Sam Shepard On Playwriting III

May 18, 2011

Adapted from:  Sam Shepard’s Mythic Vision of the Family

By Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, December 1, 1985

I don’t think it’s worth doing anything unless it’s personal. You’re not dealing with anything unless you’re dealing with the most deeply personal experiences. It’s empty otherwise. It doesn’t mean anything.

I thought for years it was boring, uninteresting to write about the family . . . But the interesting thing about taking real blood-relationships is that the more you start to investigate those things as external characters, the more you see they’re also internal characters. The mythology has to come out of real life, not the other way around. Mythology wasn’t some trick someone invented to move us. It came out of the guts of man. And myths are related on an emotional level. They’re not strictly intellectual programs.

There was this big fight I had with my old man, and at that point I fled. And I thought, well, I’m just going to have to start over . . . Once there was a production of “Buried Child” in Santa Fe, and my Dad took it upon himself to go, and he was rolling drunk and started talking to the characters and stood up and made all this noise. He definitely struck up a relationship with the production.

Yeah, we had bouts of drinking. Strange . . . It (the fight) would always turn, inevitably, on this accusation that there was something wrong and it had to do with me . . . It hasn’t really clarified anything. You spend a lot of time trying to piece these things together and it still doesn’t make any sense. His death brought this whole thing to a head, this yearning for some kind of a resolution which could never be.

When you’re younger, that rage is completely misunderstood. It seems personal when you’re a kid . . . Then as you get older you see that it had nothing whatsoever to do with you. It had to do with a condition this man had to carry because of the circumstances of his life, those being World War II, the Depression, the poverty of the Midwest farm family. And all these things contributed to this kind of malaise. Then it becomes much more interesting, when you have some distance on it. Because then you can see here was a man who happened to be my father and yet he was more than just that.

My work has always come out almost like a miracle, some kind of strange accident. You stumble into a certain territory that starts to excite you in a way that’s got to be manifested. It comes out as a play or a character. But that kind of work cannot be formulated . . . Then it gets shot to hell. Because then it becomes a career. I’m not interested in a career . . . I want to do the work that fascinates me.

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.


Rendezvous

January 4, 2010

It’s a safe bet that few men my age can recall exactly where he was and what he was doing—and with whom—on a specific date sixty-two years ago. I’m one of the lucky ones, or at least I think I am. On June 25, 1948, I was ten years old and sitting on a bar stool in Milt’s Rendezvous, a low-end tavern not far from the shipyards in Curtis Bay. Curtis Bay was, and still is, a working-class neighborhood of tiny homes on the southern edge of the Baltimore waterfront. My father worked as a carpenter in the shipyards during World War II, and by this time the conflict had been over for three years. With the shipyards closed, daddy was out of work except for odd jobs here and there, but he still enjoyed visiting area bars. They were, he said, his “old drinking grounds.” It seemed that at each bar he took me the barmaids and many of the drinkers knew his name.

That day at Milt’s, I was sipping my usual orange “Nehi” soda and my father, on the stool next to me, was making wet circles on the bar top with the bottom of his beer bottle. “Arrow” was his favorite brand—no glass, he always drank it straight from the long neck. And he used his thumbnail to scratch the damp labels off the bottle as he sipped (a habit I picked up and still do on the rare occasions when I’m drinking a beer with a paste-on label). As he removed the labels he also seemed to remove himself, sort of go off someplace else in his mind. In those days I didn’t have the words to describe it that way, but I do remember being aware of his dreamy look as he deconstructed the labels. Meanwhile, my contribution to the overlapping art he created on the bar top was to smear the circles into an abstraction with my fingers. He didn’t seem to mind, at least not while he was on the early side of drunk and still in a good mood. My father could be a mean sot. Sober, he was often a fun-loving man who laughed and joked and did silly things, like singing country songs and accompanying himself with one of his tools. Often his “instrument” of choice was a hand saw, which he gripped handle-down between his knees and bowed with a stick strung with a wire nailed to it. As he stroked, he changed the angle of the saw-tooth blade which produced a wavering, eerie, high-lonesome sound.

My father said that our mission that day at Milt’s was to watch the world heavyweight title fight between the champ, Joe Louis, and his challenger, Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott was a nobody, pretty much, at least in big-time boxing—until, that is, their first bout in 1947, when he had come very close to beating Louis. We watched the rematch on a small black and white television set mounted on a shelf over one end of the bar. In 1948, few poor people had TV’s in their homes (our family was securely in that category), but every bar in town had a set to lure the drinkers out of their living rooms. (Kids like me, and some adults, watched variety shows like “Texaco Star Theater” with Milton Berle at night, while standing on the sidewalk outside appliance stores. They kept their display window sets on all the time to entice customers. And it worked. By the mid-1950s most families, even some on welfare, had a TV in the house.)

Jersey Joe Walcott was a veteran fighter. His real name, which my father said sounded kind of “sissy,” was “Arnold Cream.” Walcott had learned to box starting when he was just 16, but daddy claimed Joe Louis was by far the better fighter. As it turned out, the rematch was another close one. In the final rounds, Louis was again behind Jersey Joe on points. Daddy was keeping score and said the champ needed to come up with a knockout punch to win. Everyone in the bar thought Louis was going to lose until very near the end of the match, when a single punch to Walcott’s jaw knocked him flat on the canvas for the count of ten. “Happy ending,” daddy said. When I finished my Nehi, and daddy took the last sip of his (fourth or fifth?) Arrow beer, he said “Jimmy, I’ve got to go see a man about a horse.” He had a lot of “saying’s” like that, things he’d drop into the conversation that made little or no sense to me at the time. What he said next I did understand. “You go on home and tell your momma I’m right behind you.”

Alone, I walked the narrow two-lane road from Milt’s Rendezvous to our house at 1011 Mast Court, in the nearby government-built housing project. All the streets in our development were named after parts of ships and boats, and the houses looked like army barracks. Dad claimed they were, in fact, converted barracks stuck up on a hill overlooking Baltimore City and the harbor, put there in a hurry to house the thousands of workers and their families that had moved into town for war work in the shipyards. (Beautiful view, actually, but ugly buildings.) There were no sidewalks on the road home. I walked on the black top facing traffic, like my father had taught me. He said that way, if you see a car coming, you have a good chance to get out of the way. Daddy was right, several times I had to scrunch up against hedges and bushes to let a fast car go by.

Daddy still wasn’t home when I went to bed that night. All evening my mother had looked at the clock and shook her head and tut-tutted, like she always did when Daddy was off somewhere. That was her regular life, but it always seemed to make her mad—or at least sad. When I checked the next morning daddy was splayed out on his back on their bed, fully dressed, sleeping off what my mother said was just another “toot.” At breakfast momma told me he had “come in at some ungodly hour” after the bars closed. She also said that on the way home he must have “skipped into the road and got his-self sideswiped.” Daddy wasn’t hurt, just a scratch here and there, and the upper plate of his false teeth was missing. Momma said she was going to trust me to retrace his steps and find it. She told me the best place to look was in clumps of bushes near the roadside.

All of this crazy business seemed perfectly normal at the time. It was all I knew. Another brief example to illustrate. When I was four or five, while we were still living in Virginia, my mother had taken my younger brother and me with her to a neighbor’s for a “house meeting”—bible thumping revival stuff, singing and testifying, that sort of thing. When we came home we noticed that the window next to the front door had been broken and there was blood on the jagged glass shards left in the frame. Daddy had lost or misplaced his key and smashed his fist through the window so he could reach inside and unlock the door. We found him peacefully asleep on the living room couch, fresh blood still oozing from several small cuts on his arm.

Eventually I found daddy’s upper plate in a hedge by the side of the road, not far from another of his favorite bars, one that happened to be roughly halfway between Milt’s Rendezvous and home. Two years after what I had come to think of as the “False Teeth Fiasco,” I returned home from school one day to discover that my mother had disappeared—she just ran off and left me, daddy and my younger brother. No note, nothing. Later I learned from a neighbor what had happened but, no matter the explanation, in those days I couldn’t understand how she could do such a thing. For a long time I couldn’t forgive her. By the time I was a grown man I had figured it out for myself. It wasn’t something I had done or said that drove her away. She had finally, after more than twenty years, simply got fed up with living her life with what she called a “flat-out drinking fool” for a husband.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.


Photo Quote

January 2, 2010
“Never boss people around. It’s more important
to click with people than to click the shutter.”

Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1898 – 1995