Sam, Sam, Mythological Man

David Jones

  • Motel Chronicles and Hawk Moon by Sam Shepard
    Faber, 188 pp, £3.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 571 13458 0
  • Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard
    Ecco, 509 pp, £12.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 88001 077 0

The British media finally caught up with the existence of Sam Shepard some eighteen months ago. He had, after all, just been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Chuck Yeager in the film about the first American astronauts, The Right Stuff. And news of his romance with Jessica Lange, whom he was then partnering in Country, had just broken. Arthur Miller’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe had caught the headlines in the past, but to get the girl and join the top league of male box-office stars at the same time was a new story. There was much dissection of Shepard’s life-style, the subtleties of his sexual attractiveness, his resemblance to Gary Cooper: but only the occasional small paragraph to indicate that the man under discussion was America’s most innovative young dramatist since the late Sixties, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 and certainly hadn’t said goodbye to writing yet.

I would like to think Shepard had some control over the two photographs that made the covers of the Colour Supplements at that time. One showed him down on the ranch, in full cowboy gear, with one of his favourite horses. The other showed him in silver spaceman suit, bubble helmet at the ready, about to enact Chuck Yeager. An ironic delight in role-playing is central to Shepard (the fact that the son of a wartime pilot was playing one of America’s most famous flyers was given an extra dimension by the fact that Shepard refuses ever to fly himself), but so also is the attempt to harness two main impulses of the American character: nostalgia for the straight old days of the West, and pride in a computerised space-age future.

Shepard has always been an elusive man, with an elusive talent. In Motel Chronicles he tells us that his family have named their eldest son Sam through seven generations. But the mothers have always nicknamed the sons, ‘so as not to confuse them with the fathers when hearing their names called in the open air while working side by side in the waist-high wheat’. ‘The sons came to believe their names were the nicknames they heard floating across these fields,’ Shepard continues, ‘and answered to these names building ideas of who they were around the sound never dreaming their real legal name was lying in wait for them written on some paper in Chicago and that name would be the name they’d prefix with “Mr” and that name would be the name they’d die with.’ It’s one of the strengths of Motel Chronicles that a passage as simple as this can share the resonances of some of the major themes in Shepard’s plays: a mythic view of ‘family’ as perhaps the only continuity possible amid the insecurities of modern America; a preoccupation with the father/son relationship (crucial to Paris, Texas and to his latest play Fool for Love); a romantic belief in the virtues of isolated, rural America as opposed to the city deviousness of, say, Chicago; and a fascination with the precariousness of identity and the importance of names, the name given or the name acquired.

Names are important in the theatre. You can gauge a dramatist’s certainty from the rightness of his characters’ names, the inevitability of his titles. Shepard has written over forty plays in little over twenty years and there’s hardly a dud title among them. Geography of a Horse Dreamer, The Tooth of Crime, Suicide in b Flat, Icarus’s Mother, Cowboy Mouth, Forensic and the Navigators: they all arouse expectation without explaining or revealing. The fairground barkers of the old Midwest would have appreciated the technique. Shepard even got to work on his own name. Junked the family name of Rogers and took his second name of Shepard in its place. Samuel Rogers became Sam Shepard.

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