Portrait of the Artist

Sam Shepard has gained a reputation as one of America's foremost living playwrights. In over forty plays, Shepard has broken down traditional notions of dramaturgy in combining both modernist notions of the absurd and familiar icons from the American cultural landscape with an energy tinged by anarchy and violence. His self-styled rock-and-roll aesthetic has informed not just his writing, but has generated a public persona which looms as large as, or larger than, his body of written work. Also, in Shepard's comings and goings in film, television, and in the pages of People magazine, one sees very clearly the same concern with the issue of identity as expressed and explored in his written and staged work.

He once told an interviewer, "I preferred a character that was constantly unidentifiable, shifting through the actor, so that the actor could almost play anything, and the audience was never expected to identify with the character." (qtd. in Shewey, p. 51)

Inspired by the "transformation" exercises that Joseph Chaikin developed for actors, Shepard's early plays featured characters that would mutate and alternate voices midway through a scene. In Shepard's view, every one of us contains Whitmanesque multitudes and the capacity to try on a wide variety of roles. "The narrative convention that called for consistent, motivated characters to move along an 'arc' dictated by a Dark Secret or a Tragic Flaw was, to Shepard, at odds with the human condition," asserts one critic. (Schiff, p.85)

But for Shepard, there are many highly personal issues associated with identity, and he seems to have replaced the traditional theatrical notion of arc with his own. The particular human condition with which Shepard is most familiar-- his own-- seems to be the model for his characters' arc of enactment, assessment, and disillusionment fueled by an anxiety that the exercise might prove fruitless and false as well as the hope that it might somehow ring true.

Shepard's identity quest pits the individual against a forest of unstable signs and symbols, the influence of our media-driven society. Shepard's dramatic universe is a complicated and largely unhappy place where characters suffer extraordinary anxiety due to the instability and inauthenticity of the world which surrounds them. In short, they are on guard against lies fed to them by the media. Shepard and many of his characters endeavor to defend themselves against the weight of the past and the anxiety of the present by searching out a deeper, more essential origin (or origins) through which to establish a viable identity.

However, having grown up in the Post-war boom of the entertainment industry, and as he admits, read little (Shewey, p.23), Shepard frequently incorporates signs, symbols, and models from popular culture in his work. The movies, especially westerns, were an early passion of his, and his later exploration of their meaning seems to stem logically from the formative influence that screen icons like Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, and James Dean must have had on the young Shepard. Similarly, pop music icons appear throughout Shepard's writing as genuinely heroic figures. In this, Shepard seems to admit a deeply-held and sincere belief in the value of such influences as movie westerns and rock stars like Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. Far from an ironic statement on the commodification of our culture, Shepard's use of pop icons and models can be seen as a kind of return to his origins and to his earliest influences, as if he believes that the lost toys and totems of his youth might still hold some power.

It is not enough for Shepard, however, to simply play a cowboy in a movie or play the drums in a band: he is compelled to do both-- and more-- in order to stave off the anxiety associated with his identity quest. He refuses to be what people expect, and he consciously trades masks in order to confound us, to throw us off his trail, to keep us-- and perhaps himself-- at a safe remove. In a1986 interview, Shepard described a hawk he had once observed in New Mexico trying to outfly bothersome crows. The interviewer, Jonathan Cott, rightly supposed that Shepard identified with the hawk and asked, "So the answer is to outfly them." Shepard responded, "Yeah, outfly them. Avoid situations that are going to take pieces of you. And hide out." (p. 198) As for most male characters in Shepard's plays, the key is not to get pinned down, locked into the strict confines of an identity, be it that of father, son, or rock-and-roll savior. The attainment of an identity is desirable, but it is equally fraught with pitfalls and traps.

The anxiety Shepard feels regarding identity has found voice through all three phases which scholars and critics have generally identified as the shifting and maturing concerns of Shepard's work, but the fundamental pathos is the same throughout. The outlandish "rock and roll" plays of his early career are often written off (by Shepard himself as well) as the untutored ejaculations of a wild youth, while the later "family" plays of the early- to mid-1980's represent the work taken most seriously. The past ten years have seen Shepard's work as a dramatist diminish as he spends more and more time making films; this latest period remains largely undefined by critics and scholars who seem confused as to why he would stray so far from his artistic homeland. Sam Shepard has not changed terribly much, however. The tone and frequency of Shepard's work surely changed, and he certainly developed a more sophisticated approach to his writing, but the subject of Shepard's work has remained squarely rooted in the problem of identity-- the medium has changed, but the message is virtually the same.

It is not, however, a single hard target search for Shepard; his quarry is intangible and he conducts his search in unexpected ways. He is, after all, an artist for whom contradiction has become something of a hallmark-- or perhaps a strategy. Shepard is a writer who quests for the authentic, yet who also changed his name. He has been an ardent critic of the movie industry through his plays and other writing, going so far as to swear off film acting in the mid-1980's, yet he has acted in nearly three times as many films in recent years as he has written plays. He claims to be intensely private, yet he has appeared on the covers of People, Newsweek, and Esquire. He claims to prefer the wild Western United States over the East, yet he lived on the long-tamed red clay of Charlottesville, Virginia for ten years and is now reportedly residing in Minnesota. Shepard says that he moved to New York in 1963 in order to flee his troubled home life and his alcoholic father, but the family and a father figure modeled on his own dominate his later plays with an almost obsessive intensity. He is an Obie and Pulitzer-winning playwright and the darling of Off-Off-Broadway theater who appeared in a television mini-series based on Larry McMurtry's Streets of Laredo.

Taking into account not just the written texts but also the actions and interviews of Sam Shepard the man, it is reasonable to say that he is most profoundly and consistently an ambivalent romantic. In Wilcox's words, Shepard may be demonstrating "a desire to return to origins." (p. 1) This seems abundantly true, no matter Shepard's apparent peripheral concerns with other issues (his commentary on contemporary culture, the relationships between men and woman, etc.). He is an artist who chafes against the questions posed from without by theater critics and academics, maintaining a distinct hostility towards the intellectualization of his art, as if the deconstruction of his plays were simply one more meaningless and inauthentic fiction.

There is in this posture the very essence of romanticism. Graham Hough explains that, "There is a general melancholy agreement that art and the sense of beauty have a rougher time in the modern world than they ever had before; and this may well be true; but our acquiescence in the belief has become hereditary." (p.xiv) So when Shepard dismisses theory as "a crock of shit," (qtd. in Shewey, p. 47) or his characters give voice to a yearning for a new kind of "rock-and-roll saviour," it becomes appropriate first to take him at his word and then to look more closely at what his characters want and how they go about getting it. They want something more direct, profound, and authentic than what is currently offered in our culture, and they will create whatever myths necessary in order to find it. If a "rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth" (Fool for Love and Other Plays, p. 157) is needed, Shepard's characters will endeavor to invent, or borrow and re-invent, such a figure through their passionate belief and imagination. If to enact such a role in reality is what the playwright needs, then he will do it, if only to discover that it wasn't real.

Critic Bonnie Marranca says of Shepard: "He substitutes myth for history, experience for theory." (p.13) This constant transformation of what is real (history, family, personal life) into art, or often simply the vaguely unreal, is constant throughout Shepard's career. Through his plays as well as in his various other pursuits, Shepard has shown himself to be a romantic and a master revisionist, mythologizing and reinventing himself and his characters. As Tucker Orbison writes in "Mythic Levels in Shepard's True West": "An indication of his dramatic power is his continuing ability to create mythic meanings on several simultaneous levels." (p.506) And the search for mythic meaning in the plays simultaneously resonates on a personal level for Shepard; the playwright shares with his characters their quest for a mythical origin, an ideal context in which identity is fixed, authentic, and comfortable.

"I feel like I've never had a home," Shepard told an interviewer in 1979, "you know? I feel related to the country, to this country, and yet I don't know exactly where I fit in. And the same thing applies to the theater. I don't know exactly how well I fit into the scheme of things. Maybe that's good, you know, that I'm not in a niche. But there's always this kind of nostalgia for a place, a place where you can reckon with yourself. Now I've found that what's most valuable about that place is not the place itself but the other people; that through other people you can find a recognition of each other. I think that's where the real home is." (qtd. in Shewey, p. 103) In other words, Shepard defines his ideal context not as an actual place in the physical present but as a mode of exploration in relation to others; in a very basic sense, this mode necessarily requires both performance and an audience.

Shepard's characters are not fixed entities; they are experimental masks to be considered and discarded by both actor and observer as a natural matter of course in this process. Likewise, Shepard has taken many and various roles on screen and off, only to discard them and then move on to the next.

In the mouth of one of Shepard's characters, this mode of exploration becomes even more explicit. Shooter, in the play Action, says:
Any move is possible. I've seen it. You go outside. The world's quiet. White. Everything resounding. Not a sound of a motor. Not a light. You see into the house. You see the candles. You watch the people. You can see what it's like inside. The candles draw you. You get a cold feeling being outside. Separated. You have an idea that being inside it's cozier. Friendlier. Warmth. People. Conversation. Everyone using a language. Then you go inside. It's a shock. It's not like how you expected. You lose what you had outside. You forget that there even is an outside. The inside is all you know. You hunt for a way of being with everyone. A way of finding how to behave. You find out what's expected of you. You act yourself out." (p. 21)

Here is the microcosmic enactment of Shepard's quest: first there is dislocation, isolation, and the desire to enact a role; then there is the seduction of a particular, seemingly ideal, place; finally there is dissatisfaction with the inauthenticity of the role demanded by the place.

But Shepard has chosen not only foreign and isolated places (London, a ranch in New Mexico, farms in Virginia and Minnesota) to reckon with himself, but also the very public stage of American celebrity. He exhibits a sincere fascination with celebrity and the self-created images of himself and others, especially that of his first professed candidate for "rock-and-roll Jesus", Bob Dylan. Shepard's career may be read, then, as a dazzling puzzle of various personae created through an equally dazzling and irrepressible need to perform and to act out the most compelling roles in our culture. As Shepard wrote of Dylan, "The point isn't to figure him out but to take him in." (Rolling Thunder Logbook, p. 100)

In attempting to "figure out" Sam Shepard, I will first examine the early play Cowboy Mouth and Shepard's love affair with Patti Smith, which informed much of the conflict of that play; Smith, in turn, serves not only as Shepard's most empathetic audience, but as our most skilled informant. Second, the figure of Bob Dylan as a model for Shepard's efforts to author his own myth seems to be a logical place to look for patterns which Shepard would later employ. Shepard's comment on and work in film, both as a screenwriter and as an actor, also bear some scrutiny. Foremost among these are True West, in which the notion of the authentic is called into question as two brothers attempt to write a Western for the movies, and the confessionalist work Motel Chronicles from 1983, which, like "Three Stories," takes the movie industry as its primary subject. Fool for Love, both as a play and as an adapted film, is also significant. In all of these works, one reads Shepard's paradigmatic struggle to come to terms with his own anxiety of identity.


Next: Cowboy Mouth

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