Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2613
Seven plays, produced from 1967 to 1981, that demonstrate the full range, power, and lyrical intensity of one of America’s most impressive, provocative, and enigmatic dramatists
The publicity blurb on the cover of the Bantam edition of Sam Shepard: Seven Plays calls him “America’s most brilliant and irreverent young playwright.” This statement, although a typical advertising cliché, is worth examining, both for what it says and what it implies. “Most brilliant”?—perhaps, though the primary appeal of Sam Shepard’s plays is visceral, not intellectual; “irreverent”?—certainly, though the “irreverence” is hardly the simple cynicism of a Kurt Vonnegut or Thomas Pynchon; “young”?—while thirty-eight is not exactly doddering (Shepard was born November 5, 1943), it is not what is usually thought of as “young” in an American artist—particularly one who has been writing for almost two decades! The implication of the phrase is that Shepard is a new discovery, a relative beginner who has just caught the attention of the public. That implication says more about the state and recent history of American theater than it does about Sam Shepard.
Shepard’s first plays appeared in the mid-1960’s, and he quickly established himself as one of the central figures in the New York “Off-Off Broadway” movement, a burst of noncommercial, experimental theatrical activity that aimed at nothing less than a thorough rejuvenation and transformation of the American theater. In this it was a dramatic counterpart to the wider social, political, and cultural agitation that characterized America in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. As the “greening of America” never quite happened, however, so the “New American Drama” never crystallized. While Off-Off Broadway is still alive, it can no longer be considered a “movement”; it has become simply a relatively noncommercial, experimental regional theater. Of the dramatists who made up the core of the OOB movement, only two have achieved national reputations that seem likely to last, Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard, and both needed a decade and a half to do so.
It was not until Buried Child received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979 that Shepard’s name became generally known, perhaps helped by his emeregnce as a first-rate film actor in Days of Heaven, Resurrection, and Raggedy Man. Sam Shepard: Seven Plays is a recognition of that new reputation. It shows his development in five representative plays, from his first full-length effort, La Turista (1967) to one of his most recent, True West (1980). The other two “plays,” Savage/Love and Tongues, are actually semi-improvisational “theater pieces” put together in collaboration with Open Theater director Joseph Chaikin, and are, while interesting, not especially germane to Shepard’s development.
Perhaps it is unfair to ascribe Shepard’s struggle for recognition to simple neglect; he is a most difficult playwright. From the beginning of his career Shepard’s audiences and critics have been impressed by the power of his plays and, at the same time, frustrated by their inability to articulate the sources of that power or even understand with any precision their own reactions to the works. Even the most problematical of modern playwrights—Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Bertolt Brecht, Edward Albee, to name the most obvious—can eventually be pigeonholed as either some kind of “realist” or as a practitioner of one of the many “nonrealistic” approaches to theater that have proliferated in the modern drama (“symbolism,” “surrealism,” “expressionism,” “Absurdism,” “theatricalism,” “Epic Theater,” and so on). Shepard fits into none of these categories. His plots seem erratic, arbitrary, fragmentary, and frequently fantastic, yet they also seem to be heightened versions of the real, immediate world. His characters are bizarre, obsessive, and insane; their identities constantly shift or dissolve altogether, yet they are not symbols or ciphers or abstractions: they are real human beings. Shepard’s plays deal with many of the fundamental questions of our time and culture—identity, meaning, death, the “American Dream,” success and failure, love, family, roots—yet there is not one Shepard play whose “theme” can be abstracted and contained in a single phrase.
Perhaps it is not even correct to call Shepard’s works, especially the earlier efforts, “plays” at all: “theatrical rituals” would probably be more accurate, with equal emphasis on both words. They are rituals because of their incantatory power and sometimes by their metaphorical relationship to recognizable religious, cultural, literary, or mythic rituals; but they are self-consciously performed as theater by actors assuming roles in front of audiences. Therefore, the best approach to grasping Shepard’s plays is to drop the terms plot, character, and theme and substitute music, image, and ritual.
The most obvious use of music in the plays is the direct incorporation of songs and/or instrumental music into the dramatic action or background, but even more important is the fact that Shepard generally structures his plays “musically” rather than “narratively.” That is to say, he presents themes and variations which he builds, modulates, juxtaposes, and rephrases in the manner of a musical composition. Within this framework are “duets” between characters, extended “arias” (or monologues), and, in the manner of jazz, apparently “improvisational” digressions.
This musical analogy extends even more pervasively to the language itself, and no American playwright, present or past, has used language more emphatically and elaborately than Shepard. He “plays” language like a jazzman improvises on his instrument, using words not only for their meanings, but also for rhythm, color, image, and pure sound.
Although Shepard refers to a wide variety of musical styles in his plays—country and western, pop, folk, disco, blues, jazz—the most pervasive is hard rock, probably the most important single influence on his work. Richard Gilman, in his excellent Introduction to the anthology, quotes Shepard as saying in 1971: “I don’t want to be a playwright; I want to be a rock and roll star. . . . I got into writing plays because I had nothing else to do. So I started writing to keep from going off the deep end,” and he has, in fact, played drums for the rock band Holy Modal Rounders.
If music, especially rock, provides the underpinnings for most of the plays, it is the image, both visceral and verbal, generally combined in clusters of related, recurring images, which develop throughout the plays in powerful, surprising ways. At the same time, Shepard’s imagination sometimes leads to an overload or even a clash of images that can become more confusing than provocative.
The imagery usually begins with the title, which is frequently either the primary image (La Turista, Buried Child, Tongues) or provides the context for the development of such image clusters (True West, Curse of the Starving Class). These suggestive title images are then made concrete with the sets. La Turista is a good example. The set is both “realistic” and “abstract.” While obviously a motel room in Mexico, it is also an inferno of colors, even to the characters’ red skins, punctuated by a few vital, suggestive objects (beds, suitcases, magazines). Immediately a harsh, even dangerous atmosphere is created.
The establishment of a special “world” for the characters is crucial to the plays, one that already contains energy, tension (and sometimes confusion) ready to explode in action. Whether elaborate or simple, there is never anything in a Shepard set that does not stimulate a visceral response and/or play a central function in the development of the action. The set of The Tooth of Crime, for example, consists only of “A bare stage except for an evil-looking black chair with silver studs and a very high back, something like an Egyptian Pharaoh’s throne, but simple, center stage,” quite enough for a play that consists of one long, single, elaborated action, a duel or “walkdown” between two rock stars for possession of the throne. Even in the recent “realistic” plays, with more or less representational sets, crucial images are emphasized in the setting: the set of Curse of the Starving Class is dominated by a refrigerator and pile of wooden debris, both of which take on profound resonances in the course of the play; in Buried Child a flickering television set becomes a focal point of action and theme.
The physical imagery persists throughout the plays, reinforced by the language. La Turista—the illness that attacks tourists—sets the “sickness” imagery of the play, which explores, in a progressively more intense, erratic, and disturbing way, the “sickness” of being American or, perhaps, simply human. Images of sickness, death, and decomposition saturate the language of the play. In Shepard’s best work the musical structures and rhythms combine with such patterns of imagery into powerful, unique dramatic rituals.
Two such rituals comprise the action of La Turista, a play about the archetypal American tourist couple: Kent (the man) and Salem (the woman). In the first act Kent becomes sick from “la turista” and medical help arrives in the form of a costumed Mexican witch doctor and son. Kent collapses and the witch doctor performs a voodoo ceremony, which includes the decapitation of two chickens and the splashing of their blood on Kent’s prostrate body. In the second act, which actually precedes Act One in time, Kent and Salem occupy an American hotel room, where Kent comes down with sleeping sickness (or perhaps a drug overdose? a bad trip?). The medical team arrives, another father and son team (played by the same actors), this team dressed in Confederate Army garb, complete with pistol. In this act the voodoo ceremony is replaced by Shepard’s favorite cultural-mythic ritual, the “cowboy walkdown.” When Kent refuses treatment and accuses the doctor of wanting to turn him into a “beast,” the doctor draws his pistol. Kent retaliates by “drawing” and pointing his index finger. The two stalk each other, “shooting” verbally with increasing frenzy. The duet culminates with Kent swinging over the doctor’s head on a rope and crashing out of the room, leaving the outline of his body in the wall in the manner of an animated cartoon character.
The “walkdown” ritual is repeated, even more elaborately, as the central action of The Tooth of Crime. The duel is between Hoss, the champion rock star, and Crow, his challenger. During the first act, the challenge is made, the hero prepares himself, and the “townspeople” (Hoss’s coterie of followers) wait expectantly. In the second, the challenger arrives, the contenders feel each other out carefully, and finally they clash in a pure, extended, ritual shoot-out. Their weapons are costumes, words, and gestures or, more precisely, “styles,” but these are as deadly as guns; Hoss, the loser, does, in fact, finally shoot himself. The contest is formalized and generalized by having a referee, dressed like an NBA official, a scoreboard, and a chorus of cheerleaders. As the men stalk each other, Hoss and Crow assume different identities, languages, styles; they copy and parody each other, probing for weaknesses. Paradoxically, the two men are very real, both as individuals and as archetypes who exemplify, in Gilman’s words, “the exaltation and tragedy of fame.” In The Tooth of Crime Shepard merges the “cowboy” and the “rock star,” the two primary character types in his vision. Both are lonely, alienated, free-spirited types, ultimately doomed by lost meanings, the deadness of their culture, the falseness of its myths, and their own frustrated intensities.
These techniques and ideas carry over into Shepard’s more recent works, but in a subtler, more “realistic” fashion, and this apparent turn in the direction of orthodoxy probably helps to account for his recent recognition. It is no accident that his most acclaimed play, Buried Child, is his most accessible. Will this new application of his talents and vision to a more conventional dramatic approach result in a full realization of Shepard’s potential? Or, while this shift might give the plays more cohesion and direction, will it mute their music, energy, and originality?
True West, the most recent play in the anthology, is disappointing. Like The Tooth of Crime, True West invokes the Western “walkdown,” but the realistic content of the play almost submerges the ritual completely. Austin, a devitalized screenwriter who has sold out to commercialism and Hollywood, is besieged by his rough older brother Lee, an “authentic” cowboy type, free-spirit, and free-lance burglar. As Lee gradually assumes the “artist” role, Austin retaliates to win back his manhood by burglarizing the neighborhood. Eventually the competition escalates to violence as Austin strangles Lee while their mother looks on. Except for a few scattered images—especially the mass of toasters Austin accumulates during the play—True West lacks the poetry and power of the earlier plays.
In Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child Shepard turns his attention and new approach to the subject that has long been the staple of American theater, the family. Both plays focus on the disintegration of a lower-middle-class rural family. In Curse of the Starving Class the family is not exactly starving, at least not literally, but they are certainly hungry, hungry for meaning, for direction, for recognition, for love. Both the father, Weston, and the mother, Ella, think they can find those things by selling the homestead, but the children, Emma, who is just coming of age, and Wesley, the older son, know better. “It means more than losing a home,” Wesley tells his mother, “it means losing a country.” Of course they do lose it in the end, to gangsters, to pay the father’s “old debts.” This summary makes the play sound mercilessly bleak and completely conventional, but it is neither. The energy and vision of Ella and especially of Weston suggest hope, even if the story offers none, and, while the plotting is ordinary, even trite, the play contains some of Shepard’s most lyrical and intense speeches, along with some extremely potent physical images, notably the empty refrigerator, which takes on symbolic importance, and the concluding visual image of the play, a bloody skinned lamb carcass.
Like Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child ends with a powerful image. As the aged father, Dodge, lies dead on the floor and Halie, the mother, rambles on at the audience about the rain and the new crops, Tilden, the eldest son enters: “In his hands he carries the corpse of a small child at chest level, staring down at it. The corpse mainly consists of bones wrapped in muddy, rotten cloth.” It is a shattering conclusion to a play that, despite a number of uncharacteristic literary echoes (Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, 1881; Pinter’s The Homecoming, 1967; Albee’s The American Dream, 1968) is a strikingly original, purely Sam Shepard version of basic American themes—family, success, loss of roots, the American dream. In Buried Child Shepard has tamed his imagination and lyrical flights without, as in True West, stifling them altogether. The conflict between the three generations, sparked by the competition between the two sons, Tilden and Bradley, and the intruding grandson, Vince, is a powerfully convincing realistic action that becomes almost mythic by the introduction of potent physical images. Although realistic in presentation, the final moments of the play achieve ritual intensity to move the audience at the deepest levels. Buried Child thoroughly deserved its Pulitzer Prize (the first awarded to an Off-Broadway play).
It is not possible yet to see where this new direction will take Sam Shepard. Only one thing seems certain: he will continue to experiment, to improvise, to let his talents and vision find their own directions. Certainly the recent shifts in theme and approach, whether temporary or permanent, present risks, but it has been by the taking of risks that Sam Shepard has established himself as the most exciting playwright in America today.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14
American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. I, 1981, pp. 81-111.
Village Voice Literary Supplement. December, 1981, p. 7.
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