One-act play. The play concerns the 120-year-old Blue Morphan, the last living member of a once-notorious, now-forgotten band of outlaw brothers. For the past 20 years, Blue has lived in an abandoned Chevy in the desert on the outskirts of Azusa, California, drinking too much, eating only canned food, and carrying on long discussions with people who aren't there.

Blue is visited by Willie, a strange bald man with a black hand burnt into his pate who tells an incredible story about having traveled two galaxies in search of Blue. For the first time in decades, Blue's credulity is tested: it seems Willie belongs to a race of genetically enhanced Madrills, "fierce baboons that were forced into human form by the magicians of Nogo." These magicians then enslaved the evolved primates, forcing them to labor in Nogoland's diamond mines.

Like so many other aliens, Willie has powers far beyond those of mortal men. However, his advanced mind is restrained by the ominous "unseen hand." Whenever Willie dares to think thoughts that transcend those of his magician masters, he feels a mind-numbing, thought-befuddling pain.

It  happens that only Blue, with the help of his deceased brothers, Cisco and Sycamore, can lead Willie and his people in their revolt against their captors. Willie then performs a strange ritualistic chant and dance that pull first Cisco and then Sycamore back from the dead.

Cisco is more than happy to join Willie's crusade, but Sycamore has other plans. He wants to reorganize the gang and continue the spree interrupted by their untimely deaths a century before. The plot's complications continue in this vein: the Morphans do manage to help Willie, though hardly in the manner any of them would have expected.

Performance History

La Mama ETC, New York, December 26, 1969. Directed by Jeff Bleckner with Lee Kissman and Beeson Carroll.

Revived: Astor Place Theater, NY,  April 1, 1970.
Perry Street Theater, 1977
LaMama, January 1982

First London production: Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, March 12, 1973. Directed by Jim Sharman.


Double bill of  "The Unseen Hand and "Forensic and the Navigators  reviewed by Clive Barnes, NY Times, 4/02/70:
Despite my worst instincts, I cannot prevent myself from mildly loving the plays of Sam Shepard. He is so sweetly unserious about his plays, and so desperately serious, about what he is saying. Mr. Shepard is perhaps the first person to write good disposable plays. He may well do down in history as the man who became to drama what Kleenex was to the handkerchief. And just like Kleenex, he may well overcome...

In the intermission between the plays, one was able to wander into the theater's spacious foyer, where a rock combo was playing with unabated enthusiasm. I was told that Mr. Shepard was on drums, and I thought he was jolly good.

Mr. Shepard is an easy playwright to act. He has a sure touch for the way people talk, and although his explosions of conversation - hand grenades thrown at an uneasy consciousness - may seem to have only a marginal relevance to the matter no longer in hand, each splutter of awareness has its own strict and effective conversational rules. Dialogue in Mr. Shepard follows along the lines of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I find myself wondering whether this altogether bad. At least he leaves a taste in the soul, disenchanted and disturbing.

Jeff Bleckner's staging, happily and easily conversational, with scenes more overheard than witnessed, effortlessly matches the fugitive mood of Mr. Shepard's worried and disposable vision.

I enjoyed this double bill. I enjoyed the corny jokes, the ridiculous ideas... Would you like it? Try it and see. It certainly isn't "Hamlet".

La Mama 1982 performance reviewed by Mel Gussow, NY Times, 1/06/82:
''The Unseen Hand,'' first staged at La Mama in 1969, is from the same period as the author's full-length ''Operation Sidewinder,'' seen at Lincoln Center. It lasts about one hour, and there is barely an ounce of ennui in this time warp. ''The Unseen Hand'' is a sixpack of vintage Shepard...

The play is not really extraterrestrial. It is about the depressive state right here on earth, on the loss of innocence and individuality and other matters that have troubled Mr. Shepard since he first began his folklorist investigation of the decline of the American West (and East)The Morphan brothers are outlaws as heroes. For all their shooting and shouting, they are bonded together in a love of the pioneer spirit...

Tony Barsha's production is just the right blend of seediness and spontaneity. Dorian Vernacchio's set could have been transported, intact, from an automobile graveyard. Deirdre O'Connell and David Watkins, representing space-age future and punk present, are craftily in character. Mr. Brody and Mr. Hadler are so authentic that they look as if they hiked over the nearest butte.

Chicago Performance, January 1989, reviewed by John Helbig, Chicago Reader:
For "disposable drama," which is what Clive Barnes called Sam Shepard's plays in 1970, "The Unseen Hand" holds up remarkably well. Written more than 20 years ago, Shepard's comic science-fiction allegory resonates with a power and wisdom you would hardly think possible in a work this silly. There just aren't that many plays about 120-year-old loners, resurrected Wild West outlaws, and aliens from other planets that also deal successfully with issues of free will and self-limitation. And this one does so in such an easy, unpretentious way that if you don't bother to reflect on it, you might think - as Clive Barnes thought - that you've just seen a crazy, somewhat incoherent, but diverting little comedy.

The Unseen Hand and Other Plays. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971
Urizen Books, NY 1981.
Applause Theatre Book Publishers, NY, 1981.
Continuum, NY, 1983.
Bantam, Toronto & NY, 1986.
Vintage Books, NY, 1996.

The Off-Off-Broadway Book, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1972

Action and The Unseen Hand: Two Plays, Faber and Faber, London, 1975

15 One-act Plays, Vintage, 2012