Archive for the LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE Category

30 Years Ago in NYC (Because I’ve Now Been Here That Long)

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , on August 17, 2017 by travsd

Taken a couple of years later; the tee shirt was a promo for David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”

I marked this on my calendar to write about today: 30 years ago (yesterday and today) there occurred a curious alignment of stars and planets that New Age people called “the Harmonic Convergence“.  It was a topic of chatter that summer, in the media and amongst ordinary people, in the same way that the “2000 bug” was, or the upcoming solar eclipse is. The Harmonic Convergence was like the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it was said. The alignment meant there would be this unleashing of positive energy, that everything would be beautiful, and auspicious, and right. It was a crock, of course. It proved to be an ordinary day. Why I note the date at all is because I remember where I was. I was in New York City.

I generally count the summer of 1987 as when I moved here, although in the fall I did return to school in Providence for several months, and then spent another few months in Maine before finally moving here for good. But ’87 was my first experience living here, working here (at temp jobs), taking the subway to get around, carrying around my morning coffee in those Greek themed cardboard coffee cups that say “We are Happy to Serve You.” It was my first time learning what it was to walk around in the shoes of a New Yorker, even if I wasn’t one myself yet.

I’d come here before as a tourist of course, about a half dozen times as a teenager, had been to Broadway shows, the Met and MOMA, and so forth. I grew up between New York and Boston. Though I was much closer to Boston, ironically I’d spent much more time in the Big Apple. My first visit here, at about the age of 13 changed my life. I always knew I wanted to move here. In 1987 I actually began the process. I was a baby at the time, about the same age that my oldest son is now. About seven years ago I passed the crucial milestone of having lived the majority of my life here. New York is now my home in a way that even my hometown is not.

So, this is one of those hokey “how things were different” posts; bear with an old timer and his memories at this milestone.

Checkered Cab

It was the NYC of Working Girl, Desperately Seeking Susan, After Hours, and Sidewalk Stories. Some of the cabs still looked like those cabs on Taxi.  Hizzoner Ed Koch was still the Mayor, and a wonderful ambassador and booster for the cityRonald Reagan was still president and it was still the Reagan economy. And in 1987 Newsweek did a cover story on this local asshole, who was still two years away from helping to railroad the Central Park Five:

Temp jobs were plentiful. I worked as a receptionist on Wall Street and midtown, and took other odd jobs. There were no cell phones. Computers in the workplace were new. Macs and IBMs were entirely different; the latter didn’t yet employ Windows or a Mouse, so you had to learn keystrokes. There was no Internet. Documents were exchanged long distance via Fax Machine.

At the same time homeless people seemed to be everywhere. Crime was higher. The subways were covered in graffiti. Though the Walkman existed, belligerent dudes would carry boom boxes everywhere blasting their personal music. When they got onto subway cars it was a tense experience, because they annoyed everybody but it wasn’t worth fighting about. The Guardian Angels, a proto-vigilante group, were highly visible as a volunteer, if largely cosmetic, means of dealing with the crime situation.

Because there was no Internet, everyone read The Village Voice, which then cost a dollar, to see what was going on. I literally read the whole thing cover to cover, not just for the news, but for jobs (they had the best, most relevant classifieds), and for what to do socially and recreationally, because of the reviews and pages of paid ads. (Later competition would follow from the New York Press and Time Out New York, but those weren’t a factor for several years.) We went to see bands at places like CBGBs. Political performance art by people like Karen Finley and Penny Arcade was on the ascendant. It had been only a few months since Andy Warhol and Charles Ludlam had died (weeks in the case of Ludlam); Basquiat and Keith Haring only had months to live.

Times Square was the worst sort of pit you can possibly imagine. The following year I got an internship at a Theatre Row theatre on the opposite end of 42nd Street. Getting there was a terrifying gauntlet past crack dens and porn theatres, and criminal low lifes of every description. When people tell me they want that back I want to knock their block off. By contrast, today’s Times Square is a scene of vitality and health. It used to be a disgrace, a showplace of rot and disease.

As I’ve written many times, Indie Theater was not yet a thing (wouldn’t be for a long time), and there was an enormous need for it, because the original Off Off companies like La Mama had gotten big. You couldn’t just walk in off the street and do a show anywhere anymore. The Off Off places seemed just as hard to get into as Broadway. Coffee houses and galleries and so forth were no longer scenes of artistic ferment in the same way as they had been in the legendary 60s. We did go to art events, poetry readings and the like, but as I say, it was against the backdrop of the Reagan years; the climate was more like winter setting in rather than a flower unfolding. Subsequent years were better in certain ways. Certainly in terms of access to venues, although that’s always a struggle in one way or another.

In those days (as Penny Arcade has articulated so well) we were drawn to New York for its storied diversity, yes for art, but for breadth of culture — food for example, from a 100 different countries. Now it’s safer and cleaner in ways that newcomers may take for granted. At the same time, the experience is not as rich, for the new comers seem to have tamed it somewhat, to have suburbanized it. It is more like a mall now, more like the American provinces than the Capital of the World. But I’m not sure I could live anywhere else. In fact, I know I can’t. I can’t drive!

 

 

 

 

The Pickens Sisters: Singers of High Society

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2017 by travsd

Jane Pickens (1908-1992) of the Pickens Sisters was born on this day. She’s chiefly on my radar because I’ve lived and recreated in Newport, Rhode island, where she was a longtime resident (summer and otherwise) and there is a theatre there named after her.

Jane was the musical leader and arranger of the trio that first included her sisters Grace and Helen. Grace later became the group’s manager, replaced by the fourth sister Patti. The girls were Southern belles from Georgia, taught to harmonize by their mother. Their father, a wealthy cotton broker, loved to accompany them on piano. In the early 1930s, they moved to New York’s Park Avenue and became involved in New York, Long Island and Newport Society. They often sang at private functions, with a specialty in what were then called “Negro Spirituals”. Fortunately, a search was on at the time to find female trios to compete with the popular Boswell Sisters. The Pickenses were spotted at a party and quickly landed both a radio deal and a recording contract.

Their radio shows ran from 1932 through 1936. They appeared in the 1933 Vitaphone short 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, and in the 1933 feature Sitting Pretty. Next came the Broadway revue Thumbs Up! (1934-1935). Jane sang solo in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

The group split up when several sisters left to get married. Patti married radio actor Bob Simmons, with whom she performed for a time as Pickens and Simmons. Jane, the most serious about music, studied at several prestigious schools, and continued her career as a solo. She appeared on Broadway three more times: in the revue Boys and Girls Together (1940-1941), as the title character in Regina, a musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1949), and the musical Music in the Air (1951). She also made several appearances on television variety shows through the mid 1950s, and even briefly had her own such series as a replacement in 1954.

Jane was married thrice, to T.J. Russell Clark (whom she divorced), stockbroker William Langley, and Walter Hoving (the head of Tiffany and Bonwit Teller, and father of the Met Museum’s Thomas Hoving). In 1972 she ran as the Republican against Ed Koch for a New York Congressional seat (unsuccessfully, of course). Newport’s Jane Pickens Theater, named after her, opened in 1974. She died in Newport in 1992. Patti, the youngest sister, was in the midst of plans to record a tribute album to her deceased sisters when she too passed away in 1995.

The Several Stages of Sylvia Sidney

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2017 by travsd

Sylvia Sidney (Sophia Kosow, 1910-1999) was born on this day. I’m an enormous fan of this Hollywood screen actress in all her phases (which we’ll describe), but first, her surprising background.

Perhaps because of the strong impression she makes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), which I first saw when I was pretty young (13 or 14), I’d always formed an idea of Sidney as pretty Anglo, subconsciously anyway. And there are some parallels in her career arc with Bette Davis (see below), who was as Anglo as it gets. But Sidney was in fact the Bronx born daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. As a teenager she began to take acting classes at the Theatre Guild to deal with her shyness. That quality of shyness, sweetness, and apparent modesty was later be a major component of her screen character, something she shared with Olivia de Havilland and Ruby Keeler. If anything, Sidney had it to an even greater degree, even if, off-camera, she could be quite a terror. Her later marriage to Yiddish theatre scion Luther Adler from 1938 to 1946 further points to her origins, as do some of her later screen roles, as in Raid on Entebbe (1976).

Sidney’s professional stage and screen debuts happened simultaneously. In 1927 she was in the Broadway revue Crime (for which she got excellent reviews) and that same year she was also an extra, along with the unknown Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sothern, in the film Broadway Nights. She was a constant presence on Broadway through 1930. After that, she continued to return to the stage sporadically over the rest of her career. Her last Broadway role was in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre (1977).

By the early 30s Sidney was already a movie star, with the apparent help of her benefactor (and lover) B.P. Schulberg. She stepped in as the replacement for Clara Bow in City Streets (1931), which made her a star; other notable pictures of the early years included An American Tragedy (1931); Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (1931); Thirty Day Princess (1934), penned by Preston Sturges; the Technicolor western The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the aforementioned Sabotage and Fritz Lang’s Fury (both 1936), and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End (1937).

Sidney’s beauty was of the rarest type; her enormous eyes were both “innocent” and sensuous; her bee-stung lips reinforced the latter impression even as her tremulous voice conveyed the sentiments of a damsel in distress. These traits promised the sort of stardom she’d enjoyed in the 30s far into the future. But she developed a well earned reputation for being “difficult”. She was smart, finicky, and temperamental, and given to passionate outbursts, even given to throwing things at her colleagues. She lost the affections and patronage of Schulberg, who’d lost his stature in the industry anyway. In 1935 she married Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, but the marriage only lasted three months. She starred in only 5 films during the 1940s (contrast this with the single year of 1931, when she appeared in 4).

Starting in the 1950s her main jam was dramatic television, and she was working A LOT. In fact she worked constantly from that point until her death. And this resulted in a very strange phenomenon. Late career Sylvia Sydney was an extremely familiar face to tv and movie watchers: guest shots on prominent tv shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, roles in schlocky horror films like Snowbeast (1977) and Damien: Omen II (1978) (which is why I compared her to Bette Davis above). Tim Burton loved her so much he put her in both Beetlejuice (1988) and Mars Attacks! (1996). I knew her face well, but I never paid particular attention to her name. Thus…it took me years — decades, actually — to match the Sylvia Sidney of the 1930s, whose work I knew well, with the Sylvia Sidney of the 70s, 80s and 90s, whose work I also knew well! And then one day, a few years ago, it dawned on me while watching a film of the later period, “Wait a minute! That’s Sylvia Sidney. THAT Sylvia Sidney!” Isn’t that strange?

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, unlike late Bette Davis, she didn’t get star billing in these later performances; she was usually a supporting player in an ensemble. So her name is buried in the credits. And yes, the years had changed her appearance. But also her screen character had changed quite a lot in the intervening years. Once the sweet, innocent damsel, she was now a crusty old, short tempered dame with a husky smoker’s voice. (Ruby Keeler had made a similar evolution). Making the leap would be easier, I gather, by looking at performances from her middle period of the 40s and 50s, when she worked on changing her image to something a bit naughtier, but I remained (and still remain) deficient in seeing her work from this period.

Mid-period, transitional Sidney

Ironically, in light of the hilarious sight gag Tim Burton had employed in Beetlejuice (where she smoked through a hole in her neck), Sidney died of cancer of the esophagus at age 89.

Stray Thoughts on Andy Warhol (and Art and Celebrity)

Posted in Indie Theatre, Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by travsd

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was a virus, a pseudo-living entity concerned primarily with self-replication and whose effect could be toxic, occasionally even fatal. Speculation that he was of alien origin would not be far-fetched, and may possibly be correct. America absorbed him like a virus, reflects him, emulates him, was altered by him, and now IS him. I am Andy Warhol; and so many people I know are Andy Warhol, and to one degree or another. It’s more than likely that you are too.

The subject of Andy Warhol is too great and complex to be approached in an essay form. It has too many entry points; too many simultaneous, overlapping facades. The shape is wrong; it wouldn’t describe him. So I am going to write about him in a shotgun blast of fragments, ideas, memories, observations. Many or most (but not all) will honor him by being completely solipsistic, as much about me, or how he affected me, as about him.

  • Warhol is vaudeville, a mighty act of self-creation. He was the son of Slovak immigrants; his father was a coal miner. But in a very real sense Warhol is the spiritual son, the product, of Pittsburgh tycoon Andrew Carnegie. It was not only Carnegie who wrote the influential The Gospel of Wealth, but also he who endowed The Carnegie Institute of Technology, where Warhol studied to become an artist. Andy Warhol, wealthy celebrity and artist, is the creation of humble Andrew Warhola, who through his own exertions (and the organized exertions of others), pioneered new fields, and built an empire.
  • Warhol remained a devout Catholic all his life. This is significant because Catholicism is largely a religion of forms, rituals, phenomena, and works. The religion influenced his art most deeply in the form of the mass production of silk screen paintings that fetishized pop culture and commercialism, which seems to mimic the generation of Christian religious icons (literal icons) in Eastern Europe.
  • I was deeply involved for a number of years with a woman whose parents were among Warhol’s oldest friends, fellow art students from Pittsburgh who moved with him to New York and were his first room-mates. I heard a lot about the early years from them. The person I was involved with was also part of the Ridiculous theatrical movement, which also owes its origins ultimately to Warhol. All roads lead to Warholia.
  • My dad was an aspiring commercial artist in his youth. It’s made me more interested than I otherwise might be in Warhol’s early art, which was strictly work-for-hire advertising consumer goods. My dad’s working class assessment of Warhol’s work was predictably dismissive (“Sure! Looks enough like a Campbell’s Soup Can!”) and is no doubt the prevailing opinion on Warhol in American mainstream culture, which I find hugely ironic but telling. On the one hand Warhol embraces, deifies their own culture; in return, the public scorns his work as crass, ignoble, and unworthy — a swindle. There is a hypocrisy to that stance, I think.
  • This produces the inherent contradiction of Warhol: in so many ways, no one is more democratic, “of the people”, or unpretentious than Andy Warhol. On the other hand, he is one of the elect, the wealthy elite. This makes him just like the movie stars, celebrities, and rock stars he fetishizes.
  • Since I was a teenager I’ve been obsessed with the 1960s and have been enthralled with the people who galvanized all that rapid cultural change: the Beats, rock stars, political figures, avant-garde artists. Warhol, of course was pre-eminent among these, with many tentacles radiating outward from his centralized monster-brain. There’s his project the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground and Nico at its center, which then gave rise to Glam Rock and Punk (and even disco, which partially evolved out of the former). There were his underground films. I’ve gotten to know a few of his Stars over the years: the late great Taylor Mead; Randy Bourscheidt, whom I worked with at Alliance for the Arts; and the great Penny Arcade, who continues to be a generous mentor and inspiration. The films, in turn influenced theatre in the form of the Ridiculous movement, a chain that goes from Ronald Tavel to John Vaccaro to Charles Ludlam, to the many subsequent artists they spawned and inspired. John Waters and his Dreamlanders are also a major offshoot. The gaggle of friends and colleagues known as Art Stars has been principally influenced by all of these. My friend Rev Jen lives this life to a Pataphysical degree. Glam Rock, the films, and the Ridiculous all heavily incorporate drag performance, which of course ties in strongly to vaudeville.
  • For another tie-in between vaudeville and Warhol’s Factory scene, read my piece about a guy who played a role in both: Paul Swan, The Most Beautiful Man in the World.  
  • I’m told that quotes from my book No Applause were used in wall text in Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum
  • When I was starting my company Mountebanks, the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol was an influence, largely for its ornery and perverse defense of commercialism and capitalism, and his Oscar Wilde style provocative paradoxes.
  • Warhol also founded Interview magazine. I got to meet its editor Ingrid Sischy and Elton John once professionally. Read of that episode here.
  • In 2001, I reviewed a production of Up Your Ass, the play Valerie Solonas shot Warhol over in 1968. (He’s misplaced the only copy of the play, which she’d given him to read in hopes that he would fund a production. This made her very, very mad). At around the same time I also saw (not sure if I reviewed) Carson Kreitzer’s play Valerie Shoots Andy at the Present Company Theatorium.
  • I am an avid fan of Jean Stein (and George Plimpton)’s book Edie, an oral history about the troubled life of Warhol Superstar Edie Sedgwick. More on Stein and the book are in my tribute to the late Stein here.
  • For a real weirdie, check out the Warhol-produced movie Cocaine Cowboys (1979), an appropriate trash-fest, in which Warhol plays himself. He also played himself in an episode of The Love Boat. Life imitating art? Nay, delicious trash imitating a life that imitates art imitating life!
  • Some cool movies about the Factory: I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and Factory Girl (2006). Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), in which David Bowie plays Warhol, is also highly relevant. I once played Julian Schnabel in a play that was produced in a Soho art gallery, and I believe that brings us full circle to myself, which is where I will now leave you, in hopes that it will inspire you to contemplate me. 
  • (worried expression). Um…gee! 

 

Henry Jones: Quietly Indispensable

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2017 by travsd

The great character actor Henry Jones (1912-1999) was born on this day. Jones’ laconic manner made him perfect for rural types, though he was from Philadelphia and the grandson of a Congressman. Yet he was also enough of an obvious WASP to play satirical corporate characters. His bemused nature and unusual voice (both high pitched and gravelly) meant he was usually used for comic purposes. Jones’ characters often seemed angry and impatient or insinuating, but also ineffectual. He knew how to use his huge eyes for maximum effect, but he’d never lift a finger to harm you — not because he was angelic, but because he was lazy or too comfortable. Though he started out as an actor in his 20s, he was definitely one of those actors who made the most sense in middle age.

Jones played supernumerary parts in Maurice Evans’ Broadway productions of Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One in 1938, 1939 and 40, and was a replacement in the original production of William Saroryan’s The Time of Your Life in 1940. He continued to work on Broadway and also broke into film and television in the 1940s, but didn’t really make his mark until the mid 50s, with George S . Kaufman’s The Solid Gold Cadillac (1953-1955) on Broadway and both the stage and screen versions of The Bad Seed (1954-55 and 1956 respectively). Frank Tashlin loved him, using him in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and (one of his best roles), as Tony Randall’s boss in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) (“Eh, Rocky Boy?”). He’s the callous coroner in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). He returned to Broadway for two more major plays, the original productions of Sunrise at Campobello (1958-1959) and Advise and Consent (1960-1961). The rest is all movies and lots of tv (over 150 credits). He was especially useful in westerns, especially comical ones: 3:10 to Yuma (1956), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Dirty Dingus McGee (1970), Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1961). And, one of his most highly visible gigs, as Chloris Leachman’s father-in-law in the tv series Phyllis (1975-77). As a kid I watched him with keen interest and enjoyment in this role. He was also a regular on the short-lived Mrs. Columbo (1979-1980), and several other high profile shows. Late in his career he was still appearing in big movies like The Grifters (1990), Dick Tracy (1990), and Arachnophobia (1990). His last credit was in 1995.

The Rolling Shepard Logbook (R.I.P., Sam)

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, OBITS, Playwrights with tags , , , , , , , on July 31, 2017 by travsd

Fellow students Kathleen Dunn, Rochelle Coleman and me in a student production of Sam Shepard’s Action, 1988. Directed by Kate Pearson. Missing: Maggie MacMillan

Like almost everybody, I imagine I first knew Sam Shepard as a movie star. My friends and I, as young men of 18, 19, were crazy about The Right Stuff (1983) — we must have watched it 15 times together. We went around quoting the lines. Three of us took turns wearing an old leather bomber jacket in emulation of Shepard as Chuck Yeager.  I’d seen most of Shepard’s other movies up ’til then, too. I had no idea Shepard was a playwright (let alone a major one) until I saw my best friend’s copy of Seven Plays, which featured his best known ones. Or (and this is more likely) it might have been Fool for Love and Other Plays, which came out right in the middle of our Shepard-mania (1984), followed by the movie version, in which he co-starred (1985).

What’s really weird about all that? Is that I had SEEN Trinity Rep’s version of Buried Child in 1979! It was (I think) the second grown up play I ever saw in a theatre! The play was a harrowing, amazing experience — it starred the well-known actor Ford Rainey. I still remember what the set looked like. I still remember Ford Rainey sitting in a rocking chair. But I hadn’t noted the playwright’s name. I was 13 when I saw it…I didn’t make the connection again until I saw the play in print about five years later. Lesson? The writer is always the low man on the totem pole!

But what an unprecedented phenomenon. Somebody who’s both a top movie star, and a genuinely important, serious playwright. Can you think of parallels? Maybe…Noel Coward? Even he’s not all that serious (a respected craftsman, yes, but not all that deep. Please, don’t try to argue that Noel Coward is deep).

When I got my reading list prior to starting my studies at Trinity Rep Conservatory the summer of ’86, Shepard may have been the only major modern theatre figure whom I had previously read widely in. Most of my thorough theatrical reading had been in the ancient playwrights and Shakespeare.

I was so happy to get to ACT in Shepard in school: I did Action (pictured above) and Tooth of Crime (I played Crow). And when I began to write one act plays…I often emulated Shepard. I’ll never think about him without thinking of the ’80s, and a certain time in my life.

So, as I’m sure you know, one of Shepard’s first high profile projects was Rolling Thunder Logbook, a published diary Shepard wrote while touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. I, too, keep notebooks, of practically everything I read or see, in terror, I guess, that the impressions will fall through the cracks in my memory. Anyway, it’s been awfully handy having this much writing pre-done, as it were. So, in memory, of a figure I’ve long revered, here are my notes on Shepard’s plays and screenplays up through 1995. I have some catching up to do! Also these notes are at least a decade old — some of these “unpublished” ones may now be published, in which case I have some catching up to do. I do anyway — 18 years worth!

Also derived from my notebook is this earlier essay here.

One act plays (for some reason) are denoted with an asterisk. Descriptions contain unapologetic profanity, and if I do say so myself, are often quite hilarious for reasons that have more to do with Shepard than with me.

1964

Cowboys*

(presently unpublished, but supposedly will be soon. Later rewritten into Cowboys #2—see below)

The Rock Garden*

This play is so funny it almost functions as a blackout skit…and indeed that was how it was employed when it was included in the 1967 Broadway revue O! Calcutta! First a woman drones on to this little boy about all sorts of boring, mundane things. Then a man drones on to the little boy about all sorts of boring, mundane things. The boy politely listens throughout. When they are both finished with their lengthy and dull observations, the boy finally has his say – an extremely graphic and technical explication of his sexual preferences, the best techniques for pleasuring a woman, how far and how fast he likes to put his dick in her vagina, etc. After this lengthy speech, there is a pause, and then the man falls over. Blackout.

1965

Chicago*

Has nothing to do with the city of Chicago of course—it’s just kinda what Shepard calls it. I think it would be hilarious if some tourists went to see a production of this expecting to get the hit Broadway musical of the same name. In this play, a dude named Stu sits in a bathtub weaving fantasies. Then his girlfriend makes biscuits and invites some friends over to share them. The girlfriend gets a suitcase and is apparently going to take a trip somewhere, but Stu seems unable to respond anyway. Then something happens with an imaginary fishing trip. Shepard’s earliest plays are his most abstract, and this is definitely one of his most nonsensical. Yet there is something that plays emotionally here – Stu is alienated, he can’t relate to the people around him, he is cut off, and the effect is painful.

4-H Club*

As in Chicago, the title seems to have nothing to do with the contents. It’s a very similar feeling and setting. As in Chicago you get the sense that it’s a cold water flat, a low rent Lower East Side apartment of the kind Shepard probably lived in at the time. A bunch of buddies are hanging around. One makes a great production out of sweeping the floor, another makes a great production of making coffee (which they can’t drink because they’ve broken the cups), one makes a great production of eating an apple. At the end they’re mostly concerned with killing mice.

Icarus’s Mother*

Already Shepard’s beginning to feel the need to make at least a little sense out of the dramatic experience beyond what he’d done in previous plays. Even the title has some point of reference here…”Icarus” here is a jet pilot flying over  some 4th of July picnickers, who bicker constantly about the significance of the low flying jet. Eventually the jet crashes. I’ve met and worked with the director of the original production Michael Smith—we met when he presented his show Trouble at Theater for the New City. 

Rocking Chair (unpublished?)*

Up to Thursday (unpublished?)*

Dog (unpublished)*

1966

Red Cross*

The coherence in this play centers around themes of sports and health. A young couple is vacationing in a cabin in the woods. The girl weaves a paranoid fantasy about skiing, then leaves. Then the maid comes to turn down the beds. The man reveals to her that he has crabs and talks at length about this. Finally, the maid leaves. The girl comes back and reveals that she has contracted crabs. Then the guy turns around and he has blood dripping down his head!

Fourteen Hundred Thousand*

The title refers to the number of books owned by this couple. They are building some book shelves. A friend is helping them. He keeps announcing that he has to go, he is moving into a new place. But he never seems to go. The girls’ parents come in and start helping too. It ends with all of them articulating a plan for a futuristic city as though laid out in a sociology textbook….a crazy scheme that would involve all the cities contained in one-mile thick strips running north-south and east-west, crisscrossed in a grid pattern so the countryside is situated in squares between them. At a certain point, the couple talks in unison, and mom and pop talk in unison, and then all together, alienating the fifth guy, an effect I liked.

1967

Cowboys #2*

Apparently a complete rewrite of the original Cowboys. One of Shepard’s most non-linear plays. A couple of guys talk about the weather (potential rain), and keep slipping into old men characters,  then role play as Cowboys and Indians, ramble about breakfast foods, etc. In the end, one of them seems to have quietly expired.

Forensic and the Navigators*

A gang of some sort of underground outlaws plan some sort of mission or heist. There’s some shit about breakfast food in this one—Rice Krispies, in particular. The exterminators come in, but they are more than just exterminators: they are some sort of government spies. There is a kind of stand-off. For some reason, one of the exterminators starts calling the other one “Forensic” (though the actual Forensic, the leader of the gang, is one of the other characters in the room). Then the exterminators seem sort of corrupted by this environment…they want to cooperate with the gang. In the end, the room fills with fog and everyone and everything disappears.

La Turista (2 acts)

This play was a sort of break-out for Shepard. He won an Obie for it. It is his first full-length, though from a conventional point of view it would be a stretch to say he’s written a full-length play. Let me rephrase that so it’s not a value judgment though. The play contains two acts, and the second act elaborates on the action of the first act, involves the same characters (with some variations), and when the experience is over, we feel like we have sat through something analogous to a full-length play. I simply mean that, from the standpoint of conventional theater, the two acts are not pieces of the same full-length narrative story. Even that sounds like a value judgment and I don’t mean it to be.

In the first act, a pair of sunburned tourists in Mexico lie in bed reading magazines. A vaguely menacing native boy comes in. Then the man is stricken with violent Montezuma’s Revenge. An Amazonian witch doctor is called in and he proceeds to try to cure the man with magic. The boy is going to join his father, but the tourist woman tries to stop him. In the second act, we are in an American hotel, presumably in a time before the second act. The tourist man is sick again, this time with lethargy. The doctor is called in, but this time he’s a Civil War era doctor. He gets the boy and the woman to walk the man around. Meanwhile, he himself falls asleep. In the end, the doctor is awake, and the man freaks him out with a theory that he has been part of an experiment by the doctor, which has turned him into a monster. In the end, the man runs through the wall, and leaves a cartoon cut out.

Melodrama Play*

This play is his first to bring up a theme that will crop up again and again in Shepard’s work—the notion of the artist as impotent prisoner. He’ll revisit it in The Tooth of Crime, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Cowboy Mouth and Angel City. In this one a one-hit-wonder rock star is suffering because he’s being pressured by his manager to create a follow up hit. It emerges that he has stolen his hit song from his brother and a friend. In the end, the brother and the friend are being imprisoned by the manager to come up with a hit, while the rock star is back out there taking credit for the song again. I think this is his first play with music—many will follow. It was first directed by Tom O’Horgan. 

1969

The Unseen Hand*

This play is just about perfect, to my mind—and very funny. An alien from another planet comes to earth in the future and recruits a 120 year old gunfighter from the old west and his two resurrected brothers to return to his planet to help free a race of slaves. The play is all lead up to that big moment…but then the alien solves the whole thing with telepathy and the cowboys are on their own again.

The Holy Ghostly*

A very similar feeling to the Unseen Hand. Another old cowboy type named “Pop” waits around in the desert with his hippie son “Ice” for the “Chindi”, some sort of Native American ghost of death. The Chindi does arrive, and tells Pop he is already dead, proving it by laying the corpse as his feet. Pop is in denial. A witch comes in: “the Chindi’s old lady”. Ice shoots pop in the stomach and goes. Pop dies. One of the cool aspects of this play is a bit of unintentional realism. The relationship between the two characters is illustrative of the generation gap – there are tensions between them that feel unique to the time. This play is also perfect in its way, as poignant and eerie as it is funny. The vague pot-fueled paranoia here gives way to older and more traditional superstitions, and a number of plays from the period will feature this—ghosts, monsters from the subconscious, from our own past bursting forth, making these plays feel like primitive rituals.

Zabriskie Point (screenplay)

Hard to assess Shepard’s contribution to this screenplay—he was one of five writers including Antonioni, the director. Furthermore, there’s an improv flavor to a lot of the scenes, reminiscent of Medium Cool. Certain concrete aspects, bickering revolutionaries, and an airplane buzzing scene that turns into lovemaking between strangers in the Mohave desert, seem very “him”. But the dialogue is much more “realistic” than the sort he was putting into character’s mouths at the time. Still, this had to have been a turning point. A far cry from Off Off Broadway.

1970

Shaved Splits*

Miss Cherry is a trophy bride who sits around her fancy bedroom reading porn and romance novels and ordering around her Chinese servant. Suddenly out of the blue a revolutionary shows up. The house is surrounded by police. A standoff. Miss Cherry’s husband –a rich businessman — arrives by helicopter on the roof. The standoff ends when Wong jumps out the window, almost as though it were a kind of human sacrifice.

Operation Sidewinder (2 acts)

The Air Force has designed a super-sized robot rattlesnake designed to track the arrival of space aliens. It escapes into the desert, where it intertwines with the lives of tourists, Black Panthers and Native American revolutionaries. This play has less of Shepard’s poetry, to my mind, and less of the existential terror. The main character is really the sidewinder in a certain way, and there is a lot of music (originally performed by the Holy Modal Rounders). Onstage it may play as well as the others.

1971

Back Bog Beast Bait*

Almost a sort of sequel to The Unseen Hand. Two gunfighter characters who had beenn mentioned by name by a character in the latter play are hired here to protect a Cajun woman in the swamp from a Tarpin, a pig-monster (the back bog beast) who has killed everyone in the area. Their efforts are subverted though when a woman named Gris-Gris comes in. She gradually casts a spell over everyone there (including a preacher who has walked in), transforming them all into animals. This play and Shepard’s other “magical” plays of the period were definitely on my mind when I wrote Universal Rundle. 

Cowboy Mouth*

A sort of impressionist rock and roll romance, cowritten and originally acted by Shepard and Patti Smith. Cavale has kidnapped Slim from his wife and kid in order to make him a rock and roll star. Slim spends all his time complaining. The poetical and insane Cavale spends all her time babying a taxidermically stuffed crow. A couple from my scene class at Trinity did this play so I got to know it real well. Full of humor and poetry, perhaps a dry run for Fool for Love. The Lobsterman arrives a couple of times, eventually turning into the rock star.

Mad Dog Blues (2 acts)

The original production directed by Robert Glaudini. Although I liked this play well enough when I was 20 now I find it a little embarrassing. It was probably inevitable Shepard would need to try this. Having explored American myth so much, with this play he appears to pull out all the stops with his cultural appropriations, drafting Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Paul Bunyon, Capt Kidd and Jesse James. They all play parts in the adventures of two rock musicians named Kosmo and Yahoodi. The adventure is conventional and cliché-ridden, having elements of a children’s play and a Hollywood movie – a search for buried treasure at the instigation of Capt. Kidd. Maybe some of the camp in the air at the time – Ludlam’s and others’ – rubbed off on Shepard here. Somehow it doesn’t have the bite or the pain or the existential terror that characterizes most of his work.

1972

The Tooth of Crime (2 acts)

The last play of Shepard’s rock and roll musical phase, and an early example of the slightly more coherent phase in which he was going. It is a futuristic world. Hoss is the top player in some sort of electronically observed gladiatorial spectacle that uses America as its arena.  The players speed around the country in racing cars and seize territory by killing the present holder of that area. The scoring system and culture are often spoken of in terms of the music industry – these killers are the rock stars of the future. But Hoss is getting old and filled with doubt. He is challenged by a young “gypsy” named Crow, who doesn’t play by the rules, and whips Hoss’s ass. Hoss commits suicide. While the dialogue in the play is all in a sort of foreign argot, the plot is perfectly comprehensible, it is a myth with universal resonance. From here on in, that is the overall trend of his work. I played Crow at the Trinity Rep conservatory. It was a good exercise for me, and most challenging. The aspect I found hardest—and the class was divided about how successful I was – was the need to be physically intimidating in a confrontation with another male (one who was larger, by the way). I think at most I achieved a Richard III thing – or that Jeremy Irons lion from The Lion King – a frightening impression of an evil, tricky mind…but not the more basic illusion that I could (or thought I could) whip the other guy’s ass, which I think the teacher was trying to bring out of me. I wonder if I would be better at that now.  The character I came up with deviated from Shepard’s stage directions, and ended up being a sort of literal Crow, dressed in black, with black sunglasses like death, with a kind of croaky, menacing voice.

1973

Blue Bitch (tv? UK? Unpublished)

Nightwalk (unpublished)

1974

Geography of a Horse Dreamer (2 acts)

We now enter a phase where Shepard continues to explore big American myths, but has dropped the rock and rollers and cowboys for a time. While many early Shepard plays evoke emotions that remind me of Pinter, this one starts out with a SITUATION that reminds me of Pinter—two hoodlums and their prisoner holed up in a hotel room. It’s a lot like The Dumbwaiter (the fact that Shepard was living in London at the time might not be irrelevant). Cody is a psychic whose job it is to dream the winners of horse races. He has been having a losing streak and his keepers are getting frustrated. One is the “good cop” one is the “bad cop”. They get the word that they have been downgraded to dog races, and then he starts picking winners. The boss, a dude named Fingers, arrives and is surprisingly hurt and troubled by the fact that the stress of dreaming winners has made Cody insane. He resolves to bring Cody back home. However, his partner Doc, perhaps the power and brains behind Fingers, wants to cut open Cody to remove neck vertebra for magical “dreamer’s bones” for the next dreamer. He is about to do so when Cody’s brothers blast in and rescue Cody, killing everyone but Fingers with shotguns.

Little Ocean (unpublished?)

1975

Action*

Ross Westzeon in his published introduction says that each new Shepard play but Action was greeted with enthusiasm – that people were hostile to the play’s experimentalism. But to me this is crazy – the play is really no more experimental than most of his work of the 60s. What it is, is a return—almost a goodbye—to his earlier way of working. It resembles his very earliest plays, but if anything, is more coherent about the theme. A lot of artists do this periodically. It is almost like he is “doing” Shepard, in the way that the Beatles “do” the Beatles on Abbey Road. “My work traditionally had this, this, this and this—I will revisit that from this new vantage point”. In the play, four friends live out a domestic scene in a very disjointed fashion. They go through the motions of domesticity, a turkey dinner, reading a book together, cleaning up, etc. But they are fragmented, disjointed, alienated, full of anxiety. I played Shooter at Trinity Rep Conservatory (and got repeated praise for my performance from Dan Van Bargen, a Trinity actor, who later went on to work as a character actor in numerous top Hollywood films).

Killer’s Head*

A very Beckett-like idea. A short monologue delivered by a man sitting in an electric chair. We don’t know his crime, though the title tells us he is a killer. But the monologue is completely quotidian, seemingly in denial about the fact that his life will end very shortly. He ruminates about a new pick-up he is to buy, and horse breeding. Then he is fried in the chair.

1976

Angel City (2 acts)

The theme of the trapped artist returns. This one is no doubt in part informed by Shepard’s having written the screenplay to Zabriskie Point. It is the obligatory “Hollywood play” a genre that might be said to include Hurlyburly, Speed-the-Plow, Shepard’s later True West, Odets’ The Big Knife, the Coens’ Barton Fink, and novel/films, like Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust. Shepard is still into heavy impressionism and symbolism here though, so it’s more than just the satire those other projects are. Hollywood is in trouble – the atmosphere seems to be turning some of the producers into actual lizards. (How obvious –yet perfect–can a metaphor be?). Some artists are called in to create a film that will counteract this process, but affecting a real change in the public—not just an emotional one, but by causing some sort of disaster (the job of one of the guys, with his Indian medicine bags) and/or causing mass insanity (the job of a jazz drummer, who is supposed to conjure a rhythm that will do so). The interesting aspect is that they are voluntary prisoners. As in the real Hollywood, the money and the comfort keep them trapped in the situation that keeps them impotent and powerless. In the end, the medicine man turns into a literal lizard monster, worse than the original producers of the project.

Hollywood seemed to be very much on his mind during this period, suggesting the subject matter of Angel City and True West, but also Suicide in B Flat, which takes its content from B movies of the 40s and 50s, and Seduced, which deals with Howard Hughes, who was among other things a movie producer. It was shortly after this that Shepard emerged as a Hollywood film actor.

Suicide in B Flat*

This seems to be a statement – Shepard’s kiss-off to his old way of working. Surprisingly late in a career full of genre exploration he finally gets around to a noir/murder mystery story. Two detectives investigate the apparent suicide of a top be bop jazz musician. Meanwhile, we see the musician hovering over the proceedings, like a ghost, having killed himself from a third person perspective, and attempting to kill the two cops too. There is much about the misunderstood nature of his work. The metaphor seems obvious. He is killing his old way of working—after this Shepard’s work abandons that pure, stream of consciousness technique and writes plays that are far more conventional. There is a parallel (and contrast) with Ibsen here. It takes a great deal of discipline to make such a change. Ibsen had abandoned poetic, mythic dramas like Peer Gynt in order to invent modern realism. At the time, that was a risky move into modernism. On the other hand, almost a century later, Shepard will discipline himself to make the same move to find much wider acceptance.

The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife

1977

Inacoma

1978

Seduced (2 acts)

A brilliant choice of subject matter for a transitional step into realism. Most of this play is quite logical and realistic, but the leap is not so jarring because it’s based on a very crazy slice of real life: the hermit-like seclusion of Howard Hughes. While the name has been changed, a hundred other details make it obvious the character is based on Hughes. The beauty part is, the character is the type Shepard’s always written about…his characters have always been obsessive-compulsives, terrified of their own shadow, locked in a room…to a Shepard fan it feels like business as usual, but to someone who didn’t know his work (but knew about the life of Howard Hughes) it would be totally comprehensible and an unobjectionable evening of theater. (Until the end, that is—for the final image Shepard allows himself to revert a bit to fantasy, with the Hughes character flying through the air, being shot at by the bodyguard who wants to exploit him, but not dying).

Curse of the Starving Class (3 acts)

This is Shepard’s new kind of play, and to my knowledge most of them have been like this since. Being as fond of Shepard’s bold early work as I am, it’s always bugged me that the majority of people will say that this is the first of his plays they like…they like this one and all the plays afterward. To me, it’s sort of like trumpeting their philistinism. Saying you like Shepard’s later plays best and that Arthur Miller was a great playwright would cause me to dismiss your subsequent opinions on the theater out of hand, I’m afraid. (Not that those statements couldn’t be true, but because they are too easy to arrive at without having thought about it too much. It reveals a certain underexposure) This is not to say that the new plays are not masterpieces – they are simply a new phase. He has made concessions to popular taste, but his poetic genius is still there in a new way. Similar to the mature Dylan of Blood on the Tracks. The first batch of these new plays seem to be both allegories about the state of contemporary America, and also Shepard’s spin on the traditional subjects for great American plays. Shepard had always been a formalist. Taking on these “Great American Play” themes seems to be his way of maintaining that part of his work in a subtler way, thus the American “myths” are still there, but subtly warped and perverted. In Curse of the Starving Class it’s the old melodrama stand-by: the villains want to swindle us out of our farm. What makes it beautiful – almost sociological – is that the play tracks how America has changed in an almost journalistic way (despite the nuttiness of the characters). For example, two men try to buy the farm – one wants to turn it into housing subdivisions for maximum profit, the other (less savvy) just wants to turn the house into a restaurant. Agricultural America (and its culture) are in jeopardy; turning a profit is the ruling motivation. (Both buys are criminals, incidentally). Especially painful, because accurate, is his portrait of the contemporary American family. The father drunken, violent, absent. The mother adulterous, blasé about the future of her children. Both have sort of relinquished their roles as parents, their teenage kids just kind of live there, and have become old before their time (while the parents have not grown up).

Tongues

The first of a series of collaborations with Joe Chaikin, his old associate from the Open Theater. It seems as though, as if to compensate himself for veering off into realism, Shepard gave himself the consolation prize of some pure experimentation on the side. These are not plays, but more like poems to be interpreted in a theatrical context, calling to mind the later work of Beckett. This one seems to explore birth, the petty concerns of life, and death.

1979

Buried Child (3 acts)

Shepard’s spin on another great American play subject – coming home. This play has always oddly reminded me of Arsenic and Old Lace – the normal relative (in this case a grandson) has flown the coop, bringing his girlfriend to meet the folks, who turn out to be insane. It also reminds me of Pinter’s The Homecoming. A friend told me that she had gone to a production where this play was hyped heavily as a comedy. Sounds impossible! But if it is true (assuming she doesn’t have it mixed up with, say, True West), I suppose you could regard it as a black comedy on that basis. But again, as with Curse of the Starving Class we have this strong metaphor for what has happened to contemporary America. The grandson’s girlfriend goes in expecting Norman Rockwell…and gets something that feels more like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is another farm that has ceased to be a farm, and looming over it all is a deep, dark family secret that has spoiled everything since.  A baby had been born to the matriarch decades earlier – but grandpa was not the father (there’s intimations that it may have been one of the sons) so the father drowned the child and buried it in the back yard. This horror recalls America’s own atrocities that have spoiled our own Norman Rockwell image of ourselves—slavery and genocide of the Indians in particular, but also more recent debacles like Vietnam and resistance to Civil Rights. As in Curse of the Starving Class we find a world bereft of moral leadership. The one establishment authority figure—a reverend who comes over for tea—is useless, he wants to run at the first sign of domestic distress. A telling statement. (This comic reverend is another reason somebody might mistake the play for a comedy. But the image of the exhumed corpse of the child at the play’s end makes considering the play comedy unthinkable).

I first saw the play produced at Trinity when it was quite new. I remember being very impressed by the set, probably by Eugene Lee, which had a working screen door and was very atmospheric. Crystal Field has said she and Theater for the New City were instrumental in the early development of the play.

Savage/Love

The second collaboration with Chaikin – a series of love poems from a variety of perspectives.

Jacaranda

(unpublished?) another Chaikin piece?

1980

Jackson’s Dance

(unpublished?) another Chaikin piece?

True West (3 acts)

This is Shepard’s next take on a popular American formula: the “Odd Couple” scenario. A lot of people love this play, which feels—superficially anyway—like Shepard’s lightest. Austin is a rich Hollywood screen writer. His brother Lee is a petty burglar—practically an animal. One day Lee shows up to make Austin’s life a hell, stealing a movie deal from him and instead selling to the producer his own brutishly conceived, instinctive scenario for a western. The problem is he can’t write it—Austin is the one who can make the formal thing happen, and so they need each other. (The two men are like the two sides of Shepard, like two sides of any writer’s brain.)  Meanwhile, Austin decides to chuck it all in, gets drunk, steals toasters out of the houses of all of his neighbors and announces that he wants to go live with Lee out in the desert. When Lee doesn’t want to let him, Austin becomes vicious and violent, nearly choking the life out of him. The play ends with an image with the two of them in stalemate, circling each other. Transformations of the kind familiar from his early plays happen to the two brothers. Yet they are like two sides of a single coin.

1981

Superstitions

(unpublished?) another Chaikin piece?

1983

Fool for Love (full length one act)

In his introduction to the published edition Ross Wetzsteon calls this Shepard’s first play on the theme of romantic love, but as with Action he gets it wrong. That distinction belongs to Cowboy Mouth. Like that play, Fool for Love is a pas de deux, the two lovers locked in a love-hate thing, going round and round and round. In this phase of his work Shepard is very much concerned with the dysfunctional American family, so it should come as no surprise that the two lovers turn out to be half brother and sister. The two share a common father, who looms over the proceedings drinking whiskey in a rocking chair. It is like they can’t escape the legacy of the bigamist who put them in this predicament. It is his most “country music” style play to date—feels like a country song, set in a motel room, with Merle Haggard music playing, a shared bottle of tequila, heartbreak, the man is some kind of rodeo stunt-man, the girl is a fry cook. The way he reveals their true relationship is almost—dare I say it?—conventional, holding the info back and revealing it late in the day for maximum dramatic effect. As in Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the fact that these people should not be romantically involved seems only to fuel their passion

1984

Paris, Texas (screenplay)

Themes from True West, Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind all intertwine though this amazing script—they should all be published together. As in Fool for Love you have a western couple who love each other so passionately but also fight passionately. Like True West, you have a mismatched pair of brothers, one straightlaced, one wild. As in A Lie of the Mind you have a traumatic amnesia, and tales of wife beating. This period represents a kind of highpoint for Shepard in terms of artistic power as well as his presence on the American scene. It seems to have been his big moment, and sadly, in retrospect, he seems to have waned ever since. Everything subsequent was smaller, or redundant somehow. But this movie is amazing—it feels very much a piece of other stuff that was going on at the time—David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch especially. (In reference to the latter I note that John Lurie has a cameo in this film. In reference to the former, we have Dean Stockwell. And let me throw in Alex Cox. Harry Dean Stanton stars in both this and Repo Man).

It’s very cool to have Shepard’s images concretized as Wim Wenders does here. Opening shots of gorgeous desert rock features. Harry Dean Stanton wandering in the desert. Eventually he is found, mute, amnesiac in a small border town. His brother Dean Stockwell comes from LA to pick him up. A long opening act of the brother trying to bring him out and gradually trying to tease him back to reality. He disappeared four years ago, leaving Stockwell and his French wife to raise his child. The middle act has Stanton back in their LA home, gradually bonding with his child. The last act has them going out to look for Stanton’s wife, the boy’s mother (Natasha Kinski). She turns out to be working in a bizarre role-playing peep show. Stanton leaves the boy with his mother—a sort of unsettling ending, given the fact that he’d had a stable situation with Stockwell and his wife. An encouraging aspect about the film is how far it strays from Hollywood formula. The fact that Shepard gives characters some nice big monologues and they stay in the film.

1985

A Lie of the Mind (3 acts)

Shepard’s third play in a row on the theme of dualism (following True West and Fool for Love), this one is that other great American play stand-by of the “two families.” One can’t help notice that he has benefited measurably by the movie star status that resulted from The Right Stuff (1983) and critical success of Paris, Texas. The original cast had a half-dozen recognizable names in it, unprecedented for Shepard, and it is a much larger cast in general. While very impressionistic and dream-like, it’s a soap opera feeling as we track all the different characters. A man has beat up his wife so badly she has brain damage and her family is now caring for her. The wife-beater assumes he has killed her and his hiding out sorrowfully at his mothers. They are both at once “dead” and in a child-like state of dependence (and as in almost every Shepard play, confined). When the wife-beater’s brother goes to the wife’s house to learn if she is really dead, he is accidentally shot by her father, who’s hunting. Now he too is in a dependent state, and lies recuperating with the wife’s family. The wife begins to mistake him for her husband. But it is a tapestry with many arcs and sub-plots, including the wife’s brother, who wants (and gets) revenge on the husband, the relationship between the wife’s parents, and the relationship between the wife beater’s mother and sister. In some ways juggling all of this, keeping it all germane and keeping it all “Shepard” is a new level of accomplishment for him.

1987

The War in Heaven (another Chaikin project–the post-stroke one?)

1991

States of Shock*

This is a fine play but for Shepard it can only be regarded as a regression. Whether he intentionally wanted to do something less ambitious, or whether his powers are beginning to wane, I won’t be able to guess until I look at some of these later plays. He seems to be trying to reach back to some of the loopiness of his earlier plays, but somehow his technique has become more conventional, and the more Shepardian elements feel like retreads from his own past. A colonel brings a disabled war vet (an old war buddy of his son’s) out for dessert on the anniversary of the day the colonel’s son was killed and the vet injured). The colonel is obsessed with the technicalities of what happened. It gradually emerges that the damage was from friendly fire, and that the colonel was responsible. That has to be the most conventional story arc Shepard has ever written. It’s actually trite. The colonel is supposed to be dressed in an odd conglomeration of uniforms from different eras, and no specific war is mentioned, which feels like a gesture toward experimentalism, but a rather superficial one. The other characters in the play are an inept waitress and some disgruntled people at another table who never get served.

1993

Far North (screenplay)

This is a perfectly nice little story, yet it seems like more evidence that Shepard’s gifts (or maybe just his ambitions) are waning. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not “bad”. It’s just sort of Chekhovian in its realism…it lacks a big event. Very character based. Seems to be succumbing to values outside his gifts. Contains almost no verbal poetry. Maybe none (although some visual poetry). The fatigue seems evident in the way he has chosen another compass point (as in True West) for a title. Far North is set in Minnesota. A father is thrown by his horse and wants vengeance—asks his daughter to shoot the horse. She considers doing it, but never does. It turns into an epic of two sisters and a teenage daughter lost in the woods with the horse, and the father and his brother, who’ve escaped from the hospital, rushing toward them. The most poetic image in the screenplay is the three women riding the horse at the same time (and a hallucination of the father’s where the three women seem all decked out in primitive gear).

Silent Tongue (screenplay)

I’ve already blogged about Silent Tongue. Read it here. 

1994

Simpatico

Elements of Geography of a Horse Dreamer and Suicide in B Flat merge in his new realistic milieu in this story. A long time ago, a pair of buddies were a couple of kids with nothing on the ball, who worked at a racetrack. In order to make quick money gambling, they switch a couple of racehorses, but they were caught doing it by the state racing commissioner, whom they then framed by taking compromising photos (using the wife of one of the buddies) to get out of their jam. Then one of the partners (Carter) ran off with the other one (Vinnie)’s wife and car. Since then, all four (including the disgraced commissioner) have been living under fake identities. The two who ran off have thrived, becoming rich. The disgraced commissioner has done just fine living his new life. Vinnie is the one that causes all the trouble. Still nursing a grievance over his stolen wife and Buick, and unable or unwilling to knuckle under and live a lie, he survives on hush money from Carter, living like a tramp, unable to hold down a job. But Vinnie upsets everything when he starts to live out new identities and lies of his own devising. First, he tells Carter he is in trouble with the law for having misrepresented himself as a detective to his new girlfriend and that he has left some of the evidence of his crimes with her. He seems to do this to big Carter down while he himself goes to Kentucky to bring the evidence back to the disgraced commissioner, to try to put everything back as it was. To do this, he masquerades as a detective. But the commissioner tips of Carter. Then Carter sends Vinnie’s completely guileless girlfriend to try to buy the material from the commissioner (who has not bought it). In the end, somehow Vinnie has regained his self-respect, and Carter’s terror of his crimes being discovered has reduced him to helpless fever and chills. For some reason this play feels more like Mamet or Rabe to me, the cast of characters and the setting and the theme

And there my knowledge falls off I’m afraid.

For more of my thoughts on the late Sam Shepard go here. This was sad news to get today. It’s the kind of thing that can make a guy feel old. Alright there’s more to say, and better ways to say it, but I’d better pull the trigger on this.

Theda Bara: The Screen’s Premiere Vamp

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2017 by travsd

Aw, man, this late in the day this guy can still be properly fooled.

I had never probed too deeply into the background of silent screen actress Theda Bara (Theodosia Burr Goodman, 1885-1955), whose birthday it is today. Or, if I did, it was a long while back and I’d forgotten about it. I’ve long known the basics, of course. Theda Bara was the quintessential screen vamp, one of Hollywood’s top silent stars, who played all the great wicked sirens of literature and history. And she was extremely influential. Many stage and screen actresses emulated her. In my book and a blogpost I’d used a picture of the young Mae West in full Theda Bara drag early in her career. And there are great cultural bellwethers like this:

What I didn’t know — or perhaps forgot — was the extent of the hoodwink at the center of her career. I’d assumed that, much like, say, Nazimova or Pola Negri, she was an exotic foreign female from Eastern Europe or someplace. But, no. While her father was indeed a Polish Jew, Theda herself was a straight-up American girl from Cincinnati. Naturally, the movie flacks of her day put out quite different, more colorful stories about her background, that she was an Egyptian princess or something, and maybe I subconsciously swallowed that over the years. But, no, she’s much more like one of my favorite vaudevillians, Olga Petrova, a big (huge) delightful, imaginative invention, a projection, a fantasy. I love it so much when the pretend spills out beyond the stage and screen to create another dimension in the real world. Technology makes it harder to accomplish, but I think some occasionally manage.

Bara even had a couple of regular old, quotidian years at the University of Cincinnati! She did some local theatre, then moved to New York, where she appeared in the play The Devil in 1908 using the pseudonym Theodosia De Cappet. She then barnstormed with touring stock companies, returning to the New York area in 1914. That year, she got a part as a gang moll in Frank Powell’s film The Stain, made for Pathe Freres. It was Powell who discovered her and made her a star, casting her as “The Vampire” in his next picture A Fool There Was (1915), made for Fox, which was then based in Fort Lee, NJ. She became a contract player for Fox and their top star. Her screen name was adapted from her childhood nickname + a shortening of her maternal grandfather’s surname. Studio p.r. men, however, have out that it was “Arab Death”, with the letters switched around.

Maybe her best known film and the one that caused Theda Bara to relocate to Hollywood in 1917. Today all but a few seconds of it are lost

One would know more about her today if her career had gone longer and if most of her films hadn’t been destroyed in a horrible fire. Only six of her films survive in their entirety out of approximately 40, and they aren’t necessarily representative ones. Her surviving films are The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), An Unchastened Woman (1926), and two very uncharacteristic comedies for Hal Roach, Madame Mystery (1926), and 45 Minutes from Hollywood (1926). Only two of these are from the meat of her career, the Fox period. Gone forever apparently are such tantalizing titles as The Devil’s Daughter (1915), Sin (1915), Carmen (1915), The Serpent (1916), The Eternal Sapho (1916), The Vixen (1916), Camille (1917), Cleopatra (1917), Madame Du Barry (1917), The Forbidden Path (1918), Salome (1918), When a Woman Sins (1918), The She-Devil (1918), When Men Desire (1919), and The Siren’s Song (1919) — although there are plenty of publicity stills and movie posters to raise our curiosity.

“Romeo and Juliet”. Bara as a virgin?

Periodically, she did try to break out of her typecasting, as when she played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1916), and the title character in an adaptation of Boucicault’s Kathleen Mavourneen (1919), one of her last films for Fox. There was public outcry among Irish-Americans when she essayed the latter — it was considered a profanation to have a wicked woman play a part they considered sacred. Back then, it was common for the wider community to confuse screen actors with the parts they played.

Poli’s was a vaudeville circuit — it looks like they made an exception in this lucrative case

Tired of playing the vamp, Bara broke her contract with Fox, and returned to the stage, starring in the 1920 Broadway play The Blue Flame (in which, ironically she played another femme fatale), which then went on tour. She was trashed by critics, though tickets sold like crazy. Despite the financial success, she cut the tour short unwilling to endure the embarrassment any longer. I’ve read some of the reviews; they were truly mean.

In 1921, she married film director Charles Brabin. She next toured vaudeville for a while, presenting herself as a celebrity as opposed to an actress (i.e., she spoke with audiences about her experiences; she didn’t risk acting in a play). In the mid 20’s she attempted a very brief cinematic comeback, starring in The Unchastened Woman for Chadwick Pictures in 1925, and then the two comedy shorts for Hal Roach. It’s not the craziest development in the world. For example, Mae Busch had also been one of the screen’s greatest vamps, and then in middle age she wound up being one of Roach’s most dependable comedy actresses.

After this she retired for the most part, although she did do an art theatre revival of Bella Donna in 1934 (presumably in the Nazimova part), and a few isolated but high profile radio appearances. She died of stomach cancer at age 70.

For more on vaudeville including performers like Theda Bara and Mae West see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold, and for more on silent film consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

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