Sam Shepard On Playwriting

Adapted from: Silent Tongues

By Carol Rosen, The Village Voice, August 4, 1992

I’m interested in effects only to the extent that they serve some purpose of emotional terrain. Developing a new style of theater is not something I’m interested in.

I don’t see where these distinctions lie, really, between so-called realism and super-realism and naturalism and surrealism and absurd-ism.

The ancient meaning of myth is that it served a purpose in our life. The purpose had to do with being able to trace ourselves back through time and follow our emotional self. Myth served as a story in which people could connect themselves in time to the past. And thereby connect themselves to the present and the future. Because they were hooked up with the lineage of myth. It was so powerful and so strong that it acted as a thread in culture. And that’s been destroyed. Myth in its truest form has been demolished. It doesn’t exist anymore. All we have is fantasies about it. Or ideas that just speak to some lame notions about the past. But they don’t connect with anything. We’ve lost touch with the essence of myth.

I don’t think character really has anything to do with personality. I think character and personality are two entirely different animals . . . . character is something that can’t be helped . . . like destiny. And maybe it includes personality, but personality is something so frivolous compared with character they’re not even in the same ballpark. . . . . Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s like the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.

I guess when you start something, you always kind of have a half-baked notion about what you hope it to be. But it may not go in that direction at all. It may go somewhere completely different, which isn’t to say that you failed, it’s just that it turns and becomes something . . . But I think one of the thrills about writing is to remain open to all its possibilities, and not to try to put a bridle on it and squeeze it down into what your notion of it is. Not to say that you lose control, but I think you have to remain open.

Why should we be anchored to these notions of Eugene O’Neill and all this burden of having your character be believable from the outside in terms of the artist saying, well, he really is in a living room serving tea to his mother. And he’s really talking the way he would be talking in real life. What the hell is that? Why doesn’t he pour the tea on her head and start screaming and carrying on, climbing walls, and then come back and sit down and . . . You know what I mean? . . . . And I think a lot back then had to do with incredible frustration, the straitjacket of that kind of theater that we had been told was great theater.

I don’t hang out with playwrights. I can’t say I dislike them, but for the most part theater doesn’t interest me. I like writing plays because they have so much movement, there’s so much possibility of movement, and language moves. But I’m not a theater buff. Most theater bores the hell out of me. But I do like the possibilities. I think of all the forms that we’ve got now, probably theater has more possibilities than anything else. Really. Of real experimentation and real surprise and real emotional contact with an audience.

Writers are isolated individuals, for good reason . . . . That’s what writing is, an act of isolation. You either accept it or you don’t. I don’t think there’s any complaining about it.

I hate endings. You have to end it somehow. I like beginnings. Middles are tough, but endings are just a pain in the ass. It’s very hard to end stuff . . . . Because the temptation always is a sense that you’re supposed to wrap it up somehow. You’re supposed to culminate it in something fruitful. And it always feels so phony when you try to wrap it all up.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

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