The Rock Garden: A Structural Approach of Postmodernism with Expressionism

Author: Dr. Meghana Raikar, Assistant Professor (English), SAGE University, Indore, (M.P.)


Sam Shepard a veteran actor and well-known American playwright has registered a remarkable place in English literature with his more than forty five successful plays including one-act plays, short and full length plays. The Rock Garden is an autobiographical one-act play which is proved to be a milestone of Shepard’s repertoire. This play can elaborate his unique style of writing and is a perfect combination of expressionism and transition from modernism to postmodernism. The theme and characters of the play reflects some candid moments which intensify your emotions. You too like Shepard, will contemplate and correlate with the characters. Once in an interview with Pete Hamil, for New York Magazine, he defined his early one-act plays like “explosions that were coming out of some inner turmoil in me. . . ”(qtd. in Creedon, Sam Shepard and the Aesthetics of Performance, 1) The play is a conglomeration of different images and their absurd reactions which upraise intrepid voice of inner experiences and develop an insight dwelling in this meaningless lonely environment. In the year 1964, his three plays were staged Cowboys, the Rock Garden, and Up To Thursday. Out of three, he won OBIE Award for the play Cowboys and The Rock Garden in 1964. It is very interesting to know how Shepard blended expressionism with postmodernism in The Rock Garden.


Keywords: Expressionism, postmodernism, absurdity, one-act play, transformation, minimalism 


Sam Shepard began his writing career from 1964. At that time, prevailing situation was under the effect of post World War II. Sam’s writing also registered the uncertainty of life through his many plays.  Referring to Shepard’s dramatic world, it has been said that the most of his plays cover a variety of themes including meaninglessness, uncertainty, corruption, adultery, treachery and, the disintegration of the family. His characters are always true to the situation and create an image that dramatized the themes of the plays genuinely. Sam being an expressionist always tried to reflect his own sensibility and build his dramatic characters like a true image which can considerably project their inner conflicts and represent the identity crisis seen in this contemporary world. He, like a true postmodernist never tends to borrow the characters that have copied impressions rather wishes to impose his characters with innovative and different identities. Here uniformity and harmony is less important than aesthetic sensibility and expressiveness.

In American Literature, ‘Expressionism’ is the early modernistic movement which was prospered during 1905 to 1933. Eugene O’ Neill was the first playwright who introduced expressionism in American plays and incorporated expressionistic techniques and style in his drama. Later on Shepard who was the successor of Neill adopted this movement “in which artist did not depict objective reality but rather a subjective expression of their inner experiences”. (“Expressionism” American English Dictionary Offline, 1/7/2020)

Sam in his writing always provided room for inner experiences, innovation and experimentation, sometimes it became very absurd or incongruous and he had to face a lot of criticism too, but he never stepped back. “Sam was always taking chances, always being original,” says playwright Edward Albee, “He was just one of the most exciting individual talents, somebody who was willing to fail and fail interestingly. And if you are willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly.”

Shepard’s plays are influenced by his predecessors like Samuel Beckett, O’Neill and contemporary writers Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, and David Mammet. His early plays somewhere reflect expressionism, absurdism and share the theme based on human isolation and loneliness and in later plays, his writing gradually emerges with numerous shades and having multiple meanings and successfully steps into realism. Shepard’s dealing with absurdity and surrealism is somehow influenced by Beckett, but their execution is little different and is blended with realism with the passage of time. A good comparison between Beckett’s and Shepard’s visionary zeal is observed by Stephen J. Bottoms, “… Shepard’s use of both language and image is more extreme and erratic than Beckett’s carefully modulated, muted style.” (5).  

His creative world has accumulated with a fragrance of all the above mentioned schools of drama, still is having exceptionality.  Esquire an American men’s magazine once quoted about Shepard’s plays, “His plays are stunning in their originality, defiant and inscrutable.” (Shepard, Seven Plays)

In his early phase of life few Off-Off-Broadway theatres like Caffe Cino, La Mama, The Open Theatre, The American Place Theatre, and Theatre Genesis were the places where he found an opportunity to stage his one-act plays. In that sequence, The Rock Garden Play was first performed at Theatre Genesis, St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, New York, on October 10, 1964. It was directed by Ralph Cook. The Rock Garden is short in length but has depth in meaning. It is an autobiographical one-act play which strings up with three scenes and focusing on the different type of action that seems fragmented. The first scene establishes the essential alienation of the family members. There are no dialogues in the first scene, only light and sound effects generate an idea that the apparently silent family environment is highly absurd, and at the roots, relations are loosely associated and hollow. The teenage girl and boy are drinking milk; the man is completely involved in reading a magazine. For a long period of time, the only action that takes place is when the girl drops her glass and spills the milk followed by a blackout.

            This use of ‘pause’ and ‘silence’ make the viewers ponder and give them the chance to analyze the unspoken thoughts and look into the idea hidden behind the action. He uses ‘silence’ and ‘pause’ as a technique to create an effective communication between the characters without articulating a single word and thus relatively establishes a conglomeration of images.

Shepard is best known for his postmodernistic approach in his most of the plays and therefore ranked as one of the major postmodern American playwrights. He strongly believed that there is no line of distinction between modernism and postmodernism, both emerge from the same creative zone. Postmodernism breaks away from modernism in that there is no scope for pessimism in it. Rather it tends to offer fragmented human emotions with a touch of humour. Jonathan Alley Lethen an American novelist rightly questions postmodernism, “what exactly is postmodernism, except modernism without the anxiety?” [“Postmodernism Quotes (158 quotes)”] Somehow it is thematically common in postmodern plays to treat a solemn subject in a playful manner.

            There is little congeniality on the elements, scope, and importance of postmodern literature and it seems hard to define its exact meaning. Instability and skepticism are the main traits dominantly used by the postmodern playwrights. As Stuart Sim states in his introduction to postmodernism, “To move from the modern to postmodern is to embrace skepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for” (VII) Sam used the postmodern elements, themes and techniques together to describe the predicament of the post-World War II.


In the Rock Garden play, Sam follows the techniques and characteristics that are somewhere similar to the early expressionist plays. J. L. Styan’s worthwhile essay “Expressionism and Epic Theatre” points out the basic traits that are needed in an expressionist play:

1)      Its atmosphere was often vividly dreamlike and nightmarish. . . A characteristic use of pause and silence . . . held for an abnormal length of time, also contributed to the dream effect.

2)      . . . created only those starkly simplified images the theme of the play called for. The décor was often made up of bizarre shapes and sensational colours.

3)      The plot and structure of the play tended to be disjointed and broken into episodes. . .

4)      Characters lost their individuality and were merely identified by nameless designations, like ‘The Man’, ‘The Father’, ‘The Son’. . . (4)

             Keeping the above-mentioned points in consideration when I critically analyzed The Rock Garden, I inferred that the play has shades of expressionism. Here there are only three characters -‘Man’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Son’, and at a time only two of them share the stage. The play neither has elevated moral values nor it tackles other social evils, but simply deals with family life and the intricate mutual relationships among the family members. In the view of art critic Herbert Read, expressionism is ‘one of the basic modes of perceiving and representing the world around us’. (qtd. in Expressionism and Epic Theatre 1)

 The second scene begins with blue light permeating the stage where a woman lies on the bed upstage with several blankets over her and to the left, is the teenage boy, in underwear seated in a rocking chair. These two extreme situations like ‘several blankets’ and ‘in an underwear’ captivate the spectator’s mind and certainly create a unique image without using any dialogue.

The mother while conversing with the son tries to acquaint him with her father whose behaviour and habits are very peculiar and totally different from others and she is simultaneously asking him for a glass of water repeatedly. These two actions are done at the same time by the woman and are simply absurd.

 BOY. What did he do?

WOMAN. I don’t know. Mother told me he was a painter but I never saw him painting. He’d stay up there for days. I guess he was a painter. I don’t know. Would you get me a glass of water? (Shepard, Fifteen One-Act Plays, Rock Garden, 124)

 Temporal disorder- The woman is dwelling in two phases, one related to her late father in the past and another with her son in the present. The woman compares her father with her son whose structure and posture is very much similar to her father. But surprisingly the son wants to become like his father, not like his maternal grandfather and so he puts on his clothes one by one and tries to avoid the comparison. 

WOMAN. I’m really thirsty (A long pause.) Your legs are a lot like Pop’s. Pop had the same kind of legs.

BOY. What do you mean?

WOMAN. Well they were bony and- and kind of skinny.

BOY. They were?

WOMAN. Yes. And he had Knobby knees.

BOY. He did?

WOMAN. And fuzzy brown hair all over them. He was a funny man. Would you get me another glass?

(The BOY goes off. He comes back with the water and wearing a pair of pants.) (RG 125)

The Rock Garden Play has imprints of postmodern elements as well as expressionism, as his characters do not narrate the story in a systematic way, and their actions do not illustrate the text, but by using images, light and sound effects and long lyrical monologues, he successfully creates stunningly visualized characters. For example, the character of the Woman’s father, although not physically present on the stage, but the way she describes him, a visual image of his develops in the viewer’s/ reader’s conscious mind. This expressionist image successfully, “. . . represents an inner felt state in a physical, concrete form.” (Wilcox 181-182) Sam introduces mini-narrative to establish the character of grandfather. Though his personality dwells in Woman’s memory she wants to make her son know about his grandfather’s idiosyncratic behaviour.

WOMAN. . . . He liked to go walking in the trees. He’d pick mushrooms. He

            could tell all the different kinds. He knew the poison ones from the edible

ones. Once he made a mistake and got very sick. I remember. He picked up a lot of very small red ones that he’d never seen before. He made a big kind of stew out of them. He even mixed them with some of the other kind. He got very sick and threw up for a whole week. Poor Pop. He was a funny man. (RG 124)

Postmodern writers prefer to add “mini-narratives” or short stories that are always situational and related to local events. Rejecting the idea of grand- narrative, they choose to highlight temporary and relevant matters as in form of mini-narrative that make no claim to universality.

            Magical realism- The character has some strange traits due to which he could sit in an attic for so many days without food and survive after having poisonous mushrooms.

WOMAN.   . . . Sometimes he just stayed in the attic. He’d stay up there for days and days and never come down. We thought he’d starved to death once because he’d been up there for ten days without food. But he was all right. He came out looking like he just had breakfast. He was never hungry.

            BOY. Never?

WOMAN. Hardly ever. He would eat when we weren’t around. He always ate alone.

            BOY. Why?

            WOMAN. . . . He ate with the cats in the attic. . .(RG 124)

            Shepard’s long intense dialogues seem like dramatic monologues, although they are part of a   conversation, the character who delivers the dialogue sometimes enters into a trance thus making the dialogue almost a monologue emphasizing trivial subjects which are discussed at length and thus elevate the theme. Like here in this play ‘applying putty on the walls’ is very skillful work from the point of view of the woman, therefore she wants that work to be done properly either by his son or husband. Her narration is very fragmented and the viewers are set free to get as many ideas as they can.

WOMAN. It feels a little drafty. It’s probably by coming from the windows. . . He can’t learn about putty by working in the orchard and things like that. He needs to practice with it a few times in order to get the feel of it. . . He works and works for all day and look at his physique. You’ve seen him without his shirt. You’ve seen his physique. He does all that labor for nothing. It’s really too bad. You have the same kind of torso as he does. The same build. Only he works and you don’t. That’s the difference . . . Could I have another glass?

(The BOY goes off. He comes back with a glass of water and wearing a      shirt.) (RG 127)

            His mother asks him, “Aren’t you cold?” he says, “No” on a second thought she asks for the blanket, “I’m freezing, would you bring me another blanket?” (The BOY goes off. He comes back with a blanket and wearing an overcoat.) (RG 128) This absurd behaviour of the characters, surge with possibilities to ponder you to come to your own conclusions.

            Finally, the Boy dresses up in overcoat and hat. On the contrary, when his father enters into the home he is wearing an overcoat and hat, but soon he changes his attire and comes wearing underwear and sits in the same rocking chair as the Boy did. ‘Underwear’ and ‘rocking chair’ work symbolically and are related to masculinity in the family. The first father then his son follows the same pattern, this hierarchy is maintained and is handed over to the next generation.

            Information written in the parentheses is also very suggestive because when it is staged, it passes on much more than a dialogue can. (. . . The BOY stands suddenly. The MAN can be heard scraping his feet offstage. The BOY runs offstage right. . .) (RC 128)

            As soon as his father comes back home he runs away, trying to escape, which highlights the feeble relationship they share. It reflects Shepard’s own experience as he did not share healthy relations with his father. Because of this autobiographical element in his plays, the father figure always has a dark side and the head of the family never has a perfect hold over the family. Reminiscences of his early days can often be traced in this play and be considered as ‘subjective Element’ which indicates the shades of expressionism. Herbert Read opines about expressionism as, “art seeking to reproduce not the objective reality of the world, but the subjective reality of the feeling which objects and events arouse in us.” (qtd in the blog “DRAMA: Expressionism. Expressionism in drama”) Shepard has described his father as, “a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic” whose impact one way or other transformed in his creation also. The father figure in his plays mostly has a careless attitude towards family, and lacks control reminiscent of his own childhood.

Sam describes the family which is apparently intact but the bonding among the members is not real. They usually do not carry the set norms of being a part and parcel of a happy family. The quest for an integrated family is reflected through the dialogues in this play. The ‘Father’ hardly acts like the head of the family and the ‘Son’ also discloses his sexual experiences, something not normally shared with a father.

Minimalism-With the opening of scene three, we can see a bare stage except for a couch downstage left and a rocking chair upstage right. This minimal use of stage accessories shows the realistic approach of the playwright that easily collaborates with the theme. 

           . . . The MAN sits on the couch. The BOY sits in the chair facing upstage with his back to the MAN. The BOY never turns to address the MAN but delivers all his lines into the air. They are both dressed in underwear. At different moments the BOY nods out from boredom and falls off his chair. He picks himself back up and sits again. The MAN goes on oblivious. There is a long pause as the two just sit in their places. (RG 129)


 In each of the three scenes, one element prominently rises to the surface is the ‘strange behaviour’ of the characters who converse very little rather try to listen, or unknowingly engross within themselves, and explore the situation to a certain extent. This exploration can be understood as ‘transformation’. It is an improvisation of the psychology of the actor and the related scene where the actor is suddenly made to switch to a new scene in a new character. In this play the Man and the Boy, while conversing, become busy in thinking something absurd and they are jerked into reality and come to the present situation. This repetitive fall off the chair shows transition or a sudden change of mood of the character. Throughout the play there is the dexterous use of chair is seen. The chair is used not just as a prop, but reflecting authority, possession and of course success.

 The Man in scene three has a conversation with his son regarding the maintenance of the lawn. He is very keen on it, but the Boy is least bothered about it. The Man suggests the colour and pattern of the fence and finally has a vehement impulse to convert it into a rock garden, “(A long pause. The BOY falls off his chair). . . . It would be fun, I think. Did you notice the rock garden? That’s a new idea. It’s by the driveway.” (RG 131)

The most important element that marks Shepard’s plays as postmodern is the use of pastiche. Unlike parody, its purpose is not to mock, but to honour the literary or an artistic piece it imitates. The title ‘Rock Garden’ itself derived from Arizona rocks. Arizona a state in the South Western region of the United States is famous for the iconic rock gardens that truly represent natural rugged beauty. The Man wants to renovate his garden and shapes it to make it bigger and fancier like the rock gardens of Arizona. “MAN. . . All you need is some rocks. . . Somewhere like Arizona or something. Like we did before. Do you remember? We went to Arizona before and we found a lot of rocks. . .” (RG 131) The title ‘Rock Garden’ itself suggests Sam’s admiration for the beauty of this place.

The father’s field of interest is different than that of his son. Father eventually planned out to make his garden even more attractive, but soon remembered the pending repairing works that he wanted to be done beforehand.  So he asked his son for help. But his adolescent son thought of sharing his sexual experiences with his father rather than helping him with the laborious fieldwork. In the third scene, we can observe a touch of irony in their conversation which is blended with humour as well. 

MAN. . . . We could work on it together. You know? It wouldn’t be hard. We could do it in our spare time.

BOY. Together?   

 MAN. Sure. And we could have bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches afterwards. 

BOY. After we work?

MAN. Sure.

BOY. With mayonnaise?

MAN. Yeah. And we both would have big appetites probably, from working so hard in the garden.

BOY. Hard?

MAN. I mean just working we would have appetites. Just from plain working.        (RC 132)


The long dialogue, at the end of the play, delivered by the Boy can be considered as the essence of the play through which Sam really left the audience, readers and critics spellbound. Candid and very bold experiences of his sexual indulgence and its verbal representation in front of his father on the stage created a visceral environment and established a strange kind of relationship between father and son. This way Sam broke the well-set norms of society in which the father-son relationship had very limited, fixed and dignified topics for discussion. He repeatedly used the word ‘you know’ so that viewers can understand the line of distance between father and son, but somewhere his language becomes absurd and full of irony. “. . . She gives me some head and then I give her some. Just sort of give-and-take thing. You know? . . .” (RG 134)

The final scene of Rock Garden was included in an avant-garde musical Oh, Calcutta which consisted of sketches on sex-related topics. In this scene, the Boy delivers a dialogue in such a way that his body and mind unanimously indicates his state of imagination, but creates a live effect on the stage with the proper use of diction. Sam’s artistic attempt to bridge together reality and imagination somehow suggests the influence of Surrealism in his plays. “BOY. When I come it’s like a river. It’s all over the bed and the sheets and everything. You know? I mean a short vagina gives me security. I can’t help it. I like to feel like I’m really turning a girl on.” (RG133) These lines reflect a true image of an American youth who is deeply involved in sexual affairs and shares his sexual techniques to his thunderstruck father and is least bothered about family responsibilities and personal upliftment.

Sam, only with the help of dialogues, is capable enough to project/ create visionary effects which hover around in the theatre. Sharon Bailin in the essay “Creativity and Drama Education” highlights the act of playwriting in which the creative visionary skills express through the dialogues:

. . . The act of playwriting . . . is an arena for creativity. Writing a play involves the creation of a script which portrays images of human experience and visions of human possibility crafted in such a way that they can be brought to life through production . . . this vision is expressed in the dialogues of the characters- in the choice in words, and in what is said and not said; in the stage, movement indicated and envisaged; in the setting suggested; in the dramatic structure created. (211) 

It is the outlook of the playwright that enables him to blend imagination with theatrical skills because ultimately they are closely interconnected. The development of an imaginative vision rests in the proper execution of skills. Shepard uses his stage skills at the right moment and with minimal accessories, succeeds in portraying overpowering emotions on stage. The play comes to the concluding lines, where the Boy, in an extreme imaginary state utters, “I don’t know, I really like to come almost out and then go all the way into the womb. You know, very slowly. Just come down to the end and all the way back in and hold it. You know what I mean? (The MAN falls off the couch. The lights black out.)” (RG 134) The complete dialogue turned to be a long monologue where The Boy entered into his self-knitted shell. The word ‘womb’ that has been used critically to disclose the entire process of birth within these two sentences, taking birth from the womb of his mother and again approaching another womb for fusion and finally expecting to take birth from the womb as a newborn.

This birth cycle will always go on irrespective of the situation around. Suddenly the Man falls off, the viewers have already reached a crescendo and the play ends. This abrupt ending at this intense moment, hails the idea of postmodernism completely, where the conclusion altogether depends on viewers’ own understanding level. Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth writes about postmodern narratives, “Postmodern writing, extending the work of surrealism . . . This theatre of “happenings” attempted to break down, to violate the sacred boundary line between art and audience, between “in here” and “out there”. . .” (106)                               

Shepard uses his playwriting as a weapon to expose disintegration of American families and tried to shield/cover bankruptcy of American culture. In this play also the son was familiar with the fragmentation of his family, but instead of reuniting the family he carried forward the same tradition that needed to be changed in a constructive way.

 The play starts at a very slow pace then moves towards a stage of intensity at a great pace. Nothing is specifically clarified at the end, but if we think over the title ‘Rock Garden’, it seems very suggestive and thought-provoking. Rock garden symbolizes the world as being a dry and non-living materialistic place, where there is no scope for constructive development that a man desires. It can be understood in contrast to the world described in ‘the Eden Garden’ which is supposed to be a place of productive growth. However in the modern day scenario, instead of making the garden green, man wants to convert it into a rock garden, a barren place signifying meaninglessness of life that befits the postmodern theme.


The quintessential self-made man Sam Shepard who was poorly educated turned his life into an ultimate act of self- creation and became one of America’s leading literary beacons. On the basis of comprehensive reading of his plays it can strongly be asserted that he never tried to follow any particular school of drama but according to the demand of the characterization sometimes he gave room to some important theatrical styles and forms like expressionism, surrealism, naturalism, absurdism or realism in his scripts which have prominently been used by modern playwrights also. In this above discussed one-act play, I noticed various elements in an ample amount and its characters are fused with immense energy and unparalleled imagination through which they have created their own world and developed the individual perspective to look into the world. Shepard portrays relationships among characters with rare authenticity; its love and lust have a blur difference that time to time varies.

While discussing over the themes of the play, I witnessed the impact of expressionism, absurdism harmoniously with postmodernism. In this play various similar features of modernism like pastiche, playfulness, ambiguity, disjunctive and unreliable narration, fragmentation and somewhere subjectivity are traced that commonly find place in postmodern literature also. Despite the fact that the postmodernism in literature adopts many elements of modernism, it stands apart from it in many ways. I observed that few elements are exclusively adopted, accepted and practiced by Shepard like - use of mini-narratives, minimalism, transformation, temporal disorder, dramatic monologue, humour, and magical realism in accordance with expressionism. Overall, on the basis of these elements we not only accept Shepard’s mastery in the handling of postmodern themes and their proper execution through techniques but also can identify him as an expressionist.


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This research paper first published at Praxis International Journal of Social Science and Literature, Volume 03, Issue 11, November, 2020 and has permission from the author and the journal to publish at Research Walkers.

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Volume 03, Issue 11, November, 2020