The Mildew: Sam Shepard's 'lost' play finally makes it to the stage

An early one-act play from the late Pulitzer prize winner is being performed for the first time, hinting at the great playwright he would later become

Sam Shepard in 2000.
Photograph: Jakub Mosur/AP

Sam Shepard didn’t stay long at Mt San Antonio College, where he enrolled as a freshman in 1961 with thoughts of becoming either a teacher or veterinarian. After less than a year, he left the school, fled his home and abusive father, and eventually hit the road with a traveling theater troupe. When the troupe’s bus stopped in New York City many months later, Shepard got off, and within two years was well on his way to becoming the darling of off-off-Broadway.

The rest you probably know. Shepard went on to become a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor. He died last July from complications of ALS.

However, Shepard’s student days at Mt Sac lasted long enough for him to write his first play. Titled The Mildew and published in a student journal, the one-act tale is finally hitting the stage for the first time. Mt Sac’s theater department is presenting the play as part of Winter One-Acts, in a short run that ends on 15 February.

Shepard had mentioned The Mildew over the years in interviews, characterizing it as a Tennessee Williams rip-off about a girl who is raped and later taunted by her stepfather. The play is actually nothing like that. Though the director Richard Strand declined a request to discuss the play, the post announcing auditions on Facebook referred to it as “a stark, morbid comedy that explores many of the same themes Shepard would become famous for”.

When researching my 2017 biography of Shepard, I went looking for his first play. With the help of a couple of faculty members from Mt Sac, we located a copy of the 1961 edition of the student journal, MoSAiC, and inside, consisting of ten pages, was The Mildew. Its young author signed his inaugural effort “Steve Rogers”, the name by which he was known by before changing it to Sam Shepard a few years later.

Sam Shepard in 1974.

Sam Shepard in 1974. Photograph: Frank Martin for the Guardian

The Mildew was billed as “a one-act comedy”, though it is more absurd than funny. And while it’s far from the equal of Shepard’s greatest plays, such as The Tooth of Crime, Buried Child and A Lie of the Mind, it shows an eagerness to experiment and a transgressive sense of humor. In short, not bad for a community college freshman.

Shepard had attended a party around the time he entered Mt Sac, thrown by a man he described as “a beatnik”. The host tossed him a copy of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play Waiting for Godot. He read it, and the expressive freedom he discovered within those pages marked him for life. The play was nothing short of liberating for Shepard, who had thus far known only the types of plays he’d acted in back in high school, such as Harvey and Finian’s Rainbow. “It just struck me that suddenly that with words you could do anything,” Shepard would say many years later.

Beckett’s bleak worldview and mordant humor color The Mildew throughout. The play begins with a “respectable citizen” bearing the regal-sounding name Percival Chambers Jr, also known as Percy, standing on a foggy downtown corner beneath the streetlights. Nearby is a blinking red light, clearly meant to ratchet up the tension and prepare the audience for the possibility of some Pinteresque violence. Percy talks directly to the audience, mentioning that some of his friends, “the finest citizens in town”, will soon be arriving. Next, he is accosted by various lowlifes, beginning with a drunk seeking a light and asking the time.

Then, a long-haired boy arrives, “a hoodlum”, we are told, who pokes fun before ripping off Percy’s tie and tearing it in half. Finally, two ruffians chase a girl, and when Percy tells the men to leave her alone, one of them asks if he’s a knight. To teach him a lesson, they tear Percy’s suit, force him to his knees, and have him repeat ad nauseam: “I am a bad, bad knight. I want to repent.” After the trio leaves, a passerby sees Percy and joins him in his absurd confession. Eventually, Percy gives up and leaves the man to pray on his own. When his friends finally arrive, they see just the man kneeling on the street corner and ask after Percy. “He left,” the man tells them. They leave, and the final image is of the kneeling man repeating, “I am a bad, bad knight. I want to repent”.

Now, nearly six decades after it was written, The Mildew finally gets its premiere. While ultimately it may lack the things that set Shepard’s later work apart (the sustained tension, the knowing irony), audience members familiar with his more mature plays will still see hints of the playwright he would become. The blinking light, fog-covered stage, breaking of the fourth wall, and the lack of a traditional ending would feature in the early one-act plays that became the foundation of a long and singular career.

  • John Winters teaches at Roger Williams University and his book Sam Shepard: A Life will be released in March

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