Is Sam Shepard the John Wayne of our times? Or is he the Son of Wayne, struggling with the tall man’s dark side? It is typical of our times that we demand answers and that -- essentially silly -- the answer has to be ambiguous.
Most of us know Shepard as an actor in which he often represents “Wayne-ness,” the hard-bitten guy in charge who has no doubts. But his “shtick” seems to be trying to escape from relentless men like that, which is represented as being caused by his tough bomber pilot father, who was a teacher (as was his mother) when it wasn’t wartime. But my uncle was a bomber pilot in WWII, a calm, dependable, near-stoic guy. No signs of being a tyrant or reckless with anyone’s lives. No alcoholism. No bankruptcy. TWA airline pilot most of his life. I don’t know that he ever wrote anything at all, nor has his son.
The most “un-Wayne” part of Shepard is his participation in the Sixties/Seventies renaissance of culture. The Sons of WWII were Vietnam-napalmed. Shepard was in Manhattan for the crossover in theatre from representation to evocation. He had written thirty produced Broadway plays by the time he was thirty and lived with Patti Smith for a while. Hard to imagine John Wayne with the Mapplethorpe crowd, though it would be interesting to see just how those short legs attached to that massive torso. Not enough dialogue out of Wayne’s mouth onscreen or off to tell us much. Hard to imagine him producing Sam’s quips, as follows:
Collaboration - that's the word producers use. That means, don't forget to kiss ass from beginning to end.
Personality is everything that's false in a human, everything that's been added on to him and contrived.
I was different on drugs - crystal Methedrine, which had more of an edge. When you walked down the street, your heels made sparks.
Don't you find it kind of self-indulgent for actors to go around writing parts for themselves?
There are places where writing is acting and acting is writing. I'm not so interested in the divisions. I'm interested in the way things cross over.
You're still much more afraid of the audience, and yet, on the other hand, you desperately want to plunge into new territory. So every once in a while, the opportunity to make this leap gets handed to you. It's like jumping into cold water.
It's one of the great tragedies of our contemporary life in America, that families fall apart. Almost everybody has that in common.
I didn't go out of my way to get into this movie stuff. I think of myself as a writer.
[on Harry Dean Stanton] He is one of those actors who knows that his face is the story.
Sam Shepard's face
I’m not addressing Sam Shepard the actor and playwright in this post. Rather this is meant to be a response to “Great Dream of Heaven” which is an anthology of short stories -- VERY short stories, most of them two-handed conversations very much like the constant life-long exchanges between Sam and his great friend Johnnie Dark. They are not about sex or about being heroes. Usually they illustrate intimacy of some sort, the frustration when that doesn’t fit with the mold of “family,” and the pressing necessity to make money -- which means “success,” whatever the hell that is. Family has as much to do with the genetic connection between generations as with gender-assigned tasks and roles, and is in tension with the desire for freedom to come and go.
I just read a murder mystery called “Montana,” which was written by Gwen Florio, a competent immersive book I don’t hesitate to recommend for those who like that genre and aren’t picky about details of Blackfeet life, but I was chiefly impressed that Florio evidently pulled so many of her intelligent and enthusiastic friends into the development of the book. She is a journalist, which might have something to do with it. It’s like writing that’s been in workshop or classroom development. Many fingerprints.
But Sam Shepard is absolutely at the opposite end of the scale: he writes personally, drawing on his own life in ways sometimes trivial and sometimes from his core. Writing like this means enormous vulnerability. Shepard is afraid of flying, afraid of being revealed -- or at least exposed -- and with the strategy of a counter-phobe -- dares the edges of bankruptcy all the time. Need for money forces the ideas out of him but also, just in passing, he captures moments on the road. His craving for intimacy fights with his need to help his children, his woman, to be there for friends, which triggers panicked escape with only a dog or horse. His desire for the status and access of celebrityhood runs headlong into his contempt for people who see only surfaces and who try to fasten onto him. He feels terrifying responsibility in the face of inability to accept blame.
Don’t ask me how to solve these dilemmas because I don’t know and I didn’t learn any solutions from Sam’s short stories -- just saw the substrate for his stage plays. The acting in movies is a representation, not him at all, which is how John Wayne acted. Much of it depends upon the material culture of the American SW which the camera loves and which Shepard really knows, lives, and yet maybe more in reflection than in practice. He loves to sit on his verandah, absorbing the idea of it.
The sequence available on YouTube called “Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself” (1997, PBS) is very helpful. He says a play is “sending a telegram” about being in the world, the danger and the blame and the obligation to survive anyway. “Nobody saw him but me.” The desire of a woman to “fix” her man, to heal him, can be congruent with the son’s desire to do the same for his father. So Sam was both a receiver and a giver, but fathers can't be fixed. In the end the testosterone and the cock fights are distractions. The real issue is more like what I’ve been talking about as the “circle” inside of which one is safe, believing, comforted -- but outside of which one realizes that it’s all arbitrary, undependable, and can only be addressed by going like a tumbleweed across the great peneplain of the West.
In the end, John Wayne is just not relevant. In a play that is a dialogue (he says, “I realized that you only need two or three people and you can stage a play.”) -- the woman is challenged to name her favorite cowboy actor. Gary Cooper. It is Gary Cooper who is the mix of sophistication (which is a kind of alienation) and simple reality that define the Sam Shepard circumference and crossing back and forth over that line makes the drama happen. There’s a certain amount of hallucination, mirage, involved. Also, a musician’s sensitivity to timing, rhythm, emphasis, elision.
The short stories in “Great Dream of Heaven” are like pencil sketches on a Denny’s napkin while pausing on a cross-continental journey with no particular goal. The waitress pauses. “More coffee, cowboy?”
Do not forsake me, oh mah darlin’. But he does. He can't help it.