Kicking a Dead Horse
Author and director Sam Shepard.
The Public Theater, New York.
With Elissa Piszel, Stephen Rea
June 25-August 10, 2008
Photo: Joan Marcus
Dead Horse in the Desert
Sam Shepard has been writing the myth of America at least since “Buried Child,” perhaps most directly in “True West” and “Curse of the Starving Class” with those terrible fathers and sons, husbands and wives, combative brothers. He has covered the stage in corn cobs, filled the theater with the evocative scent of toast, let food stand as his metaphor for spiritual nourishment, or the absence thereof. Yet in his current work, “Kicking a Dead Horse,” there’s no food, no argument, and only the most oblique nourishment for the spirit. Basically, the piece is a meditation on the world as perceived, delivered eloquently by Stephen Rea, playing Hobart Struther, whose horse has just dropped dead. There it lies, a huge thing on his back, four legs sticking up to the sky, alongside the open grave that Struther has been digging for it because “you can’t just walk away and leave it there.”
It’s a scene out of the absurd and Mr. Rea’s deadpan style makes it more so. Struther stands there in the vast, open desert that could be a moonscape or Utah, trying to figure out what to do about his predicament. Not a soul or a place is visible; abandonment occurs on a grand scale in the American west. A half-ring of tiny mountain tops is just discernible in the distance. Struther tries to tip the horse into the grave, eventually he succeeds; and that’s the major action. There’s some byplay with a tent that he fails to get upright; also with a silent vision of a beautiful, young woman who mysteriously steps up out of the grave and goes off. Mainly he fools with a cowboy hat that he ends up tossing into the pit. When he goes down to retrieve the thing, the horse rolls in on him. Finis.
The metaphors are almost too plain to be credible, or rather almost too familiar to be heard. At first, the situation looks to be dramatizing a man versus nature theme, that American story, still true enough and endlessly variable. This, however, only gives Mr. Shepard a point of departure. The poor wretch Struther gave up on being a successful art dealer in New York to go west and seek his roots, his “authenticity.” Predictably, the quest fails. The twenty first century is late in the game for a return to beginnings. The sadness audible in Struther’s voice recurs often in Mr. Shepard’s work. Affect also is one of the ways this solitary character recalls Samuel Beckett’s existential persons in “Waiting for Godot” and “Happy Days,” especially in their quiet futility.* There is no place for Struther to revisit. He tries and fails to pray at one point; tries to figure out how he reached this absolute dead end “in the thick of bright day.” Still, somehow, we never quite expect that he will die of circumstance, though plainly he cannot survive. As cliche would have it, Americans are inventors, manage through thick and thin, overcome every adversity, as they did in their conquest of the frontier. Our mythology says so. In Mr. Shepard’s version, space, loneliness and violence triumph: it's the underside of the myth of America.
Mr. Shepard wrote the play for Mr. Rea, who is quoted by the New York Times** as saying, “it’s a massive thing... like King Lear, only you have to play the Fool as well.” Other allusions come to mind during the performance; grave digging, after all, cannot avoid a nod to “Hamlet.” For the rest, nonetheless, Hobart Struther never quite persuades us he exists as a whole, free-standing character. His litany of complaint about our lost ideals, our misused sense of adventure, our civic depredations, our feeble relationships, in particular his failed marriage, these sound genuine enough. The incomparable Mr. Rea hits their every note from funny to despairing and Mr. Shepard has written these themes before. This time, nevertheless, he stinted on pathos, which anyway suits uncomfortably with the grotesquerie of the situation, which in turn ultimately slants the piece toward farce. No matter what specific lines say, the opening image of man and dead beast rules absolutely. Marvelously. I don’t care a fig that Hobart Struther will die.
“Kicking a Dead Horse” author and director Sam Shepard. The Public Theater, New York.
*I have written about both plays in these pages.
**quoted by Charles Isherwood, in The New York Times, July 15th, 1908