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Anna Phillips-Brown

Prof. Jon Klein

DR 305

May 3, 2018

Comparison and Analysis of Suicide in B Flat and God of Hell

Sam Shepard is notorious for composing edgy theatrical works that border on the all too

personal or the outright nonsensical. His pieces had expanded from dead carcasses in living

rooms, to alien-like encounters, to a father’s abandonment of his son, proving that there truly are

no boundaries. When one is writing theatrical works, it is difficult to not draw on personal

experience, and allow ones creativity to thrive on the very things that torture and scar a person.

Among the works that fit these descriptions are Sam Shepard’s “God of Hell” and “Suicide in B

Flat”. One a political satire, directly proceeding the 2004 presidential election, the other a

Pulitzer prize-winning detective farce, with some mistakeably dark and unsettling undertones.

Each play, while remarkably individual in their own standing, also neatly fall into what one may

refer to as the “Shepardian” elements with ease. In “God of Hell” we meet two conservative

dairy farmers, Emma and Frank, who are desperately clinging to the life they have always known

and dodging the government’s efforts to claim the rural farm land in the name of patriotism and

manifest destiny. They are joined by an elusive house guest, known as Haynes, whose origins

and profession are unknown to both the characters and the audience. In “Suicide in B flat”, “two

bumbling detectives”, as described by the Washington Post in a review of the 1984 revival, are

investigating the apparent, or not so much, death of an unsuccessful musician named Niles. They

are greeted by mysterious musicians who almost appear to be hallucinations, and supply little to
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no explanation for their friends’ dramatic end. “God of Hell” and “Suicide in B flat” are two of

Sam Shepard’s works that clearly define his style as a writer, and while wildly different overall,

provide and relatable and consistent message for any audience member.

“God of Hell” immediately makes itself known as a political satire early on in the arc of

the play. There are many references to the government, patriotism, and a constant use of

symbolism using the American flag. Addressing and criticizing the political climate of the

country is far from unknown territory to Shepard, the best example of which would be “Curse of

the Starving Class”, an exposing commentary on depression-era living. While he himself was not

known for being particularly political, he was known for being opinionated and not afraid to say

what he thought. One classic Shepardism, however, is not portrayed in this red, white, and blue

extravaganza of a play, and that is the poignant and pivotal relationship between a father and a

son. As Shepard’s relationship with his own father was beyond strained, this is an element that

tends to be fair predominant among his plays. However, “God of Hell” features disappointment

in President Bush for his invasion of Iraq, and in his country for being dominated and dictated by

fear in a post 9/11 world. The United States responded to the travesty with a submission to fear,

hidden by a flimsy façade of aggressive patriotism. Shepard uses his play to uncover the lack of

willingness among many Americans to allow the lack-luster parade of the stars and stripes to

consume their lives, and quite truly be shoved down their throats. It is described in the play that

Welch attaches some type of device to Haynes’ penis, appearing to be a blatant symbol of the

country seizing control of the people, and determining their loyalty or masculinity by their

apparent patriotism. Welch is seen “haul[ing] [Haynes] to the top of the stairs…wear[ing] a

black hood on his head” (p. 90), overtly depicting the hold that the government has taken on the

Americans who are blinded by their own fear and submissive to those they are told to trust.
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Some themes such as this are difficult to decipher in Shepard’s work, and tend to make sense

when given historical context, such as 9/11 and the Iraq war.

Another fascinating theme depicted in “God of Hell” is clear and unadulterated

xenophobia. This is another political commentary shown throughout the play, but from a

different and less specific angle than situational fear. The way the characters discuss the concept

of outsiders, “infection”, and loyalty to ones country, it could lead an audience member or reader

to believe that the play is more of a commentary on the Red Scare than the Iraq war. Upon

Haynes’ introduction, it is clear that there is something radically different about him, separating

him from his hosts. He has a bad habit of shooting off involuntary brilliant flashes of blue light,

scoffing them away and referring to them as static shock, a result of the dry weather. This

condition is thinly implied to perhaps be the result of some experiment involving plutonium, as

Haynes mentions Pluto being the God of Hell, and also being where the substance plutonium got

its name. This bodily defect has Haynes referred to as a traitor, who is guilty of “lying,

deception, [and] manipulating the truth” (p.87), as all things that are not understood or familiar

are guilty of. Welch assures Emma on several occasions that “we’re not in a third world nation”

(p.87), the repetitiveness of which makes the audience suspicious of Shepard’s intentions. These

powerful issues remain in play today, fourteen years later, perhaps even more so. A country that

is consistently insisting that it is superior to other nations, yet is constantly criticized by not only

outsiders, but loyal citizens. It appears to be a classic attempt of speaking an idea into existence,

which in politics, tends to be less than effective. It is never explained in the play why Haynes’

affliction makes him a conspirator or enemy, it is expected to be accepted by the characters in the

world of the play simply because he is different, and there is absolutely no other justification

supplied.
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Lastly, while perhaps not intentional, the play subtly addresses the ‘natural’ role of the

woman in the household and a marriage. Emma begins the play with heightened suspicions of

the circumstances and her new house guest, and is immediately negated by Frank, and simply

told that she will over water the plants. Almost every time the audience sees Emma she is

performing some chore around the house, which would make sense for the time period, but it’s

interesting that the play was written in 2004 and Shepard chose to write her as a neurotic yet

dutiful housewife, even after the many criticisms he had already faced for not writing dynamic or

well thought out female characters. Her presence also evokes the concept of gaslighting, a

modern term used to describe situations in which a person, usually a woman, is told that she is

crazy for believing something that in reality is quite logical and understandable and begins to

believe that she is in fact crazy. Emma’s own husband, Frank, does not protect her at all from the

stranger that has entered their home and begun to deface it. From the very beginning he does not

take Emma seriously or even take a moment to consider that what she is saying may have any

significance. She criticizes him of taking Welch’s side in the overrun of their household, and

Frank even calls her crazy for believing that to be possible. The tables quickly turn when he is

the one being told to march alongside the “outsider” and travel straight out the door and into an

entirely unknown and likely unimaginable future. Realistically, it is substantially difficult to

decipher what exactly Shepard is trying to say about women. Some may argue that he is not

trying to say anything at all, but when a minority is involved, there is always a message, though

the intended message may not always align with the message that the audience is receiving. In

this case, it seems as though Shepard is implying that women are in a constant state of being

overly dramatic, so when the situation calls for it, nobody can take them seriously. This idea

plays into a dangerous and hurtful stereotype, especially in the time in which it was written,
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where women are just beginning to truly assume control of their own lives, images, and

expectations of themselves. At the conclusion of the play, Emma does not even follow the men

out of the house as they march towards some unseen Mecca, and instead she stands there

helplessly. Perhaps because of the emotional distress she has endured from watching her husband

and friend be trained like dogs, or perhaps because women are simply useless when they are

called to action.

The next Sam Shepard play to be addressed is “Suicide in B flat”, the intentions of which

seem unclear, yet still resulting in a Pulitzer Prize. The story focuses on the attempts of two try-

hard detectives investigating what is initially believed to be a suicide but is later suggested to be

the staging of a suicide, while to supposed victim is still at large. The play appears to have murky

undertones, yet it is clear that something deeper is occurring throughout the plot. The characters

seem to be existing in some sort of purgatory, with several characters not being acknowledged by

the others, one of which is clearly cognizant and present, but is never addressed nor does he

speak in the entirety of the play. The phantom-like musicians who address the detectives

concerning the whereabouts or state of the ‘victim’, Niles, never settle on a clear answer

concerning whether he is dead or alive. This concept of not fully understanding what is reality

and what is not is common in Shepard’s earlier more abstract works, featuring unprovoked plane

crashes and fields bursting into flames. Shepard’s play “Lie of the Mind” features many

deceptions that are meant to make the audience uneasy and unsure of the line between fact and

fiction. That story telling device is one of the aspects that makes this play, though tricky to

navigate, still very interesting and thought provoking. While this is another play that lacks the

father and son relationship, it does maintain the theory of escaping oneself. In one scene, the

supposedly dead Niles is seen trying on various costumes and being killed in them. When he is
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killed though, it is not Niles who dies, but the person whom the costume represents. As the story

of Niles is being told by one of the ethereal musicians, Petrone, the detectives are the ones who

suffer the physical injuries. This sequence comes off as a sort of interpretation of how one may

deal with his clinical depression, killing off identities until he finds one that he thinks he is happy

with, or at least marginally comfortable with. Each of Niles’ band mates seems submissive to the

idea that there is no point in either ending your life or pursuing it, but rather that there is truly no

point no matter what. Another aspect of them that raises not only questions but also concerns, is

that their instruments do not necessarily emit what one may traditionally consider to be music.

For example, Petrone’s saxophone does not make noise, despite his skillful pressing of the keys

in carefully kept time. He insists that his is a visual music. This idea implies that everyone may

have a “visual music” about them, but sometimes nobody can see it, only a select few if they are

lucky. The failure of others to recognize a persons individuality or exactly what makes them a

spiritual Beethoven so to speak, is exactly what can drive someone to maybe not necessarily

want to die, but perhaps find a version of themselves that other people will not only appreciate,

but even just be able to see or hear. Everyone wants nothing more than to find a reason to not be

invisible, and sometimes it is an extremely difficult goal to accomplish. It is very likely that

Shepard’s most noticeable trademark in this play is his subtle writing of himself into it, in which

he is Niles. Constantly trying on different costumes and killing the versions of himself that

nobody would accept. This would be an extremely apt description of what life as an artist tends

to be like, which would explain why Niles is portrayed as a musician. Particularly for Shepard

this would ring true, as his work was constantly being critically judged and scorned by almost

everyone aside from a select few, so he was forced to try over and over again to destroy what he

was known as and try to create something new.


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Remaining true to this theme, Shepard also demonstrates how these behaviors may affect

others who do not exist in the same mindset. When Niles is shot by an arrow or in the gut with a

pistol in the ghostly reenactment style scenes with Paullette, the effects are not witnessed by

Niles himself, but instead by Pablo and Louis, the two detectives trying to piece together his

disappearance whether it be suicide, homicide, or a sham altogether. This action could serve as

symbolism for how when a person takes their own life, they may only feel the physical effects

for a moment. But to the people around them, close or otherwise, the pain lasts an eternity and

feels as though perhaps they themselves have actually been killed. Paullette appears to serve as

the voice in Niles’ head, urging him to go through with the things he knows that deep down he

does not want to do, whether for himself or for those around him. He does not really want to die,

though seems rather unsure, and most certainly does not want anyone around him to get hurt.

This is often what it may feel like to contemplate suicide, or even just to be afflicted by clinical

depression at all, as there are many conflicting thoughts and feelings that make no choice seem

to make sense, and distinctively separate the line between fantasy and reality.

After reading and extensively analyzing both of these plays, it takes little hesitation for

me to say that “God of Hell” better achieved its exhibition of Shepardian elements, and also

sending a clear and concise message to the audience. “Suicide in B flat” contained extremely

poignant and relevant themes, though intended to be a dark comedy, but in my opinion fell just

short of its own potential to be something truly groundbreaking. Obviously the piece is still

critically acclaimed, which would make sense considering all the complicated yet concise

elements woven into the arc of the characters, but too many aspects did not make the purpose of

their presence clear and failed to meet the standards of Chekhov’s gun. However, “God of Hell”

provided a much clearer story line, wrought with symbolism and stinging commentary, truly
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forcing the audience to not only have an opinion, but to have an extremely strong one that makes

them want to discuss and analyze the play. That is the kind of theatre that audience members

today crave and require, even if they are not entirely aware of it. The play was written over a

decade ago and every commentary presented in it still got me thinking about the state of our

country today, and how those in political power give people no choice but to rally with them,

even if nobody knows what exactly they are supporting. There is nobody, regardless of political

affiliation, who cannot relate to that perspective. People truly are sheep, and Shepard had

absolutely no problem tearing the wool off the audience’s eyes. In contrast, “Suicide in B flat”

arguably contained more outwardly obvious Shepard tendencies, but they proved less effective in

an inferior context. Audiences are often drawn to the things that they can see themselves in,

otherwise they find it irrelevant and difficult to watch. If you do not feel like you can learn

something from an artistic experience, then why partake? And how can you feel like you can

learn something if you have no way of understanding what the circumstances of the experience

are? Perhaps “Suicide in B flat” is intended strictly for the stage and never to be read, but on

paper it appears to pale in comparison to the hard hitting themes and messages flawlessly

executed in “God of Hell”. Laureen’s observation of Louis “reaching for the knife” (p. 206) is

the kind of line that has great potential to truly mean something to the plot, perhaps that women

are more perceptive than men, but the fact that the audience has to work so hard to find the

meaning could prove that the dialogue is ineffective and falls flat.

In conclusion, while Sam Shepard’s plays “God of Hell” and “Suicide in B flat” are

notable works that provoke plenty of worthwhile and thought provoking discussion, “God of

Hell” clearly proves itself in expanding on topics that are not only relevant today and ten years

ago, but have remained relevant for decades and even centuries. This is the type of theatre that
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keeps an audience engaged and reflective on their own lives, and that is one of the true purposes

of theatre itself.
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Works Cited

Shepard, Sam. The God of Hell: a Play. Vintage Books, 2005.

Shepard, Sam. Buried Child: and, Seduced. and, Suicide in B Flat. Faber, 1980.

Gussow, Mel. “STAGE: SHEPARD'S 'SUICIDE IN B FLAT'.” The New York Times, The New

York Times, 29 Nov. 1984, www.nytimes.com/1984/11/29/arts/stage-shepard-s-suicide-in-b-

flat.html.

Weinstein, Karen. “The God of Hell – Sam Shepard.” CultureVulture, 2 July 2006,

culturevulture.net/theater/the-god-of-hell-sam-shepard/.

Shewey, Don. “Patriot Acts.” PATRIOT ACT -- Interview with Sam Shepard in the Village

Voice by Don Shewey, The Village Voice,

www.donshewey.com/theater_articles/sam_shepard_vv.html.

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