The cover subject of the first issue of American Theatre magazine was playwright Sam Shepard, about whom Magic Theatre founder John Lion wrote a critical feature. Amy Lippman also contributed this Q&A, which was first published in the March ’83 issue of the Harvard Advocate.
As you are writing a play, do you have a certain idea of what the play’s ending will be?
No. I think for me, every play has its own force, its own momentum, its own rhythm and tempo. That’s the fascination of it. It’s like people who hear music in their heads, or in the air, or wherever. They attract it in a certain way and it begins to speak to them. It has its own peculiar set of rules and circumstances, and complicated structures that you can’t necessarily dictate. I think a play is like that. What you’re trying to do, in a way, is have a meeting. You’re trying to have a meeting with this thing that’s already taking place. So, I can’t really say that I have a beginning, middle and end every time I sit down to write a play. Every moment of the play is a beginning, a middle and an end.
So it’s a very ephemeral process?
Yeah, it is. A play’s like music—ephemeral, elusive, appearing and disappearing all the time. You never reach a final point with it.
Do you see productions of your own work?
No. For the most part, it doesn’t interest me, no. The initial production is very exciting because you’re involved, you’re engaged in it. After that point, though, I’d just as soon let it go and go on to the next play, because the next one’s going to be even that much more exciting than the one before it. Once that first production happens, then I don’t care what happens to it really. I’m not concerned in tracking it down, in following it around like an ex-lover or something.
Critics of your plays, such as Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, and True West have often referred to them as chronicling the break-up of the American family. To what extent is that a legitimate reading of those plays?
I’m not interested in the American social scene at all. It totally bores me. I’m not interested in the social predicament. It’s stupid. And the thing you bring up about the break-up of the family isn’t particularly American; it’s all over the world. Because I was born in America, it comes out as the American family. But I’m not interested in writing a treatise on the American family. That’s ridiculous. I mean, that’s not fair or unfair to read that into my plays. It just seems an incomplete, a partial way of looking at the play. People get off on tripping out on these social implications of the play and how that matches up to contemporary America. And that’s okay. But that’s not why I’m writing plays.
So, why are you writing plays?
I have to. I have a mission. (Laughs.) No, I don’t know why I do it. Why not?
You collaborated on the writing of two of your collected plays, Tongues and Savage/Love.
Yeah, the ones with Joe [Joseph Chaikin]. Well, that was a very unique circumstance, working with someone that I’d known as a friend for a long time and never really had a chance to work intimately with, one on one. I was hanging around the Open Theater and I knew Joe. We had a lot of things in common. So we just sat down and collaborated on this thing, just cooked it up. The thing that was unique about them, I think, is that they were designed for one performer, for him in particular. That was the impulse behind the whole thing. It’s very different from writing by yourself.
Do you consider your work to revolve around myths?
Well, so many people have different ideas—of what the word means.
What does it mean to you?
It means a lot of things to me. One thing it means is a lie. Another thing it means is an ancient formula that is expressed as a means of handing down a very specific knowledge. That’s a true myth—an ancient myth like Osiris, an old Egyptian myth that comes down from antiquity. The thing that’s powerful about a myth is that it’s the communication of emotions, at the same time ancient and for all time. If, for instance, you look at Romeo and Juliet as a myth, the feelings that you are confronted with in a play like that are true for all time. They’ll always be true.
What relationship does that have to your plays?
Well, hopefully in writing a play, you can snare emotions that aren’t just personal emotions, not just catharsis, not just psychological emotions that you’re getting off your chest, but emotions and feelings that are connected with everybody. Hopefully. It’s not true all the time; sometimes it’s nothing but self-indulgence. But if you work hard enough toward being true to what you intuitively feel is going down in the play, you might be able to catch that kind of thing. So that you suddenly hook up with feelings that are on a very broad scale. But you start with something personal and see how it follows out and opens to something that’s much bigger. That’s what I’m interested in.
Should one then be able to project his own experience onto what has occurred on stage?
Yeah, you can do that if you want to. But it doesn’t have any real value. The only time it has value is when you hook up with something that you don’t know. Something that you can’t pin down. Something where you say, “I feel something here that’s going on that’s deeply mysterious. I know that it’s true, but I can’t put my finger on it.” I’m not interested if it reminds you of your mother, or your sister, or your cousin, or anything like that. So what? Everybody has something like that. That’s what I mean about this social thing, that similarities between social neuroses in American society really don’t mean much in the long run because they’re always going to change. But if emotions that come up during a play call up questions, or seem to remind you of something that you can’t quite put your finger on, then it starts to get interesting. Then it starts to move in a direction we all know, regardless of where we come from or who we are. It starts to hook up in a certain way. Those, to me, are mythic emotions.
What ties do you feel to the American West?
Well, it’s all subjective. I just feel like the West is much more ancient than the East. Much more. It is. I don’t know if you’ve traveled out here at all but there are areas like Wyoming, Texas, Montana, and places like that, where you really feel this ancient thing about the land. Ancient. That it’s primordial. Of course, you can say that about New England. But it doesn’t have the same power to me, because it’s this thing about space. No wonder these mysterious cults in Indian religions sprang up, you know? It wasn’t as though these people were just…just fell down from the sky. It has to do with the relationship between the land and the people—between the human being and the ground. I think that’s typically Western and much more attractive than this tight little forest civilization that happened back East. It’s much more physical and emotional to me. New England and the East Coast have always been an intellectual community. Also, I was raised out here, so I guess it’s just an outcome of my background. I just feel like I’ll never get over the fact of being from here.
There’s a very disorienting element in some of your plays. In certain places the dialogue is very realistic but the situation seems very surrealistic, and this dichotomy is never resolved.
I think it’s a cheap trick to resolve things. It’s totally a complete lie to make resolutions. I’ve always felt that, particularly in theatre when everything’s tied up at the end with a neat little ribbon and you’re delivered this package. You walk out of the theatre feeling that everything’s resolved and you know what the play’s about. So what? It’s almost as though, why go through all that if you’re just going to tie it all up at the end? It seems like a lie to me—the resolutions, the denouement and all the rest of it. And it’s been handed down as if that is the way to write plays.
What’s the alternative?
Well, there are many, many alternatives. But I think it’s all dependent again on the elements that you start with and what your interest is in those elements. If you’re only interested in taking a couple of characters, however many, and having them clash for a while, and then resolve their problems, then why not go to group therapy, or something?
What do you do?
I think of it more like music. If you play an instrument and you meet somebody else who plays an instrument, and the two of you sit down and start to play music, it’s really interesting to see where that music goes between two musicians. It might not go anywhere you thought it would go; it might go in directions that you never even thought of before. You see what I mean? So you take two characters and you set them in motion. It’s very interesting to follow this thing that they’re on. It’s a great adventure—it’s like getting on a wild horse.
But aren’t you, the playwright, controlling everything? You’re creating it, aren’t you?
I’m not creating that.
It doesn’t happen by itself, does it?
No, but in a way, it’s already in the air. I really believe that’s true. These things are in the air, all around us. And all I’m trying to do is latch onto them. I don’t feel like it’s a big creative act, like I’m inventing all of this. I mean, I’m not putting myself in the same category as Mozart at all, don’t get me wrong, but the story with him was that he heard this music. It was going on, and he was just open to it somehow, latched onto it, and wrote it down. True West is like that. True West is following these two guys, blow by blow, just following them, trying to stick with them and stick with the actual moment by moment thing of it. I mean, I wrote that thing…it took me a long time to write that play.
Because I went down a lot of blind alleys. I tried to make them go in one direction, and they didn’t want to go that way.
How did you know when it was right, then?
I just know. Just like you know it’s right when you’re with somebody. You don’t know it through the head—you have a feeling.
How did you know when to end it?
Well, I’ve always had a problem with endings. I never know when to end a play. I’d just as soon not end anything. But you have to stop at some point, just to let people out of the theatre. I don’t like endings and I have a hard time with them. So True West doesn’t really have an ending; it has a confrontation. A resolution isn’t an ending; it’s a strangulation.
Is the point then to leave the audience hanging?
No, no. I’m not intentionally trying to leave people up in the air. But I also don’t want to give people the impression that it’s over. (Laughs.)
Do you write for an audience?
Well, you know, that’s an interesting question because, here again, the question comes up, what is the audience? Who is the audience? In a way, you must write for yourself as a certain kind of audience. In the midst of writing, it always feels as though I’m writing for the thing itself. I’m writing to have the thing itself be true. And then I feel like an audience would be able to relate to it. The theatre’s about a relationship.
Between the actors and the audience?
If there’s no relationship onstage, there’s not going to be any in the theatre. But that has to be answered first in the writing. If you and I sit down on stage as two actors, and we don’t have a relationship, what’s the point? A relationship’s both invisible and tangible at the same time, and you can see it between actors. You can also see the absence of it. If it’s there, the audience is related immediately.
How are you affected by criticism, both favorable and unfavorable, of your work?
Well, I’m not immune to it. But you’ve got to follow this thing that keeps telling you blow by blow what to do, no matter what. It’s very apparent [to you] what the next thing is. But critics can’t tell you that. How could a critic know what your inner condition is as a writer? I’m not saying [criticism] doesn’t have a pull on me. It has a definite pull on me. But whether you believe it or not is what counts. I’ve been in a few rodeos, and the first team roping that I won gave me more of a feeling of accomplishment and pride of achievement than I ever got winning the Pulitzer Prize. At the same time, I’m glad that the plays are successful and that they do something to people. But I’m not trying to win another Pulitzer Prize or anything.
Do you feel as if the media have certain expectations of you?
Sure. It’s hard to know what they’re expecting. If they’re expecting me to be myself, I can guarantee that will happen all the way down the line. If they’re expecting me to be Eugene O’Neill, they may be disappointed. (Laughs.)
What writers have influenced you? What playwrights?
I don’t know. What’s the point?
Do you go to see plays?
I don’t go to the theatre at all. I hate the theatre. I really do, I can’t stand it. I think it’s totally disappointing for the most part. It’s just always embarrassing, I find. But every once in a while, something real is taking place.
So, as for contemporary influences on your work—
Have you ever been to a rodeo?
Well, there’s more drama that goes down in a rodeo than one hundred plays you can go to see. It’s a real confrontation, a real thing going on. With a real audience, an actively involved audience. You should go to a couple of rodeos after you go to the theatre.
Do you consider your plays “experimental”?
I guess they are. I mean, it’s all experimental. Experiment, by its very nature, has to do with risk. If there’s no risk, there’s no experiment. And every play’s a risk. You take a huge risk with something like that.
In its appeal? Its success?
No, a big risk in going into unknown territory. You don’t know where you’re going.
Are the risks in creating unusual situations, or a totally new way of presenting something? What risks do you mean?
Well, I don’t know if you feel this or not, but I feel like there are territories within us that are totally unknown. Huge, mysterious and dangerous territories. We think we know ourselves, when we really know only this little bitty part. We have this social person that we present to each other. We have all these galaxies inside of us. And if we don’t enter those in art of one kind or another, whether it’s playwriting, or painting, or music, or whatever, then I don’t understand the point in doing anything.
How does that relate to your own work?
It’s the reason I write. I try to go into parts of myself that are unknown. And I think that those parts are related to everybody. They’re not unique to me. They’re not my personal domain.
Is there then something cathartic about the whole process of writing?
No. Catharsis is getting rid of something. I’m not looking to get rid of it; I’m looking to find it. I’m not doing this in order to vent demons. I want to shake hands with them.
How long have you been writing plays?
Seventeen, eighteen years.
How have your plays changed?
Well, actually, they’re the same. They’re just closer to a verification of what these emotions are. In a way, that old cliché about somebody doing the same thing over and over and over again his whole life is true. I’m doing the same thing over each time. I’m trying to get closer to the source.
Are you more adept at doing that now than you were 18 years ago?
I’m more…not adept, I’m more determined to do it. I’m less afraid. Because there’s something absolutely terrifying about going into yourself. …It’s something that I don’t understand. If I understood it, I probably wouldn’t write. That’s why it’s very difficult to talk about, and why a lot of this sounds like it’s evasive.
Do you feel that you have discovered certain things, dealt with them in your plays, and then moved on to something else?
Well, I haven’t left anything behind …That’s not true. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of useless stuff. A lot of tricks.
Yeah. Like allowing things to unravel in a direction that you know they’re not going to go by themselves. Like this play [Fool for Love], for instance. I wrote about 16 versions of it, and every time I came back to the first five pages. I’d write like 70, 80 pages and then bring it all the way back to the first five pages and start again—throw out 60, 70 pages. So, I’ve got literally at least a dozen different versions of the play, but the first five pages are the same in every one.
Is that because what you felt initially about it was the truest?
Yes. The very first meeting there was something there. I knew there was something there, and I just had to keep trying. They weren’t just drafts. Every time I think this is the play. I’m not writing a draft—I wrote twelve plays.
As an actor, how do you approach a role?
I don’t really consider myself an actor. In film you can get away with a whole lot that you can’t onstage. I think almost anyone can get away with being in a film.
Is that just the nature of the medium?
Yeah. Because if you’re in a tight close-up, you don’t have to do much: You don’t have to do anything; you just say the lines. You don’t have to act. So, I mean, with film acting, for me, it’s just a matter of corresponding certain parts of myself to the character, finding corresponding parts and just becoming those parts all the time. I’m not a Method actor or anything. I don’t have any complicated scheme behind it.
Could you act in your own plays?
I could, but I don’t want to.
Well, because part of the reason for writing them is to see them. You can’t see them if you’re in them at the same time. I like having that distance.
Music plays a more significant role in some of your plays than in others.
I think they’re all musical. I like to look at the language and the inner rhythms of the play, and all that to me is related to music directly. In True West there are coyote sounds and crickets and things like that. And the dialogue is musical. It’s a musical, True West. I think it’s very related to music, the whole rhythmic structure of it. Rhythm is the delineation of time in space, but it only makes sense with silences on either side of it. You can’t have a rhythm that doesn’t have silence in it. I studied for a long time with a drummer from Ghana. He was totally amazing. And I found out that, particularly in African music, every rhythm is related. You can play 4/4, 5/8, and 6/8 all together at the same time and at some point there’s a convergence. Even though it sounds like all these things are going off in totally crazy directions that are beating up against each other, they’ll always come back. That was a big revelation to me, that rhythm on top of rhythm on top of rhythm always has a meaning. So the same is true on the stage. There are many possible rhythmic structures that an actor can hit, but there’s only one true one. There’s one moment that he has to meet.
How do you find that moment?
Well, that’s very complex. It has to do with an emotional relaxation, where suddenly the tension goes and it’s just there. I was a drummer for a long time and I realized that a lot of the time you’re straining to keep the time. And then there are times when all that drops away and everything just…it all just rides together. And those are the times it became simple. Absolutely simple.
Do you feel closer to certain plays because they contain more of a sense of that?
Oh, yeah. Some of them have real dumb rhythms. It depends on each piece, though. There’s only one little part of Buried Child that I like, that I could watch over and over and over again. One little tiny section. It’s at the beginning of Act Two, I think. Just the little dialogue between the children and the old man on the couch by the television. That’s the only part that interests me anymore.
Because the rest of it just seems verbose and overblown. It seems unnecessarily complicated. But that little simple scene at the beginning of that act, it’s great. It’s perfect. I could watch that all day. It’s just got a musical thing to it, you know? That kind of thing happened.
It’s been said that nothing can shock anymore. Still, there’s an element in some of your plays that seems determined to shock us.
In Curse of the Starving Class, for example, you have a character pee onstage.
Well, I wouldn’t do that again if I had to do it over again. I was looking for a gesture, for something without words. It’s funny how you look, you know? You look at all parts of yourself for it. Sometimes it comes out when someone pisses onstage. It’s a little flashy, you know, and overblown, and maybe embarrassing, but that’s the way it came out. It’s just a gesture. Like the toasters in True West. There’s an intention there that’s intrinsic to itself. It only makes sense to itself. It doesn’t mean anything. You can call it absurdist or whatever you want to; I don’t care what you call it, but it’s true to itself. It takes the impulse that was behind it to its absolute extreme, further than you would expect. And that’s what I wanted. Trying to figure it out is not the point. I think explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.
How do you write?
You mean the technical thing? I write by hand first, I write everything in notebooks. Then, after I get everything where I want it pretty much, I start typing it. And as I’m typing it, I’m rewriting it. I’m copying from the notebook and I’m rewriting on the typewriter.
Do you consider yourself a poet?
That’s a very high thing to be, a poet. César Vallejo is a poet. I’m not a poet yet; I’m working on it. I think a poet is a musician. Poetry is music. So it doesn’t matter what form it’s in, whether a line extends across the page or goes vertically. That has nothing to do with it. It’s the musical nature of the language and everything that’s going on in it. Vallejo, Neruda, Hank Williams. He was one of the original country-western singers. Have you ever heard any of his stuff? Great American poet. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”? You never heard this? Jimmie Rodgers? You’ve got to look into this.
Do you see your work as evolving to a certain point?
No, I don’t see it like that at all. Maybe it’s just going in a circle. I don’t know; I really can’t tell you whether it’s evolving or not. I mean, it’s definitely different. There’s more at stake now; there’s a bigger risk.