"I believe in my mask-- The man I made up is me
I believe in my dance-- And my destiny"
-- from "Crow's Song," Tooth of Crime by Sam Shepard, 1972
Sam Shepard has displayed a highly consistent concern for identity, both in his written texts and through his public personae. Following what may be seen as a template, Shepard's characters, and indeed Shepard himself, seem bent on a quest which displays three distinct features: the need to enact a role; the necessity to question and appraise the authenticity of the role and its context; then a struggle with the often dissatisfying results. Dissatisfaction and its consequent ambivalence often lead to rejection of the role, revision of the experience, or to yet another, different role. This never-ending quest for a satisfying identity fuels Shepard's art; it also provides the subtext for the artist's own life-as-dramaturgy, in which the public Sam Shepard appears to be one more creation of the very same authorial mind.
The most recent manifestation of Shepard's quest appeared in the New Yorker of March 25th, 1996. In "Three Stories," the protean playwright-actor once again revisits the form of his earlier Motel Chronicles (1982) in three thinly-veiled autobiographical accounts of his involvement with the movies.
The first section, called "Winging It," is a first-person narrative of an actor doing a scene for a film in which he must walk into a shack to discover that an old friend has hanged himself from the rafters, a scene which Shepard himself acted in the film Voyager in 1991. The actor is having a problem summoning up an appropriate reaction to the horrific suicide: "I know what my character's reaction should be, but I know if I try to imitate this idea in my head, it will come out exactly what it is-- an imitation." (p.80) The actor's solution, then, is to "wing it," to do whatever comes into his head when the director screams, "Action!"
On the third take, the actor walks through the door, discovers the corpse, and impulsively switches on a radio which is sitting nearby. The director is obviously disconcerted, to which the actor responds, "It was just an impulse." The director then exclaims his own appreciation for impulsiveness: "I love impulses. That's the way I love to work myself-- instinctually." (Ibid)
Finally, "On the sixth take, I burst in the door; discover the corpse, pause for a second; cross to the radio; pause again; then I smash the radio to the floor with my fist. I just coldcock the son of a bitch." The director immediately crows that the take is "Absolutely perfect!" and that is where this story ends. The actor has become deeply frustrated with his inability to authentically represent his character's feelings. The frustration-- made all the more infuriating, we can assume, by the director's fundamental misunderstanding of the actor's behavior-- leads to violence, albeit against a prop. The misinterpretation of the inauthentic-- or a misplaced fit of authentic rage-- leads the observer to declare that it is the real thing, perfect. (p. 81)
Shepard has, by his own admission, spent much of his career as a playwright and actor "winging it," or relying on instinct rather than on discipline. He has celebrated the spontaneity of his writing and often rebuffed, through the occasional swipe at even his most adoring critics, the praise he has received. Taken as a larger commentary, then, "Winging It" encapsulates Shepard's relationship with his critics but also highlights the most prominent of his concerns as an artist. Shepard does what he does for reasons even he cannot divine. The critics then applaud his authenticity, and Shepard consequently second-guesses the praise and his own authenticity in that role. As the character, Miss Scoons, declares in Shepard's Angel City, "I look at the screen and I am the screen. I'm not me. I don't know who I am. I look at the movie and I am the movie. I am the star. I am the star in the movie. For days I am the star and I'm not me. I'm me being the star." (Fool for Love and Other Plays, p. 77) Shepard similarly returns to assess his own image on screen and in the public consciousness.
But, as David Wyatt says in his essay "Shepard's Split," "This more than double career [as both writer and actor] allows Shepard to explore what it feels like-- rather than means-- to project an image." (p.353) And while one might condemn-- as Shepard himself has-- the film industry for its fakery, one has to give Shepard credit for exploring the enterprise thoroughly, as if hoping that the enactment of the illusory might yet yield a kind of authenticity.
In Tooth of Crime, Crow avows his belief in his "mask" and in his "dance." (Seven Plays, p. 233) Maybe his identity is just a mask, maybe his dance is just an act, but the all-important component of belief might yet imbue them with truth. In the same way, this potentiality and the author's ambivalence towards its authenticity seem to keep Shepard's characters in motion, searching. And Shepard certainly keeps showing up on the film set to act.
The second piece, "Gary Cooper or the Landscape," reenacts a conversation between a Swedish woman and, apparently, Shepard himself. The flirtatious exchange begins with the woman gushing, "Why don't you fly? I find that so fascinating." (p. 81) Shepard is well-known for his refusal to get in an airplane (the exception, of course, being his film role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff), and the conversation quickly turns to the meaning of the landscape which he is supposedly so reluctant to leave.
Asked which route he takes in crossing the country, he explains that he takes Highway 40: "It replaced old Route 66. 'Grapes of Wrath.' Henry Fonda. You know-- 'Get your kicks on Route 66.'" (Ibid) The woman seems disappointed that he is not interested in the back roads:
--I mean, the main highway must be so synthetic, isn't it?
--They're all made out of asphalt.
--No, but I mean the surrounding areas. The little
--There are no communities.
--But there must be some little towns left. Little side roads.
--They're all the same.
--Aren't there some that are more picturesque? More authentic.
--They're all authentic. (Ibid)
The woman's concern here for authenticity is, in a sense, set up. It was the male voice who brought up the kitsch myth of old Route 66, only to defy it casually with the assertion that he sees no difference between interstate and blue highway. However, the dichotomy between Route 66 and Route 40 is not simply one of authenticity versus inauthenticity. The legendary Route 66 represents the American ideal of mobility and style, certainly, but the question remains whether that was the reality or merely a construct of television, movies, and even Beat Generation romanticism.
The man's answer here is not the final word, perhaps only one side of the ongoing argument in Shepard's highly ambivalent life and work, for we know that he truly believes in the potential value of commercial detritus, or what he has called "junk magic." (Action and The Unseen Hand, p. 44). This answer, though, is a kind of prevarication, an unconvincing sidestep. For we know that Shepard rarely settles problems in his work.
The woman then expounds on her love for the western landscape, which she developed through her appreciation of American movies. He then counters with the possibility that it is not the landscape that she craves but the heroic men she believes inhabit the land. Gary Cooper is her favorite (as well as an actor to whom Shepard himself was compared at the apex of his film career in the mid-1980's). She explains that "He personified something." What that is precisely she cannot say, but he, or the author, seems to have himself in mind when he needles her for more. She says that Cooper had a "wonderful mixture of shyness-- how do you say it?-- vulnerability, I suppose, and yet strong at the same time. It's very Western. Women love that." When the male voice presses further, she demurs, "I don't know. You're making me blush." (Ibid)
The seduction continues with the man pressing her to explain whether it is the man or the landscape to which she responds more. He puts it to her as "a question of life or death," and she chooses the landscape. "There you go," says the man, implying that the landscape would be his own choice. (Ibid)
In Shepard's search for authenticity, he has often waxed rhapsodic on the subject of the Western landscape: "There are areas like Wyoming, Texas, Montana, and places like that, where you feel this ancient thing about the land. Ancient. That it's primordial. It has to do with the relationship with the land and the people-- between the human being and the ground." (qtd. in Shewey, p. 13) In this Shepard stakes his claim to a kind of prehistoric romanticism, yet it is also clear in "Gary Cooper or the Landscape," that even the painted backdrop of the Western landscape used in a black and white Western movie holds some sway over his imagination. This Swedish woman has, after all, never been to Wyoming or Texas or Montana, but her second- or third- or fiftieth-hand experience of these places through the cinema is still strong enough to inspire her dreams ("I used to have visions about it," she says) (p. 81).
The fake here holds an authentic power; the placebo has a therapeutic effect. Perhaps the fake and the placebo are the only options readily available to our culture or to the author. But belief, in this case, is good enough to transform even the worthless fake ("junk") into the landscape of the soul ("magic").
In this Shepard is a true romantic: again and again, the power of the imagination is the mechanism by which illusion becomes reality. "They're all authentic," is so strong a statement as to recall Blake, but, through the power of the imagination, anything is possible: if you believe strongly enough in the authenticity of a thing-- even a fiction-- it becomes authentic. For Shepard as for Blake, Wordsworth, or Shelley, authenticity is a subjective, though problematic, concern.
The final vignette is called "Colorado is not a Coward," and it concerns the filming of a cock fight in a small Mexican village. Again, the question of authenticity takes center stage. At one point in the filming, an old man on a horse stops in the middle of the shot the film crew is trying to set up, and the director to ask him to please move on. After he does so, "The director suddenly changes his mind and wants the charro back. He thinks it might add something authentic to the background, but it's too late. The old man has disappeared into a mango grove, and the A.D.s can't find him. He's completely vanished." (p. 82) The director, like Shepard himself, is ambivalent over the question of what is authentic and highly impulsive. And by the time he makes up his mind, the elusive opportunity to include the truly "authentic" charro is gone.
Later in the story, the owner of one of the cocks refuses to allow his prized animal to fight unless it is allowed to kill its opponent. His bird will be ruined, he says, if it is not allowed to kill as it does in reality. "The director apologizes, but the owner won't allow his rooster to continue under these circumstances. He staggers away, weaving down the dirt road with his proud rooster stuck under his armpit. He's turned his back on the movies." (p. 83)
Interestingly, the first and the third of these anecdotes pivot on acts of violence. While the actor smashes the radio in frustration over the portrayal of a fictional character's emotions, the fighting cock owner opts out entirely because of the film's exclusion of authentic violence. "Winging It" ends with the director praising the actor's violence, but the author, Shepard, seems implicitly to praise the cock owner in "Colorado Is Not a Coward." Violence represents a kind of authenticity, and perhaps it is the underlying passion, pride, and universality of such acts which makes it so.
Also, the three sections of this piece roughly correspond to the three defining periods of Shepard's career: the first recalling his early experiments as a playwright without formal training or a goal in mind, the second in which his brush with cinema icon-dom found him walking the same mythic landscape as Gary Cooper, and the last being his most recent period of soul-searching over what it means to be both elder statesman of the American theater and a movie star, longing to give up acting and walk away, to vanish.
After all these years, Shepard is still struggling with what it means to be an artist-- or, more precisely, what it means to be Sam Shepard. The difference in his recent musings is that he has been before the camera more than he has been behind the typewriter, and, apparently, not entirely comfortable with it. In the early 1980's, Shepard said, "I'm a writer. The more I act, the more resistance I have to it. If you accept work in a movie, you accept to be entrapped for a certain part of time, but you know you're getting out. I'm also earning enough to keep my horses, buying some time to write..." (qtd. in Shewey, p. 83) Nearly ten years and over a dozen movies roles later, Shepard is clearly no longer simply "buying time to write." (Ibid) The allure of filmmaking pulls at something deeper than simple concerns for money; it provides Shepard a vitally important arena in which to enact his identity, to try on different masks.
Shepard simply cannot seem to resist Hollywood or the culture of celebrity. Shepard is often called a recluse. He is not (Allen, p.142). He functions as an artist not within the rarefied ether of his own creative universe, but within the very real culture of commerce that is modern American media. He chooses this context because he is genuinely fascinated with the possibility that art-- even middle-brow cinema-- might yet yield a kind of magical reality, or some authenticity of belief.
In the projection and consequent contemplation of the image, Shepard not only explores inauthenticity but pines that much more deeply-- more deeply and knowledgeably than anyone else possibly could-- for the security of a true identity.
As Graham Hough writes in The Last Romantics, the Symbolist movement-- to which Shepard is heir-- never yielded a solution to the problem of the artist's identity within modern society: "No English or French writer of this movement can be said to have solved his problem, or ended in an Olympian calm; and we shall hardly find it possible to record any final messages of ripe wisdom. It is probably because the problem was insoluble that so many of the personal stories of this period end unhappily." (p.xix) Shepard's story may not end as unhappily as most, but his greatest anxiety will most likely never be put to rest. He may never come to realize an identity that will satisfy him, except perhaps the role of the Artist in Perpetual Identity Crisis which he has pioneered.
"Three Stories" distills the identity quest into three components. First, the actor takes up a role and struggles with its authenticity in "Winging It." Then there is deliberation over the authenticity of the projected image and its context in "Gary Cooper or the Landscape." Finally, there is dissatisfaction and abandonment of the entire game in "Colorado is not a Coward." This story, then, follows the progression of the ambivalent artist in search of himself.
And this is perhaps what makes Sam Shepard himself so fascinating to watch.