Do You Value Independent Arts Journalism & Would You Like To Help Us Produce More? Find Out More

Sam Shepard the playwright; more than the reticent cowboy

“I drove all night with the windows open. … I could see myself in the windshield. My face. My eyes. I studied my face. Studied everything about it as though I was looking at another man. As though I could see his whole race behind him.”

Then the face turns into his father’s face.

“Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath.”

Then the face turns into the faces of ancestors.

“…clear on back to faces I’d never seen before but still recognized.”

These lyrical and ultimately theatrical words are in the monologue of Vince, the young man in Buried Child who returns to his childhood home in rural Illinois to find a family in deep dysfunction. Sam Shepard, like Vince, searched for recognition of who he was and what went into making the man he came to be. It is this aspiration – written large as a metaphor for 20th-century America – that gave his plays their poetic depth.

The road itself, and the cars and trucks that rode on them, is a theme in Shepard’s work as much as it is in the work of an author he admired, Jack Kerouac. Shepard played the drums and loved being on the road in a band. He had changed his name from Samuel Shepard Rogers III to distinguish himself from his drunkard dad. He toured with Dylan in 1975 when he was already recognised as an important new voice in American theatre.

Some of his longer monologues bounce and roll with a rock-like rhythm, as can be seen in the punctuation he gave for Vince’s “drive monologue”. The touring and the searching allowed him to escape his roots and attempt to find new ones somewhere else. Dylan left his background, Jewish in his case, behind too, to reinvent himself; and he was reborn instantly out of the head of Pete Seeger. Jack Kerouac was another identity-seeking roadie, though the French-Canadian offbeat tones of his childhood ring right through much of his prose. Among them only Allen Ginsberg stuck to his roots till the very end, exploiting them for all they were worth.

Sam Shepard was a powerful voice in a unique generation of Americans, all of whom, like Vince in Buried Child, went on a journey to reinvent themselves and the country they longed to understand.

I have lumped these four rather different voices from the second half of the 20th-century together, inspired by the photograph of Shepard, Dylan and Ginsberg at Kerouac’s gravesite in Lowell, Massachusetts. If there is an iconic image linking the early beats with what came after, it is presented by this photo.

Sam Shepard was born in November 1943 in Illinois but grew up in Duarte, California. (I was born in May 1944 in New York but grew up in west L.A.; we entered high school in the same year, 1961.) Duarte (pronounced Doo-artie) is located some 35 kilometres from downtown L.A. at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. But the crucial thing for Shepard about his second, and real, hometown was that it was smack along Route 66. At the time Duarte had a population of not much more than 10,000, mostly white but mixed with Latinos and Japanese Americans. It was a semi-rural dullsville then, very far in spirit from tough downtown L.A., with its gaudy pachukos roaming around in zoot suits, and from the glamour of Hollywood, with a tall blonde – either female or male – leaning against a lamppost on every street corner, waiting to turn into a star. Shepard entered Duarte High School in 1958, the year the school opened.

samxbw52x

He came to fancy himself, at least in public image, as a reticent cowboy; and the names of some of his characters reflect this. In Tooth of Crime, a play about two rival rock stars, we find Hoss, Crow, Becky Lou, Cheyenne and Doc. This is High Noon with guitars at the ready instead of Colt 45s. The cars that he loved are there too. The cantankerous old grandpa in Buried Child is called Dodge, which evokes not only the car but the town known for its rough justice.

I saw the wonderful production of Tooth of Crime at the old Nimrod in Sydney in 1973. Directed by John Bell, it boasted a brilliant cast with, among others, Reg Livermore, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Chris Haywood, Lex Marinos and Anna Volska, actors who made, and continue to make, a major impact on our theatre. The Nimrod followed Tooth of Crime with Ken Horler’s production of Curse of the Starving Class. This play too has its cars and its searching for identity in those who came before, in addition to references to a longing for real flight (Shepard’s father was a bomber pilot in the Air Force).

The characters in Sam Shepard’s plays may look familiar to us, but they have very different subplots from our own.

In December 1978 I made a trip back to my old country. More than two years had passed since I (gladly) gave up my American citizenship and became an Australian; and I travelled on a tourist visa. I went to the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre) on Christopher St. in the West Village and saw Buried Child. It was the first production and had transferred recently from the Theater for the New City.

I was absolutely bowled over by this play. Not long after I went to Melbourne and urged Carrillo Gantner to purchase the rights for the Playbox Theatre, at which he was artistic director. Thankfully he did so, for the play was soon to win a Pulitzer Prize, making the rights considerably more expensive. I went on to direct the Australian premiere of Buried Child at the Playbox; and, a couple of years later, directed it again with a different cast, back-to-back with Curse of the Starving Class, at Jim Sharman’s 1982 Adelaide Festival. (Lindy Davies, who played in my first production as Vince’s grandma, went on to direct the play in 1984, again for the Playbox, at St. Martin’s Youth Arts Centre in South Yarra.)

We Australians love our cars and our roads and we share with Americans the urge to get away from it all. But for Shepard – and this resonates down a long line of literature and poetry and theatre in America – the urge is to find oneself and connect. After all, the roots that affect all but native Americans go back four centuries and reach back into every little corner of the world. We, on the other hand, were finding ourselves lost in a land of bizarre contrasts – light, look and sound – and went walkabout to get away from ourselves, not to find ourselves. The characters in Sam Shepard’s plays may look familiar to us, but they have very different subplots from our own; and it is the subplots of his plays where the action plays out.

As for our theatre scene at the time, we were searching for our own voice on stage and were having trouble sailing the narrow course between the Scylla of Buzo’s Best and the Charybdis of Williamson’s Worst. The radiant exceptions were plays done at the Nimrod in Sydney on the one hand, and La Mama, the Pram Factory Theatre and the Playbox on the other.

Americans and Australians yearned – and still yearn – to answer the question: What am I doing here?

The person most into the work of Sam Shepard was my dear and wonderful friend Lindzee Smith. I met him just about the time my first play went on at La Mama in December 1973, and we had hardly shaken hands before we were talking about Brecht, Handke and Shepard. Shortly after we both fell for the plays and films of Fassbinder. Lindzee was the first director to show interest in my play Yamashita, which, alas, he never worked on. He even wrote me from New York that he wanted to mount a production there … but it didn’t materialise.

I saw my first APG play in December 1972: the remarkable Night in Rio and Other Bummers, co-authored by John Romeril and Tim Robertson. The APG was focused primarily on plays by our brilliant playwrights Romeril and Jack Hibberd, as well as group-devised pieces. Lindzee did Pinter, Arrabal, Brecht, Strindberg and Handke there. In September 1977 he directed Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth with its two rock stars that foreshadows Tooth of Crime. Two years previous to that he had directed Shepard’s Killer’s Head, a monologue of a Californian who goes on and on about horses and trucks before his electrocution in the electric chair.

Lindzee got tired of Australian theatrical nationalism and left for New York and later returned to Melbourne where he died in 2007 at the age of 76. Toward the end he was working on a prospective production of a play by Jack Kerouac.

Sam Shepard died on 27 July, a few days before Jeanne Moreau. I was in Japan then; and the Japanese press gave overwhelming coverage to the French star. I had directed the Japanese premiere of Buried Child back in 1986 and it was received well. But his plays never caught on in Japan. The Japanese version of machismo is essentially metrosexual and has been for centuries.

Shepard’s characters’ attempts at self-definition look to them like posturing. But the white male Australian in our drama is the type that identifies bigtime. The white Australian male (and this is who dominated our theatre way back when) thinks of himself as a rugged and reticent macho man, and this is the image he tends to display before and to other men. It’s hard to say when we will truly see the last of our knucklemen. Our press barely mentioned Jeanne Moreau but gave much display to Shepard, exactly the opposite treatment of the two in Japan. This says as much about Australia and Japan as it does about the kinds of hero worship evident in the two cultures.

chelseax1971Ax

Sam Shepard was a powerful voice in a unique generation of Americans, all of whom, like Vince in Buried Child, went on a journey to reinvent themselves and, in the process, the country they longed to understand. We in Australia – at least at the time of Shepard’s great burst of creativity, the 1970s – were also on a journey, if one of a much more limited scope and depth. Americans and Australians yearned – and still yearn – to answer the question: What am I doing here?

Shepard decided to test his identity against his people’s past.

But for us Australians, there wasn’t much of a past that we were prepared to draw on. You can’t reinvent yourself if you don’t know what your identity is in the first place.

Roger Pulvers is an Australian playwright, novelist, theatre and film director. He released his feature film, Star Sand, this year in Japan.

All images courtesy sam-shepard.com

2 responses to “Sam Shepard the playwright; more than the reticent cowboy

  1. Thanks Roger, a very inciteful view of Aussie and US drama.
    I wasn’t aware of your writing and film making so now I will seek out your work. ciao John Childs

Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Newsletter Signup