True East: Sam Shepard Returns to New York

The American icon is back in the saddle with a new play at the Public

When Shepard discusses Hobart's character, the parallels to his own life sound positively eerie. In conversation, Shepard introduces Hobart as a man who "had a past in which there was some semblance of a connection with the land, which he abandoned for this art-world thing. And now he's trying to retrace it, get back to it, but it's impossible." Shepard had an upbringing in California agricultural towns, and like Hobart, worked with horses in his youth. After his years in New York, and a brief stint in London, he's made his home in more rural environs, often on ranches. Similarly, after beginning his career in downtown New York, he spent many years working in films (though always continuing to write), and now he's come back to New York to open a play below 14th Street. While Shepard says that all of his works encompass some amount of personal experience, he cautions against reading the new play as an autobiography: "It's not meant to be a representation," he says. "Just an expression."

Alternately, Kicking a Dead Horse could be seen as an allegory of America, a very critical one—an interpretation to which both Rea and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis subscribe. In a recent interview in Playbill, Rea said: "This is, in my view, a huge play about America, about what America is—its history versus its mythology." That echoes a conversation in the play—a conversation between Hobart and himself—in which one voice evokes "The West. The Wild Wild West," and its twin responds: "Sentimental claptrap." Eustis argues that many of Shepard's earlier plays possess a latent politics, that they offer "a caustic depiction of certain American ideologies about family and success and even ecology." But Eustis believes that those matters loom closer to the surface in Kicking a Dead Horse, that it discusses the "American self-image of innocence and goodness, which is profoundly not in keeping with what's going on [in the world, the] blindness to our own impact on the world."

Politics aside, perhaps the play is another go-round with the question of masculinity. Or the worry of mortality. Or an homage to Shepard's hero, Beckett. Or the play might simply be a vehicle for Shepard to write about horses, a favorite subject from Geography of a Horse Dreamer on through Curse of the Starving Class, Simpatico, and his film Far North. Shepard describes how, while watching the Belmont earlier this month, he saw footage of Secretariat's famous 1973 triumph. "He won by 32 lengths," says Shepard. "No horse has ever done that. When you watch him run . . . when he leaves these horses behind as though they weren't the same species, you weep. Watching that race, this unbelievable animal, it brings up all these feelings, these emotions. Who knows how or why, but the horse does that. They're kind of mystical." (Shepard is apparently a decent handicapper, though he insisted: "I would never attempt to make my living at it." As if he needed yet another successful career.)

Fiona Aboud

At a Joe's Pub event a few weeks ago, in a public conversation with The Paris Review's Philip Gourevitch, Shepard said: "I've been around horses all my life. I can't see that ever ending. I really miss 'em when I'm in NYC. I see a cop on a horse and I go, 'God, how lucky is that guy?' " And yet, how lucky are we that Shepard still consents to loose himself from the stirrups long enough to write new plays? In the ensuing years, we might see many more. Sitting in the rehearsal room, Shepard says that he now feels a sense "that the material keeps accumulating. [I used to] pick something here and something there, but now it seems that everything's material." He's currently working on a piece destined for Rea and Sean McGinley, another Irish actor, which will also premiere at the Abbey. He won't say much about it, deflecting all questions of plot, responding to most inquiries with a smile and a shake of his head.

"It's just a two-hander," Shepard says. Any horses? "No," he laughs, "no horses in this one."

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