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.


Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 7, 2009

Final Part

Mike and me watched Blind John alone at his table across the cafeteria. He somehow found the ketchup bottle by feel — the square shape, Mike said — and checked the edge of his plate with the first finger of his other hand, then slid the finger in towards the middle until it touched his hamburger. He undid the lid and poured some ketchup on his burger. He only spilled a little. “You know, Andy, Blind John likes you,” Mike said.

“We’re sort of friends, yeah.”

“No, I mean he really really likes you.”

“Sort of buddies, sure.”

“Blind John is a fairy nice guy,” Mike said, and laughed.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?” I said.

“Ha!” Mike said. “He’s a flat-out fag.”

“Don’t be stupid, being blind is all that’s wrong with him!”

“Watch his walk,” she said. “It’s girl steps. Listen how he talks.”

After school Blind John was on the corner with a crowd of kids who could see — he didn’t spend time with blind kids if he could help it. I went by and bumped him just for meanness’ sake. “Hello, Andy,” he said.

In a different voice I said, “’Scuse me,” still trying to fool him.

He touched my face and smiled. “Nice to see you, Andy.”

How did he know? My footsteps? What else? How I smelled? I stuck my nose in my armpit and got the answer.

Wilson said I had to see that movie so that’s why, when Blind John asked me to go with him, I went. Wilson claimed that The Day the Earth Stood Still was another bombshell movie to hit Baltimore. He said after I saw it I’d understand why we had to duck-and-cover under our school desks once a month for atomic bomb practice. “Also, Billy Gray is your twin brother,” he said, “right down to the freckles and messy red hair.”

In the picture a flying saucer from space lands in Washington across from the Capitol Building. It comes down with crazy music and gets surrounded by Army guys with guns. I put my mouth close to Blind John’s ear and whispered, “It’s night. Beautiful shadows. The flying saucer is silver and — ” Blind John cut me off with a little grunt. Next thing in the movie is when a nervous soldier shoots the alien guy in the shoulder, and his robot, Gort, disintegrates all their rifles. The tall alien tells a government man, “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” His name is “Klaatu” and he sounds like a radio news guy from England. “I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.” He also says, kind of snotty, “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

Later, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and goes to live in a rooming house with Patricia Neal and Billy Gray so he can learn humans better. Klaatu tells her his name is Mr. Carpenter and for some reason she believes him. I whispered to Blind John, “You can tell she likes him.”

“It’s that background music,” Blind John said, “plus the music in his voice — she lets him seduce her with his accent.”

Seduce her?”

“She’s unhappy — a widow — she’s lonely.”

“But he’s an alien from outer space!”

“So what?”

Pretty soon Klaatu — Mr. Carpenter — he stops the electricity in the whole world for thirty minutes to teach us a lesson. The crazy music comes back. I told Blind John how the pictures showed everything on the planet screeched to a halt, but he just sighed. “Patricia Neal looks worried,” I whispered. Blind John squirmed in his seat. We both stayed quiet until the part where Klaatu gets shot again. “Patricia Neal looks sad,” I said. Right then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, Blind John threw a handful of popcorn in my face — popcorn I had paid for out of my newspaper money. “Hey,” I yelled, “why’d you do that?

“I ain’t deaf! I can tell from her voice and the music how she looks.”

Klaatu tells Patricia Neal to run to the spaceship and say to the robot, “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!” She asks Mr. Carpenter what it means but he says to just never mind and dies. Later, Gort brings Mr. Carpenter back to life on the spaceship. At the end of the movie Klaatu makes a big speech to warn us to be good before it’s too late. That movie had real good shadows but didn’t make much sense. If we were about to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, why would Klaatu want to burn us up to save us? But when it was all over Blind John was on the edge of his seat, had a tight grip on my arm, and a fist jammed in his mouth. “Beautiful!” he said. “Patricia Neal was transformed!”

“Big deal,” I said. “Her guy gets back on his spaceship and leaves.”

“Yeah, but now she feels loved.

I shrugged. “Didn’t get that part.”

Wilson claimed there were five white boys in South Baltimore named Andy, all of them weird, and all but two were either ugly or stupid or both. He didn’t say where I fit in, but he did say I wouldn’t know a good movie if it hit me in the back of my head. Which kind of turned out to be sort of funny in a strange sort of way. I never did see that truck that came down Charles Street when I ran between parked cars, rushing to get Daddy out of Lombardi’s bar before he spent his pay. When I woke up in the hospital Miss Flower, the night nurse, was holding my hand. She was big-boned but not fat, with coal-black hair, pale skin, and she wore huge rings and laughed real big. From my eyebrows up was mostly bandages, and under that were scalp stitches front and back. I tried to picture how the doctors worked the needle and thread, like Momma sewing on a sock hole. I was “in traction,” Miss Flower said — my legs tied in ropes with counterweights to keep them up. She claimed I was lucky, that I only had a concussion and some cuts, but no cracked skull. “But you’ll live,” Miss Flower said, “mean as you are.”

People came and went. Momma came to visit on a Sunday — but no Daddy, Daddy never did come, being off drunk someplace. Kids from school did. Blind John did, found his way to the hospital by himself somehow. Mike came a bunch of times but never stayed long. She acted funny though, more like a girl. I noticed she was starting to get titties and it seemed like the little bumps made her nervous. “When you get better,” she said, “we’ll go to the movies,” and she batted her eyes like Kathryn Grayson in a musical. All I did was nod. When you get hit by a truck, people take notice. You are an automatic hero.

Wilson came to see me once and stayed just long enough to mystify me. Claimed he didn’t like how the nurses looked at him. No surprise there, he had a chip on his shoulder for white people in general. Told me he wouldn’t trust most of them farther than he could throw one over Cross Street Market. At first Wilson stayed on his side of the room and stared at me. There was a chair over there but he leaned on the wall, casual-like. Then, after a while, he said, “My blood commanded I come, Andy.”

“Huh?”

“My blood talks to me, tells me what to do.”

“Yeah, right.

“Tells me right from wrong. I hear the voices and know what the African gods expect from me.” He smiled. “This time they wanted me to visit a banged-up white boy.” I kept quiet. “When Africa speaks,” Wilson said, “I listen.” I started to laugh but caught myself because I wasn’t sure it was a joke. Then Wilson laughed big and said, “Don’t you get it, white boy?”

“’Fraid not.”

“Think about it,” Wilson said. I just shrugged. “Africa Speaks? The movie?” Wilson moved closer to my bed, his eyes shifting from my face to my head bandages. He reached out his hand and smoothed down what messy hair there was sticking out.

“What do you say, Billy Gray?” he said.

“What?” I said.

Wilson rubbed my head softly, and said, “Klaatu barada nikto?”

I said it back. “Klaatu barada nikto.” Then we said it together three times — “Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto!” — and banged fists.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.