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.

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