When an icon’s celebrity blinds us to their art

Sam Shepard, the author of more than a dozen award-winning plays about the American Dream. Picture: Getty

The final performance of the Citizens’ acclaimed production of Sam Shepard’s great 1980 play True West is due to finish at any moment; and the spacious old foyer in the Gorbals is filling up with a motley crowd of theatre fans, hoping to slip into the auditorium for the second part of the evening’s entertainment.

For tonight, for one night only, the playwright Sam Shepard – legend of American stage and screen, author of more than a dozen award-winning plays about the American dream and its attendant nightmares, sometime partner of Patti Smith and Jessica Lange, and the man who played test-pilot hero Chuck Yeager in the great 1983 film, The Right Stuff – is to appear in person, in a post-show question-and-answer session on stage. In a historic moment, the 135-year-old Citz’ has opened its ancient, rarely-used upper circle, to accommodate the crowd. And after a brief break, the great man slopes without ceremony onto the stage, accompanied by the show’s director, Phillip Breen; both of them look strangely large in the perspective of Max Jones’s set for True West, set in a modest suburban house on the edge of Los Angeles where two contrasting brothers, Austin and Lee, confront one another in a dialogue brilliantly played, in this production, by Alex Ferns and Eugene O’Hare.

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The thrill of seeing and hearing Sam Shepard in the flesh, though, still fails to answer a few nagging questions about the huge and growing popularity of the personal appearance as an art-form, and what it means for our culture, in an age when the mere fact of celebrity often seems to trump the real content of any work those celebrities may have done.

Across the UK, after all, there are now literally dozens of festivals – including Edinburgh’s own hugely successful International Book Festival – which consist almost entirely of personal appearances by artists who have long since completed the work under discussion, talking to audiences who have already experienced it. And large theatres in Britain are now able to programme many nights a year of events which are essentially personal appearances – of varying quality – by people famous for something else, including ex-politicians and spin-doctors like Tony Benn and Alastair Campbell.

So how did it go with Sam Shepard, last Saturday night? Well, Shepard, now 70, had been in Derry/Londonderry, one of this year’s European Cities Of Culture, working on a new version of the Oedipus myth. He was clearly in relaxed mode, after his first ever day in Glasgow; and an easy-going chat with the audience ensued, often focusing on Shepard’s writing process, what it was like to work with Patti Smith, or the extent to which True West is autobiographical.

It’s not that Shepard said nothing of note, in his 40 minutes on stage.

He spoke powerfully, for example, about the relationship between writing and acting, noting that “there’s a certain lyricism in film acting that is often akin to writing”.

What was completely absent from the conversation, though, was the life-changing political intensity of a play in which Shepard clearly suggests that between them, these two ill-fitting aspects of the American male psyche – the one puritanical and conventional, the other violent and rebellious – will succeed in devastating the place, if not the entire planet. To experience that transforming dramatic energy, we have to focus on the work, not on the life. And while that makes it no less thrilling to see a true American icon and hero live on stage at the Citz, it also comes as a valuable reminder that great art is always something of a mystery; and that the people through whom it comes are flawed human beings like the rest of us, tentative, imperfect, and often as baffled as we are by the sheer power of their work, at its magnificent, unfathomable best.