WHEN the usually taciturn Sam Shepard, who made his reputation as an outlaw of sorts, decides to lay down the law, one tends to pay attention.
“Well, right out of the gate let me get something straight,” says the 62-year-old playwright, one hand brushing his gray-flecked, still-ample mane of hair, his blue eyes taking on a steely glint. “I’m not a politician, I hate politicians. I’m a playwright. I don’t side with either Republicans or Democrats or anything in between. The material should be evocative, it should raise all kinds of questions. But I don’t have any answers. I don’t have a political agenda. It’s strictly a play.”
The setting is a noisy, hip Greenwich Village restaurant, but the tone is exasperated Gary Cooper. One gathers that has been the case since fall 2004, when media reports billed Shepard’s “The God of Hell,” then about to receive its world premiere, as his most overtly political play. It was said to have been rushed into production for a limited run off-Broadway to affect the heated presidential election, and the mixed critical reaction included charges that it was too bluntly polemical. “Neither smooth nor subtle,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times, but “it has an absurd and angry vigor.” Shepard may have fed that perception by calling the surrealistic black comedy “a takeoff on Republican fascism.”
“Do I regret saying it?” he says, pausing to think. “Well, yeah, I suppose. It was an off-handed comment, but they are the ones in power. And if you look at the definition of fascism, it fits: ‘An extreme right-wing movement.’ But it is really about predicaments -- barbarism, torture, loss of freedom and stuff like that -- that goes beyond politics. To talk about it in terms of Democrats or Republicans is to belittle it, to make it ignorable.”
A new production of “The God of Hell,” opening Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, could help assess how the intervening months have affected its political context (just as the Mark Taper Forum production of David Hare’s “Stuff Happens” shed light on its torn-from-the-headlines subject).
Audiences will certainly recognize elements in this apocalyptic comedy about what happens when Welch, a sinister and swaggering “salesman,” descends on the Midwestern farm of Frank and Emma on a shoeshine and a smile, with a suitcase full of American flags and red, white and blue cookies in tow. Unctuousness yields to threats and bullying until the couple find their living room transformed into a torture chamber of sorts, mimicking images straight out of Abu Ghraib, complete with hoods and electrodes attached to genitals. Paranoia, jingoism, betrayal, nuclear contamination (plutonium, it is noted, is named after the classical god of hell). Not for nothing does Frank, after wryly commenting that he always thought Pluto was “a cartoon,” mention, “I miss the Cold War so much.”
Jason Alexander, who is directing the Geffen production, says his version hopes to emphasize the absurdist humor without losing the humanity of Frank and Emma’s situation. Nonetheless, he adds, there is no escaping the controversial politics that he has embraced by, among other touches, using the national anthem as a torture device. “I’m sure the response may, in fact, be more volatile and vociferous because the country has become more polarized than when it first premiered,” Alexander says, noting that within the first 10 minutes of the first preview, there were walkouts. “People may like it, hate it, be provoked, confused and disturbed by it. It’s a difficult, challenging piece ... but that is what political theater, at its best, does: make people think ... create vital conversations.”
That response would likely please Shepard, whose plays have become more bitingly satirical as he has aged, though he still exudes a youthful charisma that has a number of people in the restaurant, including a giddy waitress, surreptitiously staring at him. Preferring to let the work speak for itself, he becomes much more animated talking about American history than about himself and his plays or, God forbid, politics.
What is most apparent is how often Shepard’s conversation is punctuated with laughter, a staccato chortle as frequent as the whiff of nicotine emanating from his faded black T-shirt. Grinning through crooked teeth he conveys a head-shaking bemusement at the American life he has chosen to chronicle. One of his many digressions is prompted by a book about the Mayflower pilgrims. “Everything makes sense when you read this book,” he says. “They called themselves the children of God and yet they were selling and shipping thousands of Indians off to the Bahamas. These were Puritans! Pilgrims! Those people with the turkey!”
Dissecting the dream
OF course, holding the mythic values of home and hearth up to an unforgiving light is nothing new for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Buried Child” and “True West,” all withering assaults on cherished American dreams. The son of a conservative, hard-drinking World War II bomber pilot, Samuel Shepard Rogers, and Jane Elaine Schook, Shepard says he always associated politics with the military. He left all that behind when he hopped a bus from Duarte, changed his name, and headed to the East Coast for a life in theater. Developing as a writer in the East Village during the anti-Vietnam War fomentation of the ‘60s, Shepard was attracted to the poets, who were able to incorporate a political awareness in their art while avoiding it as a raison d’etre.
But the War on Terror has raised the stakes exponentially for Shepard, as an artist and a citizen. In fact, he says now, he had never voted in a presidential election until the last one. “When you’re actively demolishing societies, you inevitably become more sensitive and active” as a writer, he says. And it has also blurred the personal and the political as never before. In a pointed exchange in “The God of Hell,” Frank asks his old friend Haynes -- whose escape from a government nuclear experiment has brought Welch to the farmhouse -- about the reasons for the stranger’s visit: “Are we talking about a world situation or something personal?” Comes the reply: “What’s the difference?”
In the course of writing the play over summer 2004, Shepard says he owed more, surprisingly, to Joe Orton than to leftist firebrand Clifford Odets (“Awake and Sing!”), more to Bertolt Brecht (“Mother Courage”) than to Harold Pinter. “I intended it to be a farce, in the style of ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane,’ ” Shepard says of the play by Orton, the subversive gay British playwright of the ‘60s. “I’m not comparing myself to him, I don’t have the same witticisms or erudition, but I was following in the genre of a stranger invading a household and turning it upside down.” As for the German Marxist Brecht, Shepard says that he prefers the writer’s “rawness” to his political stances. “When you look at ‘Jungle of the Cities,’ it’s not political. There’s something about a threat that’s coming, you don’t know from where, and it lands on a person’s head and it destroys them, arbitrarily, systematically.”
In “The God of Hell,” the devouring monster comes in the high-voltage form of Welch, an atypical fascist who blithely pronounces to his victims, “We’re in absolute control now, we don’t have to answer to anyone!” Shepard says that, as played by Tim Roth in the original production at the New School in New York, Welch was an out-of-control vaudeville clown. (At the Geffen, the role will be played by Bryan Cranston.) “His fanaticism really drives the play,” he adds. “I had a ball writing him. I’ve always been interested in the innocent versus the depraved and how that corruption takes place, insidiously, inch by inch, and how the corrupter is always full of self-confidence compared to the innocent. It’s never the other way around.”
In “The God of Hell,” Shepard has moved the arena for that corruption from his usual haunt, the West, to a dairy farm in the Midwest where for many years he lived with his longtime companion, Jessica Lange, a Minnesota native, and their children. (In 2004, the family moved to Kentucky.) The Wisconsin setting, says the playwright, exemplified for him not only the “white bread, Eisenhower, ‘50s morality” that was ripe for Welch’s picking but also the myopia and fear that feeds into the fascism he represents. “If you blindly follow them, you could end up losing your house, man,” says Shepard, which is what happens to Frank and Emma. Their vulnerability, suggests Shepard, stems also in part from another of his themes: the loss of identity. They are, after all, the last remaining dairy farmers in a country “where people are paid not to farm.
“We’ve never known who we are as a country, only how we’d like to define ourselves: idealistic, good, positive, saving the world for democracy, right?” he says, adding that the less-savory aspects of our national character, such as greed, militarism and aggression are glossed over. “We have this inability to face what has become of us so all we get is this propaganda ... the lies, the evasions, the refusal to tell the truth.”
What we’re left with, he says, is a warping of the American myth, reflected in the language of the chief executive -- “smoke ‘em out,” “dead or alive,” “bring ‘em on” -- and a holding on to talismans that have lost their power, particularly in the all-but-vanished West. “The seeds are real. There was a time when men and women in this country went out into the wilderness in schooners and faced real dangers,” Shepard says.
“But now you’ve got a guy in a pickup truck with a rifle and big tires, and he thinks he’s John Wayne. He’s wearing a raccoon cap, and it’s completely distorted and dislocated,” he says, laughing. “The redneck NASCAR thing is out of control. I mean, some of my best friends are rednecks, but it’s just bizarre how something jumps generations and becomes an idea in somebody’s head.”
It would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous, Shepard adds. Still, as “sickening” as he believes the global situation to be, the playwright maintains that in some ways the entire political debate is not only coarse but irrelevant. It will be gangsters -- gangsters who control the oil and gold, own the guns and the manpower -- not politicians who will ultimately sort the world out. “Whether they’re CEOs in suits or warlords driving BMWs, they’re the ones who are really in power anyway, and they’re going to get tired of this,” he says. “Look at what happened in Yugoslavia, look at Afghanistan, look at what happened when all the tyrants went away? What’s our strategy? Democracy? In the Middle East?” Shepard laughs.
“The hopeful part is that at least they see things as they really are and don’t attempt to disguise it in other forms. And the more people see things as they are, the more hope there may be to bring about something different.”
‘The God of Hell’
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: Opens Wednesday. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: July 30
Price: $35 to $69
Contact: (310) 208-5454
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