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Heading for the Last Roundup

Paris, Texas

a film directed by Wim Wenders, written by Sam Shepard

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),

by Sam Shepard


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 so much, because frequently his plays seem provisional reports whose vitality springs perhaps from a certain disgust with writing plays at all—Shepard likes to say that he took to writing so as “not to go off the deep end,” that all along his real desire was to be a “rock-and-roll star”—it’s extraordinarily difficult to write categorically about what goes on in his theater. But surely at the center of Shepard’s America must stand his antipodean band of errant sons and ghostly fathers—his assortment of gangsters and gamblers, cowboys and farmers—variants either on the “child of nature” and “noble savage” or on the authority figure of the “old man,” an abiding presence, home from the hills and now gone a bit daft. Shepard’s women, themselves variants on mothers and whores, sisters or sweethearts, are, not surprisingly, dim in comparison to his macho pantheon, but they too have their moments.

Around these characters flourish the heady themes of the plays. In them, boyish adventures are both ardent and a disappointment, savaged usually with the threnody of despair. A fortune hunt in the harlequinade of Mad Dog Blues (1971) reveals nothing but two bags full of “millions of bottle caps.” Memories of uropias rise and fall and leave not a trace behind: “What’s a community?” Jeep, a disillusioned counterculturist, asks mockingly in Action (1975).

Much in Shepard is “invisible.” Mice are everywhere in 4-H Club (1965), but not one, apparently, is seen. Much is also “imaginary,” particularly death, a recurrent motif. Bullets fly across the stage in The Unseen Hand (1969), but the actors, like the ogres of video games, are invulnerable to them. Carol, in Red Cross (1966), speaks eloquently, once, of her own death at the bottom of a ski slope. Language in the same play can be lethal, a trap for the unwary: a maid “drowns” while inattentively listening to instructions on how to swim. Or, conversely, language can be a means of staving off suffocation. “You gotta talk or you’ll die,” murmurs Tilden, the possessor of a terrible and barely discernible family secret in Buried Child (1978). Throughout, the grotesque vies with the perfunctory, the humdrum with the fabulous, panic is edged with a kind of cracker-barrel whimsy, and extraordinary behavior is de rigueur. In Curse of the Starving Class (1978), Wesley unzips his fly, takes out his pecker, and pees all over his sister’s culinary demonstration charts lying at his feet.

Older dramatists, like Williams and Miller, had roots in a traditional literature, and their plays could suggest associations with the American theater or American fiction of the Twenties and Thirties. Albee, for all his postwar consciousness, can be similarly placed, even if he has roots in Salinger or Beckett (read “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” for the genesis of The Zoo Story‘s conversational style, Malone Dies for the nucleus of Martha’s hymn to her “son” in Virginia Woolf).

Only in Sam Shepard do we find in a playwright of equal importance a consequential break with the niceties of a literary past, and the triumph of a dramatic style largely of improvisation, one related more and more to popular culture. Literary influences certainly exist, primarily those of Whitman and Kerouac, but these are less verbal than visual—Walt on the open road, Jack and Neal Cassady in their old jalopy—are part of the iconography of what Shepard calls the “car culture for the young.” More important, these influences are always subject to greater ones: from music (rock and jazz), from art (Pollock or “happenings”), and above all from Hollywood and TV.

It’s hardly surprising that in Shepard’s Motel Chronicles (1982), a series of impressionistic reminiscences in verse and prose, one comes across “I keep praying / for a double bill / of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK / and / VERA CRUZ“—meaning a double bill of the films of the Fifties he’d seen in his adolescence. He seems to want, in fact, a double bill of the patriarchal and “buddy culture” aspects of these (and other) films—silverhaired Tracy saving the day at Black Rock, Cooper and Lancaster roughing things up at Vera Cruz—that have been so keenly enlivening his own folkloric landscapes. And if in his world a “new god” is sought, or a moment of “great expectation,” the new god turns out to be, not unexpectedly, “a rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth”—which, alas, sounds more like a description of Ronald Reagan, minus the rock-and-roll, than any invocation of a deity, new or old.

Much has been said of the deftness of Shepard’s ear, his mastery of “living speech.” The isolated monologues of his characters, those brilliant, scarifying arias for which he’s justly famous, are in many cases the equivalent of the prose poem. One could make a little anthology of the best of these speeches and they would represent a good deal of what is most pertinent or piquant in his work. For these long monologues, when at full tilt, include the thematic hints of what’s to come or heighten what’s already been; they either point to an approaching storm or leave an eerie afterglow; contain, that is, both the emotional definition of the characters speaking and the design embodying these characters.

To take an elementary example, Stu, in Cowboy #2 (1967), in an aria on peacocks and turtles and chickens in chicken coops, turns from the beauty of the peacocks to the awfulness of chickens expiring in “a pool of shit and piss and feathers and cluck”; then Chet, his buddy, starts another aria on breakfast cereals. Later, in a duet, they’ll play at and “become” old men, old prospectors, fighting off imaginary Injuns on imaginary plains—and the underlying themes of guilelessness and death, youth and age, will subsequently evolve.

Yet these characters are rarely separable or memorable; they have none of the distinctiveness, the embroidery of portraiture of Blanche DuBois or Willy Loman. Not only do Stu and Chet frequently mimic each other or exchange identities with each other, but so also do Kosmo and Yahoodi in Mad Dog Blues, and Lee and Austin in True West; even in the incestuous coupling of Fool for Love (1983), May and Eddie, half-sister and half-brother, are virtually opposite sides of the same coin. These characters, as Elizabeth Hardwick has observed, are not so much characters as actors, members of some sort of revolving repertory company where the impresario is of course Shepard himself, Shepard exuberantly amplifying the possibilities of his own picaresque imagination or poetic roguery, Shepard delighting in the fact that the playwright is, as he says, “the only actor who gets to play all the roles.”

In so celebrating the histrionic dexterity of the actor, Shepard is also insisting that we watch as well as listen, use our eyes no less than our ears. In his theater we encounter precipitate alterations of personality, or chimerical shifts in diction or mood or dress (disrobing or a bedraggled sumptuousness are common), and frequently accompanying the long monologues or interwoven among them, another character, on another part of the stage, might suddenly begin shadow boxing, or howl like a coyote, or slowly dance to a blues ballad, or sit in a heavy red armchair and maneuver it till it comes to resemble a “giant tortoise.”

Admittedly, at times all this activity can be little more than an avant-garde burlesque of the “stage business” of yesteryear. At other times overall movement clearly falters: Shepard either runs out of gas (the second half of Angel City is surely a letdown after the first) or has trouble getting started. But generally such choreography engages us as swiftly or effortlessly as possible; and even when the characters are seemingly doing nothing at all, lying about as if “dead,” these moments are purely deceptive—at key points in the concluding sequences of Melodrama Play (1967) each of the “dead” will rise from the floor and exit, and the effect is startling.

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