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...
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