Sam Shepard made his name unpicking the American psyche
in Fool for Love. As the play opens in London, the
author talks to playwright and fan Joe Penhall about
writing, jazz and his father's alcoholism
Fool for Love is the play that, for most people, defines Sam Shepard, typifying
his fascination with the American west and spawning the cartoon image of him
that he lampooned as "Mr. Artistic Cowboy". Perhaps it's because this
deceptively simple 1983 play, in which a torrid love affair in a cheap hotel in
the Mojave desert morphs into incestual yearning, distils much of what intrigued
him up until then, and probably couldn't be bettered. It may also be that the
film version, fancifully directed by Robert Altman, starred Shepard himself,
authentically menacing as the cowboy stuntman protagonist.
Somehow it makes no difference that Shepard has more or less
avoided cowboy country in the theatre ever since. Anxious not to repeat himself
and wary of that enduring perception of him, he is now the author of more than
40 plays. How ironic, then, that he is still defined in such narrow terms.
"It's strange," he says, "because you're only using this material as the
springboard to something else entirely. The thing you're really after is what's
going on between the characters underneath it all. I'm not trying to write a
particular vision of the west, I'm just using it because I grew up there and I
like the place. I'm not interested in making philosophical or political
statements about it - I'm interested in making characters happen in their
element and allowing them to be."
So while it is a thrill to see the play in a new West End
production, with a nuanced performance from Juliette Lewis, it seems a pity that
commercial theatre producers overlook Shepard's most interesting work,
gravitating instead toward the flashily iconic, more easily digested Americana
that is easy to "cast up" with stars - a process he defines as "boring and
Shepard is my favourite playwright, and his plays are
probably the reason I started writing. When I don't know why I'm doing it any
more, it's Shepard I turn to. People have remarked on the influence of Pinter
and Mamet on my work - because everybody admires Pinter and Mamet - but for me,
Shepard's always been the boss, no question.
Read "La Turista" about two bewildered tourists in Mexico, or
"Silent Tongue" about native American Indians, or "A Lie of the Mind, " with its
damaged female protagonist affecting a European accent, and you will begin to
understand the eclecticism of the real Sam Shepard. The product of an
impoverished, peripatetic childhood, moving as a teenager from Illinois to
southern California, with frequent sojourns across the border to Mexico, he
dropped out of agricultural college and ran away to New York with plenty of
spleen to vent in plays that embraced mainstream American culture and gave voice
to those outside of it.
"To me it was just the condition of being an outsider," he
says, "being literally, geographically from somewhere else. I don't mind being
part of the mainstream, but there was nothing to be part of. I guess there was
an anger about that, but at the same time I'm glad about it - it gives me my
vantage point as an artist."
We meet for lunch at Pastis, the fashionable grill in
Manhattan's meat-packing district, on a baking afternoon, his beloved Sonny
Rollins blasting from the sound system as if in his honour. At 6ft 3in, with
crooked teeth and big, raw-boned hands, he is not someone you would want to mess
with. But as he apologises profusely for his lateness (he was writing and forgot
the time) and peruses the menu through scholarly wire-rimmed spectacles, he
seems more like the Pulitzer prize-winning New York intellectual he otherwise
At his best, Shepard articulates the strange divided self
that is the American psyche, born of fear and puritanism, the progenitor of
exciting, decadent, secular iconography, awash with violence, cruelty and
destructiveness, yet continually yearning for spiritual release.
"There's a kind of madness that exists in the American
psyche," he offers. "The American culture is intrinsically violent. It's in the
constitution, the right to bear arms. To me, that's where the madness comes
from. My ancestors came over on the Mayflower. The very first white kid born in
the Plymouth colony was my ancestor. He was called Peregrine White - it's a
hawk, a peregrine falcon."
Shepard's plays are widely referred to as "mythic", and the
myth with which he has accomplished the most is that of the American family. It
is savagely repudiated in Shepard's trilogy of "Curse of the Starving Class,"
"Buried Child" and "True West." In these disturbing plays, the family is the
seat of madness, alcoholism and infanticide. Shepard's own disillusionment with
his upbringing allows him to penetrate the hypocrisy of a nation that is
intrinsically violent and coercive, yet peddles the cosy cliche of "family
values" at every opportunity.
These plays are part of a continuum of work in which Shepard
has explored the character of his complex, contradictory father. Originally from
a farming family in Illinois, Sam Shepard Rogers joined the air force as a
fighter pilot during the second world war. When he returned, a haunted man, he
took to the bottle and embarked on various doomed enterprises until finally he
drank it all away.
"He was a brilliant guy," says Shepard. "He was a language
teacher for a while, he spoke fluent Spanish, he was a Fulbright scholar, but he
used to systematically self-destruct. All along his dream was journalism. Before
the war he went to Chicago to try to break into the newspaper business but then
the war broke out. I remember being in sixth grade and my dad driving me to
school one day and he told me about this. It's strange, isn't it?
"I grew up in an incredibly unstable environment. Very
violent, very crazy, where you're always threatened and you grow up gun-shy. I
left home under a great deal of duress at the age of 18 and severed the
connection for five years. I eventually got in touch with my mother, but my dad
was drinking perpetually by that stage. He'd gone off to Mexico on his own and
he was pretty much out of the loop. It takes a long time to get over that. You
never get over the feeling that you're under assault or under siege."
Shepard rarely talks about his father, prefering to let the
plays speak for themselves. In True West, his funniest and most accomplished
play, he lampoons his family's dysfunction and his own artistic pretensions, as
two very different brothers fight about their father's decline into alcoholism,
knowing it is possibly their own destiny. (Intriguingly, Shepard has no brother
himself, only sisters.) One brother, well-heeled scriptwriter Austin, has
retreated into his lucrative work, appalled by the squalor. The other brother,
Lee, is a trailer-trash petty criminal who himself lives in squalor in the
Mojave desert, in thrall to the old man. Each brother yearns for the perceived
freedom of the other, and when a Hollywood producer commissions Lee and not
Austin to write a cowboy screenplay, Austin mordantly observes: "He's lost his
mind. He thinks we're the same person."
"Buried Child," in which city boy Vince returns to his rural
family with his uncomprehending girlfriend, won Shepard a Pulitzer prize in
1979. His father "was actually working in a bookstore somewhere when he
discovered I'd won a Pulitzer. He wrote me a note saying, 'I don't understand
what the hell you're writing, I can't make hide nor hair of this shit, but I
have to congratulate you nevertheless.'"
Not long after, Rogers was killed lurching across a Mexican
highway in the arms of his beloved alcohol. The event haunts Shepard's 2000
play, "The Late Henry Moss" - an often painful work in which Shepard's sense of
humour failed him, or was abandoned. It is a harrowing, nightmarish vision of
loss concerning two brothers arguing about their father's suspicious death,
while the horrified, booze-sodden father wakes up on a slab, not believing he
really is dead. It is about his father, of course - but more than anything it is
about the death of the spirit.
Shepard's work harvests such ugly personal experiences that I
wonder how he can bear to offer it up for public consumption. "I don't think you
can do anything if you're right slap in the middle of it. The only successful
thing I've ever seen that does that is O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night.
" The only way I can do it is to step a little bit away, and the characters
somehow become human. If you have enough distance that it becomes funny, if you
can illuminate the humour, even though what they're going through is very raw,
then it's possible. That may be why The Late Henry Moss is a little hard to
take. If the humour drops away then it just becomes deadly - so deadly and
remorseful that it's hard to enjoy. What humour brings to it is the 'humaneness'
Shepard's detractors complain that he continues to write
about the same obsessions - as he puts it, "fathers and sons". Others would
prefer it if he stuck just to that. Either way, his refusal to engage with the
"issues" of the day and his insistence that politics is "boring" have cost him.
In 1990, he wrote "States of Shock," which, like last year's God of Hell, was
wrongly perceived as an anti-war play and was ungratefully received by critics
who dismissed him as a superannuated 1960s radical.
"How long does an issue last anyway?" he counters. "It has a
life span that's very short. The Cuban Missile Crisis is gone, nobody talks
about that any more. I'm not interested in writing political dogma plays and I
don't consider "States of Shock" or "God of Hell" as necessarily political
plays. They're investigating a certain strain of American fanaticism. If you
want to associate that with the right then that's fine, but it could easily go
in the other direction. There were certain aspects of the Clinton administration
that I thought were ridiculous - like his non-involvement in Bosnia. I thought
it was outrageous to let people slaughter each other because of his pacifism,
when he could have done something about it."
These plays, Shepard insists, relate to his father as well.
Thanks to him, "I understand the military mentality implicitly. It absolutely
believes in violence and exists in order to enforce its will. "States of Shock"
just happened to coincide with the first Gulf war. I don't see it as doing
anything other than what I was trying to do all along. God of Hell was inspired
by Ubu Roi, this so-called avant-garde play about a monstrous, devouring,
cannibalistic maniac who swallows up everything. It's not about the Democrats or
the Republicans, that's boring. They're all businessmen one way or another, fuck
all of them. I don't vote. I write plays."
It was in New York in the 1960s that Shepard first defined
himself as a playwright. What influenced him, he says, was jazz. He was working
as a busboy at the Village Gate, where the greats of the era played every night.
"I saw Sonny Rollins at the Five Spot in 1964 with Eric Dolphy and Mingus," he
says. "Sonny had a mohawk haircut and shades, a big guy, he blew the walls off
the place. Dolphy to me was a genius - he goes to places I don't even think
Coltrane went to. You see as far as influences go, I look to other forms.
"Jazz seems like theatre to me. Musicians standing up in
front of you is a vital thing. You felt that you were in the presence of
something real. An exchange was going on."
Writing loquacious, freeform short plays that mimicked the
improvisational structure of the music, Shepard was lauded by Edward Albee and
became the new crown prince of the avant garde. One of his most significant
achievements is to write about class with the elegance of Harold Pinter, Joe
Orton and Arnold Wesker - whom he greatly admires - while articulating America's
own unique relationship with it. And this tension between rich and poor,
educated and uneducated, thinkers and bullies, the free and the oppressed, could
be attributed, too, to his love of jazz.
"All of these jazz clubs were white and all the performers
were black. You could feel the knives being thrown, very aggressive and
antagonistic from the musicians - and the white audience would just sit there,
really appreciating it. I found it somewhat inspiring. There's no doubt that I
felt a lot of anger about things in America then. There was a pissed-offness
about the 60s that gets covered over by flower power now, but it was an angry
His other great inspiration was rock. He has collaborated
with Dylan, and in 1971 wrote and performed the play Cowboy Mouth with his then
lover, Patti Smith, with whom he is still friends. "Her writing blew me away,"
he says. "She's a really great poet and she wasn't even singing back then, she
was just doing poetry readings. I said: 'Y'know, you can get up there and do
this poetry reading and make like you're a rock star - or you can actually be a
Eventually, drugs, drink and his consuming affair with Smith
took their toll. "I kind of wore myself thin here in New York through the 60s
and I needed to change and learn," he says. "What I really needed was to change
the way I was doing things, not the environment - but, of course, I thought it
was the environment."
In 1972, Shepard escaped to London for a couple of years -
and it was then that his writing took a quantum leap forward. He was asked to
direct his friends Bob Hoskins, Stephen Rea and Kenneth Cranham in his first
major play, "Geography of a Horse Dreamer," at the Royal Court. "It was a great
experience, which changed the way I approached writing, because I started
writing for the actors. I'd shape things and move them around and realise what
was possible or not possible. You understand the rhythmic structures much better
when you work directly with actors. It's like a piece of music, it shifts and
Hemingway said that writing is all about rewriting and,
having directed, Shepard learned to rewrite. "With the early stuff I never
rewrote anything. It was the arrogance of youth. 'Fuck it, if you don't
understand it, I'll just write another one.'
"I was riding those plays, like you'd ride a horse. You'd go
as hard as you could, then get off and get on another one and go again and not
really give a shit about how you're riding them. You'd just leave them wet and
go and get on the next one. But then I started to become interested in the form
and what was possible. How you have to pay attention to certain details of
language, of structure, of rhythm, in order to make a play that wasn't just
opening a window and letting wind rush through the room. Now," he concludes, "I
love rewriting. I go over and over and over stuff - it's become a fetish."
After directing two underrated independent films ("Far
North," "Silent Tongue") he decided it "isn't my medium", and has turned instead
to prose. At the moment he is working on another collection of short stories,
following his well-received volumes "Hawk Moon" and "Motel Chronicles,"
"Cruising Paradise" and "Great Dream of Heaven." Unusually for a playwright,
Shepard is a surprisingly strong prose writer. His short stories remind me of
Richard Ford's in their muscular, ironic turn of phrase; Ford calls Shepard's
latest collection of stories "irresistible".
For the past two years, Shepard has done most of his writing
in New York, periodically forsaking his 107-acre Kentucky ranch. "The only thing
I really like about New York is that it forces me to write. The claustrophobia
actually helps the writing. I retreat from it into this work attitude and I get
a lot of work done."
He is notoriously protective of his privacy, hating to talk
about his family, but he credits Lange, whom he married just after his father's
death in 1984, with bringing him stability, and clearly dotes on his children.
"You know, Flann O'Brien has this great quote," he offers:
"'I am my own father and my son.' There have been moments when I've been with my
oldest son, Jessie, where I feel that he's the father and I'm the son. Or he's
my brother, you know what I mean? These things are tenuous to say the least."
In 1984, Shepard was nominated for an Oscar for his
performance as the astronaut Chuck Yaeger in Phil Kauffman's "The Right Stuff."
But he is suspicious of Hollywood, worried it might coarsen his writing talent,
and freely admits that these days he only acts when he needs the money. He has
written more about the difficulty and joy of the creative process than any other
playwright, but he's not one for the suffering artist cliche.
"It's just a way of life and I think it's useless to spend
much time indulging in the pain and ecstasy of it. Just do it. I've discovered a
lot more about how to do it and how to free yourself up now. You get tied up in
so many different bundles and when you unwrap one of them all of a sudden a
whole lot of stuff starts to spill out. It's thrilling, but it's almost like you
have to trick yourself into the freedom of it. It's not enough just to want to
write. There's something else that occurs that that allows you the freedom to
really write for yourself. And when that happens, it becomes a revelation. It
becomes something you're glad to be involved in".