Dramadoodle

July 19, 2010

“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.


Photo Quote

January 9, 2010

“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way

they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”

Robert Frank, born 1924

Copyright © 2010 Robert Frank.


Today’s Gag

February 11, 2009

0902friendsblogCopyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

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My Wife Thinks You’re Dead

July 29, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Two

When Bernie walked through the door, Helen straightaway asked him what he was doing home in the middle of the afternoon. He hemmed and hawed and came up with a nervous story about needing to retrieve some work stuff. Bernie’s jiggly behavior, plus a telephone call Helen had received only minutes before, put her on a Mean-Green Betty alert. She didn’t let on, though, just allowed him to think he had lied his way out of the situation. Bernie didn’t know it, of course, but he was pre-sunk—that phone call had alerted Helen to the younger woman’s resurrection. “Your buddy Fred called,” Helen said, telling part of the truth. “Wants you to drop by the police station tomorrow first thing. Some kind of special project.”

Fred, the town sheriff, was Bernie’s best friend from high school. At one time Fred had also been belly-bumping close to Helen, but she had kept that fact from Bernie, it being a bit of deception she allowed herself out of concern for his feelings—or so she liked to think. Without another word, Helen went back to work on a complicated tuna fish concoction she was whipping up for supper, her mayonnaise-covered hands deep in a big yellow mixing bowl. Bernie picked up some papers and walked out the door. Helen was whistling as she worked, but she had murder on her mind. She had confessed as much to Fred earlier when he called. Helen told him straight out that either Bernie or Betty had to die, and she was at the point where it didn’t matter which one. Fred laughed, of course, but he also felt a tad uneasy—not being sure if Helen was joking or what.

Monday was Helen’s bowling league and her mom kept the kids, so Bernie was free to do as he pleased—within reason, of course. He went out for a ride and stopped at Jigg’s Drive-In for a few beers, and it wasn’t long before he got to thinking about old times. The Jigg’s crowd provoked it, all them being real young these days—too young—and Bernie realized he didn’t really know anyone enough except to nod and say “Hi” to. On an impulse, feeling a tad lonely, he decided to cut out and visit his old friend Chuck. That turned out to be a first rank bad idea. He and Chuck were a duo that went back to the days of running with the booze-pill-and-sex bunch that featured Betty as the main attraction. The three of them were—well, let’s just say they got to be very close. Chuck is your basic small burg bachelor, a big rumpled guy with a small neat apartment over the pet shop on Main Street, and he has a small neat brain to match. He’s the sort of fellow who gets along by going along, satisfied to spend his days working part-time in an auto body shop, picking up the occasional house painting job and selling a bit of weed or a handful of pills to take up any financial slack. Chuck would never intentionally harm a living soul but he’s not above providing the means for folks to screw themselves over.

That evening found Chuck and Bernie in Chuck’s living room, shirts off, drinking beer, toking on a fat spliff they passed back and forth, and yelling at a two week old football game Chuck had recorded on his VCR. Three minutes into the fourth quarter there came a knock on the door. Chuck opened it and Betty glided in a foot off the floor, on what appeared to be air currents. Whatever it was that she had ingested also produced an aura of sensuality that glowed off her like yellow-green neon. Bernie and Chuck could tell she was there for one purpose only, to play big-time party tag and those two hapless dolts were “It.”

It being hot, the first thing Betty did was take off her blouse and bra and head for the fridge to, as she said, “cool her tits” and get a beer. Bernie somehow came to the conclusion that he was capable of resisting her charms and followed her into the kitchen. Betty was stationed in front of the open freezer door fanning cold air onto her chest with one hand and sipping from a Coors can with the other. As in times past, Bernie felt himself instantly attracted to the incredible muscle definition in her back. “Goddamn it, Betty,” he said, “one of us is gonna have to leave this town.”

She turned around, smiling, with one perfect breast cupped in her free hand. “Really, Bern? You mean that?”

“It’s good to see you, baby—been a long, long while—but I can’t afford to play them games no more.”

“Your choice, hon.” Betty slid past him and headed for the living room where the amiable Chuck waited in ecstatic anticipation.

Bernie stayed in the kitchen for a beat, feeling what resistance he may have had ebb from his body like brackish water from a swamp. By the time he got to the living room Betty was completely naked, astride Chuck in the classic lap dance position, him smiling over her bare shoulder like it was Christmas and he was more than willing to share this gift. Bernie watched those two go at it awhile, then shrugged. “What the hell,” he thought, moving toward them, “Helen thinks she’s dead.”

By evening’s end the threesome had done everything to each other they could think of, short of man-on-man, which Chuck and Bernie would have no part of even to please Betty. They were convinced, however, that they had invented several trio combinations heretofore undocumented in Chuck’s extensive porn collection. Bernie had never had so much fun or felt so low at the same time—especially later, on his way home, drained dry like a corn husk left in some farmer’s field during a ten year drought.

Part three of My Wife Thinks You’re Dead will post tomorrow.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.