SOMEWHERE BETWEEN the East and West
Coasts, at least part of "Simpatico," one of the
season's most anticipated plays, was written in a moving
truck by its driver. That's Sam Shepard, who says he
believes "all good writing comes out of aloneness." And
you're not too likely to be interrupted driving along an
"You have to do it on an open highway," explains the
playwright during a lunch break for rehearsals of the
drama, which opens tonight at the Joseph Papp Public
Theater, with Mr. Shepard directing. "You wouldn't want
to do it in New York City. But on Highway 40 West or
some of those big open highways, you can hold the wheel
with one hand and write with the other.
"It's a good discipline," he continues, "because
sometimes you can only write two or three words at a
time before you have to look back at the road, so those
three words have to count. The problem is whether you
can read the damn thing by the time you reach your
Mr. Shepard delivers this bit of instruction in wary
installments, smiling, it seems, at the absurdity of the
image. A man heralded as the most original theatrical
voice of his generation, he has traditionally regarded
interviews with disdain and loathing. And he probably
knows that once these words are in print, they will add
further fuel to the myth of the playwright as an
existential cowboy, forging art out of the wide open
spaces of the American Plains. It is a myth, he says, he
has never consciously tried to perpetuate.
"I didn't go out of my way to invent any image," says
the 50-year-old Mr. Shepard. His lean, angular face,
known to millions from his roles as an actor in movies,
looks well lived-in now, more evocative of a Walker
Evans photograph than of Gary Cooper. "I think those
things are accrued as you go along, having to do with
your work and certain things that have happened. If you
set about trying to create an image, it's possible, I
guess. But what do you come up with? Elvis Presley? And
who's in charge?"
What he describes as "the cult of personality and the
cult of image" disturbs Mr. Shepard. "I have no faith at
all in that," he says. "I don't see that it has any
Even in its most pedestrian sense, personality is
something Mr. Shepard refuses to see as fixed.
Throughout his 30 years as a playwright, he has created
a series of fluid portraits of people for whom identity
is, at best, a tentative proposition. The young man in
"Buried Child" (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979)
looks into the rear-view mirror of his car and sees his
face dissolving into those of his ancestors. Hoss, the
aging rock star of "The Tooth of Crime" (1972),
complains of being "pulled and pushed from one image to
another. Nothin' takes a solid form." And Henry
Hackamore, the Howard-Hughes-like recluse of Mr.
Shepard's "Seduced" (1978), has invented himself out of
existence. "I'm dead to the world, but I've never been
born," he chants.
IT SHOULDN'T COME AS A SURPRISE when a character in
"Simpatico" asks, "How many lives do you think a man can
live?" It is in some ways his most conventional work, in
its structure and emphasis on naturalistic dialogue over
the poetic arias that became Mr. Shepard's dramatic
signature. But his obsession with mutability still
The play is in a sense a reworking of themes in "True
West" (1980), in which two brothers, a proper
screenwriter and a thieving vagabond, gradually exchange
identities. "Simpatico" follows the consequences of the
framing of a California racing commissioner by two men
(played by Ed Harris and Fred Ward) years after the
incident. Mr. Shepard estimates that he has written
eight or nine unfinished plays around the two
characters, Vinnie and Carter. "It's an old, old
situation that I've been struggling with for years," he
The patterns of that situation were clear even in the
chronologically scrambled sequence of scenes in a long
day of early rehearsals. As the characters, who also
include Vinnie's mistress manquee (Marcia Gay Harden),
the wife the two men shared (Beverly D'Angelo) and Ames,
the man they done wrong (James Gammon), faced off,
always in combinations of twos, the very foundations of
self seemed to quake.
"Identity is a question for everybody in the play," says
Mr. Shepard. "Some of them are more firmly aligned with
who they are, or who they think they are. To me, a
strong sense of self isn't believing in a lot. Some
people might define it that way, saying, 'He has a very
strong sense of himself.' But it's a complete lie."
The same sensibility infuses Mr. Shepard's views on the
relations between men and women, which in "Simpatico"
are scarcely hopeful. At the time of his play "Fool for
Love" (1982), which portrayed an incestuous affair as a
knockabout fight, Mr. Shepard described what happens
between the sexes as "terrible and impossible." Asked if
he still believes this, he takes his time answering.
"The whole thing between men and women is really the
most amazing thing" -- pause -- "there is," he says.
"But, yeah, it's impossible the way people enter into it
feeling they're going to be saved by the other one. And
it seems like many, many times that quicksand happens in
a relationship when you feel that somehow you can be
saved. And of course that's going to be a
disappointment." He laughs fully. "In that sense, yeah,
I think the illusions about it are impossible." Does he
still have those illusions? "No," he says, "I don't."
The fantasy of disappearing from the known world is
woven throughout Mr. Shepard's plays, and he has been
pretty good at it in real life, in spite of his status
as a movie star. "I think most writers, in a sense, have
this desire to disappear," he says, "to be absolutely
anonymous, to be removed in some way: that comes out of
the need to be a writer."
For a while, it looked as if Mr. Shepard had disappeared
from the New York theater. Following a brilliant cycle
of family-themed plays -- which included "Curse of the
Starving Class" and "Buried Child" and climaxed with the
searing, ambitious "A Lie of the Mind" in 1985 -- there
were seven long years of absence, during which Mr.
Shepard appeared as an actor in movies (including such
froth as "Baby Boom") and directed one, "Far North
(1988). (A second, "Silent Tongue," was released early
this year.) When in 1991 he returned to the New York
stage with "States of Shock," an allegorical play about
a Vietnam veteran and his fascistic military keeper
(John Malkovich), he was speared by critics. There was
speculation that the playwright's skills had been left
fallow for too long.
"I think there was an intrinsic misunderstanding about
it," he says, "which was probably my fault. I think the
audience, and obviously everybody else, had a hard time
realizing that this was indeed about a father and son
Theater, he adds simply, is his natural element. "For
one thing, it allows you to explore language, which film
doesn't. Film is anti-language. I don't know why that
is, but that's the way it developed. The other thing is
the relationship between actor and audience: that
moment-by-moment hanging in the balance, that terror of
"Theater combines everything, for me, anyway," he says.
"It's like you pick up a saxophone and you play a
saxophone and that's it. It's a partnership. I feel at
home with it."
"SCAT!" YELLS MR. SHEPARD, from the shadows at the back
of the Newman Theater at the Public. On stage, Marcia
Gay Harden, who has been holding her ground behind a
sofa as Mr. Harris advances menacingly toward her, looks
up like someone wakened from a dream.
"Scat!" Mr. Shepard continues, with comic urgency. "Git
out of there! Scat!"
Ms. Harden starts to move backward, hurriedly. Mr.
Harris follows, bumping into furniture. The scene has
developed a fever; it now seems to sweat as well as
"Heh, heh, heh!" The playwright's laughter lances the
darkness like an illuminated smile. It's the first day
that Mr. Shepard and his company, after four weeks in a
rehearsal room, have moved into the theater. Loping
silently, in jeans and moccasins, on his rangy stork
legs, arms akimbo, Mr. Shepard cuts a sharp-edged
silhouette against the glow from the stage. As he
watches his words assume different lives with each
repetition, he does indeed seem very much at home.
Mr. Shepard experimented a little with live acting when
he lived in New York in the 1960's and early 70's. But
with his aversion to "confronting large groups of
people," he didn't do much. "Too spooky," he says.
Directing "Simpatico," he is respectful, affectionate,
almost courtly, usually prefacing interruptions with
apologies: "I'm sorry to stop you" or "Excuse me."
The previous weeks had been, he says, a period of
letting the actors get to know their characters with
little directorial intervention. "It's a funny thing
about freedom with actors," he says. "You invite them
into certain scary territory; then it becomes a question
of how far you let them go into that territory before
you start shaping it. I'm a firm believer that so-called
blocking doesn't come out of the director. If the actor
has any kind of chops at all, he's going to find his way
around the stage and find the impulses. To order actors
around the stage like a general is not my idea of a
On this day, he seems particularly intent on cadence.
"All the unspoken structures of playwriting are very
close to music," he says. He often tells his actors to
"hit the notes," though other forms of imagery also come
in handy. As Mr. Ward's Vinnie lies on a rumpled bed in
a hungover depression, Mr. Shepard tells him to imagine
a buzzard circling overhead. To Mr. Harris, whose
character undergoes the play's most devastating
transformation (into what the actor describes as "a
quivering ectoplasm"), he advises, "I think what we're
shooting for are the signs of the earthquake."
Mr. Harris, whom Mr. Shepard last directed in "Fool for
Love" 12 years earlier, finds the playwright "more
comfortable, easier" than before. "You never get any
feeling of panic," he says. When necessary, the director
can be very firm. "You know," says Mr. Harris, "my
character is full of guilt and lies. And I was asking
Sam, isn't there some place where he admits to all that
and gets close to it? He said, 'Sorry Ed, I can't let
you off the hook.' "
Much of Mr. Shepard's guidance seems built, as Mr.
Harris puts it, around "his sense of the aloneness of
these people." Many of the director's blocking
suggestions put greater distance between the actors. He
also admires the darkness of the scrim behind the sets,
a consequence of a blown-out fuse, because the black
space underscores a sense of isolation. He quickly
shifts into parody. "Very existential," he hoots with a
French accent, striking a hieroglyphic pose. "Very
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN MR. Shepard might have spoken
those words in all earnestness, when he came to New York
in 1963. A restive, Beckett-reading 19-year-old
Californian with three semesters at a junior college and
a stint as an actor with a church-touring amateur troupe
behind him, he soon fell in with the experimental,
European-flavored theater groups blossoming on the
fringes of Off Broadway.
His avowed ambition was to become a rock star ("The last
thing I'd want to be now," he says). And Mr. Shepard,
who has previously spoken about his wide-ranging
experimentation with drugs in that period, describes
himself in his 20's as "crazy and mixed-up and confused
like everyone else: sort of raw, emotionally raw." He
adds, using a phrase that shows up in "Simpatico," "I
was fishing in the dark." Isn't he still? "Yeah. But not
like that. Not to the point where you're a candidate for
He was also spinning out plays with the speed and
facility that youth allows, though he says the story
that he wrote his first produced play, "Cowboys" (1964),
on the back of Tootsie Roll wrappers is nonsense. From
the beginning, his penchant for electric, inventive
language and his preoccupation with the myth of the
vanishing West were in evidence, in works that often
took the form of sustained hallucinations.
Asked if his 1971 play "Cowboy Mouth," which he wrote
while holed up with the cult rock star Patti Smith at
the Chelsea Hotel, wasn't an immediate translation of a
collaboration, he answers with an explosive laugh: "It
was an immediate translation of a crisis. Yeah, that's
one of those plays that just kind of spewed itself out
there. No craftsmanship at all. Just pure emotion."
In the succeeding years, the traditions of playwriting
have become more important to him. "Who was it who
decided to do away with all the plots?" asks a character
in "Simpatico." It is, in fact, by far Mr. Shepard's
most densely plotted work.
Today, he writes slowly and carefully, he says. "One of
the things that's become apparent to me over a long time
is that no matter how you cut it, plays are about
storytelling. You know, in the 60's, everybody was down
on it. It became an old-fashioned, archaic structure.
There was a huge breakaway with those European writers
like Beckett and Ionesco and Arabel." Now, he says, "I
think you need to include all these notions that at one
time you rejected as being part of the established order
of things. There's no reason, uh, to shoot yourself in
From early on, in plays like "The Tooth of Crime" and
"Geography of a Horse Dreamer," he seemed to be
anticipating the problems of the success that would
overtake him. He soon developed "agoraphobia," which he
translates to mean "fear of the marketplace."
"Everything is co-opted in this culture," he says. "No
matter what happens, there's always this marketing
aspect that seems to leap on top of everything like a
vampire." It is a process he knows well from his two
efforts as a film director, of which he says, "The
problem there is you don't have the luxury of learning
from your own mistakes. You just get the ax, and that's
The same process has occurred with Mr. Shepard's plays,
most memorably in his last previous experience with the
Public, in 1980, when the producer Joseph Papp, against
Mr. Shepard's wishes, took over the direction of "True
West" from Robert Woodruff. "He told me he owned my
play," Mr. Shepard said. "And he proceeded to do
anything he wanted with it, as though it was a used car
that I'd sold him." He never spoke again to Mr. Papp,
who died in 1991.
Mr. Shepard's escalating fame as a movie star, which
began after his appearance in Terrence Malick's "Days of
Heaven" in 1978, presented other problems, exacerbated
by his breathlessly chronicled relationship with Ms.
Lange, for whom he left his wife, the actress O-Lan. "I
still haven't gotten over this thing of walking down the
street and somebody recognizing you because you've been
in a movie," he says. "There's this illusion that movie
stars only exist in the movies. And to see one live is
like seeing a leopard let out of the zoo."
He has also been appalled by "the banditry" of the
media. "I came to realize that in many cases, you're
being duped," he says of his experiences with
interviewers. "You're being led to believe that what
they're interested in is what you have to say. But what
they're really interested in is the manipulation of your
personality for the sake of selling it to a magazine."
After the publicity around his film "Far North," in
which Ms. Lange starred, he decided to call a near
moratorium on interviews. "It was like I'd volunteered
to go to my own hanging," he says. "Thanks a lot."
Mr. Shepard's sustained public silence has fostered a
perception of him as a Garbo-like sphinx, a notion that
makes his friend and longtime collaborator Joseph
Chaikin, the founder of the Open Theater, roar with
laughter. "He's really very easy to talk to," says Mr.
Indeed, for anyone at all familiar with Mr. Shepard's
biography, it is clear that his most intimate
experiences and feelings gleam piercingly throughout his
work. In fact, his work may be the most intensely
personal of that of any living playwright of his
stature, which may account for the fact that his style
(unlike, say, David Mamet's) has never been successfully
imitated. In a reading given by Mr. Shepard in early
October at the 92d Street Y, the self-portrait that
emerged from his selections from his plays and
autobiographical writings seemed astonishingly naked. It
was almost embarrassing to meet him later.
"Simpatico," on the other hand, would seem to be less
directly rooted in Mr. Shepard's life than many previous
works. "It seems that way," he says pointedly, laughing.
Certainly, the playwright's familiar theme of father and
son -- for which Mr. Shepard has admitted he drew from
his complicated relationship with his own father, a
salty, hard-drinking man of military discipline -- would
appear to be absent in "Simpatico."
Mr. Shepard isn't so sure. "The odd thing to me is I
think all of those relationships are inside other
relationships," he says. "Two friends can have a
father-son relationship or a brother relationship. Those
things aren't necessarily expressed by external
character. There are these territories inside all of us,
like a child or a father or the whole man, and that's
what interests me more than anything: where those
"I mean, you have these assumptions about somebody and
all of a sudden this other thing appears. Where is that
"That's the mystery," he says, looking for a moment very
young. "That's what's so fascinating."