Sam Shepard's "Kicking a dead horse"
Public Theater, New York
July 8, 2008
The title of this one act one hander - starring Irish actor Stephen Rea - describes the play's central conceit. Cowboy stuck in the desert because his horse died. Just like one kicks a car tire when it goes flat - with a tide of expletives - so one, apparently, kicks the carcass of one's not-so-trusty-steed. Apparently the over-eager and out-of-practice cowpoke fed him a bag of oats at the outset - one of which killed hi. (Proof for the bacon and egg and flapjack eaters out there that Quakers can kill you).
Our hero is out of practice because he spent the last 20 years of his life as a successful dealer of 'fine American art'. Meaning that in his youth when he was a drifter and ranch hand he bought grease and smoke stained Remingtons off the walls of great plains saloons for twenty bucks a pop - then flogged them for the hundreds of thousands and millions they were worth. His internal ructions remind us that artifacts should be let lie in their natural habitat - they breathe there - as its the museification (or domestication) that kills them.
In the end this keenness of eye and cynicism towards his corporeal heritage - the place his bones were cast - has made him nauseous. He is sick of himself. And like the dudes in the "City Slickers" films has headed back to the frontier to find himself.
Too little too late. His is a Beckettian fate. Doomed to die with his horse after a brief battle with the elements and his schizoid self. The cowboy talks to his self. One half art dealer and the other half wannabe cowboy. He is two types of men: equally an anti-hero of the new and old American frontier. Remember there is a statue of a bull in front of the NYSE on Wall Street - waiting to be lassoed. (Maybe Trump has gone whackily bald from wearing a cowboy hat when he sleeps - any old timer will tell you that the wearing of a hat will do it to you).
The Beckett like structure and theme of the play - it is every bit a "Krapp's Last Tape or "Endgame" - is one explanation for the casting of an Irishman in the lead. There is also the practical purpose of this being a co-production with the Abbey Theatre, Dublin where the play will travel at the end of the New York run. Moreover, Rea and Shepard have worked together before. I suspect the casting is, however, a metaphysical faint on behalf of Shepard - to remind us that Americans have lost site of the frontier as both a romantic spectacle and the site of their nation's greatest shame. Nobody wants to consider the legend and reality of blood-in-the-soil: one of the cowboys outbursts expurgates the massacres of Indians and bison by the settlers). This is the dark heart that Clint Eastwood constantly mines in his greatest films: we are war mongers now because we were murderers ever. And it takes a 'man alone' to confront these mysteries. The man alone, romantic outsider, and seer are still embedded in the Irish imaginary - even if they are lost in America. And the promise of America, the savior of many a potato famine andf land clearing refugee, still plays large in the Irish collective unconscious. I suspect it is for these reasons that Shepard has cast a foreigner (and for that matter why he lives in the mid-West and not at the coasts) as the true American has gone AWOL.