Category Archives: Midnight Cowboy

Joe Buck: The Real/Reel Cowboy

Note: This is a guest posting from Patrick Runfeldt, dramaturg for our Winter MainStage production of Midnight Cowboy.

It may seem a bit of a stretch to insinuate that Joe Buck has any measure of “true” cowboy in him. He’s certainly not the strapping presence of John Wayne (or even the Marlboro man) who is embedded in the very fabric of our culture as the gun-toting, swearing, and quaintly charming hero of the West in film and folklore. Frankly, he can’t even live up to the rhinestone-studded shoes of his contemporaries from the saloons of Texas to the nightclubs of New York. Digging a little deeper, however, Joe’s situation — young, homeless, and unemployed — meets the exact criteria of the cowhands of early ranching times.

Before the great innovations of turn-of-the-century America and the migration of railroad routes farther and farther West, the best way to transport cattle was via miles and miles of herding. Most cattle ranchers of early pioneering times were either quick to give the practice up or were consolidated into larger cattle ranch holdings by wealthy landowners (or even the occasional businessman from the East). As a result, the practice of actually herding, defending, and moving the cattle across the vast plains was handed down the line to a ragtag band of youthful, unemployed vagabonds who could hardly afford to scrape together the money for a decent meal, let alone a six-shooter or a pair of fine leather boots. These uneducated, rough and tumble men were a melting pot of recent immigrants (Latino, Chinese, etc.) and poor white farmworkers whose immigrant families had initially come West seeking fortune in gold mining or other quick wealth pursuits. Many were orphans, due to disease, poor crops, or the general exposure to the elements that shortened lifespans in the pre-industrial West. Few believed in the “American Dream” that was being formulated, fought for, or defended prior to and after the Civil War. All of them knew how to drink, heavily. In the shadows of mountain passes, these young men passed long winters defending miles of cattle from wild animal attacks, thieves (even though they were known to steal a certain number of cattle for themselves), and the dangers of the natural terrain. Though they tried several times to unionize, these cow hands were poorly paid, prone to lawlessness and robbery (they had to get their money from somewhere, right?), and sometimes just didn’t know enough to know of a better life.

In short, they were much like Joe and Ratso.

The myth surrounding these downtrodden workers began to develop as their own labors died out. In the late 1880s, a promoter named William Frederick Cody began to travel and ride under the name “Buffalo Bill” in a sideshow revue that began to attract huge crowds throughout the rapidly industrializing eastern half of the United States. Oftentimes, Buffalo Bill would recruit unemployed cow hands who had a trick or two up their sleeve, dress them up, and then craft a show and story out of their garish costumes (think rhinestones, spurs, and the elaborate designs you’d see in a 50s TV show). Dime novels quickly picked up on the popularity and TV shows and movies would follow from the 50s through the present.

Enter Joe Buck. As Joe grew up in the 40s and 50s, his formative ideas of masculinity, power, and romance would have all been formulated and shaped by the cowboy show. Sprinkle in the larger-than-life memories of his would-be father figure, Woodsy Niles, and it’s safe to say that Joe probably always wanted to be a cowboy. The problem, however, is that he never tended cattle. He never even saw much of the open plains. He lived in an era of paved roads, beauty parlors, and overly large Cadillacs, and his childhood was spent anywhere but outdoors. Several times throughout the play, Joe is faced with a dangerous situation and can only be protected by enacting his own method of “cowboy” justice. When he fails to play upon his cowboy persona to live a life of lawlessness, he falls further and further into squalor, distrust, and chaos. By the time he is able to reconnect with his image on a pedestal (the literal pedestal onstage) of Woodsy Niles, it might be too little too late. No matter what, the end result (real or imagined) had already been written for him. A cowboy he very well may be…

Prosperity?: The Gospel according to $3,000 suits (Or, a Conclusion.)

Note: This is a guest posting from Patrick Runfeldt, dramaturg for our Winter MainStage production of Midnight Cowboy.

A cursory glance at the themes of Chris Hainsworth‘s adaptation of Midnight Cowboy reveals a striking outlier not much present in James Leo Herlihy’s novel: religious promises of prosperity. Certainly Joe Buck attends Sunday school at the behest of his grandmother Sally and attempts to be vaguely involved in “church”, but the significance never reaches the forefront of the novel. Not so with Hainsworth’s adaptation, wherein the audience is guided and shadowed by the mysterious Mr. O’Daniel. He is a half-crazy street “preacher” mixed with just the right amount of foreshadowing present in predecessors like a Greek chorus or griot. O’Daniel provides Joe’s character with both diagnosis and decree at various moment, cycling back through a series of emotional peaks and valleys throughout Joe’s checkered past. The overall narrative, however, never strays from a clear trajectory of the “prosperity gospel” preached by such famous televangelists as Joel Osteen and his predecessor Oral Roberts. Perhaps an examination of Roberts’ wildly successful and ultimately troubled personal history will allow for further understanding of the implications of Hainsworth’s thematic move and, ultimately, what it all means for Joe in the play.

Oral Roberts was one of the most famous and celebrated televangelists of the 1950s through the 1980s and his career spanned near to his death in 2009. His wealth so far exceeded his needs that he opened an entire university dedicated to his philosophies, with the entire campus decorated in real flakes of gold. The dark corners hidden behind the TV lights, however, always ate away at Oral; his entire empire was founded on donations from mostly poor Americans who were convinced that what he was preaching would turn their economic and personal lives around. His philosophy (better known as the aforementioned “prosperity gospel”) has inspired the model for megachurches and religious profiteers for more than half a century now: “Plant a seed—meaning, send a check—and God will reward you with health, wealth, and happiness”. Oral’s own life (despite his material prosperity) was undercut by his distance from his family, his religious flock (several lawsuits and audits tarnished his ministry organization and his university), and, in his final hours, his God. Oral’s oldest son committed suicide in his 30s due to unrelenting pressure from his father regarding his queer sexuality and desire to remain away from the television spotlight. His oldest daughter died in a plane crash that he mysteriously half-predicted. He was left with his son Richard as the most likely (and least likable) air to his televangelist throne. Always in the spotlight from a young age, Richard became infatuated with fame, which ultimately led to a long history of drug abuse, public infidelity, and the near ruin of his father’s religious empire. Mired in audits, lawsuits, and negative speculation, Oral died reciting a series of his own sermons and prophecies, based on what he had heard from his God. The echo of his ministry lives on in the slowly crumbling university that he left behind, bathed in tarnished gold.

In Hainsworth’s adaptation, O’Daniel approaches Joe with a proposition similar to Oral’s prosperity gospel, but instead of money he asks for Joe’s physical self and his time. Having loosely grown up with an image of the Everyman Jesus in his mind, Joe is quick to listen, but slow to understand the implications of giving his own possessions away to obtain some kind of happiness (or, at least, the illusion of happiness). O’Daniel keeps reappearing throughout the drama representing both a corner of Joe’s conscience and the false promises of such a philosophy. It is less a question of whether Joe would have been less moribund if he had chosen O’Daniel as his companion instead of Ratso and more a series of landmarks pointing out how Joe’s selflessness ultimately fails him over time. Joe is profoundly lonely because he cannot figure out what he wants (as Perry so aptly noted), not for a lack of trying to relate to others. When he gives up Anastasia, Sally, and Bobby respectively so that they can try to make the most of their lives, he sacrifices his own desires. At the end of the drama, Joe is lonely not because he cannot articulate what he wants, but because what he wants and whom he wants to be with have been put out of his reach by forces beyond his control.