in which Glory Bee is presented can only lead to the conclusion that she is too dumb to have anything to say about the principal action taking place between Colonel and Stubbs. In fact, she has hardly anything at all to say, except for the usual phrases of a waitress (e.g., “Do you have a smoking preference?” [6], or “Have you decided on something, sir?” [10]). Female characters in Shepard's plays, apart from mother figures, have to catch the interest of the male characters with the help of their erotic appeal. Only this can make them part of the plays' action. The Costume Plot (43) signifies Glory Bee's sexual function for the male characters by her “White pettipants” under her “Yellow and white cotton waitress uniform.” As a waitress, Glory Bee symbolically offers her female sexuality on a tray to Stubbs and Colonel. She passively waits for the orders of the two men and shows her willingness to serve her sexuality to them at any time. Glory Bee's scope of action is reduced to what Shepard presents as typically female activities: domestic chores and the readiness to be used sexually whenever the male characters are in need.27

For quite some time, Glory Bee has nothing to do but to take orders, serve drinks and food to her (male) customers, or clean up the mess they make. In this she resembles many of Shepard's former female characters, e.g., the secretary, Miss Scoons, in Angel City (1976), who prepares coffee for her boss or scrubs the floor on her hands and knees (dressed in a nun's costume), or Liza and Lupe in Action (1975), who prepare a turkey dinner, wash dishes and hang up laundry on a clothesline. Unlike these female characters, Glory Bee is not even able to perform her simple duties satisfactorily. As a waitress she is a complete failure. She serves her customers in slow motion and sometimes, for whatever reasons, does not serve them at all, as in the case of the White Couple. She either ignores the White Couple completely or gives them insolent answers. Consequently, all the comments made about Glory Bee are derogatory. Apart from the White Woman thinking that she ought to be shot for her service, the White Man also says that “She realizes nothing” (19), while the White Woman says “She understands nothing” (21). Colonel repeatedly tries to show her how to balance a tray, but Glory Bee is incapable of doing it right. Once, Colonel loses his temper and yells at her, “Can't you remember the simplest thing!” (27). Later on he even threatens to hit her if she does not follow his orders: “You don't want a beating do you?” (28). Yet, Glory Bee is quite eager to wait on Colonel and Stubbs. Evidently she recognizes a “real man” immediately when she sees one. She all too willingly does everything Colonel and, later on, Stubbs expect her to do.

Glory Bee lives in her own dream world and appears not to understand what is going on around her. She comes alive only when she suddenly starts to sing, something she has wanted to do for quite some time. Only then does she carry her tray “quickly and freely with no concern about spilling” (25). She also seems to enjoy her dancing with Colonel. The two of them “move like a dance team with Glory Bee falling right into the rhythm” (28). In the production at The American Place Theatre, Glory Bee was played by the black actress Erica Gimpel. Since Shepard regularly attended the rehearsals in New York, one may assume that he intended the role to be played by a black actress, although he never makes this explicit in the text. The race factor throws an even more ambiguous light on Glory Bee. She then is a woman who has all the characteristics associated with derogatory, simplistic stereotypes of black women: she is all too obviously left to serve white men and clean up their mess, she is too dumb (or lazy) to perform the simplest work duties, she is at her best when she can sing and dance (since she has the “rhythm”), and white men can use her sexually for their own purposes at any time.

Not surprisingly, considering Glory Bee's sexual appeal, Stubbs talks for the first time about his “thing,” his main obsession, when he notices Glory Bee. Twice, he tells her, even screams at her, “When I was hit I could no longer get my ‘thing’ up. It just hangs there now. Like dead meat. Like road kill” and, once more, “MY THING HANGS LIKE DEAD MEAT!!!” (11). Glory Bee only stares at him and shows no further reaction. Instantly, the presence of this willing, subservient and presumably young woman reminds Stubbs of his impotence. That sexual potency is an essential part of masculinity is literally proved to Stubbs when Glory Bee dumps a bowl of clam chowder into the White Man's lap. The White Man takes a napkin to clean from his lap the white, semen-like mess and the cleaning slowly turns into masturbation. At this point Colonel tells Stubbs that he has “to learn to pay for [his] actions. Become a man” (23). Stubbs picks up the last sentence: “Become a man” is repeated five times in a row, like an incantation or even a revelation. The White Man continues masturbating, while his wife continues eating, totally oblivious of what is going on. Colonel, to keep up with the White Man, then fools around with his Civil War sword. The crude symbolism of the masturbation scene must have provoked Frank Rich to say that “Surely Mae West made the analogy between machismo and weaponry with rather more wit” (C7).

Glory Bee now becomes an object of competition and blackmail for Colonel and Stubbs. She also becomes the catalyst in their conflict. The two men fight for glory, which is the most important thing to win in a war. Glory Bee's name alludes to “Glory be to God,” and it is “Glory be” to the one who will finally win the war. Since Colonel believes that he is “a God among men” he is sure that “Glory” will be to himself.28 He waltzes around the stage with Glory Bee, tells Stubbs that he is in love with her and spins romantic dreams of running away to Mexico with her. (Mexico is one of the favorite hideouts for Shepard's heroes when the situation gets difficult!) With her, he wants to “begin to spawn children. All boys! Each of them physically perfect in their own way. Each of them beyond reproach” (30). Whether Glory Bee wants to conceive his sons is no matter of interest for Colonel. The point for him is to make clear that he can use her sexually and that Stubbs cannot because he is, as Colonel now emphasizes, “maimed” (29) and a “cripple” (31). Colonel shows Stubbs that he can easily find a replacement for him and does not have to listen to his accusations.

At first, Colonel seems to succeed: Stubbs is afraid that he will “abandon” him (31). In his despair, he tries to get up from his wheelchair and nearly falls over, but Glory Bee rushes to his side to support him. Instantly, Colonel reminds Stubbs not to forget about his “thing”: “What're you going to do when she finds out about your ‘thing,’ Stubbs? How're you going to explain that one?” (32). (A little later he reminds him of this again [35]). Since Stubbs shows no reaction, Colonel tries to discredit Glory Bee: “She's playing you for a sucker, Stubbs. You can see right through it” (35). But Colonel has no more influence on the situation. After Glory Bee strokes Stubbs's back “softly but mechanically,” Stubbs “rolls over on his back and embraces Glory Bee, pulling her on top of him” (35). The two start to roll around on the floor, and miraculously Stubbs feels his “thing is coming back!” Glory Bee thinks that this is “great,” and after that she has nothing else to say (36). Finally, she has fulfilled her function and for the rest of the play her presence is no longer necessary. Only at the very end does she join in the final song, after she has put a gas mask on Stubbs and one on herself. She also “curls into fetal position” to symbolize that Stubbs, like Colonel, now is also able to spawn children (38).

Shepard's female characters are almost without exception symbols of the male fear and rejection of female sexuality. They are usually made responsible for the sexual impotence almost all of Shepard's male characters suffer from. It is a novelty in Shepard's plays that a woman restores sexual potency to a man. Yet, the restoration of Stubbs's potency with Glory Bee's help has the single function to bring the combat between Stubbs and Colonel to its climax. Glory Bee symbolizes the connection of Eros and Thanatos in the play.29 She restores sexual potency to a man who in turn unloads it in a symbolic climactic killing (which is like an orgasm). The implication is that female sexuality is the origin of war. Stubbs once brings up this question in his own search for the origin: “Eve. Maybe her” (38). Glory Bee's sexuality not only has the effect of restoring Stubbs's potency, it also brings back his male aggressiveness and lust for blood. When Glory Bee at the end puts a gas mask on Stubbs she can be interpreted as the one who sends him into war and consequently as the one who is to blame for the existence of war.

Stubbs's sexual potency is invariably linked to his aggressiveness and his memory. His “thing” has brought everything else back (“It's all coming back to me now” [36]). When Colonel, who now is afraid that Stubbs will leave him, speaks his last words in the play, Stubbs stands behind him and holds him in a stranglehold. He then releases his hold and grabs Colonel's sword (again a rather obvious phallic symbol). With the sword in both hands he indicates that he is going to decapitate Colonel, but then freezes in that posture. He finally proves that he has become a man by an act of violence. Stubbs has been regenerated through violence and reborn a real man. His initiation journey has come to an end. His last words are “GOD BLESS THE ENEMY!!!!!!!” spoken through a gas mask (39). Stubbs blesses his enemy, which includes Colonel, because he needs him to prove that he has finally found his male identity. As a celebration of this “happy circumstance” all the characters on stage, except Stubbs, again start singing “Goodnight Irene.”

Colonel and Stubbs in States of Shock are left in the same situation as Lee and Austin in True West. However, True West would have lost some of its impact without its ambiguous, unresolved ending. States of Shock leaves only frustration. It literally puts the reader/audience in a “state of shock” by its utter pessimism and lack of solution. Shepard leaves his male protagonists in “various states of insanity and self-abuse” (21). To achieve a male identity, and this is what the play is primarily about, Shepard still sees no other way than to continue the ancient male tradition of competitiveness, machismo and violence which finally leads to war. In this case, it is the son who is about to kill the father and with the use of violence he follows the role model of the father. In Shepard's plays, blood relations hover like a curse over the sons' search for a true male identity. The sons have to surrender to the mysterious and inescapable power of blood relations in order to find their own identity. They invariably have to become like their fathers, even when they are “monster fascists” like Colonel in States of Shock. For Shepard, everything is connected with the family, particularly male family members:

What doesn't have to do with the family? There isn't anything, you know what I mean? Even a love story has to do with family. Crime has to do with family. We all come out of each other—everyone is born out of a mother and father, and then you go on to be a father. It is an endless cycle.30

Stubbs is caught up in the “endless cycle” of male family relations which forces him to repeat the old patterns of typically male behavior. Violence and machismo are essential parts of this male self. They both lead to war: on the home front, that is in the family, and on the political front. Since these patterns of behavior are passed on from one generation to the next there is absolutely no escape. War repeats itself in an endless, unbreakable cycle.

In States of Shock, Shepard has dramatized the motivations, failures and results of macho behavior. However, at the same time the play shows that he is personally caught up in it; he derides it and yet is unable to release himself totally from the pure physicality of violence, masturbation and the possession of a sex object. According to Shepard, machismo is not “a moral issue, it's an issue of existence.” He says:

I know what this thing [machismo] is about because I was a victim of it, it was part of my life, my old man tried to force on me a notion of what it was to be a “man.” And it destroyed my dad. But you can't avoid facing it.31

Shepard faces this issue, and one can assume that he agrees when Colonel comments on Stubbs's wailings about his “thing”: “Your ‘thing’ is not the issue, Your ‘thing’ is beside the point. It has little consequence. It's a selfish, stupid, little tiny concern” (36). The major failure of States of Shock is, however, that in the end Shepard merely comes up with another version of “what it takes to be a man,” even though he knows the futility and exaggeration of the male “thing.” This outcome seems inadequate, considering the starting point of his mission. The plot of the play and especially its ending can only be seen as a “strangulation” of a more universal discussion of the origins and “the essence” of war. The play leaves too many questions unanswered, among them the most important one: “How could we be so victorious and still suffer this terrible loss?” (25)


  1. States of Shock played at The American Place Theatre from April 30, 1991, for a two-week run. The production was directed by Bill Hart; in the cast were Michael Wincott as Stubbs, Erica Gimpel as Glory Bee (she formerly had a part in the musical Fame), Steve Nelson as White Man, Isa Thomas as White Woman, and, hardly a surprise, John Malkovich as Colonel. Malkovich came to prominence in his 1982 Steppenwolf Theater-production of Shepard's True West, where he played the role of Lee; and since then has been considered to be a born Shepard outlaw. Even Shepard agrees that he is “a good example” of what Rosen termed a “Shepardesque actor.” Carol Rosen, “Silent Tongues: Sam Shepard's Explorations of Emotional Territory,” Village Voice 4 August 1992, 34. (Subsequent references to Rosen will appear in parentheses in the text.) Surprisingly, Shepard, although his own productions of his last two plays, Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985), were critical successes (he even won an Obie Award for the direction of Fool for Love), did not direct the new play himself this time. However, he regularly attended the rehearsals in New York. States of Shock was published in 1992, almost exactly one year after its premiere, through Dramatists Play Service, New York. All citations are taken from this edition, with page numbers indicated in parentheses at the end of the citation.

  2. Walter Kerr, “Where Has Sam Shepard Led His Audience?” New York Times, 5 June 1983, sec. 2; 3.

  3. The reviews I referred to are: Michael Feingold, “Savage Tongues,” Village Voice, 28 May 1991, 99; Mimi Kramer, “Toxic Shock,” New Yorker, 3 June 1991, 78-79; Jack Kroll, “Sam Shepard Tosses a Grenade,” Newsweek, 27 May 1991, 57; Frank Rich, “Sam Shepard Returns: On War and Machismo,” New York Times, 17 May 1991, C1, C7; John Simon, “States of Schlock,” New York, 27 May 1991, 71. Subsequent references to these reviews will appear in the text.

  4. Shepard in an interview with Michiko Kakutani, “Myths, Dreams, Realities—Sam Shepard's America,” New York Times, 29 January 1984, Section 2, 26.

  5. Amy Lippman, “Rhythm and Truths: An Interview with Playwright Sam Shepard,” American Theatre, 1 (April 1984), 9. Further quotations from this interview will be indicated in parentheses.

  6. Kenneth Chubb and the editors of Theatre Quarterly, “Metaphors, Mad Dogs and Old Time Cowboys: An Interview with Sam Shepard,” in Bonnie Marranca, ed., American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard (New York, 1981), 195. Shepard's anti-political attitude became very obvious in his failed collaboration with Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni on his film Zabriskie Point (1969). Shepard finally fled the scene because “Antonioni wanted to make a political statement about contemporary youth, write in a lot of Marxist jargon and Black Power speeches. I couldn't do it. I just wasn't interested.” (Michael White, “Underground Landscape,” Guardian, 20 February 1974, 8).

  7. Jonathan Cott, “The Rolling Stone Interview: Sam Shepard,” Rolling Stone, 18 December 1986-1 January 1987, 172.

  8. In Icarus's Mother the airplane represents an ominous outer (political) threat; Forensic and the Navigators is set in a revolutionary hideout and shows radical overtones; The Unseen Hand confronts the nostalgia and conservatism of the Cowboy era with a modern and sinister technology; the people are held in thrall by the oppressors with “the unseen hand”; in Action, the four characters in the play could be interpreted to be the only survivors of a holocaust.

  9. Since the publication and production of Shepard's last full-length play, A Lie of the Mind, in 1985, he only had one play published: True Dylan, a conversation between Sam Shepard and Bob Dylan, “a one-act play as it really happened one afternoon in California” (Esquire Magazine, July 1987, 59-68). In addition he also wrote and directed his first film, Far North (1988), in theme and atmosphere similar to his family plays.

  10. Sam Shepard, “Language, Visualization, and the Inner Library,” Drama Review, 21 (December 1977), 49-58; repr. in Marranca, 215. In this essay Shepard describes his creative process.

  11. Sam Shepard, “American Experimental Theatre—Then and Now,” Performing Arts Journal, 2:2 (Fall 1977), 13-14; repr. in Marranca, 212.

  12. It recalls such diverse plays as Megan Terry's rock musical Viet Rock (1966), a collaborative effort by Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater and the very first protest play about the Vietnam War, or the plays by Vietnam veteran David Rabe, one of the few dramatists to write about it with conviction and success, as, for example, in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971), Sticks and Bones (1971) (where a mutilated war veteran brings the war home to an all-American family), and Streamers (1976), as well as Terrence McNally's four one-act plays—Tour (1967), Botticelli (1968), Next (1968), and Bringing It All Back Home (1969)—which either focus upon the Vietnam War directly by representing soldiers or indirectly by dramatizing the schism between those who remained at home and those who were subjected to being drafted and killed.

  13. As, for example, in Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978), Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), and most recently, in Born on the Fourth of July (1989), written and directed by Vietnam veterans Ron Kovic and Oliver Stone.

  14. The music for States of Shock was composed by Shepard and J. A. Deane. Shepard had already worked together with Deane in San Francisco, when he was playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre. In the interview with Carol Rosen, Shepard says that he thinks States of Shock, like A Lie of the Mind or The Tooth of Crime, is a musical: “It's got a lot of music in it. You don't have to have actors standing around singing to each other for it to be a musical” (36).

  15. The use of slow motion is also a characteristic element of many productions of another of Shepard's contemporaries—the director Robert Wilson. Reminiscent in tone of Japanese Noh-Theater, most of his pieces take place in slow motion, altering the audience's sense of time. A simple action like crossing the stage sometimes can take more than an hour. When Rosen asked Shepard about the “business of balancing,” in States of Shock, Shepard said that it had no purpose: it was “just a way to get the waitress across the stage” (39).

  16. Shepard's use of sound effects as a structural element was very prominent in his own production of his family play Fool for Love, where he amplified the sounds of slamming doors and booming walls with the help of microphones. Shepard gives a list of sound effects used in States of Shock: “Distant explosion, Explosion at close range, War sounds, and Crash of dishes” (2).

  17. Colonel utters many exclamations that refer to the Bible, as: “Thank God! Thank Christ! Thank the Holy Ghost!” (26). Once, he even asks Stubbs to “swear on a stack of bibles to submit!” (36).

  18. Unlike most of Shepard's former father figures, Colonel is actually present in the play. In True West and A Lie of the Mind the father figures are absent; in Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, and Fool for Love the fathers actually are present on stage but either flee to the desert at one point or totally withdraw into their own fantasy worlds.

  19. Kakutani, “Myths, Dreams, Realities,” 26.

  20. For example, when Stubbs talks to the “white” couple for the second time he says, “When I was hit … the sky went white” (9); or when Stubbs and Colonel are trying to re-enact the battle scene with toy soldiers and Stubbs first is meant to be the red soldiers but then suddenly is the white one, Colonel says, “White is you!” (15). The color white, seen in a military context, also means a sign of surrender or even capitulation.

  21. “Bare bones,” again, like Stubbs's “thing” that hangs like “dead meat,” are a result of war.

  22. Most obviously Lee and Austin in True West, but also Jake and Frankie in A Lie of the Mind, Walt and Travis in Paris, Texas, and the whole ensemble of warring male family members, grandfather, father and his brothers, and grandson, in Buried Child.

  23. Robert Coe, “Saga of Sam Shepard,” New York Times Magazine, 23 November 1980, 122.

  24. For William Kleb, True West is a dramatization of the thesis of The Divided Self of the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst R. D. Laing (see Kleb, “Sam Shepard's True West,Theater, 12 [Fall-Winter 1980], 65-71). Tucker Orbison sees Jungian aspects in Shepard's portrayal of the two brothers. For him, Lee is the shadow figure of Austin (see Orbison, “Mythic Levels in Sam Shepard's True West,Modern Drama, 27 [1984], 506-19).

  25. May in Fool for Love reacts to her brother/lover Eddie's fantasy of her with the words: “You get me confused with somebody else.” Sam Shepard, Fool for Love and Other Plays (New York, 1984), 25.

  26. Felicia Londré, “Sam Shepard Works Out: The Masculinization of America,” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, 2 (1987), 20.

  27. For Florence Falk, the female characters in Shepard's plays are “the domestic caretakers of the plays, their responsibilities ranging from cooking to fucking on command.” See “Men without Women: The Shepard Landscape,” in Marranca, 96.

  28. In Emily Mann's Vietnam play Still, Life (1980), which was also produced at The American Place Theatre, a wife explains her husband's definition of glory: “I mean men would not be going on fighting like this / for centuries if there wasn't something besides / having to do it for their country. / It has to be something like Mark says. / I mean he said it was like orgasm. / He said it was the best sex he ever had. / You know where he can take that remark. / But what better explanation can you want? / And believe me, that is Mark's definition of glory. / Orgasm is GLORY to Mark.” See Coming to Terms: American Plays and the Vietnam War (New York, 1985), 232.

  29. Glory Bee's fetal position at the end of the play can also be understood as a fatal position: she is preparing herself for her death in the threat of a coming war.

  30. Shepard in an interview with Jennifer Allen, “The Man on the High Horse: On the Trail of Sam Shepard,” Esquire Magazine (November 1988), 143.

  31. Cott, “The Rolling Stone Interview,” 172.

Robert Brustein (review date 2 January 1995)

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SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Plays for the Parch.” New Republic 212, no. 1 (2 January 1995): 28.

[In the following excerpt, Brustein offers a mixed assessment of Simpatico, faulting the play for its “manipulated suspense.”]

Sam Shepard's new play, Simpatico, which he also directed (at the New York Public Theater), has taken as many critical lumps as his last play, States of Shock. Viewed as an overarching dramatic work, Simpatico probably deserves a few knocks, but I found it an absorbing evening nevertheless, Shepard's best since Buried Child—not because of the cryptic writing, which is strong in individual scenes but ultimately too swamped by its own mysteries. I admired it largely for its acting values. Shepard's directorial technique has advanced considerably in confidence and precision since he last staged A Lie of the Mind. He's a whiz now with scene work: there isn't a slack moment in the play. But, as in Lie of the Mind, the director is too reluctant to edit the playwright; some fat could have been profitably cut. At three hours, Simpatico is simply too long for its subject matter. Even supplied with ample detail to distract you from the thin dramatic purpose, you tend to leave the theater feeling a little unsatisfied. Still, the evening is wonderfully conceived and performed, and riveting moment by moment. Simpatico is a sustained piece of virtuosity that makes you happy Sam Shepard has returned to the stage.

At some point in the proceedings, a character says, “Who is it decided to do away with all the plots?” Well, whoever it was, all the plots ended up in Simpatico, which has enough for a dozen such plays. It is true that Shepard has already written some of these plots, and has often written them better. He has looted True West for the symbiotic tension between his once “simpatico” central male characters. Geography of a Horse Dreamer for reflections on the corruptions of the racetrack and A Fool for Love for a sultry love scene. He has also borrowed some sexual teasing from Tennessee Williams's Baby Doll, some film noir atmosphere from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, and a whole character (a drifter masquerading as a detective) from the movie Miami Blues. This is larceny on a grand creative scale, but Simpatico still bears the characteristic stamp of its author. Like Brecht, Shepard knows how to convert others' private property into his own idiosyncratic real estate.

The trouble is that a coherent dramatic purpose tends to get lost in the underbrush. Simpatico is tantalizing enough in its narrative twists and turns to hold your interest, but what it finally delivers is not sufficient substance to reward your patience. As the action drifts from Cucamonga, California, to bluegrass Kentucky and back again, Simpatico begins to revolve around a racetrack scam that is now causing Carter, the central character, to come apart at the seams. Fifteen years before the action begins, Carter switched a couple of thoroughbreds in order to make a quick bundle and, when the racing commissioner detected the swindle, arranged to have him discredited. In the manner of a private eye collecting evidence for a divorce, he had photos taken of the commissioner in a motel encounter with a young woman, and blackmailed him into silence.

The commissioner (Simms) agreed to hold his tongue and go to another town under an assumed name. But Vinnie Webb, the accomplice who took the photographs (his ex-wife, Rosie, was the woman in the motel room), now wants to expose the truth, partly to come out from under his long exile, partly to pay Carter back for stealing Rosie and his '58 Buick. As in most Shepard plays, the sibling rivalry between these longtime companions is the nub of the action. The play wright draws a familiar contrast between a slick successful achiever (Carter) who is nevertheless riddled with guilt, and a disheveled, disreputable loner (Vinnie) who maintains the moral high ground.

Carter and Vinnie are played by Ed Harris and Fred Ward, both of them (along with Shepard) alumni of The Right Stuff, so the casting is like a class reunion. Harris, wearing a tan double-breasted suit in danger of being shredded by his muscles, does a subtle take on a rigid man without a center, an ex-ex-alcoholic with quivering shoulders, an eggshell in the process of being fragmented. Ward, sporting a two-day growth of beard and a mischievous glint as Vinnie, fully inhabits the role of a derelict masquerading as a private dick and only dicking himself.

Vinnie takes a tour of Kentucky, carrying a shoebox full of the incriminating photographs, eager to find “the man who fell from grace,” the mysterious Simms. Simms (another strong, raspy performance by James Gammon), while denying his identity, nevertheless admits that he once heard of a man who had been vilified and railroaded out of town, at the loss of his entire family (though, Simms adds, “loss can be a powerful elixir”). When Simms spurns the photos, Vinnie goes to Lexington to offer them to Rosie, his ex-wife (Beverly D'Angelo in a steamy, gin-soaked performance). First she refuses to recognize him, then also refuses the negatives.

In the meantime, Carter has been making time with Vinnie's girlfriend, Cecilia (Marcia Gay Harden). He eventually persuades her to visit Simms by telling her hypnotic sagas of the Kentucky Derby. She believes Simms has bought Vinnie's negatives and now wants to buy them back for Carter. But Simms's ironic manner, his insinuating stories of great thoroughbreds such as Secretariat, work on her like an aphrodisiac, making her short of breath. Simms tells her he was betrayed by two snakes: “Some of us get caught with our pants down and some of us don't—I was one of the lucky ones.”

When Vinnie rejoins Carter, who is holed up in Vinnie's bed, he finds a shivering wreck of man who can't put on his own pants and believes his number is up. Carter now wants to swap lives, just as he once swapped horses. He offers Vinnie his fortune, his estate and Rosie in return for Vinnie's purity of conscience. Vinnie, “working on a new case,” ignores him and leaves. Cecilia returns to pour Carter's money over him on the bed, just as Tilden in Buried Child once poured vegetables over his father's sleeping body. The phone rings. Carter is too paralyzed to answer it.

Aside from its impressionist portrait of treachery, betrayal and failed redemption, this doesn't add up to much more than manipulated suspense, but it is a wonder how Shepard can keep us traveling with him on this long day's journey into blight. Simpatico is a treasure hunt that never yields much treasure, except as a demonstration of fine ensemble acting and powerful directing (along with sharp minimalist designing by Loy Arcenas, who can even make a dirty kitchen sink look like a sinister symbol). If it doesn't entirely deliver as a play, Simpatico certainly satisfies as a rich theatrical effluvium, and that's no small thing in a time of drought.

Robert Brustein (essay date 15-22 July 1996)

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SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Shepard's Choice.” New Republic 215, nos. 3/4 (15-22 July 1996): 27-9.

[In the following essay, Brustein offers a mixed assessment of Shepard's works, particularly Buried Child and Cruising Paradise, within the context of Shepard's attitudes towards being a celebrity.]

Challenging the camera over a period of thirty years, Sam Shepard's face appears in sepia and black-and-white on the jackets of three newly issued books. The chiseled bones, the two deep furrows in his forehead, the uncombed mane and dimpled chin are physical constants. What the camera also reveals is how the acid of years and circumstance have etched radical mutations in Shepard's appearance. Something more than passing time is responsible for his transformation from the youthful hipster depicted in Bruce Weber's unposed photo for The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, to the engaging, rather shy young man of Weber's cover shot for Simpatico, to the unshaven, haggard, vaguely anguished figure in Brigitte Lacombe's portrait for Cruising Paradise, to the harrowing, glowering desperado in Richard Avedon's recent celebrity mug shot for The New Yorker. Avedon's black-bordered photograph shows the face and neck of its now middle-aged subject weathered by outdoor and indoor experience, his brow threatening, his mouth drooping at the edges with surly contempt. You can almost sense him tapping his foot, an unwilling subject, impatient to return to his horses and the open air, who doesn't know what in hell he's doing in a New York studio.

Why, he might be asking, is a man who prided himself on being a private, even reclusive writer now willing to cooperate with this cosmopolitan world of hype and fashion? Once a mysterious presence behind a wealth of cryptic plays, today he finds himself a highly publicized celebrity, not through his theater work, which never managed to draw a mainstream public, but largely as a result of screen appearances, beginning with The Right Stuff, which brought him momentary fame as the new Gary Cooper. It is true that Shepard's movie roles have been occasional, even desultory lately, and that the once-prolific dramatist has only produced three plays in more than a decade. Yet, we are told, this will be Shepard's jubilee year. He has just enjoyed his first Broadway premiere—a revised version of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child in the splendid Steppenwolf production (which will soon be closing). The Signature Theatre will stage a series of Shepard works next year off-Broadway, some old, some revised, some newly written. And Knopf and Vintage are issuing a series of Shepard volumes, the latest among them a collection of “tales” called Cruising Paradise.

Reading Cruising Paradise after seeing Buried Child (Brooks Atkinson Theatre) reinforces the impression that Shepard's writing is becoming increasingly autobiographical, if not self-absorbed. By common consent his masterpiece, Buried Child was the beginning of a relatively new phase in Shepard's work. Not long before he was discovered by Hollywood, he turned away from the rock-and-rolling hallucinogenics of Tooth of Crime and The Unseen Hand (“impulsive chronicles,” as he now calls them, “representing a chaotic, subjective world”) to compose domestic plays in a relatively realistic style. It was around the same time that this itinerant road warrior settled into domesticity with Jessica Lange and permitted the studios to replace his broken front tooth. What was jagged and chaotic and parentless in the Shepard persona was now turning familiar and familial.

Indeed, Cruising Paradise suggests that the characters depicted in Buried Child (and other plays of the period: Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind, Simpatico) bear a family resemblance to Shepard's own ancestors. As a matter of fact, a few Buried Child character names—Dodge, Vinnie, Ansel—are mentioned (though in different guises) in these brief stories, along with the weird names of some recurrent Shepard locales (Azusa, Cucamonga).

The name of Dodge, a cantankerous drunkard in Buried Child, reappears in the stories as his great-great-great-grandfather, Lemuel Dodge, who lost an ear fighting for the North and an arm fighting for the South. (These amputated parts may have inspired Bradley's prosthetic leg in Buried Child.) But Dodge, the dramatic character, is probably much closer to Shepard's own father, whose bourbon-soaked presence dominates the first half of Cruising Paradise. In “The Self-Made Man,” Shepard remembers his father as a World War II fighter pilot in a silk scarf, who mournfully concluded that “aloneness was a fact of nature.” In “The Real Gabby Hayes,” he recalls him as man who loved the open desert and loaded guns, two passions inherited by his son. In “A Small Circle of Friends,” he describes the way his father gradually estranged all his close companions as a result of his drinking bouts and temper tantrums. At one point, he attacked a man he suspected of having an affair with his wife, smashing his face on his raised knee and splitting his nose. And in “See You in My Dreams,” Shepard recounts (in an episode recapitulated in A Lie of the Mind) how his father was run over by a car in Bernalillo after a three-day binge of fighting, fishing and drinking with a Mexican woman. His son buried his ashes in a plain pine box in Santa Fe's National Cemetery, feeling “a terrible knotted grief that couldn't find expression.”

Most of these stories, like many of his plays, take place in motor courts—Shepard may be the most inveterate chronicler of motel culture since Nabokov made Humbert Humbert chase Lolita through the back lots of America. (Both writers recognize that nothing better suggests the bleak rootlessness of American life than a rented room.) In one of the stories—“Hail from Nowhere”—a man (the author?) is looking for his wife in a motel room, and discovers that she has abandoned him. He can't remember what they fought about, but in a companion piece, “Just Space,” the woman describes him to her mother as someone who “carries guns” and tried to shoot her. I was reminded of a time when Shepard, having driven to Boston with a brace of shotguns in his trunk, threatened to use them on a Herald photographer who was stalking him and Jessica Lange through the streets of Beacon Hill. Rage, alcohol and a profound respect and awe for trackless nature—these constitute the basic Shepard inheritances.

They also constitute the essence of Buried Child. Set in central Illinois in 1978, the play is about an alcoholic couch potato (Dodge), his hectoring unfaithful wife (Halie), two dysfunctional sons (the half-wit Tilden and the sadistic amputee Bradley), a grandson (Vince) and his girlfriend (Shelly). Some past nastiness is afflicting this family, a secret that is gradually exhumed (along with the child) in Ibsenite fashion: Halie has borne a baby out of wedlock by her own son, Tilden.

Shepard monitors this story through strong and violent metaphors. At the end of the first act, Bradley cuts his father's hair until his scalp bleeds, and, at the close of the second, thrusts his fingers into Shelly's mouth in a gesture equivalent to rape. When Vince returns to the family, no one recognizes him. He responds by drinking himself into a stupor with his grandfather's whiskey. By the end of the play, Dodge has quietly expired, Vince has inherited his house, and Tilden—who earlier carried corn and carrots to dump them into Dodge's lap in some vague vegetative rite—enters with the decaying remains of the child who was buried in the garden. It is a remarkable moment, contrasting fertility and drought, invoking the lost innocence and failed expectations not just of a family but of an entire nation. Buried Child reverberates with echoes of The Waste Land, Tobacco Road, Of Mice and Men, even Long Day's Journey into Night, but it is at the same time an entirely original Shepard concoction.

And the production that director Gary Sinise has fashioned with his Chicago company is a corker—easily the finest staging of a Shepard work I have ever seen. Robert Brill's vast set is composed of an endless staircase ascending to nowhere and wooden slatted walls decorated with the head of a lopsided moose that seems to be as drunk as the owner. The accomplished cast fills this space entirely, investing this dark gothic concerto of a play with elaborate comic cadenzas. James Gammon, a quintessential Shepard actor, is especially powerful as Dodge, rasping his part as if he were swallowing razor blades. Leo Burmester as Bradley drags his leg along the floor like Walter Slezak stalking John Garfield in The Fallen Sparrow. Terry Kinney plays the lobotomized Tilden in filthy boots and trousers, as if he had just been plucked from the earth himself. And Lois Smith is an eerie, frenzied, nattering Halie.

While Buried Child uses the family as a commentary on an entire nation, Cruising Paradise is oddly insulated from anything but Shepard memories. In most of these stories, this is not a pressing problem. Whether told in first or third person, they are drenched in a powerful nostalgia. “I found myself lost in the past more often than not,” Shepard writes in “The Devouring Lion,” which may explain why he has chosen the reflectiveness of narrative rather than the immediacy of drama for evoking his family history: the short tale is the perfect medium for reminiscing about yourself and your ancestors.

It is not, however, an ideal medium for talking about your experiences as a movie star. And what weakens and finally enfeebles Cruising Paradise is the self-regarding, oddly conflicted nature of the final stories. Here, in a series of twelve impressionistic vignettes, mostly written on location in 1990 for a film he was shooting at the time, presumably Volker Schlondorff's Voyager, Shepard goes by train to California for an initial meeting with the German director, then by car to Mexico for the filming. “I'm an actor now,” he writes. “I confess, I don't fly. I've been having some trouble landing jobs lately because of this not wanting to fly; plus, I refuse to live in L.A.” He also doesn't own a fax machine or a word processor, and he won't do “press junkets.”

During appointments with costume and makeup, he realizes that he is going to be thrown together with perfect strangers on a long shoot. This makes him want to “either run or puke.” He gets in a hassle with an assistant to the director who, because of Shepard's fear of flying, is required to make arrangements for a special limo. These arrangements are complicated by Mexican border regulations and Shepard's taste in cars. “I don't need a limo. Just get me a Chevy,” he remarks. The L.A. weather reminds him of murder, “the perfect weather to kill someone in.” Passing some “very chic people” in the hotel, “sinking into paisley, overstuffed sofas, reaching for silver trays full of cashews and almonds,” he again thinks of murder. He remembers what Céline said in his very last interview: “I just want to be left alone.”

Since he won't fly, or use technology, or engage himself socially, Shepard manages to create as much trouble for the studio as the most demanding star. He harasses his Austrian driver because he insists on wearing a tux while driving through the desert. He feels alienated from the director when, sick with “la turista,” he cries over a lost love (“I barely know the man”). In short, he behaves like a royal pain in the ass.

He arrives in Mexico finally after a series of harrowing adventures. The limo is stopped and stripped by some narcs looking for drugs. Shepard can only get a work permit by lying to a female bureaucrat, telling her he's Spencer Tracy. “I'm not an actor. I'm a criminal,” he muses. “Maybe there is some inherent crime attached to pretending.” These last stories contain some finely observed paragraphs about the Mexican landscape, the local villages and the Indian extras, but the very act of writing them while acting in a movie suggests the effort to maintain a literary identity.

Shepard knows that there is something inherently contradictory about his twin careers. It is a little jarring to find a man noted for his reserve and taciturnity talking about “this scene I'm playing now,” about having “no idea whatsoever how to play this character.” He has elected to follow the career of a public personality without sacrificing his privacy as an artist. This is not an easy choice. The face in the Avedon portrait suggests it's a choice that is tearing him apart.

Sam Shepard and Stephanie Coen (interview date September 1996)

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SOURCE: Shepard, Sam, and Stephanie Coen. “Things at Stake Here.” American Theatre 13, no. 7 (September 1996): 28.

[In the following interview, Shepard discusses Buried Child and his likes and dislikes among his various other works.]

[Coen]: In a 1983 interview, you called Buried Child “verbose and overblown” and “unnecessarily complicated.” Is it still something of a problem play for you?

[Shepard]: No, not any more. I think I solved it. (Laughter.) But it was due to this production being able to cast a new light on it—and I guess, too, the amount of time between when it was originally written and the current production. It gives you a different perspective.

What changed the most for you?

There were a lot of things that were hanging, particularly with the character of Vince and his lostness and dismay at not being recognized. His predicament became clearer in retrospect. My emphasis was on the old man, on Dodge.

It's interesting that your focus went from the older character to the younger.

It's because of the structure of the play. You see the weaknesses, and one of the weaknesses is that Vince hadn't been fully explored. For one thing, the old man was a lot more fun. I could really go with him, but the kid wasn't so much fun. Now the kid is starting to become more and more apparent to me.

The revised text makes it clear from very early on that Tilden is the father of the buried child, something that is much more mysterious in the original play.

It was always implicated that he was, even in the original. I didn't want anything in the play to be gratuitously mysterious. And I felt that certain questions that were ignited in the play should find—not resolution, they shouldn't be resolved—but they should be at least followed through. One of them was this insinuation that Tilden was the father. And I thought, yes, of course he is, go with that.

Were you surprised that the Steppenwolf production was hailed as so funny?

I geared the play towards this humor, because I felt that the play in our first production was too heavy. There's a lot of humor in it—based mainly on Dodge's kind of out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth humor, his sarcasm, that strange World War II humor—that I wanted to emphasize. I think the play works because the audience is allowed into this kind of strange humor in spite of themselves. They have to laugh at this character, even though he's killed a child. Otherwise, it's deadly.

For this year's Signature Theatre Company season, you're rewriting your 1972 play The Tooth of Crime. What is the impulse for revisiting that play?

Well, I felt again that there was something incomplete about it. There's a strength to the play, and it doesn't go where I hoped it would go.

These are not easy plays. Buried Child and Tooth of Crime were tough plays to write. Other plays are easy to write, like Curse of the Starving Class, True West—they just kind of happened. But these plays were struggles. Not to say that I didn't have fun with them, but they were not the same breed of animal.

Which of your plays wouldn't you touch?

(Laughter.) I don't think any of them are perfect, but there are certain ones I wouldn't mess around with, because I think they are what they are, like Action, for instance. Probably True West. But again, nothing is perfect, it's just I have no desire to elaborate on them. They work.

Is it fair to say that your work suggests that the past is something you can deny, but you can't escape from?

I suppose you could say that. (Laughter.) It's not the main deal. The past is a memory. I mean, what is the past? Of course, as you grow older, the past looms a lot larger—you don't have as much future. (Laughter.)

As you grow older, are you more conscious of writing for history?

No, but I am aware of this chain of being, which takes on a different value than when I was 19, for instance, when you're trying to deny the chain of being—whatever came before me doesn't matter. That's cool for a while, but now it becomes important to me to understand the way my stuff is interconnected, the way it's a result of the past. I'm beginning to understand that I'm the direct product of something that's wild and woolly. They probably never even really had a notion about where they were going back then. Nobody could foresee this disaster.

Vince says in Buried Child, “His face became his father's face.” Do you see that speech as a signature, of sorts?

This problem of identity has always interested me. Who in fact are we? Nobody will say we don't know who we are, because that seems like an adolescent question—we've passed beyond existentialism, let's talk about really important things, like the fucking budget! (Laughter.) Give me a break! There are things at stake here—things of the soul and of the heart—and we talk about the budget! Sorry to get excited. I'm sure that won't appear in Esquire.

In what?

What is this, Esquire?

American Theatre.


So do you think we'll just crash and burn?

Something good always comes out of it. I'm not a doomsday person. No matter what, the creative forces are powerful. Publicity is on the side of negativity, but it doesn't mean it's more powerful.

Is there anything about popular culture that's interesting you now?

Rodeo. There's some good music going on. The commercial aspect of what's going on deadens everything. It's very hard to get to something that has heart anymore, because everything's for sale, and it's for sale real cheap. You end up with a lot of what my Granddad used to call poppycock.

Francis King (review date 16 November 1996)

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SOURCE: King, Francis. “Splinters and Doodles.” Spectator 277, no. 8783 (16 November 1996): 51.

[In the following review, King compares Shepard's fiction in Cruising Paradise with his dramas, faulting the stories as the “literary equivalent of doodles.”]

A few writers—Chekhov, Pirandello and Maugham at once come to mind—have achieved equal distinction in fiction and drama. But on the evidence of this collection of ‘tales’ (as the dust-jacket terms them), fiction is no more than a subsidiary occupation for the brilliant American dramatist Sam Shepard, along with his other subsidiary occupations, acting, the directing of films and the playing of rock music.

Shepard has always been obsessed with barren lives in barren places. Out of the emotional desert in which his characters subsist, a geyser of violent feeling suddenly erupts, in most cases not to irrigate their existences but to obliterate them with its scalding force. The most memorable story [in Cruising Paradise], a model of terseness and audacity, about such a life is ‘The Package Man’, in which a cattle hand finds himself sitting at a bar next to a stranger who at once subjects him to a relentlessly rambling monologue. The cattle hand barely responds. The story ends with the sound of a shot from the lavatory of the bar. Unable to communicate with anyone and therefore alone in his private hell, the stranger has killed himself.

There are three or four other stories almost as good as this, among them a dazzling account of a terminal row between a man and his wife in a South Dakota hotel, and a brief, haunting anecdote about a man who unwittingly fathers a son for a lesbian couple. Most of the other tales, however, read as though they were sharp, glittering splinters from works either still to be completed or abandoned.

One guesses that there is a strong element of autobiography in the first-person accounts of a childhood and adolescence spent in the baleful shadow of an alcoholic father, a former wartime pilot, who is given to smashing up whole rooms during his drunken fugues. For Shepard, as for Hemingway and many other American writers, drunkenness is all too often an indication of manliness, even heroism. European writers tend to see it as an indication of social or emotional inadequacy.

Fiction and reality all but converge in the vivid accounts, at the end of the volume, of filming in Mexico—where location scenes were shot for Thunderheart, in which Shepard gave a memorable performance. The show-business diary, mordantly successful in the hands of someone like Simon Gray, and messily unsuccessful in the hands of someone like Madonna, has become a commonplace in recent years. These Mexican pieces might well be worked-up jottings of the same kind.

A page or two long, sometimes no more than an overheard snatch of stage dialogue between two unidentified participants, all too many of these tales give the impression of being the literary equivalent of doodles executed by a highly regarded painter while awaiting his next sitter or his next social engagement. Of course one values Shepard's doodles, just as one would value doodles by Hockney or Freud. But a doodle is not really an adequate substitute for a true work of art.

Don Shewey (essay date July/August 1997)

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SOURCE: Shewey, Don. “Sam Shepard's Identity Dance.” American Theatre 14, no. 6 (July/August 1997): 12-17.

[In the following essay, Shewey debates Shepard's mid-life quandaries, discussing the all-Shepard season at the Signature Theatre in New York, Shepard's collaborations with Joseph Chaikin, and his recent revisions to some of his best known works.]

Since 1991, the Signature Theatre Company in New York has been devoting its entire season to reconsidering a single playwright's body of work. In the past, artistic director James Houghton's choice of playwrights to honor has been undeniably worthy, yet the seasons Signature produced didn't so much alter as confirm the way we think about these writers. Edward Albee? Good playwright, an American master. Horton Foote? Solid craftsman. Adrienne Kennedy? Fascinating and formally challenging.

This year Signature turned its attention to Sam Shepard; and the results have been erratic, unpredictable, perverse, surprising, unnerving—which is to say, a very interesting season indeed.

For one thing, the gems of the season have been terrific stagings of three tiny and extravagantly disparate one-act plays: Chicago, which Shepard wrote in one day and which earned him his first Obie award in 1965; The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife, a wacky 20-minute musical he wrote for the Bicentennial; and Killer's Head, a 10-minute monologue/conceptual-art piece. The newest work on hand was also the slightest: When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable), a collaboration between Shepard and Joseph Chaikin commissioned for the Olympic Arts Festival last summer in Atlanta.

When the season lineup was first announced, conspicuously absent were any of the semi-autobiographical family plays for which Shepard is best known. This bold and brave strategy fell by the wayside, however, when Shepard failed to deliver the new play he'd promised as season finale, forcing Signature to schedule in its place Curse of the Starving Class—an excellent but hardly neglected Shepard triumph. Action, the minor masterpiece that I secretly hoped would be the discovery of the season, wasn't, thanks to a misconceived production. And the show everybody hoped would be a long-running Off-Broadway hit, a revised version of The Tooth of Crime (subtitled “Second Dance”), was an unmitigated disaster—yet Shepard's rewrite contained ideas I'm still thinking about, and it had the most to say about the state of the art of Sam Shepard.

“Something's been coming to me lately about this whole question of being lost,” Shepard wrote to Chaikin in 1983 from Iowa, where he was shooting the film Country with Jessica Lange. “It only makes sense to me in relation to an idea of one's identity being shattered under severe personal circumstances—in a state of crisis where everything that I've previously identified with in myself suddenly falls away. A shock state, I guess you might call it. I don't think it makes much difference what the shock itself is—whether it's a trauma to do with a loved one or a physical accident or whatever—the resulting emptiness or aloneness is what interests me. Particularly to do with questions like home? family? the identification of others over time? people I've known who are now lost to me even though still alive?”

At the time, Shepard was simply staking out the territory he and Chaikin would explore in their third collaboration, The War in Heaven. Yet that one letter alone contains seeds—especially the brooding about identity—that would eventually bear fruit in his subsequent plays A Lie of the Mind, States of Shock, Simpatico, the overhauled Tooth of Crime and When the World Was Green.

The two characters in Green are an old man on death row for murder and a young woman who comes to interview him for a newspaper story. “How did this all begin?” she asks. “There was an insult 200 years ago,” he says. Because of this insult seven generations back, the Old Man's father pointed out to him when he was five years old the cousin it was his duty to kill. The Old Man tracked his cousin Carl for many years, became head chef of his favorite restaurant in New Orleans and finally poisoned his potatoes. According to the Interviewer, however, it was a case of mistaken identity: Instead of his cousin, the Old Man killed someone who may or may not have been the Interviewer's long-lost father.

Much about the play is left purposely mysterious and open-ended. Where does this story take place? Some references are clearly American and some are not. The word “Bosnia” is never spoken, but a viewer in 1996 couldn't help thinking about the genocidal “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia when watching a play about a generations-old conflict whose roots can only be described as mythological. The Beckett-like setting (a simple prison cell, a gray slate wall, a single high window) and the interrogatory format are recognizable trademarks from Chaikin's theatre background. Meanwhile, the themes and imagery—that ancient curse, the male-female standoff, the search for the father, the echo of old folk ballads—seem like pure Shepard.

When the World Was Green is the first of the Shepard-Chaikin collaborations that Chaikin did not perform himself, which was too bad. Alvin Epstein, a veteran actor whose credits include the American premieres of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, gave an overemphatic, disconnected performance that made this brief play seem tedious and overlong. I couldn't help pining for the light touch and poetic reverie Chaikin might have summoned, before a series of strokes made performing all but impossible for him.

Fortunately, the double-bill evening finished with Chaikin's delightful staging of Chicago as a tour-de-force for Wayne Maugans as Stu. Bare-chested in an empty bathtub, he paddled through a stream-of-consciousness monologue as the world (his girlfriend Joy and her friends) paraded by with their telephones, dark glasses and rollaway luggage. It felt like a tribute to the free-spirited innocence of '60s pop culture (Chaikin placed Stu's bathtub at the center of a huge Jasper Johns—like target painted on the floor) and to the theatrical vitality of the improvisational scripts Shepard spewed in his youth. It was also a reminder of Chaikin's gift for weightless comedy, no less valuable than his penchant for soul-searching poetic theatre.

The best thing about Darrell Larson's triple bill of Pecos Bill, Killer's Head and Action is that it simultaneously represented the breadth of Shepard's writing for the theatre and almost demonically defied any attempt to confine him to any category. Pecos Bill was originally commissioned by Robert Woodruff for the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. It later showed up in New York on a double bill with Superstitions (adapted from Shepard's prose anthology Motel Chronicles), an evening most memorable for the earthy presence of Shepard's then-wife O-Lan as Slue-Foot Sue, who rides in on a giant catfish to warble her cowboy cantata with Pecos Bill. The Signature production replaced Catherine Stone's somewhat pedestrian three-chord country-folk music with a more ambitious score by resident composer Loren Toolajian and featured two fine singers, Romain Fruge and Julie Christensen. In this brief surreal musicale, they managed to peel back the surface of deadpan comedy. Underneath, we glimpsed Shepard's yearning for the mind-and-soul-expanding aspects of Wild West mythology, heroes who can harness cyclones and heroines who can shoot the moon. “Why is we both dyin' on this land?” they lamented. “Why is we forgotten in the memories of man?”

Although Pecos Bill is a curiosity in the Shepard canon, this kind of quirky musical is a specialte de la maison of Overtone Industries, the production company originally founded in San Francisco by O-Lan Shepard, who took it with her when she relocated to Los Angeles. She continues to subsidize Overtone's work with her acting jobs—under the name O-Lan Jones—in movies like Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands and Mars Attacks! The most ambitious Overtone project in recent years was a quartet of myth-based musicals called String of Pearls, whose cast included Julie Christensen and which was produced at the Met Theatre, a frequent venue for Darrell Larson as both actor and director. It was Larson's production of Action and Killer's Head at the Met that inspired Shepard to recommend him to Signature Theatre's James Houghton.

Killer's Head is an almost fail-safe theatre piece. Blindfolded and strapped to an electric chair, the nameless character chatters about buying a new pickup and breeding race horses—the kind of talk that's music to Shepard's ears—until the lights dim and the switch gets flipped. It's also a tailor-made showpiece for actors, an attribute which Larson and Signature exploited for maximum publicity value by casting a variety of studly stage and screen actors to alternate in the role, including Jamey Sheridan, Treat Williams, Arliss Howard, Scott Glenn. Dermot Mulroney and Ethan Hawke. The performance I saw featured Bill Pullman, whose recent film appearances include Independence Day and David Lynch's Lost Highway. Pullman blustered his way through the monologue with a kind of heedless bravado, for all the world as if he were ordering another round at the saloon. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, though, his confidence started to drain away before the final blackout.

Pecos Bill and Killer's Head are both imagistic theatre pieces. The central images—that giant mythical catfish, the electric chair—give the audience an experience that goes beyond anything the play dramatizes or the text verbalizes. They are essentially and existentially theatrical. None of Shepard's plays is more so than Action, whose title is almost comically ambiguous. Nothing happens in terms of a plot. Two men and two women gather for a turkey dinner with a Christmas tree blinking in the background. The sense is that of a secluded cabin in the dead of winter, perhaps an experiment in communal living that has outlived its usefulness. Yet the play is full of strong actions that have a particularly theatrical power because they are performed in front of the audience in real time with no faking.

Jeep picks up his chair and smashes it to pieces three times; each time Liza brings in a new one and sweeps up the old one. Shooter pulls his overcoat over his head and imitates a dancing bear; Lupe does a soft-shoe sitting down. They carve and eat the turkey. Jeep stands for a long time dipping his cup into a bucket of water and pouring it back until he suddenly pulls a dead fish out of the bucket, cuts it open, and disembowels it on the dinner table. The women hang wet laundry on a clothesline that crosses the stage. There's no motivation and often no consequence for these actions. “Why?” yields no satisfactory answers. Action becomes identity; it replaces character development and shifts mercurially. Instead of explaining something about these characters, Shepard wants to bypass the thinking brain and go right for the senses: smell the fish! hear the water pouring! feel the shock waves of smashing chairs! As the actions and interactions accumulate, the play becomes a metaphor for itself, a virtuosically self-enclosed theatrical event like Waiting for Godot or Endgame—and equally bleak philosophically. In each of these plays, four people struggling for community, fumbling to find their place in The Book of Life, represent the human soul making its way through the world. In the brief flash between darkness and darkness, “you act yourself out.”

Curiously, the Signature production ignored the play's existentialism. Right off the bat, director Larson made the mistake of treating the play as if it were a naturalistic drama. In the play's very first line, Jeep looks out at the audience and announces, “I'm looking forward to my life. I'm looking forward to uh—me. The way I picture me.” Shooter says, “Who're you talking to?” which is Shepard's sly way of shattering the fourth wall, of having the characters acknowledge that they're onstage using certain theatrical conventions. In Larson's production, Jeep earnestly aimed his opening salvo at the women sitting at the table with him, which not only made Shooter's line incomprehensible but turned the audience into voyeurs rather than breathing partners. The set sprawled across an enormous amount of space, conveying neither the claustrophobia of communal living nor the external pressure of a raging winter storm or the oppressive isolation of self-exile. Meanwhile, the play and the characters seemed to have no inner life. Reducing their actions to behavior, Larson turned Action into Acting: the performers did so much yelling and strenuous over-emoting that I felt like I was watching a bad parody of a Steppenwolf show.

To be fair, Action is a tricky play to pull off. The actions are absolutely down-to-earth and concrete, not “symbolic” or airy-fairy. Yet they must unfold within a context that recognizes the impact of everything unseen and unspoken in the play: the catastrophe that has already taken place. Action is a Shepard play that I would love to see directed by Chaikin, both because of his history with Beckett and because I suspect that the “inside/outside” exercises he developed for the Open Theatre had something to do with the strange metaphysical quality of this opus.

The Tooth of Crime has always been the most dazzling and well-regarded of Shepard's pre-family plays. A lethal showdown between two killer rock stars, it is an unconventional hybrid of play and musical, and its dense patches of invented pop-culture neo-lingo (part computerspeak, part hipster jive, part sci-fi comic book) make it both challenging and fun to undertake. Carole Rothman, artistic director of New York's Second Stage Theatre, had been after Shepard for years to get permission to revive The Tooth of Crime; as Richard Schechner's assistant director on the New York premiere in 1973 (which featured Spalding Gray in the lead), she practically knew the play by heart. Shepard put her off because he felt it needed a new musical score and he couldn't decide who should do it. Suddenly, in 1995, he called Rothman and (as they say in Hollywood) green-lighted the project with T-Bone Burnett, a former member of Bob Dylan's band, as composer. (Shepard met Burnett while traveling with Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976, an adventure he chronicled in Rolling Thunder Logbook.) When the Signature season came about, it made sense for the Second Stage to co-produce Tooth. One indication of the great expectations surrounding the production was that, while the rest of the Signature season took place at the Public Theater, the revival of The Tooth of Crime was slated for the Lucille Lortel, one of Off-Broadway's prime commercial houses.

Just before he went to work revising and updating The Tooth of Crime for the Signature season, Shepard had revised Buried Child for the Steppenwolf Theatre production in Chicago that transferred to Broadway in the spring of 1996. Despite the machinations that resulted in its being considered a new play for Tony award considerations, the version of Buried Child that appeared on Broadway (and was published in the Sept. '96 issue of American Theatre) was not substantially different from the one that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. By contrast, Shepard's new version of The Tooth of Crime differed so drastically from the original that he gave it a new name: Tooth of Crime (Second Dance). To use an automotive metaphor, if Buried Child got a tune-up, Tooth of Crime got a new transmission.

For one thing, Shepard had ruthlessly cut anything that made the play seem dated, including almost all references to sports cars and rock music idols (Dylan, Jagger, Townshend) as well as two of the most memorable set-pieces from the original play, Hoss's reminiscence of a high-school rumble as class warfare and Becky's rape-scene soliloquy. He'd stripped the text of most curse words and renamed several of the characters. Hoss's sidekick Cheyenne had become Chaser, the jive DJ Galactic Jack was called Ruido Ran, and Star-Man was now Meera (a reference, perhaps, to the Indian-born spiritual teacher Mother Meera). In a hundred large and small ways, he'd made the play “leaner and meaner,” as Houghton put it. “The focus of the play has shifted,” Rothman elaborated. “There was always a fine line between whether it was really about rock-and-roll or really about killing. Now it's gone over the line toward killing.”

Ultimately, the new Tooth of Crime became more about dying than killing. The play originally wielded its peculiar babel of pop-culture jargons as an attack on the contemporary fixation on style and media image. Shepard's rewrite pushed farther into the metaphysical realm. It became about the death of the Self, about transcending identity altogether. The climax of the play is still the second-act showdown between Hoss, the reigning star “Marker” (whatever mixture of rocker and killer Shepard means that to be), and Crow, his upstart challenger. But in this version, the referee bails after the first round, unable to make heads or tails of the strange moves he's witnessing. After the referee's exit, the duel suddenly shifts into almost mystical territory. It conjures up all the alter-ego conflicts that inhabit Shepard's plays (Austin and Lee circling each other at the end of True West, for instance). Crow hypnotizes Hoss into a kind of shamanic trance. Instead of viewing Crow as the enemy to be slaughtered, Hoss suddenly sees him as a mirror. He recognizes in Crow a younger version of himself, consumed with jockeying for status, blazing new fashion trails, and trashing the past—overgrown adolescent antics that seem empty now to Hoss. He realizes that smashing the mirror won't kill the image. If he wants to get rid of the thing he hates, he has to turn the knife on himself (his self?).

In the original version, Hoss's suicide was a defiant act, even noble, but undeniably an admission of defeat. His former colleagues rallied around Crow as the new champion and prepared to play the game all over again. In Tooth of Crime (Second Dance), Hoss dies from his own knife rather than a gunshot. And like the Samurai warrior's hara-kiri, it comes across as a spiritual triumph. It's a relief to leave behind the exhausting game of images. Hoss is liberated in the way that Buddhist philosophy defines liberation: recognition that nothing is permanent, that human experience leads to suffering and that there is no individual self. Escaping from the cycle of death and rebirth, ignorance and illusion—what the Buddhists call samsara—leads to nirvana. Hoss collapses on the floor in the same outline that shows up on the floor in Shepard's 1976 play Suicide in B-Flat, where it represents the last earthly trace of Niles, who wanders through that play unseen, like a soul after death.

These elements may have lurked somewhere under the surface of the original Tooth of Crime. In his 1996 revision, Shepard succeeded in drawing out these philosophical concerns with identity and self-transcendence that place the play on a continuum with his other work rather than off in its own rock-musical corner. However, the new version acquired some literary depth at the expense of its theatricality. Without the topical references to hook the audience and make the world of the play seem fun or at least dazzling to encounter, Tooth of Crime became heavier, more somber, certainly less of a crowd-pleaser. The production, directed by Bill Hart, bombed with critics and audiences. Many nights, more than half the audience streamed out of the theatre at intermission, never to return.

The best thing about the production was T-Bone Burnett's score, a vast improvement over Shepard's original music. Burnett's witty, spring-loaded lyrics meshed well with Shepard's made-up argot. “Somebody's got to monitor all this darkness darkness darkness,” Hoss sings. “Somebody's got to locate the bomb—dot com.” And two lyrical numbers in the first act eerily captured the clock-stopping quality of a drug-induced reverie, especially “Kill Zone” (co-written with Roy Orbison), beautifully sung by Jesse Lenat as Chaser. During early previews, the show knocked the audience back in their seats with a blast of grunge-rock that seemed to link Hoss to Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, charismatic icons of '90s rock. By opening night, the opening number had been transformed into a cool blues delivered like beatnik poetry—theatrically more inviting though oddly anachronistic.

This kind of confusion typified Hart's undercooked direction, which didn't help the audience's appreciation of Tooth of Crime. He was partly hampered by less-than-ideal casting. Although names like Christopher Walken and Tim Roth had been bruited about, the role of Hoss ended up being played by Vincent D'Onofrio, who came across as too lightweight to convincingly play a burned-out character whose first lines are “People tell me I look like hell / Well, I am hell.” But Hart's production crucially lacked an overall vision of the play. The director seemed to have staged the play as if it were the 1973 Tooth of Crime without bothering to account for Shepard's rethinking. Only after seeing the show twice and reading the text, with its veiled references to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, did I begin to understand what was at stake in the showdown between Hoss and Crow. Perhaps the set was not just the throne room of a rock star's castle but some version of a bardo, one of the stages between death and rebirth in Tibetan teachings. Of course, I may be reading into the play a more specifically Buddhist interpretation than Shepard meant for it to have. Nonetheless, it seems clear to me that the play addresses identity-shift as a profoundly spiritual crisis in a way that Hart's production for Signature Theatre failed even to suggest.

As a longtime student and fan of Shepard's work, I've always been intrigued by the hints of mysticism in his plays. Beneath their surface reality, Shepard often uses the elements of theatre to explore (if obliquely) the life of the soul that escapes intellectual perception or material representation. And I'm repeatedly frustrated at the slack, flat, slavishly naturalistic productions his plays get, even when Shepard himself is directing. Admittedly, it's difficult to communicate a spiritual perspective in the theatre without getting too pious or pretentious. But the greatest theatremakers of our time achieve nothing less in their best work—whether it's Peter Brook or Elizabeth LeCompte or JoAnne Akalaitis or Robert Lepage. With the exception of Joe Chaikin, none of them, and no directors like them, seem to take any interest in Shepard.

At least in this country. European directors seem less invested in handcuffing Shepard to naturalistic theatre. Imaginative design choices are always a simple way of churning up submerged, less-than-obvious resonances in a strong text. At a 1993 conference on Shepard in Brussels, the German director-dramaturg team of Hartmut Wickert and Alfred Nordmann gave a fascinating paper about their production of States of Shock at Stadttheater Konstanz. Intrigued by Shepard's account in the Village Voice of the play's genesis as a response to the Persian Gulf War, they decided that this interpretation was too narrow to interest a European audience. Taking inspiration from Jack Gelber's 1976 essay on Shepard called “The Playwright as Shaman,” Wickert and Nordmann conceived States of Shock—ostensibly an absurdist one-act about a retired military man and a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet terrorizing an elderly couple and an inept waitress in a roadside diner—as a shamanic session in which urgently needed healing energy arrives not as the gentle, beneficent “white light” of New Age visualizations but in the raging, disruptive form of a “monster-fascist.”

Judging from the scene they showed on videotape, their production was extraordinary to look at. The director had gotten permission to incorporate into the set replicas of sculptures by two prominent contemporary American artists—Edward Kienholz's The Portable War Memorial and Bruce Naumann's take-off on roadside diner signage, a neon sign that alternately flashes “EAT” and “DEATH.” The show also included lots of music in addition to two live drummers, stylized choreography and meticulous lighting à la Robert Wilson. It seemed like the most exciting directorial approach to staging Shepard that I'd ever seen. When I raved about it to Nordmann (who teaches philosophy at the University of North Carolina), he cautioned me to remember that the long European rehearsal periods militate against the thing that's best about American productions of Shepard: fresh, spontaneous acting.

It's true that Shepard's plays are ideal opportunities for the kind of woolly, uninhibited acting Americans are known for. Gary Sinise's productions of True West (which launched John Malkovich's career) and Buried Child were completely actor-driven, as were Shepard's own productions of Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind. Still, I want it all. I long for productions that feature not just sizzling performances but also a bolder theatricality that taps into the poetic soul of the plays. I'd love to see Des McAnuff or Scott Elliott take on Tooth of Crime (Second Dance)—those are directors who know how to marshal stylized visual design and to plug into the kinetic energy of rock music without leaving actors high and dry—or Robert Woodruff, who first earned his stripes directing Shepard plays, give it the kind of intellectually challenging treatment he's applied to his recent productions of A Man's a Man, The Dutchess of Malfi and The Changeling.

When Shepard created the original Tooth of Crime, he was experiencing the second big identity shift of his life. The first happened when he left his family home in California as Steve Rogers and arrived in New York calling himself Sam Shepard. Then after eight years of intense creative discovery, fame, glory, social entree and consumption of pharmaceuticals, he pulled up stakes and moved to London, to begin a new life as a husband and father. The Tooth of Crime is in some ways a “look back in horror” at the excesses of his life in New York. You could say it's about realizing that the things you wanted so desperately when you were 22 seem unimportant, if not tacky, by the time you turn 30. In a larger sense, the play penetrates an essential truth about the increasingly celebrity-fixated media-culture that America has foisted on the world. Hoss thinks he got to the top through sheer talent; his encounter with Crow reveals the sickening reality that a “Star” is just another consumer commodity, a role American culture always wants someone to play, and it scarcely matters who.

Twenty-some years and a few identity shifts later, Shepard's rewrite of Tooth of Crime rings some new variations on this theme whose implications are both more personal and more universal. He's less interested in love-hating the notion of media stardom and more curious about identity shift as psychic suicide. In fact, you could say he's obsessed with this theme. His latest new play, Simpatico (Written in 1993), seems rather dull and cryptic on the most literal level. It re-enacts the kind of identity exchange between a successful guy and his lowlife alter-ego that occurrs in True West, only this time in the milieu of horse racing rather than moviemaking. But there is something mysterious going on under-neath the surface. In a New York Times interview, Shepard hinted as much when he said, “Identity is a question for everybody in the play. Some of them are more firmly aligned with who they are, or who they think they are. To me, a strong sense of self isn't believing in a lot.” At the end of the play, the slippery character Vinnie seems to thrive specifically because he doesn't cling to a set identity, and despite his Rolex and cell phone, Carter seems to be dying because he does.

In Tooth of Crime (Second Dance), Shepard comes closer to saying that out loud. As Hoss approaches his moment of transcendence and starts to see things no one else onstage can, he says:

No, look! Right here it comes! Emergence. I see him now. A true killer. True to his heart. True to his voice. Whole. Unshakable. There! See? He's coming out! Right toward me now. There! Stepping out! A body as sure as you or me. See? Identity!

When Hoss kills himself, is he shuffling off one identity for another, or is he abandoning altogether the notion of identity as a solid state? Is “the idea of one's identity being shattered” a tragedy or a cause for celebration or both? I guess this is the essential mystery of the play, and like all mysteries meant to be witnessed rather than explained.

It's not surprising that Shepard should dwell on the dance of identity in his plays. His life history pushes those buttons. He's both Steve Rogers and Sam Shepard, he's achieved fame and fortune as both a playwright and movie actor, he's fathered children by two different women. How do these complex realities intertwine for him, or any of us? These are typical burning questions of midlife as well. Shepard's recent plays seem to leap off from the famous opening lines of Dante's Divine Comedy: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.” And questions of identity inevitably inspire meditations on mortality. “Who am I after I die?” is no more or less mysterious than “Who am I before I die?”

In the Signature Theatre season devoted to Sam Shepard, these psycho-spiritual intimations remained submerged. The best thing about the season was that it inspired Shepard's exciting re-examination of The Tooth of Crime. Now it's up to somebody else to stir the deep waters and see what rises from the murk.

Susan Harris Smith (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Smith, Susan Harris. “Trying to Like Sam Shepard: Or, the Emperor's New Dungarees.” Contemporary Theatre Review 8, no. 3 (1998): 31-40.

[In the following essay, Smith assesses Shepard's current problematic critical reception, accounting for his early acclaim and his subsequently diminished reputation.]

When Eric Bentley tackled the problem of Eugene O'Neill's prominence, popularity and decline in his testy essay, “Trying to Like O'Neill”, in 1952, he began with a curse: “It would be nice to like O'Neill. He is the leading American playwright; damn him, damn all; and in damning all is a big responsibility. It is tempting to damn all the rest and make of O'Neill an exception. He is an exception in so many ways”. Commending O'Neill for his reticence, self-respect and independence from commercial pressure, Bentley wrote, “In a theatre, which chiefly attracts idiots and crooks he was a model of good sense and honor” (331).

Bentley attributed O'Neill's fall from grace, first, to press puffery, which had made him a popular, national celebrity and, second, to O'Neill's own vaulting ambition to take on the big question of America. Celebrity, Bentley argued, altered O'Neill's focus as a playwright and resulted in a diminution of his talent. Of O'Neill's celebrity, Bentley complained that “in 1946, he was raised to the American peerage: his picture was on the cover of Time magazine. The national playwright was interviewed by the national press. It was his chance to talk rot and be liked for it” (1952: 331).

Bentley was even harsher about O'Neill's ambition, his desire to be eloquent, to be profound, to create a Big Work, to make America into Athens. O'Neill suffered, as Bentley so sharply put it, from “cultural gas” (342). For Bentley, as O'Neill moved away from “the humbler forms of American life” and a realistic and melodramatic mode to the “rotten fruit of unreality”, “obvious and unimaginative symbolism” and “grandiloquent lugubriousness” (334), he was heralded by what Bentley termed “the Broadway intelligentsia”, the “subintelligentsia in the theatre world”, “the realm of false culture”. According to Bentley, the willingly gullible public, brow-beaten by “propaganda and publicity”, acclaimed O'Neill “for strengthening the pavement of hell”. Author and audience needed each other to be mutually convinced that they were both concerned with “the crying questions of our time […] a writer like O'Neill does not give them the optimism of an ‘American century’, but he provides profundities galore, and technical innovations, and (as he himself says) Mystery” (341).

In conclusion, Bentley absolved O'Neill of his complicity with the odd rationale that O'Neill was “seduced” (341). “If one does not like O'Neill”, Bentley suggested, “it is not really he that one dislikes: it is our age—of which like the rest of us he is more the victim than the master” (345). So, to recapitulate, as Bentley saw it, O'Neill's decline could be attributed to four factors: the celebrity factor, the Big American topic factor, the move away from realism to unreality and victimization by the age.

We have been convened to look at Sam Shepard's current problematic situation and, because I come not as a specialist in Sam Shepard, but as a historian of modern American drama, I want to take the long view, that is from a historical perspective stretching back to the late nineteenth century and offer some reasons, first, for Shepard's early acclaim and, second, for his repositioning which, as I suggest in my title, may be deserved. I should note that I am not the first to compare Eugene O'Neill and Sam Shepard: Henry Schvey recently analysed the two as being nationally prominent and as sharing thematic concerns, but I make different uses of the comparison. I will argue that just as O'Neill's reputation mutated, so, too, Sam Shepard now is caught in the convergence of a number of factors, no one of which could account for his diminished reputation but which, taken together, contextualize him differently than he was in previous decades and which, I contend, actually are part of the historical patterning of American drama about which I want to make three points.

First, American drama, of course, does not exist. What has been called “American” drama is a narrow body of English language texts marked by a perpetually shifting conflation of American essentialism, amplified by Frederick Jackson Turner's “frontier thesis”, fixed on moral, progressive and didactic purposes, concerned with domestic and nativist subjects, focused on masculine protagonists, and dependent on largely realistic dramaturgy. With the exception of the realistic dramaturgy (which I will get to later), most of Sam Shepard's work places him precisely in this realm of “American” drama.

Doris Auerbach is typical of the majority of critics when she identifies Sam Shepard as a writer whose patronymic is “mythmaker,” because his subject is America, the dream betrayed, even though she also locates him in Off and Off-Off Broadway, that is, in an unrestrained, non-commercial theatre. Of his commitment to language, she says that “he came into the foreground of the American theatre scene when the written aspects of drama were being downplayed in favor of ritual, performance, and the non-verbal. He brought the word back into the theatre. […] The heart of the theatrical experience for Shepard is language” (1982: 5). Expansive and experimental though Shepard's language practices are, I would contend that his thematic concerns are narrow. I do agree with Auerbach who characterizes Shepard's subject matter as “simply this—America” (1). “He portrays a man's world—brutal and cold, where adversaries struggle endlessly for domination and power over each other. The female characters are of no help to the protagonists, for they are mere macho fantasies of familiar female stereotypes, castrating mothers, and devouring sex goddesses, who offer no hope for transcendence” (6).

Sam Shepard's plays, for all their experimental novelty, still fit tidily into the thematic mainstream of American literature. The topic of the estranged intellectual's return to a rural home is a common trope for many writers over the past century, from Willa Cather to Thomas Wolfe. Take, for instance, a Hamlin Garland short story, in Main-Travelled Roads (1891), a collection of stories about the harsh life of the American farmer in Wisconsin and Iowa. In “Up the Coulé” a successful actor and playwright returns to the threatened family farm and his angry brother for whom the farm is a prison. Shades of Buried Child!

Second, not only does Shepard write within the received autochthonic American literary tradition, he also fills drama's need for a figurehead. The historical narratives of American drama show it to have been in a metaphorically bi-polar and self-contradictory state of either perpetual emergence and adolescence or infancy and death needing either resuscitation or salvation. The infantile and morbid states have been common tropes for critics from the beginning of the large-scale institutionalizing, anthologizing, and professionalizing of drama as an academic discipline, which began around 1886. A few examples must suffice to demonstrate the pervasiveness of this metaphorical approach. In 1886, drama was dead and ought to stay that way as far as William Dean Howells was concerned but for Brander Matthews in 1888, the drama was only on the verge of dying. The drama was dawning for John Corbin in 1907, in infancy for Walter Eaton in 1908, insurgent for Thomas Dickinson in 1917, in adolescence for Edward Goodman in 1910, just developing for William Archer in 1920, in decline for George Jean Nathan in 1921, moribund for Virgil Geddes in 1931, on the brink of death for Louis Kronenberger in 1935, dying for Samuel Barron in 1935, dying for Paul Green in 1943, at ebb for Eric Bentley in The Kenyon Review in the spring of 1945 but fully dead for Eric Bentley in Partisan Review in the same spring. The critics, sensitive to the shortcomings of the contemporary playwrights who were always being compared unflatteringly to their European counterparts, anxiously scanned the horizon for the saviour who must be emerging to redeem American drama from its provincialism, crudeness and lack of poetry.

For Barrett Clark, as for most modern critics, December 20, 1920, marked the moment at which a respectable American drama was born. On that day, Eugene O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon, which would win the Pulitzer Prize the following year, opened at a special matinee at the Morosco Theatre. Travis Bogard, O'Neill's chronicler, observes that “it was a signal, the first important view of the American drama” (1972: 117). So great was the impact of O'Neill on the American theatre and so anxious were the critics to locate one purely American playwright of whom they could be proud, that the waters parted for O'Neill almost from the start of his career. In 1924, Arthur Hobson Quinn, dizzy with relief, wrote of O'Neill that “he is too great a dramatist to be classified or to be placed in a school of playwrights. He, like Napoleon, is himself an ancestor” (7). Given that this judgment was made on the basis of The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, expressionist plays heavily indebted to the European movement about which O'Neill learned through Kenneth Macgowan, and on Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie, domestic dramas which owe much to O'Neill's extensive interest in Ibsen, Quinn's isolating claim is an index of the critics' urgent desire to identify a native and nativist playwright.

As America had by 1946 made of O'Neill the “banshee Shakespeare” in Bernard Shaw's apt phrasing, so Sam Shepard, the junk yard dog of motel parking lots, became himself a cultural commodity when, in 1985, he was placed on the long-vacant throne, the cover of Newsweek (Nov. 11, 1985). Only a few months after his coronation as figurehead, Shepard, in an article in Vogue magazine, disingenuously shrugged off the attention, if not the acclaim, noting that “I just look on those as publicity gimmicks. Journalism is so hard-up for heroes that it has to create them. It's an American tradition. We invent heroes all the time” (qtd. in Fay, 1985: 216).

My third point is that in his self-conscious public statements as well as in his plays not only does Shepard dramatize the American males' “angst”, he also clearly genders playwriting as a masculine enterprise. Literary history shows that those who created the idea of American drama, that is a nativist and indigenous body of plays, have needed not only figureheads, but also specifically male figureheads; hence William Dunlap was called the “Father” of American drama and Howard Bronson was named the “Dean”. If O'Neill was the saviour for modern American drama, Shepard has been the second coming.

The history of American drama reveals it to have been shadowed by explicit fears of being feminized. For instance, in 1915 Brander Matthews and others were energetically authorizing the writing of drama as masculine, scientific, vital and dynamic. At that moment, for the men who were creating the disciplinary field and the canon, the history of the drama in America necessitated this forceful strategy. As Herbert Brown detailed in a survey of the didactic sensibility in eighteenth-century American drama, “sentimentality reigned triumphant on the English stage from 1760 to 1800, the period of the beginnings of our native professional drama” (Brown, 1932: 47). That sentiment and moralizing were understood to “gratify feminine fancy” increased the sense of urgency for academics, such as Matthews who wanted to legitimate the writing of American drama as a masculine profession.

Matthews asserted that not only could women not handle “largeness in topic,” but also they were incapable of “strictness in treatment. […] And here we come close to the most obvious explanation for the dearth of female dramatists—in the relative incapacity of women to build a plan, to make a single whole compounded of many parts, and yet dominated in every detail by but one purpose” (1916: 120). After subordinating women to the ranks of “decorators” and elevating men to the scientific realm of “architects”, Matthews concluded that “women are likely to have only a definitely limited knowledge of life” and are also “deficient in the faculty of construction” (1916: 124).

George Pierce Baker was also active in gendering American playwriting as a masculine activity. Even though his most promising students were women, according to his biographer, Wisner Payne Kinne, about 1910 Baker “became impatient that the preponderant interest in what he cared so much about was feminine” (1968: 154). Most of his audience when he spoke publicly was female, specifically club women. In fact, Baker turned to a women's club, the MacDowell Club of New York, to fund a fellowship in playwriting at Harvard (Kinne, 1968: 155). That John Frederick Ballard, one of the first masters of arts, won the Craig Prize and had a Broadway success with Believe Me, Xantippe!, proved to Baker that he would be instrumental in producing male playwrights for the American theatre.

This historical context for the nativist gendering of American playwriting makes it clear why, given that ever since O'Neill's death the press had been sniffing about for his successor, those who needed a man at the helm of American drama embraced Sam Shepard with unrestrained eagerness. Consider the other potential candidates and their qualifications. Tennessee Williams's regionalism and homosexuality excluded him from consideration, Arthur Miller was a Jewish leftist, and neither were as prolific as Shepard, who, like Mozart who said that he wrote music as freely as he urinated, has stretched credibility with his volume of plays. I also should observe that though Megan Terry can match Sam Shepard for both volume and experimental inventiveness, she is discounted automatically because she is a woman.

When Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child, he safely could be embraced and sanctified by the middle-class and middle-brow audience he vilified in his plays. Now, the “tall, dark stranger”, trumpeted by Jack Kroll in Newsweek in 1985 as “an American fantasy”, “America's cowboy laureate” with “million-dollar movie bankability”, the “fascinating, complex, even explosive” once-unwashed phenomenon who had burst onto the popular culture scene trailing clouds of prairie dust all the way from Paris appeared to be wearing O'Neill's neglected crown (Kroll: 68).

Like giddy guests hurling rice at a wedding, the profligate critics showered Shepard with superlatives: “the new American hero” (Pete Hamill), “the most exciting talent in the movie world” (Marsha Norman), “the most talented of his generation” (Stanley Kauffmann), and “the quintessential American playwright” (Bonnie Marranca). The Partisan Review described him as one of the two greatest dramatists of the American theatre (the other being O'Neill). Robert Brustein called Shepard “America's leading playwright” (1983: 25). Perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that The New York Review of Books, which rarely deigns to consider drama, let alone American drama, has published two articles on Shepard, one by Elizabeth Hardwick in 1968 and the other by Robert Mazzocco in 1985. More than merely a talented playwright who pleases drama and theatre critics, therefore, Sam Shepard is a cultural phenomenon who fulfills national expectations and roles that have a high place in our desiderata: he is a figure who seems to embody the emergent opposition to commercial theatre and bourgeois hegemony and yet is attractively packaged as a movie star.

Of Sam Shepard's complicity in the celebrity game, David Wyatt, in a recent issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly, notes that Shepard “wants to be a star” (1992: 352) and, as a consequence, has participated in a “bifurcation” of himself: the actor who has become a media-driven, common commodity and the writer who “continues to perfect his role as one of the country's leading cultural antagonists” (359). Though Wyatt does not make of Shepard the cultural victim that Bentley made of O'Neill, nonetheless, he describes Shepard as a “reluctant celebrity”, as if celebrity could be avoided in a post-Warholian world.

Not all critics have been adulatory and several would no doubt suggest that if Shepard's star seems to have dimmed it is because to begin with it was not very bright. For instance, Harold Clurman, in a consideration of the state of American theatre in 1978, worried that it was threatened by a star system, which was promoting “talented amateurs” like Shepard and Mamet who had not worked at their craft (20). Mimi Kramer, in the characteristically conservative The New Criterion, cast a cold eye on the “mysticism” surrounding Shepard: “Sam Shepard is not as good a playwright as everyone says”. However, even she admits that “on the other hand, he is a far better playwright than one might be led to suppose from the quality of his followers' thought” (53). Given that the title of this paper dresses Shepard in “the emperor's new dungarees”, I must confess to sharply conflicted responses to Shepard's work; on the one hand, I am repelled by the repetitious sexual violence and bored by the narrow thematics but, on the other, I am intrigued by his inventive dramaturgical strategies and richly poetic polyphony.

In the light of what I have just suggested about the gendered nativism of American drama, I offer four possible reasons for Shepard's current status. First, August Wilson's success notwithstanding, American drama continues to be predominantly white though it is no longer predominantly the province of men. The “where are the women playwrights?” question has been answered with the sharp and welcome rise of both feminist and pseudofeminist writers and, though none of these has displaced Shepard, the dominance of a single masculine voice as the voice of America perhaps has been modified. As well, feminist criticism strenuously has resisted and reassessed the Shepardian mystique and message (Bank, 1989; Hart, 1989; Schuler, 1990).

Second, though less forceful to date, are the contiguous, but growing moves to pluralism and multiculturalism in American drama which, with feminism, point to a paradigm shift away from the loner male in a state of angst on the existential prairie. This state of being, repeatedly associated with Sam Shepard, is no longer the quintessential American experience. The masculinist mythic approach characteristic of Shepard is now regarded by cultural critics as ideologically faulty essentializing in a multicultural nation increasingly absorbed in wide social issues, such as immigration, AIDS and urban violence.

Third, the academic shift from literary criticism to postmodern literary theory, in which intentionality has been removed from the creative process and in which an aesthetic appreciation of formal qualities is politically incorrect, has effected a critical and cultural repositioning of Shepard despite the fact that, through his notebooks and interviews, Shepard has proven himself to be a self-consciously creative and highly-intentioned writer. Obviously, this critical shift has altered the course of all critical analyses of drama. For instance, the cultural studies approach, increasingly advocated by theatre historians, if not yet by critics of drama, is devaluing reductionist, theme-driven readings of plays and such readings continue to dominate the Shepard industry.

Fourth, at this moment Shepard's claim on popular attention has been displaced by David Mamet whose ear is tuned to the street, to a closely monitored, if severely limited and xenophobic realism. In his early work, Sam Shepard's dialogue revealed how effectively he listened to his musical imagination; he was a poet to Mamet's tape recorder. Recently, however, Shepard's experimental dramaturgy and exploratory language practices have crept from the cradle of the anti-illusionistic avant-garde to the grave's edge of realism. Given that Bentley deplored O'Neill's move away from realism to the “rotten fruit of unreality”, it is ironic that Shepard's own shift to increasingly realistic playwriting has not been welcomed by the critics. For instance, in his review of A Lie of the Mind for The New Republic, Robert Brustein, noting that Shepard's “most ambitious play to date” is also “the closest he has come to entering the mainstream of American drama”, regards this change as a narrowing of his talent and as reductively and repetitiously autobiographical (1986: 25). Complaining about the “bloated text” and the “domestic style”, Brustein remarks that “Shepard is moving inexorably toward the heart of American realism” and, unfortunately, opening the way for biographical speculation. In short, as far as Brustein is concerned, Shepard the public figure has revealed too much about himself to journalists and lost the “fantastic” and “demonic” power of eruptive and subversive subterraneanisms that were the compelling characteristics of Shepard the destabilizing playwright (26). Though not as harshly, Gerald Weales expressed doubts about A Lie of the Mind because of “the play's extended length and a sense of amorphousness that suggests authorial indifference rather than a desirable ambiguity” (1986: 522). Set against Shepard's early dazzlers, Buried Child, True West, Red Cross and The Tooth of Crime, A Lie of the Mind is, for Weales, “tepid by comparison” (523).

I would add that a related factor in the decline of Shepard's reputation is the increase in popularity of performance art, in which the primacy of visual modes displaces verbal ones. This revitalized theatrical mode has had consequences for Shepard's reputation because his imagistic disruptions or distortions of reality have been largely psychological and have been depicted more through language than by physical stagings.

Shepard's situation is unique and it is so because he is not a realist playwright. Narrow realism, the narcissistic solipsism of dramaturgy, has dominated modern American drama. Despite periodic, brief flirtations with experimental drama which exposes contradictions and the illusion of hegemony, American theatergoers more often pay their admission to return to the reassuring womb of realism. As an expression of assimilation and accommodation, contemporary dramatic realism is a hangover from American Progressivist notions of conciliatory communities and from dramatic practices, which promoted the illusion of a world that could be made workable.

Traditionally, there has been a privileging of realism in the American canon for two reasons: first, the “organic” approach to changes in drama as “progressive”, moving from weakness and simplicity to strength and sophistication, as in the move from melodrama to realism, which most literary critics herald as an “advance”. Second, since the early decades of this century, there was resistance to and suspicion of unrealistic drama as “un-American,” because unrealistic drama was associated with nihilism, Europeanism, Jewish intellectualism, radicalism and leftism. The disturbing and revelatory powers of new dramaturgical perspectives such as expressionism, symbolism, absurdism, which moved beyond a narrow empiricism and which portrayed both the internal and external worlds, truly exposed contradictions and at their best, as they are in some of Shepard's plays, moved beyond a monologistic reality to a dream discourse of poetic polyphony.

So, despite what the critics have seen as his drift towards realism, I would contend that Sam Shepard remains an experimentalist and that, though he fulfills the traditional American literary need for a masculine and autochthonic mythologizer, he continues to remain well outside the dominating discourse of realism. Unlike Bentley, I am not inclined to curse my subject for embracing celebrity and attempting profundities about America nor am I willing to cast him as a victim of the age and exonerate him of complicity in the cultural commodity game. I find it deeply ironic that whereas O'Neill was faulted for his move away from realism, Shepard is being targeted for his move to realism. In the end, I think the real issue here, as I have suggested, is not Sam Shepard, but the larger historical problem of generic tyranny.

Works Cited

Archer, William. “The Development of American Drama”. Harper's 142 (1920): 75-86.

Auerbach, Doris. Sam Shepard, Arthur Kopit, and Off Broadway Theater. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Bank, Rosemarie. “Self as Other: Sam Shepard's Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind”. Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1989. 227-40.

Barron, Samuel. “The Dying Theater”. Harper's 172 (1935): 108-17.

Bentley, Eric. “Drama Now”. Partisan Review 12 (1945a): 244-51.

———. “The Drama at Ebb”. The Kenyon Review 7 (1945b): 169-84.

———. In Search of Theatre. New York: Knopf, 1952.

Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.

Brown, Herbert R. “Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century American Drama”. American Literature 4 (1932): 47-61.

Brustein, Robert. “Love from Two Sides of the Ocean”. New Republic 27 June 1983: 24-25.

———. “The Shepard Enigma”. New Republic Jan. 27 1986: 25-28.

Clark, Barrett. “American Drama in Its Second Decade”. The English Journal 21 (1932): 1-11.

Clurman, Harold, and Stanley Kauffmann. “Dialogue: Theatre in America”. Performing Arts Journal 3.1 (1978): 20-34.

Corbin, John. “The Dawn of the American Drama”. The Atlantic Monthly 99 (1907): 637-44.

Dickinson, Thomas H. The Insurgent Theatre. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1917.

Eaton, Walter Prichard. “Our Infant Industry”. The American Stage Today. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1908. 6-26.

Fay, Stephen. “The Silent Type”. Vogue Feb. 1985: 213-18.

Geddes, Virgil. “The Rebirth of Drama”. The Drama March 1931: 7.

Goodman, Edward. “The American Dramatic Problem”. The Forum 43 (1910): 182-91.

Hardwick, Elizabeth. “Notes on the New Theatre”. New York Review of Books June 20 1968: 5.

Hart, Lynda. “Sam Shepard's Spectacle of Impossible Heterosexuality: Fool for Love”. Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama. Ed. June Schlueter. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1989. 227-40.

Howells, William Dean. Editor's Study. Ed. James W. Simpson. January 1886 to March 1892. Troy, NY: The Whitson Publishing Company, 1983.

Kinne, Wisner Payne. George Pierce Baker and the American Theatre. New York: Greenwood, 1968.

Kramer, Mimi. “In Search of the Good Shepard”. The New Criterion Oct. 1983: 51-57.

Kroll, Jack, Constance Guthrie, and Janet Huck. “Who's That Tall, Dark Stranger?” Newsweek Nov. 11 1985: 68-74.

Kronenberger, Louis. “The Decline of the Theater”. Commentary 1 (1935): 47-51.

Matthews, Brander. A Book about the Theatre. New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1916.

———. Studies of the Stage. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1894.

Mazzocco, Robert. “Heading for the Last Roundup”. The New York Review of Books May 9 1985: 21-27.

Nathan, George Jean. The Theatre, the Drama, the Girls. New York: Knopf, 1921.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. “Modern American Drama”. The English Journal 13 (1924): 1-10.

Schuler, Catherine A. “Gender Perspective and Violence in the Plays of Marie Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard”. Modern American Drama: The Female Canon. Ed. June Schlueter. Rutherford: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1990. 218-28.

Schvey, Henry I. “The Master and His Double: Eugene O'Neill and Sam Shepard”. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 5.2 (1991): 49-60.

Weales, Gerald. “American Theater Watch, 1985-1986”. The Georgia Review 40.2 (1986): 520-31.

Wyatt, David. “Shepard's Split”. The South Atlantic Quarterly 91.2 (1992): 333-60.

Sam Shepard and Michael Phillips (interview date 8 November 2000)

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SOURCE: Shepard, Sam, and Michael Phillips. “Sam Shepard's Family Values.” Los Angeles Times (8 November 2000): F1.

[In the following interview, Shepard discusses his casting decisions for and the inspirations behind The Late Henry Moss.]

Halloween Day 2000. Outside Theatre on the Square on Post Street, a woman sporting a French maid outfit trots up the sidewalk with a couple of Draculas and a faux homeless man. Nearby a genuine homeless man looks up from his fragment of bagel, muttering.

Inside, away from the sun, Sam Shepard and company are wading deep into rehearsals for The Late Henry Moss which opens Nov. 14. The wood-paneled hallway near the tiny, second-story box office is dark and shadowy and, Halloween-wise, a little more like it.

Lunch break. Nick Nolte, with the voice that launched a thousand gargles, eases through the door on crutches and makes his way toward the elevator. A minute later, Sean Penn, who plays Nolte's brother, whips the doors open and bounds down the stairs as if staring down invisible track hurdles. A few other rehearsal denizens file out, and then comes the playwright, who is also the director.

Five minutes later at a nearby diner, the waitress makes herself at home, plopping down on Shepard's side of the booth.

She has two questions. “You decided what you want? Who is that guy?”

“Which guy?” Shepard asks.

“The one over there.”

“Jim Gammon, you mean? With the hat?” It's Shepard's longtime cohort James Gammon, a regular on the San Francisco-based television show Nash Bridges, as is Cheech Marin. Both Marin and Gammon are in The Late Henry Moss, along with Penn and Nolte, Woody Harrelson and Sheila Tousey.

“Very famous actor,” Shepard says, smiling. “Go get his autograph.”

For Shepard, who turned 57 over the weekend, The Late Henry Moss represents his highest-profile theatrical venture since A Lie of the Mind 15 years ago.

The project has brought the Illinois-born military brat back to one of his formative artistic homes. Shepard's association with the Magic Theatre launched many a Shepard premiere, from the wilds of Angel City (1976) and Inacoma (1977) to the more straightforward and widely traveled Buried Child (1978), True West (1980) and Fool for Love (1983).

The geography of these works ranges from urban Los Angeles to a coma state (no jokes, now) to a Southwestern roadside motel to the farmland of Illinois. But they're all part of the same lie of the mind, the same comically desolate and bruising terrain.

“At first it was kind of shocking to be back here,” Shepard says of his Magic return. “But now I feel better about it. Twenty-five years later, you know? Very strange. A lot of history. In a way it feels like you never left, and in another way it feels like you were never there.” As he wrote in True West: Time stands still when you're having fun.


Earlier this year in New York, a revived True West proved a phenomenon, with John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman alternating in the roles of Mojave Desert rat Lee and fledging Hollywood screenwriter Austin—brothers waging mortal combat in mom's suburban Los Angeles kitchen.

Shepard once described L.A. as a “sprawling, demented snake … its fanged mouth wide open, eyes blazing, paralyzed in a lunge of pure paranoia.” His latest work, The Late Henry Moss, takes place farther east, but the atmosphere's no less paranoid. In the New Mexico desert adobe home where Henry Moss (Gammon) has died, a reunion of his sons Earl (Nolte) and Ray (Penn) takes place.

Shepard's latest set of uneasy siblings is dealing with what might be called “father issues,” here augmented by a neighbor (Marin), a cabby (Woody Harrelson) who saw Moss just before he died, and Moss' lover (Tousey, who appeared in the Public Theatre workshop before this full production). The old man's story, and that of his boys, unfolds by way of flashbacks, the first extensive use thereof in Shepard's career.

By contrast, this isn't Shepard's first father figure named Moss. While living in New York, Shepard wrote a 1969 one-act called The Holy Ghostly, a standoff between a murderous “bohemian” son and his mewling, scraggly father. Years ago Shepard knew a rodeo guy “who had a cattle dog named Moss. I guess I always loved that name.”

When Shepard laughs, it's surprising because his easy, well-worn, tough-guy presence seems at odds with the staccato chuckle. It's a character actor's laugh stuck inside a leading man.

Not for nothing did Shepard write a story (in the Cruising Paradise collection) called “The Real Gabby Hayes,” which obliquely but tellingly deals with Shepard's relationship with his father.

The Late Henry Moss is a three-act exploration of family secrets, blood rivalry and other classic themes favored by Shepard. “It more or less directly comes from the death of my father, which was in 1983,” he says. “The first peripheral stab at it was with A Lie of the Mind, with the father's ashes and the folded flag.” (The late father didn't actually appear.) Only now, Shepard says, was he “willing to put the corpse on stage, to actually put the corpse up there with the brothers.”

He began The Late Henry Moss in 1989 and got an act and a half into it. “Then I just threw up my hands and said, ‘I don't wanna do this.’ Ran from it, in a way. Made up all kinds of excuses: that it was another rehash of True West, who's gonna care? I actually sent the play to the [Shepard] archives at the University of Texas and forgot about it.”

But an unfinished Shepard play tends to attract attention. Jim Houghton of New York's Signature Theatre, which devoted an entire season to Shepard's works a few years ago, got hold of it. Then others, including Shepard's friend and mentor Joe Chaikin, encouraged its completion.

“The second act,” he says of the original version, “went off into all kinds of weird, tangential stuff about the Spanish conquistadors and blood and Christ, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It got goofy. That was part of the reason I abandoned it.”

All that went in the rewrites. Shepard acknowledges the inspiration of Frank O'Connor's short story “The Late Henry Conran” regarding a narrative device used in the play.

Credit for assembling such a formidable cast must go, Shepard says, to Penn, a Marin County resident who wanted to do the play close to home. “I always wanted Sean in it,” he says, “and Sean actually suggested Nick. Cheech [Marin] kinds came through through Jim [Gammon], because of Nash Bridges.

“Because these actors are so extraordinary, you learn a lot about intention. You very clearly see the places the material wants to go, places you've forced it to go or pretended it should go.

“A good actor always sets you straight. If you've written a false moment and thought it was probably pretty great, the actor's gonna show you when he gets to that moment. They're the great test of the validity of the material.

“At first, I didn't want to believe that,” Shepard says, with a quick chuckle. “When you're 19 and writing plays, you think every actor is full of it. They just can't handle your brilliant material.”

Penn and Nolte bring nicely complementary sensibilities to a rehearsal room, Shepard says. “Sean tends to work at a slower pace; he's continually absorbing stuff but not necessarily acting on it. He likes to let it drizzle on him awhile, let it all accrue. Nick'll take leaps out there and then come back and then take another leap. Woody Harrelson's like that too.

“Cheech is absolutely incredible. Here's a man who has never done a play, but with his long career in stand-up comedy with Cheech and Chong, he's obviously learned a lot about showmanship. He's an extraordinary character actor. They say TV has a tendency to diminish actors, and I think that's probably true in the long run—it wears on 'em like bad dental work—but Cheech doesn't show any of the signs of being damaged that way. And as a man, he's fantastic.”

The sold-out run of The Late Henry Moss is scheduled to end Dec. 17. No one has committed to a second production as yet, though New York and regional interest clearly is running high.


His ham and cheese gone, Shepard wants to stress one thing: This isn't his life or his father he's dealing with, strictly speaking. It's no more directly autobiographical, he says, than J. M. Synge writing about an unruly man and his thorny father in The Playboy of the Western World, a raucous Irish classic Shepard loves.

Nonetheless, he says, this one needed a few years' distance.

“A certain period of time has to pass, with a death that's devastating like the death of a father. A certain period of grief has to go by before you can make this other leap. And when you make that leap—not necessarily writing about it but using the event as a catalyst for something else—it's no longer strictly personal. It's no longer strictly about your own father.

“Grief is bizarre territory because there's no predicting how long it'll take to get over certain things. You just don't know how long it's going to resound in your life. Or, after it's apparently stopped resounding, when it'll come up again. It's extremely personal. That's why I could never understand this thing of grief ‘counseling’ or grieving ‘clinics.’ That doesn't make any sense to me at all. Why would you wanna be counseled in your grief? It's too private.”

Emotional truth is one thing, but Shepard is just as interested these days in matters of craft. “That other stuff is always gonna be with you, the emotional earthquakes and volcanoes and all that. They're a given; they're a part of who you are. But the craftsmanship is what separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff.

“The emotional [material] is there, always. But it has to have a house, a place to rattle around in. And it's not a question of neatness; it's a question of integrity. You can have the neatest house in the world, but the structural integrity has to be there, and it has to be dictated by the emotional content.

“It's not a question of building an empty house and then living in it,” he says, about to venture back into rehearsals. “You have to live in it while you're building it.”

Michael Phillips (review date 17 November 2000)

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SOURCE: Phillips, Michael. “A Man's Life Passes before His Bleary Eyes.” Los Angeles Times (17 November 2000): F1.

[In the following review, Phillips offers a mixed assessment of The Late Henry Moss, noting that the play has “nuggets of gold.”]

In 1986, Robert De Niro returned to the New York stage for a play called Cuba and His Teddy Bear. Two years later, Steve Martin and Robin Williams decided to wait for Samuel Beckett's Godot at Lincoln Center, provoking a similarly noisy stampede for tickets.

You'd have to go back that far, arguably, for the last time such attention-getting film actors caused such a theatrical stir, anywhere in this country.

Nick Nolte and Sean Penn, two of America's best when it comes to cinematic tough-guy poetics, have returned to the boards for the world premiere of Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss. The play is being staged by Shepard under the auspices of the Magic Theatre—home to many Shepard premieres of yore, before he started doing all that infernal acting.

At this early stage, all too apt for a work about identity, The Late Henry Moss is still searching for itself. It's a boozy, meandering affair. Even if Shepard were to cut 30 or 45 minutes tomorrow, he'd have larger matters awaiting him. For a play about uneasily reunited brothers—comparisons to True West, among others, are inevitable—one of those brothers, the malignant, hurting Ray portrayed by Penn, remains more a functionary and instigator of flashbacks than a fully stage-worthy creation.

Yet in flashes, mostly in Act 3, Shepard finds gold. It's there, sweetly and painfully, in one of the evening's rare moments of calm: An unexpected dreamlike truce between Earl Moss (Nolte) and his New Mexico desert rat of a father, Henry (James Gammon).

Their hot-asphalt voices almost hilariously well-matched, Nolte and Gammon slowly stagger toward each other, looking in each other's eyes. “Are you seeing me right now?” Henry asks. Searching for signs of life and tenderness in the old man's eyes, Earl says yes, he recognizes a voice, a smell, a few other things.

Ever since being pronounced “dead” by his lover, Conchalla (Sheila Tousey), Henry has felt the way Willy Loman felt: temporary about himself. Yet this rageful alcoholic has been haunted for decades by a particularly nasty incident of domestic violence, one that battered his wife, sent Earl flying out of the house and left Earl's brother Ray behind, betrayed and alone.

Henry's slow death, Shepard's play suggests, began that night. Here and there, with tantalizing unevenness, The Late Henry Moss captures that creeping sense of past misdeeds shadowing the present.

It's set up like a mystery, albeit of the three-hour, beating-around-the-bush variety. At the start, Henry's dead body lies under a sheet in his sparse adobe house. Earl tells the newly arrived Ray that he was summoned a few days ago by a call from Henry's neighbor, Esteban (Cheech Marin). Ray doesn't believe Earl's account, so he tracks down the taxi driver (Woody Harrelson) who took Henry and Conchalla fishing just before Henry died.

Shepard eventually reveals what went down in Henry's final hours. The character of Conchalla is deployed as a symbolic angel of mercy. Esteban is amiable servitude incarnate. (There's a lovely comic moment in which Tousey picks up Esteban, an indistinct role wonderfully played by Marin, promises him a good “bounce” and flops him around like a rag doll.) With these peripheral characters, Shepard isn't so much flirting with cliche here as diving in head first.

More problematically, Shepard hasn't yet fleshed out Henry. He is pretty much what Earl says he is: a “breathing and yelling” machine. It's a conundrum for any playwright: How do you enliven characters who alternately bore and exasperate each other? Shepard can answer that one better than just about anyone else, but he's still a rewrite away.

And like many a first-rank playwright, Shepard probably shouldn't direct his own stuff. The production flattens out the pacing and the dynamics. It's mostly a text issue—many of the play's explosive moments come out of nowhere, and not in a good way—but sharper staging would help.

It's fascinating watching this starry cast wrestle with an unwieldy work. Nolte and Penn take full advantage of the Theatre on the Square's miked stage, which is another way of saying they need to watch their volume. Penn has it toughest: Ray seems a pale holdover from any number of previous Shepard works. The character's decision to claim the family home recalls the climax of Buried Child. Yet the decision lacks heft in this context; we just don't know enough about the guy, and not just in some hackneyed back-story fashion.

As a result, Penn mostly hangs back. In his own way, so does Nolte. Theirs are anything but grandstanding performances. Both actors clearly are trying to find their way inside characters not easy to activate. Nolte, having more to play (while smoking pretty much constantly), has the advantage of that memorable encounter with Gammon.

Harrelson's cabby acts as best supporting hambone. He doesn't know when to quit—at one point during Penn's interrogation of Harrelson, you could sense the impatience in Penn's eyes—but he has stage chops to spare. As does Marin, brand-new to the theater but fully at home.

In the end, a loosely tied mixed bag. But that bag has its nuggets of gold.

Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 23 July 2001)

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SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “A Little Legend about Love.” New Statesman 130, no. 4547 (23 July 2001): 45.

[In the following review, Duncan-Jones praises a London production of A Lie of the Mind, calling the play a “triumph.”]

To label Sam Shepard's modern family melodrama A Lie of the Mind as “Greek”, “Shakespearean” or “Chekhovian” would be reductive, even though it has elements of all three. It is, above all, thoroughly American, right up to the symbolic climax in which a crumpled and bloodied Stars and Stripes is first unfurled, then carefully folded, and the choric old man Baylor (Keith Bartlett), seeming scarcely to notice the visible collapse of his entire family, staggers up to bed saying: “I don't wanna get woke up in the middle of a good dream.” For this stubborn pioneer alone, the American dream lives on and still has value, almost like a memory of Troy or Camelot.

Tom Piper's clever set clearly locates this play about two abusive families in a western wilderness stretching from southern California to Montana. Its alien landscape is scarred with anonymous highways and pocked with undifferentiated human settlements. Yet it is not these towns or highways that we see, but the small, bleak nests of human habitation that are characteristic of Shepard's plays: a motel room on the edge of a desert: a side room in a hospital: a lightweight cabin in the snowy woods of Montana, far too fragile to withstand the shouting and shooting that take place inside. In such remote places, each of the eight characters struggles for self-definition through escape from the past, and especially from the oppressive personal history embodied in parents, spouses and siblings. These people inhabit a cultural wilderness, as well as a physical one.

In a more naturalistic play, one might protest at the unlikelihood of any kind of theatricals being performed there. But Beth, a battered wife, has provoked her husband's murderous jealousy by going out each evening to rehearse a play. This well-constructed tragedy, with its subtle symmetries, carries off even its most stagey or meta-theatrical conceits with assurance. It becomes clear that Beth truly is an actress in the brief scene that I cannot refrain from calling “Shakespearean”, in which, wearing her father's huge shirt, she plays Rosalind to her Orlando, the wounded Frankie. Beth's “brain damage”, which causes her staccato speech, matches the even deeper “damage” endured in different ways by all the characters, each of them hurt in their minds, none of them able to escape from the lies that fester within.

First performed in New York in 1985, A Lie of the Mind has its own past. Shepard described it as “a love ballad … a little legend about love”. But that is not at all how it comes across in Wilson Milam's superb production. It seems, rather, to be an intricately patterned study of madness and the family, madness in the family, and the extraordinary ways in which families, especially mothers, when they try to offer solace, make things worse. Some of the best black humour in the play stems from this theme.

As in Shepard's Fool for Love (1982), the abusively violent “hero”, Jake (Andy Serkis), continues to “love”, or at least be obsessed by, the woman he has injured, but this is hardly the play's most compelling theme. What consistently grip the audience are the diverse performances of pain—of both mind and body. Even Jake's brother, the gentle Frankie (Peter McDonald), is shaking in septicaemic agony by the end, though only the audience seems to notice. Serkis is wholly convincing in his rage and despair, as is Catherine McCormack as the histrionic and radiantly beautiful Beth. A Lie of the Mind is altogether a triumph for the Donmar.

Ann Wilson (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Wilson, Ann. “Great Expectations: Language and the Problem of Presence in Sam Shepard's Writing.” In Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights, edited by Kimball King, pp. 257-72. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Wilson examines the issue of linguistic “presence” in Shepard's plays, exploring the theological dimension of Shepard's dramatic language.]

Walt Whitman was a great man. He expected something from America. He had this great expectation.

—Sam Shepard, Action

Sam Shepard is the pre-eminent playwright of the contemporary American theatre. His work has received numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child. Despite his success, Shepard has not always felt comfortable identifying himself as a writer. In the program note to Cowboy Mouth, the play which he co-wrote with Patti Smith, he announced, “I don't want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock and roll star” (Shewey 81). Later in the same note, he claims that “writing is neat because you do it on a physical level. Just like rock and roll” (Shewey 81). As glib as these two remarks may seem at first, they do suggest reasons for Shepard's ambivalence about writing.

The writer's medium is language which Shepard believes “has become so corrupt, laundered, stripped of meaning. We often don't know what we mean anymore” (Wren 90). In forging the link between writing and music, particularly jazz and rock-and-roll—two modes of music which often involve improvisation, Shepard expresses his yearning for a pure language which does not mediate experience but acts as a transparent medium which reveals fully the signified. He wants to discover a language in which the signifier does not represent the signified but makes it present. It is this sense of language which allows Michael Earley to suggest that Shepard is heir to the transcendentalist tradition of American writing because he “brings to the drama a liberating interplay of word, theme and image that has always been the hallmark of romantic writing” (127). While I agree with Earley that there is a strain in Shepard's writing which relates his work to that of the transcendentalist poets (especially Whitman), it is misleading to suggest that this is a strictly literary influence. The desire to discover a language or mode of representation which makes fully present the signifier is evident in a number of American cultural projects including the work of Shepard's friend and sometime collaborator, Joseph Chaikin and music (particularly jazz and rock and roll).

In an essay called “Language, Visualization and the Inner Library,” he writes,

From time to time I've practiced Jack Kerouac's discovery of jazz-sketching with words. Following the exact same principles as a musician does when he's jamming. After periods of this kind of practice, I begin to get the haunting sense that something in me writes but it's not necessarily me. At least it's not the “me” that takes credit for it. This identical experience happened to me once when I was playing drums with the Holy Modal Rounders, and it scared the shit out of me. Peter Stampfel, the fiddle player, explained it as being visited by the Holy Ghost, which sounded reasonable enough at the time.


Shepard's remarks suggest that he constructs writing as a mysterious process which requires inspiration and which, when truly executed, has the power to reveal the unknown. He said, “I feel a lot of reluctance in attempting to describe any part of a process which, by its truest nature, holds unending mystery” (214). In answer to Amy Lippman's question about why he writes, Shepard responded, “I try to go into parts of myself that are unknown. And I think that those parts are related to everybody. They are not unique to me. They're not my personal domain” (21). From such a perspective the writer records his privileged vision; yet, necessarily, the rendering of the vision is always distorted and imperfect. “Words, at best, can only give a partial glimpse into the total world of sensate experience” (Shepard, 216). Despite his recognition of the limitations of language, Shepard still believes in the unrealized ideal of a language which can represent fully.

Although his remark about the inspiration of the Holy Ghost seems off-hand, it indicates his sense of the essential mystery of writing. If we remember that “inspiration” is from the Latin words in and spirare, then the writer who has been inspired (or “visited”) by the Holy Ghost is one into whom the Holy Ghost has breathed. The entry of the Holy Ghost into the body of the writer is a moment of unity when the spirit and body are one and utterance is pure because the signifier (spirit) and the signified (the sign) are one. Within a religious context, the unification of thought and expression which is said to create a pure, unmediated language, is called glossolalia. This is not to suggest that Shepard's theatre is evangelical but rather that his sense of language gives it a theological impulse. He admires Shakespeare because his language authentically represents the human condition. He “traveled very far in himself to find it. The language didn't come out of the air, it came from a tremendous search, a religious experience” (Wren 81).

Shepard seeks to discover within himself the language which will make the signified fully present by overcoming loss which attends the separation of the signifier and the signified. Jacques Derrida in his essay “Theater of Cruelty” calls this language “glossopoeia.”

Glossopoeia, which is neither an imitative language nor a creation of names, takes us back to the borderline of the moment when the word has not yet been born, when articulation is no longer a shout but not yet discourse, when repetition is almost impossible, and along with it language in general: the separation of concept and sound, of the signified from signifier, of the pneumatical and the grammatical, the freedom of translation and tradition, the movement of interpretation, the difference between the soul and the body, the master and the slave, God and man, author and actor.


Derrida suggests that the failure of the project is inscribed at the moment of inception when he writes “repetition is almost impossible.” As indicated, emphasis falls on “almost” because if glossopoeia is a language, albeit one which is liminal, then there must be the possibility of its repetition because this is the defining characteristic of language. Thus, the originary moment of language when the signified is made fully present by the signifier is always elusive, approached but never reached.

This sense of the failure of language to reveal fully that which it signifies marks the particularly American quality of Shepard's writing. Harold Bloom suggests, “Emerson wanted Freedom, reconciled himself to Fate, but loved only Power, from first to last and I believe this to be true also of the central line of American poets coming after him” (Poems 8). He explains that Emerson defines the terms “Freedom,” “Fate,” and “Power” as follows:

Freedom or “the free spirit” makes form into potentia, into strength that Emerson defines as eloquence. … Fate, as a word, comes from a root meaning “speech,” but by one of Emerson's characteristic dialectical reversals Power takes on meaning as eloquent speech while Fate is a script or writing opposed to speech.

(Poems 7)

Bloom argues that the Emersonian triad of Fate-Freedom-Power appears in Whitman's work as “my soul-myself-the real me or me myself” (Poems 7). This triad is found in Shepard's work, too, although Freedom, the impulse or spirit which informs writing, is subsumed by Power: Freedom (eloquence) can be expressed only in Power (speech) thereby reducing the Emersonian triad to a pair, Fate and Power. This reduction is important because now the two elements are seen clearly as oppositional: Fate is the antithesis of Power. In this duality, speech is privileged over writing and so is attributed primacy. It is represented as an inchoate, less mediated mode of expression than writing, as having greater capacity to reveal the authentic self. Writing—merely a supplement to the privileged mode of expression, speech—is always secondary.1

This tension, although not addressed directly by Shepard, is implied by several remarks he has made. Speaking to the participants in a seminar on playwriting which he taught as part of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival III (1980), Shepard warned, “There is the tendency to trade experience itself for language which never really captures it and ultimately cheats experience” (Wren 81). He suggests that experience is pure but becomes sullied when expressed. Implied by his remark is the position that the plenitude of experience can never be spoken fully. This raises the question: how do we recognize experience except through language?

In “Language, Visualization and the Inner Library,” Shepard writes,

The picture is moving in the mind and being allowed to move more and more freely as you follow it. The following of it is the writing part. In other words, I'm taking notes in as much detail as possible on an event that's happening somewhere inside me. The extent to which I can actually follow the picture and intervene with my own two-cents worth is where inspiration and crafts-manship hold their meaning. If I find myself pushing a character in a certain direction, it's almost a sure sign that I've fallen back on technique and lost the real thread of the thing.


That the writer records the action as it unfolds in his imagination without intervening and shaping it, implies that this action exists independent of and prior to language.

Shepard, while he is reluctant to admit that experience is inseparable from language, is not successful in suppressing the interpretative function of the writer. One of the participants in Shepard's seminar on playwriting, Scott Christopher Wren recalls, “Shepard comments that there is a real sense of following the action from the inside …” (85). Again, he insists that experience and language are separate and that language is secondary to experience or, as he says, that it “follows.” Subtly, almost imperceptibly, he amends his initial statement of the writer's role:

… There is a real sense of following the action from the inside, such that the accidental gesture has purpose. It's no longer accidental because it's witnessed, followed very carefully moment to moment.


The repetition of “follow” obscures the important shift of ideas in the remark. Initially the writer “follows” the action which implies that action occurs independently and he merely records. What interests me is the ascription of purpose to the gesture because it is the writer who assigns it. The writer no longer follows the scene but witnesses the action and, in so doing, actively enters the scene because in witnessing the action, he reads it. It is the writer who interprets the gesture as significant. Despite his professed belief that action is distinct from language, the ascription of purpose by the writer suggests that Shepard, to some degree, understands them as inseparable. Recognizing action is predicated on our ability to differentiate one action from another which can only be done through categories which are created within language. Shepard's suggestion that the imagination operates independent of language is a bit fanciful; yet, as fanciful as is this idealization of imagination, it is this which informs both Shepard's writing and Whitman's.

Both Whitman and Shepard yearn to discover a language which will make fully present the signified. Necessarily, this language is corporeal, the union of the body (signifier) and spirit (signified) celebrated by the sound of the voice. Wren recalls that Shepard taught “that developing characters is a process of coming in touch with voice” (81). He recalls Shepard saying “Voice is the nut of it. Character is an expression of voice, the emotional tone underneath. If a writer is totally connected with the voice, it will be in the words” (76). Shepard's remark implies a sense of character as an essence which is realized only through voice. The breath (spirit) translates this essence from its pure state of interiority to the exteriority of the sign (the actor's body or words).

For Shepard, the crux of the problem of identity is this process of translation. We can only constitute identity through language; but language is debased and so inevitably we lose sight of our “true” or “real” selves. In an interview with Michiko Kakutani, he explained the effect of debased language on identity:

Personality is everything that is false in a human being. It is everything that's been added on to him and contrived. It seems to me that the struggle all the time is between this sense of falseness and the other haunting sense of what is true—an essential thing that we're born with and tend to lose track of. This naturally sets up a great contradiction in everybody between what they represent and what they know to be themselves.


This nostalgic yearning for an authentic self is perhaps the single most striking feature common both to Shepard's writing and to Whitman's. We need only to think of the title of one of Whitman's poems, “Song of Myself,” to recognize the importance of voice to his project of self-representation. The poem is a song which attempts to celebrate masturbation both as an image and inscription of jouissance of self-discovery. Here I use “jouissance” in Kristeva's sense:

… “Jouissance” is total joy or ecstasy (without any mystical connotation; also, through the working of the signifier, this implies the presence of meaning (jouissance = j'ouis sens = I heard meaning), requiring it by going beyond it.

(Roudiez, 16)

“Song of Myself” suggests that the ecstatic moment of orgasm is the moment when the true or essential self is realized fully:

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some else's is about as much as I can stand.
Is then a touch? … quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,


I am given up by traitor:
I talk wildly. … I have lost my wits. … I and nobody else am the greatest traitor,
I went myself first to the headland … my own hands carried me there.
You villain touch! what are you doing?. … my breath is tight in its throat;
unclench your floodgates! you are too much for me.


Two aspects of “Song of Myself” are relevant to a discussion of the relationship between Whitman's writing and Shepard's. First, although the poem clearly celebrates masturbation, orgasm is marked by ellipses, by the absence of words. We are given only a description—that the poet talks wildly—but no transcription of what he says. If orgasm is indeed the moment when the true self is realized, then the true self is beyond language. We are reminded of Derrida's contention that the originary moment is beyond knowledge, is always already lost. Secondly, there is the sense of the poet's guilt suggested by the words “traitor” and “villain touch.” On the simplest level, it is the expression of self-reproach for daring to acknowledge masturbation. It is the guilt of someone who feels that he is a traitor to himself because he engages in a practice which has been taught, and to some degree believes, is wrong. The expression of guilt divides the self into the traitor and betrayed which, ironically, replicates the onanistic gesture which divides the self into the toucher and the touched thereby recognizing the binary opposition of interiority/exteriority. “… The outside, the exposed surface of the body signifies and marks forever the division that shapes auto-affection” (Grammatology 165). That the touched surface of the body is exterior insinuates the existence of the interior which remains hidden by the surface. This structure, which recognizes the duality of interior/exterior, is the structure of the sign which is divided into the signified and signifier thus allowing Derrida to claim that “auto affection is a universal structure of experience” (Grammatology 165).

For our purposes, what is important about this duality is that knowledge of the interior is possible only through exteriority. The signified is known only through the agency of signifier so that it is never itself present but is always represented. The signified is idealized as that which cannot itself be known. From such a perspective the “real-Me” is beyond knowledge because it cannot be made present. The poet is betrayed by onanism but not simply in the sense of sexual activity. The masturbatory gesture becomes a paradigm for signification because the poet is betrayed by his medium, language, which cannot realize the presence of the “real-Me” that it signifies. Yet, paradoxically, the “real-Me” is idealized only because of the structure of signification which admits the notion of the ideal. The project of making fully present the signified, which is common to Whitman and Shepard, is marked by failure from the outset because the structure of the sign protects the signified as the ideal beyond knowledge. Put simply, once the signified is known, it ceases to be the signified because it is now the signifier.

Chaikin's work never alludes to the influence of American literary figures;2 however, accounts of his work (particularly in The Presence of the Actor) suggest the interest common to his work, Whitman's and Shepard's. The title of Chaikin's book points to his pre-occupation with the notion of “presence”; yet, despite its importance to his work, he never offers an exact definition of the term. Eileen Blumenthal interprets presence as “the quality of being here right now, with an awareness of the actual space and the actual moment of the vital meeting of lives in that space and moment” (113). In contrast, Chaikin's own description of “presence” is noteworthy for its refusal to define the term with any degree of precision. He writes:

This “presence” on the stage is a quality given to some and absent from others. All of the history of the theater refers to actors who possess this presence.

It's quality that makes you feel as though you're sitting in the theatre. … There may be nothing of this quality off stage or in any other circumstance in the life of such an actor. It's a deep libidinal surrender which the performer reserves for his anonymous audience.


Later in The Presence of the Actor Chaikin writes, “Just before a performance, the actor usually has additional energy like an electrical field” (21). The image of currents of energy recurs:

… The actor must find an empty place where the living current moves through him uninformed. A clear place. Let's say the place from where the breath is drawn … not the breath … but from where the inhalation starts. …

There are streams of human experience which are deep and constant moving through us on a level below sound. As we become occupied with our own noises, we're unable to be in the stream. The more an actor boasts of his feeling as he feels it, the farther he is from the current.

First, the actor must be present in his body, present in his voice … The voice originates inside the body and comes to exist in the room.


These passages illustrate Chaikin's insistence on a lexis of “presence,” a lexis which is reminiscent of that developed by Whitman to write the “real Me.” “Presence” is a kind of “deep libidinal surrender” which Chaikin renders metaphorically as “the living current.” Like Chaikin, Whitman and Shepard use the image of energy to suggest the dynamic, ever-changing and mysterious nature of reality. Whitman, in Leaves of Grass, titles a poem “I Sing the Body Electric”; Shepard writes of “Words as tools of imagery in motion” (216) and of a work as having a “life-stream” (Wren 90). For Shepard, the sense of language in motion is particularly important because reality is inconstant. If it is to be made present, it must be done in a flash. “In these lightning-like eruptions words are not thought, they're felt. They cut through space and make perfect sense without having to hesitate for the ‘meaning’” (Shepard 217).

In the writings of all three, the image of energy suggests the dynamic, ever-changing nature of reality, constituted as mysterious and unknowable, which relates this reality to identity: in Whitman's poetry, the “real Me” is the originary site of his identity; Shepard claims that through his writing he tries “to go into parts of myself that are unknown” (Lippman 21); Chaikin suggests that the actor attempts to reach an empty place where “the living current moves through him uninformed.” Expressed in the work of all three is a nostalgic yearning for a moment of signification when the sign is inseparable from that which it signifies, the condition of language before it has fallen.

The romantic nature of this impulse is suggested by Shepard's remark “that the real quest of a writer is to penetrate into another world” (Shepard 217). Chaikin, too, uses the motif of the quest to describe his work:

Julian Beck said that an actor has to be like Columbus: he has to go out and discover something, and come back and report on what he discovers. Voyages have to be taken, but there has to be a place to come back to, and this place has to be different from the established theatre. It is not likely to be a business place.


Indeed, in Chaikin's work the quixotic sentiment is so pronounced that it is manifest as a theme. In 1968, the Open Theater performed their collaborative piece, The Serpent, which is based on the account of creation in Genesis. “None of us,” wrote Chaikin “believe there is or ever was a real Garden of Eden, but it lives in the mind as certain as memory” (67). For Chaikin, the Garden of Eden is not a geographic location now lost but a lost place within each person. Because of the post-lapsarian condition of language, this place cannot be recuperated in language; instead it can only be constituted through the allegoric resonances of myth.

Chaikin's desire to know the Edenic within man replicates Whitman's desire for the “real Me” which Bloom has suggested is a desire for the presexual:

Whitman's “real Me” is what is best and oldest in him, and like the faculty Emerson called “Spontaneity” it is both nature's creation and Whitman's verbal cosmos. It is like a surviving fragment of the original Abyss preceding nature, not Adamic but pre-Adamic. The “real Me” is thus also presexual.

(“The Real Me” 6)

The erotic in Whitman's poetry, the longing to express the “real Me” which is presexual, marks the failure of his poetic project. He can never satisfy his desire to retrieve his ideal, presexual self because of the relation between desire and language. Desire is the recognition of absence which is experienced as yearning. Because recognition is possible only through language, desire can only be recognized through language. But, language is itself an expression of desire because the signifier represents, and thus marks the absence of, the signified. That desire should be experienced only through that which is the product of desire is an unresolvable paradox which determines that Whitman can never retrieve his ideal presexual self because language cannot represent that which is presexual.

This problem, which faces Shepard as a writer, is reflected in the characters which he creates. Shepard comments, “Writing is born from a need. A deep burn. If there's no need, there is no desire” (218). He told Michiko Kakutani,

People are starved for the truth and when something comes along that even looks like the truth, people will latch on to it because everything's so false. People are starved for a way of life—they're hunting for a way to be or act toward the world.


Shepard's characters are often so hungry that they speak of themselves as starving. Think, for example, of Shooter in Action who says, “I'm starving. Did we eat already?” (139); or, in Curse of the Starving Class, of Ella's emphatic declaration to her daughter, “WE'RE HUNGRY, AND THAT'S STARVING ENOUGH FOR ME!” (142); or of the Speaker in Tongues who says, “This hunger knows no bounds. This hunger is eating me alive it's so hungry!” (311) and concludes, “Nothing left but the hunger eating itself. Nothing left but the hunger” (312).

The “Hunger Dialogue” is a paradigm for Shepard's use of hunger or appetite throughout his plays. In this piece, hunger is at first the physiological desire for food but, as the dialogue develops, it is clear that the food will not satisfy the speaker's hunger. Indeed, there is nothing which will sate his appetite because he is conscious only of his appetite and cannot identify what it is that he wants. Whether their appetites are for food, for the erotic (as in Fool for Love or A Lie of the Mind, for example) or the simple desire to tell the true story (for example, in Buried Child or Curse of the Starving Class), many of Shepard's characters are desirous, their appetites impelling their actions. Yet their desires rarely are satisfied completely, as if the objects of their desire are impossible, which necessarily they are, because the structure of desire is such that desire can never be fully sated. As discussed, desire is recognized only through language which is itself the product of desire. This paradox marks the impossibility of desire being satisfied because the recognition of desire is predicated on language which marks the loss of the full presence of signified.

Invariably the impossible object of the characters' desire is themselves, whom they seek to realize through modes of performance which Florence Falk categorizes as role-playing, story-telling and music-making (188, 189). Shepard comments

The stories my characters tell are stories that are always unfinished, always imagistic—having to do with recalling experiences through a certain kind of vision. They're always fractured and fragmented and broken.

(Kakutani 26)

Given that identity is the story each of us tells about ourselves, the fact that Shepard's characters tell fractured, incomplete stories signals that none of them has a coherent sense of self. In a sense, each tries to call himself into being by performing himself.

As Richard Gilman notes, Shepard's sense of character as ever changing is influenced by Chaikin's work with actors in the Open Theater, particularly the transformation exercises (xv).

Briefly, a transformation exercise was an improvised scene—a birthday party, survivors in a lifeboat, etc.—in which after a while, and suddenly, the actors were asked to switch immediately to a new scene and therefore wholly new characters. …

Shepard carried the idea of transformations much farther than the group had by actually writing them into his texts, in plays like Angel City, Back Bog Beast Bait and The Tooth of Crime where the characters become wholly different in abrupt movements within the course of the work, or speak suddenly as someone else, while the scene may remain the same.

(Gilman xv)

The purpose of the transformation exercise is to strip away the actors' contrived sense of how characters behave so that their performances do not rely on theatrical clichés. In theory, this sort of improvisational work encourages the actors to discover different aspects of themselves. As Shepard explains, “The voices of a lot of external-world characters are inside you. For example, when you write about a nun, it's not your ‘idea’ of a nun, it's the nun inside of you” (Wren 80). Chaikin suggests that each of us has a myriad of characters inside us because within everyone is “a stream of human experiences which are deep and constant” (66). His remark echoes Shepard's answer to Amy Lippman, cited earlier, that the reason he writes is to go into parts of himself which are unknown but are related to everyone (21). In order to reach this place, Chaikin claims that the actor must first “be present in his body, in his own voice” (67); speaking about writing, Shepard corroborates Chaikin's remarks emphasizing “that writers have to begin with what they know and one of the best places is the body because the body is relating to everything and is grounded in experience rather than ideas” (Wren 86). Like Whitman who attempts to inscribe the “real Me” in “Song of Myself,” Chaikin and Shepard use the analogy of music, in their case jazz, to explain how an actor will realize character. Chaikin suggests jamming a structure for improvisational work:

The term comes from jazz, from the jam session. One actor comes in and moves in contemplation of a theme, traveling within rhythms, going through and out of the phrasing, sometimes using just the gesture, sometimes reducing the whole thing to pure sound. … During the jamming, if the performers let it, the theme moves into associations, a combination of free and structured form.


In Angel City, jamming became Shepard's structural principle for the creation character. He instructs,

The term “character” could be thought of in a different way when working on this play. Instead of the idea of a “whole character” with logical motives behind this behaviour which the actor submerges himself into, he should consider instead a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme. In other words, more in terms of collage construction or jazz improvisation.


As Florence Falk explains, “jazz in its very structure is improvisational—that is an alert, spontaneous, and dynamic creation” (190). It operates, as Shepard noted about rock music in the program note to Cowboy Mouth, on a physical level which allows (or at any rate gives the illusion of allowing) the union of impulse and expression: the signified is one with the signifier. Writing techniques based on jazz inhibit the mediation imposed by intellectualizing the process of writing. “When you're writing inside of a character like this, you aren't pausing every ten seconds to figure out what it all means,” explains Shepard (217). We are returned to Shepard's sense of the writer following and recording the action.

Shepard's quest for an ideal language which will make fully present the signified clearly situates his project within the larger frame of American culture. “Presence” is not simply an attitude towards language but indicates no ideology which informs many aspects of this culture. It is manifest thematically as popular images of the frontier which is the borderline between civilization and wilderness. The frontier is a myth of eternal presence because when the frontier is encroached upon either by wilderness or civilization, it is not transformed but moves and is reconstituted in a new location. A frontier is always the same, is always the borderline. There may be a history of frontiers, but the frontier is itself a place without history because it is unchanging. In this sense the myth of the frontier enacts spatially the transcendentalist poetics to which Shepard is heir because the writer's desire is the discovery of a language which is pure, at the borderline when utterance is first made, “no longer a shout but not yet discourse.”

Shepard's celebrated language is realized through his recurring interest in the West of popular culture (as, for example, in Angel City, The Tooth of Crime, The Unseen Hand). This thematic preoccupation exposes the ideological implications of presence in his work. First, the frontier is the domain of the cowboy who, as he is popularly represented, affirms the pre-adolescent values of a white, American boy. The sensibility is “usually anti-intellectual and anti-school” and so physical prowess is counted upon to resolve any conflict or problem (Davis 94-95). His strongest emotional tie (other than to his horse) is to

a group of buddies, playing poker, chasing horse thieves, riding in masculine company. He is contemptuous of farmers, has no interest in children, and considers men who have lived among women as effete. Usually he left his own family at a tender age and rebelled against the restrictions of mothers and older sisters.

(Davis 89)

Bonnie Marranca notes that the determination of the frontier myth is evident in Shepard's characterization of women:

One of the most problematic aspects of the plays is Shepard's consistent refusal or inability, whichever the case may be, to create female characters whose imaginative range matches that of the males. … For a young man Shepard's portrayal of women is as outdated as the frontier ethic he celebrates: men have their showdowns or face the proverbial abyss while the women are absorbed in simple activities and simplistic thoughts.


The pre-pubescent impulse of the myth casts women as dominating figures (mothers and sisters who are rebelled against) who want to rob men of their masculinity. In reaction to this fear of woman, the myth contains her by casting her as the complement to men. A woman, in westerns, is simply the site for a man to express tenderness. She “brings out qualities in him which we could not see otherwise. Without her, he would be too much the brute for a real folk hero, at least in the modern age” (Davis 89; Marranca 31).

In a broader political context, the myth of the frontier has important implications for Shepard's work. Although cowboys belong to gangs, these fraternal groups are devoid of any political (as distinct from moral) consciousness. The fact that the frontier is a borderline informs all aspects of life there. The social structures are informal, neither wilderness which has no social order nor civilization which is highly ordered but the liminality of emerging social organization. The structure of this paradigm replicates that of the transcendentalist's language which is seen as the threshold, “no longer a shout but not yet discourse.” What is paradoxical is that the ideology of “present”—as it is articulated in the myth of the frontier and in the poetics of the transcendentalism—inscribes a politic which is both radical and conservative. It is radical because the individual is allowed to realize himself fully, unencumbered by social restraint; yet, the project is predicated on the existence of ideals which are accepted uncritically: the “true” self which can be realized; the triumph of good as the moral imperative of the frontier where the cowboy in the white hat always wins.

Shepard's romantic belief in the “true” self which is betrayed by language tends toward, if not conservatism, at least an apolitical perspective. The individual turns inward to discover himself rather than outward to the world in which he lives. Shepard's characters almost never indicate any sense of themselves as socially constructed beings. Perhaps by simple virtue of some concern for issues related to “class” as indicated by the title, Curse of the Starving Class comes closest to exploring the social determination of character. Yet even in that play, political concerns are transformed into concerns about performance. Faced with losing their land, the characters deny their situation by retreating into the world of fiction and memory as they tell the story of the eagle and the cat, even as the word around them literally and metaphorically blows up.

The concern with performance over politics characterizes all Shepard's work and is particularly important given his thematic preoccupation with the West. Shepard is critical of aspects of the West, for example, the new West represented by the film industry of Hollywood which manufactures images that delude people, thereby denying their realization of their identities. He does not examine, however, the relation of the new West to the old. The Old West, in which Shepard so delights, was generated by Hollywood and bears little relation to the historical reality.3 This mythical West where men are men and women are their complements (and everybody is white) is surely not the place where the “true” self can be realized. Or perhaps this is the final paradox: the “true” self can be realized through fiction.


  1. For a fuller discussion of the notion of the supplement see: Jacques Derrida, “The Supplement of Copula: Philosophy before Linguistics,” Textual Strategies, ed. Josue Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979). 82-121.

  2. In Presence of the Actor, Chaikin cites theatre practitioners as having the greatest influence on his work. These include: Nola Chilton, Mira Roshiva, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, members of the Open Theater (45).

  3. Historically, the age of the cowboy is brief: from the period just after the American Civil War until just after 1874 when barbed wire was invented. With the invention of barbed wire, ranches were fenced in and the work of the cowboy became redundant. “The early cowboys were Texans—white, Negro, and Mexican, but outsiders of almost every nationality were also represented.” Philip Durham, “The Cowboy and the Myth Makers,” Journal of Popular Culture 1, No. 1 (Summer 1967): 58.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976.

———. “The Real Me.” Review of Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet by Paul Zweig, The New York Review of Books 31, no. 7 (April 26, 1984).

Blumenthal, Eileen. “Joseph Chaikin: An Open Theory of Acting,” Yale/Theater 8, nos. 2 and 3 (Spring 1977): 112-33.

Chaikin, Joseph. The Presence of the Actor. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

Davis, David Brion. “Ten Gallon Hero.” Myth and the American Experience. Vol. 2. Ed. Nicholas Gage and Patrick Gerster. New York: Glencoe Press, 1973.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1976.

———. “The Supplement to Copula: Philosophy before Linguistics.” Textual Strategies. Ed. Josue Harari. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979.

———. “The Theater of Cruelty.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Durham, Philip. “The Cowboy and the Myth Makers,” Journal of Popular Culture 1, no. 1 (Summer 1967): 58-62.

Earley, Michael. “Of Life Immense in Passion, Pulse and Power.” American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. Ed. Bonnie Marranca. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1981, pp. 126-33.

Falk, Florence. “The Role of Performance in Sam Shepard's Plays,” Theatre Journal 33, no. 2 (May 1981): 182-98.

Gilman, Richard. Introduction. Seven Plays by Sam Shepard. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Myths, Dreams, Realities—Sam Shepard's America,” The New York Times, 29 January 1984, Section 2.

Lippman, Amy. “A Conversation with Sam Shepard,” The Harvard Advocate (March 1983). Reprinted Gamut 5 (January 1984): 10-28.

Marranca, Bonnie. “Alphabetical Shepard: The Play of Words.” American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. Ed. Bonnie Marranca. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1981, pp. 13-34.

Roudiez, Leon S. Introduction. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Shewey, Don. Sam Shepard. New York: Dell, 1985.

———. Curse of the Starving Class. Seven Plays by Sam Shepard. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

———. “Language, Visualization and the Inner Library.” The Drama Review 21, no. 4 (December 1977): 49-58. Reprinted in American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. Ed. Bonnie Marranca. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1981.

———, and Joseph Chaikin. Tongues. Seven Plays. By Sam Shepard. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1981.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981. Fp. in Brooklyn, 1855.

Wren, Scott Christopher. “Camp Shepard: Exploring the Geography of Character.” West Coast Plays 7 (1980): 71-106.

Further Reading

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Brater, Enoch. “American Clocks: Sam Shepard's Time Plays.” Modern Drama 37, no. 4 (winter 1994): 603-12.

Enoch examines issues of time in Shepard's plays, focusing on A Lie of the Mind and Fool for Love.

DeRose, David J. “A Kind of Cavorting: Superpresence and Shepard's Family Dramas.” In Rereading Shepard: Contemporary Critical Essays on the Plays of Sam Shepard, edited by Leonard Wilcox, pp. 131-49. New York: St. Martin, 1993.

DeRose explores how Shepard's plays incorporate contradictory definitions of postmodernism, tracing his artistic development toward conventional dramatic forms and themes in his family dramas.

———. “Indian Country: Sam Shepard and the Cultural Other.Contemporary Theatre Review 8, no. 4 (1998): 55-73.

DeRose utilizes Silent Tongue as a starting and ending point to look back over thirty years of Shepard's writing, examining his evolving treatment of various racial minorities, particularly Native Americans, as cultural “Others.”

Garner, Stanton B., Jr. “Staging ‘Things’: Realism and the Theatrical Object in Shepard's Theatre.” Contemporary Theatre Review 8, no. 4 (1998): 55-66.

Garner suggests a different valuation of theatrical realism in light of Shepard's attention to the stage's dimension.

Grant, Gary. “Shifting the Paradigm: Shepard, Myth and the Transformation of Consciousness.” Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (March 1993): 120-29.

Grant focuses on Shepard's efforts in creating a paradigm shift for the theatre, including examples from several of his works.

Kamine, Mark. “Small Shifts in Loving.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5198 (15 November 2002): 23.

Kamine praises Great Dream of Heaven: Stories, commenting that “the pleasant surprise in [Shepard's] prose is his easy way with narrative voice.”

Lanier, Gregory W. “The Killer's Ancient Mask: Unity and Dualism in Shepard's The Tooth of Crime.Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (March 1993): 48-60.

Lanier offers an in-depth analysis of The Tooth of Crime, including a discussion of the proverbial mask of the killer.

Londré, Felicia Hardison. “A Motel of the Mind: Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind.” In Rereading Shepard: Contemporary Critical Essays on the Plays of Sam Shepard, edited by Leonard Wilcox, pp. 215-24. New York: St. Martin, 1993.

Londré examines the correlation between the stage props and the character's mental states in Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind.

Orbison, Tucker. “Authorization and Subversion of Myth in Shepard's Buried Child.Modern Drama 37, no. 4 (fall 1994): 509-20.

Orbison focuses on Shepard's use of myth in Buried Child.

Shewey, Don. “Hidden in Plain Sight: 25 Notes on Shepard's Stage Silence and Screen Presence, 1984-1993.” Contemporary Theatre Review 8, no. 4 (1998): 75-89.

Shewey presents a descriptive overview of Shepard's work in theatre and film during the third decade of his career.

Williams, Megan. “Nowhere Man and the Twentieth-Century Cowboy: Images of Identity and American History in Sam Shepard's True West.Modern Drama 40, no. 1 (spring 1997): 57-73.

Williams discusses the themes of character and identity in True West.

Additional coverage of Shepard's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 1; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 22; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 6, 17, 34, 41, 44; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 212; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 5; Drama for Students, Vols. 3, 6, 7, 14; International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Writers and Production Artists, Eds. 3, 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.


Shepard, Sam


Shepard, Sam (Vol. 17)