In Sam Shepard’s True West, maybe the finest of his many fine plays, two brothers confront each other in their mother’s apartment, which they are allowing to go to rack and ruin. One has become a successful but frustrated Californian screenwriter, the other is a crude outsider who gambles on fighting dogs in no-hope hamlets in the Mojave Desert.
One is tame and yearns to be wild, the other is a wild man who sees how useful it is to be tame. Their encounter ends with them enviously, angrily, murderously circling each other to the baying of coyotes offstage, as if to prove Shepard’s view of the world and, very specifically, America itself: “I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It’s not so cute, some little thing we can get over. It’s something we’ve got to live with.”
Shepard, it was announced Monday, has died, aged 73, from complications arising from ALS, and what we are left with are his astonishing words. His plays involved the incompatibility of the American head and the American heart.
Again and again his characters tried to sustain the myth of the Old Frontier, the supposedly “true West”, in the endless suburbia of an America consisting–as a character in his pointedly named Curse of the Starving Class says–of “cement pilings, prefab walls, zombie architecture owned by invisible zombies, built by other zombies for the use and convenience of other zombies”.
Who can find fulfillment, wholeness, in a country given over to money men and real-estate swindlers, like those who ruin and selectively slaughter the dilapidated family at the center of the same play? Who can feel rooted in the aptly titled Azusa in The Unseen Hand, a deadly amalgam of sleek shopping centers, basketball games and “everything from A to Z in the USA”?
Who can feel at home in the Hollywood that Shepard came to know well as an actor, a place evoked in Angel City by green ooze and fanged men with green skin? His characters, a legion of the lost, persistently seek to reconcile things that aren’t just incompatible but probably unattainable: excitement, the exhilaration of existence, with security, a sense of belonging.
Shepard, who saw himself as the victim of his own father’s alcoholism, violence, unhappiness and “tough-guy pose,” created characters who try to attain and sustain a macho identity, a spurious manhood.
In his play Pecos Bill the outlaw of the title boasts of tearing down mountains, strangling tornadoes and personally digging the Rio Grande, yet actually is a swaggering loudmouth whose great Homeric achievement was killing his wife. And he ends in querulous bewilderment: “why is we forsaken, lost in shame, forgotten?”
That sharp little piece was Shepard’s backhanded tribute to the Bicentennial of an America he did indeed think had become broken and bewildered, unable to understand why it had become a blend of the brazen and the forlorn, the wishful and the frustrated, the garish and the desolate.
His work was never comforting, though often darkly humorous, especially when he turned from macrocosm to microcosm in Starving Class, Lie of the Mind and (in 1979), Buried Child, the play that brought him the most important of the many awards he won in his creative career, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (He also won 13 Obie Awards.)
For him, the American family was a disaster zone, less the refuge it often claimed to be than a trap which entices, seizes, absorbs, then maims and even kills.
Out there in Norman Rockwell country one parent is drunkenly smashing in the door, the other is surreptitiously selling the house, the avocados are rotting in their fields, one brother is strangling another, little sister is secretly planning to leave, a damaged man called Tilden is lumbering about in his lobotomized way holding the corpse of the baby that his father long ago drowned.
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Altogether, the family’s traditions are, as one of those titles suggests, also its curse, an endless handing-over of pain and loss from one generation to the next.
That confusion was reflected in dialogue that was never predictable, always quirky, sometimes abstruse. It was also a language that evoked America’s wide-open spaces, with their run-down motels, their drifters and gamblers, their loners and losers, their dust, sand and, sometimes, their good but underused arable earth.
And that language, along with a sort of despairing patriotism or disbelieving love-of-country, has certainly had a lasting impact. Behind David Mamet, behind Tony Kushner, behind many contemporary American dramatists, you can spot the influence of the man whose skepticism and imagination won them more and more freedom: Sam Shepard.
Naturally his work has been much analyzed in academia–his insistence on the unreliability of observation and the elusiveness of truth have been much commented on–but he himself often proclaimed his indifference to ideas “that only speak to the mind.”
Indeed, much of the appeal of his plays is down to their emotional power. I myself can’t forget the sheer force of Shepard’s Fool for Love when Kathy Whitton Baker played the protagonist, a woman in love with her half-brother and, trapped as she was in some desert motel, desperately trying to escape his obsession with her.
When Shepard was directing the play at New York’s Circle Repertory Theatre in 1982 he reportedly kept telling his performers “that’s fine, but take it further, take it still further”, and one can see why.
Fool for Love persistently caps one piece of emotional testimony with another, and then another. Here was woman alternately raging and clutching at her would-be lover. Then out of the darkness came a glare of lights, a screech of brakes, the bang of a shotgun, a crash of glass.
It was his ex-mistress, making her own thwarted passion violently felt. With Baker flinging herself around her motel room, crashing into its walls, sinking to her knees, and (in Shepard’s words) uttering “agonizing mournful wails” and “weeping” with love, I recall feeling that the dramatist had created an American Phèdre.
With the main characters’ heads at war with their hearts, Fool for Love was another example of the “split” that Shepard saw in so many of his fellow-countrymen. But that restlessness wasn’t and isn’t only American. Shepard will be remembered as a dramatist of international stature who brought a vividly American idiom, context, inventiveness and imagination to universal confusions.