Sam Shepard’s Dynamic Women

Joe Hanley and Rose O’Loughlin in the Abbey Theatre production of Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

I grew up in a house in which writing was for men. My mom didn’t read, and my dad—a physicist with an abstract admiration for rugged pursuits—preferred a strain of male writer known for pinballing between debauched parties and bouts of rural isolation: Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, and, of course, Sam Shepard.

Shepard, who died last week, was my model of a writer for most of my adolescence: a grizzled, curt, heavy-drinking, self-taught genius who wrote plays about decaying American families and cowboy-types who got drunk in rundown motels. On the one hand, I was fascinated—I read all of Shepard’s work before I was eighteen. On the other hand, inheriting my dad’s favorite writers put me in an odd position. In high school, a friend and I would dress up as Hemingway and read his stories to one another, lamenting that we would never be old men. I have a picture of it, both of us in tweed caps with our hair ponytailed under our chins like beards. It wasn’t until after high school that I understood that there were women worth reading (or worth becoming). Until then, I had Sam Shepard.

The Shepard character who most captivated my teenaged imagination was not one of the familiar Shepard archetypes—not an anachronistic cowboy, a jazz-talking rock star, a petty criminal with a monosyllabic name, or the drunken ghost of a patriarch. It was Emma, the brash twelve year-old from The Curse of the Starving Class. As her mother and father try to sell the family home out from under one another, Emma rants and screams and eventually rides a mean horse into a bar owned by one of her father’s predatory creditors and shoots the place up. I was the kind of adolescent who rolled over for anyone who asked something of me, and Emma has a Grecian fury: her dream is to be the only auto mechanic in a small Mexican town so that she can punish her stranded family by withholding expertise. I named my bike after her, and pedaled it with rage.

Emma is one of the flattest of Shepard’s female characters. I know that now. She fit my adolescence because my own idea of myself was somewhat flat, and my notion of being a grown woman exponentially flatter. When Emma’s brother asks her, “What does [our mother] do all day long? What does a woman do?” Emma replies that she does not know. Neither did I. Onstage, Emma’s mother cleans up messes, wrings her hands, has a catastrophically naive affair, remains in denial about obvious facts, and is cruel to Emma, likely because Emma intimidates her. All of the adult women in Shepard’s plays—like many of the adult women I knew—seemed to be hobbled inside byzantine mazes of despair. I feared becoming one of them, just as Emma did.

But I didn’t envy Shepard’s men, either. They are simultaneously attracted to their masculinity, scared of it, and betrayed by it. Think of Dodge, the impotent patriarch of Buried Child, lecturing his grandson’s girlfriend: “There’s nothing a man can’t do. You dream it up and he can do it. Anything.” As he says this, he is laying on the couch, practically an invalid, incapacitated by alcoholism and age. Shepard’s male characters are humiliated, bitter, and unfulfilled, as they’ve failed to live up to the virility and independence expected of them. Their self-awareness flares in transcendent monologues, but burns out before it can reverse the unspooling of desperate choices, empty posturing, and violence.

It is in this context—in these households—that Shepard’s women live; no wonder I didn’t covet their lives. I wanted an adult Emma, but I realize now that the women Shepard wrote are deeper. They’re the most dynamic, competent, and selfless characters in his plays, but only if you see their context. “Those Midwestern women from the forties,” Shepard said in an interview, “suffered an incredible psychological assault, mainly by men who were disappointed in a way that they didn’t understand … The women took it on the nose … They sat there and took it. I think there was a kind of heroism in those women.”

I understand the complexity, ethical and political, of depicting women who “sit there and take it.” But the older I get, the more frustrated I become with characters like Emma, who seem heroic largely because of the incongruity between their actions and circumstances. In real life, Emma’s behavior would likely be unavailable to her: she has no model for it. Her rebellion seems prosthetic and sensational, rather than earned. In this light, Shepard’s adult women look different—they’re not simply “taking it.” Their lies and accommodations, their soft deflections (“Please don’t yell in the house. The walls can’t take it.”), their affairs and their delusions are attempts to belong to their families without being crushed by them. These women are doing all they can to live a life that is less unkind than the one they’ve been given, but still familiar. Isn’t that at the heart of all our adult decisions?

The Shepard woman to whom I’m most drawn now is Lorraine, the harried and protective matriarch in A Lie of the Mind. She does all she can for the men in her life, and yet they leave her, over and over: “He’s home for a while and you pet him and feed him and he licks your hand and then he’s gone again.” The pull of these men has warped her into a jumble of beliefs and allegiances comprehensible only by the extent of her sacrifice: she has given her life to men, so she must defend them to be worthwhile. “A woman who lives with a man like that deserves to be killed,” she says of her son’s wife, whom he has beaten nearly to death. But the strain of defending the indefensible has whipped Lorraine into a seeping, amorphous, and caustic rage. When she snaps and burns the house down, it’s not like Emma shooting up the bar—it’s justified, but it’s not simply liberating. Lorraine’s choice is desperate and uncertain, as it propels her into a future for which she is clearly unprepared. The stakes of the decision, not Lorraine’s likability or integrity, make her heroic.

The myth of Shepard himself—the handsome, rugged, anti-intellectual bard of the changing American West—didn’t enlarge my teenaged imagination of who I could become. But the plays did something different. The longer I lived with Shepard’s plays, the more the archetype of the housewife—the great boogeyman of my youth—lost its power. In the final scene of A Lie of the Mind, another put-upon wife and mother watches Lorraine’s house burning from her porch across the stage. Though she might have been alarmed, instead she is perplexed, even awed. That fire seems to be an inkling of another life, one that is undefined but urgent and possible, if only she can summon the courage and vision to create it. I relate to her now; Shepard’s plays were one such fire for me.

Sylvia McNamara lives in New York.

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