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
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
''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
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
''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