Rhythms and Truths: An Interview with Sam Shepard
Source: American Theatre magazine - April 1984


As you are writing a play, do you have a certain idea of what the playís ending will be?

No. I think for me, every play has its own force, its own momentum, its own rhythm and tempo. Thatís the fascination of it. Itís like people who hear music in their heads, or in the air, or wherever. They attract it in a certain way and it begins to speak to them. It has its own peculiar set of rules and circumstances, and complicated structures that you canít necessarily dictate. I think a play is like that. What youíre trying to do, in a way, is have a meeting. Youíre trying to have a meeting with this thing thatís already taking place. So, I canít really say that I have a beginning, middle and end every time I sit down to write a play. Every moment of the play is a beginning, a middle and an end.

So itís a very ephemeral process?

Yeah, it is. A playís like musicóephemeral, elusive, appearing and disappearing all the time. You never reach a final point with it.

Do you see productions of your own work?

No. For the most part, it doesnít interest me, no. The initial production is very exciting because youíre involved, youíre engaged in it. After that point, though, Iíd just as soon let it go and go on to the next play, because the next oneís going to be even that much more exciting than the one before it. Once that first production happens, then I donít care what happens to it really. Iím not concerned in tracking it down, in following it around like an ex-lover or something.

Critics of your plays, such as Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, and True West have often referred to them as chronicling the break-up of the American family. To what extent is that a legitimate reading of those plays?

Iím not interested in the American social scene at all. It totally bores me. Iím not interested in the social predicament. Itís stupid. And the thing you bring up about the break-up of the family isnít particularly American; itís all over the world. Because I was born in America, it comes out as the American family. But Iím not interested in writing a treatise on the American family. Thatís ridiculous. I mean, thatís not fair or unfair to read that into my plays. It just seems an incomplete, a partial way of looking at the play. People get off on tripping out on these social implications of the play and how that matches up to contemporary America. And thatís okay. But thatís not why Iím writing plays.

So, why are you writing plays?

I have to. I have a mission. (Laughs.) No, I donít know why I do it. Why not?

You collaborated on the writing of two of your collected plays, Tongues and Savage/Love.

Yeah, the ones with Joe [Joseph Chaikin]. Well, that was a very unique circumstance, working with someone that Iíd known as a friend for a long time and never really had a chance to work intimately with, one on one. I was hanging around the Open Theater and I knew Joe. We had a lot of things in common. So we just sat down and collaborated on this thing, just cooked it up. The thing that was unique about them, I think, is that they were designed for one performer, for him in particular. That was the impulse behind the whole thing. Itís very different from writing by yourself.

Do you consider your work to revolve around myths?

Well, so many people have different ideasóof what the word means.

What does it mean to you?

It means a lot of things to me. One thing it means is a lie. Another thing it means is an ancient formula that is expressed as a means of handing down a very specific knowledge. Thatís a true mythóan ancient myth like Osiris, an old Egyptian myth that comes down from antiquity. The thing thatís powerful about a myth is that itís the communication of emotions, at the same time ancient and for all time. If, for instance, you look at Romeo and Juliet as a myth, the feelings that you are confronted with in a play like that are true for all time. Theyíll always be true.

What relationship does that have to your plays?

Well, hopefully in writing a play, you can snare emotions that arenít just personal emotions, not just catharsis, not just psychological emotions that youíre getting off your chest, but emotions and feelings that are connected with everybody. Hopefully. Itís not true all the time; sometimes itís nothing but self-indulgence. But if you work hard enough toward being true to what you intuitively feel is going down in the play, you might be able to catch that kind of thing. So that you suddenly hook up with feelings that are on a very broad scale. But you start with something personal and see how it follows out and opens to something thatís much bigger. Thatís what Iím interested in.

Should one then be able to project his own experience onto what has occurred on stage?

Yeah, you can do that if you want to. But it doesnít have any real value. The only time it has value is when you hook up with something that you donít know. Something that you canít pin down. Something where you say, ďI feel something here thatís going on thatís deeply mysterious. I know that itís true, but I canít put my finger on it.Ē Iím not interested if it reminds you of your mother, or your sister, or your cousin, or anything like that. So what? Everybody has something like that. Thatís what I mean about this social thing, that similarities between social neuroses in American society really donít mean much in the long run because theyíre always going to change. But if emotions that come up during a play call up questions, or seem to remind you of something that you canít quite put your finger on, then it starts to get interesting. Then it starts to move in a direction we all know, regardless of where we come from or who we are. It starts to hook up in a certain way. Those, to me, are mythic emotions.

What ties do you feel to the American West?

Well, itís all subjective. I just feel like the West is much more ancient than the East. Much more. It is. I donít know if youíve traveled out here at all but there are areas like Wyoming, Texas, Montana, and places like that, where you really feel this ancient thing about the land. Ancient. That itís primordial. Of course, you can say that about New England. But it doesnít have the same power to me, because itís this thing about space. No wonder these mysterious cults in Indian religions sprang up, you know? It wasnít as though these people were justÖjust fell down from the sky. It has to do with the relationship between the land and the peopleóbetween the human being and the ground. I think thatís typically Western and much more attractive than this tight little forest civilization that happened back East. Itís much more physical and emotional to me. New England and the East Coast have always been an intellectual community. Also, I was raised out here, so I guess itís just an outcome of my background. I just feel like Iíll never get over the fact of being from here.

Thereís a very disorienting element in some of your plays. In certain places the dialogue is very realistic but the situation seems very surrealistic, and this dichotomy is never resolved.

I think itís a cheap trick to resolve things. Itís totally a complete lie to make resolutions. Iíve always felt that, particularly in theatre when everythingís tied up at the end with a neat little ribbon and youíre delivered this package. You walk out of the theatre feeling that everythingís resolved and you know what the playís about. So what? Itís almost as though, why go through all that if youíre just going to tie it all up at the end? It seems like a lie to meóthe resolutions, the denouement and all the rest of it. And itís been handed down as if that is the way to write plays.

Whatís the alternative?

Well, there are many, many alternatives. But I think itís all dependent again on the elements that you start with and what your interest is in those elements. If youíre only interested in taking a couple of characters, however many, and having them clash for a while, and then resolve their problems, then why not go to group therapy, or something?

What do you do?

I think of it more like music. If you play an instrument and you meet somebody else who plays an instrument, and the two of you sit down and start to play music, itís really interesting to see where that music goes between two musicians. It might not go anywhere you thought it would go; it might go in directions that you never even thought of before. You see what I mean? So you take two characters and you set them in motion. Itís very interesting to follow this thing that theyíre on. Itís a great adventureóitís like getting on a wild horse.

But arenít you, the playwright, controlling everything? Youíre creating it, arenít you?

Iím not creating that.

It doesnít happen by itself, does it?

No, but in a way, itís already in the air. I really believe thatís true. These things are in the air, all around us. And all Iím trying to do is latch onto them. I donít feel like itís a big creative act, like Iím inventing all of this. I mean, Iím not putting myself in the same category as Mozart at all, donít get me wrong, but the story with him was that he heard this music. It was going on, and he was just open to it somehow, latched onto it, and wrote it down. True West is like that. True West is following these two guys, blow by blow, just following them, trying to stick with them and stick with the actual moment by moment thing of it. I mean, I wrote that thingÖit took me a long time to write that play.

Why?

Because I went down a lot of blind alleys. I tried to make them go in one direction, and they didnít want to go that way.

How did you know when it was right, then?

I just know. Just like you know itís right when youíre with somebody. You donít know it through the headóyou have a feeling.

How did you know when to end it?

Well, Iíve always had a problem with endings. I never know when to end a play. Iíd just as soon not end anything. But you have to stop at some point, just to let people out of the theatre. I donít like endings and I have a hard time with them. So True West doesnít really have an ending; it has a confrontation. A resolution isnít an ending; itís a strangulation.

Is the point then to leave the audience hanging?

No, no. Iím not intentionally trying to leave people up in the air. But I also donít want to give people the impression that itís over. (Laughs.)

Do you write for an audience?

Well, you know, thatís an interesting question because, here again, the question comes up, what is the audience? Who is the audience? In a way, you must write for yourself as a certain kind of audience. In the midst of writing, it always feels as though Iím writing for the thing itself. Iím writing to have the thing itself be true. And then I feel like an audience would be able to relate to it. The theatreís about a relationship.

Between the actors and the audience?

If thereís no relationship onstage, thereís not going to be any in the theatre. But that has to be answered first in the writing. If you and I sit down on stage as two actors, and we donít have a relationship, whatís the point? A relationshipís both invisible and tangible at the same time, and you can see it between actors. You can also see the absence of it. If itís there, the audience is related immediately.

How are you affected by criticism, both favorable and unfavorable, of your work?

Well, Iím not immune to it. But youíve got to follow this thing that keeps telling you blow by blow what to do, no matter what. Itís very apparent [to you] what the next thing is. But critics canít tell you that. How could a critic know what your inner condition is as a writer? Iím not saying [criticism] doesnít have a pull on me. It has a definite pull on me. But whether you believe it or not is what counts. Iíve been in a few rodeos, and the first team roping that I won gave me more of a feeling of accomplishment and pride of achievement than I ever got winning the Pulitzer Prize. At the same time, Iím glad that the plays are successful and that they do something to people. But Iím not trying to win another Pulitzer Prize or anything.

Do you feel as if the media have certain expectations of you?

Sure. Itís hard to know what theyíre expecting. If theyíre expecting me to be myself, I can guarantee that will happen all the way down the line. If theyíre expecting me to be Eugene OíNeill, they may be disappointed. (Laughs.)

What writers have influenced you? What playwrights?

I donít know. Whatís the point?

Do you go to see plays?

I donít go to the theatre at all. I hate the theatre. I really do, I canít stand it. I think itís totally disappointing for the most part. Itís just always embarrassing, I find. But every once in a while, something real is taking place.

So, as for contemporary influences on your workó

Have you ever been to a rodeo?

No.

Well, thereís more drama that goes down in a rodeo than one hundred plays you can go to see. Itís a real confrontation, a real thing going on. With a real audience, an actively involved audience. You should go to a couple of rodeos after you go to the theatre.

Do you consider your plays ďexperimentalĒ?

I guess they are. I mean, itís all experimental. Experiment, by its very nature, has to do with risk. If thereís no risk, thereís no experiment. And every playís a risk. You take a huge risk with something like that.

In its appeal? Its success?

No, a big risk in going into unknown territory. You donít know where youíre going.

Are the risks in creating unusual situations, or a totally new way of presenting something? What risks do you mean?

Well, I donít know if you feel this or not, but I feel like there are territories within us that are totally unknown. Huge, mysterious and dangerous territories. We think we know ourselves, when we really know only this little bitty part. We have this social person that we present to each other. We have all these galaxies inside of us. And if we donít enter those in art of one kind or another, whether itís playwriting, or painting, or music, or whatever, then I donít understand the point in doing anything.

How does that relate to your own work?

Itís the reason I write. I try to go into parts of myself that are unknown. And I think that those parts are related to everybody. Theyíre not unique to me. Theyíre not my personal domain.

Is there then something cathartic about the whole process of writing?

No. Catharsis is getting rid of something. Iím not looking to get rid of it; Iím looking to find it. Iím not doing this in order to vent demons. I want to shake hands with them.

How long have you been writing plays?

Seventeen, eighteen years.

How have your plays changed?

Well, actually, theyíre the same. Theyíre just closer to a verification of what these emotions are. In a way, that old clichť about somebody doing the same thing over and over and over again his whole life is true. Iím doing the same thing over each time. Iím trying to get closer to the source.

Are you more adept at doing that now than you were 18 years ago?

Iím moreÖnot adept, Iím more determined to do it. Iím less afraid. Because thereís something absolutely terrifying about going into yourself. ÖItís something that I donít understand. If I understood it, I probably wouldnít write. Thatís why itís very difficult to talk about, and why a lot of this sounds like itís evasive.

Do you feel that you have discovered certain things, dealt with them in your plays, and then moved on to something else?

Well, I havenít left anything behind ÖThatís not true. Iíve gotten rid of a lot of useless stuff. A lot of tricks.

Dramatic tricks?

Yeah. Like allowing things to unravel in a direction that you know theyíre not going to go by themselves. Like this play [Fool for Love], for instance. I wrote about 16 versions of it, and every time I came back to the first five pages. Iíd write like 70, 80 pages and then bring it all the way back to the first five pages and start againóthrow out 60, 70 pages. So, Iíve got literally at least a dozen different versions of the play, but the first five pages are the same in every one.

Is that because what you felt initially about it was the truest?

Yes. The very first meeting there was something there. I knew there was something there, and I just had to keep trying. They werenít just drafts. Every time I think this is the play. Iím not writing a draftóI wrote twelve plays.

As an actor, how do you approach a role?

I donít really consider myself an actor. In film you can get away with a whole lot that you canít onstage. I think almost anyone can get away with being in a film.

Is that just the nature of the medium?

Yeah. Because if youíre in a tight close-up, you donít have to do much: You donít have to do anything; you just say the lines. You donít have to act. So, I mean, with film acting, for me, itís just a matter of corresponding certain parts of myself to the character, finding corresponding parts and just becoming those parts all the time. Iím not a Method actor or anything. I donít have any complicated scheme behind it.

Could you act in your own plays?

I could, but I donít want to.

Why?

Well, because part of the reason for writing them is to see them. You canít see them if youíre in them at the same time. I like having that distance.

Music plays a more significant role in some of your plays than in others.

I think theyíre all musical. I like to look at the language and the inner rhythms of the play, and all that to me is related to music directly. In True West there are coyote sounds and crickets and things like that. And the dialogue is musical. Itís a musical, True West. I think itís very related to music, the whole rhythmic structure of it. Rhythm is the delineation of time in space, but it only makes sense with silences on either side of it. You canít have a rhythm that doesnít have silence in it. I studied for a long time with a drummer from Ghana. He was totally amazing. And I found out that, particularly in African music, every rhythm is related. You can play 4/4, 5/8, and 6/8 all together at the same time and at some point thereís a convergence. Even though it sounds like all these things are going off in totally crazy directions that are beating up against each other, theyíll always come back. That was a big revelation to me, that rhythm on top of rhythm on top of rhythm always has a meaning. So the same is true on the stage. There are many possible rhythmic structures that an actor can hit, but thereís only one true one. Thereís one moment that he has to meet.

How do you find that moment?

Well, thatís very complex. It has to do with an emotional relaxation, where suddenly the tension goes and itís just there. I was a drummer for a long time and I realized that a lot of the time youíre straining to keep the time. And then there are times when all that drops away and everything justÖit all just rides together. And those are the times it became simple. Absolutely simple.

Do you feel closer to certain plays because they contain more of a sense of that?

Oh, yeah. Some of them have real dumb rhythms. It depends on each piece, though. Thereís only one little part of Buried Child that I like, that I could watch over and over and over again. One little tiny section. Itís at the beginning of Act Two, I think. Just the little dialogue between the children and the old man on the couch by the television. Thatís the only part that interests me anymore.

Why?
Because the rest of it just seems verbose and overblown. It seems unnecessarily complicated. But that little simple scene at the beginning of that act, itís great. Itís perfect. I could watch that all day. Itís just got a musical thing to it, you know? That kind of thing happened.

Itís been said that nothing can shock anymore. Still, thereís an element in some of your plays that seems determined to shock us.

Yeah?

In Curse of the Starving Class, for example, you have a character pee onstage.

Well, I wouldnít do that again if I had to do it over again. I was looking for a gesture, for something without words. Itís funny how you look, you know? You look at all parts of yourself for it. Sometimes it comes out when someone pisses onstage. Itís a little flashy, you know, and overblown, and maybe embarrassing, but thatís the way it came out. Itís just a gesture. Like the toasters in True West. Thereís an intention there thatís intrinsic to itself. It only makes sense to itself. It doesnít mean anything. You can call it absurdist or whatever you want to; I donít care what you call it, but itís true to itself. It takes the impulse that was behind it to its absolute extreme, further than you would expect. And thatís what I wanted. Trying to figure it out is not the point. I think explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.

How do you write?

You mean the technical thing? I write by hand first, I write everything in notebooks. Then, after I get everything where I want it pretty much, I start typing it. And as Iím typing it, Iím rewriting it. Iím copying from the notebook and Iím rewriting on the typewriter.

Do you consider yourself a poet?

Thatís a very high thing to be, a poet. Cťsar Vallejo is a poet. Iím not a poet yet; Iím working on it. I think a poet is a musician. Poetry is music. So it doesnít matter what form itís in, whether a line extends across the page or goes vertically. That has nothing to do with it. Itís the musical nature of the language and everything thatís going on in it. Vallejo, Neruda, Hank Williams. He was one of the original country-western singers. Have you ever heard any of his stuff? Great American poet. ďIím So Lonesome I Could CryĒ? You never heard this? Jimmie Rodgers? Youíve got to look into this.

Do you see your work as evolving to a certain point?

No, I donít see it like that at all. Maybe itís just going in a circle. I donít know; I really canít tell you whether itís evolving or not. I mean, itís definitely different. Thereís more at stake now; thereís a bigger risk.