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The Unseen Hand

August 7th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Have been wrestling with a play of mine, listening to Jonah Knight’s show Theatrically Speaking (http://www.jonahofthesea.com/) and reading, reading, reading.

I just finished Shepard’s The Unseen Hand again and have been trying to synthesize all of the elements. Primarily, however, I’ve been focused on three things: 1) the overall meaning of the play, 2) the transitions from what I’ll refer to as French scene to French scene–that is, what keeps it moving forward, and 3) the theatricality of it.

In terms of overall meaning, my opinion is that the play is a pretty serious indictment of modern American society. What greater symbol can there be than the hulking corpse of a 1951 Chevy convertible decomposing at center stage? That said, I think the reach of it is bigger than that. The ‘unseen hand’ is a metaphor for the way each of us indoctrinated by our cultural surroundings–or our societal constructs: ethics, mores, beliefs, values, and so on.

Willie: Whenever I think beyond a certain circumference of a certain circle there’s a hand that squeezes my brain.
Blue: What Hand?
Willie: It’s burned in. You can’t see it now. All you can see is the scar.

The ‘unseen hand’ is that which prohibits us from thinking beyond what we have been taught to think; limiting our vision of the future; restricting us from all our possibilities to the dull, thud of a life we often find ourselves living. Every day we dream a thousand possible futures for ourselves and yet are restricted by a ten thousand reasons why we can’t do what we dream. It is as Joseph Campbell says, our dragon:

“Dragons represent greed, typically. The European dragon guards things in his cave — heaps of gold and virgins. He can’t make use of either of them. He just guards. There is no vitality of experience of either the gold or the females. Psychologically, the dragon is the binding of oneself to ones own ego. Killing the dragon is breaking away from the ego to open the realm of relationship. The real dragon is in you. The dragon is your ego holding you in.”

But, I don’t think Shepard’s aim is that deep. I think it is more at the societal constructs that keep us limited; so, Shepard creates a pretty elaborate “dark universe” to house this: Nogoland. Literally, No Go Land the land where you don’t go anywhere or do anything. You rot.

Actually read an interesting article by Ron Mottram from Inner Landscapes: The Theater of Sam Shepard in which he states, “In a description that both parallels and parodies the process of evolution, Willie tells Blue how he is descended from a race of ‘fierce baboons that were forced into human form by the magic of the Nogo,’ a word that puns on the Greek and Christian uses of the term Logos, the controlling principle or divine word that is the primal creative force in the universe. Having evolved beyond the capacities of their controllers, they have been put under the domination of the Unseen Hand.” pp70

You don’t live. Or what living you do is for corporations: we are baboons groomed solely to sort diamonds for the Silent Ones. The PBS show I saw on Shepard talks about his experience growing up in a California wasteland very like that at the beginning of the play: “All around is garbage, tin cans, cardboard boxes, Coca-Cola bottles and other junk.” The underbelly of America. The wreckage of a consumer society, a society that thrives on its gilded surface: seen most clearly in The Unseen Hand and Other Plays in the Kid’s monologue. It is also seen in later plays, such as True West, where each character bemoans the stifling, suburbia that dominates the American landscape. The ennui of Nogoland is best demonstrated by Sycamore’s fate: his desire to fit in and do nothing and his becoming what Blue was at the outset of the play: old, tired, content to sit in an abandoned car under an overpass. Who are the other characters that populate Nogoland? The sorcerers, the high commission, prisoners of the diamond cult, the lagoon baboons? Hard to tell, in my opinion. But there is much in the play that hints at strong suspicion of the government: history changed, use of nerve gases, and the strong, Orwellian bureaucratic structure of Nogoland society–which strangely resembles our own. It is worth noting that Blue, Cisco, and Sycamore are just as out of place in the “new” America as Willie is.


Strong sense of character through dialog/language. Strong sense of theatre through action.


The stuff that Blue takes from the backseat of the car. The seemingly endless stream of stuff in the car.
The High Commission
The Brand
The Sorcerers
Secret of the Nogo (No go — i.e. no movement)
Prisoners of the Diamond Cults
Bring back from the grave
Conversation surrounding the 51 Chevy
Blue is 120 (modern medicine)
Radio station on the moon (Moon Channel)


  • Right off we see a world dominated by junk — 51 Chevy beat to hell; garbage cans; tin cans; etc. The oppressive, endless repetition of the diesel truck: the light, the noise.
  • The tape/light loop of the trucks
  • The radio
  • Blue and his appearance
  • Willie and his appearance
  • The kid and his appearance
  • Willie freaking out
  • The temporal rearrangement
  • The youth returning to Blue
  • The appearance and behavior of Sycamore.
  • Lights on the stage as the map is drawn.
  • Kid with his pants down.
  • Uses rock chords to back-up the Kid’s speech
  • Willie’s Trance (Kid’s words in reverse)
  • Gun shots.
  • Day-glo painted ping-pong balls/paper
  • Sycamore: Ancient voice. Guitar with closing speech.


Mistrust of Government; pp6;
The Past: “used to be”¦ settle w/a six gun”¦ now it’s all secret”
“no good old boys these days”¦chips on their shoulders”
Authenticity: “the real people”¦ the people people”
Azusa (A to Z in the USA): Azusa as representative of America.
Cowboy: “car’s like a good horse”
Attitude generally: independence, defiance, iconoclastic American self-sufficiency.
Suspicion: Willie’s motives/person
Unseen Hand: a muscle contracting syndrome hooked up to the will of the Silent Ones.
Science/Technology: awe of, uncertain understanding of it, strange uses we put it toExposition is well-woven

Movements (French Scenes):

Scene 1:
Blue Morphan talks to himself.

Scene 2:
Willie enters.
Movements (Conversational)
Blue thinks Willie is a vagrant who will beg.
Blue thinks Willie is a robber who will steal.
Change: Willie knows Blue
Blue denies
Willie pursues
Blue — “you’re crazy”
Willie — moves into Expo: high commission, etc.
Blue — act of kindness (blanket)
Willie in the driver seat
–Willie talks of driving
–talks of deer hunting
Willie provides the history and exposition (maintain control over its psychosomatic functions)

Scene 3: Cisco enters.
What questions are raised (and directly asked) by this scene? How does Shepard handle this scene?
Cisco is very emotional and open. Blue is defensive.
Obvious joke (Blue throws the whiskey away/holds up rifle)
Cisco comments on personality (remembered), rusty rifle.
Blue (it can still shoot)
**A lot of domain relevant knowledge is interspersed in jargony, flashy ways here (greased enough, let a gun go to rustin’ like that”¦)**
Cisco volunteers to show a scar for proof (as well as exposition about the event)
Blue lowers the gun (he protests that he saw them both die)
Cisco tells that Sycamore should be coming.
**Shepard then draws the action back to Willie on the ground
Cisco and Blue review what is known so far. (expo)
Cisco asks for food.
**Runs close on anachronisms””some language.
Predictable stuff with discussion of what’s a highway patrolman, what’s a car, what’s a”¦ etc.
Humorous set of transactions surround these things”¦
Blue and Cisco talk and the conversation is comic in that Blue tries to explain modern inventions to Cisco but from his own unique perspective and understanding.
**Shepard ties it in though as the speculation about prisoners on the moon comes back to Willie saying he came from outer space.**
Like old times: robbin’, rapin’ and killin’

Scene 4: Druken Kid
First thing I notice here is the use of profanity. It is extreme. Especially when compared to the “outlaw” Morphan brothers””who don’t at all.
Kid addresses a rival school.
Kid threatens Blue and Cisco. (empty threats–a society of ‘big talkers’)
Cisco pulls a gun.
Kid cries and explains.
Kid goes away.

Scene 5: Willie wakes up
Blue talks to Cisco about how things have changed.
Recognize the Kennedy thing, a bit of historical subjectivism on the other stuff.
Willie wakes up.
“brains eaten out” pp20
Theatrics of the “temporal rearrangement”
How they handle the age transformation”¦
Rock around the Clock

Scene 6: Sycamore
Sycamore adds a tension just in his manner: dress, style, etc..
By the time Sycamore arrives the whole notion of raising the dead is common-place, so no more is wasted on that. However, there is a shift in tone to Blue and Cisco being seen as boyish while Sycamore is seen as the control, the brains, the will, and the plan. His line is taking the other two to task on what they have not done, laziness, etc.
Can’t believe there are no trains.
Trains are then used as a part of the plan.
Lots of exposition in the planning.
Kid offers his ideas. (commentary on the difference between bandit gangs and guerrilla armies) Why have the Kid know all this? 1. unexpected; 2. makes you take a comic character a bit more seriously;
Kid gets the gun and does his speech.
Willie undoes everything by reversing the speech. (Black Sabbath–idea of the Catholic Mass in reverse)

By undoing everything Shepard is stating that we all have the power to revoke the Unseen Hand and control our own lives and destinies by simply revoking the power that our “American” middle class, materialistic needs/desires exercise over us. I.e. we all work shitty jobs that we hate because we have to have our iPods, computers, cars, houses, clothes, etc., and that this mass consumerism effectively operates by controlling us as an unseen hand–the “master of the puppets.”

Alaman left, Zane Grey, Desert Gold (songs of the cattle trail)
Willie is free from the Unseen Hand (restrictions)
He departs and tells them that he has a world to change; they can do what they want with theirs. (optimism for him; pessimism for the audience)

Scene 7:
They don’t know what to do.
Blue and Cisco decide they gotta get out. Gotta beat it. Cisco pleads to leave with Blue very much like later with True West.
They leave. Sycamore stays.

Scene 8:
Sycamore alone.
He speaks in an ancient voice.
Seems to become as Blue was at the beginning.
Crawls into back seat of the Chevy.


Willie comes seeking Blue and his brothers
Willie can’t think beyond a certain point
Willie and the Sorcerers/Unseen Hand
Raising the Dead (Cisco and Sycamore)
Tension over whether to help or not; finally they decide to.
Agreement to help/planning.
Incident with the Kid.
Willie talks backwards and undoes the Unseen Hand; He’s free.
Blue and Cisco go off (into the sunset?) somewhere else
Sycamore stays and turns into Blue. (comment on society)


Blue Morphan — Morph (form, change from)
Morphan Brothers

Closing Thoughts

In terms of Shepard’s oeuvre, themes that dominate his later work are here apparent, though handled with a bit more comedy: the illusion of the old West; the residue of that dream in American life and culture; the disillusionment of what America has become as the pioneer, individualistic spirit has given way to rapcious greed; and the absurdity of this culture’s (or any culture’s) operations when looked at ‘objectively.’ The characters of Blue, Cisco, and Sycamore are representative of other characters as well: the two cowboys in Cowboys #2, Dodge in Buried Child, and the sibling relationships present in True West.

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