Who Is That Tall Dark Stranger?

by Jim Farrar (1985)

Way back in September, when I first confronted this assignment, my inclination was to do a paper examining the state of the regional theatre in America. After all, I thought, that's where all the good plays are coming from these days. The Pulitzer Prize winners and runners-up, and other quality works, seem to be coming from stages that are far removed from New York. The O'Neill Center in Connecticut, Jon Jory's Actor's Theater of Louisville, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, among others, pretty much represent the vanguard of the American theatre nowadays. Good organizations all; all with a sense of responsibility above and beyond that of just spawning another hit in a callous money machine. Talented playwrights are finding a sympathetic forum for their collective voices out there in the regionals. No money to be made, for sure, but, paradoxically, the absence of financial pressure provides for the playwright a more nurturing environment than the more traditional structure of the profit-minded New York theatres. After all, this is art we're talking about here, not money. And everyone knows that musicals are basically fluff. Fluff with words attached.

At the same time, I noticed that most of the good plays were being written by women. I wondered why this was. Are the men selling out and writing for the movies, where the big bucks and the big egos are? Or are women finally starting to find their rightful place in the plastic pantheon of American commercial theatre? (Hardly.) And, for that matter, why has it taken so long?

So I started reading. I read plays and articles, most of them by women, about women, to women, and analyzing women. I read Crimes of the Heart, I read Marsha Norman's fine play 'Night Mother, and, though I promised myself three years ago I wouldn't again, I even read another play by Wendy Wasserstein. I read an article in the New York Times about the "new breed" of young playwrights. Most of them were women.

I read much more than I should have, for, inevitably, my initial question still remained and the only answer I could come up with was the obvious: yes, most of the good plays that have come from the regional theatres have been written by women.

Emphasis on the plural there. With the exception of Wendy Wasserstein, hardly a household name, female playwrights are enjoying spotty success, at best. No consistent hits (I use that word critically, not commercially), no large body of work to judge them by, and no particular thematic association with any one particular playwright's work. Lillian Hellman, arguably as fine a dramatist as any of her male contemporaries, never attained the stature of any of those male counterparts. The reason certainly wasn't for lack of talent. 'Night Mother is as fine a play as I've ever read, and, I think, one of the best and most powerful plays to hit the American stage this decade.

But that just begs the question. What else has Marsha Norma written? Not too many people know. The point is, there's no well-developed body of work to judge these playwrights by. Dominance (for lack of a better word), contribution, and value to any art form is, with rare exceptions, measured in lifelong achievement, and that implies a fairly prolific output. When we think of Picasso, or even Norman Rockwell, we don't think of any one particular painting when we consider their work. Normally, we think in the plural. We think of style; we think of motifs.

And so it is in the theatre. The only explanation I can offer for the absence of a truly dominant and influential contemporary female playwright is that most contemporary female playwrights are relatively young. Therefore, their work, in the long-term sense, is inchoate and still in progress. Also, most drama critics are male, those that control the purse strings are male, and the New York cognoscenti, the life-blood of the American commercial theatre, is male. Let's face it, the American theatre, like the rest of the world, is dominated by males (most of whom are homosexual, but that's another irrelevant story).

And meanwhile, women are writing the good plays. Women are carrying on the American dramatic tradition. Women are writing things with true passion; the men are going for the money and writing hits. Throw-away drama, if you will.

Except. And this is important.

You see, I began to wonder what, exactly, is this American dramatic tradition? Fact is, we really didn't have a "dramatic tradition" until the start of this century, when Eugene O'Neill was kind enough to give us one.

We've been trying to crown an heir-apparent ever since. The names that come to mind most readily are Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee (by some), and, now, a new entry to the field: Sam Shepard. All are important playwrights and all are men, but that's a parenthetic observation. Two of them are homosexual (also parenthetical; but still, I wonder if that means something). All of them are, or were, great. And for basically the same reason: a consistent perception of the world, and a consistent manner of expressing it. A prolonged and protracted voice.

Once again: a motif.

So, I had come full circle. Or, in other words, I'd gone nowhere at all and was right back where I'd began. I'd started at the regional theatres, wormed my way into the subject of women playwrights, and ended with a consideration of who, if anyone, is America's most influential contemporary playwright.

Luckily, I found an answer for the latter. And for good reason. His name? Sam Shepard. Of course.

No blind coronation here, thank you. I reached this conclusion via the consideration of the previous questions. Or, as Edward Albee writes, "sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly."

Nineteen eighty-five has been a good year for Sam Shepard. For his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, he was nominated for an academy award; his plays True West and Fool for Love enjoyed long runs in New York, both of which were well-received by the critics, as well as the public; the movie version of Fool for Love will open in mid-December, with Shepard himself in the lead role; his new play, A Lie of the Mind, which he also directed, opened last week in New York at the Promenade Theater; he was featured on the cover of Newsweek last month; a well-written biography of Shepard was published this fall; and Boise State also published a critical examination of Shepard's work in its Western Writers Series. The accolade goes on and on and on.

Suddenly Sam Shepard is all over the place. It's taken twenty years and nine feature film appearances, but it seems that the American mass media has finally caught up with him. More importantly, his plays are starting to generate national attention. This raises several questions. Does he deserve all the praise that's been heaped on him lately? And just how important is this man in today's theatre, anyway?

The answer can be found by reading the reviews and the analyses; moreover, the answer can best be found by reading the plays. All critical studies of Shepard's work generally arrive at the same conclusion: there's a consistency in his work that manifests itself in almost mythic terms, and with a uniquely American voice.

Images (absent father, the cowboy as icon and fading hero, and the playing and trading of roles) are created and appear time after time in his plays. Shepard returns to his central theme, a paradox best described as a feeling of alienation and lack of identity coupled with a nearly painful bonding, which is best represented by the family; a feeling akin to being torn apart from the center. Michiko Kakutani, of the New York Times writes

Indeed the search for a role, for a way of acting toward the world, remains one of the central preoccupations of Mr. Shepard's characters. Deprived of the past and any sort of familial definition--in play after play, fathers do not even recognize their sons--they try to manufacture new identities. They make up remarkable stories about themselves, but in shedding various costumes, poses and personalities, they often misplace the mysterious thing that makes them who they are (Kakutani 26).

But the family remains, the bonds cannot be uprooted. This theme arises in almost every Shepard play, from a modern day cowboy reunited with his dead ancestors to save an alien world in The Unseen Hand, to a family confronting its past in the (metaphoric) form of a mummified baby in Buried Child.

Though written ten years apart, the same undercurrent runs through both plays. We're all connected to someone, like it or not. These bonds can be confining, as well as nourishing. Therein lies the paradox and therein lies reality.

Those who have studied Shepard's work generally agree that his plays, numbering almost forty, can be considered in several different groups. They are divided along chronological lines, with each group having it's own distinct character or feeling. Though I tend to reject such pigeonholing as being a bit arbitrary and inaccurate, it is interesting to note that Vivian Patraka and Mark Siegel, in their critical study of Shepard's work for the Western Writers Series, broke his plays into five different "phases of interest." They are, in order:

(1) the bankruptcy of American culture, (2) the disintegration of Americans from their world, (3) the revelation of false cultural heroes, (4) the apocalyptic exorcism of our current, deadening culture and, finally, (5) failed but necessary attempts at reintegration by means of relations with others and the return home (Patraka & Siegel 9).

The reason I reject these notions is not so much that I disagree with them (because I don't), but, rather, because I see Shepard's work as being more consistent to one central motif, as opposed to a fragmented collection of various themes. His early work seems to presage the masterful plays that would follow. I see his work in terms of a developing mastery of technique and a conception of a basic perception of the world, which is, as suggested, the paradox of belonging, of being connected, yet simultaneously disconnected, to a past. And, I submit, if this isn't a seminal theme in American Drama, it's damn close.

It's certainly a theme that we've seen regularly in our theatre. Though the precedent was set by such authors as Strinberg, Checkov, and especially Ibsen, it was O'Neill who, in the words of O'Neill's biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb,

had battled to lift American drama to the level of art and keep it there, to mold a native, tragic stage literature. The first American to succeed as a writer of theatre tragedy, he had continued shattering Broadway convention and made possible the evolution of an adult theatre in which such playwrights as Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller could function (Gelb 5).

He did this by lending it a distinctly American voice. A variation of an age-old theme, as they say. O'Neill's vision was autobiographical, he wrote from his soul. Most playwrights of any integrity do.

Most writers, period, of any integrity do. What makes O'Neill so special is the fact that he was one of the first Americans who wrote about his own family without any shadow of sentimentality (As, for example, he did in Long Day's Journey Into Night).

The same can be said of most of the great dramatists who have followed him. Williams and Miller both wrote from, and about, their own perception of the so-called and varied ties that bind. They wrote from their own experience, in other words. Simple enough, but in American drama such perceptions have often taken the form of tragedy: Shepard's themes: missing parent, often the father; of people bound together by blood, but disconnected from one another nonetheless. In Buried Child, True West, and Fool for Love the characters all seem truncated, part of a larger whole but also detached from it as a result of familial disintegration. Alienation is the result and atavism is often the theme. Or, worse yet, characters are often doomed to assume the role of a sibling or of a mother or father in these plays.

This also is common enough in American drama. In O'Neill's "family" trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra, both son and daughter are literally transformed and become, in effect, a vestige, a ghost or an image of their parents, and of their parents before them.

In O'Neill's stage directions, the resemblance is physical, as well as metaphorical. Son and daughter resemble father and mother. Both are connected to and doomed to complete a predetermined family tragedy that was established long ago. In Buried Child, a man returns home only to find that his own father does not recognize him. When he tries to run away, and Shepard means to run away from his family and, in a larger sense, himself, he finds that he can't. He must return and face his origins; and he must inevitably face himself. Upon return, he announces:

I was gonna run and keep right on running. I drove all night. Clear to the Iowa border. The old man's two bucks sitting right on the seat beside me. It never stopped raining the whole time. Never stopped once. I could see myself in the windshield. My face. My eyes. I studied my face. Studied everything about it. As though I was looking at another man. As though I could see his whole race behind him. Like a mummy's face. I saw him dead and alive at the same time. In the same breath. In the windshield, I watched him breathe as though he was frozen in time. And every breath marked him. Marked him forever without him knowing. And then his face changed. His face became his father's face. Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath. And his father's face changed to his Grandfather's face. And it went on like that. Changing. Clear on back to faces I'd never seen before but still recognized. Still recognized the bones underneath. The eyes. The breath. The mouth. I followed my family clear into Iowa. Every last one. Straight into the Corn Belt and further. Straight back as far as they'd take me. Then it all dissolved. Everything dissolved (Buried Child 63).

These words are as powerful as any that have ever been written for the American stage because, I think, they summarize our collective psyche. We can run from our roots and try to become something else, but the seeds planted at birth are difficult to ignore. Shepard is saying that in one way or another, we must eventually come face to face with our origins and, by implication, our values. Like O'Neill before him, Shepard offers no real alternative other than acknowledgement. And drama, by implication, is, at best, descriptive (like Arthur Miller's plays appealing to our social conscience) and can thus be no more than an impetus for change, if indeed change is really an issue.

Where Shepard differs from O'Neill, as well as from Tennessee Williams, who suffered similarly, is that though his work is largely autobiographical, he shows no inclination towards being consumed and, ultimately, destroyed by his own genius. O'Neill used his art to stave off and quell the varied demons that haunted him for most of his life. He became alcoholic and melancholy, which was, indeed, a lifelong battle for him. His last play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, was completed only by sheer willpower. His wife, Carlotta, explained that he wrote it only "because it was a thing that haunted him and he had to forgive his family and himself" (Gelb 7). In an especially perceptive piece of prose, Samuel Freedman writes in the November 17 issue of The New York Times that "O'Neill's life and work raise some of the most frightening--and central--questions about creativity. Can the forces that make you creative also destroy you? Can you live with control and yet create free of restraint? It is impossible to imagine O'Neill. . . writing as rendingly about self-destruction and self-delusion without having lived both" (Freedman 22).

Indeed, Shepard embraces his family, especially his father who, much like the "old man" in True West and Fool for Love did indeed live by himself in the New Mexico desert (Shewey 131). The characterization seems to be an accurate one. Unlike O'Neill, Shepard seems to bear no grudges, no incapacitating scars, as a result of his family history. He merely uses it as a means of self-discovery and, like O'Neill, it is the source of his art.

Of True West Shepard has said that the play transcends its autobiographical impulse, that the play is, rather, a focus on the internal complexity of each individual's personality. "I wanted to write a play about double nature," he comments, "one that wouldn't be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. I think we're split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It's not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It's something we've got to live with" (Shewey 141). And indeed, the play does portray Lee and Austin as being two sides of the same personality. I'm not disputing Shepard's intent (he is, after all, the author), but I would suggest that the raw material for the play comes from Shepard's family and from his own experience as a writer (Austin) and, also, as an establishment outsider (Lee). John Malkovich, who played Lee in the Magic Theater and PBS productions says

People keep saying True West is so commercial, but I think it's a more personal play than most of his. Shepard, like Lee, defies all the things we're told we have to do to be successful. He spent years in a loft picking his nose and writing really punk stuff with Patti Smith, and then he wins a Pulitzer. He's like Austin when he shrugs off his writing to go make all these movies, but then he'll turn around and, like, trash Papp (the original producer of True West) in The New York Times--that's such a Lee thing to do. Lee is the side of Shepard that's always being strangled but never quite killed (Shewey 144).

In the past, critics have complained that Shepard's plays are unstructured, somewhat lacking in plot and devoid of endings. This is, of course, correct, and Shepard makes no effort to hide the fact:

I never know when to end a play. I'd just as soon not end anything. But you have to stop at some point, just to let people out of the theater. I don't like endings and I have a hard time with them. I think it's a cheap trick to resolve things. It's totally a complete lie to make resolutions. I've always felt that, particularly in theater when everything's tied up at the end with a neat little ribbon and you've delivered this package. You walk out of the theater feeling that everything's resolved and you know what the play's about. So what? It's almost as though why go through all that if you're just going to tie it all up at the end? It seems like a lie to me--the resolutions, the denouement and all the rest of it. And it's been handed down as if that is the way to write plays. If you're only interested in taking a couple of characters, however many, and having them clash for a while, and then resolve their problems, then why not go to group therapy or something? (Shewey 123)

Whether or not one agrees with this, his comments certainly yield an interesting perspective when considering his work. Shepard's plays have always seemed somewhat piecemeal to me; fragments of a single vision, if you will, flying off from a central theme. When approached collectively, they seem much more accessible and understandable.

Much like the characters he writes about, Shepard's work is, at this point in time, incomplete. Like an unfinished play, his ultimate contribution to our literature is undetermined, although I suspect his influence will be considerable. I think the best is yet to come.

Works Cited

Freedman, Samuel G. "How Inner Torment Feeds the Creative Spirit." The New York Times, 17 Nov. 1985, nat. ed.: H1, 22.

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Kakutani, Michiko. "Myths, Dreams, Realities--Sam Shepard's America." The New York Times, 29 January, 1984, nat. ed.: H1, 26.

Patraka, Vivian M., and Siegel, Mark. Sam Shepard. Boise State University Western Writers Series #69. Boise: Boise State University, 1985.

Shepard, Sam. Buried Child. New York: Urizen Books, 1979.

Shewey, Don. Sam Shepard. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1985.

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