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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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.