The Pathfinder - Sam Shepard and the struggles of American manhood
Source: The New Yorker - February 8, 2010

“I just dropped out of nowhere,” Sam Shepard said of his arrival in New York, at nineteen, in the fall of 1963. “It was absolute luck that I happened to be there when the whole Off-Off Broadway movement was starting.” Shepard, a refugee from his father’s farm in California, had spent eight months as an actor travelling the country by bus with a Christian theatre troupe, the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players. Acting had been his ticket to ride; he’d been so scared at his Bishop’s Company audition that he’d recited the stage directions. “I think they hired everybody,” he said. Once he’d taken up residence in Manhattan - “It was wide open,” Shepard said. “You were like a kid in a fun park” - he proceeded to knock around the city, “trying to be an actor, writer, musician, whatever happened.” He had no connections, no money (he sold his blood to buy a cheeseburger), and nothing to fall back on but his lanky, taciturn Western charisma. He did, however, have renegade credentials and a store of arcane knowledge: he had been a 4-H Club member, a sheepshearer, a racecourse hot walker, a herdsman, an orange picker, and a junior-college student.

Shepard was homespun and handsome, with a strong jaw and a dimpled chin. He exuded the mystery and swagger of a movie star, which he would eventually become. (In addition to writing four dozen or so plays - the latest of which, “Ages of the Moon,” opened last week, at the Atlantic Theatre Company - Shepard, who is now sixty-six, has appeared in some forty films; he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the test pilot Chuck Yeager, in “The Right Stuff.”) But even as a new arrival in the city he seemed instinctively to understand the importance of image. “Use yer eyes like a weapon. Not defensive. Offensive,” a character in his play “The Tooth of Crime” (1972) says, adding, “You can paralyze a mark with a good set of eyes.” Shepard had such a pair. His almond-shaped blue eyes looked out at the world with wry detachment; they imposed on his passionate nature a mask of cool. His smile was tight-lipped - half knowing, half strategic (it hid a mouthful of craggy teeth). Years of living with invasive family aggression - “The male influences around me were primarily alcoholics and extremely violent,” he said - had taught Shepard to play things close to his chest: to look and to listen. “I listened like an animal. My listening was afraid,” Wesley, the son in Shepard’s 1978 play “Curse of the Starving Class,” says, describing his method for coping with his drunken father. Shepard was a man of few words, many of them mumbled. Compelling to look at but hard to read -at once intellectually savvy and emotionally guarded - he exuded the solitude and the vagueness of the American West.

Though Shepard lacked East Coast sophistication - he was poorly read in those days - he brought news of what he called “the whacked out corridors of broken-off America”: its blue highways, its wilderness, its wasteland, its animal kingdom, its haunted lost souls, its violence. “People want a street angel. They want a saint with a cowboy mouth,” a prescient character in one of Shepard’s early one-acts said. Shepard, it turned out, was the answer to those prayers. He got a job busing tables at the Village Gate, and began to write in earnest. “I had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression, that there was a voice that wasn’t being voiced,” he said. “There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. I felt kind of like a weird stenographer. . . . There were definitely things there, and I was just putting them down. I was fascinated by how they structured themselves.” Ralph Cook, the Village Gate’s headwaiter, who was a former bit-part actor in Hollywood Westerns and a fellow-Californian, provided him an entry into the downtown scene through a new space he was starting on the Bowery - Theatre Genesis - where Shepard made his playwriting début, in 1964. By the following year, the twenty-two-year-old Samuel Shepard Rogers VII, who was known as Steve to his family and friends, had reinvented himself as Sam Shepard, whom the Times described as “the generally acknowledged ‘genius’ ” of the Off-Off-Broadway circuit.

Shepard’s early plays, written between 1964 and 1971, were full of surprises and assaults on the senses - people spoke from bathtubs or painted one another, colored Ping-Pong balls dropped from the ceiling, a chicken was sacrificed onstage. The plays express what Shepard called the “despair and hope” of the sixties; they act out both the spiritual dislocation and the protean survival instinct of traumatic times. Better than anyone else writing in that fractious hubbub, Shepard defined the fault lines between youth culture and the mainstream. “You were so close to the people who were going to the plays, there was really no difference between you and them,” he said, pinpointing both his work’s value and its limitation. The mockery, the role-playing, the apocalyptic fears, the hunger for new mythologies, and the physical transformations in his work gave shape to the spiritual strangulation of the decade - which, in Shepard’s words, “sucked dogs.” “For me, there was nothing fun about the sixties,” he said. “Terrible suffering. . . . Things coming apart at the seams.”

In their verbal and visual daring, Shepard’s early plays aspired to match the anarchic wallop of rock and roll. He had been playing drums since the age of twelve, when his father, a semi-professional Dixieland drummer, bought him a secondhand set and taught him how to play. (He continued drumming into his adulthood, with such bands as the Holy Modal Rounders and T Bone Burnett’s Void.) In his writing, he gravitated toward rock’s maverick energy; he listed Little Richard among his literary influences, along with Jackson Pollock and Cajun fiddles. (Later, he befriended Keith Richard, lived briefly with Patti Smith - “He was a renegade with nasty habits / he was a screech owl / he was a man playing cowboys,” she wrote of him - chronicled Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and co-wrote, with Dylan, the eleven-minute song “Brownsville Girl.”) In plays as varied as “The Tooth of Crime,” “Forensic & the Navigators” (1967), and “Operation Sidewinder” (1970), music and song are a crucial part of Shepard’s dramatic attack. Of these plays, “The Tooth of Crime,” which involves a style war between an old rock king, Hoss, and his upstart challenger, Crow, is the most visionary work. Here Shepard carried the language of drugs, rock, and political struggle from the street to the stage:

CROW: So ya’ wanna be a rocker. Study the moves. Jerry Lee Lewis. Buy some blue suede shoes. Move yer head like Rod Stewart. Put yer ass in a grind. Talkin’ sock it to it, get the image in line. Get the image in line boy. The fantasy rhyme. It’s all over the streets and you can’t buy the time. You can’t buy the bebop. You can’t buy the slide. Got the fantasy blues and no place to hide.

Rhythm led Shepard to character. “When you write a play, you work out like a musician on a piece of music,” he wrote. “You find all the rhythms and the melody and the harmonies and take them as they come.” His early plays, which he refers to now as “cavorting,” were riffs, written at speed - wild, energized, and slipshod - following the rhythmic strategy of his drumming. “Break it all down in pairs. Make the pairs work together, with each other. Then make ’em work against each other, independent,” he wrote in his 1969 play “The Holy Ghostly.” His pieces were abstract flights of illuminated feeling, like the work of the jazz greats - Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Nina Simone - he heard at the Village Gate, more vectors of energy than maps of psychology. “I preferred a character that was constantly unidentifiable,” Shepard said. As he explained in his note to the actors in “Angel City” (1976), instead of embodying a “whole character” the actor should consider his performance “a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme,” and aim “to make a kind of music or painting in space without having to feel the need to completely answer intellectually for the character’s behavior.” In those years, by his own admission, Shepard was “dead set against revisions because I couldn’t stand rewriting.” For him and for his downtown audience, the plays were exercises in spontaneity and emotional discovery. “They were chants, they were incantations, they were spells,” he said in “Stalking Himself,” a 1998 PBS documentary. “You get on them and you go.”

Shepard’s talent soon attracted a wide range of interest; he found himself collaborating on movies with Robert Frank and Michelangelo Antonioni, and on theatre pieces with Joseph Chaikin’s experimental Open Theatre. Despite his disdain for the uptown theatre scene, his increasingly ambitious plays required larger casts, bigger budgets, better production values, and greater narrative finesse than his downtown habitat encouraged. “As far as I’m concerned, Broadway just does not exist,” Shepard told Playboy in 1970. Nonetheless, the same year, in a move that in Off-Off Broadway circles was the equivalent of Dylan going electric, Shepard transitioned above Fourteenth Street to Lincoln Center, with “Operation Sidewinder,” a picaresque apocalyptic fable about political oppression, told in a cool pop style, which required, among other things, a seven-foot snake, the performance of a Hopi ritual, a ’57 Chevy, and a rock band. “I am whipped, I am chained. I am prisoner to all your oppression. I am depressed, deranged, decapitated, dehumanized, defoliated, demented and damned! I can’t get out,” the play’s hero says, using the snake as a tourniquet to shoot up. (Shepard himself was no stranger to heroin in those years.)

As the literary manager of Lincoln Center at the time, I was responsible for bringing Shepard uptown. The year before, he had married O-Lan Johnson, an actress who had appeared in “Forensic & the Navigators.” When the two of them came to Lincoln Center for the first preview, the bartender tried to shoo us all out of the lobby because we looked too scruffy. As I noted in my diary, communication between cultures soon turned into a collision:

The show goes well for the first act. At the intermission Sam is nervous, obviously disgruntled. “Don’t you think it’s too smooth?” Talking about the audience he says, “I’m not worried about the old people, I’m worried about the young ones.” . . .
At the theatre - Sam looking gloomy before the show, goes to the bar and sneaks a beer in under his shirt. The audience is tough. They laugh at the Hopi dance scene. . . . On the way out, one girl said, “Do you think he’s serious?”

Afterward, I was shown responses from the bewildered Lincoln Center subscription audience: “Terrible, terrible, terrible,” “The artistic director and anyone connected should be fired.” The play was better received by the critics, who dubbed it “possibly significant” (the Times) and “the wildest and most ambitious show yet at Lincoln Center” (NBC). But, not long afterward, to get off the Village streets and off drugs, Shepard moved to London with his wife and their young son, Jesse Mojo. From leafy Hampstead, he raced greyhounds, wrote plays, and took stock of the homeland from which he felt alienated. “I wanted to get out of the insanity,” he told Matthew Roudané, in his interview “Shepard on Shepard.” “Of course I was also running away from myself!”

After returning to the United States, in 1974, however, Shepard made facing himself and his emotional inheritance the central project of his adulthood. The quartet of major plays that he produced between 1978 and 1985 - “Curse of the Starving Class,” the Pulitzer Prizewinning “Buried Child” (1978), “True West” (1980), and “A Lie of the Mind” (1985) - are not traditional psychological dramas. “Plays have to go beyond just ‘working out problems,’ ” he said. They are quasi-naturalistic meditations, in keeping with his plan to move “from colloquial territory” to “poetic country.” But they drew on the deepest recesses of Shepard’s emotional memory.

“Seven Plays,” the collection in which three of the four plays appear, is dedicated “For my father, Sam,” to whom Shepard owed a large part of his identity, his damage, and his subject matter. “Sometimes in someone’s gestures you can notice how a parent is somehow inhabiting that person without there being any awareness of that,” Shepard told Rolling Stone. “Sometimes you can look at your hand and see your father.” Shepard could see Sam Rogers in his own fierce eyes, his infatuation with solitude, his bouts of alcoholism, his ornery single-mindedness, his short fuse, and, especially, his reckless Western machismo. “I’ve been involved in many dangerous foolish things,” Shepard said in “Stalking Himself.” “I’ve been upside down under falling horses at a full gallop. I’ve been fired upon by a 12-gauge Ithaca Over-and-Under. I’ve rolled in a 1949 Plymouth coupe.” Shepard sees himself as a “victim” of his father’s tough-guy persona. “My old man tried to force on me a notion of what it was to be a ‘man,’ ” he said. “And it destroyed my dad.”

As a child, amid the violence of his family, Shepard, who has spoken of “tremendous morning despair,” was something of a sleepwalker. He grew up feeling as if he were living “on Mars”; “I feel like I’ve never had a home,” he said. “Sometimes I just stand outside and watch my family moving around inside the house,” he wrote in his 1982 memoir, “Motel Chronicles.” “I stand there a long time sometimes. They don’t know that I watch them.” Playwriting called those indigestible family experiences out of him. Shepard’s dramatic world is peopled with derelict, disappointed somnambulists: Tilden, the “burned out and displaced” son in “Buried Child,” who returns to his family after a twenty-year exile in Mexico; Weston, the quixotic drunken father in “Curse of the Starving Class”; Lee, the feral thief, who wanders out of the desert in “True West.” Taken together, these unmoored souls form a kind of tribe of the living dead, deracinated men trying to escape a sense of shame that they only vaguely understand. They recede from family, from society, and, through drink, from themselves. All these figures are fragments of Shepard’s father, a Second World War bomber pilot and high-school teacher, who moved the family (Shepard has two younger sisters, Roxanne, an actress, and Sandy, a singer-songwriter, who composed the songs for Robert Altman’s film version of Shepard’s 1983 play “Fool for Love”) from Illinois, where Shepard was born, to an avocado ranch in Duarte, California, and who spent his last years alone in the desert because he didn’t “fit with people.”

“My dad had a lot of bad luck,” Shepard said in Don Shewey’s 1985 biography “Sam Shepard.” “You could see his suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another one.” Sam Rogers’s family history is retold in detail by Pop, the main character in “The Holy Ghostly.” “Me, I never got no real breaks,” Pop begins. “My old man was a dairy farmer. Started hittin’ the bottle and lost the whole farm. Things started goin’ down hill from that point on.” Shepard attributes part of his father’s downfall to postwar trauma. “My dad came from an extremely rural farm community . . . and the next thing he knows he’s flying B-24s over the South Pacific, over Romania, dropping bombs and killing people he couldn’t even see,” he said. “These men returned from this heroic victory . . . and were devastated in some basic way . . . that’s mysterious still. . . . The medicine was booze.” The booze often led to abuse. “Those Midwestern women of the forties suffered an incredible psychological assault,” Shepard recalled. “While growing up, I saw that assault over and over again, and not only in my own family.” In 1984, Rogers was hit by a car, after a drunken quarrel with a girlfriend in a New Mexico bar. “You either die like a dog or you die like a man. And if you die like a dog you just go back to dust,” Shepard, who had his father cremated, said later. After the ceremony, Shepard picked up the leather container holding the ashes. “It was so heavy,” he said. “You wouldn’t think the ashes of a man would be so heavy.”

“Let’s leave the old man out of it,” Austin, the successful screenwriter in “True West,” says to his brother, Lee, of their father, who lives in abject isolation in the desert. But, for Shepard and for his characters, there is no escaping the father. “He put stuff into me that’ll never go away,” a character complains of her father in “A Lie of the Mind.” (A New Group production of this play, directed by Ethan Hawke, will open in February.) Likewise, Wesley, in “Starving Class,” describes his father’s psychic imperialism: “Part of him was growing on me. I could feel him taking over me. I could feel myself retreating.” Shepard’s legion of feral male characters keeps alive aspects of the toxic Sam Rogers. “He was a . . . maniac, but in a quiet way,” Shepard said.

Shepard’s early success made him an object of envy to his floundering father; it also made his father an object of guilt to him. In “The Holy Ghostly,” Pop’s childish demands for allegiance from his son (who has changed his name to Ice) come with a jealous attack on his achievements. “Don’t go givin’ me none a’ yer high falootin’ esoteric gobbledy gook, Buster Brown,” Pop says. “Just ’cause ya’ struck off fer the big city on yer own and made a big splash . . . don’t mean ya’ can humiliate an old man.” From the stage, Shepard broadcast his fierce refusal to regret his decisions. “For eighteen years I was your slave,” Ice says. “I worked for you hand and foot. Shearing the sheep, irrigating the trees, listening to your bullshit about ‘improve your mind, you’ll never get ahead, learn how to lose, hard work and guts and never say die,’ and now I suppose you want me to bring you back to life. You pathetic creep. Hire yourself a professional mourner, Jim. I’m splitting.” In the third act of “The Late Henry Moss” (2000), a dead father comes back from the grave to berate his son, Earl, for not having saved him from a squalid exile and from his self-destructiveness:

HENRY: You coulda stopped me but you didn’t.
EARL: I couldn’t. I—I—I—was scared. I was—just—too—scared.
HENRY: You were scared! A what? A me? You were scared of a dead man?

Shepard’s quartet of family plays is an act of both reunion and resolution. “I’m not doing this in order to vent demons,” he said. “I want to shake hands with them.” The subject called out of him an unprecedented degree of urgency and eloquence. A wife brain-damaged by her husband’s jealous violence (“A Lie of the Mind”); the corpse of a murdered child exhumed (“Buried Child”); a mother’s home trashed by her sons (“True West”); warring parents trying to sell the family home out from under each other (“Starving Class”) - the plays are allegories of mutilated love, bearing superb witness to Shepard’s violent memories. Told in a more textured, complex narrative style than his early work - Shepard’s association with Joseph Chaikin had taught him the virtues of rewriting - the plays resound with bewilderment at the absence of familial normality: “What’s happened to this family?” (“Buried Child”), “What kind of family is this?” (“Starving Class”). The refrigerator in “Starving Class” - it’s either empty or stuffed with inappropriate food by the boozy Weston - becomes a symbol of the fiasco of nurture. “You couldn’t be all that starving!” Weston bellows. “We’re not that bad off, goddamnit!”

The impoverishment is psychological, the crime pathological carelessness. In “True West,” the mother returns home to find her sons strangling each other and her house torn apart. Coolly surveying the mess, she says to one son, “You’re not killing him, are you?” before decamping to a motel. In “Starving Class,” Weston breaks down the kitchen door; his wife, Ella, boils the chicken that her daughter has painstakingly raised for a 4-H demonstration; and the son, Wesley, urinates on his sister’s presentation. Love is unavailable; hatred is the only form of intimacy. The perversity of family combat is brought together in a brilliant final image, as mother and son try to recall Weston’s story of an eagle that carried off a cat in its talons:

ELLA: That cat’s tearing his chest out, and the eagle’s trying to drop him, but the cat won’t let go because he know if he falls he’ll die.
WESLEY: And the eagle’s being torn apart in midair. . . .
ELLA: And they come crashing down to the earth. Both of them come crashing down. Like one whole thing.

Like planets in their own orbits, Shepard’s family members revolve around one another without ever intersecting. In “Starving Class,” Weston remarks on the circle of solitude that his father inhabited. “He lived apart,” he says. “Right in the midst of things and he lived apart.” In “Buried Child,” the atmosphere of disconnection is remarked upon by a young visitor, who has “the feeling that nobody lives here but me. . . . You’re here but it doesn’t seem like you’re supposed to be.” (“What a bunch of bullshit this is!” Sam Rogers said, drunk and disorderly at the Greer Garson Theatre in New Mexico, where he saw the play. “The ushers tried to throw him out,” Shepard told The Paris Review. “He resisted, and in the end they allowed him to stay because he was the father of the playwright.”)

Shepard’s characters are not so much warped as unborn; clueless and rudderless, they can’t find their way. In “Starving Class,” Weston explains to his son that he is unable to navigate his own life: “I couldn’t figure out the jumps. From being born, to growing up, to droppin’ bombs, to having kids, to hittin’ bars, to this. It all turned on me somehow.” Like so many of Shepard’s derailed men, Weston has killed off his empathetic, female side. In the finale of “True West,” the brothers, sensitive writer and reckless thief, square off against each other, the two sides of Shepard’s own divided personality. “You know in yourself that the female part of oneself as a man is, for the most part, battered and beaten up and kicked to shit just like some women in relationships,” Shepard said. In “A Lie of the Mind,” Jake, who has beaten his wife so badly that he thinks he’s killed her, says that it’s “like my whole life is lost from losing her. Gone. That I’ll die like this. Lost.” When he does finally make contact with his brain-damaged wife, he kisses her, then surrenders her to the affections of his gentler other self - his brother, Frankie.

Taken together, these four plays constitute a sort of empire of the damned, whose inhabitants are caught in desperate but impossible retreat from their legacy of self-destruction. “It always comes. Repeats itself. . . . Even when you try to change it,” Ella says, in “Starving Class.” “It goes back and back to tiny little cells and genes. . . . We inherit it and pass it down, and then pass it down again.” “Character is something that can’t be helped,” Shepard said. “It’s like destiny. . . . It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s like the structure of our bones, and the blood that runs through our veins.” His characters are doomed by their unconscious, which they can’t or won’t examine. In fact, they’ll do anything for an unexamined life.

“Theatre is a place to bring stuff from your life experience,” Shepard said in the PBS documentary. “You send this telegram, and then you get out.” Since his career as a screen actor took off, in the eighties, he has written fewer plays, and the results have been uneven. “I’ve never been able to write a play while I’ve been acting in a film,” he told Rolling Stone. “You get enraptured for a long time . . . and it’s difficult to do that in an actor’s trailer.” The message inside the bright comic envelope of Shepard’s new play, “Ages of the Moon,” is one of heartbreak.

In “Fool for Love,” Shepard examined the turmoil of his exit from his fifteen-year marriage to O-lan. In his last play, “Kicking a Dead Horse” (2007), a Beckett-influenced monologue, the narrator, Hobart Struther, standing in the desert beside his dead horse, delivers a litany of his losses: his horse, his youth, his authenticity, and, perhaps imminently, his wife:

She was amazing to me. She was.
Is. Still. But then—
In the past?
Yes. In the past. She was beyond belief. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

In “Ages of the Moon,” that loss has been accomplished. Ernest Tubb’s “Have You Ever Been Lonely” plays as the show begins; after the lines “How can I go on living / Now that we’re apart,” the lights come up on two codgers drinking on the porch of a Kentucky-style brick country house. “Here’s the really sour part of the whole deal,” Ames (the expert Stephen Rea), who cuts a comic figure in suspenders, short khaki work pants, and black-and-white wingtips with no socks, says in the play’s first line. “She discovers this note - this note from this girl, which to this day I cannot for the life of me remember. . . . I swear, some girl I would never in a million years have ever returned to for even a minor blow-job.” Byron (Seán McGinley), his old friend, who has come to console Ames for the breakup of his marriage, replies, “Minor?”

Under the direction of Jimmy Fay, “Ages of the Moon” has the loose banter and percussive rhythms of Shepard’s early plays - it even has an eleven-o’clock “aria” - but the evening has more splash than sizzle; nonetheless, since Shepard is a cunning craftsman, the play’s charm is insinuating. Ames and Byron are intended as clowns of inconsolability, a kind of country-and-Western Vladimir and Estragon. They drink; they argue; they fight; they pass the time from midday to midnight waiting for an eclipse of the moon. Twice during the evening, Byron calls Ames “hopeless”; the word evokes his marriage. “I can’t ever go back now,” Ames says. “I know. I can see it. The writing’s on the wall.”

The play is slight; the weight of its sorrow is not. Shepard leaves his characters gazing poignantly into the gloaming. “Sliver of moonlight fades to black,” the stage direction reads. As Ernest Tubb’s bright voice sings them into shadow—“When you look at me with those stars in your eyes / I could waltz across Texas with you” - the men sit, drinks in hand, staring into space. The falling darkness plays as the declivity of Shepard’s life and love. “I hate endings,” he once said. “Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing, and endings are a disaster.” ?