“Ideas emerge from plays—not the other way around.”
Sam Shepard, born November 5, 1943
The above quote is from the introduction by Ross Wetzsteon to the paperback edition of “Sam Shepard: Fool For Love and Other Plays,” published in 1984 by Bantam Books. In the essay, Wetzsteon sets up the Shepard line above by first quoting thus: “I would have . . . a picture, and just start from there.” This impulse to visualize, Shepard went on, “is mistakenly called an idea by those who have never experienced it . . . . I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard the line, ‘where did the idea for the play come from?’ I never can answer it because it seems totally ass backwards.” Then Wetzsteon goes on to expand the idea by using more comments from Shepard and others. He begins with the playwright himself. “. . . once it goes off into the so-called meaning of it, then it’s lost, it’s gone away.” Asked to “explain” one of his plays, he says simply, “I think explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.” Or, in the words of Jacques Levy, who directed several of Shepard’s early plays: “Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them.”
Next Wetzsteon asks what is this “something” he’s trying to “do”? He again quotes Levy who describes what Shepard is not trying to do: he says it, “has no relationship to the purging of emotions through identification or total involvement”; he then calls metaphor to the rescue: ” . . . it is more like the way changing a room’s temperature does something to the people in it.” Others say that Shepard’s genius lies not so much in helping us understand what we don’t know as it is in making us feel what we know all too well. “Symptoms,” Shepard has said, are “things that show on the outside what the inside might be up to. “It’s probably more to the point to say that he provides us not with the symptoms but with the disease itself, not with the outside but with the inside, not with ideas but with the feelings that are their source.
According to Wetzsteon, there’s a quality in Shepard’s work that can only be conveyed by referring to dreams, the feeling that we have entered a world at once beyond rational comprehension and yet utterly familiar. “I feel something here that’s going on that’s deeply mysterious,” Shepard has said of the way he approaches a play. I know that it’s true, but I can’t put my finger on it.” “The fantastic thing about theater,” he has said elsewhere, “is that it can make something be seen that’s invisible, and that’s where my interest in theater is—that you can be watching the thing happening with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, and that’s the image part that I’m looking for, that sort of added dimension.”
This “something”—this added dimension—is what Sam Shepard gives me in his early plays like Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and especially his one-act play, Action. The following blurb is from the October, 2004, University of Maryland at Baltimore County production of Action as staged by the UBMC Theatre Department (as are the two production photographs). “Action takes the audience right into the living room of a post-apocalyptic holiday. Liza, Lupe, Jeep and Shooter are trapped in a cold, isolated cabin after a mysterious “crisis.” Time has passed since the days of mass-media and indoor plumbing and they are struggling to pull off a holiday meal. Limited food, an uncertain future and overwhelming boredom begin to take their toll with disturbing and absurd results. In this hilarious marriage between the realistic and bizarre, Shepard offers a stirring look at the unplugged American mind.”
Action, which is included in this collection of Shepard plays by Ross Welzsteon, sure did something to me when I first saw it 25 or 30 years ago. It is a perfect example of his approach to play writing as stated in his introductory quotes. Back then, I attended a local production of the play and was powerfully moved by the experience. But I came away with no idea what it was that triggered my strong emotional reaction. I couldn’t even figure out what the play was about, and certainly had no idea how he had pulled those feelings out of me. That intrigued me and I spent many days after the performance thinking about the play and talking to people about it. Even to this day, when I find someone willing to listen, I do that. At some point along the way, though, I finally realized that what the play is “about” isn’t important, aside from the fact that it exists to somehow involve me in the playwright’s creative process, which is manifest in how, after all these years, the work continues to intrigue and mystify me—as do the best so-called “classic” plays such as Death of a Salesman and Our Town which have the same effect on me, albeit in less intensive doses.
What I take away from this is that it’s a huge mistake to try to figure out what Shepard’s best work is “about.” Try to dissect a Shepard play and you drain away its life force—you kill the power of it, in the same way you destroy the effect of a perfect joke if you have to explain the punchline.
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.
Short Fiction/Part Three
We listened to “Sky King” together on the big floor model radio in the living room, almost like a real family. Afterwards, Ronnie whined at Ted about when he planned to buy a television. He kept on and kept on. Pretty soon Alice and Ted got sick of him and sent us both to bed. No fair. To say goodnight, Alice kissed Ronnie on his cheek and patted me on the shoulder. No fair again, but I didn’t care. She made us swear we’d do our homework until lights out at ten o’clock. Before we were even out of the room Alice made Ted put his paper off to one side, so they could talk. That was a bad news for him. Up in Ronnie’s room I could tell he was in a mood, too, because the first thing out of his mouth was, “Know who’s a better artist than you, Andy?” When I didn’t say anything, he answered himself. “Betsy the chimpanzee.”
I stayed quiet and took my shoes and socks off. Ronnie already had his off and was spreading and un-spreading his toes for exercise. We always did our homework barefoot. Ronnie said, “Just because you’re the best favorite in Miss Laura’s art class, that don’t make you—”
“Well,” Ronnie said, “anyway, that monkey is twice as better than you. Three times as better.” I could care less what Ronnie thought since I knew he didn’t know anything about art. Anyway, Betsy couldn’t draw, she just smeared finger paints around to make a mess. Ate more paint than she painted with. “Betsy’s the real genius,” Ronnie said.
“You read that in the News Post—same as me.” I could tell something else was on Ronnie’s brain. When he got bothered by whatever, Ronnie liked to fight me and he had to win, to show who was the boss. It was pitiful.
“Betsy had her pictures printed in Life magazine,” Ronnie said. “And where was yours?”
I came back at him with a low blow: “Yeah, and how come your daddy don’t come home from work most nights anymore—huh, Ronnie?” Give back better than you get, that’s my motto. Why not? “Ain’t seen Ted at the dinner table with food in his mouth for days.”
Ronnie gave out a puny, “Don’t care,” then he cried some. He used first one sleeve and then the other to wipe off tears and snot, then he shut down and stayed quiet for a long time.
After awhile I said, “Look, Ronnie, I didn’t mean to say that, what I said.” He kept on real quiet and pretty soon I caught on that he was staring at my bare feet. That was so creepy I quick pulled them up under me. “You shithead, Ronnie!”
“Your feet are so little,” he said, like it was the most natural thing in the world to say that. “I’ve got ’em memorized.”
“You know, Ronnie, you’re really one dumb fucker.”
“In case you come up hurt or dead, see?” Ronnie did a laughing snort. “Say one foot gets cut off and mixed in with a bunch of other feet, in a war, say—or a train crash? You’re laid up in the hospital delirious from pain. They go to sew your foot on and there’s a whole pile to choose from, but you’re in no condition to say which one? I’d know the one to point to.”
“They don’t sew stuff back on people that’s been cut off.”
“How about Frankenstein?” Ronnie waited to see if I saw some sense in that dumb statement, but I kept quiet. Ronnie kept at me. “Say you come up dead in the harbor, your head cut off. Hands and arms gone. What’s left for identification?”
“Feet and legs and—”
“Forget legs,” Ronnie said. “Legs are no good for identification—but feet, especially if someone swears they know them particular feet, that would work. You’d be easy, Andy, ’cause your feet are perfect and tiny.”
It took all I had to keep calm and not tell him where to shove his dumb idea. I just said, “Millions of people have little feet.”
“Not in South Baltimore.” Ronnie smiled. “One hundred, tops.”
“At least five hundred.”
“Not perfect-shaped like yours!” Ronnie gave me an oily grin that flipped my stomach. “Don’t worry, Andy, if something happens to you I’ve got ’em in my brain.”
“Ronnie, you best quit with that feet shit.”
“Even better—how about if your feet were a special color? Think about it. Blue, maybe! Blue is lucky. Yeah! If your feet were the only perfect blue feet in South Baltimore, why, anybody could identify ’em, assuming they knew Andy Givens had perfect tiny blue—”
“Screw you, Ronnie!”
“Let me paint ’em Andy!”
When he begged like that I first wanted to gag, but instead I just yelled, “Go to hell!” That was part fake, though, ’cause I was really mad and happy all at once. Ronnie was crazy—yeah—but in a good-bad way. He made it be really strange fun sometimes, us two living in that room.
Some nights Ronnie couldn’t go to sleep if he knew Alice’s tall glasses were mixed in with her short glasses. He’d wait until his folks were conked out and sneak downstairs and go through the kitchen cabinets. We whispered about stuff until we heard their snores. Ted was easy to spot because he snored big. Alice did tiny grunt sounds. When Ronnie got back from his kitchen raid he always saluted me like John Wayne and said, “Mission accomplished.” The next morning Alice would find her glasses in neat rows, arranged by height and color. She must have wondered how they got that way, but as far as I know she never let on. Ronnie did other crazy stuff, too. Like, that one night when he came in and went straight to his bed like he didn’t see me. He turned around five times and sat down. I kept my mouth shut. After awhile he got up and went to his closet and stood there, just faced the closet door, didn’t open it. It was like he sleepwalked over there. He waited awhile, then went back to his bed and turned around five times and sat down.
Finally I couldn’t help myself. “You must be crazy,” I said.
“Uh, uh—Huh?” Ronnie said it like I had just woke him up out of a dream.
“You’re nuts, Ronnie.”
“Another thing is, you’re also a big pussy.”
“Take it back,” Ronnie said.
“I will, Andy, I will.”
“Yeah? You and who’s army?”
“The three of us,” He said. And of course I knew what came next. Sure enough Ronnie said, “Me, myself, and I.”
That was so lame. Sometimes Ronnie disgusted me too much to even bother with. “O. K.,” I said, “you win.”
“No, Andy—first take back what you said.”
“I do, Ronnie. I truly do take it back.”
“No, say, ‘You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.’”
“O. K., you’re not a pussy.”
“Say my name, too.”
“You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.”
“Good thing, too,” he said. “That was just in time.”
Yeah, right, like what if I didn’t take it back? Ronnie was hopeless, so I gave up and shut up. The next morning, as per usual, I felt his sheets. So far the average for his sheets being soaked was five days out of seven. By the time Alice changed the beds each week all Ronnie’s piss had dried into yellow stains that overlapped and made rusty patterns—kind of pretty designs—light to dark and back again. Alice never let on and neither did Ronnie. Neither did I. That would have been just too mean.
One night I watched Ronnie with one of my eyes, the other one blocked by my pillow. I had been in the middle of a good dream about earwax when some kind of noise woke me up. Ronnie was on his bed by the window, moonlight behind him that made him look like a cutout. At first I didn’t move, kept my head down, half-stuck in the pillow. Ronnie sat still on his bed except when he swayed. He’d be still for five seconds—listening for who knows what?—then he’d do small rocking moves side to side. The sways were so tiny you could hardly tell. He’d rock side to side some and then sit like a statue, then do more moves. The house was quiet. I think I saw a bat go by the window, but maybe not—they’re so fast. Ronnie claimed bats were nighttime swallows that wouldn’t suck your blood. No matter what I heard about bats, I shouldn’t believe that, Ronnie said. “Trust me,” he said, “no bat will every drink a drop of your blood.”
Another night, Alice screamed from down the hallway and Ronnie glanced up from his jigsaw puzzle at the bedroom door, then back down. It was so split-second I almost didn’t catch him—one smooth action—just his eyes moving. That jigsaw was humongous. It had all the animals in some African jungle, plus grass and trees and bugs, and huge-beaked birds. Ronnie had the edges done on three sides and some on the last side. It was a big jaggie rectangle, empty in the middle. He pretended to work at it for five minutes—zero talk, just tiny whimpers—the same puzzle piece in his hand the whole time. Ronnie’s hand didn’t move. More time. Then Alice screamed again and grunted real big—then a bunch of grunts that went from high-pitched to low and then back up again real high. In the nighttime quiet her grunts came down the hall like a church bell. Ronnie still kept still. Then Alice laughed a big screeching laugh and Ronnie smiled but didn’t look up. Then his hand moved over the jigsaw like a helicopter and dropped the puzzle piece in exactly the right spot.
Part four of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.