My Guy - Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love"
Source: The New Yorker  - October 19, 2015

For good or for ill, Sam Shepard is the most objectified male writer of his generation. People who have little interest in theatre have found themselves drawn to it, and to him, in part because of his looks, especially during the height of his fame as a screen actor. (He has appeared in more than forty movies and was nominated for an Oscar in 1984, for his performance in “The Right Stuff.”)

Born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, in 1943, Shepard spent much of his childhood on a ramshackle avocado ranch in Duarte, California. Loneliness permeated the Shepards’ home. Samuel VI, an Army pilot turned schoolteacher, was an alcoholic and would disappear for days at a time. The surrounding landscape—Route 66, the dusty “Main Street of America,” ran alongside Duarte—was not a comfort. Tall, slightly snaggletoothed, and eagle-eyed, Shepard always looked like America, or a movie version of America: one could easily imagine him playing Tom Joad or Abraham Lincoln. His Western drawl was an additional attraction. Joan Didion’s essay about the charisma of John Wayne could just as easily apply to Shepard:

He had a sexual authority so strong that even a child could perceive it. And in a world we understood early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more: a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself home free.

Shepard moved to New York in 1963 and roomed, for a time, with a friend from Duarte—Charles Mingus III, the son of the storied jazz musician. From Mingus, a mixed-race kid who painted, Shepard learned that the more straitlaced the woman the more she was attracted to difference. “Charles had this knack of picking up these amazingly straight women—stewardesses and secretaries,” Shepard said, in Don Shewey’s rich 1985 biography. “Charlie was always splattered with paint, and I didn’t take too many baths back then. And there were cockroaches all over the place. But these women would show up in their secretarial gear.”

Supporting himself as a security guard and a busboy, Shepard was encouraged to write plays by impresarios as diverse as Ellen Stewart, who established La MaMa, an experimental venue for new playwrights, in 1961, and Ralph Cook, who founded the Theatre Genesis, in 1964. They needed material, and the prolific Shepard soon needed as many stages as possible on which to present the voices he’d heard growing up—and the wound of rejection he’d experienced again and again in his own family.

Like many alcoholics, Shepard’s father wasn’t willing to share the stage, and, in a sense, Shepard’s fifty-odd plays are a bid for his attention, albeit from a distance. As expressive as Shepard’s characters are about their creator’s interior life, they also stand guard between him and the hurting world. Many of Shepard’s scripts—including “Buried Child” (1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize,* “True West” (1980), and “A Lie of the Mind” (1985)—are about the adhesions that bruise even as they hold together the writer’s boozy, self-deluding, and crippled families. But some brilliant early works, such as “La Turista” (1967), Shepard’s first full-length play, “Cowboy Mouth” (1971), the first production of which starred Shepard and his sometime paramour Patti Smith, and the astounding “The Tooth of Crime” (1972), have a sharper, more intense focus, on couples and coupling. In these plays, the atmosphere is electric with disasters that seem to unfold in slow motion, or in the time it takes Shepard’s characters to express their hatred, longing, or disappointment, much the way drunks express themselves—through repetition.

In “La Turista,” we meet an American couple, Salem and Kent, who are travelling in Latin America. The pair speak bad Spanish and complain about the locals. Both severely sunburned when we meet them, they talk about the pros and cons of different skin tones. In their jumble of specious theories, what Kent and Salem share is their whiteness, which is to say their preconceptions about how and when the world turns. The aging rock star Hoss and the musical upstart Crow, in “The Tooth of Crime,” are white, too. But, more important, they’re male, and their masculinity informs all their actions. In the play’s second act, the two men have a verbal showdown, monitored by a referee. The argument, ultimately, is about how the younger artist must devour the older one in order to feed his own work, his own myths. Crow says, of Hoss, “Can’t get it together for all of his tryin’. Can’t get it together for fear that he’s dyin’. Fear that he’s crackin’ busted in two.”

The 1983 play “Fool for Love” (in revival at the Samuel J. Friedman and conscientiously directed by Daniel Aukin) displays all the skill that Shepard developed when crafting his longer family plays but sacrifices none of the intensity and oddness of the earlier work. The play is not so much about coupling as about the deep impulses that keep people together even when they’re apart. While writing “Fool for Love,” Shepard himself “busted in two,” in order to talk about objectification from both a male and a female point of view.

To look at Judy Linn’s 1971 photographs of Shepard (who was then married to the actress O-Lan Jones) with his lover Patti Smith, or to listen to Joni Mitchell’s 1976 song “Coyote,” which is ostensibly about the playwright—“There’s no comprehending / Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes / And the lips you can get / And still feel so alone / And still feel related”—is to witness something rare in American masculinity: a man who found in himself something those female artists could use. Shepard wasn’t averse to being taken over by a woman. (In a 1997 interview in The Paris Review, he said, “More than anything, falling in love causes a certain female thing in a man to manifest, oddly enough.”) Through these powerful women and their creativity, he experienced the very opposite of Dad’s disregard: validation and attention, the eyes of love that we all hope will help shape us.

Writing “Fool for Love,” during a time of emotional turmoil—Shepard’s marriage to Jones was dissolving, and he was falling for another actress, Jessica Lange, with whom he would be involved for almost thirty years—made him jumpy and suspicious of his work. “The play came out of falling in love,” he said, in The Paris Review. “It’s such a dumbfounding experience. In one way you wouldn’t trade it for the world. In another way it’s absolute hell.” The play, he added, baffled him. He felt close to his characters, the ex-lovers Eddie and May, but he didn’t know how to guide them satisfactorily for the stage, how to express what needed expressing:

I love the opening, in the sense that I couldn’t get enough of this thing between Eddie and May, I just wanted that to go on and on and on. But I knew that was impossible. . . . I had mixed feelings about it when I finished. Part of me looks at “Fool for Love” and says, This is great, and part of me says, This is really corny. This is a quasirealistic melodrama. It’s still not satisfying; I don’t think the play really found itself.

But when does love find itself? Eddie (Sam Rockwell) loves May (Nina Arianda), but he’s no good when it comes to love’s realities, which include staying put until passion either deepens or withers into something else. He’s always looking for the high of love: desire is his drug. And that addiction can be pretty wearing on a practical girl like May. When Shepard introduces us to Eddie and May, they’re in their thirties, but their stop-and-start story began long before, when they were kids, really. Life has taught them a thing or two, not least how impossible their connection, or any intimacy, can be.

To escape Eddie’s ambivalence, his need for attention, and his endless bullshit, May has moved to a dingy motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert. She has just about caught her breath, started dating a nice guy named Martin (the sweet and stalwart Tom Pelphrey), and settled into a job as a restaurant cook, when Eddie shows up. He’s not interested in May’s urge to change her life; it doesn’t benefit him in any way, and he’s less of a person without her. The first words Eddie says are the words he thinks May wants to hear: “May, look. May? I’m not goin’ anywhere. See, I’m right here. I’m not gone.” May’s heard all that before. Still, she clings to him—literally—wrapping her arms around his legs as he speaks. Eddie digs her dependence—until he doesn’t. “Come on. You can’t just sit around here like this,” he says. “You want some tea? With lemon? Some Ovaltine?” May shakes her head. Outside, you can hear crickets singing in the night.

The dance of love and anger that Eddie and May are performing is choreographed; the furious partners know its steps. She knees him in the groin, and he falls to the floor. Recovering, he picks himself up and lays more charm over the hurt, like a kid holding a steak to a black eye. In jeans, boots, and a cowboy hat, Eddie is very confident when it comes to his charm: seduction is part of his lonesome-cowboy performance. Whether he’s pacing around May’s room or putting on his spurs to impress Martin, who shows up in the middle of this seventy-five-minute, Strindberg-like drama, he takes up a lot of psychic space.

Indeed, part of what May is fighting for is a little mental headroom. When she slams herself against a wall, she does so, in part, to set her incredulous brain straight: Did Eddie really say that? What does he want from her, now that he’s sniffing around someone else? Eddie’s other woman, whom May calls the Countess, hovers like a perfumed ghost over the couple’s conversations. She’s some sort of star—she was on the cover of a magazine, May tells us—and, although Eddie denies it, who else could own the huge black Mercedes-Benz that rolls up outside May’s door about halfway through the story? She, for sure, doesn’t know any women like that.

Even though May and Eddie are, for the most part, alone in her room, they’re never really alone. Besides the Countess and Martin, there is someone else present: the Old Man (incredibly well played by Gordon Joseph Weiss). He may not be physically in the action, but psychically he’s all over Eddie and May. For most of the play, he sits, in semi-darkness, downstage right, a short distance from May’s bed and the red neon sign that flickers just outside her front door.

“Fool for Love” is a kind of existential boxing match, but the Old Man is no referee; he’s grappling with his own problems and shadows. It turns out that Eddie and May are half siblings; the Old Man fathered them both, with different mothers, whom he abandoned. They are blood but also not blood. By the time they discovered this, it was too late. Love made them foolish, needy, bound by forces they couldn’t explain:

I was in love, see. I’d come home after school, after being with Eddie, and I was filled with this joy. . . . All I could think of was him. . . . And all he could think of was me. Isn’t that right, Eddie? We couldn’t take a breath without thinking of each other. We couldn’t eat if we weren’t together. We couldn’t sleep. We got sick at night when we were apart. Violently sick. And my mother even took me to see a doctor. And Eddie’s mother took him to see the same doctor but the doctor had no idea what was wrong with us.

Love also made them unsympathetic to their own mothers’ grief. May’s need to escape Eddie is also a need to escape her mother’s devastation—“Her eyes looked like a funeral”—but who ever achieves that?

Shepard adores May. You can feel him sitting back and wondering at her practical matter-of-factness; it makes him starry with longing, with words. “Fool for Love” begins as the story of a man’s seduction and betrayal, but it ends up being dominated by a woman’s truth-telling. The play reminds me of another Joan Didion remark: that, in the West, “men tend to shoot, get shot, push off, move on. Women pass down stories.”

Arianda and Rockwell pass down Shepard’s story in unexpected ways that are informed by their lionhearted fearlessness when it comes to failing. To understand Eddie and May is to understand that it’s nearly impossible to get those characters “right”; as written, they keep drifting, losing ground, walking away, or rushing toward emotions that Shepard treats like dunes of beautiful shifting Mojave sand. The only way to nail the doomed couple is to play them the way a jazz master plays a tune: differently from day to day, from moment to moment. I saw two performances of the play, and could have seen more, in order to appreciate the nuances that Arianda and Rockwell added or took away each time. At one performance, the energy was down, and Rockwell did everything he could to rev up the proceedings. Arianda, during the other show, created an atmosphere that explained, through movement and action, who May really was: a mother to the boy in Eddie—the only parent who could understand him. The actors did nothing for show, because they couldn’t: for all its high drama, the script demands an incredible level of focus and concentration that isn’t about “acting”—it’s organic. As May packed a suitcase and walked through the door at the end of the play, it wasn’t hard to imagine her meeting her literary predecessor out there in the dark world: the dogged Lena, in William Faulkner’s “Light in August.” You remember Lena’s great moment: she has just given birth to the child of her feckless lover, who immediately runs off. Staring after him, Lena tells herself, “Now I got to get up again.”