Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sam Shepard and the Struggles of American Manhood

Sam Shepard is hot again. Fool for Love is one of the great American plays in my opinion (but, then I like all of Shepard's work that I have read).

Now, with a new play, a new collection of fiction, and another play in revival, Shepard is featured in a long New Yorker article and in an article at The Daily Beast.

In many ways, his body of work documents the changes and challenges of men in America. As such, I thought I would share the two recent articles here.

This biography and discussion is from the New Yorker:

The Pathfinder: Sam Shepard and the struggles of American manhood.

John Lahr

February 8, 2010

“I had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression,”  Shepard said of his early plays. Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe.

“I had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression,”
Shepard said of his early plays. Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe.

“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 d├ębut, 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.”

Read more.

This shorter look at Shepard comes from The Daily Beast. While the New Yorker article covers his life and career going back to his arrival in new York, in the early sixties, this article looks at his recent revival with the new book and play.

Sam Shepard Rides Again

by Caryn James

BS Top - James Shepard Jakub Mosur / AP Photo

The iconic actor and writer is in the midst of a cultural moment with a new play opening, another one in revival, and a book of fiction set in the American West just out. Caryn James on why Shepard is as fresh and bold as ever.

Once a cowboy always a cowboy? The cover of Sam Shepard’s new story collection, Day Out of Days, shows a family photo of little Sam at about 6, a fair-haired boy on a horse many times his size waving a cowboy hat. You can still feel the dusty air of the West in his work. But Shepard is 66 now—strange but true. The chiseled, movie-star face that made women swoony watching Days of Heaven back in 1978 looks weathered. And this book and his new play, Ages of the Moon (which opened last week at the Atlantic Theater Company) tell us he’s hyperaware of heading toward geezerville. The stories’ fictional, Sam-like narrator criss-crosses the country’s highways, stopping at motels, and wonders, “How does this happen?” meaning life, aging, change. The two men in Ages of the Moon are friends at the bitter end of middle age, meeting in a country cabin to mourn their lost loves.

Who knows if Shepard’s feeling old these days? But no one can call him worn-out.

Don’t worry, though. As a writer Shepard is not nearly in the land of the has-been. These deceptively modest works, reflective and witty, explode with fresh energy. Their touches of absurdity give way to a depth of emotional loss that will sneak up and wring your heart dry. He’s still a star, still a treasure.

And we are having a Shepard moment. An off-Broadway revival of A Lie of the Mind, one of his big plays about loony violent families, is about to land in a production loaded with indie-hip cred: directed by Ethan Hawke, starring Keith Carradine and Josh Hamilton (previews begin January 29).

Book Cover - James Shepard

Day Out of Days: Stories. By Sam Shepard. 304 Pages. Knopf. $25.95.

Shepard's vintage plays hold up, but this is a moment to appreciate his new works, of a piece with each other: haunting stories a page or so long, a multi-layered, two-character play that runs a swift hour and a quarter, all about guys who have really lived.

His recent plays, The God of Hell and Kicking a Dead Horse, had a vital political edge. Ages of the Moon is a personal, character-driven piece, with the amazing, hang-dog-faced Stephen Rea (has he ever overacted in his life?) as Ames, who has called his white-haired pal Byron (Irish actor Sean McGinley) to visit him. Ames is in distress because his wife has bolted after learning of his one-night stand with a woman Ames hardly remembers.

Sitting on the porch, talking in the rhythms and with the existential shrug of Beckett characters (“What are we gonna do?” one of the them says. “There’s nothing to do,” the other answers) they raise their glasses to drink like a couple of synchronized swimmers. (The production, which originated at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, is directed with perfect timing by Jimmy Fay.) In the flashier role, Rea gets to sing snatches of "King of the Road" and "The Halls of Montezuma"; he takes a rifle and shoots down an annoying ceiling fan, then stares at it warily as if it’s some half-dead creature that might jump up and bite him. There’s even a True West-inflected brotherly wrestling match.

This play is wildly entertaining, yet in the end all the chaos and fun can’t mask the heartbreaking sadness at what both men have lost over time.

“You were head over heels,” Byron says of Ames and his wife.

“I was,” Ames tells him. “I thought it would never end.”

That feeling—knocked out by the impermanence of love—is echoed in the stories in Day Out of Days. A man whose wife thinks he’s been cheating (we suspect he has too) walks with her on the beach “remembering the days when we were seldom out of each other’s sight and had no reason to doubt we would be forever in love.”

The central character, on the road throughout these stories, is not always the same man, but he has a consistent, familiar voice. As in Shepard’s earlier collections, these fictions tease, toying with autobiography. The main character shares plenty with the author. Sometimes he is an actor on a film set, like Shepard, playing one more money-making small part as a gruff military officer. Sometimes he has a son and daughter with his longtime love, as Shepard famously has with Jessica Lange. He has fraught memories of his father. “I thought I had done my level best, done everything I possibly could, not to become my father,” one narrator says, only to get lost in a bottle of tequila and have the old man turn up like an angry ghost demanding Why?

But any autobiographical assumptions are undercut by pure fiction. Obviously he’s not the guy on vacation from the office. Anyway, as a character who tells the Shepard figure a tall tale—about saving Fats Domino and his floating piano during Hurricane Katrina—says when asked if that really happened: “What’s the difference?” If Shepard wanted to write an autobiography he would have; he won’t be pinned down.

While these pieces are rooted in the details of the narrator’s travels, all those cramped rooms where he lies, “listening to Highway 220 moaning right outside the sliding glass door,” they often float gracefully away from realism. The book’s epigraph is from Beckett, who feels like the guiding spirit as the narrator grapples with a sense of loss and disconnection, from other people, even from himself. That dislocation takes a physical shape in a series of stories about a man who finds a talking severed head. A couple of those pieces are told from the head’s point of view. The head speculates that he and the man who picks him up “might have become great pals” if the head hadn’t been “completely cut off as I was.” Well, the Beckett quote warns that there won’t be neat little stories here. And that’s all good. Any old realist can give us lifelike stories. It takes an eternally young genius like Shepard to make us laugh and wonder what it would mean to be a detached head, “yearning for home.”

“We used to be young and vigorous,” one of Shepard’s narrators—a guy with an actual body—says. Who knows if Shepard’s feeling old these days? But no can call him worn-out.

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew. As a film commentator, she has been a guest on Charlie Rose, Today, CBS Sunday Morning and MSNBC.

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