Krapp’s Last Horse

Krapp’s Last Horse

With his new play Kicking a Dead Horse, Sam Shepard is still stranded in a prairie of tough-guy cliché.


Paris, Texas, is a fixed location on a map. A hundred miles northeast of Dallas, Paris is the only place in the world where you can visit an Eiffel Tower replica adorned with a giant cowboy hat. But to many obsessive moviegoers who have never been to Texas and live nowhere near it–and yet can draw an accurate picture of Monument Valley from memory, bluff by bluff and crag by crag–the film Paris, Texas is a state of mind, a polyglot, neon-lit American West that combines high art and hardscrabble vernacular, freshly pressed suits and ragged dusty roads. The Sam Shepard-scripted, Wim Wenders-directed sauerkraut western is sentimental and breathtaking, the work of a camera-toting traveler besotted with virgin territory, never wanting to go back home.

The film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1984, feels deliberately inauthentic. A doctor on the Texas/Mexico border speaks with a German accent. A lead character’s wife is French. The Southern sweetheart Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) sets out to reclaim is played by Nastassja Kinski of Berlin. Travis calls attention to his mother’s Spanish ancestry and sings a Spanish-language tune while washing the dishes. Shot by the Dutch master Robby Müller, the film’s sunsets look a bit too orange, its motel-room colors a bit too distinct, its breathtaking vistas too omnipresent. Ry Cooder’s jagged, plaintive slide-guitar score–probably the best movie music ever–still sounds more “Western” than Western. “It all goes back to a German writer by the name of Karl May, who wrote in prison in the late nineteenth century,” Wenders has said. “He wrote fifty novels that all take place in the West, though he never left Germany. There’s no German who grew up without reading those books.”

Paris, Texas is unabashed tourist cinema, cobbled together from Edward Hopper tableaus and discarded ten-cent picture postcards; not surprisingly, it served as a direct influence on U2’s The Joshua Tree. I’d wager that Wenders, an old German New Wave icon who cares more for pretty pictures than facts on the ground, chose Shepard as his Americana tour guide because nobody else in American letters is more obsessed with cowboy authenticity. (Michelangelo Antonioni also tapped Shepard to write dialogue for his Zabriskie Point, another European mythmaker’s first tour of the American West.) Shepard’s best plays offer an engaging dissection of masculine machinery, but often the author seems to be peeking over his shoulder at an imaginary judge in a ten-gallon hat and jangling spurs, inquiring, Is this the real thing? “Why?” asks a character in Shepard’s famous two-hander, True West (1980). “Because it’s got horses? Because it’s got grown men acting like little boys?”

Kicking a Dead Horse (Vintage, $11.95), the new Shepard play that had its US premiere in June at the Public Theater in New York and finished a two-week run in August at the Almeida Theatre in London, contains both. It’s the playwright’s most elemental (and pointedly unsubtle) discourse to date on what it takes to be a Marlboro Man–and whether it matters. Shepard’s proxy is Hobart Struther, a Manhattan art dealer who made his millions collecting western murals and cow portraits from Wyoming saloons and selling them to the highest cosmopolitan bidders. By the time the play begins, Struther has ditched his bourgeois trappings and lit out for the West, only to find himself stranded on the Lone Prairie when his horse keels over. James Joyce sagely divined that “horseness is the whatness of allhorse,” and Struther’s crisis is nothing if not a horseless reckoning with his own whatlessness.

Shepard’s play is a claustrophobic tragicomedy set in the open air. When Struther carries on a two-way conversation with himself about his fruitless and embarrassing struggle for authenticity, he sounds like Samuel Beckett’s bitter old Krapp huddled over his tape recorder, “listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago.” Struther is ill equipped for his arrogant and reckless foray into the desert unknown–draw contemporary geopolitical parallels at the risk of boring yourself–and the fact that he was played in New York, London and Dublin (where the play premiered) by Irish stalwart Stephen Rea foregrounds the character’s sense of estrangement. Shepard wrote the play for Rea and has even dedicated it to him, perhaps by way of implying that losing contact with the land is like abdicating one’s citizenship, or at least changing one’s accent. As conversant as Shepard is with the rhythms of cowboy talk–his art dealer expresses a passing familiarity with “wind that would knock your dick in the dirt”–a quick glance at the play’s publicity materials reveals that the playwright “lives in New York,” which might as well be Paris, France.

Kicking a Dead Horse is a blunt display of self-loathing, and even its title hints at Shepard’s frustrated ambition. Call it Krapp’s Last Horse. He sees the quest for authenticity as a peculiarly American folly–the self-invented neurosis of a culture given too much leisure time. No matter how educated, confident or insistent, every American is a tourist. In Shepard’s first full-length play, the mostly amateurish and clubfooted La Turista, two “ugly Americans” (Kent and Salem, like the cigarettes) are stranded in a south-of-the-border motel room, wasting away from dysentery, humming patriotic fight songs, mixing it up with witch doctors and separately losing a foothold on sanity. The play offers tourism as a high-minded escape from comfort:

Yes, sir! Nothing like a little amoebic dysentery to build up a man’s immunity to his environment. That’s the trouble with the States you know. Everything’s so clean and pure and immaculate up there that a man doesn’t even have a chance to build up his own immunity. They’re breeding a bunch of lily-livered weaklings up there simply by not having a little dirty water around to toughen people up.

First performed in 1967, La Turista is specifically pitched against the folly of American intervention in Vietnam. But it sets the template for all of Shepard’s work. You find variations on the above sermon in nearly every Shepard play, perhaps most tersely in Curse of the Starving Class (1978), when a character touts the restorative benefits of sleeping on a hard table. Roundly portrayed as a cowboy poet, the playwright seems much more interested in scouring the trash heaps of American tough-guy cliché culture than forging an actual mythology of manhood à la John Wayne.

Then why this stubborn quest for the Real? In his stage directions for the new play, Shepard stipulates that “the dead horse should be as realistic as possible with no attempt to stylize or cartoon it in any way. In fact, it should actually be a dead horse.” Of course, Kicking a Dead Horse is about one man facing the tragic actuality of his embarrassingly naïve vision, but does the audience need to stare at a bona fide horse carcass to get the point?

In a mutual attempt to recapture their old magic, Wenders and Shepard got back in the saddle in 2005 for Don’t Come Knocking, an awful Paris, Texas rehash featuring the playwright in the lead role. Wenders’s camera grooves to the gruff macho posturing of Shepard’s character, a washed-up western movie star (in a parallel universe where John Ford-style oaters are still being bankrolled) who steals a horse and rides off the set in search of redemption, reconciliation and the trail of beautiful women and illegitimate children that any self-respecting cowboy would leave behind. I’m tempted to view Kicking a Dead Horse as a simple metaphor for Shepard’s humbling experience on Don’t Come Knocking. Old glory isn’t quite as glorious when you’re old.

Sam Shepard used to work as a ranch hand, a cold hard fact mentioned in nearly every biographical sketch of the artist. But as Hobart Struther challenges himself in the new play, “When was that? This–‘used to’? When was that?” The land doesn’t care about you one way or the other, whether you’re in Paris, or Texas, or both. Right at the beginning of Paris, Texas, careful viewers will find a cryptic but instructive handwritten sign posted in a ghost town general store: “The dust has come to stay. You may stay or pass on through or whatever.” Shepard has yet to decide.

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