Poor Things: Naturalistic Props and the Death of American Material Culture in Sam Shepard's Action

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2013


From the scattered pieces of pop culture detritus and consumer brands that litter the floor of Cowboy Mouth (1971) to the bleating lamb and refrigerator full of artichokes in Curse of the Starving Class (1978), Sam Shepard’s plays of the 1970s stage objects that reveal American culture’s fragmented textures, commodity fetishes, and organic wastes. Some of Shepard’s most vividly realistic objects (live animals, devoured food, broken furniture) serve not only to help tell stories about the poor or to represent throw-away culture but also to interrupt the narrative conventions of theatrical representation by so assertively presenting their own reality that it becomes difficult to read through them to the fictional objects they ostensibly represent. Unlike most conventional props (eg, Desdemona’s handkerchief, Hedda Gabler’s pistols, Blanche Dubois’ letters), some of Shepard’s most arresting things are so insistently and assertively real that they draw attention to their actuality as objects in shared space rather than to their dramatic functions as symbols and tools.1 It would seem relatively easy for playgoers to see a handkerchief, pistol, or letter as an object that disappears into a system of meanings; it is quite a bit harder to forget that a dissected fish, bleating lamb, frying bacon, or shattered chair onstage is an actual thing standing audaciously before us, resisting sublimation into fiction.2


City University of New York

Publication Information

Journal of American Drama and Theatre

This document is currently not available here.