Plays by Sam Shepard, Angei City (1976), Operation Sidewinder (1970), Suicide in Bb (1976), True West (1980), Mad Dog Blues (1971), Action (1975), 4-H Club (1965), The Unseen Hand (1969),
When the plays of Sam Shepard began appearing in the Sixties at underground theaters like La Mama or the Caffe Cino he was often thought to be a surrealist dramatist. That’s true enough of much of his atmospheric detail, early or late: Angel City and its phantasmal green slime, Operation Sidewinder and its serpentine computer. At the start of Suicide in Bb we discover, to quote from Shepard, that “the outline of a man’s body sprawled out in an awkward position of death is painted in white” on the center of a darkened stage. And it’s true that a dreamlike mise en scène inhabits most of his forty or so plays.
More likely, though, the boisterously prolific Shepard should be seen as an embattled realist, or an elusive one, with a highly picaresque view of the world, and a roguish sense of himself and of his characters in relation to that world. A number of these characters, whether buried in the “middle of nowhere” or ravaging among the graffiti of the metropolis, dote on the tall tale, are fascinated by the foxiness of old pretenders. Others are a kind of holy fool, drifters who are also questers, outlaws who are also poets. Even the most matter-of-fact are prey to orneriness. Mom, in True West (1980), in the Los Angeles of today, blithely informs her sons: “Picasso’s in town. Isn’t that incredible?… No, he’s not dead. He’s visiting the museum. I read it on the bus. We have to go down there and see him.” Eventually in the unraveling of the tall tale calamity lurks, the horizon is electric with disaster, while for the holy fools paranoia is always possible, suitably guyed with touches of Shepard’s humorous hyperbole: A funny thing happened to me on the way to Armageddon, as one of his characters might say.
Shepard’s world, however idiosyncratic, is of course America. It is at once a “youth culture” America, full of hot rods and juke boxes, rap sessions and brand names (some of the characters are irreverently called Kent or Salem or Dodge), and a world always colored by the evocation of an American past—a highly selective one. For Shepard’s is largely the America of Buffalo Bill and Andrew Jackson, but surely not that of Henry Adams or Henry James; the America of medicine shows and covered wagons, revivalist meetings and rodeos, but hardly of Debs or Sacco and Vanzetti or even of the robber barons of Wall Street. In short, a thoroughly demotic, folkloric America, the American past more or less as a Hollywood cliché—but an America, nonetheless, continually illuminated through the purview of the artist, the artist as tramp or seer.
If one is content to follow this hard-nosed, drug-induced, pop-flavored style, this perpetual retuning of old genres and old myths, one encounters, finally, a profuse and unique panorama of where we are now and where we have been. Because Shepard has written …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Sam Shepard in Print May 30, 1985