ROCK-AND-ROLL JESUS WITH A COWBOY MOUTH (Revisited)

  
ďSo, what are we up to here?Ē

It doesnít take long for Sam Shepard to get to the heart of the matter Ė casually, directly, existentially. Here we are, in a restaurant in downtown St. Paul on a cold and gray November afternoon. What weíre up to is an interview, obviously, though the occasion is a little murkier than usual. A playwright of Shepardís stature ordinarily sits down for a major interview only when thereís a new project to promote. As it happens, Shepard does have a new play, but heís not quite finished writing it, and it wonít be produced until the fall of 2004 at the earliest. The occasion for our meeting has more to do with the history of this magazine. Shepard appeared on the cover of the very first issue, and going back to him seemed like a felicitous way to mark the 20th anniversary of American Theatre

What is Shepard up to these days? Plenty. The guy who first made his mark on American drama in the late 1960s with a torrent of wildly poetic one-acts bursting with rock-and-roll energy turned 60 in November. He remains steadily productive as an artist, just not necessarily in the theater. Since New Yorkís Signature Theater Company devoted its entire 1996-97 season to his work (on the heels of Steppenwolf Theater Companyís acclaimed Broadway revival of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child), Shepard has produced only two new plays Ė Eyes for Consuela (adapted from an Octavio Paz story) at Manhattan Theatre Club and The Late Henry Moss, staged at San Franciscoís Magic Theater in 2000 and the following year at Signature in New York. 

Still, revivals of older works keep him in the public eye. The Broadway production of True West in 2000 starred the hot young film actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, who alternated in the leading roles. That show was directed by Matthew Warchus, who made a film of Shepardís Simpatico (released in 2000 and now available on DVD) and who will most likely direct his new play, a farce entitled The God of Hell, next season on Broadway. In addition, the Roundabout Theater Company is considering a revival of Fool for Love, possibly directed by Sam Mendes.

While his theatrical writing has slowed down substantially, Shepard has also published two well-received volumes of prose, Cruising Paradise (1996) and Great Dream of Heaven (2002), both of which shuffle chunks of short fiction together with memoirs, dialogue, and journal entries. And of course, he has taken what seemed at first to be a fluky sideline into movie acting and turned it into an active and lucrative career. In the last five years alone, Shepard has acted in 16 features. They have ranged from Ridley Scottís Oscar-nominated action flick Black Hawk Down to run-of-the-mill TV movies such as Dash and Lilly, in which he played Dashiell Hammett to Judy Davisís Lillian Hellman. For theater aficionados, by far the most interesting Shepard-related film available is This So-Called Disaster, a documentary directed by Michael Almereyda, whose modern-dress movie version of Hamlet featured Ethan Hawke in the title role and Shepard as the ghost of Hamletís father. The documentary has its theatrical premiere this month at the Film Forum in New York City. 

This So-Called Disaster focuses on the Magic Theater production of The Late Henry Moss, which Shepard directed himself with an eye-popping cast of movie stars, including Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin along with longtime Shepard stalwarts Sheila Tousey and, in the title role, James Gammon. Halfway through the rehearsal period, Shepard saw that something extraordinary was happening and invited Almereyda in to witness the process. The result fascinates on two fronts. Itís an unusually intimate portrait of high-powered actors at work. With this bunch, the testosterone level is extremely high, and yet their struggles are both touching (see Sean Penn wrestle with his own perfectionistic standards) and amusing (see Shepard attempt to explain Brechtian theory to Woody Harrelson Ė and succeed!). 

The film also reveals Shepard himself to an unprecedented degree. Among the series of family plays Shepard has written since Curse of the Starving Class (1976), The Late Henry Moss is probably the most autobiographical, dealing directly with the death of his father and their complicated, ambivalent relationship. In the film, Shepard speaks about his father with a detachment born of deep grief and mourning, and we see how the events of the artistís life get transformed into theatrical poetry, especially through glimpses of Gammonís and Nolteís fierce performances. 

I myself have an unusually keen interest in the dance between Shepardís life and his work, since the first book I published was a biography of him. Thatís another big reason why weíre sitting down for this interview: I wrote a book about this guy, yet Iíve never actually met him before. Shepard has always been exceptionally protective of his privacy Ė ďI prefer a life thatís not being eaten off of,Ē he once said. When I began researching my biography in 1984 (the book was published the following year, and a revised edition came out in 1997), publicity was the last thing he needed or wanted. He was right in the middle of leaving his wife O-Lan and their son Jesse to move in with Jessica Lange, and my attempts to contact him were met with a self-explanatory silence. After the book came out, we had a couple of close encounters Ė I saw him once in Central Park, looking grim and unapproachable, and at a press preview of True West on Broadway he passed by near enough for me to see that, like most actors his age, he dyes his hair Ė but neither seemed like the most auspicious occasion to introduce myself. 

When I wrote to him proposing a 20th anniversary American Theatre interview, he responded favorably, and we agreed to meet in Minnesota, where he and Lange live with their high-school aged children. Shepard sounded friendly on the phone. He mentioned that his daughter had a concert coming up (she plays cello with the school orchestra) and that heíd recently taken his son fishing in Montana. As we sit down together, he says heís looking forward to moving back to Kentucky when his kids finish school; he prefers a warmer climate, where he has more room to raise horses, which is clearly his passion. At the moment heís only got five horses but on his ranch he raises 300 head of cattle. He and Lange also bought some land in Mexico six years ago, and since they started spending time there Shepard has bitten the bullet and gotten over his famous aversion to flying, thanks to the miracle of Xanax.

Since Iíd made it clear that I wasnít doing a People-magazine profile and that our interview would range over his body of work, Iím surprised and intrigued to know that personal details were not 100% off-limits. I soon discover, though, that interviewing Shepard is a little like walking a maze Ė what seems like an open channel can abruptly turn into a dead end. Iíve come prepared with pages of questions, many of which represent my interest in venturing below the naturalistic/autobiographical surface of Shepardís plays into the theatrical, poetic, and spiritual layers that coexist in his work. I find that certain inquiries go nowhere Ė sometimes out of lack of interest (he doesnít think about his work theoretically or intellectually at all), sometimes out of ignorance (culturally heís admittedly out of the loop Ė heíd never heard of Suzan-Lori Parks, and political theater for him means Waiting for Lefty), sometimes out of reticence (shielding his family but also his instinctive, emotional life, from which he prefers to draw without analyzing). Often I wish I was writing for an equestrian journal, because whenever we touch on the subject of horses his demeanor and his vocabulary become noticeably more energized. 

Two things about Shepard I wouldnít have known without meeting him: he loves to laugh, and he has a whole arsenal of different ones (a chuckle, a giggle, a percussive heh-heh-heh) in different flavors (nervous, self-deprecating, jovial, male-bonding). And just as his plays are full of characters whose identities slip and slide around, he doesnít seem attached to any definitive self-image. Whatever energy he spends building up the persona of ďcowboyĒ or ďmovie star,Ē he spends just as much sidling away from it. Heís a living example of the attitude espoused by Wyndham Lewis is his essay ďThe Code of the HerdsmenĒ: "Cherish and develop side by side your six most constant indications of different personalities. You will acquire the potentiality of six men. A variety of clothes, hats especially, are of help in this wider dramatization of yourself. Never fall into the vulgarity of being or assuming yourself to be one ego."

The relationship between journalist and subject is a tricky one; biographer and living legend is even more so. Whether out of shyness or cowardice, I skip over the opportunity to acknowledge aloud that Iíd written a book about him, and he doesnít bring it up, so the fact sort of slithers around our feet under the table like some harmless but slightly creepy snake. 


A lot of playwrights live and breathe theater, and you obviously donít. (He giggles.) What keeps you writing plays?
I love the form. You have the actor, dialogue, lights, audience, sets. I canít think of another art form that combines so many elements and has so many possibilities. Iíve always had an affinity for it. I donít know why. Itís like when a musician picks up a saxophone, he doesnít even look at a guitar or fiddle, itís all sax. 

You used to say you hate theater and you never go. What is the theater you write for if not theater that you go to see? 
Itís a little brash to say I hate theater. I donít make a regular habit of going to the theater. There are some pieces of theater that are fantastic. Recently we went to the Guthrie and saw the Globeís all-male production of Twelfth Night. It was absolutely extraordinary. Every once in a while you come across things like that that wake you up. The Beauty Queen of LeenaneÖ. I loved that play! Itís one of the few plays I went back and saw two or three times.

Have you seen any other plays of Martin McDonoughís?
I havenít actually. Iíve read some of them. I think heís very talented.

Are there other writers you follow on a regular basis?
Not playwrights, no. There are definitely other fiction writers Iím very interested in, such as Peter Handke. For a long time Iíve read just about everything of his. Another one is [Semezdin] Mehmedinovic, heís Serbian. He accomplished the kind of book Iíve always tried to do and havenít totally succeeded at, which is a combination of poetry, prose, short stories, diary, all thrown into one thing. I love that form. He actually managed to do it with Sarajevo Blues. During that horrible conflict he chose to stay there in the city. He had a wife and kids and decided to stick it out. Itís an amazing account of a writer under fire. 

Are there writers or theater artists youíve heard abut that youíre curious about, whether youíve seen them or not?
Iím sure there are, but I donít stay in the loop that much. Iím pretty much in the country.

I wonder what people in the horse world or the movie world think about your theater life. Do they have anything to say about it?
They find it curious. I kind of apprentice with some of these older guys in horse things. One guy in particular I hang out with is 75 years old, Bob McCutcheon. Heís very well known in the cutting horse world. I travel with him a lot, going to horse shows. Weíre barreliní down the road 80 miles an hour, talkiní about movies, and out of the blue he says, ďSam, whur is Hollywood anyway?Ē (laughs) I just about fell on the floor. He didnít have a clue. Those are the kind of people I really enjoy being around. (laughs) 

Do you have a sense of your place in the American theater? 
I donít really. Every once in a while itís startling to come across other writers who have looked at my stuff and said that it inspired them to do their thing. If anything, Iíd like to think that my work might inspire people not to imitate me but to find their own approach and go from there. 

When you think about your plays, do you break them down into categories or periods, either chronologically or thematically or geographically?
(shakes his head) I canít Ö it doesnít do me any good. Iím really not attached to them. I have been very fond of certain productions, like the one Matthew Warchus did of True West in New York. One of the beauties of the play is that itís like a piece of music. It can be played so many different ways. It was played by those guys in a way it had never been played. 

You liked that they switched roles?
Not only that, but they actually conjured up their own characters in each case. You would never believe that these guys could reverse roles from one night to the next. What they came up with! It was just astounding. The first Steppenwolf production was interesting, but Malkovich was so overwhelming that Gary Sinise kinda got the floor wiped with him. You never saw the other side of the play. In Matthewís production they were two entities. 

You said you donít separate your plays into different categories. I think other writers connect to either the early one-acts for their wild poetry, or the rock & roll energy of plays like The Tooth of Crime, and then there are the family plays. Are those categories you relate to?
I didnít set out to write them like that. But I suppose you can divide them like that. But if you go back and look at an early play like The Rock Garden, you can see the seeds of Curse of the Starving Class. I just went to a show the other day of Jasper Johns, not a retrospective but stuff from the Ď80s to the present. Itís so radically different from his early stuff. But the way he repeats thematic stuff, repeating and repeating and duplicating and going over and running these things, is very much the way it feels to me a lot of times. 

Heís a perfect example of someone whoís stuck with certain images and worked all the variations you can on it. Iím curious how that is for you. You have this iconography of images that show up again and again, starting with the old man in the rocking chair in Rock Garden that shows up in these other plays. The Late Henry Moss is an evolutionary product of 8 or 9 of your plays, so halfway into the first act, youíve got all these recurring or recycled images set up.
A lot of people knocked it because it was interpreted to be a rehash of True West, which it wasnít. It was just that there were brothers again. Thereís no law against bringing brothers into the plays several times. (chuckles) I like this predicament, one brother sitting with the corpse, and the other one coming from a long distance and meeting around the death of the father. I thought it was an important predicament. 

What do you mean when you say itís an important predicament?
There are predicaments and there are predicaments. Thereís King Lear, and thereís Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. You know what I mean? Thereís predicaments that resonate and there are predicaments that donít mean anything. Theyíre not even predicaments, theyíre just excuses to write a play. (chuckles)

The pieces that excite me the most in your plays is when they go from something naturalistic to something poetic. One version of that is this notion of mutually exclusive realities that exist onstage at the same time. The idea of someone being alive and dead at the same time. Which is in Henry Moss and in some other plays.
The essence of that for me has always been this acknowledgement, which Brecht and Joe Chaikin and everybody introduced me to, of the actor being the actor first and the character second. Itís not about dissolving into the character, which we do in movies, where itís no longer Clint Eastwood, itís the Pale Rider. In theater, the most interesting thing is to sustain the actor, not get rid of him. Keep the actor moving in and out of character, or being able to separate the two. This is one of the most interesting things in theater.

Because itís so mysterious.
Because itís so true to the performance aspect of theater, and we canít get away from that.

It shows up in a lot of your plays. In the last image of Buried Child, thereís a sense that Vince and the dead baby that Tilden brings in from the garden are the same character.
Mmm-hmm.

Thereís this overlapping reality in a spooky, metaphysical way. Iím curious to know how you explain that to yourself.
Iím not interesting in the explanation. Iím interested in the provocation. Explanations are a dime a dozen. 

Suicide in B-flat is another example where there are these two mutually exclusive realms existing onstage at the same time, in different dimensions.
Yeah, Iím not sure that play ever really succeeded. I was so absorbed in trying to find a parallel to jazz that I think I got lost in that and forgot about the craftsmanship of the play. I was very interested at the time in jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk or Mingus. Thereís something about them thatís Ö holy man isnít the right word, but they have a spiritual charisma. In the mid-Ď60s there were musicians who carried a certain kind of wisdom and power with them -- like a shaman. When they played, you had the feeling that they were enacting something far beyond jazz music. It was particularly true of the new wave of black musicians. 

Did you see ever Monk play in person?
Yeah, I worked at the Village Gate and he played there quite a bit. Heíd get up and dance around the piano in his top hat. He was one of the first real artists I ever saw. When you saw him you knew you were in the company of something from another world.

When you re-use an image in that Jasper Johns way, is it almost like youíve let go of previous versions of it, as if you havenít used it before?
No. Itís more like this thing that keeps coming back to haunt you. 

Iím thinking of simple images like the bathtub.
I love the bathtub. Thereís something religious about the bathtub.

Really?
Yeah, itís like cleaning, and thereís something about death in it. Itís like a casket. Itís like birth and like death. Certain objects have that power to me. A refrigerator onstage is a very powerful image. (laughs) 

Those are almost icons in your plays.
The kitchen has always been my favorite room in the house. The kitchen is where serious conversations happen, where genuine gathering together with family happens, where devastating things happen. Eating. 

So whatís the refrigerator?
I just love finding an object thatís so domestic, so common in life, in an uncommon situation, onstage, as a character. Itís another thing altogether.

What is it onstage?
Well, in the case of Curse of the Starving Class, itís this place where dreams and hopes were contained. Every time the thingís opened, thereís some hoping, some hopeless hoping that goes on. Every time the light comes on, the yearning. We know itís empty. Why keep opening the door? Nobodyís put anything in there! (laughs) 

Then thereís a refrigerator in Henry Moss that only has jalapeno peppers in it.
Right. Yeah. These things bring us back to -- for lack of a better word -- reality. My dadís place had nothing but a rocking chair and a refrigerator in it, and the refrigerator was full of jalapeno peppers or, when he had some money, booze, and that was it. It was not the place for food.

I wonder if you ever find yourself writing a play and saying, Damn, there I go again, another play about two guys exchanging identities or merging identities?
No, I donít care. As long as I have the feeling that Iím investigating something for real, I donít really give a shit how it comes off. (chuckles) 

So Henry Moss has to do with death and having the corpse onstage, which doesnít have anything to do with True West. Simpatico is somewhere in between. 
Yeah. Yeah. (pause) Yeah. (chuckles)

But it doesnít feel like a repetition of True West?
(cagey) Well, do they feel like the same play to you?

In some ways they do. Two guys who are in very different places swap identities. Underneath the surface Simpatico seems to be groping toward something about friendship between two men.
Yeah, Iím very interested in that. I donít know what to say about it, exactly, but a real friendship feels easier between two men. And that friendship covers a huge amount of ground. The one between men and women can too, but not without a sense of conflict.

Thereís another recurring image that shows up in Simpatico -- all these guys lying on the floor paralyzed and canít get up. Is there a meaning beyond the narrative level to that paralysis?
No. Iím interested in characters who have a certain profound sense of helplessness. I think itís a lot closer to the truth than the illusion that people are on top of things, which is the impression you get every day from television, that weíre all on top of it, weíre exquisite performers in our life. Get the SUV and weíre goiní to town. The whole nationís on a winning streak. Which couldnít be further from the truth. Weíre on the biggest losing streak weíve ever had. How many people a month come home from Iraq with limbs missing? Yet weíre supposed to be victorious in this thing. Itís a fucking nightmare. Every day itís brainwashing, that this is a heroic thing weíre involved in. Itís unbelievable bullshit.

So this is some of the stuff that youíre talking about in these plays.
Well, yeah. Iíve always found plays that are overtly political to be extremely boring. Waiting for Lefty. Incredibly boring. And yet at the same time, you have to deal with what's going on in the world. It's difficult now to find material that you feel is pertinent to a whole bunch of people. I'm not quite sure who goes to the theater anymore.

In the Ď60s you were living in New York in the middle of a hotbed of theater that interested you. Then when you were in London you were exposed to a big theater scene there. In California you were part of the Bay Area/Magic Theater community. Now you're ...
In Minnesota (laughs disparagingly).

Yeah -- so do you have a sense of community?
Not beyond family, no. A little bit with the horse thing, but there's not much of one.

Do you miss being attached to an artistic community?
You know, I never did really feel attached. There were certain people like Joe Chaikin that I was attached to, but I didn't feel like I was a member of the Open Theater. At the Magic Theater, there were certain actors I enjoyed working with. But I didn't feel like there was that much of a community.

I'm surprised to hear you say that, because I thought a lot of the work you did in California came from an ongoing connection. But you didn't feel any of that?
No. ĎCourse I've never felt like a member of anything. (laughs)

For the Signature season, you produced a new version of The Tooth of Crime, subtitled (Second Dance). How it was for you to go back and rewrite that play?
I was very excited about it, because I was never satisfied at all with the second act. I tried to get away from the sentimentality and the self-pity of the hero. The demonic aspect of the other character became more interesting to me than the failing hero.

You mean like Faust and Mephistopheles?
Exactly. I felt like there was something inherent in that language I hadn't taken far enough. So I tried to carry it further. I didn't totally succeed. But it was much better than the first version, it was more venomous. One of the inspirations for Tooth of Crime (Second Dance) was working with my old friend T-Bone Burnett, who's now become quite famous for his persistence in finding essential music. [Note: Burnettís soundtrack for Joel and Ethan Coenís film O Brother, Where Art Thou? sparked a revival of interest in Appalachian music.] He wrote some amazing music for the show. Unfortunately, the production got lost in a whole lot of snarls and animosity between producers. I don't know exactly what happened with it. I had a good friend of mine direct it, Bill Hart. Maybe itís better if the director isnít a friend. (laughs) Maybe the play's snakebit. 

What does that mean?
BAD LUCK. (heh heh heh heh) T-Bone called me a month or so ago and said the Coen brothers have an interest in making a movie of it. Iíve always thought Tooth of Crime wonít be finished until the right kind of actors get hold of it. I've always thought Tim Roth would be the ultimate Crow. He would push it to the edge.

Who would be an ideal Hoss for you?
I dunno, Malkovich? Can you imagine Malkovich and Tim Roth? (laughs)

Speaking of how actors can finish roles, I want to ask you about the San Francisco production of Henry Moss and that once-in-a-lifetime cast.
The odd thing was, having that many extraordinary actors onstage, this sort of social phenomenon happened. It became this social event in San Francisco that had nothing whatsoever to do with the play.

Did you realize later you were a little naive about what would happen if you get those guys together in one place?
Totally naive! It never even crossed my mind that this would be a circus for San Francisco socialites. They were very generous, they attended and dressed up and there were cocktail parties and all. But nobody saw the play. They saw Nick, they saw Sean, they saw Woody, they saw Cheech. 

Do you think it harmed the life of the play, that theaters thought, ďOh, we can't do that play unless we have superstarsĒ?
I guess it did. It was a kind of lesson for me. Maybe I shouldn't have directed it. I don't know if it would have been different.

I wanted to ask you about your prose writing, which has developed in a way thatís parallel to your plays. Your later fiction pieces have been more honed, more refined, just as your plays have gotten more attentive to form and structure. Is that right?
Absolutely. It sounds ridiculous, but I'm self-taught. I learn everything by doing it. I wasn't born knowing how to write a play. You do it and hopefully you keep evolving. One really great thing happened was that I discovered Chekhov's short stories. I'm embarrassed to say I didn't really start reading them Ďtil about 5 or 6 years ago. I'd always kind of dismissed Chekhov and didn't really know why. When I came upon the stories, and started really reading and studying them, I couldn't believe it. I read every single one.

What did you get out of them?
How as a craftsman he could apply himself with this dogged attention to detail and come up with these amazing things.

You have a new play.
Yeah.

How many acts?
One act in three scenes, about an hour and a half. So it's like a miniature three-act play. 

How many people?
Four characters, three men, one woman. 

Is it done?
Iíve just finished the second draft. Itís still not where it's supposed to be. Iíve got the tail end of it but Iím having trouble with the way I get to the ending. It's a lot better than the first draft. 

What will you do with it when you're done?
Matthew Warchus is my favorite director of the moment, and he'll probably be able to do it in the fall of 2004. In New York -- I don't want to do the provinces anymore. (heh heh) 

How much do your plays change from draft to draft?
For each draft, I sit down and type through the whole thing, and as I retype I rewrite. It really works, because it causes you to go through it moment by moment like an actor. It's strange the way it happens. Little scenes open up. You discover new dialogue. You go off on little tangents and come back. I much prefer to do that than put Band-Aids on it or cut it open. Iíve never had good luck with that.

OK, last question: What do you know about playwriting now that you wish you'd known when you were starting out?
Like I said, I'm a slow learner. It's taken all of this time to get to where I feel like I can now say I know how to write a play. It's such a strange, strange form. Because it's so dependent on these fragile ingredients. Not the least of which is this thing of the predicament. If you don't have this essential predicament, if it doesn't have real weight, real value, you can write 24 hours a day and it won't amount to anything. 

I love the word you use, predicament. It's very American.
Another way of saying it is stakes, what are the real stakes involved? You can play penny poker or play for the ranch.

What are the stakes in the new play?
They're pretty high. They're pretty damn high. I'm hoping that they'll have repercussions. This is the best play I've written since, maybe...uh, the best play I've written in a long time.

Come on, go out on a limb -- since when?
True West. I knew when I wrote True West it was going to work.

sidebars: 
Shepard and film
Shepard and Jasper Johns
Shepard and Wallace Shawn
Shepard and Gurdjieff

American Theatre, April 2004