Matthew Roudane, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard.
At a session on play development at the 2003 Mid-America Theatre conference, an MFA candidate in playwriting complained about the attitudes of actors and directors who not only suggest changes to her plays but also make them. A veteran of play development battles advised her to adopt Sam Shepard's tactic: whenever the "developers" invaded, Shepard abandoned the play and wrote a new one. He moved on. This may be good advice for freelance playwrights. It may not fit MFA candidates staring at the fourteenth draft of a thesis play. They can have in hope, however, that someday the36 too, will evade their collaborators.
The Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard does not confirm the veteran's story, but nothing in it makes the story improbable either. Throughout this collection of seventeen essays, Shepard eludes his admirers (and with one exception, they are all admirers). Why should they be any more successful than anybody else? For forty years, Shepard has eluded his audiences. Uniquely among American writers, not just playwrights, he switches between writing and acting. His characters shake off commitments and flee their pasts through violence. His plays swerve past critics, taking inspiration more from myths and music than from theater and literature. There is no essay here, for instance, on Shepard's reading. As readers wend their way toward the really useful bibliography of this collection, they may be asking themselves whether Shepard possesses a multitalented genius or suffers from a sort of professional ADHD? They may be forgiven the inference that Shepard is driven by a deep, lifelong wish to be a pop star. To him, the work of stage and screen rank third-and second-best to the pleasures of jazz improvisation and the blasting rhythms and screaming lyrics of rock and roll.
I doubt that Roudane gave instructions to this effect, but every essay conveys a feeling of anxiety about Shepard. Like the ghosts that have always fascinated him, who he is and what he's about seems always to slip away from the writers at the moment they almost catch him. The feeling even bleeds into some of the essay titles: Christopher Bigsby's "Born Injured: The Theatre of Sam Shepard," Stephen J. Bottoms's "Shepard and Off-Off-Broadway: The Unseen Hand of Theatre Genesis," Thomas P. Adler's "Repetition and Regression in Curse of the Starving Class," Carla J. McDonough's "Patriarchal Pathology from The Holy Ghostly to Silent Tongue" (emphasis added). The underlined words connote a view of Shepard's plays and career, and even Shepard himself, as, finally, only partly knowable because too much remains volatile, scarred, or buried.
The remaining titles have the functional neutrality expected in a quasi-reference volume: Matthew Roudane, "Shepard on Shepard: An Interview," and "Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss"; Joseph Chaikin, "A Note on Sam Shepard"; Marc Robinson, "Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard in Collaboration"; Brenda Murphy, "Shepard Writes about Writing"; Leslie Kane, "Reflections of the Past in True West and Lie of the Mind"; John M. Clum, "The Classic Western and Sam Shepard's Family Sagas"; Johan Callens, "European Textures: Adapting Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus"; Kimball King, "Sam Shepard and the Cinema"; David J. DeRose, "Sam Shepard as Musical Experimenter"; Ann C. Hall, "Sam Shepard's Nondramatic Works"; Leslie A Wade, "States of Shock, Simpatico, and Eyes for Consuela: Sam Shepard's Plays of the 1990s"; and Susan C.W. Abbotson, "Sam Shepard: A Bibliographic Essay and Production Overview." But one does not have to read closely to discern the authors' perplexity.
An example of my point may be found in the essay by Brenda Murphy, a scholar always worth reading on American playwrights. The opening paragraph presents Shepard's postmodernist credentials as concisely as one would like: "His stage reality is layered and fragmented, his characters sometimes intersubjective and transformational. He juxtaposes borrowing from and allusions to popular culture with those of history and high culture in an often free-form playful way. culture with those of history and high culture in an often free-form playful way. He often uses sets that call attention to the theatres existence as theatre, and invites acting techniques that call attention to the actor as performer and the play as performance" (123). Then Murphy inflicts whiplash on readers by writing: "His conception of the playwright's art, however, is far from the distant, ironic stance of the postmodern artist ... Shepard has a great affinity with the American Romanticism of nineteenth century Transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman. Unlike theirs, however, Shepard's is a dark Romanticism, closer to the Gothic imagination of Poe or the cosmic despair of Melville..." (123). Within a paragraph, Shepard beckons this exceptionally able critic to trail him on his errand from the sunny uplands of the twenty-first century into the insufferable gloom beside the black and lurid tarns of the nineteenth century.
Murphy extends this example in her discussion of Shepard's concept of dramatic character. After stating the postmodernist "rule" on character-"characters have no essential self but are sites of continually shifting subjectivity" (125), she quotes Shepard himself on the opposite track: "I think character is something that can't be helped, it's like destiny. It's something that's essential ... it's like the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins" (125). This statement comes from a 1993 interview with Shepard by Carol Rosen that appeared in Modern Drama. But Murphy then admits into evidence some lines from Shepard's "Note to the Actors" of 1984 that character is"a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme. In other words, more in terms of collage construction or jazz improvisation" (125). Philosophically and morally, Shepard is an essentialist but dramaturgically he is postmodernist.
Now, on the frontier there's no law against being both an essentialist and a postmodernist, but it is unusual on a campus. The trouble is that critics tracking Shepard risk being stranded in a box canyon in which he abandons them. Having corralled them once again, Shepard, ever the agile rider, blazes a route only his keen eye discerns to the ridges above, then nimbly leaps to an adjacent mesa.
Something like this happens in each essay, each is a box canyon into which Shepard leads us. This is not to say that the essays lack grit or good sense. Each tracks Shepard as far as it can. In fact, I learned something useful about Shepard from each one. Because I am interested in playwrights' early careers, for instance, I found Bottoms's essay on Shepard's beginnings with Theatre Genesis especially engaging. Moreover, I cannot imagine that anyone will soon write a more judicious, readable-in-one-sitting survey of Shepard's oeuvre than Bigsby has. King's analysis of Shepard's acting, screenwriting, and the filmed versions of his plays opens vital lines of inquiry for any scholar wishing to follow them, for example, Shepard's "fascination with the spiritual world" I was less enamored cause I am less enamored of Doctor Faustus, not Callens. Leslie Wades sifting of the 1990s plays, on the other hand, will nourish those less enamored of Shepard. And so on.
The order of the essays follows the development of Shepard's career. This arrangement reminds us that the timing of Shepard's birth conferred advantages on him. Getting an MFA in playwriting in the late 1960s, for instance, was a lot less convenient then than it is now, because there were many fewer programs. Such was never a choice for Shepard in any case. And by the time an MFA was possible, he could say, as did Harvard's eminent Shakespearean scholar George Lyman Kittredge when asked why he never took the Ph.D, "Who would examine me?" Just as well. Shepard never would have thrived in a playwriting class, anyway. No wonder he makes us nervous.
ARVID 17. SPONBERG
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|Author:||Sponberg, Arvid F.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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