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The Unseen Hand

August 7th, 2007 No comments

Have been wrestling with a play of mine, listening to Jonah Knight’s show Theatrically Speaking ( 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.

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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