Sam Shepard

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Sam Shepard 1943–

(Born Sam Rogers) American playwright, screenwriter, short story writer, poet, and actor.

At the age of twenty-two, Shepard had his first off-off-Broadway production and he quickly established a reputation for speaking the language of the young and the disenchanted. He seems to thrive on the controversy attendant to avantgarde writers, and has written more than thirty plays to date. Most of them exhibit a compelling love of words. The idioms and phrasings of popular songs, Western tall tales, and old movies seem to have influenced his style and lend a powerful rhythm to his dialogue. Shepard is extremely interested in the folkways of the American West, especially in those of Native Americans. Operation Sidewinder, for example, devotes much of its plot to an explanation of the significance of the snake to the Hopis.

Shepard also seems to have benefited from his association with several experimental theater groups such as Open Theater and the Café La Mama troupe, where he has found the freedom to develop his own feeling for stagecraft. His sets sometimes verge on the surreal—the protagonist in Chicago spends most of the play in a bathtub—forcing the audience to approach his play in terms of a central, framing metaphor.

Criticism of Shepard's work usually focuses on the overall coherence of his plays. Though they are generally only one act long, their abundance of symbols offers a multitude of possible interpretations. Critics have thought variously, for example, that the Maid in Red Cross who is taught to swim has at the end died, become a fish, undergone evolution in reverse, or experienced a spiritual revelation. Thus Shepard's work has been called frustratingly ambiguous or even hopelessly contradictory.

In his best works Shepard's prolific imagination seems to produce just enough to make everything fit. One of his most successful plays to date has been The Tooth of Crime, an allegorical story of two rock musicians, Hoss and his challenger Crow, who battle it out for control of the musical scene. Here the characters succeed on a symbolic level, speaking lines that to some critics suggest other, classic confrontations in literature. The development of the metaphor of the shootout through the language of rock and roll is sustained and effective.

Shepard has also published a book of notes entitled Rolling Thunder Logbook. Bob Dylan, intending to make a film of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, hired Shepard to write on-the-spot dialogue. When the film project was abandoned, Shepard consolidated his writings and published this loosely structured journal of his experiences during the tour. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

Adrian Rendle

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Madness in drama has reached a … universal point of contact in the world of knife-edge dreams and hopes as realized by Sam Shepard….

The marvellous thing about Shepard is that he reads just as well as he plays. For the avant-garde this is unusual. Enthusiasts might be forgiven for defending some plays by saying things like—'Ah, but it was all in the way he masturbated.' Shepard has no need of such excuses. He is a dramatist.

La Turista is a dance and a drama without ever giving in entirely to either of those titles. It is total in its involvement of human feelings and it is up-to-date in reflecting the expanding theatrical imagination without ever becoming indisciplined. The play deals with the incurable state of mankind which is maimed by a state of over-civilization. That is perhaps a trifle crude as a capsule for something that is so wide in its vision. But what a thought it is when taken seriously by a dramatist...

(This entire section contains 229 words.)

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who knows hisavant-garde business without ever becoming faddy or fixated. (p. 91)

The World's sickness, like Kent's is not to be dealt with by witchcraft or twentieth century treatments. The sickness is of our own making. In a sense La Turista becomes the most powerful morality play of our time. (p. 93)

Adrian Rendle, "New Published Plays: 'La Turista'," in Drama, No. 95, Winter, 1965, pp. 91, 93.

Richard F. Shepard

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["Up to Thursday"] centered on (1) a young man lying in bed under an American flag and (2) four handsome, very young people sitting on straight-back chairs. The examination of drama not being altogether a police case, it is not necessary to pin down motive.

The author draws brightness from the banalities of conversation. Some of his devices are theater of the absurd à la Abbott and Costello, but he cuts deeper. He delineates the initial shyness of a relationship and the unreserved candor of an intimacy. In so doing, he uses vulgarities to establish his franchise as a freeborn playwright, but no matter, he demonstrates stagecraft.

Richard F. Shepard, "'Up to Thursday'," in The New York Times (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1965 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).

Robert Pasolli

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Red Cross is an enigmatic play on many counts, the playwright having left out a great deal of information ordinarily thought pertinent. He avoids elements of exposition, like identification of the scene and of the relationship of Jim and Carol. He avoids delineation of character, such as whether Jim is psychotic, playful or merely young. He leaves unclear the intention of the action: are the calisthenics symbolic masturbation, is the swimming lesson symbolic intercourse? Even his theme is elusive: is the encounter essentially between youth and maturity, man and woman, son and surrogate mother, or physicality and spirituality? His obvious symbols are ambiguous too, like the trickle of blood that appears on Jim's face at the end of the play, which could be an emblem of his having been defeated by the maid, or merely the testament of his lively lice—if, indeed, the lice were real in the first place. Those are some of the possibilities which Mr. Shepard hints at but does not confirm. Rather, he leaves them in suspension, as ambiguities which resonate against one another and against the stage action that produced them.

One wonders why ambiguity doesn't alienate the audience by obfuscation. I think the answer is that the playwright never looks up, but he plunges right through his stage action, giving no sign that he is aware of the peculiarities lurking behind it. It is bravura playwriting, sure and authoriative, and gives us an experience akin to the chambermaid's death by drowning. Like her, we glow with euphoria afterward, wondering about the experience. We have been tricked by the play's vitality, as she has been by Jim's, and our recompense for having submitted is, like hers, the pleasure of confrontation with a queer and mysterious reality.

Robert Pasolli, "Theatre: 'Red Cross'," in The Nation (copyright 1966 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 202, No. 8, February 21, 1966, p. 224.∗

Robert Pasolli

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Chicago is a play of vivid stage imagery, slippery symbols and an unbridled indulgence of imagination. It possesses the barest outline of recognizable reality…. [I] think Mr. Shepard intends by it only to lend a minimal credibility to his stage action. The hero, for example, spends all but the final moments of the play in a bathtub, but I don't think the device is meant to do more than locate him and render his existence recognizable…. The tub and the hero in it are stage images, vivid and forceful, and Mr. Shepard gives no indication of wanting them to stand for specific ideas.

Chicago, however, is not without intellectual content, consisting in the interaction between the hero and several acquaintances who wander past his tub and in a long mockheroic monologue—a quite extraordinary evocation of carnal picnicking on the beach that midway along assumes a life of its own, the story taking control of the storyteller.

From all of this it emerges that our alienated hero is hung up, probably on the lag between his imaginative faculty and his intellectual capability; i.e., the alienation felt by the artist. Beyond that I am less sure, but the hero seems to be calling for a more felt life, both a greater perception and a greater physicality. (p. 405)

Robert Pasolli, "Theatre: 'Chicago'," in The Nation (copyright 1966 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 202, No. 14, April 4, 1966, pp. 403-06.∗

Stanley Kauffmann

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["Chicago"] is a fantasy-comedy about a young man in a bathtub….

What gives the play its delights is Mr. Shepard's ability to follow fast after the ephemeral half-thought that is usually unspoken….

The ending—in which the hero's private world is breached by other people and by his acknowledgement of the audience—seems to me to hurt the play. Nevertheless, this is a free-flowing, salty and touching little rhapsody on a small incident seen through the prism of fancy.

Stanley Kauffmann, "'Chicago'," in The New York Times (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1966 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).

David Madden

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The audience responded to separate theatrical moments, touches, stunts in [La Turista], though it could not follow the alogic of the play, to use [an] appropriate term. It did follow the play's drift, its strident tone, its attitude of abuse, rebellion and anguished confusion.

In its presentation of the fragments of the author's confused response to the complex society against which he is reacting, the production makes a kind of eclectic free use of elements of the avant garde theatre, and of films such as Truffaut's and Godard's. This new theatre creates new structures for human experience out of radical combinations of the structures of games, rituals, marches, processions, oratory, prayer, etc. The emphasis is shifted from the verbal or literary to a physical expression of ideas and emotions—at least the distinctions between the two are blurred.

If Ionesco only appears to bombard the audience with obscure talk, Shepard literally floods the theatre with verbiage, some of it naughty-boy stuff…. [He] offers several long arias. Sitting on the bed, immobile, Salem recites in a monotone, in great detail, an episode of her childhood in which she spit on her father. One point of Shepard's theatrical demonstration is that this generation spits on the banalities, deceits, hypocrisies of its parents. On stage, back stage, in the wings, out in the audience—the presence of Mom and Dad is felt. These plays are mired in swampy attitudes toward Mom and Dad. Their main line of reasoning seems to be that if Mom and Dad's middle class values are false, that if they and the institutions they uphold are complacent and indifferent, the only alternative is some form of outlaw behavior or ideology. Thus, actual social outcasts like the thief-pervert Genet and the psychotic Artaud, and political outlaws like Brecht, are enshrined as saints. But one also senses a strange, perverse sentimentality…. (pp. 718-19)

Shepard's relentless verbiage and sound effects suggest a recent adolescence submerged in rock, and other racket music, a din, appropriate, I suppose, for our urban civilization. We sense with theatrical immediacy that this young man writes out of a milieu of psychedelic coffee house environments, of outlandish costumes, including Soviet schoolboy caps, steel-rimmed glasses, and beat uniforms….

Except for the superficial, obvious, cliché targets of Shepard's rebellion, I don't think the play solicits thematic interpretation. This is a theatre of pure experience. It's like going to a political rally, participating in a march, sitting in a loud café, or taking part in any of the vast number of theatrical activities outside theatre walls that are a part of our everyday lives now, that make up a great, complex climate of theatrical experience. (p. 719)

David Madden, "The Theatre of Assault: Four Off-Off Broadway Plays," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review; © 1967 The Massachusetts Review, Inc.), Vol. VIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1967, pp. 718-20.∗

Sydney Schubert Walter

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If the initial production of Fourteen Hundred Thousand was in any way a success, it was only in demonstrating to both myself and Sam Shepard some pitfalls that can be encountered when director and playwright work together. From a critical point of view the production was undeniably a failure.

Fourteen Hundred Thousand is a script characterized by an emphasis on language and a highly formal structure. It is true that the dialogue is elliptical, diffuse; that the play is composed of oddly dissimilar fragments joined together without apparent transitions. This diffuse dialogue, however, these strange fragments, are carefully arranged into a precise pattern. The formality is even carried out in the severe lines and deliberate balance of the set, and in the stage directions. These indicate precisely balanced arrangements of characters which emphasize the isolation of one from another. As the play progresses, words become more important, action less important, until it culminates in a technical description read from a book. (p. 62)

Fourteen Hundred Thousand is a rich and provocative script, and I feel certain that the right production concept will result in a moving theatrical event. I hope some director will accept the challenge which this play offers. (p. 63)

Sydney Schubert Walter, "Notes on 'Fourteen Hundred Thousand'," in Five Plays by Sam Shepard (copyright © 1967 by Sam Shepard), The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967, pp. 62-3.

Jacques Levy

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Red Cross is a cool play—in the sense that it is dense, not brought to the point of intellectual clarity, embedded in a series of metaphors which are all interconnected—and because it is a cool play, it must be treated as such, not "hotted up" by filling in the seemingly empty places where not enough is said to make for clear, unitary, conscious meaning. (Two facts are relevant here: [1] Sam can be extraordinarily precise and articulate whenever he feels the necessity of it; [2] He is not a willful obscurantist.) Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them, and what he wants to do has no relationship to the purging of emotions through identification or total involvement. It is more like the way changing a room's temperature does something to the people in it. And because the writing is cool, one must continually skirt the big sucking vacuum-trap of trying to make those astounding verbal trips into some kind of imagist poetry (like Dylan Thomas reciting Bob Dylan). To be simultaneously involved and detached as the play is, as a surgical operation is, as a cat staring is—that's the trick for a production of this play. (pp. 97-8)

Jacques Levy, "Notes on 'Red Cross'," in Five Plays by Sam Shepard (copyright © 1967 by Sam Shepard), The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967, pp. 96-8.

Edith Oliver

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["Red Cross"] is a disagreeable, and hateful, play. It is also as mysterious and haunting as [Mr. Shepard's] "Chicago" of a few seasons back. Preceded by earsplitting, abrasive rock music that goes on forever, and then by dead silence, "Red Cross" is about a man who is afflicted with body lice. The setting is a cabin in the woods where everything is dead white…. The lice, needless to say, are invisible and (let us hope) metaphorical, so that the question literally becomes: What is eating this infested fellow in this antiseptic setting—a fellow whom we see, at the end, with blood pouring down his face? Although various snap answers, sociological and political, may come to mind, they are not necessarily Mr. Shepard's. His metaphor is his secret…. [The play] is horrid, it is occasionally (and surprisingly) moving, and it is absolutely unrecommendable.

Edith Oliver, "The Theatre: 'Red Cross'," in The New Yorker (© 1968 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 12, May 11, 1968, p. 91.

John Simon

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Shepard is one of the most stimulating figures in the off-and-off-off-Broadway theater; in Red Cross, he conjures up a day in the estival life of a young couple in a forest cabin. She wakes up with a vision of her head splitting open someday on a ski slope; while she goes off to do the shopping, he entertains the maid who comes in from town with tales of his crab lice that have, he claims, bothered him for years. He also gives her a swimming lesson on top of two parallel beds. When his wife (or companion) returns, she has itchy privates and he, suddenly, a cracked-open skull. The transference of ailments is rather perfunctory and little more than a disembodied coup de théâtre. But the scene with the maid is spectacular dementia…. This is a surreal ontogeny (or phylogeny) in reverse, a weirdly alive regression throbbing and thrashing about on the stage….

At times an inspired, prophetic hallucination takes over. It is an infection caught from an absurd world; transmuted, it makes the theater break out in a rash of genius.

John Simon, "The Stage: 'Red Cross'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1968 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 13, June 14, 1968, p. 384.

Gerald Weales

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[Except for Melodrama Play], which has something approximating a conventional plot, [the plays collected in Shepard's Five Plays] are all constructed in the same fashion. He puts a number of not very well differentiated characters into a situation in which an undefined something seems to be going on and lets them talk, either in long monologues or in exchanges that tend toward single-sentence lines. It is possible to find meaning, in the traditional sense, in his works, to assume that the bookcase chore in Fourteen Hundred Thousand is a lifetime task, unwillingly undertaken; that Icarus's Mother is about the bomb; that Melodrama Play is incidentally concerned with making satirical points about the pop-music industry. Yet the communication of ideas is not Shepard's concern. (p. 241)

Red Cross, probably the most interesting of the plays, provides a good introduction to Shepard's work. It takes place in a cabin in which everything is white. As it opens, Jim and Carol are in conversation, and she goes into a long monologue describing an imagined skiing accident in which she is totally destroyed. After she leaves, the Maid enters, and she and Jim discuss his crabs, which he proposes to cure by switching beds with Carol. Then there is a long sequence in which he tries to teach the Maid to swim, viciously pushing her beyond her capacity until she gets cramps and drowns…. Carol returns and announces that she is being eaten by bugs. As Jim turns to look at her, a stream of blood running down his forehead becomes visible to the audience. "What happened!" she asks. "When?" he replies.

The structural balance of the play is clear enough…. Shepard's directors tend to talk of his work in terms of the metaphors that he uses, but the metaphors, even when they are obviously connected, as in Red Cross, do not add up to anything specific. This play conveys a sense of menace, but it does so in a strangely distant fashion. Unlike [Harold] Pinter, whose situations at once attract and repel audiences, commanding empathy and refusing information, Shepard simply presents images which tease, which are neither intellectually nor emotionally satisfying. (p. 242)

[I suspect that the effectiveness of his method] is limited. Red Cross is the only Shepard play I have seen, but I came away from a reading of Five Plays fascinated by some of the images—the bookcase business at the beginning of Fourteen Hundred Thousand, the drowning sequence in Red Cross, the beating of Drake in Melodrama Play—but only indifferently aware of the general movement of the plays as whole works. (p. 243)

Gerald Weales, "Transformations and Other Changes," in his The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's (reprinted with permission of the author; © 1969 by Gerald Weales), Macmillan, 1969, pp. 224-53.

Martin Gottfried

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Everything about Sam Shepard's "Operation Sidewinder" is important to our theatre. More than any recent major production, it is built upon exactly the style and the mentality energizing the youth movement in America today. It is conceived and written in the pop style, a sort of cross between pop art and McLuhanism. It is very cool. It incorporates this sense and look with those of pop art … and pop—in the same sense—music. It is very American in its feel, its concerns, its attitudes again a reflection of what's going on.

For all these things, Shepard's new play is important because it at last brings onto a stage what is so energetic in America today, giving the theatre a chance to be modern, to be relevant, to draw back those young audiences so long-lost (for good reason). It is important because its point of view, and the way that point of view must be presented, are very accessible to the theatre—they can make the theatre as new as a non-linear penny…. Everything is right about "Operation Sidewinder" except that it falls apart.

The title stands for a crucial symbol, "sidewinder" being the name of a rattlesnake found in the American Southwest and also the name of a computer in the play. Shepard, in true-blue McLuhan style, sees the computer not as an enemy but as the very heart of electric-zap communication, a kind of modern magic reality. I see it that way too, so we're cool so far.

We're not so cool when Shepard puts this idea through a couple of pages of comic strip, weaving it into American Indian ritualism….

This is a play intensely and mystically in love with America—a play that finds something very powerful and great in the pure artifacts of this country, whether they are in the past of our Indians or in the present of our computers.

[This] is a great and true idea but even then it is only a vague background to the play, which exists mainly just to exist. It is more than terribly disappointing to have found Shepard incapable of making everything fit….

Martin Gottfried, "Theatre: 'Operation Sidewinder'," in Women's Wear Daily (copyright 1970, Fairchild Publications, Capital Cities Media, Inc.), March 13, 1970 (and reprinted in NY Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXI, No. 6, March 23, 1970, p. 345).

Clive Barnes

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["Operation Sidewinder"] is clearly an interesting and for all its apparent naïveté a possibly significant play.

I cannot say that at first sight I understood it, but this may be as much my fault as Mr. Shepard's, even though at the moment I arrogantly doubt it. Mr. Shepard has written a phantasmagoric satire about the end of the world—or at least about the end of American materialism.

Mr. Shepard divides people into those of the snake and those of the lizard. Snake people are of the spirit and lizard people are of the earth. And the lizard people win the final confrontation with an explosion to end all explosions….

There are many contrasts here. The contrast between the natural, the snake civilization, of the American Indian, and the lizardly bureaucratic life-style of the white man who has replaced him. There is the contrast between the anxious white hippie—the hero-villain innocent of the piece who tiptoes through the symbolism as if in search of another play—and the secure black establishment. But, obviously, most of all, there is the contrast between the gleaming American dream and the desert of American reality….

The difficulty of the play is in the writing. The symbolic progression, while clearly charting the progress to atomic holocaust, is altogether too symbolic. It seems as though Mr. Shepard has been so busy making his points that he has almost forgotten to write his play. He takes—as well he might—his underlying theme of dry and escalating violence so seriously that he permits the expression of that theme to take an uncomfortable second place to its simple statement.

As a result I feel that he has written, and indeed very cleverly conceived, a rather bad play about a rather good subject. He must take heart in that he is reversing an all-too-common procedure.

Clive Barnes, "'Operation Sidewinder'," in The New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 15, 1970 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).

Brendan Gill

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The style of "Operation Sidewinder" is that of the comic strip, which gives the author's occasional seriously uttered banalities the nervous poignancy of anything that is said at the wrong time and place. If it is the function of the comic strip to make extreme activity take the place of—and not merely disguise the lack of—genuine content, the function of a play is to do precisely the opposite; once Mr. Shepard has exploited his POW!s and ZAP!s he is left with little but magical incantations to offer us, and they are not enough. (p. 115)

If Mr. Shepard will indulge his talent and ignore his mind, he cannot be disappointed when his audiences fail to be moved by a Disney version of damnation. (p. 116)

Brendan Gill, "The Theatre: 'Operation Sidewinder'," in The New Yorker (© 1970 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 5, March 21, 1970, pp. 115-16.

Harold Clurman

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[Operation Sidewinder] makes two complementary points: contemporary America is a scene of total madness and brutality, and this is so because a break between spiritual and material values is destined to destroy us. (p. 380)

[Much] of the play is dull. This is due only in part to the impression of aimlessness made by the peculiar sequence of scenes. Contributing even more to a strange boredom is the fact that the play's satire, for all its extravagance and color, is banal. There are random killings, popular obscenities, and a farcically conceived atmosphere of "Wild West" abandon. These are very much like the simplistic blasphemies about the idiotic heartlessness of our reigning mercantile, mechanical and military complex so commonly projected by the juvenile avant-garde of stage and screen.

Yes! Our civilization is coming apart at the seams, with its rip and roar becoming sensible even to the deaf. But how tiresome is the announcement of this Armageddon when it is perpetually blared through raucous symbols. Why can't our condition be fleshed in real human behavior, in its subtle as well as in its most patent manifestations, in homes, individual minds, institutions, industries? Luridly generalized, the disarray becomes just display, obstreperous entertainment barely more inspiring than the horrors presumably being lampooned. (p. 381)

Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'Operation Sidewinder'," in The Nation (copyright 1970 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 210, No. 12, March 30, 1970, pp. 380-81.∗

Clive Barnes

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Despite my worst instincts I cannot prevent myself from mildly loving the plays of [Sam Shepard]…. He is so sweetly unserious about his plays, and so desperately serious, about what he is saying.

Mr. Shepard is perhaps the first person to write good disposable plays. He may well go down in history as the man who became to drama what Kleenex was to the handkerchief. And just like Kleenex he may well overcome….

[He] bombarded my beleagured mind … with two simple little plays (I scarcely understood a word of them) "The Unseen Hand" and "Forensic and the Navigators." Read those titles again, dear reader, or even dear readers, for they give the flavor of the work. Not so much mindblowing as puzzling. Yet … interesting. Well yes. Interesting.

I find those plays difficult to grapple with, which is why I am playing footsie with them. Like Mr. Shepard's "Operation Sidewinder,"… there is more in them than meets the mind. They are very easy to be funny about, yet they linger oddly in the imagination….

I have read and seen these plays. They do not have any coherent narrative. "Sidewinder," to be honest, does have a kind of idiot, metaphorical story to guide it, but it is one that only Hans Christian Anderson could love. They do represent, with a series of humorous and explosive images, a pretty emotionally colored view of our America.

Mr. Shepard uses symbols as scenery and then talks around them. It is a disturbing thing to do. But to him a brokendown Chevrolet or a packet of Rice Krispies suggests the evocation of a civilization.

He makes jokes—echoes of old movie comedies, disconcerting jolts of realism to hang onto like rafts in a surrealistic sea. He mocks dramatics—to him nothing would be funnier nor more pitiable than a fate worse than death. And he needs discipline the way a hemophiliac needs blood. Yet you cannot be uninterested. Or at least you cannot be uninterested if you are at all interested in the American theater.

Dialogue in Mr. Shepard follows along the lines of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I find myself wondering whether this is altogether bad. At least he leaves a taste in the soul, disenchanted and disturbing.

Clive Barnes, "Dramatic Cartoons Are Displayed in Village," in The New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 2, 1970 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).

Catharine Hughes

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[There] are occasions when I have no idea what to say about Sam Shepard….

Shepard is very much the avant garde man of the moment….

The Unseen Hand—part science fiction, part caricature western, part allegory—is Shepard very much into his own (mixed) bag, a sort of 'The Apocalypse Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out'….

Shepard [takes] potshots at many of the favourite American myths and realities. (Azusa, incidentally, stands for "everything from A to Z in the USA'). At times he resorts to clichés and banalities nearly on a par with those he indicts—'They have a revolution now and everything stays just like it was'; 'Why should you feel responsible for some species of hybrid from another galaxy?'—as Willie reminds the cowboy trio that freedom and revolution are inextricably bound up'. But he has the ability to create moments of such pure theatricality, such absurd humour—to go from taking himself much too seriously in one line to something completely bizarre in the next—that by the time Willie goes off proclaiming he has discovered he does not need their help after all, that he has found within himself all that is necessary to overthrow the Nogoland oppressors, it would be difficult indeed not to respond to his serio-pop comedy.

But he should have left the second and shorter play, Forensic and the Navigators, in the drawer. Two men are—or perhaps are not—involved in some sort of plot. As one hunches over a typewriter and tells the other to cool it, a girl comes on tossing a monumental flapjack. Then come a couple of 'exterminators', wielding their gas-spewing tools of the trade. Two characters go on a Rice Krispies trip, and everyone—or at least the audience—winds up rather thoroughly confused as the play ends with smoke cascading on to the stage, enveloping the actors, thence out into the audience. I haven't the faintest idea what it's about, but in my reportorial capacity I will mention that a young man a few rows behind me exploded 'Great, Sam, great!' No, it wasn't. My generation gap isn't that great, Sam, great.

Catharine Hughes, "New York Report: 'The Unseen Hand' and 'Forensic and the Navigators'" (© copyright Catharine Hughes 1970; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 17, No. 9, June, 1970, p. 17.

Mel Gussow

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Sam Shepard is fascinated by America's folk heroes, which for him means not merely historical and legendary figures, but also movie and pop stars. These larger-than-life people and their illusions—almost everyone wants to be someone else—populate the stage in his free-wheeling new play "Mad Dog Blues."…

[Kosmo] is apparently a modern prototype of the movie cowboy. Yahoodi … is not so apparently a modern prototype of the movie gangster, although he acts shifty and dreams about being Bogey. It is possible that Mr. Shepard did not mean the two to represent anything except themselves, but the emanations they give off of their classic predecessors add an extra level.

The best thing, however, when seeing Mr. Shepard, is not to look for explications, explanations, or levels, but to relax and let yourself be carried away. "Mad Dog Blues" is much more obviously an entertainment than is some of the author's previous work. Actually, it is something of a Shepard-and-Family vaudeville….

[The plot] follows a hunt for Captain Kidd's treasure (to everyone's surprise, a collection of bottlecaps) led by Kidd, Marlene and Yahoodi, and trailed by a rival team composed of Mae, Kosmo and a cowpoke named Waco Texas who has a fantasy life of his own—he wants to be Jimmie Rogers, "the old Jimmie Rogers." As Waco explains, "He lives in me and that's how I figure out I'm him," which may be a key to the show. In other words, you are who you think you are.

In spite of its epic canvas, "Mad Dog Blues" is, refreshingly, non-insistent and unpretentious….

Like talking blues, Mr. Shepard's show rambles and seems to extemporize and improvise. It has its own rhythm, which overrides everything, even the occasional slowness and unwieldiness. "Mad Dog Blues" is written … in a deceptively casual but confident style, with a deep affection for America's landscape and mythology.

Mel Gussow, "'Mad Dog Blues'," in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 8, 1971 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971, p. 42).

Clive Barnes

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Sam Shepard is one of those natural dramatists who is almost obsessed with dramatic form. In "Melodrama Play" …, Mr. Shepard is as much concerned with being melodramatic as with being playful.

He is trying to take the essence of the old melodrama—its exaggerated expression of understandable feeling and its use of music for accentuation and extension—and to give it a new life. The attempt has often been tried before, but always at the expense of the melodrama. In such contemporary updatings the form was presented—slightly off-key—in a manner meant to be laughed at. Mr. Shepard, on the other hand, is doing the far more difficult feat of exploring the form's present validity….

Mr. Shepard is a playwright who gives the comforting impression of always knowing what he is doing. You may not especially like it, and this work started to bore me as soon as I realized how stylishly this creation of a form was going to be brought off. Despite his frenetic exterior—his rock group with a go-go girl and a go-go boy for equal time—and his camp lines floating out on the audience like promissory notes for laughter, this crazy play has reverberations to its craziness.

For me melodrama is not a particularly arresting form and it was therefore a concomitant tribute to Mr. Shepard's success that I was as disinterested in this as I have ever been in any melodrama….

In sum, this is not one of Mr. Shepard's most ambitious or most successful works—but as with everything he does it has some measure of distinction.

Clive Barnes, "Rock and Camp Mark Trend at La Mama," in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 28, 1971 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971, p. 98).

Richard A. Davis

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[Sam Shepard] has a tremendous ability to make words bring the imagination of an audience to life. (p. 12)

Distances, levels, and points of view are important to Shepard's plays. [In Icarus' Mother the] pilot observing the characters below, and the characters observing him above are both fascinated by each other. The pilot is literally burning up his excess energy: he trails it in the sky and writes the formula for it in the air. We can assume he took off from the earth and separated himself from the others. If we can accept Howard's explanation of a pilot's situation, a pilot, however much he tries to maintain control above, is always tempted to look down. What he sees is beautiful to him, but it also makes him dizzy. In the play, he is attracted by the lusty women as well. In showing off his energy to them, he goes as high as possible, then dives into the sea—returns to his origins, becomes earthbound again. Obviously this parallels the Icarus legend. Man attempts to be like a god, but is sent crashing down to human mortality again. The play, thus, makes a statement about what happens to those who joyously attain extreme states of individuality—whose excess energy leads them to human attempts at attaining spiritual or abstract goals; and the statement seems rather pessimistic. Death seems to ultimately conquer the spirit….

The play is … closely tied to the theme of Strindberg's Dream Play in its symbolism and meaning. The cluttered beaches Frank hates, the vulgar sexual dancing, the need to eat and to "pee" are the kinds of dirty bits of humanity that destroy man's attempts to attain spiritual glory. And it is man's own sexuality, glorious and full of energy as it is, which brings him crashing down to the body and the earth again. Indeed, the pilot's position above the earth, his plunge downward, and his death in a tremendous explosion of fireworks could make the play into a symbolic act of sexual intercourse.

This play also sets up some symbolic geographic areas in the Shepard world: the sea, with connotations of an end to life; the area above sea level where the food and barbecue comforts of civilization exist. It is a satisfactory status-quo area for Howard and Bill—a place for conformity, another kind of death; finally, the sky—superior and above the other positions, with connotation of spiritual heights and a freedom, though only a temporary freedom.

In Red Cross Shepard removes the "pilot" type of physical escape from the earth and concentrates, instead, on characters more or less trapped or grounded in an earthbound situation. Their only escape comes from and occurs within their own minds. (p. 14)

By concentrating on teaching the maid to swim, Jim is able to escape temporarily the reality of his bug-infested world. Parasitically, to coat her own dreary routine of laundry work, she takes his escape for herself, but turns it into a new trap by pointing out that when one is used to swimming—and has metaphorically become a fish—the lake will freeze and, "you sit on the bank … until you don't feel a thing … until your flippers freeze to the ground and your tail freezes to the grass." She points out the routineness of even Jim's energetic escape; and while feeding on his energy, symbolically destroys him. This is one reason why I believe Shepard shows blood flowing from Jim's head at the end of the play, shortly after the maid has exited.

Each character has his routine escape—Jim in his swimming, the maid in her laundry job which takes her from town, and Carol in her visions of destruction; but each escape becomes a trap—a routine. Their minds are blanketed in a kind of "snow" of routine conformity.

Indeed, the whole set is constructed to provide this metaphor. Everything in the room is white: human flesh provides the only color. There are two windows, a center door between them, and a bed under each window. Carol's dialogue with Jim as the play opens seems to confirm that the set represents two eyes with glasses and a nose—a human head. Her opening monologue … concludes with her fear that her head will break open and "All you'll see is this red splotch of blood and a whole blanket of white snow." Jim's forehead dripping blood completes the picture.

The fact that this head (or set) we see is full of parasites, both bugs and characters who depend upon each other, makes the picture even uglier. And the fact that the play occurs in this set (or head) may indicate that Shepard views his own play as a form of temporary mental escape for himself—an escape which provides no lasting freedom, because it will be turned into another example of routine conformity by a parasitical playwright-play-audience relationship. (p. 15)

The answer [to what is eating the main character] is clear: Jim's own humanity is eating him. His own head contains the thinking mechanism to rise above the body's limitations, but his head is itself a bodily limitation and makes such escape temporary at best. This theme will reappear in other Shepard plays; Fourteen Hundred Thousand picks up the same theme of man's self-defeating nature and again links it with "snow" imagery and the color white. Yet again, in Chicago, while dealing with the same hopeless images of the human situation, Shepard seems to provide a more optimistic ending. (pp. 15-16)

Stu, like Jim in Red Cross, adapts equally well to water or air. He is in and out of the tub, wears no shirt, but does wear pants. He dislikes the fish in the water he envisions outside his tub…. Stu gives a long description of the reciprocal relationship between the fishermen, above, who have bait to catch the fish, and the fish below, who are hungry for the bait, but are afraid to take the risk to get it. "You're both hung up," he says. Not only does this relationship repeat the parasitical relationship in Red Cross, it has political and social implications as well. The fish-fish-ermen relationship is a dependency like the worker-employer relationship. Once either accepts the economically reciprocal system, he loses something of his freedom. And the fish or worker, while gaining necessities such as food, also stands to lose his life or individuality on the hook. (p. 16)

The play deals with four geographic areas: the water where the fish swim in schools, the beach which is sometimes dry and sometimes full of water, the hilltop with its stifling warmth and security, and the air with its potential for continued life. It shows mankind in various cycles and reciprocal relationships associated with these areas. Men leave important conformity (the sea) for more civilized conformity and security and fleshly satisfaction (the hilltop), but that produces a "white" death and ignorance similar to the sea again. The cast, who have seen Joy off to her new job, would seem to be fishing for others in the audience who would accept this kind of reciprocal fishing arrangement—this escape from one kind of death to another kind of death. But Stu is somehow outside this reciprocity of fish and fishermen. He has run from the white water and the sticky beach, the certainty of becoming a fish. He has associated himself with the air. He is breathing; he is a man. He is like the pilot glorying in his temporary freedom; yet, ironically, in his monologue of pride for his ability to breathe, he, too, is trying to encourage the audience to join him. Shepard seems to show us two patterns of reciprocity. Human beings can be caught in the economic reciprocity of fish-fisherman which provides a death in materialism, or they can choose a reciprocity with Stu. Stu does not ask that everyone do anything he does, except breathe. His pleasure would be to teach everyone in the audience to breathe as individual men. That is why the play begins with the recitation of the "Gettysburg Address," with its idealism about a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." It is probably also why it ends with the policeman's stick beating three times on a chair at the back of the theatre. Shepard, in this play, has moved into the realm of politics, and has brought along his standard imagery. Though it is basically pessimistic (the sea-land-sea themes provide little optimism), Shepard does put another "pilot" into the air in creating Stu. And he leaves it up to the audience whether they will make the play totally pessimistic or totally optimistic. The answer will be in the way they choose to live their own lives after they leave the theatre.

Elements in both Cowboys #2 and Forensic and the Navigators continue these social and political themes and look toward Shepard's most recent work, Operation Sidewinder. The concluding scene of Cowboy #2, with its blaring horns, thirsty cowboys, and desert where there were once orange trees, is a dramatic criticism of the destruction of natural resources by over-mechanization. (pp. 16-17)

Each [of the characters in Operation Sidewinder] is seeking some kind of escape from or change in his life—some contact with a better world. First, we are confronted with a huge, mechanical sidewinder rattlesnake whose eyes flash on and off…. The Sidewinder rattlesnake computer is the ultimate in scientific mechanism, a scientific method for reaching beyond the confines of the earth to the "extraterrestrial consciousness." The plan is almost identical to Stu's attempt to turn the audience of Chicago into individual men who can keep themselves from falling victim to conformity and loss of energy. The irony is that what has been created here by the U.S. Air Force is only a machine. (p. 17)

Dr. Vector … created the Sidewinder to enable man to reach beyond the earth by means of a machine—to escape the earth, but to unite with something higher. When the Sidewinder is decapitated, it would seem that that dream has ended. The revolutionaries, in their attempt to divide and conquer, seem to be successful.

Clearly the revolution was intended, at least by the Party and the Blacks, to be a kind of escape and a movement upward in the progress of civilization; but when the play resumes for Act II, we learn the revolution has been a failure. Honey and the Young Man are prisoners of the three Blacks and are blamed for the failure in plans. Mickey Free did not drug the reservoir. But since possessing the Sidewinder Computer would be of even greater benefit to the Party than drugging the reservoir, the Blacks will give the Young Man another chance. He is to bring the Sidewinder to them.

The whole second act becomes a kind of quest to put the Sidewinder together again, but a spiritual revolution is the intention this time, rather than a political one, and it is Mickey Free, rather than the Young Man, who is at the center of it….

Shepard's own philosophy would seem to be close to that of the Spider Lady. There are a select few able to live a truly superior kind of individual life. They have found an inner peace which enables them to rise above both body and spirit in a kind of union of the two. They have not sought shelter in material comforts or the mechanized world, but have risen above it to a kind of ideal manhood. The question, of course, is whether Mickey Free can unite the two parts of the snake and make this possible for all mankind. (p. 18)

The play says two things. First it says that the regeneration of the human spirit—and of the American spirit—will not be accomplished by faith in the machine. The Sidewinder, though it survives, has been broken in half again; and in taking the troopers aboard the space ship it is perpetuating the unsatisfactory conditions of humanity, by transferring them to outer space. That is all that materialism can do.

Secondly, while the play shows us a real spiritual reform in Honey, Mickey Free and the Young Man, it points out how temporary any state of individual peace and regeneration can be. The pilot's peak ended in a crash, Jim's sharing of a method of coping with life ended in a stream of blood, and Stu's independent state depends on the audience's continuing it beyond the theatre. If the peace of mind which Mickey Free, the Young Man and Honey attain is kept at all, it is kept in "another world" (to quote the phrase of the Snake Lady)—and Mr. Shepard does not choose to deal with that other world. Shepard praises this superior state of being which can be attained on earth, wishes that it could become permanent, but sees it as only temporary….

[Shepard] has a precise grasp of imagery and a talent for creating with words alone extremely believable emotional experiences. That some writers use realistic delineation of characters to dramatize the human spirit does not make that method the only successful one. It is the duty of a good critic to attempt to grasp the style of the author he criticizes, not just to wish that it were different. If Everyman can successfully tell the symbolic story of mankind's salvation, why cannot Operation Sidewinder tell the symbolic story of mankind's destruction? Neither play needs to enter an Ibsen living room or a weaver's cottage to tell its tale. We have seen that Shepard has explored the individual mental dilemma as well as the entire social dilemma in his plays. In Melodrama Play, I believe he deals not only with the human problem, but with his own dilemma as a playwright.

In that play, Duke, a rock singer, has become a hit on the basis of only one song, "Prisoners get up out of your homemade beds." This song states the human predicament Shepard has treated in all of his plays, and provides his point of view towards his subject matter. How does humanity get out of its homemade bed? Is it possible to reach a permanent escape from the ever falling snow, the beach that wants to hold our feet from moving, the ocean that wants to freeze over us or keep us blindly swimming in schools, the American dream of materialism which smothers us? Like Shelley who wanted to change the world politically, but who had to realize that the change would only come as men's individual souls changed, so Shepard seems to have discovered that it is only within the individual mind that one finds his "shelter" from the world; and even this shelter is not permanent, for the mind and body are tied together. To a great extent, Shepard's dramas have all been caught in this continual exploration of the same human problem. Just as Duke needs a new song, Shepard needs to try out some new themes in drama. He needs to "get up out of" his "homemade bed." (p. 19)

Richard A. Davis, "'Get Up Out A' Your Homemade Beds': The Plays of Sam Shepard," in Players Magazine (copyright © 1971 by Players Magazine), Vol. 47, No. 1, October-November, 1971, pp. 12-19.


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Shepard's plays have a spine that is the thrust of his perceptions. The vertebrae are not obvious because the energy of the perceptions creates a field or an aura surrounding them. We have fields of musculature around our spines, and then electric charge around the musculature—so have these plays. Plays are organisms. (p. 1)

The Cowboy Mouth is just the opposite of what it looks like. It is pure elegance of intellect.

The slapdash of the speeches and the spontaneousness of Cavale and Slim make a shape that is a pawprint of the Universe. The ego of the artist settles into the field of the self's unattached experience and information and makes them a whole—then extends again like a tentacle or an arm. It is an organic motion that is representative of the action of the physical mind—the mind of the author's body, and everyone's body. There is an extension and then a flood of imagery and action and it repeats. There are songs for pleasure and for meaning. The crow and coyote play together as any man and woman or leopard and leopardess play together. As information accrues the simulacrum of the Savior is created—beauty pops out of the beast. Meaning floods from action images.

The destruction of formality by means of shadowy tiptoe grace is the action of The Rock Garden. The impressionism of the scenes is not arbitrary but precise in a way that is past regular ken. The scenes create more than normal rationality. The darting of the scenes makes a seemingly solid structure.

This is an intuitive comedy that plays on much more than the traditional comic elements. The world is the proscenium and it has folded over itself and made eddies that are precise in the sense that a ram's horn or a fern tip is precise.

Cowboys #2 is a natural opposite of The Rock Garden in that it is a strictly formal piece. The elements of real play—of children's or men's play—that are in the other pieces are turned loose to be theater in themselves. The play creates the form and the form is symmetrical visually, audially, and emotionally. It is a piece of music with acting—or a piece of acting with music. It is starkly naturalistic in the sense that it is no more than what you hear and see it to be—and that is as complex and fascinating as any part of the world to which an artist gives attention and imagination.

The plays are virile and crack like a whip and glitter like light in a snake's eye—they are also feral and viable, with part of themselves mysterious and still clinging to blackness while the actors move and sing in the light. (pp. 2-3)

Michael McClure, in his introduction to Mad Dog Blues & Other Plays by Sam Shepard (copyright © 1972 by Winter House Ltd.), Winter House, 1972, pp. 1-3.

Clive Barnes

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Mr. Shepard writes mythic plays in American jazz-poetry. He writes about today but obliquely, which is possibly the only way today can be written about. He is trying to express truths wrapped up in legends and with the kind of symbolism you often find nowadays in pop music. His command of language is daring and inventive—some of the words sound new, and quite a few of them actually are. The playwright has a musician's command of speech rhythms and links them to character and thought patterns. It is a lean and supple language, hip and bouncy. In a way, it is a white man's version of black argot—but not quite. It has its own way of dealing with words, and, while it clearly acknowledges a debt, it does have its own sound.

What separates ["The Tooth of Crime"] from Shepard works I have previously encountered is quite simply its directness. This is a pure and simple confrontation that even the Greeks might have approved of. It is a play about change, about the awareness of history and the inevitability of age and death. Mr. Shepard's combatants are those all-American superheroes, pop stars.

The play's fantasy is to envision a world—or perhaps merely to symbolize a present world—where pop stars are killers. They have turf and possessions, areas of influence and gold disks. But these stars, playing according to the code of the game, are prey to the gypsies, the pop singers who come out of nowhere and fight them to the death. It is like a passage from [James] Frazer's "The Golden Bough," but this is drama not anthropology….

The play itself, with its strange jive obscenities and inventions, catches the mind's eye. Yes, and makes contact.

Clive Barnes, "'The Tooth of Crime'," in The New York Times (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 7, 1973 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1973, p. 36).

Edith Oliver

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Sam Shepard, at around thirty, is one of the three or four most gifted playwrights alive. His "The Tooth of Crime" is … strong and vivid and funny…. The play, like Mr. Shepard's wonderful "The Unseen Hand," of several years ago, is a comedy with science-fiction trimmings. It is about an aging and garrulous fellow of the Old West called Hoss, whose control of his territory is threatened by a "new" man, an icy, impersonal, taciturn young fellow called Crow. The play is also about the nature of fantasy (Mr. Shepard may be the first dramatist since [Luigi] Pirandello to bring us news on the subject of illusion and reality) and about power and feeling and the end of romance, and in the Old West Shepard has found the perfect setting for his ideas. "The Tooth of Crime" could be considered an allegory, I suppose, but let's not. It is surely a satire. Most of Act I is taken up with the anticipation of Crow's arrival and with preparations for it; most of Act II is taken up with a fight between him and Hoss, which ends with Hoss's overthrow…. The story is told in small scenes and songs and dances and—as was also true of "The Unseen Hand"—in language as vigorous and humorous and audacious as the imagination behind it. One of the joys is seeing the playwright slip in and out of parody and toss clichés into the air without ever losing his balance. He is indeed an original, but it might be pointed out that the qualities that make him so valuable are the enduring ones—good writing, wit, dramatic invention, and the ability to create characters. (p. 92)

Edith Oliver, "Fractured Tooth," in The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIX, No. 4, March 17, 1973, pp. 92, 94.

Harold Clurman

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Sam Shepard is a voice from the "underground," a poet's voice. His plays are mythic. They speak of the contemporary world and subliminally convey a social "message." They possess no specific ideology, they proclaim no prophesy except the ultimate doom of the present state of civilization. They express a yearning for restoration through the ancient virtues of kindness and human brotherhood, unity of flesh and spirit. Because he employs no philosophic identification tags, what he tells us must of necessity remain somewhat vague or ambiguous.

The Tooth of Crime … is a characteristic Shepard play and possibly his best….

The sum is often a sort of surrealist automatic writing, occasionally obscure, packed with low-life neologisms, invented turns of phrase, and sheer sonorous exhilaration. To understand it all prosaically a glossary would have to be supplied. But even as it stands, with much which goes past earshot and quick comprehension, it rings out triumphantly. A good part of the play's merit is in its speech, with its ever changing modalities echoing different jazz or rock styles, crooners and shouters. (p. 411)

[Apart] from the novel lingo and the explicit story of a rivalry between the two Pop music styles, the funky proletarian and the commercially packaged, other connotations are repeatedly suggested by the text but probably fail to register with the audience as the play is now presented. To put it crudely, the struggle is between a grass-roots democratic "capitalism" and our cold-steel latter day society headed toward something akin to fascism. (p. 412)

Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'The Tooth of Crime'," in The Nation (copyright 1973 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 216, No. 13, March 26, 1973, pp. 411-12.

Robert Brustein

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The Unseen Hand is a hallucination based on fact—a compound of nostalgia and celebration in the face of the more tawdry elements of American life—which draws its energy from a compost heap, the flamboyant vulgarity of California culture.

Partly observed, partly absorbed, the characters of the play are a weird blending of authentic types and media constructs….

Shepard's approach is simply to place these disparate characters against a contemporary landscape, and let them work upon each other….

[Shepard] continues to confront American popular culture with a kind of manic exuberance—not exalting its every wart and pimple, like Andy Warhol, but nevertheless considerably turned on, like many of his generation, even by its more brutalized expressions. In a degenerate time, this may be a strategy for survival, and it certainly sparks the energy of The Unseen Hand; but I miss that quality of aloofness that would make this play not only a creative act, but an act of moral resistance as well.

Robert Brustein, "Sam Shepard's America," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 168, No. 16, April 21, 1973, p. 23.

Charles R. Bachman

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For several years Sam Shepard has been acknowledged as the most talented and promising playwright to emerge from the Off-off Broadway movement. Now, more than a decade after his work was first performed, he is increasingly recognized as one of the more significant dramatists in the English-speaking world. (p. 405)

Shepard draws much of his material from popular culture sources such as B-grade westerns, sci-fi and horror films, popular folklore, country and rock music and murder-mysteries. In his best work he transforms the original stereotyped characters and situations into an imaginative, linguistically brilliant, quasi-surrealistic chemistry of text and stage presentation which is original and authentically his own. One source of the unique quality and tension of his dramas is his ambivalent attitude toward violence. The structure of his work reflects both an abhorrence for and fascination with it, and with the menace which may lead to it…. What Shepard's ambivalent attitude toward violence, menace and power does result in throughout his dramas is the following pattern of action: Menacing, potentially violent characters or forces are introduced, only to have the terror they create defused either by an avoidance of the threatened violence, or vitiation of its effect through audience alienation devices. In the dramas preceding The Tooth of Crime (1972), this structure frequently involves characters who are self-indulgent, who often find their whims almost instantly gratified. Such a pattern is in contrast, for example, to that employed in Pinter's dramas, in which menace is almost never defused, but continues to build throughout the action, at times exploding into terrifying conflict.

Shepard's dramatic pattern, while never resulting in anything as sentimental as love or even union, bears some resemblance to the fictional patterns of Thomas Hardy, who, like Shepard, created in various novels all the ingredients for violent confrontation, then scrupulously avoided the potential conflict. Like Hardy's characters, those of Shepard ultimately turn out to be potential communers rather than potential conflicters. (pp. 405-06)

In Melodrama Play the defusion of menace occurs most obviously in regard to Peter, a huge henchman assigned to guard a rock star and his friends. After having shot the star's girlfriend in the head (significantly, this is not taken very seriously by the others) and knocked the star unconscious with his club, Peter sits the others on the couch and says: "I'd like to ask you both what you think of me as a person. Just frankly. Don't be afraid of hurting my feelings or anything like that. Just tell me what you think." In spite of further head bashings and threats, this concern of Peter's, revealed also in two lengthy monologues, and the sudden resurrection and exit of the dead girl and one of the men, prevent Peter's posed club over the brother's head at the end of the play from being anything but comic or melodramatic—a propos of the title. (pp. 406-07)

[At] the end of Melodrama Play, a loud banging is heard on the door…. Terror from unknown sources is in fact almost the only kind which is ever very frightening in Shepard's work, and is the only type of terror he himself has specifically mentioned. (p. 407)

In Cowboy Mouth (1971), The Tooth of Crime (1972) and Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974), Shepard utilizes to a much greater extent than before the methods of conventional dramatic realism such as believable characterization, psychological and emotional tension and crescendo of suspense. Concomitant with this development comes a virtual elimination of the brilliant, surrealistically grotesque monologues of his earlier work, and a more tightly-disciplined form. This affects his use of menace, which now becomes more seriously threatening than before, and approaches closer to actual physical conflict and violence.

In Cowboy Mouth a woman named Cavale ("mare") has kidnapped a half-resentful, half-fascinated Slim, hoping to turn him into a rock star. Like his earlier namesake in Back Bog Beast Bait, Slim loves to play the coyote (to Cavale's crow), but combines within himself some of the frustrations of both Kosmo and Yahoodi of Mad Dog Blues. Unlike the earlier Slim, however, he is young, and carries only faint traces of that perennial Shepardian character—the outlawhero of the American Southwest. This is, in fact, the first play since Shaved Splits which does not include such a figure. As in Mad Dog Blues, instant gratification patterns appear in the form of immediately-realized fantasies which may fuse with the concept of menace…. [The Lobster Man] is a comic-grotesque descendent of the Sidewinder, the Chindi in The Holy Ghostly, and the two-headed Beast in Back Bog Beast Bait. Like Cavale's stuffed crow, he is a stage version of Gerard de Nerval's pet—and just as peaceful. He plays a crucial role in the quest for a musical epiphany, which in this play is the most direct and sustained of any in Shepard's dramas. Johnny Ace, the first potential rock and roll "savior," had blown his brains out with a revolver in front of his audience. Slim, or someone else, will hopefully be the new one…. Finally, the Lobster Man emerges from his shell as such a figure and points a revolver at his head. It fails to fire. End of play.

On the way to this final defusion of violence and terror, the major menace occurs between Slim and Cavale as they engage in cycles of aggression and amity with each other; and, for the first time in a play by Shepard, this involves some actual confrontation and conflict…. [It] is more menacing and believable than such situations in Shepard's earlier plays because, unlike earlier role-playing characters, Cavale and Slim are not mainly unaware enactors in a larger role-playing game which is the drama itself, but are themselves conscious and deliberate authors of several of their own interactive games. This is integral to their being more psychologically realistic than earlier Shepard characters, and permits the playwright to allow their outbursts of aggression to build more believably than before, and to explode at appropriate moments—but never into anything as direct as someone actually getting beaten or shot, as in the preceding eight plays. Cowboy Mouth is more believably violent and aggressive than any previous Shepard play.

In The Tooth of Crime (1972), probably Shepard's best play to date and his personal favorite, the aggressive menace intensifies as the hoped-for rock and roll savior, the "beast rocking toward Bethlehem to be born," appears onstage in the form of the rock singer Crow. The name itself is not only one which recurred throughout Cowboy Mouth, but of course also recalls the controlling metaphor and titular antihero of Ted Hughes' magnificent series of poems. Whether or not Hughes was an actual influence, the searing image of "Crow"—as has been suggested numerous times—may well be an apt metaphor for our disillusioned time. Not coincidentally, it is the kind of image suggested by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, and by Keith Richards, his cowriter for the group. (pp. 407-09)

Interwoven with the criminal turf metaphor is a masterful delineation of styles—which is what the conflict eventually comes down to…. Hoss's style is not only defined by his music, but involves himself almost entirely: his cars, clothes and diction, his moves and gestures. Somewhat arrogant in his self-esteem, he possesses a hip version of hubris before the fall, and embodies several of those traditional values which many of Shepard's self-indulgent, immediately gratified characters have tended thus far to reject: (1) Restraint and repression of fantasy gratification while young; he envies Crow that he "Lived out his fantasies."… (2) Patience, persistence, and desire for security; he tells Crow, "All my turf?! You know how long it's taken me to collect that ground? You know how many kills it's taken! I'm a fuckin' champion man…. All my turf! That's all I've got."… After Hoss, defeated, ends his life, Cheyenne tells Crow, "He earned his style."… (pp. 409-10)

Crow wins the match because he has sensed and articulated Hoss's vulnerability—a vulnerability he does not share because he has tightly disciplined himself into "pure focus," pure style, knife-like, sexual and super-cool down to his marrow, with no room for anything else. His style is all he is—and thus he has seemingly solved the age-old problems of security, repression, piety, justice and personal identity with which Hoss and Shepard have been burdened. The new savior is indeed enviable and/or pitiable, depending on one's mood and psychological set. He is certainly a Yeatsian "rough beast," with a hard edge much less cosmic yet, in its way, as pitiless as Hughes' Crow itself…. (p. 410)

The Tooth of Crime utilizes to an even greater degree than Cowboy Mouth the traditional dramatic values of taut, disciplined structure, vivid and consistent characterization, and crescendo of suspense. In these it reflects both its major characters. Hoss may have been more self-restrained in not having lived out all his fantasies, but Crow is the more tightly disciplined of the two. The temptation arises to see the pattern of value conflict and its outcome in this drama as a fantasy of the playwright's reluctant yielding to what he feels is the necessity for a tighter discipline and control in his own work. Whether or not this is true, the tighter structure results in the almost complete disappearance of the casual movement patterns, instant gratifications and uninhibited, anti-hangup behaviors of characters in previous plays. For the first time, Shepard has brought on-stage two potentially menacing characters, and placed them in open confrontation with each other. Temperamentally, they are nearer to Shepard's many cowboy heroes of the Southwest than to rock stars in previous plays. Unlike their cowboy predecessors, however, they are not rendered harmless by being stereotyped, caricatured, or by immediately revealing cowardice and vulnerability. Even Hoss, the the more vulnerable of the two, plays out the match, confident of victory. With the possible exception of a rather over-theatrical cheerleading scene during Round One … and Becky's famous auto-seduction scene (admittedly dramatic and comic in itself), the potential and actual conflict moves forward with an inevitability that is new in Shepard. As a result, this is his most menacing play.

The music adds to the menace. Shepard's plays contain many songs, and most of them serve to reinforce the movement and tone of the work in which they occur, sometimes adding touches of comedy or pathos, as in Mad Dog Blues. This is hardly surprising, since Shepard is a serious musician himself. But in The Tooth of Crime, Shepard's fourth play to contain rock musician characters, music plays a more integral part than in any of his other works. The music in this play—written, along with the lyrics, by Shepard—not only helps to define and differentiate the styles of the two contenders; it is also strong enough, harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, to be consistent with and to reinforce the stylistic battle of the two opposing singers…. (pp. 411-12)

The direct terror of even this confrontation, however, is eventually defused. Brechtian-style devices such as the auto-seduction scene and the presence and activity of cheerleaders and referee during the style battle reduce somewhat the immediate physical menace, though the audience is never quite sure that knives won't actually be used. The chief defusion occurs after Crow wins. Had he been as merciless as he is portrayed to that point, he would presumably have been less willing to teach Hoss his style. Yet their interaction after the battle is quite amiable. Shepard's impulse toward communion once more overrides the identifiable menace and potential violence in his drama….

The menace which remains at the end of The Tooth of Crime is of the same kind as ends most of Shepard's plays—the terror of the unknown that the playwright himself has spoken of. Here it is simultaneously two unknowns: at a superficial level, whatever unnamed singer will threaten, dethrone and destroy Crow, as he has destroyed Hoss; at a deeper level, the more terrifying and even vaguer menace of the exclusively stylistic value system represented by Crow himself, as he stands alone on stage, singing to a hauntingly relentless 6/8 beat and lament-style melody the words of "Rollin' Down."… (p. 412)

Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974), is probably too derivative for its otherwise quite palpable menace to be very terrifying—in spite of the fact that the work involves perhaps Shepard's two most startling scenes of violence. Appropriately subtitled "A Mystery in Two Acts," this play is Shepard's closest attempt thus far at conventional realism. It combines a Runyonesque situation and a Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett style with a touch of the one-sided western shoot-out at the end…. In the first of the two scenes of violence, the Doctor throws Fingers across the room and becomes steadily more menacing as he prepares to remove Cody's dreaming bone from his skull. Even this menace is defused, however, in the most violent ending Shepard has yet devised, Cody's two huge cowboy brothers enter with shotguns, cutting down Beaujo, Santee and the Doctor, but—with poetic justice—sparing Fingers.

There is no doubt that the initial impact of this scene, like that of the Doctor's violence toward Fingers, is startling. But whereas the impact of both these scenes suffers from the derivatively melodramatic quality of the play generally, the final scene is even less effective because, once the first split-second of total surprise is over, it conveys a completely deus ex machina quality—too sudden and unprepared to have been the outcome of suspense, but occurring in too serious a murder-mystery context to be defended as parodistic or deliberately comic.

The menace in this play is therefore not only defused, but also rendered clumsy. Unlike Shepard's best work—Chicago (1965), Forensic and the Navigators, Cowboy Mouth and The Tooth of Crime—the characterization, dialogue and plot in Geography of a Horse Dreamer fail to develop beyond the stereotypes which were their sources. Fingers is the only character who begins to assume individuality and, significantly, his characterization is tightly integrated with the steady erosion of the menace he seems to represent. Equally significant for this essay is the fact that this drama contains no actual violent conflict: Cody cringes away from all threats, Fingers yields to the Doctor, who in turn has no chance against Cody's brothers. This action follows the pattern in all Shepard's dramas. It remains to be seen whether he will again utilize a conventionally realistic structure—but one that is less derivative—to do something he has not yet done: combine a crescendo of menace with its explosion in believably terrifying violence or violent conflict. (pp. 413-14)

Charles R. Bachman, "Defusion of Menace in the Plays of Sam Shepard," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1976, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XIX, No. 4, December, 1976, pp. 405-15.

Michael Feingold

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Sam Shepard fills the role of professional playwright as a good ballet dancer or acrobat fulfills his role in performance: That is, he always delivers; he executes feats of dexterity and technical difficulty that an untrained person could not, and makes them seem easy. Occasionally the performance is merely dexterous, done with soundness but not with the deepest feelings. Even then, the performance is always satisfying; rarely is there a slipup. Shepared is reliable, a professional secure in the authority of his techniques…. Shepard has the real playwright's gift of habitually transposing his feelings and visions into drama as a mere matter of praxis. He speaks through the theatre as naturally as most of us speak through the telephone….

As the title indicates, [Angel City] is about Los Angeles, and it is Shepard's loony transposition of the young-writer-meets-dream-factory story that so many plays, books, and films about Hollywood are based on. Boy Meets Girl, Sunset Boulevard, Once in a Lifetime, Day of the Locust, are all built on or alluded to in the piece, but Shepard, writing later and from a different moral view than any of his predecessors, has a different attack on the subject….

The film industry is a disease—represented graphically by Wheeler's skin disease that quite literally turns him green (with envy of the truly creative?): The producer as lizard. And in the course of trying to help him recover from his greenness and repair his disaster movie (the same thing), Rabbit discovers he is more deeply involved in film than he has realized, by means of a stunning technical trick that makes the play a joke on disaster-film conventions, and on those of the theatre as well. What seems like a terse and slightly muddled anecdote in my summary, Shepard turns into an evening of surrealist high jinks with serious perceptions underneath, extending the farce relief of old-style comedies about Hollywood into Sam's own peculiar neonlit world of abrupt transformations, unexpected violence, and glorious, impassioned rhetoric. It is his most playful work, and one of his most accessible. (p. 72)

Michael Feingold, "Sam Shepard, Part-Time Shaman" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXII, No. 14, April 4, 1977, pp. 72, 75.

Chet Flippo

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[Rolling Thunder Logbook] is more remarkable for what was left out than for what was put in. In his introduction, Shepard cannily seeks to defuse such criticism by saying that reasons for the tour and the failure of the film don't matter, that the only purpose of the book is to provide a taste of the experience.

That's thin reasoning for an equally thin book. Shepard's style here could best be described as hit-and-run journalism; an image garnered here, a scrap picked up there. There are some good scraps, nonetheless: Roger McGuinn's nightmares about being assassinated onstage; the buffoonery behind the attempts at making a film; Jack Kerouac's brother-in-law's bar; the transformation of a reporter following the tour into a shameless Dylan groupie.

Shepard seems to have been totally intimidated by rock & roll's complete lack of structure. He confesses that he came out of [Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour] with a "fractured memory," thus accounting for the scattered format of his Logbook.

And for someone who seems to have had daily contact with Dylan for six weeks or so, Shepard barely gets him into the book…. Dylan comes and goes, mouthing nonsense and slouching out of sight. Shepard, though, does have an excellent four-line chapter on Dylan's hands, ending: "Weathered, milky leather hands that tell more than his face about music and where he's been. Ancient, demonic, almost scary, nonhuman hands."

Chet Flippo, "Travels with Dylan," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1977; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 245, August 11, 1977, p. 21.

Michael Feingold

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[Shepard's plays] have no extrinsics. Not only their meaning lies in themselves, but also their mode and their tradition. Shepard's theatre, as much as Richard Foreman's or Robert Wilson's, is the theatre of a private artist—one who happens to have the gift of making instant public connection with his words. The other web of connections that we call stage convention isn't there; the inner sense comes to you unmediated, direct, implacable—make of it what you will….

[Icarus' Mother and Cowboy Mouth] deal with the essential elements of theatre—play and illusion. In Cowboy Mouth, written in collaboration with Patti Smith, the two characters are plainly playful avatars of their co-authors, surrogates to be moved through the crazy, competitive games of a lovehate relationship. Cavale, a death-centered woman with ambitions in the rock world, has lured Slim, a moody cowboy type, away from his wife and baby to convert him into a figure at once a savior and a superstar, or in her words, "a rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth." The conversion process, like the love affair, does not take; they are reduced to the level of desperate children, either making up games or screaming at each other, until they are saved by one of the most unlikely dei ex machina ever brought onstage, a giant lobster….

Icarus' Mother, in contrast, is a game played on the audience. Five young people are out on a picnic. A jet overhead is acting strangely; ultimately it crashes. Two of the three boys, when the others are away, send up smoke signals. Are they warning the jet or encouraging it? Have they caused the crash or tried to prevent it? Or have the girls caused it by running half-nude on the beach? The play curves away from normal representation of an event to explore responses to it, the aspects of it we don't think about, like (presumably) the grief of Icarus's mother when the sun melted his wings. Our technological wings are a constant source of danger. Instead of dealing with the danger, people toy with it, or discourse learnedly about it, or use it as a behavioral play in dealing with each other. That, the play suggests, may be a more dangerous game than technology itself.

Michael Feingold, "No Extrinsics" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc. 1977), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXII, No. 33, August 15, 1977, p. 63.

Robert Palmer

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Sam Shepard's "Rolling Thunder Logbook" is a particularly interesting literary genre, the rock-tour-as-mythic-quest narrative. It is interesting primarily because the Rolling Thunder tour in 1976 was interesting….

[Clearly], Mr. Shepard's book could have been more than interesting. The poets of the Beat Generation, early folkies like Mr. [Ramblin' Jack] Elliott, and the penetration of their strain of ambient bohemianism into the mainstream of American culture, with Bob Dylan in the vanguard, constituted a cultural revolution, if not quite a social one. The repercussions of this revolution have died down somewhat, but they are still very much with us.

Rolling Thunder was not simply a reflection of the natural alliances Bob Dylan and other younger rock and folk performers have made with certain of their elders. It was a conscious attempt to reconsider the roots of these alliances. The tour meandered through New England on a bus, playing for small audiences in town halls as if trying to recreate the troubadour era, the on-the-road mystique of Jack Kerouac, and the days of pre-stadium rock….

"Rolling Thunder Logbook" is, in the writer's words, a "fractured" account of the tour, designed "just to give the reader a taste of the whole experience." It is in the form of vignettes, some of which are insipid while others are revealing.

The "big" issues the book might have grappled with are hardly even stated. Sometimes this reticence is welcome. The visit to Jack Kerouac's grave could have been a lugubrious scene, pregnant with pretense, but Mr. Shepard sketches it simply, devoting most of his description to a vivid portrait of Mr. Dylan's hands.

But ultimately, one wants to know at least some of the specifics of the tour's sense of self-discovery, and in this respect Mr. Shepard's book is disappointing. There is scarely a suggestion of the interaction between Mr. Dylan on the one hand and his spiritual fathers, Mr. [Allen] Ginsberg and Mr. Elliott, on the other. Mr. Shepard prefers to see Mr. Dylan as "an invention of his own mind," a self-created, self-sustaining figure, when actually he is the logical and perhaps the inevitable outcome of the poet/folksinger-asguru mystique propagated by Mr. Ginsberg and Mr. Elliott and their departed compatriots.

If Mr. Shepard avoids the big issues, he also works many small wonders. Scenes along the road jump out at the reader full of color and life, and while the ultimate confusion of the Rolling Thunder tour is never tackled head on, it comes through clearly in descriptions of marijuana hazes and general ineptitude….

There are more questions here than answers, but the implications are clear. While Mr. Dylan and his fellow self-my-thologizers were criss-crossing the Northeast in a contrived and ultimately stagey search for their roots, trusting to fate and "letting it happen" in the time-honored manner of the Beat poets and early folkie nomads and finally abandoning their quest without having come to any conclusions, the mythmaking at which they had once excelled was reaching ever more garish extremes.

What, precisely, is the relationship of music to image in popular culture? Must our singers and poets loom larger than life? And once mythmaking has become a way of life, can a tour that plays small halls in small towns reverse the process? "Rolling Thunder Logbook" addresses these issues obliquely, if at all, but the glimpses it does offer are fascinating, nevertheless.

Robert Palmer, "A Rock Tour Recalled," in The New York Times (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 17, 1977, p. 21.

Thomas P. Adler

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[In Curse of the Starving Class] Shepard displays some of the same anti-capitalistic bias and revolutionary fervor Shaw once did, but here without the novelty in form that is almost a trademark of Shepard's earlier plays. Nothing of the rock culture in this one; instead, we are given an old-fashioned, evidently autobiographical, family problem play, mostly naturalistic (though punctuated by poetic cadenzas) and so banal in its outlines as to make us wonder if this alltime favorite genre has not run its course….

I would like to report that the play works better and more creatively on the symbolic level, but here the imagery tends to excess. The empty refrigerator that the characters stare into with ritual regularity speaks not only of physical, but of emotional, cultural, and moral starvation as well. And Weston's parable of the eagle swooping down to gather up the sheep's testicles, and later latching onto and refusing to let go of the cat which claws at and devours it suggests the complex way in which the victim can become the predator. This family eats one another up as surely as society does. (p. 409)

Yet for all its faults, the play has a certain blunt force and sincerity, and appears better in retrospect than it did in the initial viewing. It makes one thing tantalizingly clear: more and more, American dramatists—perhaps most prominently the two Millers, Arthur in almost all of his plays and Jason in That Championship Season—have come to associate the distortion and death of the American dream with the failure of fathers, from some warped notion of masculinity, to provide emotional sustenance for their families. Hung up on money, power, success, they are afraid or unable to say, let alone show, that they love. "Where have all the fathers gone?" Shepard shouts with all the rest. (p. 410)

Thomas P. Adler, "Theatre in Review: 'Curse of the Starving Class'," in Educational Theatre Journal (© 1977 University College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), Vol. 29, No. 3, October, 1977, pp. 409-10.

Stanley Kauffmann

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Sam Shepard is phenomenal. He is the best practicing American playwright, I think, now that Tennessee Williams is doodling….

Curse of the Starving Class … is another of Shepard's heartbreakers—it contains so much, yet it finally comes to not enough…. [It] deals with California sheep raisers and thus immediately strikes a distinctive Shepard note. He often deals with non-urban people, often in the West; most of our playwrights are urban in setting and feeling….

Shepard stokes a simmering heat under the whole play, even under the punchy comic sections, a ruthlessness, a kind of anger that makes the essential drama seem to be not in the story but between the writer himself and the world. Once again a Shepard play testifies to the fact that he is a true man of the theater: he doesn't see life as material for drama, he sees life as drama….

Starving Class starts as sweaty, cartoon-character comedy—people living wildly and uncaringly in a poverty they not only don't take very seriously, they use it as a medium for farcical family life. They are something like John Steinbeck's Okies seen by Donald Barthelme….

The opening atmosphere, which persists through a good deal of the play is hard to reconcile with the conclusion. The play ends as a paean to agrarian values, to those who love Nature and Space and Simple Things and who are being forced off their land by exploitative commercial combines. It becomes a drama of rustic simplicity being strangled by city greed. That ending is simply not in the play's beginning; moralism has been tacked on to a work whose vitality is in its passionate rowdyism and its very oblique social comment.

Shepard is not much of a thinker: when he does think, or feels he needs to, he usually comes up with the same theme—the battle between the pure and the impure in America. And when he needs evil, he usually calls on the movies to supply it: cinematized criminal types of various kinds. This deliberate use of movie types is part of Shepard's general method: the language and music of rock, spaceman fantasies, Wild West fantasies, gangster fantasies—pop-culture forms that he uses as his building blocks, rituals of contemporary religion to heighten communion.

My discomfort with Shepard is not with this symbology, which he often exalts into pungent theater poetry, but with his careless grabbing at chunks of it to get him out of his dramatic difficulties. (p. 24)

Stanley Kauffmann, "What Price Freedom?" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1978 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 178, No. 14, April 8, 1978, pp. 24-5.

John Lahr

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Of all contemporary American playwrights, Sam Shepard alone still has romantic feeling for the landscape. He is not a city playwright; but a Midwestern wanderer who has driven the backroads of the land, tramped its wilderness, scored on its main streets, and explored in his writing the mythology of the nation. He is a protean figure; and the weird terrains of his plays sparkle with the insights of a man who has inhabited many worlds—musician, addict, cowboy, bad-ass horse breeder, and even … movie star….

Shepard's greatest asset as a playwright is his voracious curiosity about America. But if he dissects the society with unusual precision, he is also contaminated by part of its sickness. In a society that lives on myths, he can't resist making a myth of himself. Since he came on the off-Broadway scene in 1965, Shepard has been the darling of the American avant garde…. Shepard is his own best invention: even his name has been changed to have a more heroic sound….

Shepard's instincts for theatre are often as cunning as his talent for self-promotion. He likes to astonish his audience with words and images. His plays are dreamscapes where past and prophecy coexist. Shepard himself compares the structure of his recent plays with jazz, a pretension which rationalizes his characters' frequent solo riffs which wreak havoc with conventional narrative lines. When it works, this kind of sensory blitz can be stunning; but for a play wright of such raw talent and ambitiousness, Shepard has a surprising number of bad plays to his name. This book [Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class and Other Plays] collects a good many of them from 1968 to 1976, while leaving out two of his most coherent and entertaining works: Operation Sidewinder and Little Ocean (1974)….

Angel City is more successful than the other plays in this volume because here Shepard's stage imagery is as inventive as his language. He sees his play as "painting in space" and asks his actors in a note to the play not to consider their roles in terms of "whole characters" but "more in terms of collage construction and jazz improvization". Shepard is making an asset of his literary limitations; he hasn't mastered the discipline of plot and characterization. By not rounding out his characters, he too often is left, like the action painting he admires, with only startling surfaces.

Shepard sees himself as the Jackson Pollock of the proscenium arch and feels a kinship with [Jack] Kerouac and his "spontaneous writing". Action and movement are part of the American experience that Shepard somehow wants to incorporate in his method. He associates himself with speed. As Patti Smith writes of Shepard and one of his sidekicks:

     they left the moon behind them and fell to crime.
     Not only the worldly crimes of passion
     the poetry of Speed:
       the fast moving car
       the engine
       the black mustang pony
       the electric guitar.

"Speeding like a demon" are the last words in Patti Smith's paean to Shepard. But the speed that America mythologizes also attenuates life; and Shepard's work pays the same price….

[In] his most recent plays the message behind his words is all too clear. There's not enough work in them. Shepard is at a crucial point where he must choose between honouring his craft or his image. Writing is an act of penetration, celebrity an act of presentation. Shepard's new Hollywood notoriety may make things more difficult for him. Having helped to define America's contemporary wasteland, he may find himself part of it. If he indulges his legend, he will no doubt become another disposable artifact in a throwaway culture which needs to waste life to prove its abundance.

John Lahr, "Playing Fast and Loose," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3999, November 24, 1978, p. 1361.

Michael Feingold

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In one of the more revealing images of Sam Shepard's Seduced, the mind in pursuit of an idea is compared to a bird of prey swooping down on a rabbit. The image is both homey and disturbing, typical of Shepard in its physicality, its seeming innocence, and the hidden terror it carries: A simple cowboy lost in our insane urban society, at heart he may be more frightened than anyone else by the sensitivity of his perceptions, the lucidity of his thoughts. The tension in Shepard's paradoxical self—the mind of a Kafka trapped in the body of a Jimmy Stewart—probably explains the triumphant success of his screen persona in Days of Heaven….

The paradox Shepard embodies in Days of Heaven is the subject of Seduced…. Seduced is a chamber piece, a meditation on the theme of power and innocence that might be better trimmed slightly and compressed into an extended one-act on the order of his Action or Red Cross. But it covers the small area it demarcates nimbly and thoroughly.

The central image of Seduced comes to Shepard from one of the few contemporary myths which also happens to be a fact: the life (and death) of Howard Hughes. Henry Malcolm Hackamore, Shepard's Hughes analogue, is in manner and appearance not unlike the old cowboys of earlier Shepard—the garrulous, devoted Waco of Mad Dog Blues, the freedom-loving bandit gang of The Unseen Hand. But there is a difference. Hackamore, like Hughes, is trapped in a civilization of his own making, and in a paranoia that grows worse in tandem with it…. At the end, he discovers who has been acquiring the power he spent his last years abdicating. He dies, but it is a pro forma act: Only his myth was ever really alive.

It is the play's intellectual range that marks it as minor Shepard; the ideas in it are familiar, the events unastonishing. Even so, Seduced is a pleasure to see and hear; Shepard's gift with language, with building a dramatic continuity, never fails him, and the lines flow as elegantly as a silkworm's thread. The piece is no more than itself, but perfectly that.

Its most striking aspect is the treatment of Hackamore's two playmates. Shepard's preoccupation with the male image has sometimes led him to reduce his female characters to a background murmur, necessary adjuncts for a male hero but not distinctive in themselves. In Seduced, he has wormed deep enough into this phenomenon to study it, and the result may very nearly be termed his first feminist play. Over a third of it is taken up with the cat-and-mouse game between Hackamore and the two women, Miami and Luna, and the interaction of the three, each on what is virtually a different level of consciousness, is fascinating….

The fact that Shepard's plays are not realistic in form shouldn't mislead people into assuming they lack a real psychological backbone. In fact, it is the tension between the naturalism and the abstract pattern that is the basis of Shepard's style and the major locus of interest in his plays. (p. 93)

Michael Feingold, "Seductive" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 7, February 12, 1979, pp. 93-4.

Carol Rosen

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Sam Shepard is a playwright of zap-pop-pow action, and he is a playwright of comic-book verbs: his plays flash, zoom, and screech across the stage. Primary colors ooze through neon tubing, jazz and rock music shoot through a sound system, and characters hurl words like weapons, wounding each other with Shepard's heightened version of American English, a language of riffs, culled from slang, jargon, punk talk, dime novels, and B-movies. Shepard floods his stage with such language, a codified language of energy sounding through space; and he peoples his stage with the lone heroes of American myths. Gangsters, rock stars, cowboys, and science-fiction images cohabit on his stage; rub-outs, hits, showdowns, and take-offs collide in his plots.

Shepard's plays are often about power, its sources, its manifestations, its styles. His characters fight for power, they usurp others' territory, steal their turf, stake their claims, and they fight, usurp, steal, and stake in his own hybrid language of picture shows and secret codes. The language itself often becomes a signal of danger, of mysterious energies, of power…. [The] link between an artist's drive and an ambition for power is at the heart of many of Shepard's plays. More profoundly than any of his earlier plays, however, Angel City faces Shepard's demon, his idea of live movies. And in a relentless rhythm to match that of The Tooth of Crime, Shepard's rock music showdown of epithets, Angel City explores the playwright's own cinematic imagination, his impulse towards a filmic vocabulary, rooted in myths about power. (pp. 39-40)

Shepard's play seems strangely, distinctly, perhaps dangerously young; its vocabulary—both verbal and theatrical—seems unfamiliar, an apocalyptic slang; and its characters seem aggressive, stylized hipsters, unreal yet strongly physicalized challengers.

Actually, Shepard's vision of a plastic Los Angeles is an accurate image born of American dreams, nurtured by drive-ins, gang-wars, carhops, and sci-fi flicks, all of which find their way into Shepard's plays. (p. 40)

To Shepard, movies surpass jazz, rock music, westerns, science fiction, and action-comics as a drug, for movies include and intensify all the others. Shepard is, as Jack Gelber suggests …, a shaman of theatre, a magician at a rite who is both the transformer and the transformed, turning his plays into trips, seeking shared transcendence through sympathetic action. He is also a self-styled hero, seeing in his audience that longing shared in a darkened theatre to project oneself onto the screen. Like Tom in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie …, Shepard knows why we go to the movies. (p. 41)

In Angel City, Shepard uses … identification with packaged, mass produced fantasies to a devastating end. He is a fan himself, lured to script his plays to match the power of pop-culture myths…. This movie directed playwright, however, is also a scornful pop-culture addict, and in Angel City the doubleness of his feelings—his heroes' Tom Wingfield-like yearnings for dream-machine identities and his own recognition of the self-destructive power in such yearnings—is cross-cut. (p. 42)

If Act One of Angel City may be seen as a movement towards immersion of all creative talent in the business of making movies, Act Two may be seen as the nightmarish aspect of that process. Act Two is connected to Act One by means of dream-logic. For awhile, the engine of the play ceases to move forward. Instead, the play moves inward, and when Act Two begins, all the characters, lulled into a trance by a rhythm that touches them all, are in worlds of their own. (pp. 44-5)

Just what is that green slime that eats away at Wheeler and at his shaman/scriptdoctor/protégé, Rabbit?… For starters, the slime is the standard seepage of horror movies, the malevolent force that can never be stopped, oozing its way across America in Roger Corman sci-fi flicks. It is, too, a terrific metaphor for the power of movies in Angel City, where all movies are finally horror movies, and where all movies are finally disaster movies. That it is green might well have something to do with the color of American money, but that it finally engulfs them all has more to do with Shepard's perception of film as a medium and as a theatrical force…. As in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon …, in Angel City, Shepard makes pictures, pop-images that shine. (p. 45)

Carol Rosen, "Sam Shepard's 'Angel City': A Movie for the Stage," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1979, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XXII, No. 1, March, 1979, pp. 39-46.

John Simon

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[The plot of Buried Child] is a little too reminiscent of Pinter's The Homecoming. The funny, bitchy family infighting may owe something also to Edward Albee. The mother sequestered upstairs, who at play's end apostrophizes the sun, may be derived from Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman and the Osvald of Ghosts. But Buried Child has a strong visual life on stage, and the images do make a kind of sense. We get only adequate dialogue: sometimes wryly funny, sometimes menancing, often despairing, but never distinguished. The visual images, however, have a powerful presence for which the words are a sufficient underpinning.

Clearly, the land, the back yard, pushes the past back up into the present; the corn, under which Dodge is metaphorically buried; then the carrots, which first terrorize Shelly, then steady her nerves. And finally the baby—the ultimate, horrible truth. Meanwhile one generation forgets about the next, and the next (Vince), in a desperate attempt to assert itself, to make connections, ends up reënacting the alienation of the previous generations. Some few escape the curse by heading for the city (Shelly). Others hide in doctrine or cowardice (Father Dewis). After the rain of corn and carrots, comes the hailstorm of smashing bottles; drunken rage, raging drunkenness—the demon of the rural classes. Love dies; lust—in various demented impotent forms—remains to bedevil even the old. In the end, somebody else's roses (Father Dewis's for Halie—are they lovers?), serve as a funeral wreath for Dodge. Some lose their minds (Tilden), some their limbs (Bradley). Others die—in motels (Ansel), or murdered in the sink (the baby). But nothing remains dead. Ansel, though undeserving, gets a hero's statue erected to him. The buried baby itself is "strong enough to break the earth even." There is neither affection ("You think just because people propagate, they have to love their offspring?"—Dodge to Shelly) nor sense ("There isn't any reason here! I can't find a reason for anything!"—Shelly), nor responsibility ("This is outside my parish anyway!"—Father Dewis). There is, however, some awful poetic justice; if his kinfolk do not recognize Vince at first, he later does not recognize them. Yet, even without acknowledging them, he resumes them. And the dead baby is flushed out into the open. (pp. 87-8)

Halie's voice, at play's end, is full of hope, but what is approaching her is Tilden, bearing the disintegrating remnants of the child. Yet the play also has its humor, black though it be; and its weirdly exhilarating imagery. There is in it an ecstasy of decay. (p. 88)

John Simon, "Theatre Chronicle: Kopit, Norman, and Shepard," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 77-88.∗

William A. Raidy

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Sam Shepard's vast canvas of the disintegrating American landscape, both physical and spiritual, continues in a rather fragmented way in his new drama, Seduced …, which deals on the surface with the last day on earth of a mysterious billionaire tycoon made in the image of the late Howard Hughes.

As usual, the prolific Shepard chooses to use both comedy and allegory, as well as deep-rooted symbolism, to make his philosophical points. Most of the audience are willing to take this drama on its surface level, a vision of Howard Hughes, in him germproof self-imprisonmment, entertaining a few of his favourite doxies from the past and musing about his days of strength and glory. Shepard, of course, is striving for a great deal more dimension in this play in which he uses his Hughes-like character … as a symbol for a demon monster America created almost in the inner image of himself. (pp. 36-7)

Seduced, while a play of considerable impact, fails because Shepard buries his ideas too deeply into his drama. His philosophy, after an hour of fooling around with the comedic eccentricities of the tycoon, comes almost as a television commercial … in one lump … after the 'entertainment' captivates one. His Buried Child is a far more provocative, if often over-enigmatic, work. (p. 37)

William A. Raidy, "Nights on the Town: 'Seduced'" (© copyright William A. Raidy, 1979; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 26, No. 7, April, 1979, pp. 36-7.


Shepard, Sam (Vol. 169)


Shepard, Sam (Vol. 4)