Sam Shepard does not merely denounce chaos and anomie in American life, he mourns over them. His corrosive images and scenes of absurdity never soften to concede the presence of a lament, but it is there all the same.
Denunciation that has no pity in it is pamphleteering at best and a striking of fashionable attitudes at worst, and it is fairly common on the contemporary stage. Mr. Shepard is an uncommon playwright and uncommonly gifted and he does not take denouncing for granted. He wrestles with it at the risk of being thrown.
It could be argued, perhaps, that both the glory and failing of Mr. Shepard’s art is its extraordinary afterlife: His works often play more feverishly in the mind after they’re over than they do while they’re before us in the theater. But that’s the way he is, and who would or could change him?
Mr. Shepard is (I think) trying to get at the ways we all are all haunted by the primal myths that run through our civilizations. Think of this fixation, if you wish, as a sort of cultural original sin. And no matter how “advanced” our scientific and intellectual investigations and theorizing, those myths retain a hold on us that can never be erased or even clinically assessed.
Shepard captures Dylan and his motley circle — Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, T-Bone Burnett — in biting, impressionistic road vignettes. One typically priceless episode: Ginsberg reading his Oedipal “Kaddish” to a group of mah-jongg-playing women at a hotel in Falmouth, Mass.
“Motel Chronicles” is full of verbal delights, as well as insights into its author’s entire canon. Whether Mr. Shepard is reminiscing about his parents or daydreaming about cherished movies and cars of his youth, he speaks in pungent and ethereal language that remakes our West.
As in Shepard’s plays, time past and time present blur and overlap in this story, just as boundaries…