Volume X, Number 2, Fall 2014

"The Masters and the Myths: Sam Shepard’s Versions of America. A Review of Gabriella Varró’s Mesterek árnyékában. Sam Shepard drámái és a hagyomány" by Márta Ótott

Márta Ótott was a PhD student in the English and American Literature and Culture PhD program at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Szeged. She specializes in American drama and theater, devoting special attention to experimental theaters, Off- and Off-Off Broadway theaters and the plays they present. Email:

Mesterek árnyékában. Sam Shepard drámái és a hagyomány [In the Shadow of the Masters. Sam Shepard’s Dramas and Tradition]
Gabriella Varró
Debrecen: Debrecen University Press (Orbis Litterarum series), 2013.
231 pages (217 pages + Publication data of the original essays + Bibliography + Table of Contents)
ISBN 978 963 318 390 8

Gabriella Varró’s Mesterek árnyékában [In the Shadow of the Masters] published in 2013, the year that marked Sam Shepard’s 70th birthday, centers on the dramatic œuvre of American playwright, actor, director and scriptwriter Sam Shepard in the context of his dramatic predecessors and his former and recent theatrical collaborators. The book is the result of the scholar’s meticulous research of over fifteen years (13). The scholar’s objective is to observe the influence of the most famous, canonized American (and also Irish) writers of drama as well as Shepard’s contemporary theater-makers on his thematic, representational and aesthetic choices. The methodology Varró uses for this project is an alloy of American theater and cultural history, and comparative literary studies with a further interest in the intertextual references in Shepard’s plays to those of the “masters.”

This comprehensive volume is the collection of Varró’s revised essays originally written – mostly – in English that she published one by one as she made progress with her research. These essays are now available in Hungarian, which is highly fortunate as the collection thus contributes to the Hungarian-language study of American literature and culture. As the unconcealed intentions of the scholar show, the book aims at drawing the attention of Hungarian theater criticism as a whole to Shepard once again for its preoccupation with the playwright has diminished since the late 1980s as Varró claims in the “Introduction” (which runs between pages 13-28) on page 18. Varró underlines that albeit the numerous excellent publications containing readings of Shepard’s dramas by acclaimed Hungarian scholars of American studies, no complete study has ever been written on the playwright’s body of dramatic work in Hungarian (19). Her monograph fills this need and does it with absolute success.

Varró discovers three major waves of influence and reflection in the dramatist’s plays and the book is structured correspondingly. She explores the impact of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams in the first chapter, Joseph Chaikin, Jean-Claude van Itallie, David Mamet and Edward Albee in the second, and, as an examination of the European traditions Shepard follows, Samuel Beckett in the third. Although Varró is primarily invested in how the masters have shaped the dramas of Shepard, she unquestionably justifies the role Shepard has played in the American as well as the global theater scene as a shaper of traditions himself. With the inclusion of his recent plays in the argumentation, Varró demonstrates that Shepard has been strikingly self-reflexive with the motifs recycled from his early plays. Critics’ supposition that the dramatist’s theatrical career has come to an end is proved to be wrong firmly by the scholar. The image of the artist’s resurrection – though dark, stark and absurd – accompanies the conclusion of the study when Varró discusses the 2007 play Kicking a Dead Horse as a dramatic self-portrait (206).

The first chapter (31-109) consists of the interpretation of gender-specific characteristics of the psyche in O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (1924) and Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind (1985) (I.1., 31-52), the depiction of the Other in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones (1920) and Shepard’s Operation Sidewinder (1970) (I.2., 53-63), the salesman character in O’Neill, Miller, Shepard and Mamet (I.3., 64-76), the theme of betrayal in Miller’s The Price (1968) and Shepard’s True West (1980) (I.4., 77-95), and regionalism in Williams and Shepard (I.5., 96-109).

In the first chapter, the shadow of O’Neill is addressed thoroughly, for the reason that the father of the American tragedy has been the most influential on the author among his sources (31). In the first subchapter, Varró establishes that O’Neill’s Freudian approaches might have been adopted by Shepard. Both writers explore the deepest realms of the psyche in Elms and A Lie to stage the crises of identities. The playwrights associate behavior patterns with the genders, that is, masculinity is staged as violent while femininity as abused, and this is even more accentuated by the dramaturgy and the use of space in the plays, which at first sight, seem to organize the protagonists’ environment on the basis of male and female attributes, however, the males become feminized and the females masculinized at some points in the dramas. According to Varró, the female characters (the alterations of Phaedra) gain strength from the abuses, but the males cannot escape their physical decline as the projection of their psychological corruption. She explains that through this portrayal of their male characters (Eben and Jake), both dramatists elaborate on the American society: they evaluate the perversion of the male psyche to be the “symptom” of the individual and communal failures in America (51).

The second subchapter continues to investigate the relationship between O’Neill’s and Shepard’s texts. The scholar confirms that both Sidewinder and Jones challenge the binary oppositions “colonizer-colonized,” “victimizer-victimized” and “oppressor-oppressed” (60). Emperor Jones is the oppressor of his people and Mickey Free turns out to be an “acting agent” (ibid.) making these categories fluid. Using Michael Pickering’s take on stereotyping, Varró upholds that the paradigm of primitivity’s “there and then” and civilization’s “here and now” is both reestablished and destroyed in the plots. The scholar also incorporates in her argument two of Zsolt Virágos’s myth categories (M1: the sanctified myths; M2: myth-constructs that build up the distinction between “us” and “others,” 60, 96) and goes against critics who insist that the authors reach to M1 to construe a “romanticized” image of the other (60-61). The scholar convincingly says that the effect of the dramas is too ironic and complex with regard to M2 to jump to that conclusion. She asserts that the powerful ritualized representation (the psychological journey to his African ancestors for Jones and the Hopi snake rite that enchants white Young Man) of primordial, non-European cultures point to the disintegration of the colonizing myths of America.

In the third subchapter, Varró treats the subject of the salesman character in American drama by presenting its literary historical significance, and its depiction in Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (written in 1939, premiered in 1946), Shepard’s The God of Hell (2004) and Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), with particular consideration of the first three. This subchapter works well as a transition from O’Neill to Miller. The salesmen in the plays question the “ideology of success” (72) that this character type entails. The American dream and the pursuit of happiness are reprehended in Iceman and Death (the ironically “godlike” figures bring about others’ and their own death and grief), and moreover, in the highly political God, the “brainwashing” power of patriotism (75) in the form of a merchant selling sugar-coated cookies torture and exploit people.

The Price and True West are analyzed in parallel in the fourth subchapter. Varró contends that pivotal correlations can be detected between the biblical and mythical motif of sibling rivalry and disloyalty between fathers and sons, and the American national character (77). In Price, Victor and Walter try to put a price tag on their past and heritage, and in True West, Austin and Lee seek success in the Dream Factory with their separate movie scripts. The father figures, the dealer and the producer, are powerless. The brothers in the dramas undergo a series of taking up of each other’s roles, hence, the opposition between them (Victor’s self-denial and Walter’s selfishness, Lee’s wildness and Austin’s intellect) becomes blurred to the extent that the reader/audience cannot remain certain whether the siblings are different individuals or the variations of one, as Varró maintains in accordance with Shepard-criticism. Both dramas seem to be personal in this reading (90): Miller selling out his artistic integrity (91) and Shepard balancing between his instinctive and tamed approach to art thus betraying their original artistic selves pose severe questions in connection with authorship too.

The last subchapter examines the similarities between Williams’s and Shepard’s take on regional myths. Varró uses James Clifford’s understanding of the contact zone model (as a space where contact is regular between cultures) and the theories on the cyclicality of myths (Virágos’s categorization) to explicate the clash of the old and new perceptions of the South in Williams and the West (and the Midwest) in Shepard. The chivalry, the belles and the plantation in Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and the cowboys, the fertile lands and progress in Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime (1972), True West and Fool for Love (1983), though evanescent, represent a “nostalgic longing” (98). Their loaded iconography is reloaded by the artists who profess that the myths cease to exist in the present reality, for they decline and transform as all myths do. Williams pessimistically stages the representatives of the old values as ailing, vulnerable but in contrast to this, Shepard’s furtive protagonists acquire the required cultural codes to survive and create a new understanding of them.

The second chapter (113-172) revolves around Shepard and his contemporaries from the time of high experimentation on Off-Off-Broadway. Varró looks into Van Itallie’s (his coproduction with Chaikin’s Open Theater) and Shepard’s versions of Cain and Abel’s story in The Serpent (1968) and True West (II.1., 113-131). Following that, the reader is presented with the modes of representation of Hollywood in Speed-the-Plow (1988) by Mamet and in True West (II.2., 132-152). The subchapter of the myth of the American dream as it is portrayed in Albee’s The American Dream (1961) and Shepard’s Buried Child (1978) comes afterwards (II.3., 153-172).

The neo-avant-garde unquestionably affected Shepard and his generation, which is substantiated in subchapter II.1. The Open Theater served as the forerunner of the postmodernist deconstruction of myths with its programmatic reinterpretation of the Bible. The ceremonial Serpent as well as True West replay the mythical story of the first murder and refurbish it for the 1960s and 1980s audience. Varró alludes to Julia Kristeva’s definition of intertextuality and Mikhail Bakhtin’s term of dialogism to indicate that the postmodern treatment of mythical texts as “intellectual playground” (131) can point to the serious reconsiderations of the cultural (the myth of Hollywood and the West) and political (Serpent’s references to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy) dynamics of America. Moreover, in a wider sense, the fusion of Lee’s and Austin’s personality, their almost comic fight at the end of the drama, and Van Itallie’s confused but not acquitted Cain imply that Off-Off-Broadwayers denounce the possibility of absolute answers.

In the subchapter on the two rebel playwrights who went to Hollywood, Shepard and Mamet, Varró tackles the issue of authorship, representation and the delicate dividing line between illusion and reality in True West and Speed-the-Plow. In these plays, Hollywood appears as a mythical entity (132), a Canaan-like mythical space the protagonists want to gain access to. Varró informs the reader that the plays commence with clichéd characters in a Hollywood way (141) and as the plots unfold, the protagonists exchange and simulate each other’s roles. The personalities in these plays are not fixed, rather, the characters are appearances. Varró interestingly sheds light on the fact that the representational techniques (the constant replacement of the real for a replica and simulation) applied in these plays are very reminiscent of those of Hollywood. The reality of the characters is questioned as they build up their own “fantasy-world” (149). They and their actions are cinematically enlarged and their moments of crisis frozen with the tools of theater.

The elusive notion “American dream” is overturned in Albee’s American Dream and Shepard’s Buried Child, which is revealed in subchapter 3 of chapter II. The mutilated/murdered babies and the psychologically maimed homecomers (Vince and Young Man) illustrate the dispersion of the past greatness of the two families. The issue of property ownership – as a possible fulfillment of the Dream according to Varró and her main secondary source, Jim Cullen – arises as opposed to the sanctity of the home. The family as a sacred unit does not offer the promise of integration anymore, completeness is therefore unachievable (168). In Buried Child, humanity’s inability to follow nature’s guidelines for regeneration (162) results in Vince’s transformation to be the new Dodge, and in The American Dream, Young Man – the personification of the Dream – is preordained to be hollow. The two young men get hold of the houses and the families’ utter decline is inevitable.

After the Off-Off-Broadway influences, the last chapter (175-217) follows. Placing the subchapter on the similarities between Albee’s and Shepard’s plays before that was an advantageous choice as the ultimate chapter deals with how Shepard’s Dead Horse resonates with absurd drama. The first subchapter is devoted to inspecting the “Irish connection” (173) with Shepard’s œuvre and the heterogeneous figure of the clown. Varró contextualizes and compares Waiting for Godot (1953) by Beckett and Dead Horse (III. 1., 175-202), and her argumentation culminates in the subchapter (III.2., 203-217) about the revival of the artist’s canon.

In subchapter III. 1., Varró surveys the clown as an instrument of social commentary and criticism. The absurd theater’s grotesque and liminal clown conveys the existentialist message with tragicomic fallibility. Alienated and isolated, Beckett’s and Shepard’s clowns (Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo, Lucky, Hobart) are able to pinpoint the deficiency of the society that excludes them. The following subchapter carries on this idea.

In the “Conclusion,” Varró elucidates that Dead Horse is the inventory of Shepard’s own and adopted motifs and themes. The death of the art dealer-cowboy-clown’s horse undermines his chances to ride to the desert in the setting sun: Hobart can be understood to be Shepard himself, who got stuck in a role he never asked to play (207). This monodrama also enumerates the real events behind the great national myths and icons of the West, Lewis and Clark, the Frontier and the Virgin Land by speaking of the exploitation of Native Americans and the destruction of the land – only the clown is allowed to articulate such critique. He does not overlook his own flaws either. His internal turmoil, which can be read as the author’s “meta-discourse” (208) on his career, leads to Hobart’s burying himself. The recycled motifs and the evocation of the masters (in this subchapter, Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hamlet are fittingly added to the list of influences) show Hobart-Shepard’s disbelief in the existence of artistic authenticity without accrediting the masters (216). According to Varró, the self-burial is the symbol of acceptance, and signals the beginning of the new artistic ventures, for instance, on the Irish theater scene (ibid.).

Even though Varró covers diverse motifs, themes and topics to present an informative overview of Shepard’s dramatic work, throughout the book, she recurrently reaches to mythology and its deconstruction by the playwright. Though not stated explicitly to be one of the central ideas, it is an exceptionally strong cohesive force between the essays. The Biblical references, Greek mythology, the great national myths and the myths of non-European cultures gain special attention in the study, and the scholar describes Shepard’s ways of selecting and using them on the one hand, to pay homage to the masters, and on the other hand, to create his own tradition. It could be beneficial for the scholars of American theater and drama to confront Varró’s analysis with studies that are specifically devoted to myths in American drama, theater and performance (Thomas E. Porter’s Myth and Modern American Drama, published 1969, is not a recent volume, but could be a good starting point). A myth typology (Biblical stories, national myths, myths of the Antiquity, primordial myths) in Shepard’s body of work could generate further considerations of the book’s idea on the masters’ nullification of myths and their postmodern collage by the dramatist, be it intersected with cultural, performance, drama or theater studies.

Varró does not challenge the classification of Shepard as postmodernist but rather unfolds her argumentation in harmony with literary and theater criticism, especially when she talks about the aforementioned representation of myths, the fragmented subjectivity of his characters and the questions of authorship. Nevertheless, what Shepard-criticism should adopt from this book is her discussion of the revival of Shepard’s theater career and his canon. Her interpretation of Dead Horse could open up many uncharted possibilities of (re)defining the author’s postmodernism (if one accepts such a label). Furthermore, there could be even more areas to explore if one considers the strong connections Varró makes between Shepard and absurd drama. Some scholars reject the mere idea that absurd drama could have ever appeared in America, others take it for granted and deem Albee as its main representative and call O’Neill its most important predecessor. Dead Horse should not go unnoticed from this aspect, as it could be constructive to look at the clowns of María Irene Fornès (for instance, in Tango Palace, but Albee’s Grandma is a similar figure of comic relief) in comparison.

Varró quotes T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” at the beginning of her book to explain that without any knowledge of the precursors, an author’s originality cannot emerge (20). The shadow-metaphor she chose for the title of her book perfectly captures the essence of the playwright’s œuvre. His work might have been under the “benevolent” (21) shadow of the masters, but, once his own creativity turned into physical form – on paper and on stage – he started to cast his own. As did Varró.