In 1974, Sam Shepard directed the debut of his play Geography of a Horse Dreamer at London’s Royal Court Theater. Irish actor Stephen Rea starred as Cody—a mysterious man, held captive in a hotel room, who can predict the outcome of horse races. But as the play progresses, Cody’s gift wanes. While his captors struggle to coax more winners from him, one mutters: “It ain’t my idea of a good time beating a dead horse, you know?”
Shepard himself might feel differently these days: He’s currently having a very good time directing his latest play, Kicking a Dead Horse. The piece, virtually a solo show for Rea, begins performances at the Public Theater this week. Reuniting with Shepard, Rea plays Hobart Struther, an art dealer trying to revive his relationship with the land. He trades his penthouse apartment for the Plains and purchases plenty of cowboy gear. But when his horse dies, stranding him in a desolate prairie, Hobart begins subjecting the poor steed to all manner of abuse. According to reviews in Ireland, audiences at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, where the play premiered, relished every kick.
The play marks a series of returns for Shepard: to New York, where he hasn’t staged a play in four years; to the Public Theater, where he hasn’t worked since the premiere of “Simpatico” in 1994; and to subjects and symbols that have absorbed him for decades. In his 44-year career as a writer, actor, director, and filmmaker, he’s assembled a body of work varied in style but distinct in tone—hectic, enigmatic, wrenching. He writes muscular and melancholy plays, suffused with characters longing for connections—to self, to others, to the very soil—connections that seem uncertain if not impossible. From the frantic one-acts of his early days to the family dramas of his middle years to the political works he has more recently created, Shepard’s plays demand substantial emotional and intellectual engagement. But Kicking a Dead Horse unfolds more easily: Shepard, in a Beckettian mode, finds comedy—even slapstick—in Hobart’s desolate predicament.
On a recent afternoon, shortly before the show’s first previews, Shepard seems in a bit of a predicament himself, trapped in a rehearsal room at the Public, a massive fiberglass horse splayed nearby, its plastic eyes limpid and mournful. Though polite, Shepard wasn’t terribly eager to submit to interviews. These days, he says, he can only stay in New York for “about a week” before he begins champing at the bit: “I’ve been here closing in on a month now,” he says with a laugh that betrays some strain. Though well into his sixties, Shepard embodies the mystique that’s long surrounded him. In jeans and a green button-down shirt, with cragged features and silvering hair, the dirt from the California deserts of his boyhood still seeming to scuff his boots, Shepard looks the part of the playwright-cum-cowboy, the literati pin-up. But that image can eclipse the intelligence of his work, just as his vernacular language and very voice (soft, unassuming, with a hint of a drawl) can belie the sophistication of his ideas. That Western aura also belies the many years he spent in New York, living in East Village dumps, working odd jobs, writing his first plays, and earning the first of his unprecedented 11 Obie awards.
These days, when he visits Manhattan, Shepard experiences New York with a sort of double-vision—he sees at once a grimy, scrappy city, peopled with the dead, and also its cleaner current replacement. “It’s totally weird,” he says, describing a recent walk downtown. “You recognize the buildings and the streets and all that stuff, but it’s like you’re walking in the past.” On a stroll, Shepard might pass squats in the East Village now given way to luxury apartment buildings, the old home of La MaMa that now houses Stomp, an unfamiliar Soho. “The Open Theater had a place down on Spring Street,” he recalls. “Now, when you get out on Spring Street, it’s so gentrified. Then, we were stepping over winos to get to the theater. Now, you don’t even recognize it.”
Shepard arrived in New York in 1963, at the age of 19. With some vague thoughts of an acting career and eager to escape his hometown, he joined an itinerant repertory theater called the Bishop’s Company. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says. “I applied from a little ad in a Southern California newspaper that said they wanted actors. I went in and I read a Shakespeare thing, and I was so nervous I actually read the footnotes. But they hired me.” He worked with them for six months, performing all over New England. He acted in several shows in Brooklyn, one in the living room of the poet Marianne Moore. “I got to meet her,” says Shepard. “I had no idea who she was at the time. She was very gracious.” When the company’s tour bus arrived in Times Square, he got off for good, and made New York his new home.
A high-school friend, the son of Charles Mingus, helped him find a place to live and a job busing tables at the Village Gate. Shepard didn’t lose his nervousness during auditions, so he began writing dialogue himself. This came to the attention of Ralph Cook, the headwaiter at the Gate and the director of Theater Genesis, which performed upstairs at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the space that Richard Foreman now uses. Cook heard about Shepard’s writing and asked him to bring some plays around. “We were in rehearsal for [two plays] within that week,” Shepard recalls. “We had no money. I can remember getting props off the street. We’d take Yuban coffee cans, punch a hole in them, and use them for lights. We did it all from scratch, which was pretty incredible.”
Shepard’s first show, a double-bill of Cowboys and The Rock Garden, opened at Theater Genesis on October 10, 1964. Cowboys featured three youths who speak in various accents, discuss their favorite breakfasts, and occasionally fend off Comanche Indians. The Rock Garden is an elliptical family drama, which includes a distressingly frank monologue on the male orgasm. The few critics who attended wrote scathing appraisals, save for the Voice‘s Michael Smith, who reviewed the shows favorably, if somewhat bemusedly: “Shepard is still feeling his way,” Smith wrote, “but his voice is distinctly American and distinctly his own.”
In the following years, Shepard’s voice resounded in most of Off-Off-Broadway’s spaces. Ellen Stewart of La MaMa, whom Shepard describes as “the centerfold of that deal, a tremendous force,” staged several of his plays and also hired him as a waiter, “serving hot chocolate at the theater when it was over on Second Avenue. We always had the cops coming in, and the fire department, and they were busting her all the time because of fire regulations.” Shepard remembers one instance when some very baffled firefighters intruded on Tom O’Horgan’s production of Genet’s The Maids, in which young men donned French-maid costumes. “It was really a scene,” says Shepard, “and the firemen shut it all down, and then she’d start it up again.” He also remembers Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones—”the most amazing American writer at that point. He did some stuff I don’t think anyone else was doing. Those were the real deal—Slave Ship, The Toilet, Dutchman.”
Amiri Baraka now writes poetry in New Jersey, while Stewart, nearly 90, continues to work at La MaMa. But Shepard has outlived many other friends from those years. He recalls Al Carmines of Judson Church as “a beauty. He was far more than just a minister; he was an artist himself. A wonderful man—very soft, very gentle.” And he remembers Joe Cino, the founder of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse theater Caffe Cino, as “very volatile, very Greek. He had something cooking all the time, which was fantastic.” Yet it’s Joe Chaikin, a longtime collaborator who died in 2003, whose loss Shepard most feels: “It’s a huge hole,” he says. “I’m still not over it. I still miss him. His perspective was so unique. He was an actor, a director, a writer—he covered all that ground. That’s hard to find now.”
If New York’s a somewhat haunted site, populated by people and places no longer extant, Shepard has recently found himself reinvigorated by Dublin. His voice rose and his sentences quickened when discussing his connection to the Abbey Theatre and its artistic director, Fiach Mac Conghail. He also speaks admiringly of Ireland’s younger writers, particularly Conor McPherson (“I love The Seafarer“) and Martin McDonagh (“I think he’s fantastic—he’s got the chops”). Mac Conghail is largely responsible for Kicking a Dead Horse. Over lunch last year, Mac Conghail mentioned Rea’s availability, “and I started racking my brains,” Shepard says, “about what I could write for him, and then this horse thing came up.”
Rea and Shepard hadn’t worked together since Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Shepard’s directorial debut. But they both had exceptionally fond memories of their earlier days in the rehearsal room. “It wasn’t really like other rehearsals,” Rea recalls during a telephone conversation, “in the sense that [Shepard] removed all the obstacles. . . . He was very clear. I remember thinking after a day and a half of rehearsal that if we’d known the lines, we could have done the play right then. It was remarkable.”
Shepard described Rea as “extreme[ly] intelligent, as well as being a brilliant actor. He has this multiplicity of approaches, and he’s not afraid.” Both men characterized the mood of the present play as astonishingly similar to their past collaboration: “It’s the same,” says Rea. “We’re very relaxed. He says to me, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to do now?’ That’s pretty much the way it was before. . . . We’re maybe a little more garrulous than before. We’ve maybe got more to talk about, because we’ve had 30 more years of life. It’s a pleasure.” Rea says this even while admitting that doing the play is exhausting: “I have to try and find a way to do it in a way that doesn’t wreck me. Yes, it’s a massive responsibility.”
Shepard’s recent literary enthusiasms and his lead actor are Irish, but his preoccupations remain distinctly American. Kicking a Dead Horse returns to Shepard’s interest—almost a Rousseau-like concern—about how men have lost their feeling for the land. Throughout the play, Rea’s character Hobart mourns his lack of “authenticity” and longs for his lost youth. Hobart has made his fortune buying up cowboy art and selling it on the East Coast, pillaging his own heritage. Now he’s so desperate to return to the West that during the play, he literally immerses himself in the prairie’s earth. Hobart speaks of “The smell, too—the deeper you go. The history of it. The dinosaur. Bones. Ancient aching bones. The fossil fuels.”
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.)
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.”