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Some thoughts about Sam Shepard's Fool for Love
I read the play on Sunday and watched the movie on Monday. It’s the word “circle” that kept jumping out at me, along with another word—”split.” May, the female character, tells Eddie they were trapped in a circle and, while he was always split, she never was. May’s direction is all one way. She is loving him clockwise, or not loving him counterclockwise. Eddie, though, he is—and I hope this makes sense—trapped in a circle within the circle. Just a cowboy caught up in the thrill of the chase? I like how Shepard presents Eddie practicing the ‘swing and rope.’
He spins the rope above his head in a flat-horn loop, then ropes one of the bedposts, taking up the slack with a sharp snap of the right hand. He takes the loop off the bedpost, rebuilds it, swings and ropes another bedpost. He continues this right around the bed, roping every post and never missing.
Eddie loves May and she loves him. Of their mutual love, we are never in doubt. But, like the swing and rope, this cowboy is never home.
Shepard, as it happens, wrote the screenplay too, and that’s just one of a few reasons why the movie is so damn good.
In the case of a play for the stage, the performance really ought to be better than the words on the page because, after all, that is the whole point. Plays are meant to be seen, not read. Movies based on books are different. The reason, I think, that it’s so challenging to base a movie on a book, is that books are so internal, subjective, and personalized. “I didn’t picture it that way,” we might say to ourselves as we watch a Hollywood interpretation of a book we love. Or, “Why did they omit this or that?” Shepard’s cinematic vision for his story omits nothing (except the ‘swing and rope,’ but only, I presume, because May’s bed in the film does not have bedposts) and adds clarity. Directed by Robert Altman, the film gives us visuals that bring home three things: the universality of the story, the timelessness of the story, and the significance of the Old Man. The Old Man, played by Harry Dean Stanton, represents not only the father of Eddie and May, but also, the Every/Any Man who has two families. In the text of the play, the Old Man “exists only in the minds of MAY and EDDIE, even though they might talk to him directly and acknowledge his physical presence”—but in the film he takes on a dual presence as both himself (father of May and Eddie) and a man paying a visit to a woman staying in another unit of the Mojave Desert motel that is the principal scenery. While May and Eddie spar, we see this woman…. having a tender moment with her daughter in the background while Eddie is looking tenderly at May. In short, tender moment between mother and daughter is juxtaposed with Eddie’s tender feelings toward May. Later, we see the little girl when she’s been left alone, forgotten by her mother, who is occupied with the Old Man (or rather, the Every/Any Man version of the Old Man) and this happens at the same time as Eddie’s (short-lived) abandonment of May. That the little girl is May, I have no doubt, but I suspect there is also a parallel being drawn between May and her mother. May is in danger of becoming her mother, no less than Eddie is at risk of descent into the paternal pattern, with only one difference—May is trying to escape the circle, but Eddie seems to lack awareness or desire to break the pattern. This is Shepard 101, and no one can explain it better than Shepard himself, as he does through the character Vince in Buried Child:
I studied my face. Studied everything about it. As though I was looking at another man. As though I could see his whole race behind him…I saw him dead and alive at the same time…I watched him breathe as though he was frozen in time. And every breath marked him. Marked him forever without him knowing. And then his face changed. His face became his father’s face. Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath. And his father’s face changed to his Grandfather’s face. And it went on like that. Changing. Clear on back to faces I’d never seen before but still recognized. Still recognized the bones underneath. The eyes. The breath. The mouth.
Was it Shepard’s worst nightmare?—to become his father? He had a complicated relationship with his father (his Old Man) that left marks in everything he wrote. In a story titled “Orange Grove in My Past,” he describes his attempt to do “everything I possibly could, not to become my father.”He changed his name—he went by Steve; he shrunk his name to first and middle name only in the signing of his plays. He could run but he could not hide. Like May! Interestingly, the dedication of his 1981 compilation of plays (Seven Plays) reads: “For my father, Sam.” May loved Eddie in spite of their problems. Sam loved his father in spite of his father’s colossal mistakes and difficult presences/absences.
I love the Vince quote because I have that experience when I look at a particular photograph of my great-grandmother. It’s haunting to see my own face on a woman I never met. She died exactly ten years before I came into the world! It’s not that history repeats. Indeed, as Mark Twain said, it not only doesn’t; it never did, and it never will, but occasionally it rhymes! The past echoes. It leaves imprints and influences, and, to paraphrase Heraclitus, though you will not cross the same river twice, echoes of the past will persist. We carry these echoes in all kinds of mysterious, even subconscious ways. It’s the generational cycle of patterns that makes Fool for Love such a compelling story—always relevant because, in essence, timeless and universal—added to the fact that Eddie and May are trapped in this cycle. I get the impression that May, aware of the cycle, still has absolutely no clue how to break it. Her answer is to run and hide from Eddie, but when the cowboy invariably finds her, May is drawn back into him—hook, line, and sinker. She’s aware of the problem, but doesn’t know how to solve it, short of just….never letting herself be found again. In the film, we see her hiding. She draws the window coverings. She locks the door. (He breaks the door.) She holes up in the bathroom. She puts her drinking glasses in the bathroom. “What are they doing in the bathroom,” Eddie asks her. She replies, “I keep everything in the bathroom. It’s safer.”Safer? It’s safer, I suppose, to have what you need in the place where you hide.
The play was first performed at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco on February 8, 1983. Shepard directed, Ed Harris played Eddie, Kathy Baker played May, and Dennis Ludlow played Martin. Will Marchetti played the Old Man. Both Ed Harris and Kathy Baker won Obie Awards for their performances. In the film, Shepard plays Eddie; Kim Basinger plays May; Randy Quaid plays Martin; and Harry Dean Stanton plays the Old Man. Funnily enough, the Wikipedia article for the film version cites a Boston Globe review asserting the (in my opinion, absurd) view that the film is “nothing like” the play. I could not disagree more. Of course, there are differences, but the existence of differences (like the absence of bedposts, or the fact that Kim Basinger wears a pink dress instead of a red dress) hardly equates to “nothing like.” (But don’t take my word for it; watch it for yourself, free with ads on Tubi.) Personally, I appreciate the fact that the filmmakers took advantage of what only a film version can do—by expanding the field of movement for the story. Film also allowed the director to utilize the aforementioned emotional juxtapositions.
Finally, I want to talk a little bit about the LSU Theatre performance of Fool for Love, since I’m personally acquainted with the actor who played Eddie in that rendition—Graham Miller Frye. In the spring of 1988, Frye played Eddie to Amanda White’s May; Joe Chrest played the role of Martin; and Michael McNeal played the Old Man. Director John Dennis made a very interesting casting decision with the choice of Amanda White to play May, since the best known portrayals of May (Kathy Baker and Kim Basinger) are white women. It’s inconsequential, however, as far as the story goes. There’s nothing in the story that hangs on the character’s physical traits. In fact, the physical descriptions that exist in the play are either indirect (relating to others, such as when the Old Man is said to have a red beard) or of a nature that could easily be left open to directorial discretion. Moreover, the success of this unique casting choice (see next paragraph) speaks to the aforementioned universality of the story.
The April 1988 performance at LSU earned fulsome praise from Baton Rouge Advocate writer David Foil. Foil called the performance “explosive”(in a good way) and he added: “The show is raw, in some ways, but it grabs hold of you and doesn't let go.” Foil also noted that Frye had a very badly bruised black eye in the second act, but this by no means detracted from the performance. Far from it, Frye’s injury enhanced the already “seething tension of the performance.” Frye remembers that in rehearsals, White would threaten him with her heavy handbag. On opening night, the strap on the handbag broke and it sailed right at Frye’s eye—hence the black eye by the second act! “I went down to the floor like one of Mike Tyson's many early victims,” he recalls. “I saw a million stars and crawled on the floor like a toddler—your legs don't work when you've had a hard blow to the head—but gradually I regained my senses and continued on.…” One doesn’t want to make light of physical injuries, but there was an emotional toll as well. Frye tells me that his experience playing Eddie was an incredible exercise in Method acting. He had to “put everything” into the emotional connection with his role, especially when it came to the father-son dynamic. It conjured up his own complex feelings for the man who raised him, nearly giving him a “nervous breakdown” in the short term but leading to much personal healing in the long run.
Foil noted, interestingly, that both Ed Harris (the first Eddie) and Will Patton (Off Broadway Eddie) sustained physical injuries in their respective executions of the role.The chemistry between Frye and White was, in Foil’s words, like “a fifth presence” as the show progressed. There was praise, too, for the director: “Dennis' direction encourages the brutal, raucous comedy in the script, which balances some of [the] heightened tension” produced by Frye’s forceful stage presence. Frye speaks today with amusement about “how many times I got hurt” during the show’s run. Foil described Martin (Joe Chrest) as “suburb” and Michael McNeal’s Old Man as “hypnotic.”
The LSU production competed and won the regional competition for the Irene Ryan fellowship in the American College Theatre Festival.They performed at Texas Tech University (in February 1989) and, having won the regionals—beating out performances from schools in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma—performed at the Kennedy Center.
Sam Shepard’s plays are generally considered to fall into three basic phases:
A “very prolific”New York/Off Off Broadway stage
London (i.e. The Tooth of Crime)
Playwright in residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, writing the “series of family plays for which he’s probably best known”:
At the end of this last, he “launched another stage of his life”—New Mexico and Jessica Lange. (Fun fact: he dedicated Fool for Love and Other Plays to Jessica.) He continued to write plays through about 2014, to act in movies, and in 2017, as he was dying from ALS, he wrote two novels.
Shepard, Sam. Fool for Love. From: Fool for Love and Other Plays. Bantam, 1984. https://archive.org/details/foolforloveother00sheprich/page/32/mode/2up.
Shepard, Sam. Buried Child. From: Seven Plays. Bantam, 1981. https://archive.org/details/sevenplays0000shep_j6n5/page/130/mode/2up.
Shepard, Sam. “Orange Grove in My Past.” Day Out Of Days: Stories. Knopf, 2010. From: True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times, a biography by Robert Greenfield. Kindle Version, p.42. New York: Crown, 2023.
See note 1.
Foil, David. (1988, April 30). “Shepard's "Fool for Love" achieves seething tension.” The Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), pp. 2-D. Available from NewsBank: America's News – Historical and Current: https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AMNEWS&docref=news/0EB474DE6BB61800.
Writer’s note: David Foil’s April 1988 review of the LSU production of Fool for Love contained a misprint with regard to the actress who played May. Foil’s article printed her name as “Amanda Green.” Her name is Amanda White. I felt a responsibility to make a note of this & correct the record for future citations.
Conversation with Graham Miller Frye, 30 May 2023.
Derek Sitter (LSU MFA class of 1994) told me on the record that he remembers with amusement doing Eddie for scene study; he and his future wife, Jeanne Sanders, did a scene from the play. It was the couple’s “first scene together,” he said, “and [John Dennis] stopped us because he said he became concerned for Jeanne’s safety….I distinctly remember sitting on top of her, pouring whiskey on her face.” I mention this only to reiterate the kind of choices that many actors make in their manifestations of Eddie. I had the pleasure of interviewing Derek in May of this year:
See note 6.
Conversation with Graham Miller Frye, 29 May 2023.
Foil, David. (1989, January 25). “LSU production to be in competition.” The Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), pp. 2-D. Available from NewsBank: America's News – Historical and Current: https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AMNEWS&docref=news/0EB475342FCE80EF.
See note 8.