True Grit

Christopher Tayler

  • Great Dream of Heaven by Sam Shepard
    Secker, 142 pp, £10.00, November 2002, ISBN 0 436 20594 7

Sam Shepard found his stride in the mid-1970s, and for the next few years there seemed to be few places it couldn’t take him. He had already made a name for himself as an Off-Off-Broadway playwright, and the movie business had been sniffing around him, too. But his earliest plays were deeply rooted in the 1960s – they were feverish, one-draft performance pieces, mostly – and for a long time Shepard had also been hampered by his dreams of becoming a rock star. He played in a band, the Holy Modal Rounders, and his early plays often required their casts to ‘do the frug onstage’. Character, his actors were instructed, should be treated ‘in terms of collage construction or jazz improvisation’; and there was a similar touch of self-conscious experimentalism in Shepard’s space cowboy persona. Bob Dylan, he admiringly observed, ‘has invented himself. He’s made himself up from scratch. That is, from the things he had around him and inside him. Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn’t to figure him out but to take him in.’

If Shepard’s earliest plays now need to be filed under ‘of their time’ (and Shepard has indicated that they do), it’s partly because he seems excessively concerned with the outward trappings of the counter-cultural scene: ‘the things he had around him’, in other words. As for the things ‘inside him’ – well, those were what he was trying to escape from in the first place: his wandering childhood in the South-West; his drunken, violent, misanthropic father; his apprenticeship after high school in animal husbandry. Some time in the 1970s, however, Shepard seems to have come to terms with the inescapability of personal heritage: a ‘hidden, secret pattern . . . of belief and behaviour’, as one of his characters was later to put it, that ‘accrued to us imperceptibly’ and ‘had nothing to do with who we thought we were’. More prosaically, he learned the value of rewriting. And he produced the mournful cycle of ‘family plays’ – Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (1978), True West (1980) and Fool for Love (1983) – on which his reputation as a dramatist still rests. These Americanised the idiom of Beckett and Pinter, mixing family melodrama with absurdist farce in an increasingly accomplished way. They were also packed with monstrous fathers, mixed-up kids and rural poverty.

At the same time, Shepard forged a career as a brooding and laconic leading man. He acted for Bob Dylan in Renaldo and Clara (1978), and in the same year played his breakthrough role, the rich farmer in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. He was handsome, butch, gum-chewing and easy-going as Chuck Yeager, the test pilot, in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) – by which time his long-term relationship with Jessica Lange had begun on the set of Frances (1982). And he found time to work on screenplays, too, contributing to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) and, most famously, Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984).

Since then, though, Shepard’s career has been marked by inertia or falling off. He has become a legend and an institution; his plays have been revived successfully – most recently in a triumphant Broadway True West, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternating the two main roles – and last year also saw the publication of the very useful Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard.[*] But his later plays have often seemed clotted, hyper-masculine, forced, and his ventures into movie direction – Far North (1988) and Silent Tongue (1993), which he also wrote – were badly received. He has acted frequently, usually in supporting roles, although he played the lead in Volker Schlöndorff’s Voyager (1991). Mostly, though, the films have been undistinguished. Shepard played Dolly Parton’s husband in Steel Magnolias (1989), a John Grisham cut-out in The Pelican Brief (1993), and a senator in Swordfish (2001), a movie which starred Halle Berry’s breasts. And what was the author of Operation Sidewinder, with its hippy satire on the US military, doing in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001)?

Still, Shepard has always seemed to be in two minds about the movie business, and about the status of acting in general. Compromised artists, troubled actors and imperfectly self-fashioned men litter his pages, and his writing has thrived on notions of inner conflict and self-division. In True West, for instance, the main characters are brothers: one is a commercial screenwriter, the other a desert-dwelling wild man. Each represents a different side of Shepard’s persona, but – as their doublings and role-reversals indicate – a symbiotic relationship underlies their surface antagonism. Shepard likes to put a meta-theatrical emphasis on the need for acting, pretending, playing a social role – Travis in Paris, Texas has to learn how to ‘look like a father’ with the directorial assistance of the Mexican maid. But his stand-ins are also impatient with play-acting – ‘Men turning themselves into advertisements of Men’ – and yearn for some absolute authenticity. This is usually associated with nature, country ways, myths of the West and the frontier; Shepard also seems to have some kind of mystical thing with Indians. But the old myths don’t work any more, and the characters are anyway too deracinated to find much comfort in them. In the end, both the actors-out and the seekers-of-authenticity are afflicted by an ultimate emptiness: as the brothers in True West are finally told, ‘you’ll probably wind up on the same desert sooner or later.’

This isn’t a cheerful prospect, and it’s only fair to say that Shepard’s plays do show some signs of a sense of humour. This is less often the case with his prose collections, however, of which there have been four: Hawk Moon (1973), Motel Chronicles (1982), Cruising Paradise (1996) and now Great Dream of Heaven. Some of the production-diary sections in Cruising Paradise – which obviously relate to the making of Voyager – are amusing, if rueful, about the logistic and ego-management problems of film-making. But in general the mood of Shepard’s short stories and sketches hovers somewhere between mild dejection and utter bleakness. Shepard doesn’t fly, and so knows quite a lot about shabby motel rooms, desolate roadsides and flyblown one-horse towns. The children in his stories tend to have volatile, violent fathers; the men often leave their wives, or are left themselves, or struggle like lonesome wife-beaters with ‘the demonic attachment of a man for his only woman’. (There’s more than a touch of ‘can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em’ here.) And many are treated to glimpses of the nothingness of personality: ‘He was about to speak, but Who to? he thought. Speak what? On whose behalf? Emptiness filled him completely. It seemed to rush through him.’ It comes as no surprise that the photos in Motel Chronicles are credited to one ‘Johnny Dark’.

Shepard’s prose collections have grown increasingly polished, though. Hawk Moon is a grab-bag of rants from the years when punctuation was an optional, perhaps faintly reactionary extra. Motel Chronicles is an atmospheric selection of sketches, poems, mood pieces and reminiscences, with a likeable, cod-Blakean addiction to capital letters (‘The clear sight of Time standing still . . . sounds of the Land . . . The Great Tailed Grackle Laughing . . . the Meadow Lark . . . Leafless Live Oak’). Cruising Paradise, on the other hand, claims to be made up of finished ‘Tales’, and the latest book has graduated to ‘Stories’. Great Dream of Heaven certainly shows a developing interest in the short story as a form, but it’s also padded out – like most of Shepard’s collections – with squibs, monologues and dialogue pieces.

The most successful of the stories are spare without being abrupt, bringing a sense of mystery and transcendence to their down-at-heel, Raymond Carverish situations. The natural world is often placed in counterpoint to human transactions; in ‘Blinking Eye’, for instance, a woman driving her mother’s ashes to her funeral has an unsettling roadside encounter with a wounded hawk. Animals feature in a number of the stories, figured as irruptions of the primal into a deadening and artificial human environment – ‘silicon computer hell’, as one piece puts it. A trip to the mall in Midwestern consumer-land leaves the narrator of ‘An Unfair Question’ in a particularly grim state of mind, although he seems to derive some gloomy satisfaction from the sight of a row of out-of-business storefronts: ‘The plate-glass windows of each store were blocked out halfway up with brown butcher paper, I guess to keep people from looking in at all the emptiness.’ (Time to get in touch with Johnny Dark.) But most people are half-consciously trapped in shallow roles, which shield them from the desolation all around. One woman makes ‘a gesture she’d picked up from too much daytime television’. Another has ‘an anguished, perplexed look, as if she’s done way too much time in psychotherapy’. Yet another is ‘captured by her function; her motherhood; her basic survival kit’.

Shepard’s men have little time for the pleasures of society, and none at all for small talk (‘Bush-bashing or Tiger Woods-fawning’). They are magnetically drawn to women, and sometimes to family life, but this attraction can always turn into its opposite. Either that, or the current is mysteriously shut off, causing a ‘panic of aloneness’. ‘I don’t know what causes that to happen – that connection – anymore,’ says the speaker in ‘Convulsion’. Worse still, according to ‘The Stout of Heart’, ‘there might not have ever been one to begin with . . . there might not ever be.’ Late at night, the narrator of ‘All the Trees Are Naked’ watches the end of The Third Man with his wife, and makes ‘the leap of feeling toward the impossible gap between men and women’. ‘How long ago was it when I first kissed her,’ he wonders, ‘and who was I pretending to be?’

This gets a bit repetitive, and it’s quite a relief when one of these moody solitaries is confronted with a different point of view. In Shepard’s previous collections, the stories about children were generally set in the 1940s or 1950s. This is also the case with ‘The Remedy Man’ in the new book, but elsewhere the characters have children of their own – modern kids who regard their parents’ antics with bemusement. ‘My dad’s fucking crazy,’ the child-narrator of ‘Berlin Wall Piece’ says. ‘I didn’t realise it for a long time but he is.’ In this story, the father’s Shepardesque received ideas – that ‘reality is an “internal affair” and . . . the news is all lies’ – are successfully challenged by his daughter’s persistent questioning. But such things don’t happen very often in the rest of the book.

Great Dream of Heaven has an excellent title story, and a few of the other pieces could probably stand alone as well. But it’s a scrappy collection, and it’s hard to imagine it attracting much attention without the imprimatur of Shepard’s name. Like many playwrights, he’s not always content simply to dramatise his themes: the characters have to make speeches about them, too. And while the world he describes is one he has made his own, it has also developed its own internal clichés of action and emotion, which sometimes come with clichés of language as well: ‘regular as clockwork’, people have ‘totally conflicting emotions’ and so on. Another collaboration with Wim Wenders is on its way, but in the meantime it’s not easy to avoid a creeping suspicion that Shepard has played himself too well, or got bored of the role.

[*] Edited by Matthew Rondane (Cambridge, 352pp., £14.95, May 2002, 0 521 77766 6).