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Reviewed by:
  • Kicking a Dead Horse
  • Miriam Felton-Dansky
Kicking a Dead Horse. Written and directed by Sam Shepard. The Public Theater, New York City. 2 August 2008.

In the old Sam Shepard’s work, meaning was buried—often literally, under layers of dirt or in America’s forgotten backyards—and could be exhumed only fleetingly and at great cost. Plays like Buried Child, Action, and Curse of the Starving Class peered through the shuttered-up windows of the American myth, deploying language and images of such idiosyncratic density that audiences could not so much decipher them as bask in their mysterious, charged glow. In recent years, though, Shepard’s writing has changed: his dialogue is increasingly direct, his opinions undisguised; 2004’s The God of Hell was an unflinchingly Aristotelian indictment of post-9/11 America. In his latest work, Kicking a Dead Horse—directed by Shepard himself and featuring longtime collaborator Stephen Rea in the central role—narrative has given way again to existential meditation, but to the opposite effect.

This time, Shepard’s images—their meanings no longer oblique but deliberately transparent—are being, laboriously and with little success, reinterred in the topsoil from which they were drawn. The play comments, as Shepard always has, on the delusions and death of American national identity; but it is more pointedly an observation about Shepard himself, an attempt to ride back out into the landscape of his early works and, perhaps, lay that terrain to rest. Obsessively self-referential and haunted by the discovery that artistic authenticity is as elusive as authentic national identity, Kicking a Dead Horse summons the specter of Waiting for Godot in its exploration of a theatrical void; Shepard, though, reveals less an empty firmament than the hollowness of a once-revered idol.

Hobart Struther, originally from the West but of late a successful art dealer in, as he says, “the lush canyon of Park Avenue,” has set off on a wilderness adventure, only to see his trusty steed suck oats down its windpipe and keel over onto the redbrown dirt. So there Struther stands, stranded in an American Badlands that, in designer Brien Vahey’s set, was so cleanly, insistently Western that it resembled less a desert scene than a museum-of-natural history–style diorama of one. Golden mesas and blue sky curved behind an expanse of even sand, while, center stage, two mounds of earth framed the play’s central metaphor: an enormous dead horse— lying on its side, stiff legs pointing upstage—and, directly before it, a massive gaping grave.

Struther’s efforts to heave his recently expired companion into its designated tomb, interrupted frequently and at length by self-interrogations over what brought him to this pass, constitute the bulk of the play’s action. Years ago, he explains, he emptied Western storefronts and saloons of their artifacts, then made a killing selling them to rubes “back east.” One day, the thrill of the chase vanished, sending Struther off into the wilderness— searching, he tells himself (and us: there is frequent, and casual, acknowledgment of the audience), for a long-lost Western youth, replete with starry nights, desert horizons, and the ever-elusive glimpse of, as he enunciates over and over, “authenticity.”

Or perhaps he has retreated into one of the desert-sky paintings he once would have auctioned off as an American masterpiece. Every moment of Kicking a Dead Horse is defiantly, theatrically, inauthentic— a hall of mirrors stretching to the painted horizon, punctuated by reminders that Struther’s “West,” like any artistically reconstituted frontier, is but a figment of the Eastern imagination. When Struther kicks his dead horse, as he does frequently, a sound cue responds with a loud, hollow boom; when Struther sets up his tiny A-frame tent, it collapses, farcically, on cue. When Struther observes that the sun is setting, the sky obediently turns a deep, artificial purple.

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Stephen Rea (Hobart Struther) in Kicking a Dead Horse. Photo: Joan Marcus.

These scenic half-jokes, included within the text itself, are only the most obvious ways in which Waiting for Godot—that masterpiece of self-referential futility set in...


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