In 1979, Sam Shepard received the Pulitzer Prize for his dark drama, Buried Child, and in 1984, he earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. In 1980, one of Shepard’s most popular “dysfunctional family” plays, True West, opened to acclaim; after three decades, it is often revived. A Lie of the Mind opened in 1985 and won the Drama Desk award that year for best play. In a recent interview, Shepard insisted A Lie of the Mind is a better play than Buried Child. Lie has not one but two dysfunctional families on stage, and possibly because of the split focus and length, A Lie of the Mind is rarely performed.
I worked with Sam Shepard at a 1980 playwrights’ festival in Marin, California. Playwrights invited to participate were selected out of the large number who applied. Originally, I was reluctant to attend. I had found some of Shepard’s early plays and their obligatory monologues to be pretentious, but Tooth of Crime resembled classical tragedy beginning close to its climax. I understood those rock and roll gods, Hoss and Crow, battling to the death. I loved the music, and it had biting, resonant lines, such as: “You’re dancing a pantomime in the eye of a hurricane.” Beckett scholar, Ruby Cohn, saw the play as an exploration of American culture: “Through highly imaged rhythmic monologues and through dueling dialogues, Hoss and Crow reveal themselves intimately, and through them we gain insight into a contemporary cacophony of big business, crime, sports, astrology, art” (Cohn, “The Word is My Shepard,” 183).
The Marin festival grounds were well manicured and a theatre stood nearby. Director Robert Woodruff welcomed us and said the purpose of the workshop was to bring together creative talents and have an exciting festival of staged plays and full productions. When Sam Shepard appeared, a cinematic image of the moody but doomed farmer from Days of Heaven came to mind. He seemed confident and shy sitting on the grass smoking an Old Gold cigarette, a bit reserved but polite.
“We don’t have to do anything,” he said, “but I have some exercises so that we can create and maybe find something new.”
A few murmured that he looked more like a rock star than a playwright. The Marin playwrights’ workshop included a few pampered wealthy artists playing at being playwrights. No one seemed to have a “real” job. The most successful playwright on the list, Henry David Hwang, never arrived.
Though considered a poet of the theatre, Shepard was wary of anything that sounded like “literature,” and seemed more comfortable discussing the care and racing of horses than theatre or Hollywood. Shepard is an accomplished equestrian, as the opening scene in The Right Stuff suggests. He felt Shakespeare “was a saint” but didn’t understand Chekhov. He admires Beckett and worked with actor, writer, Joseph Chaikin.
One of his main exercises encouraged a present-tense, first-person monologue from the viewpoint of a single sense: sight, hearing, touch, taste or smell. The purpose of the exercise was to discover the “voice,” that inner murmur of language that lives in every character. The exercise seemed simple but daunting. It was hard to stay focused on one sense. When one writer said he was afraid to step away from what was comfortable, Shepard said, “That’s great. Fear can give you courage.” Writers read their monologues one by one. Shepard listened, and encouraged others to speak. He was non-judgmental, but one could tell which monologues intrigued him.
The next exercise was to create a sense of place and we were allowed two, then four lines of contrasting dialogue. The following is an example:
“Look at those wonderful redwoods. It’s a cathedral.”
“Yeah, it sure is. A lot of board feet.”
Sam Shepard brought in actors and musicians to work with the playwrights to create an authentic voice. Some of the actors later went on to considerable local or national fame: John Vickery on Broadway, Carl Lumbly on television, and James Charles Dean at the Berkeley Repertory Company and then the Aurora theatre. At times, the effect of voices, music and sounds made by an artist with many noise makers, created a striking effect. I was paired with Carl Lumbly, perhaps best known for his work on the series, Alias. A wonderful partner, Carl did a non-verbal improvisation of a mad person picking off imaginary bugs, and I wrote a monologue to match the improvisation. Carl did his improvisation without words, and then read the monologue. Evidently, my “mad” voice fit his remarkable creation.
For another piece, James Charles Dean read a writer’s monologue about a ghostly ex-wife’s visitation, then did it in gibberish, and then did it while a Foley sound artist and a musician played along. Despite the pleasant lawn and Marin sunshine, something eerie and magical happened. The long gone ex-wife appeared.
This concept of “voice” perhaps explains Shepard’s skill as a playwright, since he gets inside his characters and finds their unique voices. Perhaps this is his shaman’s magic to bring rootless characters to life on stage. His strength lies not so much with his plots but with his imagery and his ability to create characters around images. He’s an “organic playwright,” and put a live sheep onstage for Curse of the Starving Class. Tilden scatters shucked corn leaves early in Buried Child. When Jim Dean played the condemned man in Killer’s Head, a short play consisting of a final monologue delivered before a convict is electrocuted, Shepard took him for a horseback ride and while overlooking a beautiful landscape, asked Dean to recite his monologue. Nature would inform the actor’s eventual performance.
The paparazzi invaded the grounds on the last day of the festival, driven by a “buzz” that an upcoming film, Resurrection, would make Shepard a film star despite his crooked teeth. They treated him more like a celebrity than a playwright who had received a Pulitzer. It gave the festival a validation to have so many photographers and writers surround us, but it also felt like an invasion. After making Frances with Jessica Lange and their subsequent love affair, Sam Shepard became a very real and very reluctant celebrity. In the words of Ruby Cohen: “at thirty-five, admired by academics as well as rock fans, Sam Shepard would seem to be fortune’s child” (Cohn, 171). As one of Shepard’s characters states, he was “riding in a state of grace.” His appearance in Bob Dylan’s improvised uneven film, Renaldo and Clara, led to Shepard’s casting in Malick’s remarkable film, Days of Heaven.
It is a sad fact but even the most acclaimed playwrights, if they live long enough, will see their plays go out of fashion. George Bernard Shaw was the exception. John Osborne and Tennessee Williams saw this happen, and Sam Shepard has seen his acclaim fade. Though his career as a film actor has flourished, despite turning down some lead roles and deliberately avoiding exposure, Sam Shepard hasn’t repeated the artistic success of his most celebrated play, Buried Child, often compared to Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Both plays have shocking endings, Pinter’s subdued, Shepard’s verging on horror.
I saw the premiere of Buried Child which featured Joe Gistirak as Dodge, a bitter old man who drinks throughout the play. I had directed Joe Gistirak in Krapps’s Last Tape; he was a memorable as Beckett’s isolated banana–eating 69 year-old Krapp and extremely effective as the caustic Dodge. Sadly, Joe took his life shortly after the play closed. Buried Child then opened in New York taking the Pulitzer. In the final scene, Tilden, mentally challenged, enters carrying a dug-up corpse of an infant killed by Dodge and possibly a product of incest; he takes the body upstairs to the mother as she describes the sudden garden flourishing outside. It is one of the most harrowing scenes in American theatre.
After A Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind, the subsequent plays seemed less effective. States of Shock received a mixed critical response. Ages of the Moon was considered an echo of Shepard’s earlier success, and his most recent play, Heartless, opened to tepid reviews in the summer of 2012. After referring to Shepard’s greater works, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class and True West, the New York Times critic, Ben Brantley, wrote the following: “Heartless, which opens on Monday night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, provides only flashes of the glorious theatrical glee and anguish that animate those plays.” The critic continues suggesting that the production calls “ponderous attention to its great metaphysical themes.” Heartless is unique in the sense that it has a large female cast, and Lois Smith has a powerful monologue at the end about seeing James Dean on the screen at a drive-in. (Ironically, Lois Smith herself performed opposite Dean in East of Eden.) For Brantley, Shepard’s “murky play” is somewhat “illuminated” by Lois Smith’s performance. If Heartless proved generally disappointing, A Lie of the Mind was revived by Ethan Hawke to great acclaim in 2010.
Sam Shepard’s screenplays and subsequent original films have been dismissed by critics, and in interviews, Shepard himself feels they are awkward. They certainly lack the power of the best plays. Shepard now rewrites, and has dismissed many of his earlier experimental plays as just that—early awkward experiments.
As Sam Shepard enters his seventies, where does he go from here? Could the late Ruby Cohn’s 1982 article, “The Word is My Shepard,” one day mark the end of Sam Shepard’s power as a playwright rather than a new beginning? F. Scott Fitzgerald famously stated that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Ironically, Ruby Cohn compares Shepard to Fitzgerald in that early article: “Like the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, Shepard is at once seduced by and critical of American wealth and its artifacts” (Cohn, 186).
Though we haven’t seen a major Sam Shepard play since the late 1980s, a reminder of his origins as an American writer can be found in Cruising Paradise, a collection of stories, tales and anecdotes published in 1995. This book of prose is more personal than the others. Shepard’s earliest memory starts in Mountain Home, Idaho, where his father, a bomber pilot, was briefly stationed during World War II. The chapter, Days of Blackouts, begins with old news bites:
…Eisenhower is made Supreme Commander of all Allied forces.
My dad is dropping bombs on Italy.
Without a clue” (Sam Shepard, Cruising Paradise, 17).
The headlines are part of history, but there is something remarkable about a writer describing a childhood scene he could not possibly remember. The Mountain Home experience suggests a war-time suspense thriller as Shepard’s father (Sam Rogers) uses a “secret code system” with the mother so she can find the exact room number and meet him. (The war does not allow pilots to reveal their location.) Shepard describes the vanished motor court “laid out in the shape of a horseshoe, with all the identical bungalow units surrounding a shallow concrete fish pond, glowing a pale green from a footlight submerged in the middle of it.” The setting is bleak and austere with “two metal lawn chairs facing the pond, underneath a pair of white pines” (Shepard, 17).
The title, Days of Blackouts, has a meaning beyond bombing raids; Shepard’s father, an alcoholic, ended badly. What happened that night in 1943 seems to provide Shepard with a strong life metaphor:
“The family sits around the pond. As the father holds the infant, the mother points out a fish to the baby, losing a flower in the process. My father makes a lunge for it and loses me. Now I’m airborne, flying towards the shiny pond and the falling hibiscus. I’m suspended, watching the flower touch down softly on the surface without sinking, and twirling like a ballerina, just before I crash into the rippling green light. My blanket is floating beside me” (Shepard, 19).
Shepard conjures up what happens later that night when his infant sleep is disturbed by the father “having a nightmare on one of the twin beds in the bungalow of the motor court in Mountain Home, Idaho.” The child has been placed “in the bottom drawer of the dresser that’s been pulled out on a throw rug.” His blanket is drying by the windows. He can “hear it dripping.”
Ultimately, it is the sad image of Shepard’s father that haunts these pages even as his derelict image haunts Shepard’s plays. In a chapter called See You in My Dreams, Shepard recounts the death of his father:
“They were easy to remember: a very fat Apache woman with bare feet, and a tall, stringy white man with a red beard and a crew cut, both raging drunk. They careened their way from one end of town to the other, getting ousted from every bar until the money ran out…my dad staggered into the middle of the road and met his death” (Shepard, 142).
Even after death, the father presents a frightening image to the son as he stops in front of his father’s one room apartment “afraid to go in” because of “the same fear” that invaded the playwright when his father was alive—“the very same fear” (Shepard, 145).
Buried Child features a dysfunctional bizarre family: the mentally challenged Tilden shucking corn from a garden that shouldn’t exist, a sadistic brother who has accidentally cut of his leg with a chain saw, a mother who often delivers monologues off stage, and Dodge, a kind of cynical chorus and old derelict waiting to die. Shepard’s father saw the play but did he recognize himself before being evicted for disrupting the performance? At the funeral, Shepard reads from his father’s favorite poet, Lorca, and finds himself, a private man, breaking with very public grief. There is nothing left but a pine box full of ashes.
“The gravediggers turned their backs toward me and lowered their heads. I was grateful to them for that” (Shepard, 150).
With the 1983 death of his father, Sam Shepard may have lost a source of inspiration: the alcoholic father destined to abandon the family and wander the desert. A 2009 arrest for drunk driving indicates Shepard may have inherited his father’s addiction. The disturbing mug shot of Sam Shepard suggests some rough road the playwright has traveled since his striking film debut in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Since his arrest, Shepard has quit drinking, and his partnership with Jessica Lange evidently ended quietly in 2010.
At the Marin festival, Sam Shepard led a group of playwrights searching for the hidden “voice” that drives every dramatic character. If Sam Shepard is a writer who loves and fears America’s vastness, he has listened to its voices. It is an American vision, one that may have started that night in Mountain Home, Idaho, when a father dropped his infant son into a shiny motel pond. Though Sam Shepard states at one point that he was “born without a clue,” Cruising Paradise provides a few biographical insights into this enigmatic artist.
In the fall of 2012, Trinity College in Dublin awarded Sam Shepard an honorary doctorate. He read from his work and performed a few songs with Patti Smith with whom he wrote an early play, Cowboy Mouth. Smith recently won a Pulitzer for her poignant memoir, Just Kids. Shepard insists he’ll never write a memoir but continues to work as an actor, usually in supporting roles. He can be seen in the acclaimed film, Mud. Certainly as a writer, Sam Shepard has more to say. In a recent interview with Carole Cadwalladr, Shepard said that regarding success, “Behind it is a certain horrible emptiness…it’s the writing itself which is important.” Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before this unique American voice gives us another classic play.
Photo: Sam Shepard by mtkr (taken at PEN World Voices Festival 2007)