Sam Shepard, Part II

Smith-My-Buddy

I don’t have to write part two, because Patti Smith has. She writes about what I was going to write about, Sam Shepard as a writer (first, last, always).

Writers write. They read other writers. They talk about writing, more often the writing of others than their own. If they are very very lucky, like Sam Shepard was lucky, they have a writer friend to call in the blue of the night.

Goodbye, Sam.

My Buddy by Patti Smith

A Sam Shepard Story

It’s a Friday morning and I am riding in a station wagon headed to the Lower Sierras for a camping weekend with my mostly older, mostly actor friends. The driver is a woman I’ll call Jane (in homage to Jane Fonda) who is smoking pot and telling me story after fascinating story about her life before marriage and mommyhood. Her two small children are in another car, her husband is off on a shoot, and it’s probably been a good long time since Jane was able to a) get stoned at nine in the morning and b) talk. Even if it’s just talking to me, a friend of a friend, a complete stranger. I am, however – in Jane’s defense – a good listener.

Right now I am listening to Jane (relative of a hardcore Weather Underground member) tell me about the time she smuggled money to Abbie Hoffman, post-nosejob and haircut and in hiding from a coke bust in upstate New York. The nose job made such a striking change in Hoffman’s appearance that she was never sure afterward that it was really him. Whoever it was – Steal This Nose! – said he had been set up for the bust by the FBI, which Abbie used to refer to as “a giant PR firm.” Some things never change.

I don’t remember other details from the Underground segment of our conversation, but the next story (featuring today’s subject as star) is fresh. The following year – 1975 – found Jane on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, working on the film made in conjunction with the music tour called Renaldo and Clara, and sleeping with the movie’s writer Sam Shepard. Yes, the four-hour Renaldo and Clara had a writer and that writer was Shepard. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Renaldo and Clara is the only one of Dylan’s self-produced movies that is even watchable. Far better than watchable, and, in parts, almost great. A few years earlier, Shepard had contributed the best and most coherent scenes to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, and – little known fact – he wrote sketches for the infamous stage play Oh, Calcutta.

Ten or so years later Shepard would write Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, possibly the best American movie of 1980s and one of the only Eighties movies with what might be called integrity. As a screeenwriter, he specialized in giving movie dreams flesh. Just as – in his plays – he turned the torture of flesh and blood into the stuff of dreams.

“I thought he would be a little mean,” Jane said. “Which he was, especially when he drank. I didn’t expect him to be so sweet. I don’t think I was the only one on tour he was sleeping with, but I didn’t care. I was in love with him,” she smiled. “I still am. The idea of him, anyway.”

I asked Jane what she meant by the “idea” of Sam Shepard. “That face,” she laughed. “Beautiful, but a guy’s guy, too. And what other writer could wear a cowboy hat and pull it off? Not make you want to laugh.” She said that all of Shepard’s ideas were Sixties ideas and they never changed. “He just put them in a shitty house. In an unexpected part of America. He just changed the clothes.”

I’m not ready to say goodbye to Sam Shepard. I’m still in love with the idea of him, too. So … consider this Part I.

It’s Not Easy Wearing Green

Molière ( 15 January 1622 – 17 February 1673)

On this date in 1673, the great French theatrical hyphenate Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (aka Moliere) was performing the lead role of the hypochondriac in his last play, The Imaginary Invalid, when he suffered a coughing fit, hemorrhaged, collapsed, then insisted on continuing to the end of the show. Moliere died at home – a few hours later – from the tuberculosis that (legend has it) he’d contracted while being imprisoned for debt. Argan, the character Moliere was playing in his final performance, was clad in green.

Debtor’s prison (or its moral equivalent) remains a standard job hazard for anyone attempting to make a living from theater or any of the Arts. Especially these days. In this place. And the irony of Moliere dying during a production in which he plays a hypochondriac has not been lost to history. It is also emblematic of the principal theme of  his profoundly comic plays – including his first The Learned Ladies, The Misanthrope, The Miser, and Tartuffe – which could be summarized as, “We are not who we think we are.”

Several highly effective treatments for tuberculosis have been developed since the 17th century; although not wiped out – and occasionally threatening to make a comeback – tuberculosis is not the hazard it once was. No such luck, however, with the human strains of hypocrisy and self-delusion. They are more prevalent now than ever. There would appear to be no cure. And they ensure that Moliere’s plays never date.

gop debatersActors are a superstitious lot. They say “break a leg” instead of “good luck” (which is considered bad luck). When appearing in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, they live in terror of speaking the play’s name and refer to it only as “The Scottish Play.”  As an occasional actor myself, I share that fear and it scares me just writing Macbeth. (Twice now!  I think I peed a little!) And, because of Moliere’s death costume in The Imaginary Invalid, we actors don’t like appearing onstage wearing green. Costumers, beware!

I don’t know exactly why actors are superstitious.  I’m sure it has something to do with being present – in our bodies, live – while we practice our art, thereby risking the also-live slings and arrows of outrageous audience members. Or of slipping on our own flop sweat and falling to our deaths, metaphorical or otherwise. I do know, however, that if I’m ever lucky enough to perform the role of Argan in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, I’ll insist on a red costume and – just to be on the safe side – call it “The Hypochondriac Play.” I hope I break a leg.

Arthur Miller’s Fall from Grace

On January 23 – in 1964 – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall Opens on Broadway

I don’t require artists to be good people in order to admire their works – any more than I need inventors to be nice before I’ll utilize their inventions. If I found out tomorrow that Thomas Alva Edison was the biggest asshole who ever lived, I wouldn’t go back to reading by candlelight and never listen to another LP or watch another film.

That having been said, the ideal state of knowledge regarding the life of a great writer, actor, painter, etc., is total ignorance. Which is the approximate state of our knowledge about William Shakespeare, minus a few drinks he reportedly had with Ben Jonson and that “second-best bed” he left to his wife. But it’s human to want to know stuff about the lives of people whose work we admire and all too human for us to feel a twinge or two of disappointment (even anger) if those lives don’t quite measure up. Guess what? They rarely do. And, for even the most stalwart among us, curiosity can kill the cat.

marilyn-monroe-arthur-miller3I am not blissfully ignorant of playwright Arthur Miller’s life. Or of Marilyn Monroe’s. Or of their life together as a married couple, possibly the most famous pairing in American history of marvelous movie star Beauty with bespectacled intellectual Beast. I know a bunch of stuff about both of them – and their marriage – and while, as I’ve said, I’m usually pretty good at divorcing work from creator, Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall, is an exception. I find it hard to disentangle the play from the lives depicted – not to mention their depictor – the play still pisses me off. And I don’t think that’s entirely my fault.

After the Fall portrays a successful Jewish lawyer named Quentin (bearing a remarkable resemblance to a successful Jewish playwright named Arthur) looking back on his life and loves and feeling guilty. One of his wives is named Maggie, a sexy secretary at Quentin’s law firm – gimme a break! – who is depicted as a drunken, pill-popping, self-hating slut who kills herself and who (to Miller’s surprise, he said, at the time) most people took to be Marilyn Monroe. Arthur Miller’s friend, Jackie Kennedy (pre-Onassis) – who was all about loyalty and not talking trash about the ones you’ve loved – saw the play and never spoke to Miller again. Fifty years on, it still feels self-serving, exploitative, more than a little smarmy.

It’s possible that After the Fall wouldn’t bother me so much if Miller had waited longer to write it, but the ink on their divorce was only dry a year, Marilyn’s ashes barely cold. Maybe if Miller had called the play something besides After the Fall … Eve made me do it, God, I swear, and she was the ultimate shiksha Eve to boot! … it would help. I think I might be less bothered, too, if he’d left his play merely personal … without the shadow of the concentration-camp guard tower in the background and the strained attempt to raise his own middle-aged, rather ordinary sins to the level of Mankind’s Fall from Grace.

All that having been said, I wish I’d seen the original Broadway production of After the Fall. Wish I’d been old enough to both appreciate it and be pissed off by it. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, another one whose life could color his work for me if I let it. It starred Jason Robards, Jr. (I miss him) as Quentin and Kazan’s future wife, Barbara Loden, as Maggie. Loden had been luminous three years before in Kazan’s movie Splendor in the Grass (1961) and she went on to write, direct, and star in Wanda (1970), one of the first great American films of the Seventies. See Wanda if you can.

A Family Christmas Play

Sam Shepard’s True West opens in NYC – December 23, 1980

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“I can’t stay here. This is worse than being homeless.”

The perfect play for the holidays … especially if you’re reuniting with family  … Sam Shepard’s savage comic drama about sibling warfare (and a few other things) opened at The Public Theater with Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones as estranged brothers Lee and Austin. Earlier in the year, True West had had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, where Shepard was writer-in-residence.

Remembering Beckett’s Muse

Billie Honor Whitelaw (6 June 1932 – 21 December 2014)

Billie Whitelaw Samuel Beckett

It has been exactly a year since English actress, Billie Whitelaw, died and if she ever gave a bad performance in her 82 years – on stage, screen, small screen –  I haven’t seen it. She was completely real in everything she did.

Most Americans know Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Blaylock, the fierce nanny sent by Satan to watch over Damien in The Omen (1976), where it required no less a movie star than Gregory Peck to kill her off.  She acted in other U.S. features, but most of her movie work was done in England, where – in the Sixties and Seventies – she had large roles in several excellent films and was considered something of a star.

Billie Whitelaw made a memorable debut in The Sleeping Tiger (1954), starring Dirk Bogarde and directed by the blacklisted Joseph Losey under an assumed name. She shone as Chloe Hawkins in the terrific Brit noir Hell Is a City (1960); starred opposite Albert Finney in the wonderful Charlie Bubbles (1967) and again in Gumshoe (1971); did great work in worthwhile but not great movies such as Twisted Nerve (1969), John Boorman’s Leo the Last (1970), and Start the Revolution Without Me (also 1970); and had a nice turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s last great film, Frenzy (1972), which Hitchcock returned to England to direct.

These and Whitelaw’s other movie roles guaranteed her a respectful  obituary in The Times, but it is her stage work – in particular, her 25-year collaboration with Samuel Beckett – that earned her a place in history. Their work together began in 1964 with Play at the National Theatre and continued until Beckett’s death in 1989. He once called her “a perfect actress” and created roles for Whitelaw – and with her – in most of his later experimental plays, including Rockabye, Eh Joe, and Not I.  He also supervised a celebrated revival of Happy Days starring Whitelaw as Winnie.

billie as winnie
Here’s a link to a piece on Beckett and Whitelaw – from a year ago – that ran in the Independent: Whitelaw & Beckett.

A Forgotten Playwright

Maxwell Anderson (December 15, 1888 – 1959)

A handful of Maxwell Anderson’s better plays – Anne of the Thousand Days (1948), Both Your Houses (1933), What Price Glory? (the WWI play that he cowrote with Laurence Stallings in 1924), and the two musicals that he collaborated on with Kurt Weill, Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Lost in the Stars (1949) – occasionally still get produced in the places where theater occasionally still gets produced.

Anderson’s name appears as screenwriter on some good movies as well, notably Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday (1934), and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). So it isn’t completely accurate to say he’s been forgotten.

Posterity has not been kind to Maxwell Anderson, however. He wrote a ton. And, during his career, he was produced everywhere and widely admired. His early blank verse play – Winterset (1935), loosely based on the Sacco & Vanzetti case – was one of the most successful plays of his own time and one of the most produced high school plays of mine. In the Sixties and Seventies, if your school wouldn’t let you put on Lawrence & Lee’s Inherit the Wind (because it, you know, teaches evolution), they might accede to Winterset, not knowing it was sort of a Commie play in which the names have been changed to protect the unfairly convicted.

For once, I’m gonna stick up for posterity. I have an intense dislike of Anderson’s last popular play, The Bad Seed (1954), which in both its stage and film incarnations preaches that bad children are born evil and it isn’t the fault of their selfish, neglectful, alcoholic parents. Either they’re bad seeds or it’s Satan’s fault, a theme pursued ever since in everything from Village of the Damned (1960) to The Exorcist  and The Omen series of films.

And I recently tried to reread Winterset and found it stilted throughout and (in more than one place) laughable (as in “out loud”). The problem is the blank verse, which spoils not only Winterset but his Tudor history plays and another acclaimed early drama, High Tor (1937). Anderson fancied himself a poet, but he’s no Shakespeare and should have left well enough alone.

It’s interesting to note that three of Maxwell Anderson’s best works were collaborations, where I’m guessing that the presence of a creative partner reined in his tendency toward pretension. And Anderson’s finest play by far – Both Your Houses (1933) – eschews blank verse and has some of the wittiest, smartest, most pointed dialogue since George Bernard Shaw.

both your houses

Both Your Houses is a political drama about an idealistic Congressman who comes to Washington hoping to do right by his constituents … only to find out how laws get passed (and why) in the place where capitalism meets government and nothing good ever gets done. Revival, anyone?