'The inkblot of the '80s' lets dialogue snarl and spit by Welton Jones

Source: San Diego Union Tribune - May 13, 1984

Sam Shepard is quite a piece of work.

And, most of his dazzled admirers admit, he more or less assembled himself, using ancient myths and modern cultural debris to form a new hero. Now at 41, Shepard seems positioned to be one of the 20th century's key artistic figures, the quintessential American playwright, "the inkblot of the '80s," to borrow a phrase from his friend and producer, John Lion.

In contrast to the European tradition of the theatrical intellectual, Shepard told one interviewer, "the American playwright should snarl and spit, not whimper and whine."

He writes with a beauty and power which moved him from the fringe theater into a more widespread appreciation, including a Pulitzer Prize for drama five years ago and recurring productions of his plays, such as "Tooth of the Crime" which opens in San Diego this week.

Born into an itinerant Army family, he grew up in rural California, just near enough to the Old West to claim it for his own, establishing a cowboy background which emboldens him decades later to declare that his rodeo successes gave him more satisfaction than his Pulitzer.

On the New York arts scene when rock music was just beginning its decade of influence, Shepard became a pretty good drummer, living the fantasy of the rock star with the group called the Holy Modal Rounders.

When pop music began to fade back into triviality during the early 1970s, he retreated to England, a literary refugee living as a family man in fashionable poverty off grants and scanty royalties.

Riding a new wave of interest in his work, as that of numerous contemporaries began to run dry, Shepard returned to California in the mid-1970s and entered a new, more accessible phase of writing which climaxed with the Pulitzer for "Buried Child."

Not content with a mere master playwright's reputation, he began acting in films, with instant and increasing success, until his smoldering, Gary Cooperesque portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff" won him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor last year.

John Lion, who runs San Francisco's Magic Theater and has premiered most of Shepard's plays in the last decade, compares Shepard's impact to that of Elvis Presley, noting that both men's works "signify a change in the structure of American society that cuts much deeper than critical catch phrases such as 'the birth of rock and roll' or 'the death of the American West.' "

Writing in American Theater, the magazine of the Theater Communications Group, Lion says Shepard and Presley are the new manifestation of the "noble savage," seeming to have come from nowhere with no formal training to become the stuff of popular myth.

"But," Lion adds, "beneath each persona lies an objective, calculating artist who has basically altered the way we look at things."

Not being a creator, Presley reached the limitations of the performers' art and tragically crashed in confusion. But Shepard seems positioned for the long haul, looking for new worlds to conquer.

"I'm not a poet yet," he told an interviewer recently. "I'm working on it."

That interview is news in itself, since Shepard, citing very plausible reasons, rarely talks for publication.

This particular piece, originally published in the Harvard Advocate, that university's journal of arts and literature, and reprinted in American Theater, is essential material for all Shepard admirers. It came about when the playwright unexpectedly agreed to a tape-recorded conversation on New Year's Day, 1983, with a 19-year-old Harvard student named Amy Lippman, who was visiting San Francisco for the holidays.

"I'm not putting myself in the same category as Mozart at all," Shepard told Lippman, "don't 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.

"These things," Shepard said, speaking of his plays' content, "are in the air, all around us. And all I'm trying to do is latch onto them. I don't feel like it's a big creative act, like I'm inventing all this."

The things that Shepard finds in the air around us have varied widely in form since he wrote his first plays in 1964, "Cowboys" and "Rock Garden."

(No copy remains of the former but Shepard reportedly thinks "Rock Garden" is one of his best works. A scene from it was incorporated into the nude revue "Oh, Calcutta!" and the royalties from that seemingly endless run often have tided him through lean times.)

His plays include cowboy vernacular, hip musician slang, gangster dialogue, science-fiction jargon, sports talk and even scholarly argot. (He told a British interviewer in 1974 that he never liked books and rarely read, but his then most-recent play, "Cowboy Mouth," includes references to Villon, Baudelaire and Gerard de Nerval, just as his earlier "Tooth of the Crime" mentions both Brecht and Beckett.)

The style of Shepard plays has varied from the absurdist "Chicago" in 1965 to the recent group of American domestic dramas beginning with 'The Curse of the Starving Class" in 1976 and continuing to last season's "Fool for Love," one of two Shepard plays now in extended New York runs. The other, "True West," is beginning its third year off-Broadway.

In between there have been western plays ("Cowboys #2," "Back Bog Beast Bait"), science fiction plays ("The Unseen Hand," "Operation Sidewinder"), plays about the creative process ("Angel City," "Geography of a Horse Dreamer") and the two major culture-shock plays from the early 1970s -- "Cowboy Mouth" and "Tooth of the Crime" -- which seem to sum up Shepard's philosophy so far.

Even Shepard isn't sure how many plays he has written, although he is known to be occasionally selective in his remembering. There are at least 40 of them, ranging from sketches to full-blown baroque operas. Many have music; practically all of them stand up well years later.

Shepard throws himself into the creation of plays with the fearsome concentration of genius -- he told Lippman that he wrote "about 16 versions" of "Fool for Love" -- but when he's finished, to the frustrated consternation of subsequent producers, he usually loses interest in them.

"Once that first production happens," he said to Lippman, "then I don't care what happens to it really. I'm not concerned in tracking it down, in following it around like an ex-lover or something."

Shepard plays produced in San Diego date back to 1968, when Robert Glaudini directed "Chicago" at Theater Five in Pacific Beach. Glaudini subsequently worked with Shepard on "Cowboy Mouth" and "Back Bog Beast Bait" at New York's American Place Theater in 1971 and, in 1978, Shepard wrote a play, "Red Woman," for Glaudini to perform at the first Padua Hills Playwright's Workshop-Festival in Riverside County.

"I respect him for what he's done," says Glaudini, who stays in touch with the playwright. "I mean, with the movie success and all, there have got to be changes. Look what he's dealing with. But his Hollywood commitments don't mess with his theater. He's continually investigating some inner journey."

Other local productions have included important versions of "Curse of the Starving Class" and "True West" at the San Diego Repertory Theater and "Angel City" and "The Unseen Hand" at the Marquis Public Theater.

This week, the San Diego Rep finally will bring "Tooth of the Crime" to town, in a production staged by Sam Woodhouse and opening Thursday night for a seven-week run.

In the 1972 play, written during Shepard's self-exile in England, the world is controlled by hard-living pop stars such as Hoss, the aging singer who rules America's prime territory of Las Vegas and must withstand the constant challenge of new kids like Crow, a ruthless striver with a killer instinct.

In winning his way to the top, Hoss grew into an industry devoted to staying there. In Crow, he recognizes the inevitable successor, but he's not ready to quit. The showdown is a brilliant duel -- of words, a battle in which the winner is he who can dodge the bolts of rhetoric while delivering the stylistic stiletto.

Put in the perspective of time and place, "Tooth of the Crime" may have grown from a Shepardian dream of a confrontation between the old -- Elvis Presley -- and the new -- probably Mick Jagger. But the playwright, as his subsequent career suggests, undoubtedly saw himself as the transitional figure, the bridge between successive variations of that same myth.

Myth, of course, looms large in Shepard's work, which is full of strange heros in askew landscapes borrowed from the Old West, the pop universe, the epic future and related fantasies.

"The thing that's powerful about a myth," he told Lippman, "is that it's the communication of emotions, at the same time ancient and for all time.

"I'm not interested if (my play) reminds you of your mother or your sister, or your cousin, or anything like that. Everybody has something like that.

"But if emotions that come up during a play call up questions, or seem to remind you of something that you can't 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."

The critic Doris Auerbach finds that Shepard's resistance to personal publicity and invasions of his privacy is part of his own self-constructed myth as "the mysterious stranger whose origins may not be questioned," but she approves.

"In a society where the artist is almost as rapidly consumed as his wares, this attitude has an element of healthy self-preservation about it," Auerbach says.

"He's still writing," answers Glaudini, when asked why Shepard, almost alone, has survived the glittering group of the 1960s experimental playwrights.

Sam Shepard is around. He's been in San Diego off and on. He can be found hanging around the Magic Theater in San Francisco. These days, he's in Hollywood a lot. He has had homes in this and that backwater of California and Arizona and, occasionally, he likes to strike out on Jack Keroauc-like expeditions along the nation's highways. (His recent book of poetry and notes, "Motel Chronicles," from City Lights Press, is fascinating evidence of his restlessness.)

Though reputed to be an open and easy conversationalist, Shepard on the record is evasive on questions of a theatrical nature, especially dealing with his own work. He told Lippman that he never goes to the theater, that he can't stand it, that "there's more drama that goes down in a rodeo than 100 plays you can go to see."

But he talks to people other than Harvard sophomores that way, too. His point seems to be that he would rather the work spoke for itself.

The power of Shepard's plays beginning with "Tooth of the Crime" owes much to his uncanny accuracy in capturing the imagery of the decaying American West. In the Lippman interview, the playwright said he found the historical West a more ancient and attractive world than "the tight little forest civilization that happened back East."

But Lion, his most frequent theatrical associate in recent years, finds Shepard's West to be broader than a geographical designation.

"Shepard presented a world which seems on the surface to make sense in the traditional Western (read 'Occidental') way, but on closer examination is seen to use the logic that we associate with realism and naturalism to show us that the world doesn't make sense, can never make sense, will never make sense."

But Lion finds that Shepard moves through the breakdown easily, offering his reportage with humor and good will.

"This is because Shepard writes about people we all know, and, as Americans, are comfortable and familiar with. And he writes about what we think, but don't say, what we want to do, but don't do, and what we desire, but don't get."

As for myths, Lion notes that any civilization's myths break down with repetition until they have only a shadow of their original vitality. But, as Beckett noted in "Waiting for Godot," and Lion echoes, myths are all we have to cling to.

Sam Shepard, in his plays and in the icon he is becoming on the screen, is one of the major repositories of American myths for our era.