From Plays To Fiction: Thanks, Dad; Sam Shepard's Rascals Are Inspired by Memories Of a Mysterious Father

Source: The New York Times - October 15, 2001

Arriving in New York, Sam Shepard looked, as always, like a cowboy in the city, someone who would prefer to be home on his farm in Minnesota. On this particular day, however, he seemed relaxed and in a salutary mood. He was here not as a playwright or actor, but in a less familiar role as a writer of fiction. He has a new book, ''Great Dream of Heaven,'' a collection of short stories. In common with his plays, these are tales from the frontier of his imagination, richly populated by rascals and renegades.

When he turned 50, Mr. Shepard had reflected on the question of age: ''Forty was tough, 50 you're already cruisin.' You better be. There ain't no way to stop it.'' Next month he turns 59. Was he still cruisin' along? ''In overdrive,'' he answered with a laugh, and added: ''It's true, age catches you completely unexpectedly. Very strange what happens with the body -- not as easy to swing up on a horse anymore.'' Still, he rides every day except, he said, ''when I'm in New York.''

The title story in the new collection is vintage Shepard. Two codgers, widowers who share a bungalow in South Dakota and wear matching Stetsons, fall for the same waitress in their favorite diner. When one has a secret rendezvous with the object of their mutual affection, the other feels betrayed. Mr. Shepard said that he had ''those two characters kicking around'' for some time, but he did not begin to write about them until 1996 when he was in London.

''It was very dreary, rainy London weather, as usual,'' he said. ''London is a great place to write because it makes you want to be out of there.'' That, he said, was typical of his writing habits. He prefers to be away from a place in order to write about it. Many of the stories began between takes while he was on location for a movie. He would write things down in his notebook and then finish the stories in his workroom, a white oak cabin on his farm.

In one way or another his father, Samuel Shepard Rogers VI, is present in many of his son's plays and stories. Born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII, Mr. Shepard dropped the name Rogers early in his career. ''I had never foreseen that he would be such a source of material,'' he said of his father. ''He had such a strong influence on me. I guess it was inevitable. To me he was deeply mysterious, probably far more than I depict him onstage in any of the characters extrapolated from him. There is a mystery about him that still exasperates -- and intrigues -- me.''

His father was a pilot during World War II. A salty reprobate, he never could seem to find his place in peacetime. ''I think he was a mystery to himself,'' he said. ''He was a very complicated man. He spoke fluent Spanish, he was a teacher and a Fulbright scholar. At the same time he was extremely violent and could be quite mad and totally unpredictable and alcoholic.'' He would disappear for long periods, then suddenly reappear, without explanation.

In a touching scene in a story in an earlier collection, a father tells his son that the breakup of his marriage had nothing to do with his son: ''Whatever took place between me and her was strictly personal.''

Mr. Shepard said that the scene was direct from life, as was a moment in the play ''Fool for Love,'' when a character called the Old Man says he was once married to Barbara Mandrell ''in my mind,'' and ''that's realism.'' At the time, Mr. Shepard said, his father was ''off in the middle of the desert living in this little house with a picture of Barbara Mandrell on the wall.''

In another story a character talks about seeing Gabby Hayes, the movie character actor, in a restaurant with several prostitutes and says: ''That's what fame and fortune'll get you. Couple a blonde chippies and a shrimp cocktail.'' That, Mr. Shepard said, ''is my old man talking.''

Only once did Rogers see a play written by his son, ''Buried Child,'' at a theater in Santa Fe. ''He was stoned drunk,'' Mr. Shepard said, ''and he started yelling at the actors, telling them that what they were depicting was untrue. He knew because he was in the play. And they kicked him out of the theater.'' When he explained that he was the father of the playwright, they let him back in, and he started talking back to the actors again.

Mr. Shepard said that although the characters in the play ''are overblown, they're recognizable, certainly if you're part of the family.'' In 1984, Rogers, coming out of a bar, was run over by a car and died. Mr. Shepard said that his mother was also a great influence and ''the opposite'' of his father.

''I think there is a way in which men -- not women so much -- tend to obsess about certain things and go off and become very isolated, very estranged from the people who are close to them,'' Mr. Shepard said. Such thoughts have fortified his feeling about his children. He has a son from his first marriage and two children with Ms. Lange. She took the photograph that appears on the cover of Mr. Shepard's new book, an evocative portrait of him and his younger son sitting at the end of a pier.

Looking back on his career, Mr. Shepard said that at 19, he had come to New York vowing to be an artist, without knowing what would be his field of expression: painting, acting, music. While working as a busboy at the Village Gate, he wrote his first one-acts, and the plays began to flow.

At first he wrote plays that were like jazz riffs, soon expanding them to embrace folklore and mythology. In what up to now has been the central phase of his career, he focused on the American family with a full house of incendiary plays about conflicts between couples, fathers and sons, and warring siblings.

''I hadn't foreseen what exploring dialogue, place, time and situation would open for me in terms of discovering my own experience,'' he said. ''Theater turned me toward my life in a way that was quite unexpected. It's given me an avenue to express certain areas that probably would have remained dormant. Whether or not I've learned more about myself, I don't know.''

He is not, he said, one for psychological exploration. His interest is more generic: ''Hopefully, the greater view has to do with the land, history, time and the fabric of America.'' Although he is not often regarded as a political playwright, in his work there is a concern for power plays between people, what he refers to as ''the politics of feeling.'' As he said: ''It's the artist's obligation to convert one's experience of the time that we're living into forms of expression. Otherwise, what are you doing?''

Although in his work he has often dealt with a battle of brothers, he has no brother. (He does have two sisters.) In explanation, he said: ''You feel yourself to be in a dual identity. Rather than making a psychological issue out of that, I've divided it into brothers. You have these two forces that are in fact part of one entity. To externalize this into brothers seems plausible for fiction or theater. Also, I think there are friendships that are akin to brotherly feelings.''

In ''True West'' the two brothers represent two aspects of the author. Mr. Shepard admitted that he identified more with Lee, ''the rougher brother.'' Although it was not his original intention to have actors switch roles in the play, he was gratified by the 2000 Broadway revival, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did exactly that, as two English actors had previously done in London.

Speaking as an actor, he said he thought such a transformation would be beyond his capabilities. On the other hand, he thought that he had learned more about acting. ''When I started out,'' he said, ''I was full of armor. I was trying not to be revealed. As I've gone on, I found that you have to become more and more vulnerable.''

For the present he has no plans for the theater. As he said, ''I'm not going to write another play until I can enter absolutely new territory.'' Several of his stories are monologues and dialogues and could be staged. ''I wouldn't mind if somebody decided to do them,'' he said.

Once free-form in his writing, he has become carefully disciplined. ''It's a strange thing about form,'' he said. ''When you're younger, you tend to want to believe it doesn't exist, or that you can ignore it or reinvent it. Slowly you begin to understand that there are certain essentials that have to be honored.'' He added: ''Horsemanship is the same way. You don't just jump on a horse, spur him and hope for the best.''