Sam Shepard, voice of the starving class, now flying with the eagles

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text (not including citations) copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

For Martin, with deepest condolences.

Imagine if, in yesterday’s story on the death of Jeanne Moreau, I’d written, “France today is mourning a great singer, who also happened to make a few good films.” This was more or less the ignorant turn that French public radio played on Sam Shepard — whose death Thursday in Kentucky at the age of 73 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, was announced Monday — in reporting that America had lost one of its great actors, who, by the way, as a sideline wrote a few good plays. In fact, it was the opposite. For all his distinction as a character actor, depicting a certain weathered breed of the archetypal Western man, the cinema would not have been much different had Sam Shepard never graced its screens. But where theater is concerned, Shepard was not merely the signature voice of his generation, but the first to formulate a dramatic language which elevated to poetic heights the lingo of an American lower-middle class whose denizens are often relegated to being described as living on society’s ‘underside’ but who are in reality the outcasts of a world “geared to invisible money” where, as Weston continues in “The Curse of the Starving Class” (written in 1976),

You never hear the sound of change anymore. It’s all plastic shuffling back and forth. It’s all in everybody’s heads. So I figured if that’s the case, why not take advantage of it? If it’s all an idea and nothing’s really there, why not take advantage? So I went along with it, that’s all. I just played ball.

Of course, what Weston doesn’t realize is that the game is rigged. And it is the conniptions that result from such dashed hopes, and how they set off  often lethal familial contortions pre-determined by an American idyll constructed on high hopes and premised on their fulfillment, that Shepard explored. If the family traumas that serve as powder kegs for these tragedies are often stored in the basement (just as this territory often forms the most dreaded realm in our own nightmares), Shepard probed beyond this already slippery terrain, drilling through the basement floor and mining the entrails of family dynamics, using his pen like a coal miner uses a flashlight, to illuminate its darkest recesses. If his dialogues and scenarios could be earthy, rogue, and gritty — “The Tooth of Crime,” the first play I saw by him (at San Francisco’s New College) was a sort of Western punk rock opera that could have been scripted by Goth rocker Nick Cave — he was also eminently literary, weaving tapestries as rich in imagery and colloquial rhythm as Faulkner’s.

Growing up immersed in studying and making theater in San Francisco, I felt like Shepard was part of my extended dramatic family. Many of his first successes premiered at the Magic Theater, which also introduced several plays by a cousin, Martin Epstein (in one of which my younger brother made his own debut). My best friend from conservatory went on to play the manipulative lawyer Taylor in a professional-scale production of ‘Curse,’ by a director who had worked with Shepard at the Magic, at the University of California at Davis. Not long afterwards, another conservatory cohort starred as Emma (loosely modeled on Sam’s sister) in an early Magic mounting of ‘Curse.’ So it was only natural that when I finally made my own long-dreamed of debut on the New York stage at the age of 50, it was by playing Weston. If I already knew that Shepard’s characters were prone to bare their naked emotions (and bodies) at the slightest provocation, it was this inside perspective that revealed to me their authentically poignant human frailty.

The following monologue, with which Weston opens the second scene of the second act of “The Curse of the Starving Class,” captures the trap forged by the combination of the rotting American dream and that incurable American optimism which yields so many American tragedies. Later in the play, just before he takes off for Mexico fleeing debtors, Weston will proclaim: “I can’t run out on everything…. ‘CAUSE THIS IS WHERE I SETTLED DOWN! THIS IS WHERE THE LINE ENDED! RIGHT HERE! I MIGRATED TO THIS SPOT! I GOT NOWHERE TO GO! THIS IS IT! BACKED RIGHT UP TO THE PACIFIC DAMN OCEAN!” When the following, earlier scene opens, he’s sobered up, shaved, and donned a fresh shirt. The speech, delivered as he’s folding clothes he’s just laundered, is addressed to a lamb he’s just wormed. A last burst of American optimism — flying towards the Sun fueled by lamb testicles — before Weston becomes the sacrificial lamb to this idol.

There’s worse things than maggots ya know. Much worse. Maggots go away if they’re properly attended to. If you got someone around who can take the time. Who can recognize the signs. Who brings ya in out of the cold, wet pasture and sets ya up in a cushy situation like this. No lamb ever had it better. It’s warm. It’s free of draft, now that I got the new door up. There’s no varmints. No coyotes. No eagles. No — (Looks over at lamb.) Should I tell ya something about eagles? This is a true story. This is a true account. One time I was out in the fields doing the castrating, which is a thing that has to be done. It’s not my favorite job, but it’s something that just has to be done. I’d set myself up right beside the lean-to out there. Just a little tin roof-shelter thing out there with my best K-bar knife, some boiling water and a hot iron to cauterize with. It’s a bloody job on all accounts. Well, I had maybe two dozen spring ram lambs to do out there. I had ’em all gathered up away from the ewes in much the same kinda’ set up as you got right there. Similar fence structure like that. It was a crisp, bright type a’ morning. Air was real thin and you could see all the way out across the pasture land. Frost was still well bit down on the stems, right close to the ground. Maybe a couple a’ crows and the ewes carrying on about their babies, and that was the only sound. Well, I was working away out there when I feel this shadow cross over me. I could feel it even before I saw it take shape on the ground. Felt like the way it does when the clouds move across the sun. Huge and black and cold like. So I look up, half expecting a buzzard or maybe a red-tail, but what hits me across the eyes is this giant eagle. Now I’m a flyer and I’m used to aeronautics, but this sucker was doin’ some downright suicidal antics. Real low down like he’s coming in for a landing or something, tucking his wings, then changing his mind and pulling straight up again and sailing out away from me. So I watch him going small for a while, then turn back to my work. I do a couple more lambs maybe, and the same thing happens. Except this time he’s even lower yet. Like I could almost feel his feathers on my back. I could hear his sound real clear. A giant bird. His wings made a kind of cracking noise. Then up he went again. I watched him going small for a while, then turned back to my work. I do a couple more lambs maybe, and the same thing happens. Except this time he’s even lower yet. Like I could almost feel his feathers on my back. I could hear his sound real clear. A giant bird. His wings made a kind of cracking noise. Then up he went again. I watched him longer this time, trying to figure out his intentions. Then I put the whole thing together. He was after those testes. Those fresh little remnants of manlihood. So I decided to oblige him this time and threw a few a’ them on top a’ the shed roof. Then I just went back to work again, pretending to be preoccupied. I was waitin’ for him this time though. I was listening hard for him, knowing he’d be coming in from behind me. I was watchin’ the ground for any sign of blackness. Nothing happened for about three more lambs, when all of a sudden he comes. Just a thunder clap. Blam! He’s down on that shed roof with his talons taking half the tarpaper with him, wings whippin’ the air, screaming like a bred mare. Brought me straight up off the ground, and I started yellin’ my head off. I don’t know why it was comin’ outa’ me but I was standing there with this icy feeling up my backbone and just yelling my fool head off. Cheerin’ for that eagle. I’d never felt like that since the first day I went up in a B-49. After a while I sat down again and went on workin’. And every time I cut a lamb I’d throw those balls up on top a’ the shed roof. And every time he’d come down like the Cannonball Express on that roof. And every time I got that feeling.*

Having masticated the testes of the American socio-familial psyche like a cowboy pensively chewing his cud before spitting the leavings back out to form a pastiche as lyrical as a frayed quilt, Sam Shepard is now flying with the eagles. (And not — French cultural media take note — because he once played an astronaut in the movies.)

 

*”The Curse of the Starving Class” copyright 1976, 2004, 2009 Sam Shepard.

Liberté

chi statue small

On view at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 20, as part of its exhibition Robert Frank: Photos is, above, Robert Frank. Untitled, 2005/14. The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall. © Robert Frank, from the book Partida. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

From the Archives: An American Panorama at the Amon Carter in Fort Worth, Texas

carter 1 hopperEdward Hopper (1882 – 1967), “Night Shadows, 1921.” Etching. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1983.66.

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Text copyright 2012, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you read on the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider? We can’t do it without your support. Please donate now in dollars or Euros through PayPal by designating your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Your donation will help pay for our arts and dance coverage in Paris and around the world, as well as vital and urgent medical and dental care for AV publisher Paul Ben-Itzak. No donation is too small. This article from our Archives was first published on our sister magazine Art Investment News on December 5, 2012.)

FORT WORTH, Texas — Once upon a time a newspaper man named Amon Carter followed the recommendation of his friend Will Rogers, the great American humorist, philosopher, and actor, and spent about $5,000 on a couple of canvasses by the “cowboy artist” Charles M. Russell. He built his Russell (and Frederic Remington) collection until, by the time of his death, he was able to bequeath it to found the museum which for the past 51 years has born his name and which, by his decree, is always free, because Carter wanted children to have the advantages he didn’t. The museum did not rest on its rawhide laurels, but grew up to be the greatest museum of American art in the world, in both its curatorial savvy and collecting prescience. It chose Stuart Davis as the one artist it was important to represent in all phases of his career, which, following the trajectory of art in the 20th century, took him from the stark literalism of the “ashcan” school to the wildest reaches of abstraction, never losing sight of reality. And, unlike so many museums which follow collecting trends, the Amon Carter anticipated at least one. Starting in the 1960s, it built a photography collection which dwarfs even that of the Museum of Modern Art.

It’s been a while since we’ve caught up with the Amon Carter, so busy has the auction season been. So we’re taking advantage of a breather in art sales to continue your — and our — ongoing arts education, always with a view to making us all better informed art investors, to offer this update in images of current and upcoming exhibitions at my favorite museum. Herewith you’ll find images of work from the current exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection,” on view through January 6; “Marie Cosindas: Instant Color,” running March 5 through May 26, 2013; “Big Pictures,” on view March 5 – April 21; “Romaire Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” May 18 – August 11; and “Larry Sultan’s Homeland,” closing January 13.

carter 1A cowboy

David Levinthal (b. 1949), “[Cowboy],” 1988. From the Five Trails West series. Dye diffusion transfer print. ©1988 David Levinthal. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas P1988.9. From the upcoming exhibition “Big Pictures.”

carter 2 lawrence migrationJacob Lawrence (1917 – 2000), “The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north,” 1940 – 41. Casein tempera on hardboard. ©2011 the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1942, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. . From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

carter 3 train photoWilliam Henry Jackson (1843 – 1942), “Excursion Train. Lewiston Branch. N.Y.C. RR, 1890.” Albumen print.

carter 4 sloan trainJohn Sloan (1871 – 1951), “Six O’Clock, Winter, 1912.” Oil on canvas. ©2011 Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1922, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. . From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

carter 5 plumes warholLeft: Walt Kuhn (1877-1949), “Plumes, 1931.” Oil on canvas. Acquired 1932, the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.. From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection,” on view through January 6. Right: Marie Cosindas (b. 1925), “Andy Warhol, 1966.” Dye diffusion transfer print. ©Marie Cosindas. Courtesy the artist. From the exhibition “Marie Cosindas: Instant Color,” on view March 5 – May 26, 2013. Both events at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

carter 6 davisStuart Davis (1892-1964), “Blue Café,” 1928. Oil on canvas. ©Estate of Stuart Davis / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Acquired 1930, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Part of the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

carter 7 corte maderaLarry Sultan (1946-2009), “Meander, Corte Madera, 2006.” Digital dye coupler print. Collection of Andrew Pilara. From the exhibitioin “Larry Sultan’s Homeland: American story,” on view through January 13. (It may not look like much, but I was born here!)

Word up!: Macron names renowned publisher new French culture minister

PARIS — From a minister of culture during the precedent administration who famously admitted that she didn’t have time to read books, newly inaugurated president Emmanuel Macron and his freshly-minted prime minister Edouard Philippe, both famous readers and promoters of literature, today took a major step in recuperating the image of a portfolio for years honored by Andre Malraux by naming as the country’s minister of culture and communications Françoise Nyssen, long-time director of Arles-based Actes Sud, one of the crème de la crème of French publishers. Together with Macron’s campaign promise to increase library hours at night and on the week-ends, and Philippe’s record as mayor of Havre in sending bookmobiles around the coastal city, the appointment of Nyssen, who also founded a school focused on listening to the child after the suicide of one of her own children, augurs well.

Open Studio Policy

portes ouvertes smallPoster designed by Michèle Forgues and Federica Nadalutti, and courtesy Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville. Click here to read the Arts Voyager’s coverage of last year’s Open Studios / Portes Ouvertes de Belleville, and here to read our essay around the 2010 edition. And for more details on this year’s version, go here.

Europe at the Crossroads: Portes Ouvertes de Belleville & the Prè Saint-Gervais, Performers from Around the World — Artists Converge on Paris; Help the Arts Voyager be there

Parce que oui, la Culture française – comme d’ailleurs tous les cultures qui déferle vers Paris – appartient au monde qu’elle a si souvent rayonné, et il faut refusé de la laisse etre confiné et sequestré par les forces de l’Obscurantisme.

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 The Open Studios or Portes Ouvertes de Belleville  and those of the Prè Saint-Gervais, performers including Berlin’s Constanza Macras, Portugal’s Vera Mantero, a major exhibition devoted to Camille Pissarro paintings rarely seen in France, Belgium’s Alain Platel, Spain’s Israel Galvan, Crystal Pite — these are just a few of the major cultural happenings in Paris and environs this Spring that the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider will be able to cover with your support.

Many of you first read about these internationally renowned artists and events for the first time in English in our journals and, continuing our 20-year mission of bringing you stories not told elsewhere, we’ll also be reporting on Giulio D’Anna, a Netherlands-based Italian choreographer whose “OOOOOOO” is inspired by Zagreb’s “Museum of Broken Relationships,” and Jasna Vinovrski’s “Lady Justice,” addressing the relationship between justice and art. Speaking of art, we’d also like to bring you Yasmina Reza’s “Art” as interpreted at the Theatre de la Bastille by the pioneering Belgium theater company STAN . And of intersections between art and society, this year’s Chantiers (Building Projects) d’Europe festival at the Theatre de la Ville features countries in the front lines of the refugee crisis, notably in six short films from Greece addressing this topic and a public brainstorming session with artists from six countries. Most of all we’ll be able to bring you into the studios of the 200+ artists taking part in the Open Studios of Belleville — a neighborhood which in its very MULTI-CULTURAL contours and dimensions provides the best retort to the cloistered vision of French culture represented by the National Front. (We share the FN’s stated pride in traditional French culture; we simply argue that this definition is too limited and does not do justice to the grandeur and ouverture to the world that has always been French culture.) Click here to read our coverage of last year’s Open Studios / Portes Ouvertes de Belleville.

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France, too, is at the crossroads. On May 7  the country will choose between the fear represented by the National Front and the hope and optimism represented by Emmanuel Macron. Between closure and opening. In the campaign between these two ‘cultures’ that has raged in this country for the past two years, CULTURE has been all but forgotten. (Among Macron’s refreshing ideas: More library hours.) With your help, we will be able to do our part in restoring some light to what has always been France’s principal calling card around the world. Our calling for more than 20 years.Many thanks and

Cheers,

Paul
artsvoyager@gmail.com