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Sam Shepard

August 1st, 2017 No comments

When I started out in playwrighting my exemplars where the traditional male canon of American theater: Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams; and I was escaping my personal background in undergraduate English, with its heavy accent on Shakespeare, Aphra Behn, John Gay, Molière, Ibsen, etc. It wasn’t until I started reading contemporary playwrights, including David Mamet and Sam Shepard that I realized that theater could be much, much more than the little that I had seen and read.

My first exposure was to Mamet, and his brand of hypermasculine posturing. Here I realized that the speech of characters in my plays could be street speech, every day speech, and it could be arranged rhythmically in iambs and punctuated with fuck yous.

Sam Shepard showed that plays could be stream of consciousness, have radical set designs, outlandish plots, and explore the ravaged landscape of the fevered mind. Plays like the Unseen Hand, Chicago, Cowboy #2, Rock Garden, Red Cross blew my mind when it came to the spontaneous shifts in character and action, the stark symbolism of the text, repetitive language cycles. And then I got to his bigger plays: Fool for Love, True West, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, La Turista, etc. And here I saw displayed the full power of a playwright who had developed his own mythos and vision of the world. He took traditional plots and situations and suffused them with surreal events and behaviors that showed the raw unconscious pulsing just below the surface of the everyday. I knew I wanted to write like him.

Then there was the realization that I had seen him in films. Not even connecting the dots. When I was a kid I had watched his films on HBO: The Right Stuff, Raggedy Man… and then later, Thunderheart, Black Hawk Down, Bloodline. And having kids, heard a thousand times narrate the film Charlotte’s Web.

It was a hope of mine to meet him, but I’ll have to stick with his works, I guess. Sam Shepard was a unique talent, whose abilities were transcendent.

Chicago — Sam Shepard

April 25th, 2007 No comments

The play Chicago, while not assigned to the class is one that I thought I would talk about and review, as I am still on a serious Sam Shepard kick and this play has influenced my consideration of the play I’m writing right now.

There are many aspects of this play that draw my attention, but to go from the most influential to the least is probably the best process. By far the most interesting came from an essay I read on Shepard and the play in which Shepard himself, in an interview, says:

Instead of the idea of a whole ‘character’ with logical motives behind his behavior which the actor submerges himself into, he should consider instead a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme. In other words, more in terms of collage construction or jazz improvisation.

Up to this point, I have written plays in which I have gone to great pains to exhume the entirety of each character from the buried depths of my mind in order to examine his or her actions, choices, reactions, and behavior. This approach to plays creates a certain sort of play. At the very least, one that lacks spontaneity or a sense that anything is possible. Or, perhaps, my techniques for creating characters have never gone far enough, and this notion of exploring a fractured whole is something I should examine far more often. That is, focus small and go deep; rather than focusing wide and going shallow.

The play Chicago opens strangely, with a policeman coming from behind a closed curtain, beating the curtain, and then walking up the center aisle and beating a chair at the back of the house 3 times. This is followed by the Gettysburg Address being read until the curtains and lights come up revealing the character Stu sitting in a bathtub up center on an otherwise empty stage. I have yet to find any adequate explanation for this, and can only suggest that it came from some exercise similar to those we have done in class. The cop I guess I could make an argument about: he moves off the stage, so he blends the world of the audience and the stage in a sort of metatheatrical way. He beats the chair at the back to focus the audience to the whole theatre as opposed to the stage area. He represents a force of authority in society so that may intimidate some people or make them more self-aware. The use of the Gettysburg Address is altogether different. I have tried having it read as I imagined the play moving. I have tried reading it myself while thinking the play moving; all to sort of time it out and see if any words or phrases align with any particular event on or off stage. I have looked at themes in the address to see if they are relevant. All for naught. The most that I can come up with is that it is a major speech in US history and everyone is familiar with it. So, perhaps it has something to do with re-enforcing shared experience or sort of countering the policeman and alienating people while at the same time providing them with shared experience. Who knows? The play itself seems to deal with two issues: 1) avoidance of uncomfortable discussions or topics; 2) overweening introspection or self-involvement and breaking out of it–I think; depending on how you read the ending. Regardless, both of these experiences should be common to an audience and very like the beginning material: the policeman and the address, should parallel both the alienation and the shared experience felt by the main character Stu.

At the open, Stu is babbling in a bathtub:

And ya’ look all around through the town fer yer dog. Your dog Brown. He’s yellow but ya’ call him Brown anyhow.’

That is to say, he’s playing a sort of word game with himself. You find out soon that his soon-to-be ex-lover (Joy is about to leave Stu for a job in another city) is in the ‘apartment’ as she calls to him from off stage to come and eat biscuits. So, though he’s present with someone else, he’s babbling to himself. Through an essay by Lynda Hart, and the study of the play, it is clear that Sheppard is showing a character (Stu) who is so internally focused and self-involved that his ability or inclination to communicate is seriously impaired. Soon after this opening, Joy throws a towel to Stu, who is in the tub in his jeans and sneakers, and Stu throws the towel over his head and begins acting like an old woman. Based on what Hart says, it is clear that Stu will only talk directly to Joy about how he’s feeling through this old woman character. Further, even when he does speak to her, what he says is couched in obscure references that are overtly hostile and perhaps misogynistic in nature. That is, as Hart points out, Stu is giving voice to his repressed emotions toward Joy through the character of the old woman. Joy soon enters the tub, causing Stu to shout You can’t get in here!’ further doing justice to Hart’s theory that the tub is the limited pervue of Stu’s consciousness.

The whole play is filled with a sort of game playing that reflects and expands on other similar styles in early Shepard plays: Cowboys #2 for instance, where the two cowboys each take turns walking down stage and entering a new persona–until those personas bleed over into their ‘real’ characters. In fact, I find myself very drawn to Shepard due to what I am more and more convinced as being his allowance of the subconscious to enter plays through imagistic characters: characters in unexpected clothing, with unexpected props, with unique styles of expression and action–the young man dressed as a cheerleader in The Unseen Hand for instance, who delivers a high-strung monologue defending the hometown he loves–and unbelievable tics of personality.

As the game playing continues, we see the contents of the games and the verbal desultory bleed out into the action of the other characters on the stage–very like Cowboys #2 mentioned briefly above. Here, though, as Hart points out, the bleeding of images represents the fantasy world of Stu invading or encompassing the real world that Joy occupies. That is, we are seeing that Stu is less capable of dealing with the reality as it is, and more interested in filling it with his own wishes and desires.

I used Chicago as a guide for me in the following way. I went through the play and carefully marked transitions: either French scenes or changes in subject of Stu’s rants, or any time a game stopped or a new game began. Based on this, I traced images and themes that appeared early and followed the strands as they drove through to the conclusion, noting any changes in use or morphing of meaning. By doing this, I hoped to gain some insight into 1) what Shepard was saying; 2) how Shepard constructed the play, that is, united Stu’s seemingly unrelated rants by common or shared themes or images. This process, and Hart’s article, were invaluable in making this experience worthwhile. As Hart notes, there is no readily accessible conflict in this play. That is, there is no traditional ‘squaring off’ between people. So, to understand the tension (that is felt) and to understand what that tension is about and what it means, you have to clue in on Stu and how his interior comes out throughout the piece. The only clue you are given as to the tension in the play is a phone call that Joy receives where she says: ‘Yes. I got the job. Yes, it’s final,’ and that she’s leaving, ‘The sooner the better;’ as well as fragments of offstage conversation. All else is implied by the action: for instance, the four friends who come over throughout the play to see Joy off all bringing suitcases. All else in the play is delivered by Stu.

Themes/Images in the play (somewhat in order of appearance, but not entirely)

Bathtub Consciousness of Stu; the limits of his early onstage world
Water A very obvious reference to the unconscious, all living things in it being the dynamism of the unconscious: dreams, desires, wishes, fears, etc.
Boat, sailors, sea songs, nets, People who live by water (the unconscious)
Fishing, fisherman, fish, fishing poles People who live by water (the unconscious); menace, to the barracuda, people will come for you (eaters become the eaten); fishing poles connect the conscious to the unconscious: what is above to what is underneath; Joy’s friends begin entering carrying fishing poles.
Sun, light, warmth, morning Freedom, comfort, awareness, realization
Deception Biscuits aren’t food; biscuits are cold, later hot, melting
Hunger, eating, biscuits, fish, barracuda, Desire, possession, completeness, filling, beasts of the water, deception (biscuits aren’t food)
Calmness, stillness The surface of the water; tension
Hung up, stuck, swelling, Fish are hungry, but won’t take the bait;
Fisherman are hungry, but flippant and waiting; triple meaning of hung-up: 1) held, in a relationship (not going anywhere); 2) fishing line, as in the above; 3) telephone line (communication–i.e. not talking)
Trips, train, By far the most overpowering part of this segment is the man sleeping and farting; such description is given that it is comic and pungently disgusting all at the same time. Clearly the notion is how one person can pollute an entire atmosphere–no doubt that Stu knows this.
Sleep Dreams (very like the whole play and its images);
Silver cup, teeth
Disgusting images (excretions, vomiting, sperm, pubic hair, greasy bodies, degenerate behavior–nose picking, farting, etc.) Stu on the train, and progressively for the rest of the play, begins to speak in images that are disgusting, revolting, and are usually countered by off stage conversations between Joy and her friend surrounding the biscuits and how good and tasty they are. Contrast between the views of the characters.
Old woman, witch, young girl, virgin, dainty, Old women have long been considered man like, so it is natural that Stu takes this part. Threatening, hag-ish, Menacing. Portent of a dreadful future. Many themes suggest, a fairy tale.
Sex, sexuality, screwing, morality, horny The sailors come off the boats in Stu’s vision and screw all the young virgins in sight–until there are bald-headed sailors and grey haired virgins.’ Meanwhile, the boats rot, nothing happens. Possible commentary on the nature of relationships, the dominance of the physicality over the deeper work?
Night, darkness, stars, fires, On the train, man is drunk in bathroom and wife is screwing a sailor; other man is sleeping and farting, unaware. The darkness, things that happen in the night, unseen, in the dark, without scrutiny. The dark side of human nature revealed. Oddly, the contrast: stars and fires guide ships at sea.
Violence, imagined and play-acted, Stu as the old woman tries to force Joy out of the boat (tub) to the barracudas. A repressed sense of violence toward Joy is expressed by Stu.
Red dress, red wagon Joy is leaving. Harlot’s colors. Off to a new life.
Suitcases 2 meanings? 1) Leaving, new life; 2) baggage, or the things we each carry.
Dry sand, aridity, wind, breeze Toward the end a sense of desolation enters, a sense of drought and loss, staleness.
Milk (as rotting, stinking, burning) The surface of the ocean with light on it looks like Milk. Milk is usually associated with health and birth and food/nutrients; here it is foul, unhealthy. A notion of the inversion of Stu’s perception of the world, his bitterness?
Moving, running, breathing Finally, toward the end, Stu gets out of the tub. Is he outside his formerly closed off self? I’d like to think so. He breathes freely.
Air, fine air, good air He runs, he breathes, he directs the four friends of Joy (who are fishing from the stage) to breathe. No doubt the audience breathes as well. Freedom? New beginning?
Policeman Knocks at the end, like the beginning. Again, the meaning is unclear? A reminder? A drawing attention to awareness of your self?

The play shuffles through a sort of stream of consciousness tangential to the concerns that Stu has: first denial (babbling); then the transformation of Stu into the old woman and the accompanying warning to Joy that she will be eaten; then Stu talks with the fish and tells them to go away that they will be eaten and finally that they are hung up, as are the fisherman trying to catch them; Stu next imagines Joy’s trip on the train, which devolves from adventurous to fairly disgusting, ending with one of Joy’s friends saying ‘good morning’ to Stu, who acts as if he has spent a night on the train; morning finds sun on the water and the prospect of happiness, but again Stu becomes the old woman, this time chastising Joy and her friends in a fantasy that quickly devolves into boatloads of sailors coming ashore and screwing everything they can find until a new society is created–a society that ends in violence and a return to the sea (the unconscious); eventually Joy comes on in a red dress pulling a wagon filled with suitcases–she is leaving or has left and becomes a figment in Stu’s imagination as Joy’s friends wave and celebrate and then begin fishing off the stage; Stu’s last terrible imagining sees the water drifting out and leaving him swollen and stuck in the night, stinking and burning milk-like water and a loss of orientation; finally, Stu is out of the tub and running and breathing ‘fine/good air,’ hopefully a new independence, but it is not entirely certain.

I like the freedom of the piece and the other pieces by Shepard that I have read, and the willingness that Shepard has to explore areas of his own mind and the characters that represent them: his willingness to allow images and themes to float up and move the play in any direction that may be dictated by the unconscious, not so much by the conscious mind. The play ends in uncertainty, though with less constriction than the way it started (i.e. in a tub), and I believe positively; though it is open for consideration–that is, it is not a definite ending, which to my mind equates with contrived. That is, Shepard made no attempt to wrap it up neatly for the audience.

The physical nature of the play is important, too. That is, the props or actions that are distinct: the policeman at the beginning; the Gettysburg Address over the PA; the bathtub; the biscuits; using the towel as hair to create an old woman; the telephone and offstage conversations; the use of fishing poles to signal the bleeding of the interior of Stu into his exterior reality; the suitcases; the friends who show up: women dressed in fur coats with black sunglasses; the men in suits with black sunglasses–that is, the representative nature of their foreignness to Stu, even their menacing nature; the wagon and red dress; the fishing off the stage; the breathing exercise. All of theses elements combine to create a very real, grounded experience and are integral to the spoken elements: giving reality to the subjective interior of Stu.

This exercise or approach has sent me back to my play to excavate and examine my own images and themes, their use and (hopefully) evolution. I anticipate that this will help me tie segments generated at different times and in different moods together in a more comprehensive way. To examine where I’ve been and where I’m going and hopefully pull a solid play out of what has been a very useful, helpful, and deeply meaningful process for me this semester.


Hart, Lynda. ‘The Play’s the Thing’: Metaphorical Stages.’ Sam Shepard’s Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages: (Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies), Number 22. Westport: Greenwood, 1987.32-36.

Shepard, Sam. The Unseen Hand and Other Plays. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

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