Sam Shepard’s longtime amigo Johnny Dark writes to the playwright in 1998, summarizing what he’s learned from their relationship:“1. Have 3 bites and push your plate away; 2. Women are pets (except the ones you love); 3. Eat whenever the fuck you feel like it, even if it’s 5 min. before dinner; 4. Try to get someone else to wash your underwear; 5. Keep driving even if you forget where you’re going; 6. Never stay more than 30 seconds once you realize you don’t want to be there; 7. Spend all your money and then get some more.”
The list, published in Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, will not seem out of character to anyone who has formed a picture of Shepard based on the pissed-off, obdurately retro male characters that slither through his plays, or on the laconic, latter-day cowboy figures he has portrayed in films. Dark, a comedian and prankster best known in the popular culture for appearances on “Late Show with David Letterman,” is at the top of his game here as comic foil and field guide to the dazzlingly handsome and brilliantly talented fool for words he more or less picked up on Second Avenue and 11th Street in 1967.
Dark had seen a play of Shepard’s the night before, and when he passed the young writer on the street, he started a conversation, fan to artist. Soon the men, who are roughly the same age—Shepard was 24 at the time—bonded over the fact that they were both the sons of critical fathers. Dark invited Shepard up for a spaghetti dinner he was cooking, and a decades-long friendship began. They remained in each other’s lives, sometimes living as an extended family on the West Coast (Shepard married Dark’s step-daughter, O-Lan Jones, in 1969), but more often because they were apart, as they exchanged handwritten and typed letters even after e-mail made letter writing seem an obsolete, sepia-toned technology.
The letters begin in 1972 when Shepard, O-Lan and their young son Jesse move to England for a few years; they end in 2011 when a weary and frustrated Shepard writes Dark a kiss-off note, saying he is no longer actively interested in publishing their correspondence and wants to resume his own work.
In tracing the arc of the men’s relationship, the book prompts us to think about relationships and power. Who is on top? (And must one person always be on top?) We think, too, about stories with enough endurance to trace arcs. Shepard’s plays are exploded combats, strewn across hurt and abandoned landscapes and lit by flashes of brutality and recognition. They feel unfinished and defy meaning the way experience, in the moment, does. In contrast, the letters, unfurling in sequence over 40 years, create an illusion of wholeness and tempt us to think we know something true about the men because we have connected the dots. Certainly, we see shades of Shepard in his own words and in Dark’s, which are unavailable elsewhere. The book, in short, is a valuable addition to Shepard studies.
The letters, rather like Shepard’s plays, are less a conversation than a weave of monologues—although, unlike his plays, mostly they aren’t confrontational. Each man arouses in the other an urge to take stock and sketch from life, and the exchange is fascinating as they twist helplessly and deliriously in their roles as men.
Both see themselves alternately as conventional and unconventional. Dark sometimes worries that he finds himself in service jobs. He cleans houses to make ends meet; later he works behind the counter of a supermarket deli. Even in his private life he’s left to mop up—after his dogs, after his beloved invalid wife Scarlett, after Shepard’s son Jesse, who in 1983 is left largely in Dark’s care after Shepard departs to live with Jessica Lange. Dark—who punctuates his domestic rounds with sexual affairs—remains, even into his sixties, besotted by Kerouac and Cassady and cleaving to an image of himself and Shepard as similarly visionary roustabouts. It’s a broken record, but Dark is admirably loyal, and his wit and intelligence sharpen when contemplating his friend. Shepard’s suffering, he astutely observes, stems from “trying to be authentic…—authentic cowboy, authentic lord of the manor, authentic sportsman, etc. and yet always feeling like an impostor.”
Shepard—driving alone across highways in flight from the taunting echoes of his drunken father; finding moments of peace with dogs and horses—lays down his weapons with Dark and tries to come clean. One night when Lange and one of his daughters observe that he sneers at people, Shepard reports his response with the same detachment he uses to craft his characters: “I don’t change my posture. I suddenly ‘see’ my posture: arms cocked behind my head, legs stretched out and crossed in an attitude of total arrogance and disdain. I feel a terrible sudden tension across my stomach… I don’t speak. I just watch and I swallow whole the almost unbearable… humiliation of the moment… I’m just an… old prick watching TV and snickering.”
Shepard isn’t limning self-knowledge here but the resilience of human passivity, and he plays the arrogant and haunted artist well (along with many other roles) in Treva Wurmfeld’s absorbing film Shepard & Dark. In 2011, as the men were preparing their letters for publication, Wurmfeld shot them separately and together, and the result is both a brooding meditation on unequal power and a chronicle of the friends’ unsurprising falling out.
Shepard is vexed by money troubles,, the end of his marriage to Lange and waning acting offers. He wants the fee for publishing his letters, but he also wants to usher Dark’s writing into the world—a half-chewed desire of Dark’s. Years earlier, when Dark was looking for a publisher, Shepard hooked him up with an editor and wrote the most generous letter in the collection, counseling his friend wisely and without condescension on how to take his work seriously. But during filming, the practicing writer and the talented dabbler cannot seem to collaborate easily on a project concerning words.
Speaking to me in a phone conversation, Wurmfeld said she didn’t feel she was exploring a specifically male friendship. I suggested that may have been because the relationship was so gendered, with Shepard calling all the shots. In a stunning moment in the film, after the men have tired of each other, Dark looks out sadly and admits he has always complied. To be with Shepard is to fit into his world.
Dark, in his openness and thoughtfulness, is the more appealing, vulnerable character in the dyad. Shepard comes across irritable and preoccupied with Oedipus Rex, as well as with a notion he is hatching that while human beings cause their own suffering, personality is fated. Dark shrewdly debunks this, claiming Shepard has always had “a strong, redneck antagonism to analysis and consciousness.” Dark thinks you can change yourself if you work at it. Meanwhile Shepard’s ideas here sound as defunct as the grief expressed in his plays over the loss of the mythic West and styles of traditional masculinity—erosions happily celebrated as liberations by those who don’t happen to be traditional men.
But while Dark is more supple in the film and sometimes in the letters, Shepard’s practices as an artist and his connection to literature—he is always reading, always learning from other authors—are the reasons we care about Dark, the letters,and the film in the first place. Throughout the letters and especially in Shepard’s note to Dark about how to turn his jottings into stories with meaning for others, we are reminded of Shepard’s rich and enduring identity as a writer.
You want authenticity? Here it is, in Shepard’s romance with language and his ability to remain, year after year, in the unknowing place of discovery—coaxing one sentence to follow another without plotting their direction, working with words the way artists splash paint and jazz musicians blast notes. No one understands what Shepard’s plays are about—least of all Shepard—because they are performances of his states of mind more than narratives, and this is where his greatness and originality still reside.
Laurie Stone is a frequent contributor to this magazine.