Sam Shepard's Mystic Vision of the Family

Source: NY Times - December 1, 1985


Whatever else any great American playwright has done, each one has created, and in turn become identified with, a personal vision of the American family. If anything, the measure of achievement in American drama has been a writer's ability to place a vivid family portrait within a larger, societal frame - or, more to the point, to make the family represent not only the writer's inner life but a set of outer conditions. One thinks of Arthur Miller's men, hustlers who lived through one Great Depression and live in fear of another; of Tennessee Williams's women, cut loose with the fall of the plantation aristocracy and thrown into the cruel cities. O'Neill, Odets, Inge, Albee - all conjure images of the family at war with itself.

And in a cycle of family plays stretching over a decade - and culminating with the opening of the newest one, ''A Lie of the Mind,'' on Thursday at the Promenade -Sam Shepard has painted a picture of domestic disharmony as striking as any to have preceded it. The wastrel father of ''Curse of the Starving Class,'' the Cain-and-Abel brothers of ''True West,'' the incestuous lovers of ''Fool for Love'' have become indelible characters in the contemporary American theater. So, too, has Mr. Shepard staked his claim to the landscapes - both geographical and psychological - of the rootless American Southwest and the beleaguered Middle Western farm belt.

The elements of Mr. Shepard's mythology coalesce again in ''A Lie of the Mind.'' This sprawling play runs more than three hours and follows two families, one in Montana and the other in Southern California, that are bound by the brutal marriage of two children. (The lovers are played by Harvey Keitel and Amanda Plummer and the rest of the cast includes James Gammon, Geraldine Page, Will Patton, Aidan Quinn, Ann Wedgeworth and Karen Young, with music by the Red Clay Ramblers.) In its vast scope and in several of its themes - possessive and violent love; guilt, escape and lies - ''A Lie of the Mind'' resembles Mr. Shepard's screenplay for ''Paris, Texas'' more than his recent plays. The film version of one of them, ''Fool for Love,'' also opens this week - Friday at the Plaza - with Robert Altman directing and Mr. Shepard starring.

As Don Shewey points out in his recent biography of the playwright (''Sam Shepard,'' Dell Books), Mr. Shepard's cycle of family plays departed from his earlier work. Mr. Shepard lived and wrote amid the East Village's experimental theater movement, and from 1963 through 1976 his plays tended toward the fantastic and his creations included cowboys and rock stars, bayou monsters and B-movie gumshoes. Then, with ''Curse of the Starving Class,'' Mr. Shepard began to penetrate his own past and to work in an increasingly naturalistic vein. Each play since then has peeled back more layers of the playwright's itinerant upbringing and, particularly, of his relationship with his father.

''I don't think it's worth doing anything,'' Mr. Shepard said in a recent interview, ''unless it's personal. You're not dealing with anything unless you're dealing with the most deeply personal experiences. It's empty otherwise. It doesn't mean anything. It's the same with a singer and a song. Anyone can sing a Charley Patton song. But not the way Charley Patton can.''

Still, Mr. Shepard acknowledges the transition in his work since ''Curse of the Starving Class.'' ''I thought for years it was boring, uninteresting to write about the family,'' he said. ''I was more interested in this thing of being wild and crazy. To be unleashed, to drop the reins.

''But the interesting thing about taking real blood relationships is that the more you start to investigate those things as external characters, the more you see they're also internal characters. The mythology has to come out of real life, not the other way around. Mythology wasn't some trick someone invented to move us. It came out of the guts of man. And myths are related on an emotional level. They're not strictly intellectual programs.''

The presence that looms over Mr. Shepard's recent work - and, one would surmise, over his life - is that of his father. Samuel Shepard Rogers died in 1983 when he was hit by a car near his home in Santa Fe, N. M. His death left forever unresolved the influential and often volatile relationship with his son. Their torturous bond permeates both ''A Lie of the Mind'' and the film of ''Fool for Love.''

Mr. Shepard has created two fathers in ''A Lie of the Mind,'' each with apparent echoes of his own. One lives with his family in Montana but longs to leave, blaming his wife and daughter for ruining his life. The other father is never seen onstage. He deserted his family, the audience learns, and went to live in a house trailer with cheap wine and photographs of old movie stars. Stumbling drunkenly along a highway after a drinking contest with his son, he was hit by a truck and killed - a death, needless to say, with some parallels to the real Mr. Rogers's.

In the film of ''Fool for Love,'' the character of The Old Man, the common father to the lovers Eddie and May, assumes an even greater importance than he did in the original stage version. There The Old Man sat on the side of the stage, sipping whisky and occasionally speaking. The Old Man of the film is a constant, active presence - a ''Twilight Zone''-style gremlin or some kind of malevolent puppeteer. The film opens with The Old Man plaintively playing harmonica, as if to summon Eddie toward his confrontation with May. The Old Man steals tequila out of Eddie's truck, eavesdrops on Eddie's fights with May, and, until the secret of his two lives is revealed, delights in their destruction.

Sam Shepard's actual ''old man'' was an even more complicated character. A World War II flyer (like the offstage father in ''A Lie of the Mind''), he attended college on the G. I. Bill, read Lorca, Neruda and Vallejo, taught high school geography and Spanish and studied at the University of Bogota on a Fulbright scholarship. He could be a beguiling teacher at school and storyteller at home. He also was an alcholic, a father who fought bitterly with his son, a husband who frequently vanished from his family.

''It was hit and miss, always hit and miss,'' Mr. Shepard's sister, Roxanne Rogers, remembers of the relationship between the playwright and his father. ''There was always a kind of facing off between them and it was Sam who got the bad end of that. It was Dad who always set up if it was on or off. Dad was a tricky character. Because he was a charismatic guy when he wanted to be - warm, loving, kind of a hoot to be around. And the other side was like a snapping turtle. With him and Sam it was that male thing. You put two virile men in a room and they're going to test each other. It's like two pit bulls. And that's not just our family. It's been like this for 2,000 years.''

Mr. Shepard left home at 19. ''There was this big fight with my old man,'' he recalled in a Newsweek interview, ''and at that point I fled. And I thought, well, I'm just going to have to start over, pretend I don't even have a family.'' Miss Rogers remembers that their mother, Jane, was sure Sam would succeed as a writer, but that their father remained skeptical. He saw only one of his son's plays, and the occasion typified the picaresque and pathetic nature of his life. ''Once there was a production of 'Buried Child' in Santa Fe,'' Mr. Shepard said in a recent conversation, ''and my Dad took it upon himself to go, and he was rolling drunk and started talking to the characters and stood up and made all this noise. He definitely struck up a relationship with the production. When the audience finally found out he was my old man, everyone stood up and gave him a standing ovation. He was in a state of shock.''

As he became a husband and a father, as he advanced into middle age - he is now 42 - Mr. Shepard sought reconciliation with his father. Sometimes the effort took the form of writing, like the speech in ''Buried Child'' in which a teen-age boy, Vincent, tells of looking in the mirror and seeing his face turn into his father's. Sometimes it meant father and son going out drinking together. ''Yeah, we had bouts of drinking,'' Mr. Shepard said. He drew breath, paused. ''Strange.'' Again, he was quiet for a moment. ''Because it would always veer on that thing of accusation. It would always turn, inevitably, on this accusation that there was something wrong and it had to do with me.''

Yet Mr. Shepard is more elegiac than angry when he talks about his father's death. ''It hasn't really clarified anything,'' he said. ''Nothing's clearer to me. You spend a lot of time trying to piece these things together and it still doesn't make any sense. His death brought this whole thing to a head, this yearning for some kind of a resolution which could never be. But at the same time, it was well worth the journey, trying to make some kind of effort to reestablish things.''

Death and time also have given Mr. Shepard some perspective, both as a person and a writer, on his father. ''When you're younger, that rage is completely misunderstood,'' he said. ''It seems personal when you're a kid. This rage has to do with you somehow. Then as you get older you see that it had nothing whatsoever to do with you. It had to do with a condition this man had to carry because of the circumstances of his life, those being World War II, the Depression, the poverty of the Midwest farm family. And all these things contributed to this kind of malaise. Then it becomes much more interesting, when you have some distance on it. Because then you can see here was a man who happened to be my father and yet he was more than just that.''

One consequence of the turbulent Rogers household, and of Mr. Rogers's death, is that it made the children hunger for family. ''I think it gave us a concrete perspective of what we had as a family, that it wouldn't be around forever,'' Roxanne Rogers said. ''We've always been spread around and kind of carefree in our relations. What happened is we decided to try to put this family back together.'' Miss Rogers herself is working as the assistant director of ''A Lie of the Mind.'' The other daughter in the Rogers family, Sandy, wrote and performed eight songs for the ''Fool for Love'' soundtrack. Mr. Shepard lives in Santa Fe with the actress Jessica Lange, who is now pregnant; before that, he had headed an extended family on a northern California ranch with his first wife, O-Lan Johnson. ''Sam's always needed a family,'' Roxanne Rogers said. ''He's always needed a base. Even though it hasn't always taken the most traditional form.''

''A Lie of the Mind'' has brought Mr. Shepard back to New York, his first home away from his family and the scene of his early triumphs. Here he formed part of a downtown theatrical community that also included the playwright Lanford Wilson and the producer Ellen Stewart, among others. But for a man who disdains life east of the Mississippi, and cities in particular, New York stirs little sentimentality. He likens the city to ''a kennel'' and, asked how he copes with the congestion, says, ''I got a .38. That's my escape hatch.'' As for his memories of the downtown days, Mr. Shepard said: ''For the most part, it was a kind of survival act. I wouldn't go through it again if I had a choice. When I came here I was 18 and I didn't know anything about New York. I had no idea what it was like except it was some kind of cultural center. At the time I didn't realize I was a kid. I thought . . . well, I don't know what I thought. And now, looking back, I see I was pretty much of a kid, running around in an overcoat. But there is a mixture of feelings. There's a sense of this is where it all started, where I started writing, in this town. So there's a nostalgia. But I don't miss the city, I'll tell you that.''

More than 20 years after he first arrived in New York, Mr. Shepard also faces vastly different expectations. No longer is he just another aspiring writer, holed up on Avenue C; no longer is he even the Off Off Broadway hero whose name meant little north of 14th Street and even less west of the Hudson. Now he is a movie star, gossip column fodder and arguably the finest American playwright of his generation.

Yet the surroundings have changed more than the man within them. Mr. Shepard sits for an interview with cowboy boots, jeans, a flannel shirt and a trucker's thermal vest. His conversation grows most animated not on the subject of writing but of blues and country music. He speaks knowingly of Lightnin' Hopkins and Roscoe Holcombe; he is up to date on ''Don't Mess With My Toot-toot,'' the surprise hit from Cajun country. And it sounds geniune when he professes not to feel the pressure to top, or at least equal, himself.

'I don't think it's possible to second-guess the reaction to your work,'' he said. ''You just can't get involved in it. If you do get involved in it, then you try to predetermine things or calculate things. And I don't think you can work that way. It just doesn't seem possible. My work has always come out almost like a miracle, some kind of strange accident. You stumble into a certain territory that starts to excite you in a way that's got to be manifested. It comes out as a play or a character. But that kind of work cannot be formulated by 'My next project is this' or 'They're expecting me to do this.' Then it gets shot to hell. Because then it becomes a career. I'm not interested in a career. I don't want to have a career. I want to do the work that fascinates me.''