When Sam Shepard met Peter Brook in London in 1973, Brook introduced him to the teachings of spiritual philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff, whose memoir
Meetings with Remarkable Men was the basis of a film that Brook made in 1979. Among students and adherents, there is a tradition of not speaking publicly about the Gurdjieff work. Some prominent artists have let their involvement with Gurdjieff’s teachings be known – actor Bill Murray is probably the best-known – and a recent anthology called
Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching includes entries by Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, playwright Jean-Claude Carriere, and composer David Hykes. The closest Shepard has ever come to acknowledging his relationship to Gurdjieff was his dedication of
A Lie of the Mind to “L.P.,” a reference to Lord Pentland (Henry John Sinclair), the British businessman who established and directed the Gurdjieff Foundation of California and whose funeral Shepard attended in the spring of 1984.
I’d always been curious to know what if any influence Gurdjieff’s work had on Shepard’s plays, especially
A Lie of the Mind. I knew enough about Gurdjieff’s philosophy to know that “waking sleep” was one of his metaphors for the human condition, spiritual practice being an invitation to rouse oneself from this unconscious slumber. And reading the anthology, I was very intrigued to find central themes from Shepard’s work expressed in this passage from an essay by Jeanne de Salzman, who oversaw the continuation of Gurdjieff’s work after his death: “Try for a moment to accept the idea that you are not what you believe yourself to be, that you overestimate yourself, in fact that you lie to yourself. That you always lie to yourself every moment, all day, all your life… You will see that you are two…One who lies and one who cannot endure lies…Learn to look until you have seen the difference between your two natures, until you have seen the lies, the deception in yourself. When you have seen your two natures, that day, in yourself, the truth will be born.”
I was hoping that this interview with Shepard would be an opportunity to sound him out on this subject. Here’s how it went:
I was struck by something that you said to Michael Almereyda in the documentary: “It’s an amazing dilemma when one begins to discover that you’re living your life as a somnambulist. You’re living your life in a trance -- in a dream, to be corny about it. When that occurs, there’s a kind of amazing thing that takes place. One is despair, and the other is a sudden awakening. There’s another way of seeing." That metaphysical perspective shows up in a lot of your plays, and it sounds to me like some of the language that comes from the Gurdjieff work.
Yeah, it's language that's used in a lot of different traditions. The Buddhist tradition. The notion of awakening is a Christian idea.
I hadn't made the connection to resurrection as the same kind of metaphor, but I see what you mean. You also repeatedly use a metaphor of a living corpse. Henry Moss says, “There are a lot of dead people walking around, a lot of walkers and talkers.”
It's an extremely provocative idea that the unconscious can believe themselves to be conscious. People who are in an unconscious state, which is a great majority of us, can believe they're conscious. In other words, we could be walking in a dream and not know it. To me it's a fascinating idea.
A Lie of the Mind is another play that deals with being dead and alive at the same time. Jake thinks he's killed Beth at the beginning of the play. There's also the notion of being split, which shows up in your plays.
Yeah. I don't know what more to say about it. (laughs)
I'm curious about the relationship between the Gurdjieff work, the language of waking sleep and lying, with this notion of being split.
I don't know how Gurdjieff got into it. [he turns cold all of a sudden]
It seems like a code that runs through some of the plays.
No, it's not. As far as the split thing goes, I always felt envious of people who feel themselves to be whole. Maybe there are people who do genuinely feel whole, like they're one person. I've never felt that ever in my life. I felt like I'm many. Many. I don't mean schizophrenic or neurotic or any of that bullshit. On a daily basis, I can feel maybe six different versions of myself playing out in the course of a day, that I'm aware of.
I'll read you a quote from Wyndham Lewis. He says: "Cherish and develop side by side your six most constant indications of different personalities. You will acquire the potentiality of six men. A variety of clothes, hats especially, are of help in this wider dramatization of yourself. Never fall into the vulgarity of being or assuming yourself to be one ego."
(chuckles) I'd drink to that.
During a break from tape-recording the interview, I pointed out to Shepard that I'd been trying to get him to talk about the Gurdjieff work and he'd been dodging my questions. He let me know in no uncertain terms that he doesn't want to be viewed as a representative of the Gurdjieff work. He said that he doesn't know enough about it and he didn't want to reduce it or simplify it. He also indicated that he didn't want people to get the impression that's what his plays are about. I understood and respected his position. I did show him the quote from Mme. De Salzman, and he was very interested in it, saying, “Now
she knows what she’s talking about.”
Shepard and film
Shepard and Jasper Johns
Shepard and Wallace Shawn
American Theatre, April 2004