The article is dedicated to some specific features of the phenomenon of the theatre of absurd in early plays of Sam Shepard.
Keywords: Absurd, repetition, language devaluation, Sam Shepard, drama
In the 1950s a new kind of drama was developing in Europe. Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (1950), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952), and Jean Genet’s The Balcony (1956) all shared characteristics that radically were different from conventional drama. In his groundbreaking book «The Theatre of the Absurd» Martin Esslin claims that the dramatic methods used by this new group of dramatists can be judged by the standards of the Theatre of the Absurd since they radically changed essential elements of drama such as plot, character, and dialogue.
Theatre of the Absurd is an expression, which lends itself to interpretation. Although according to Oxford Dictionary the word absurd means originally in Latin “out of harmony”, the word absurd is not used in this connotation when referring to it as a style of theatre. In an essay on Kafka, Ionesco defines his understanding of the term as follows: “Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose... Cut off from religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost, all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless” (Esslin 23).
The term was given by Martin Esslin in his book The Theatre of the Absurd, which was published in 1961. The playwrights of the Theater of the Absurd engaged in creating plays which revealed the conditions of human beings’ existence in modern society. This type of plays presents the philosophy of the French philosopher Albert Camus. Camus wrote in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus about the meaninglessness of the human condition and that the world must be seen as absurd since it is not possible to explain the universe in a fully satisfying way. As an effort to make man aware of his conditions and realities of life, dramatists have reflected their anguished vision of the universe. By expressing life as meaningless, unrealistic and illogical, absurdists hope to shock man out of an existence that has become trite. Therefore, the Theatre of the Absurd is intent on making its audience aware of man’s position in the universe by forcing the observer to make sense out of what appears to be senseless. Though Theatre of the Absurd may be seen as nonsense, they have Most of the something to say and can be understood” (Esslin 21) The playwright’s vision of the world is to communicate a total sense of being and present a truer picture of reality itself, through dialogue and action. As Martin Esslin wrote The Theatre of the Absurd is the true theatre of our time. (Esslin, 6)
In the Theater of the Absurd, multiple features are used to express tragic theme with a comic form. In the Theatre of the Absurd the real content of the play lies in the action. Language may be discarded altogether. Here the movement of objects alone carries the dramatic action, the language has become purely incidental, less important than the contribution of the property department. In this, the Theatre of the Absurd also reveals its anti-literary character, its endeavor to link up with the pre-literary strata of stage history: the circus, the performances of itinerant jugglers and mountebanks, the music hall, fairground barkers, acrobats, and also the robust world of the silent film. Ionesco, in particular, clearly owes a great deal to Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Keystone Cops, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers.
In the Theaters of the Absurd, the characters always have inconstant words, capricious behavior and odd ideas in their minds. The plots of many absurdist plays present characters in interdependent pairs and one character may even be clearly dominant and torture the passive character. Being devoid of purpose and being lost in the world is common for the most characters in the theatre of the absurd. Therefore, the characters of absurdist plays seem isolated. They rarely seem to be able to communicate their thoughts and all their attempts to do so usually fail. The characters are not motivated, they do not seek to change the world or make it better. The characters find themselves in fantastic and often unreal situations in which the characters struggle with their place in the world. There is no real description of a characters’ adventure nor there is a moral dilemma which is resolved. The situation is simply happening and the characters are left helpless.
Sam Shepard has gained a reputation as one of America's foremost living playwrights. In over forty plays, Shepard has broken down traditional notions of dramaturgy in combining both modernist notions of the absurd and familiar icons from the American cultural landscape with an energy tinged by anarchy and violence. As a postmodern playwright Sam Shepard writes in a way very much indebted to absurd playwrights, such as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. For absurdist playwrights, language reflects predicaments of our modern age. Since corruption, distortion and fragmentation are what shape our true nature and identity, it becomes almost impossible for all these problems not to cover the language as well as our culture. Sam Shepard is an experimental playwright who likes to reflect this absurd situation of mankind on stage.
One characteristic of postmodern literature in general, is a focus on the instability of meaning and the inadequacy of language to completely and accurately represent truth, along with an irony and playfulness in the treatment of linguistic constructs. In other words, there is a questioning of language as a medium of perception and communication. Language can name the pain but it can’t be the pain; language cannot reach the actual individual feeling. Language is not strong enough to convey the intense emotion. In postmodern poetics, there is a paradigmatic shift from the idea that language is transparent to the disclosure of its physicality, its intimacy, its obdurate persistence, and its paradoxical fragility. Thus, language is an insufficient means for transforming the ideas that exist in one's mind. The aim of the present chapter would be to present the ways in which the dramatic language of Sam Shepard, as a postmodern drama, demonstrates inadequacy of language in communication. In order to reach this goal, however, a number of his early dramas will be brought under scrutiny with regard to their language and style from the postmodern point of view. The setting of The Tooth of Crime (1972) is a barren stage on which there is only a silver studded black chair which gives an evil appearance. The play tells the duel or an absurd word battle between an aging superstar, Hoss and the young Crow. This is an elusive battle and its rules are confusing. A ‘game’ is mentioned in the play, and seemingly this is a death game. Charles Morowitz, the director of The Tooth of Crime, talks about the language Shepard applies in the play: “It utilized an invented language derived from several American idioms which included pop, underworld slang, sports jargon, and that ever-changing vernacular that musicians continually keep alive amongst themselves and which gradually filters into the national tongue” (qtd. in Shewey, 1997: 81). The experts agree that since the play includes American peculiarities, it is hard to understand outside America, as it was put on stage in England. Morowitz tells about its London production: “The play has been largely uncomprehended in London. But the play is as American as rolled joints of faded Levis. It not only belongs in America, it actually looks exotic and unreal in England” (qtd. in Shewey, 1997: 85). Not only the language the characters use but also the identity of them are shattered and fragmented. And naturally they “cannot communicate through the inadequate language which cannot wholly transform the inner fragmented self of them” (Mehrabi, 2012: 135)
The plays of Sam Shepard have always been concerned with the problem of identity crisis of the modern man. Shepard's dramatic universe is a complicated and largely unhappy place where characters suffer extraordinary anxiety due to the instability and inauthenticity of the world which surrounds them. In short, they are on guard against lies fed to them by the media. Shepard and many of his characters endeavor to defend themselves against the weight of the past and the anxiety of the present by searching out a deeper, more essential origin (or origins) through which to establish a viable identity. The characters that he brings on stage are depicted as fragmented selves who cannot thoroughly communicate their inner selves through language, which in a postmodern sense proves to be an inadequate means of communication. In a postmodern traditional way of thinking, a person's sense of identity is a composite constructed by the forces of the surrounding culture. Individual consciousness a vague, «decentered» collection of unconscious and conscious beliefs, knowledge, and intuitions about oneself and the world is malleable and arrived at through interaction with the surrounding culture. Postmodernism then, in stark contrast to modernism, is about the dissolving of the self. From the postmodernist perspective, we should not think of ourselves as unique, unified, self-conscious, autonomous persons. Such could be viewed in a number of his plays, including his early play concerning the broken life of two rock stars; Tooth of the Crime, and his later play called True West, which designates the fragmented life story, as well as the pains resulting from lack of communication between two typically American brothers. The present article is an attempt to demonstrate the inadequacy of language as a means of communicating the inner selves of the characters in the two plays of Sam Shepard; True West and Tooth of the Crime. Therefore, first an attempt will be made to define the postmodern fragmented identity as the basis for the lack of communication in the plays. After the fragmented identity of the characters is discussed, the inadequacy of language is demonstrated in the dialogues between the rock stars and the brothers.
Most of the plays of the American playwright Sam Shepard are basically concerned with the problem of identity. From his early experimental plays like Suicide in B Flat, or Mad Dog Blues up to his later more realistic plays, the prominent themes of his plays are identity crisis as well as the regeneration of American Western myths. However, his later plays known as family plays mostly deal with the realistic depiction of the situation of normal American family life, and the effect of family in the formation of one's identity. Quite a large number of critics have accounted the importance of Sam Shepard with regard to his new way of dramaturgy. As Shepard is liable to fall into the category of postmodern dramatist, it is possible to acknowledge the concept of language in his plays, and the way that language functions, or fails to function, in the realm of communication, as postmodern characteristics. This specific sort of treatment with the identity or individuality of the characters as displayed in the plays of Sam Shepard is one of the basic ways of postmodernism in his theatre. As was stated earlier, the postmodern man bears a split self which is characterized by his searching for roots, the history which is long far gone. The sense of being lost from history is also a reason related to the effect of the society in the shaping of the split self in the pair characters of Sam Shepard's plays. The characters are depicted as being trapped in the web of the west which has exerted a lot of influences upon them, as it is manifested in their double, split self. The two brothers in Shepard's True West provide the best examples of the problematic dual identity of the postmodern era. Lee and Austin represent two kinds of ways that the modern man behaves; Austin tries to cling to the past by having the eagerness of going to the desert with his brother and he shows his nostalgia and eagerness to get back to the family roots, but he fails. Lee is the other type who is ready to encounter the free land. It is evident, thus, that the dramatic characters in the plays of Sam Shepard demonstrate a strong sense of being lost from history and the past which is no more the cohesive war, basically as a result of war. The search for identity, has long been of primary importance to Shepard, and is evident in the way the two brothers, Austin and Lee in his True West, the two rock stars in the Tooth of the Crime and Eddie and May in Fool For Love are lost in their sense for history. Bottom (1998, p. 191) states; Austin and Lee, May and Eddie; are bound together in dualistic, complementary pairs, each character appears to represent one side of a double headed coin. Yet as ever in Shepard's work, duality leads not to a healthy balance, but to perpetual division. These pairings are both interdependent and self destructive, caught in an impossible bind of mutual incompatibility. In addition to the two brothers in Shepard's True West, the character of Crow in his Tooth of the Crime is also postmodern in the way he has no definite sense of past or that of history. Moreover, the two Rock Stars who are the central characters of his Tooth of the Crime both seem conflicted with regard to their history, as it is evident in the refrain between the two "... here's another illusion to add to your confusion... ". This line does not belong to a specific scene of the play; rather it is frequently heard throughout the play. Having been lost from any connection to the past, the brothers in True West as well as the two rock stars in Tooth of the Crime demonstrate a fragmented identity, the one which does not bear any specific image of its own entity, thus cannot communicate through the inadequate language which cannot wholly transform the inner fragmented self of them. As such, most of the time, the words are non-referent signs, which might ultimately end in struggle. There is no specific idea communicated. The characters do not agree with one another as a result, and then there comes even a fight between the two, as in evident constantly in Tooth of the Crime, the play in medias res where Hoss, the former rock star is so shattered with his identity that he is to attempt suicide. The same process of repulsion and attraction is evident in True West. Lee in the True West is a desert resident. He has lived in the desert for five years and he is now back, but still he is yearning for the times he has spent in the desert. As such, he is a sort of outcast, who has lost any sense of what the old values could mean. This is evident in his comment on the antiques that their mother keeps at home in Scene 2. Demastes (1988) believes that in True West «Shepard dramatizes these 'identities' by illustrating the disjunctive nature of human personalities subjected to a soulless culture»(P. 108). In other words, Shepard matches this fragmented identity staged in this play to the society in which the characters live. The 'real, new west', as he calls it, is depicted in this play as "-the West of temporary living, full freeways, and empty hearts. It is the 'West' where the present and the future are everything. The past means nothing». (Demastes, 1988, p. 111) He also confirms that in this play the struggle is non- ending, leading to nowhere: «The play does not advocate victory of one side over the other, but neither does it totally advocate a peaceful co-existence, sensing that such an event is impossible. Rather, the true West is one that occupies a psychological frontier within each self where the struggle should exist continually and by existing guarantees life itself» (Demastes, 1988, p. 114). Shepard's settings are often a kind of nowhere land on the American Plains and his characters are typically loners and drifters caught between a mythical past and the mechanized present, and his works often concern deeply troubled families. As Patraka and Siegel (1985) observe» Shepard observes that, in our essentially material and profane culture, we have desacralized the past and seem unable to replace our old legends with any viable new ones» (p. 5). The language, in the two plays by Sam Shepard, Tooth of the Crime and True West, is not the modern language as referring to a unified reality outside, and thus; communicating the ideas as they go on in the mind of the 'unified' characters who either hold an identity or are, at least searching for that. Having been labeled as 'postmodern' the dramas of Sam Shepard demonstrate the fragmented identity of the postmodern man who is trapped in the web of society and family. As such, the dialogues, in the two plays fail to transfer the meaning. The lack of communication can therefore justify the overall pattern of attraction and repulsion between Hoss and Crow in Tooth of the Crime and Lee and Austin in True West, which ultimately changes into a fight between the two. It appears that the process of repulsion and attraction is present from the very beginning of the conversation between the brothers. The paradox that exists in the words of Lee with regard to his relationship with Austin is important to note here. In Act I scene I when Austin is offering Lee to choose another neighborhood because he is afraid, Lee might «get picked up», Lee's response suggests two opposite things. He tries to convey that Austin is also like not a «regular looking» trying to suggest that Austin resembles Lee. However, a few lines later, he apparently rejects any close affinity with his brother, saying «Yer not gonna' have to worry about me! I've been doin' alright without you. I haven't been anywhere near you for five years! Now isn't that true?" (Shepard, p. 24). The discrepancy of the spoken words demonstrates the inadequacy of language as a means of communication.
Shepard's success in writing plays which are deeply concerned with the American as well as the universal crisis of identity of man, along with the disappearance of the myths and the roots that link us to the past, is clearly unavoidable. The particular human condition with which Shepard is most familiar, his own, seems to be the model for his characters' arc of enactment, assessment, and disillusionment fueled by an anxiety that the exercise might prove fruitless and false as well as the hope that it might somehow ring true. He could be categorized as a postmodern dramatist who is concerned with the fragmented identity of man in the postmodern era. The most remarkable feature in the two plays, La Turista and The Unseen Hand, is that both plays use the twisted repetition and the inverted acts and scenes or the rewinding image effectively which are the elements of theatre of the Absurd. He evidently sticks to his own past. This appears clearly in his plays, especially in the family plays. In them, he often describes people who cannot make progress and are bound by the past. So we must consider these descriptions as the clear evidence of Shepard's most remarkable interest in the past.
- Esslin M. “The Theatre of the Absurd” Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009 ISBN 0307548015, 9780307548016
- Mehrabi, B. (2012). Postmodernism and Language in Sam Shepard's True West and Tooth of Crime. International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature. (1: 4) pp. 131–137.
- Shewey, D. (1997). Sam Shepard. New York: Da Capo Press.
- Shepard, S. (1998). Action. From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama, eds. Los Angeles: Douglas Messerli and Mac Wellman, Sun & Moon Press