Magazine | February 19, 2018, Issue

A Wrong Turn for Drama

Actor and playwright Sam Shepard, January 9, 2014. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Spy of the First Person, by Sam Shepard (Knopf, 96 pp., $18)

These are the nine steps to achieving fame as an author if you have no discernible talent.

One. Make it common knowledge that you are sleeping with someone famous and beautiful (or at least offer the world reports that you engage in unusual sexual practices).

Two. Whenever possible, avoid intelligible plots in your stories; have a preference for inscrutability and pretension.

Three. Focus in your tales upon the problems of violent, psychopathic men and present them as the victims of a brutish, indelicate world. Suggest that underneath it all they are actually more sensitive than typical doctors, lawyers, et al.

Four. Denounce capitalism.

Five. If you write novels, make sure that they are either very short or very long. If you write plays, make sure that they have a very small number of characters.

Six. Stay thin. This will help you project a bohemian glamour, and people will admire you as enduringly chic. They will also assume that you have a rather cool problem with either drugs or alcohol.

Seven. Commence your career in a media capital but, once you are famous, relocate to a remote enclave so that you will not be so often seen and thereby become passé.

Eight. Promote yourself in a second artistic vocation, preferably acting or painting. But pointedly refuse requests to discuss your alternative avenue. This will confirm your bona fides.

Nine. Don’t bother writing about children or for children. Kids are harder to fool.

If you have ever had the misfortune of entering a theater, being subjected to one of Sam Shepard’s dramas, and finding yourself wondering how he obtained celebrity and acclaim, you need only study the formula and notice that he put each of these ingredients into his life’s drink.

Indeed, he was the bartender par excellence. After an affair with Patti Smith, he became the longtime lover of Jessica Lange. He spoke out against Amerikkka and the market economy in such plays as Curse of the Starving Class. He did not compose even one consistently credible story. He wrote about troubled drifters. He preferred two- and three-character tales, works that were cheap and easy to stage. He kept himself at fighting trim (and camera-ready). He started out as a playwright in New York’s East Village but then decamped to the hinterlands. He was an actor and a capable one, if notably limited in range. And he almost never discussed his performances on chat shows, not even when he was an Academy Award nominee and being promoted as a matinee idol.

I bring all this up on the occasion of the release of a posthumous volume by Shepard titled “Spy of the First Person.” As he died last July and it is presented as his final work, it serves as a good spot from which to look back on his career and to consider why he inspired so much interest as a writer and what this says about the condition of the arts in America. Advertised as a novel, Spy of the First Person has received praise in publications whose critics should know better.

In fact, one might well place “novel” in quotation marks. Fewer than 20,000 words in length, it’s far too disjointed to fit the common meaning of the word. It reads more like a rambling exercise in prose-poetry composed by a 14-year-old who just discovered the beatniks.

Permit me to quote a typical passage:

I remember sometimes you would start whole stories. Sometimes paragraphs. Sometimes sentences with the word “sometimes.” Do you remember how you did that? I thought it was a good way to start. “Sometimes.” In other words not always but sometimes. In other words sometimes not always. Sometimes this or that. Sometimes birds. Why birds, you would say. Why birds? Sometimes. Why color? Sometimes. Why . . . wind? Dogs. Sometimes it made complete sense to me. It made complete sense.

The novel’s story, such as it can be made out, concerns a crippled and dying old man. This is plainly based on Shepard himself, a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease who was relegated to a wheelchair in his last days. Shepard has even given this character children with the same names as those of his own. A second figure is an observer tailing the old man. It is not clear why this stalker is engaged in this task or why it is of any significance, but interlarded with it are references to Pancho Villa and a number of garages and single-family homes in California and New Mexico.

Much of it reads like “automatic writing”: words randomly assembled.

This inability to construct a logical tale has been a Shepard characteristic. The Curse of the Starving Class, for instance, was about a clan of troubled, destitute westerners. In spite of the current availability of food stamps and other welfare, they are tried by constant hunger. It is suggested that part of the reason they cannot feed themselves is that America is a pitiless nation of crooked developers and scheming real-estate agents, people only too happy to buy a plot of land on the cheap and then evict its occupants. Still, the family depicted, about to be dispossessed, is volatile and dangerous. This, we learn, is because their blood contains nitroglycerin. Much else in the story similarly defies plausibility. Thus, the matriarch of the clan is unable to distinguish her son from her husband in broad daylight when the former switches clothes with the latter.

According to an actor friend acquainted with members of the original cast of Shepard’s supposed masterpiece, Buried Child, even they could not fathom its plot, which revolves around a ritual of carrying about dead corn husks.

Shepard’s dramas Fool for Love and True West were somewhat better, if also not really believable. The first concerns the ups and downs of a pair of sibling lovers and the second a successful, Ivy League–educated screenwriter who abruptly and rather inexplicably falls into atavistic idiocy when in the company of his lunkhead brother. The claim that the plays are meant to be absurdist falls flat: They are typically as witty and laugh-filled as John Kerry’s speeches.

With the sole possible exception of True West, mainstream audiences have studiously avoided these dramas. While four of Shepard’s plays opened on Broadway, none lasted more than two months from opening night to the final curtain. Even when the reviews were laudatory, word of mouth was sufficient to close them with impressive alacrity. It is an axiom of the theater that the audience is always right, and Shepard is a ready proof.

So why, you may ask, did he become so renowned? And why were his plays at one time more frequently produced in Europe than those of any other living American dramatist, including David Mamet? These happenings are the end-products of our age: the era of state-funded arts institutions led by Marxist intellectuals.

Foremost among these has been New York’s Public Theater. Under the guidance of erstwhile Communist Party member Joseph Papp, it rejected the early works of Mamet, as it had previously turned down the chance to present the American premieres of plays by Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, and Harold Pinter. But it presented all the Shepard plays I have mentioned except Fool for Love, and later it staged Simpatico and the aptly titled Kicking a Dead Horse. And that these dramas depict the United States as a callous land of knaves and scoundrels made them immediately appealing, of course, to European state-theater directors.

Shepard’s plays had one final thing going for them, something less obvious. This is that they suited the needs of the enormous number of bad, underemployed actors. People who have never participated in the making of plays and movies rarely grasp how difficult the art of acting really is and how large a gulf there is between trained professionals and amateurs. Convincingly playing any complex and articulate figure is exceedingly difficult, and to take on King Lear is plainly beyond most performers. Likewise, it takes exceptional resources to effectively render a character in a play by Stoppard or O’Neill. Yet the most talentless hack can act in a Shepard drama and in the process persuade himself — and sometimes others — that he is a real actor, and for this reason Shepard’s work has a persistent appeal among would-be thespians interested in self-producing as a means to advertise their faculties. For, as Shepard was an actor himself, his plays always contain plenty of opportunity for hammy emoting.

If it seems that I am being needlessly unkind in commenting upon a figure who is no longer with us, consider what Voltaire said: “It is to the living that we owe respect. To the dead, we owe only the truth.” Presentation of Shepard’s work rather needlessly drove people away from the theater, and we are better off without it. However, if you lack talent and desire fame, you might wish to study the real art he mastered: public image.

– Mr. Leaf is a playwright living in New York.

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