Playwright Sam Shepard: On the Set......And Behind the Scenes by Pete Hamill

Source: Boston Globe - December 23, 1983

In my failing effort to keep an open mind on Sam Shepard, I welcome any help I can get. I burrowed right into an interview with the playwright himself in American Theatre, the new national magazine for whose inaugural issue the playwright makes a photogenic cover boy.

Shepard does not give many interviews. I think he thinks that playwrights shouldn't have to explain themselves. Their plays ought to tell it all.

This interview was granted to 19-year-old Amy Lippman, representing Harvard University's student magazine. The cutoff age for the Shepard cult is roughly 24 except for critics, who can get in at any age.

So what did I learn?

That Sam Shepard does not go to the theater. "I hate the theater," he told Amy Lippman. "I really do. I can't stand it." He prefers rodeos. A rodeo, he said, "is a real confrontation, a real thing going on, with a real audience, an actively involved audience."

But bullfights are also confrontations, and professional wrestling has even more involved audiences, and neither pastime is ranked with the more civilized pleasures and pains of going to the theater.

"I've been in a few rodeos, and the first team roping that I won gave me more of a feeling of accomplishment and pride of achievement than I ever got winning the Pulitzer Prize," says the author of Buried Child, which won the Pulitzer in 1979.

If you ask Shepard, as Amy Lippman did, what writers have influenced him, he may say, as he said to her, "I don't know. What's the point?"

Are we beginning to see the outlines of the self-portrait that Sam Shepard would paint? It is a picture of the playwright as natural man, roping cows and disdaining effete pastimes like theater-going and learning from other writers.

The past has nothing to teach such a man. The traditional theater that clarifies relationships and brings life into an ordered view leaves him cold.

"I think it's a cheap trick to resolve things. It's totally a complete lie to make resolutions. I've always felt that, particularly in the theater when everything is tied up at the end with a neat little ribbon and you're delivered this package. It's almost as though why go through all that if you're just going to tie it all up at the end?"

So if I find that True West is laughably wrong as psychology and utterly gratuitous dramatically, well, as the saying goes, that's the point!

So what exactly is a play?

Shepard says it's like music. You have an instrument and you sit down with somebody else who has an instrument and you just start to play music. You don't know where this will lead but it's an adventure. It might not go anywhere you thought it would go; it might go in directions that you never even thought of before.

A playwright sets two characters in motion and simply follows them. "It's a great adventure - it's like getting on a wild horse." Again with the rodeo!

Mozart is said to have "heard" the music he wrote. "It was going on, and he was just open to it somehow, latched on to it and wrote it down."

Well, that's what Sam Shepard thinks that he is doing. "These things are in the air all around us."

True West then, wasn't created; it happened. The two brothers doing a Cain- and-Abel impersonation just took over the playwright's mind. "True West is following these two guys, blow by blow, just following them, trying to stick with them and stick with the actual moment by moment thing of it."

Shepard has trouble with endings. He doesn't want audiences to think that the life of his characters is over at the final blackout. Life does not go that way, why should the theater?

Shepard does not talk about art. He doesn't mention craft. Playwriting is a mystery over which the writer has no control. It is beyond analysis and, consequently, out of the reach of criticism. If you can swallow that, then you might be ready to join the Sam Shepard movement. You can even pretend that he is a great playwright, although most people of that persuasion call him a great American playwright, which apparently is a lesser breed of great
playwrights. Me, I'm still doubtful.

American Theatre, incidentally, has the potential of being just the magazine that theater buffs have needed for too many years. Since it comes out of the Theater Communications Group, the national organization for the nonprofit professional theater, the Broadway theater is slighted in favor of the regional theater - but the regional theater has taken the creative leadership away from Broadway in the last decade. The glamour might still reside on Broadway, but the news is from cities like Louisville, Ky., and New Haven, Conn., where new plays and new playwrights receive their first full- dress exposure in the new American theater.