December 16, 2017
Early Sam Shepard
On this day in 1943 Sam Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. Because Shepard's father was an air force pilot, his first years were spent moving base to base. The family finally settled outside of Los Angeles on a small ranch, and Shepard's teen years were stable enough to have him join the 4-H Club and raise a prize sheep; nonetheless, according to an interview at the age of thirty-six, it was the moving around rather than the settling down that stuck:
I feel like I've never had a home, you know? I feel related to the country, to this country, and yet I don't know exactly where I fit in. And the same thing applies to the theater. I don't know exactly how well I fit into the scheme of things. Maybe that's good, you know, that I'm not in a niche. But there's always this kind of nostalgia for a place, a place where you can reckon with yourself.
Whatever the angle or approach to Sam Shepard, the most recurrent theme is this anxiety over self and place. The literary critics find a search for identity in his plays. The movie Country seems to have come right from home, in that his father's family had to sell the farm owned for six generations in order to cover debts. In high school he broke the track record for the 220, but while on Benzedrine. His hometown theater group would meet at the church to rehearse Thornton Wilder, but at home he was reading Waiting for Godot and the Beats, or playing drums and hanging out with Charlie Mingus Jr. He studied agriculture at college, but when the theater group decided to tour the lure of the road won out over the lure of the land; he arrived in New York just when the off-off-Broadway scene did, and his first play premiered a month before his twenty-first birthday.
He's right about not fitting into a niche, especially in the earlier, sex-drugs-rock 'n roll plays. In Tooth of Crime, the aging rock-lord Hoss is holed up in some frontier fortress, but Crow, the Dark Challenger with the Keith Richard look, finds him out. Their climactic agon is a refereed duel to see who can do the walk and talk and who can't:
REF: Play the round!
An enlarged and desperate need to "reckon with yourself" is behind the more recent Kicking a Dead Horse. The play is another two-character agon - counting the dead horse, which lies stubbornly beside its freshly-dug grave, its hooves straight up to the Badlands sky. As he tries in vain to roll the horse out of sight and mind, the horse's rider tries to figure its, his, and America's collapse:
(The bell rings. CROW jumps into action, dancing like Muhammad Ali. HOSS moves flatfooted trying to avoid him. CROW is now on the offensive. The music starts again.)
CROW: So ya' wanna be a rocker. Study the moves. Jerry Lee Lewis. Buy some blue suede shoes. Move yer head like Rod Stewart. Put yer ass in a grind. Talkin' sock it to it, get the image in line. Get the image in line boy. The fantasy rhyme. It's all over the streets and you can't buy the time. You can't buy the bebop. You can't buy the slide. Got the fantasy blues and no place to hide.
HOSS: O.K., this time I stay solid. You ain't suckin' me into jive rhythms. I got my own. I got my patterns. Original. I'm my own man....
I do not understand why I'm having so much trouble taming the wild. I've done this already. Haven't I been through all of this? We closed the frontier in 1890-something, didn't we. Didn't we already accomplish that? The Iron Horse-coast to coast. Blasted all the buffalo out of here. An ocean of bones from Sea to Shining Sea. Trails of tears. Chased the heathen red man down to Florida. Paid the niggers off in mules and rich black dirt. Whupped the Chinese and strung them up with their own damn ponytails. Decapitated the Mexicans. Erected steel walls to keep the riffraff out. Sucked these hills barren of gold. Ripped the topsoil as far as the eye can see. Drained the aquifers. Dammed up all the rivers and flooded the valleys for recreational purposes! Run off all the pathetic small farmers and transformed agriculture into "Agribusiness"! Destroyed education. Turned our children into criminals. Demolished art! Invaded sovereign nations! What more can we possibly do?