5 Notes on Biography and Theater

When an editor from a paperback publishing house approached me in 1984 to write a biography of Sam Shepard, I knew what he wanted. Shepard had recently left his wife and begun a much-publicized romance with actress Jessica Lange. I knew that the publisher expected a breezy survey of Shepard's career as a playwright and as much gossip as I could dig up about Shepard and Lange. I knew that wasn't enough for me. Even for a hungry young journalist who'd never tackled a book-length project, the prospect of writing an absolutely premature (Shepard was barely 40), adamantly unauthorized biography was faintly ludicrous to begin with. And since it was pretty clear that I wouldn't have access to my subject in person, I needed some personal incentive to sustain me over the months of research and writing the book would require.

I had read enough about Shepard to suspect that the most powerful male relationship in his life was with his father, a veteran of the armed forces from a poor farming family who drank heavily and was prone to fits of violent rage. The same could be said of me. So I felt confident that, at the very least, I could bring an understanding of what it's like to grow up as a peripatetic Army brat as well as some insight about being the sensitive and literary-minded only son of an uneducated farmer. At the time I was consumed with the need to conceal my insecurity about undertaking this arrogant project of writing a living man's biography. Looking back, I realize there was another hidden desire: to tell my own story through his.

The opportunity came in surprising ways. The most poignant period of Shepard's life, to me, was the late '70s, when Shepard, though certainly the most famous playwright of his generation, was barely making ends meet. His father would scribble abject notes from Santa Fe asking to borrow money to pay his doctor bills; O-Lan, his wife, was considering taking in ironing. When he finished writing Curse of the Starving Class, he confessed to his agent he couldn't even afford to make a photocopy of it. As I wrote the final paragraphs of this chapter, which ended with the telegram informing Shepard that he'd won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child, I found myself weeping as I typed. It wasn't the Rocky-like triumph-over-adversity that moved me. When you come from a humble background, worldly success is not an unmixed joy. In fact, it induces a kind of dread. I spent my formative years living in a trailer park on a dirt road in Waco, Texas. Today my parents still live in a trailer park in Texas, and I live in midtown Manhattan, halfway between Trump Tower and Carnegie Hall. But not a day goes by that I don't think of myself as a kid from the trailer park. Writing Shepard's life story, I had a moment of understanding how lonely it is for your identity to be defined by your distance from your roots. No matter how far you go, some part of you stays back there. No wonder Shepard's plays are full of brother-twins, guys who made it and their deadbeat doubles.

Speaking about his play True West, which he dedicated to his father, Shepard once said, "I never intended the play to be a documentary of my personal life. It's always a mixture. But you can't get away from certain personal elements. I don't want to get away from certain personal elements that you use as hooks in a certain way. The further I get away from those personal things the more in the dark I am."



Artists understandably resent attempts to reduce their creative work to autobiography. But clearly, somewhere, the artist's imagination intersects with the observed or remembered details of a personal history. And in the theater, it's not just the writer who's mixing wild imagination with personal history but the director, the choreographer, the designer, the performer, consciously or unconsciously weaving their own stories into the author's. And we in the audience filter what we see through our own biographies. Some works operate from such a culturally specific perspective that there's really only one way to read them; we take them in as information, but our own truths remain unstirred. One measure of the greatest art is that it allows people from all periods and cultures to find themselves in the work. It's a magic kingdom reachable by many roads.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a five-part quasi-journalistic investigation into a small-town tragedy. On her wedding night, a young woman is returned to her family by her new husband, furious that she turned out not to be a virgin bride. Battered by her mother and pressed by her brothers, she names the man who "dishonored" her, whom her brothers track down and publicly execute with butcher knives. Published in 1981, the novella is based on a true story that happened in Marquez's Colombian hometown thirty years earlier. Although he was out of town when the incident occurred, Marquez knew all the participants and quickly heard the details of the story. He considered writing something about it then, but an editor friend suggested it would be better to let the story settle in his head; besides, his mother asked him to wait until relatives of hers involved in the story were dead. Telling the story over the years, he felt the plot had "a leg missing" until a friend suggested that the estranged husband and wife be reunited at the end. Then the story became more than the account of an atrocious crime: it was, he said, "the secret history of a terrible love."

When the Argentinian-born director and choreographer Graciela Daniele read Chronicle of a Death Foretold, she knew she wanted to adapt it for the stage as a musical, but she didn't know why. Her collaborator and dramaturg Jim Lewis assigned her the task of sitting down with the novella and making a list of the scenes she knew she could present visually. First and foremost among these was the wedding banquet.

"When I was doing the wedding, my only intention was to illustrate through dance what Marquez called in the novel 'the wildest party anybody had ever seen,'" says Daniele. "We were rehearsing at Juilliard, where the stage is on the floor with the seats going up, and I was always sitting at the top of the bleachers looking down. But when we finally did the first run-through, I sat on the bottom step looking up. Then it hit me! I was at my great-grandmother's house in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, where we would go for Christmas and birthdays. She had 12 daughters and one son. I remember being at a wedding when I was a little kid and sitting on the floor in the pantry watching people dancing, getting drunk, the fights over there, and the pig running through the middle. And when I looked at the wedding, I realized, 'Omigod, this is what I remember as an infant!' I must have been five or six at the time, and once I left Argentina I never thought about it.

"It wasn't a conscious choice to put that wedding onstage. In fact, it was only the placement of my body, sitting on the step looking up, that brought me back to being little and being afraid of this craziness going on. You know, Latin people are very loud! They sing and dance, the women cooking all the time and feeding you, the orgiastic family excesses -- it was beautiful and scary at the same time for a little child."


Three examples from Trevor Nunn:

On Peter Grimes: "I was very drawn to Benjamin Britten's opera because I was born just 12 miles away from the town where the opera takes place in East Anglia on the Suffolk coast. Often the opera is understood as the study of a psychotic character, Peter. Or it's done as a study of brutality. Or the opera exists as a metaphor for the homosexual minority in society. Listening to it and preparing it, I realized that I knew the Suffolk coastline very well. I knew those village communities, I knew their work ethic, I knew the hypocritical puritanism of the community. Prostitution is happening, and it's known about, and drug-taking, and the drunkenness of a Methodist minister. But so long as they remain hidden, it's all right. Therefore, somebody who isn't a member of the community becomes a threat, almost like an inquiring eye, or a judgmental figure. My version of the opera was based on a continuous autobiographical experience and on particular memories of behavior you see in pubs, for instance, how all the men sit in one group and the women sit apart in another group. But mainly I saw that Grimes doesn't have to be any kind of weirdo to make the whole thing work. He only has to be private, somebody who won't involve himself in other people's lives, for everything to fall in place."

On Comedy of Errors: "In 1976 I went away on holiday with my friend John Napier, who was going to design Comedy of Errors for me at the Royal Shakespeare Company. We went to Corfu, for no other reason than that it was a nice sunny place to go. When we got there, we realized that Comedy of Errors in set on the Aegean Sea and it presents the Greek way of life very accurately. John and I were staying in a small village where there were two tavernes. One of them had red tables and chairs, the other had blue tables and chairs. They were on opposite sides of the main street, and they were in deadly competition for all the trade going through. The waiters danced and sang and tried to outdo each other. Continuing our work on Comedy of Errors, I realized there was a tavern and what's referred to as 'another house in town,' where the courtesan worked, so we could actually be talking about two rival tavernes. In short order, the production transformed itself into a modern dress situation: two young guys arriving on holiday in this Greek island, and suddenly everywhere they go they're being greeted by people who apparently know them, including the dancing waiters at these two rival tavernes. The entire show was a kind of postcard from that holiday."

On Arcadia: "I felt qualified to undertake Tom Stoppard's play because at Oxford I studied at the feet of Dr. Leavis, who had this notorious squabble with the novelist C.P. Snow in the early 1960s, a squabble defined by the term, 'The Two Cultures,' science vs. art. The educational system was tending toward specialization, and that was destroying all sorts of connections between them. I happen to think Leavis was on the wrong side of the argument. But I recognized in Arcadia a clear set of references to it. The biographer Bernard says, 'There's only one Chater in the British Library's database.' He's asked, 'Same period?' He answers, 'Yes, but he wasn't a poet like our Ezra. He was a botanist.' When he's confronted with the truth of things, Bernard howls at the top of his lungs, 'But he wasn't a botanist! He was a poet!' In the modern thinking, scientist and artist are two branches of study. All you have to do is to have an early 19th century habit of mind to realize it's entirely possible to be a poet and a botanist.

"It has to be said that everything concerned with mathematics and chaos theory and the second theory of thermodynamics and quantum physics and relativity -- the references that the play sprays out at regular intervals panicked me no end. Indeed, I am literary, I am not a scientist. But I can say that I had an invigorating dinner sitting next to Germaine Greer once that obviously contributed to defining the character of Hannah."


Biography no less than art is the process of constructing narrative from a life's vast database, transforming prosaic details into poetry through selection, shaping, speculation. "The imagination," says the central character in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, "that's God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable."

Here's Sam Shepard in an interview, describing his last glimpse of his father, whose remains were buried in a veterans' cemetery in Santa Fe:

"I had my dad cremated, you know? There wasn't much left of him to begin with. They give you this box with the ashes in it. The box is like it's got a spotlight on it or something, because that's him, and yet it's just this little leather box.

"Two objects are the centerpieces of the service, the box and a little folded-up flag. I kept staring at the box the whole time I was reading. I was reading these Lorca poems he liked. Then the service was over and everybody got up -- we had it outdoors under a tent -- and everybody started to walk away. I turned back and saw that the box and the flag were still sitting on the table. Nobody was there, and I wondered if I was supposed to take the box or...I walked over and I picked up the box and I was...it was so heavy. You wouldn't think that the ashes of a man would be that heavy.

"I saw these two little Mexican guys sitting in a green truck with shovels in the back. They were waiting for everybody to clear out so they could come get the box and put it in the hole. So I put the box back on the table and left. I waited by the car and watched until they went over and picked him up. It was a funny kind of moment."

Here's the same scene as it appears in the stage directions at the end of act one of A Lie of the Mind. Jake is onstage alone in his mother's house, wearing boxer shorts and his father's leather flight jacket:

"All the rest of the lights black out except for a tight spotlight on his father's box of ashes. Jake crosses back to the box, picks it up, opens it and stares into it for a second. He blows lightly into the box sending a soft puff of ashes up into the beam of the spotlight. Spotlight fades slowly to black."

Published in the Lincoln Center Theater Review, Spring 1995

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