Sam Shepherd’s Chicago: The Drama of Absurd Essay

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Sam Shepherd’s Chicago: The Drama of Absurd

The term “absurd” is no stranger to the contemporary man. It seems as if for the last seventy years since the beginning of its popularization we haven’t moved away from the same existential philosophy it stems from. Therefore, it could be said that the notion of absurdity is a prevailing element of postmodern art and of postmodern way of thinking in general. Ever since the term “absurd” was used by Alber Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, it attracted a lot of attention (“Absurdism”). Camus was one among the many intellectuals and artists who were, by the end of the Second World War, reciprocally disappointed at the state in which the terrors of war had left humanity. This overwhelming feeling of despair had been appropriately compared by Camus to the Sisyphus’s condemnation and the whole existence of the contemporary humanity to the act of repeatedly pushing the boulder just to watch it fall down the hill again and again.

As we will be mainly interested in the appearance of the absurd in drama, it should be emphasized that the topic of absurdity, so closely related to the terms postmodern, avant-garde and experimental, has been overtly present in all other artistic media, genres and fields of activities, as well, all of which have tried to express the newly formulated idea of the modern world. And the drama of absurd, alike, could not be said to represent a unified movement but rather a “a complex pattern of similarities in approach, method, and convention, of shared philosophical and artistic premises, whether conscious or subconscious, and of influences from a common store of tradition”; helpful as it is, for the literary analysis, “it is not a binding classification; it is certainly not all-embracing or exclusive”(Esslin). Exactly what was understood by the idea of absurd, specifically in relation to the theatre, is best illustrated in Martin Esslin’s Introduction to ‘’Absurd drama’’.

The theatre of absurd implies a wholly different approach from the drama in classical terms. As deduced from Esslin’s “manifesto” and the theory of literature in general, the innovations could be classified under the few roughly divided basic domains: the structure of the plot, characterization, use of language, use of unrealistic images such as dreams or nightmares, the lack of a final resolution and ultimately, the intended effect. First of all, one of the most distinctive features is that, instead of the typical respect of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and the resolution, which determine the traditional linear storyline, an absurd drama is almost always of a circular, more chaotic form. From Esslin’s point of view “these plays often start at an arbitrary point and seem to end just as arbitrarily”. As far as the use of unrealistic images is concerned, this is mainly aimed at the appearance of dreamlike scenes or dreams which is very often the case; these mostly function as symbolic interludes, also called guignols (Esslin). These insertions in the plot add to the experimental structure of the plays and awaken the sense of the surrealistic.

Another distinguished element of absurd drama is, as already mentioned, the lack of a final resolution. In addition to the incoherent plotline, the audience is also deprived of any sort of coherent conclusion to the play. As a matter of fact, the author of an absurdist piece of work is, just like S. Becket in the renowned Waiting for Godot, inclined to deprive the audience of the satisfaction normally gained through the proposed solution to the problem raised (Martin Esslin). As the author is neither interested in telling a story nor in providing us with the meaningful resolution, the final perplexity we are confronted with is formulated in the question Esslin himself puts forward: “Why should the emphasis in drama have shifted away from traditional forms towards images which, complex and suggestive as they may be, must necessarily lack the final clarity of definition, the neat resolutions we have been used to expect?”(Esslin).

He goes further on to explain that the playwrights reach such drastic measures only because for them this is the only viable possibility of depicting the world as it is. More spceifically, these authors no longer believe it is possible to get to such “neat resolutions”, so “they are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world” (Esslin). According to Esslin, the reality of the traditional play implies that the world being depicted is equally well-organized, coherent, “solid and secure (with) all outlines clear, all ends apparent” (Esslin). But in Aldous Huxley’s words, “The trouble with fiction is that it makes too much sense, whereas reality never makes sense.” ( Based on these presumptions, it is not difficult to conclude what would be the best possible means for presenting that world, as harsh, as brutal and as confusing as it is. As Esslin so sharply puts it: Theatre of the Absurd can actually coincide with the highest degree of realism.

For if the real conversation of human beings is in fact absurd and nonsensical, then it is the well-made play with its polished logical dialogue that is unrealistic, while the absurdist play may well be a tape-recorded reproduction of reality. (Esslin) The audience is thus, just like in postmodernism in general, expected to analyze the piece in an unconventional way. Searching for a unifying message is neither advised nor possible anymore. One of the main traits of Shephard’s work, overtly apparent in Chicago, is the decline of the American society, our “essencially material and profane culture” (Patraka, 6). Along with this, Sam Shepard is interested in the topic of the old American foundation myths which seem to have disappeared from the modern world as well as in the lack of some worthy new legends (Patraka, 6).

If James Joyce said we indeed do need to crush down the old myths in order to introduce the new, more appropriate ones, Shephard wants to show that we have lost track of the old ones while ultimately failing to replace them with the new ones. Consequently, Shepard is going back, trying to “resurrect the past”, as if connecting with the ghosts of past will bring back the sense and structure missing in today’s world (Patraka, 16). People tend to go back in time and try to find the cornerstone of their tradition, something they can hold on to in order to find a purpose to their lives. Being separated from that aspect, people are fundamentally lost and all of their actions are futile, useless and thus absurd. This is the idea that Shephard understands and uses in his works. Chicago may not fit into this idea of using old Western myths so obviously as some other of his plays, but there are many mythical elements in this play.

One interesting example that comes from an old Western myth is a scene of a “cowboy picking his teeth and spitting little gobs of food into the aisle.” As any absurdist piece, Chicago is characterized by an unconventional plotline. Being the central event of the play, Joy’s preparations and leaving for Chicago is not nearly as central as might be assumed from the play’s summary. Joy is preparing, their friends do come to say goodbye and she does finally leave but all we can see and all we are interested throughout the play is to follow the other level related to Stu’s creation of the unusual imagery. There are two mysteries we notice from the start, each on the different level of the play. First, it is the mystery revolving around Joy’s leaving – we never realize exactly how it came to her decision to leave both her home and Stu, though we do get the sense of the repressed anger on the side of Stu.

Right from the beginning, this becomes evident in his ignoring of Joy at the beginning and his harsh responses to her poetic observations while they are employed in the imaginary act of floating in the boat discussing the barracudas out in the water. The following part of the dialogue shows this: “JOY: Listen to the waves. STU: Listen yourself, missy. I heard water slappin’ on the pier before, I got ears.” (Sehpard) This pretence contrasts Joy’s soft, girlish and even romantic side with Stu’s harsh comments and his repressed anger becomes more and more apparent. In addition to the mysteriousness of their relationship, there is the mystery of the other characters presence, such as for example, carrying fishing poles. Second, there is the mystery of Stu’s narrative monologues. These interrupt the main storyline and make us question their relation to it.

Only after the end of the play one might realize how exactly Stu’s stories are interrelated, but might as well need to read them few more times to come to some steady conclusions. Nevertheless, the element of mystery is a recurring motive in the drama of absurd in general and it is still ambiguous in which direction and to which extent we should seek for the deeper meaning in it. When it comes to Beckett, the pioneer of the absurd “movement”, he never intended to tell a story. As previously mentioned, he “did not want the audience to go home satisfied that they knew the solution to the problem posed in the play” (Esslin). Moreover, most of the authors even refused to explain themselves and their works and “objectives behind their work” (Esslin). From this, one can conclude the same thing as from Chicago, which is that the creation of the author’s vision of the world through building up of imagery – a play resembling more of a scene from a film, a poetic excerpt, or a mystery – is the main purpose of this kind of drama.

As Esslin defines it, “the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd are primarily intended to convey a poetic image or a complex pattern of poetic images; they are above all a poetical form”(Esslin). He adds that “poetry is above all concerned to convey its central idea, or atmosphere, or mode of being; it is essentially static.” As static as poetry is, is Chicago as well. Despite the resolving of the main plotline when Joy leaves, the main drama remains stuck within Stu’s imagination. As in the most absurdist plays, “the movement we see is the unfolding of the poetic image” (Esslin). Consequently, we can say, just like Chicago, its characters are static as well. Stu is static physically, because we don’t see him moving until the very end, and the other characters mostly psychologically because of the lack of imagination and the behavior that is full of clichés. Which will be explained in more detail further in the text. Other notable distinctions are the set and the setting.

First of all, stage instructions which are equally ambiguous as the plot itself – the reciting of Gettysburg Address and the policeman announcing the beginning of the play seem as a certain traditional authority, a part of the “old myths” that will be torn down with this experimental piece. The very minimalistic set with the bathtub in the center of the stage is no news in the modern experimental theatre either. In it Stu, dressed in his jeans, is sitting and Joy walks around occasionally joining him or engaging herself in passionate kissing with him. Thematically, this act of hers can be assigned to her inability to speak but rather succumb to the physical as the only way people are able to connect. Furthermore, an important aspect of the absurd drama, and certainly the most prominent characteristic of Chicago is the use of language.

The first thing to analyze would be the register. On the page two of the script, we come across the first vulgarities, only to announce what we will be confronted with in the course of the play and this is Joy’s “Fuck off” as a reaction to Stu’s babblings (Shepard). Their conversation is mostly naturalistic, simulating the one of a real life couple. Overall, the register is informal, filled with slang, obscene and common language. Despite the fact that these are the features of modern or avant-garde theatre in general, and not strictly absurdist, they are still adding up to this specific atmosphere. As far as the stylistic devices are concerned, examples of irony, mock humor, repetition, and metaphors can be seen all around the script. The use of rhyme (in Stu’s opening story) and rhythm is present, and Stu even speaks in the “singsong manner” as the play begins. The metaphors are mostly reserved for Stu’s imaginary narratives, and are highly ambiguous.

With them Stu goes either back into history to the cornerstones of the civilization, or far into the future in a prophetic tone. Likewise, Shepard himself goes back in history and uses a dramatic tool known from the very oldest days of the theatre – mask. The impersonation of the old lady occurs each time after Stu’s putting on a bandana on his head. Through her voice he is able to confront the world in a different, freer way. “His ability to feel love on an imaginative level is disconnected from an ability to do anything to sustain it (their relationship)”(Patraka, 16). In this way, it becomes obvious that the mentioned stylistic devices altogether serve as to point out the incomprehensibility of the world from the point of view of Stu as a deeper and more complex character. However, the most saliently absurdist element of the language use in this play is probably repetition.

Some of Stu’s lines seem as merely incoherent babblings which, unlike in a traditional play, interrupt the dialogues in a seemingly unconnected manner. As becomes evident after some time, some of these babblings prove to be no more than strings of irrelevant sentences or words. On the other hand, some of them prove to belong to a bigger metaphor leading us to some new conclusions about Stu’s psyche. Some of the repetition comes on a different level, not connected to Stu’s monologues, but from the interaction of the other characters.

The friends that come to say goodbye to Joy seem to behave more appropriately than Stu, but it is only at a surface level. Shepard uses them and the constant repetition of the same phrases to point out the extent to which it becomes meaningless. They show a complete inability of humans to connect on deeper and more purposeful level. Their goodbyes, for example, turn into artificiality of a cliché:

MYRA: Have a good time
SALLY: So long, Joy!
JOE: So Long!
JIM: Good luck out there!
JOE: See you, babe!
JIM: Bye!
JOE: Bye, bye!
JOY: Bye!
MYRA: Say hello for me!
JOE: Don’t forget!
JIM: Have fun!
JOE: Good luck!
JOY: Thanks!
JOE: See you later! (Shepard)

Jim, Myra, Joe and Sally are notable for another point of analysis and that is characterization. The typical characterization of absurd drama is nowhere near the traditional one, in a sense that the characters are seen as mostly fit for one purpose only. They act as puppets or robots only thinking and behaving in certain established norms. Finally, contrasted with these characters, it is quite clear that Stu is an outcast. In addition, he is also a stranger, and just like Camus’s stranger, Stu leaves us with the sense of alienation, such a typical trait of the absurdist drama. Beneath all of the dreamlike narratives, his anxiety is still prominent and this is where we see the despair of the modern man. The new cultural values have proved to be, especially in Chicago, inadequate for surviving emotionally (Patraka, 14).

The generation gap presented in Stu’s impersonation of the old lady and her criticism of the modern girls and their “flimsy morality” emphasize the decline in society already mentioned as a reoccurring theme in Shaphard’s works. But even more, the whole point of Stu’s “dreams” might be to show the decline in human race – more obvious in the last one, of the whole civilization represented in what could be characterized as a final animalistic orgy. The first important thing is to consider our inability to process the frightening and illogical world around us, making the only possible outcome of a play as a representation of life, absurd and thus meaningless. Also, we understand the author’s message rather clearly through Stu’s main image which is the one of marching of the civilization into decay and barbarism.

These elements are ambiguously terminated in the image of the same civilization walking into the water in an act which could be understood as a joint suicide. Just like the four previously mentioned characters, they also act like puppets, robots while at the same time showing only their most primitive, animalistic side, before finally mysteriously disappearing into the water. On the imaginary level, as we have seen throughout the play, his inspiration is flourishing but in reality, sitting in his bathtub, he is stuck and completely unable to act. Moreover, “his actual domestic environment remains suffocating and self-destructive” (Patraka, 16).

As Patraka and Siegel point out, Shephard was mostly avoided by the major critics, most probably because of his “usual-apparently careless -approach to plot and characterization” and that it took some time for them to “come to terms with his work” (Patraka, 12). His unconventional approach to the creation of the play Chicago could be just as well described as difficult to process. However, it is not only the critics and the viewers of that time that needed some time to come to terms with this particular play, but the contemporary viewers as well. It’s dreamy and realistic, it’s scary and humorous, and much of its meaning on the one hand, and the lack of meaning, on the other, comes from its absurdist nature.

Finally, the contemporary audience might just need some more time to walk through the curtain of the absurdity and all the difficulties it brings along. It is after all, one of the more comprehensible in the opus of absurd drama and thus closer to us. In the words of Ben Brantley, who maybe depicted it in the most positive terms, “the play glows with the sense of hot, youthful spontaneity, of a mind that simply opened itself and let the images tumble out”. “But it’s also remarkably of a piece and, if you relax and just give yourself to it, surprisingly coherent” (Brantley). Works cited

( Brantley, Ben. “Sam Shepard of Today, And of Many Days Ago.” ( Esslin, Martin. “Introduction to “Penguin Plays – Absurd Drama.” (

Patraka, Vivian, and Mark Siegel. Sam Shephard. Boise State University Western Writers Series. Ed. Wayne Chatterton, James H. Maguire. Boise: Boise State University, 1985. Print ( Shepard, Sam. Five Plays by Sam Shepard. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967. Pdf file

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