First performed in 1985 with a cast including Harvey Keitel, Aiden Quinn, Amanda Plummer and Geraldine Page.
A man, JAKE, comes home believing that he's killed his wife after she's taken up acting and oiling up her body and not thinking about him and he beat her up. BETH, his wife, is battered and left with a speech problem. Her Brother, MIKE, brings her home to recover with her mother and father, somewhere in Montana. FRANKIE, JAKE's brother, goes off to find out what actually happened, ends up shot in the leg and stuck on the couch at BETH's house. JAKE recuperates in his childhood room with his mother and sister, eventually escaping in the middle of the night in his boxers and an American flag to find BETH. He's captured by MIKE, turned into a draft horse and forced to apologize to the BETH.
Other things happen, a house burns, a broken family returns to Ireland, a half a deer carcass is flung on stage, a story of a father being run down drunk on the US/Mexican border, a box of ashes, glimpses of better times in the past, memories of a crazy mother, a suspected lobotomy.
Part of the reason I am doing this is my woeful ignorance of written plays. I just didn't read them, or did in fits and starts and promptly forgot. I'm trying to learn about the written play and find ways to talk about them - but also trying to discover what I like about them - what I don't - and what does dramatic literature have to do with anything.
So, Shepard. All that stuff is here, the west, the gender roles, the violence of men - the mothers opting out in one way or another. These are themes I have heard are in Shepard's work. No one has lied about that. Harvey Keitel must have been amazing.
The play is laid out in three acts, alternating between the two family's, BETH's & JAKE's, and their attempts to heal their children - and the secrets and conflicts that brings out between parents, siblings and the past. At root it's the draw towards one another felt by JAKE & BETH, he's battered her nearly to death and each act ends in them crying out for the other. By the third act she's planning to marry FRANKIE who's been trying to get away from her house but can't because his shot leg's infected and there's been a blizzard.
Something about the play left me outside of it. The tropes are known - drunk men, long-suffering wives, violence just under the surface -
You can't save the doomed! you make a stab at it. You make the slightest little try and you're doomed yourself.LORRAINE act 3, scene 1
It feels like narratives I've been trying to get out from under. The story of the woman who wants to be owned by her man, that wants to save him and is destroyed in the process. Women who bemoan the fact that men leave and become shells because of it, or pour their energy into defending their boys. Wives who are described as all female - or all love. I think because of this I resisted the play.
And in relation to Behan's play, which seeks to entertain - falls all over itself to entertain - while skewering those with power, this is a totally different beast. The ante is upped through escalating physical and emotional violence and it is the characters in the play who skewer themselves. Finishing with imagery and a sense that the American dream, the myth of the romantic pioneer and American Macho is the target.
The most hopeful part is the sister and mother of JAKE deciding to burn down the house, memories and all, dance a jog and head to Ireland to look up whatever straggling ancestors they can find.
I guess I want to be past the stories in this play - I want America to be past these ideas of men and women. But in fact we're not and this line from the final scene of the play still holds as much - if not more resonance today:
Haven't you got anything better to do than to monkey around with weapons and flags? Go outside and make yerself useful.BAYLOR, act 3, scene 4.