In 2013, I completed a six-week course on the plays of Sam Shepard offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at San Francisco State University. Little did I know when I signed up for the course, how Shepard’s work would authenticate my lifelong work with families. Sam Shepard’s characters present themselves with no masks, no defenses and few resources, other than their wits, fueled by alcohol. As they struggle with each other to find their purpose for existence. The stories are messy, complicated and in most cases, unresolved.
And since many of us will share family experiences during the upcoming holiday season, here are a few of Shepard’s themes which prominently occur in his dramatic works. For those of you sharing 2016 holidays with family members holding a contrasting political viewpoints, play close attention to item #2:
1. When a family member act outside of what is considered normal, other family members do not ‘recognize’ or accept them. In the play, ‘Buried Child’, a grandson brings his girlfriend home to meet his grandparents and other family members. Throughout most of the play, the grandson is not (symbolically) recognized by the family members because he has left them and gone off to live a life different from the rest. It is not until the young man steals money from his grandfather and returns home after a drunken bender they acknowledge he is a relative. Importantly, this recognition brings him acceptance into the family because it is at that point the grandfather uses his last gasp of breath to tell his grandson he will inherit the family house. The grandson is destined (doomed?) to repeat family patterns in spite of his earlier efforts to break away from the dysfunction.
2. Some of the ongoing conflict between family members will never be resolved. Our contemporary world encourages conflict resolution and closure, but Shepard suggests repeatedly ongoing family conflict may stay unresolved forever. Often that conflict is how each family member finds his/her identity. In fact, that conflict may be necessary for each person’s individuality. In the classic ‘True West,’ two very different brothers agonize through nine scenes struggling with their similarities and differences and come to the very clear realization each envies the other for their lifestyle.
There is a classic depiction of this play featuring a young Gary Sinese and John Malkovich as the brothers who nearly kill each other trying to sort this out. (Thanks to instructor, Lily Janiak for exposing our class to this particular production described as epic and unrivaled. Scene 1 is here.) The brothers struggle, fight and even switch roles. It is clear they are two parts of one fractured person. As the play ends, the two brothers are left worn down and glaring at one another with absolutely no resolution to their differences.
For those of us who experience ongoing family conflict or differences with a family member, acknowledging there may be no resolution eliminates the struggle to find one.
3. No matter what you do, your relatives are always related. As much as we try to move away from our family of origin, the influences of dna and complicated childhoods generally stay with us. As we age, and after struggling a lifetime to individuate, how many times do we think to ourselves: ‘I’m becoming my mother (or father)’.
Shepard himself is quoted as saying: “Sometimes in someone’s gestures you can notice how a parent is somehow inhabiting that person without there being any awareness of that,” Shepard told Rolling Stone. “Sometimes you can look at your hand and see your father.” (The New Yorker,).
The challenge, of course, is how we let the past influence our adult lives as we select those elements we desire to embrace or reject.. Like the grandson in ‘Buried Child’ are we willing to run the risk of being unrecognized by our family, or does our very survival require us to break intergenerational family habits to survive? This question is one which takes most of us a lifetime to answer.
There are additional themes in Shepard’s work which provoke, stimulate and even insult our sensibilities. He tackles gender identity (he’s no feminist), rock and roll (what DOES happen to fading rockers), incest, macho men, cowboys, relationships, superstitions, and the comfort of food. What Shepard does through his characters is to help us know and understand there are unchanging family elements which influence us our entire lives. What we do with that information is entirely up to us.
Revised from the original blog posted November, 2013.
Claire Barnes is the author of I’m Still Your Grandma I’m Still Your Grandpa, a resource for grandparents (and parents) who want to support children in their lives who have been impacted by parental divorce or separation.