Shepard, Sam 1943–
Shepard, Sam 1943–
Shepard, Sam 1943–
(Samuel Shepard Rogers, VII)
PERSONAL: Given name Samuel Shepard Rogers VII; born November 5, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, IL; son of Samuel Shepard (a teacher and farmer) and Elaine (Schook) Rogers; married O-Lan Johnson Dark (an actress), November 9, 1969 (divorced); currently living with Jessica Lange (an actress and film producer); children: (first marriage) Jesse Mojo; (with Lange) Hannah Jane, Samuel Walker. Education: Attended Mount Antonio Junior College, California, 1960–61. Hobbies and other interests: Polo, rodeo.
CAREER: Writer, 1964–. Conley Arabian Horse Ranch, Chino, CA, stable hand, 1958–60; Bishop's Company Repertory Players (touring theatre group), actor, 1962–63; Village Gate, New York, NY, busboy, 1963–64. Rock musician (drums and guitar) with Holy Modal Rounders, 1968–71; playwright in residence at Magic Theatre, San Francisco, CA, 1974–84; actor in feature films, including Days of Heaven, 1978, Resurrection, 1980, Raggedy Man, 1981, Frances, 1982, The Right Stuff, 1983, Country, 1984, Fool for Love, 1985, and Crimes of the Heart, 1986, Baby Boom, 1987, Steel Magnolias, 1989, The Hot Spot, 1990, Defenseless, 1991, Voyager, 1991, Thunderheart, 1992, The Pelican Brief, 1993, Silent Tongue, 1994, Safe Passage, 1994, and Black Hawk Down, 2002; director of feature film Far North, 1988.
MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1992.
AWARDS, HONORS: Obie Awards from Village Voice for best plays of the Off-Broadway season, 1966, for Chicago, Icarus's Mother, and Red Cross, 1967, for La Turista, 1968, for Forensic and the Navigators and Melodrama Play, 1973, for The Tooth of Crime, 1975, for Action, 1977, for Curse of the Starving Class, 1979, for Buried Child, and 1984, for Fool for Love; grant from University of Minnesota, 1966; Rockefeller foundation grant and Yale University fellowship, 1967; Guggenheim foundation memorial fellowships, 1968 and 1971; National Institute and American Academy award for literature, 1974; Brandeis University creative arts award, 1975–76; Pulitzer Prize for drama, 1979, for Buried Child; Academy Award for best supporting actor nomination from Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1984, for The Right Stuff; Golden Palm Award from Cannes Film Festival, 1984, for Paris, Texas; New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, 1986, for A Lie of the Mind; American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Drama, 1992; Theater Hall of Fame, 1994; Antoinette Perry Award Nomination for best play, 1996, for Buried Child; revised version of True West, first produced off-Broadway in 1980, nominated for a Tony Award for best play, 2000.
Cowboys (one-act), first produced Off-Off-Broadway at St. Mark Church in-the-Bowery, October 16, 1964.
The Rock Garden (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Off-Broadway at St. Mark Church in-the-Bowery, October 16, 1964.
4-H Club (one act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at Cherry Lane Theatre, 1965.
Up to Thursday (one-act), first produced Off-Broadway at Cherry Lane Theatre, February 10, 1965.
Dog (one-act), first produced Off-Broadway at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, February 10, 1965.
Chicago (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Off-Broadway at St. Mark Church in-the-Bowery, April 16, 1965.
Icarus's Mother (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Off-Broadway at Caffe Cino, November 16, 1965.
Fourteen Hundred Thousand (one-act; also see below), first produced at Firehouse Theater, Minneapolis, MN, 1966.
Red Cross (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at Martinique Theatre, April 12, 1966.
La Turista (two-act; first produced Off-Broadway at American Place Theatre, March 4, 1967; also see below), Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1968.
Cowboys #2 (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at Old Reliable, August 12, 1967.
Forensic and the Navigators (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Off-Broadway at St. Mark Church in-the-Bowery, December 29, 1967.
(Contributor) Oh! Calcutta!, first produced on Broadway at Eden Theatre, 1969.
The Unseen Hand (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, December 26, 1969.
Holy Ghostly (one-act; also see below), first produced in New York, NY, 1970.
Operation Sidewinder (two-act; first produced Off-Broadway at Vivian Beaumont Theatre, March 12, 1970; also see below), Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.
Shaved Splits (also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, July 29, 1970.
Mad Dog Blues (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Off-Broadway at St. Mark Church in-the-Bowery, March 4, 1971.
(With Patti Smith) Cowboy Mouth (also see below), first produced at Transverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland, April 2, 1971, produced Off-Broadway at American Place Theatre, April 29, 1971.
Back Bog Beast Bait (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at American Place Theatre, April 29, 1971.
The Tooth of Crime (two-act; also see below), first produced at McCarter Theatre, Princeton, NJ, 1972, produced Off-Off-Broadway at Performing Garage, March 7, 1973.
Blue Bitch (also see below), first produced Off-Off-Broadway at Theatre Genesis, February, 1973.
(With Megan Terry and Jean-Claude van Itallie) Nightwalk (also see below), first produced Off-Off-Broadway at St. Clement's Church, September 8, 1973.
Geography of a Horse Dreamer (two-act; also see below), first produced at Theatre Upstairs, London, England, February 2, 1974.
Little Ocean, first produced at Hampstead Theatre Club, London, England, March 25, 1974.
Action (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at American Place Theatre, April 4, 1975.
Killer's Head (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at American Place Theatre, April 4, 1975.
Angel City (also see below), first produced at Magic Theatre, San Francisco, CA, 1976.
Curse of the Starving Class (two-act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at Newman/Public Theatre, March, 1978.
Buried Child (two-act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at Theatre of the New City, November, 1978.
Seduced (also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at American Place Theatre, February 1, 1979.
Suicide in B-flat (also see below), first produced Off-Off-Broadway at Impossible Ragtime Theatre, March 14, 1979.
Tongues, first produced at Eureka Theatre Festival, CA, 1979, produced Off-Off-Broadway at The Other Stage, November 6, 1979.
Savage/Love, first produced at Eureka Theater Festival, CA, 1979, produced Off-Off-Broadway at The Other Stage, November 6, 1979.
True West (two-act; first produced Off-Broadway at Public Theatre, December 23, 1980), Doubleday, 1981.
(Also director of original production) Fool for Love (one-act; also see below), first produced at Magic Theatre, San Francisco, 1983, produced Off-Broadway by Circle Repertory Company, May 27, 1983.
The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife (one-act; also see below), first produced Off-Broadway at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, September 25, 1983.
Superstitions (one-act), first produced Off-Broadway at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, September 25, 1983.
(Also director of original production) A Lie of the Mind (three-act; first produced Off-Broadway at Promenade Theatre, December, 1985), published with The War in Heaven (also see below), New American Library (New York, NY), 1987.
Hawk Moon, produced in London, England, 1989.
States of Shock, produced in New York, NY, 1991.
Simpatico, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1995.
Curse of the Starving Class, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1997.
Eyes for Consuela, from the story "The Blue Bouquet" by Octavio Paz, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1999.
The Late Henry Moss, produced at the Signature Theater in New York, NY, 2001; revived at the Creative Place Theater in New York, NY, 2005.
(And director) The God of Hell, produced Off-Broadway at the New School University in New York, NY, 2004.
Five Plays by Sam Shepard (contains Icarus's Mother, Chicago, Melodrama Play, Red Cross, and Fourteen Hundred Thousand), Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1967.
The Unseen Hand and Other Plays (contains The Unseen Hand, 4-H Club, Shaved Splits, Forensic and the Navigators, Holy Ghostly, and Back Bog Beast Bait), Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1971.
Mad Dog Blues and Other Plays (includes Mad Dog Blues, The Rock Garden, Cowboys #2, Cowboy Mouth, Blue Bitch, and Nightwalk), Winter House (New York, NY), 1972.
The Tooth of Crime [and] Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Grove (New York, NY), 1974.
Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class and Other Plays (includes Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class, Killer's Head, and Action), Urizen Books (New York, NY), 1976.
Buried Child, Seduced, Suicide in B-flat, Urizen Books (New York, NY), 1979.
Four Two-Act Plays by Sam Shepard (contains La Turista, The Tooth of Crime, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, and Operation Sidewinder), Urizen Books (New York, NY), 1980.
Chicago and Other Plays, Urizen Books (New York, NY), 1981.
The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, Urizen Books (New York, NY), 1981.
Seven Plays by Sam Shepard, Bantam (New York, NY), 1981.
Fool for Love [and] The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife, City Lights Books (San Francisco, CA), 1983.
Fool for Love and Other Plays, Bantam (New York, NY), 1984.
The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.
States of Shock, Far North, [and] Silent Tongue, Vintage (New York, NY), 1993.
The Late Henry Moss, Eyes for Consuela, [and] When the World Was Green, Vintage (New York, NY), 2002.
(With Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Fred Graham, and Clare Peploe) Zabriskie Point (produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1970), Cappelli (Bologna, Italy), 1970, published with Antonioni's Red Desert, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1972.
(With L.M. Kit Carson) Paris, Texas, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1984.
Fool for Love (based on Shepard's play of the same title), Golan Globus, 1985.
Far North, Alive, 1988.
Silent Tongue, Trimark, 1992.
Hawk Moon: A Book of Short Stories, Poems, and Monologues, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1973.
Rolling Thunder Logbook, Viking (New York, NY), 1977.
Motel Chronicles, City Lights Books (San Francisco, CA), 1982.
(With Joseph Chaikin) The War in Heaven (radio drama; first broadcast over WBAI in January, 1985), published with A Lie of the Mind, New American Library (New York, NY), 1987.
Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard: Letters and Texts, 1972–1984, edited by Barry V. Daniels, New American Library (New York, NY), 1989.
Cruising Paradise: Tales, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Great Dream of Heaven: Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Also author, with Robert Frank, of Me and My Brother, and with Murray Mednick, of Ringaleerio.
ADAPTATIONS: Fourteen Hundred Thousand was filmed for NET Playhouse, 1969; Blue Bitch was filmed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1973; True West was filmed for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series American Playhouse.
SIDELIGHTS: Sam Shepard has devoted more than two decades to a highly eclectic—and critically acclaimed—career in the performing arts. He is considered the pre-eminent literary playwright of his generation. Shepard has also directed plays of his authorship, played drums and guitar in rock bands and jazz ensembles, and acted in major feature films. His movie appearances include leading roles in The Right Stuff and Country, but acting is a sideline for the man Newsweek's Jack Kroll called "the poet laureate of America's emotional Badlands." Despite his success in Hollywood, Shepard is primarily a playwright whose dramas explore mythic images of modern America in the nation's own eccentric vernacular.
Shepard established himself by writing numerous one-act plays and vignettes for the Off-Off-Broadway experimental theatre. Although his audiences have grown and his plays have been widely produced in America and abroad, he has yet to stage a production on Broadway. New Republic contributor Robert Brustein, who found Shepard "one of our most celebrated writers," contends that the lack of attention from Broadway "has not limited Shepard's powers." Brustein added: "Unlike those predecessors who wilted under such conditions, Shepard has flourished in a state of marginality…. Shepard's work has been a model of growth and variety." From his early surreal one-acts to his more realistic two-and three-act plays, Shepard has stressed artistic integrity rather than marketability. As a result, Kroll contended, Shepard plays have "overturned theatrical conventions and created a new kind of drama filled with violence, lyricism and an intensely American compound of comic and tragic power."
Shepard has won eleven Obie Awards for best Off-Broadway plays, a Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child, and a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1986 for A Lie of the Mind. Richard A. Davis wrote in Plays and Players magazine that Shepard has both "a tremendous ability to make words bring the imagination of an audience to life" and "a talent for creating with words alone extremely believable emotional experiences."
According to Village Voice correspondent Michael Fein-gold, Shepard "has the real playwright's gift of habitually transposing his feelings and visions into drama as a mere matter of praxis. He speaks through the theatre as naturally as most of us speak through the telephone." Shepard's plays use modern idiomatic language as well as such prevailing themes of American popular culture, particularly the American West, Hollywood and the rock-and-roll industry. "No one knows better than Sam Shepard that the true American West is gone forever," wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times, "but there may be no writer alive more gifted at reinventing it out of pure literary air."
Shepard's modern cowboys, drifters, farmers, and other offspring of the frontier era yearn for a purer past that may never have existed as they quarrel with family members. Journal of Popular Culture contributor George Stambolian maintained that, like many of his fellow playwrights, Shepard "knows that the old frontier myths of America's youth are no longer a valid expression of our modern anxieties, even though they continue to influence our thoughts." Stambolian said Shepard seeks "a new mythology that will encompass all the diverse figures of our cultural history together with the psychological and social conditions they represent…. Shepard's greatest contribution to a new American mythology may well be his elaboration of a new myth of the modern artist."
Sam Shepard's theater is marked by "a spirit of comedy that tosses and turns in a bed of revulsion," as Richard Eder wrote in the New York Times. Malicious mischief and comic mayhem intensify Shepard's tragic vision; in many of his plays, inventive dialogue supplements vigorous action. As David Richards wrote in the Washington Post, actors and directors "respond to the slam-bang potential in [Shepard's] scripts, which allows them to go for broke, trash the furniture, and generally shred the scenery. Whatever else you've got, you've got a wild and wooly fight on your hands." The theatrical fisticuffs, sometimes physical, sometimes verbal, is on the overriding American musical rhythms. New York Times theatre critic Clive Barnes said: "Mr. Shepard writes mythic plays in American jazz-poetry…. He is trying to express truths wrapped up in legends and with the kind of symbolism you often find nowadays in pop music. His command of language is daring and inventive—some of the words sound new, and quite a few of them actually are." Richard L. Homan makes a similar point in Critical Quarterly: "Shepard's vivid use of language and flair for fantasy have suggested something less like drama and more like poetry in some unfamiliar oral tradition."
While Shepard's subjects—nostalgia, power struggles, family tensions—may seem simple at first, his plays remain "extraordinarily resistant to thematic exegesis," Richard Gilman wrote in his introduction to Seven Plays by Sam Shepard. Gilman added that standard criticism of Shepard is inadequate because the dramatist "slips out of all the categories" and seems to have come "out of no literary or theatrical tradition at all but precisely for the breakdown or absence—on the level of art if not of commerce—of all such traditions in America." Gilman added that several of the plays "seem like fragments, chunks of various sizes thrown out from some mother lode of urgent and heterogeneous imagination in which [Shepard] has scrabbled with pick, shovel, gun-butt and hands. The reason so many of them seem incomplete is that they lack the clear boundaries as artifact, the internal order, the progress toward a denouement … and the consistency of tone and procedure that ordinarily characterize good drama."
In American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard, Michael Earley said Shepard "seems to have forged a whole new kind of American play that has yet to receive adequate reckoning." Earley called the playwright "a true American primitive, a literary naif coursing the stage of American drama as if for the first time" who brings to his work "a liberating interplay of word, theme and image that has always been the hallmark of the romantic impulse. His plays don't work like plays in the traditional sense but more like romances, where the imaginary landscape (his version of America) is so remote and open that it allows for the depiction of legend, adventure, and even the supernatural." Partisan Review contributor Ross Wetzsteon contended that viewers respond to Shepard's plays "not by interpreting their plots or analyzing their characters or dissecting their themes, but simply by experiencing their resonance…. Shepard's arias seek to soar into a disembodied freedom, to create emotions beyond rational structure, to induce in both player and audience a trancelike state of grace."
Shepard, born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, was given the name his forebears had used for six generations—Samuel Shepard Rogers. His father was a career army officer, so as a youngster Shepard moved from base to base in the United States and even spent some time in Guam. When Shepard's father retired from the service, the family settled on a ranch in Duarte, California, where they grew avocados and raised sheep. Although the livelihood was precarious, Shepard enjoyed the atmosphere on the ranch and liked working with horses and other animals. Influenced by his father's interest in Dixieland jazz, Shepard gravitated to music; he began to play the drums and started what Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor David W. Engel called "his lifelong involvement with rock-and-roll music and its subculture." He graduated from Duarte High School in 1960 and spent one year studying agricultural science at the local junior college, but his family situation deteriorated as his father began drinking excessively. Shepard fled by joining a touring theatrical group called the Bishop's Company Repertory Players. At age nineteen, he found himself in New York, determined to seek his fortune with only a few months' acting experience.
By chance Shepard encountered a high school friend in New York, Charles Mingus, Jr., son of the renowned jazz musician. Mingus found Shepard a job at The Village Gate, a jazz club, and the two young men became roommates. While working at The Village Gate, Shepard met Ralph Cook, founder of the Off-Off-Broadway company Theatre Genesis. Cook encouraged Shepard to write plays, and Shepard produced Cowboys and The Rock Garden, two one-acts that became part of the first Theatre Genesis show at St. Mark Church in-the-Bowery. Though Engel notes that most of the critics regarded Shepard's first two works as "bad imitations of Beckett," the Village Voice columnist "gave the plays a rave review." Shepard began to rapidly turn out one-act pieces, many performed Off-Off-Broadway; they attracted a cult following within that theatrical circuit. Shepard also continued his association with jazz and rock music, incorporating the rhythms into his dialogue and including musical riffs in the scripts. He reminisced about his early career in New York magazine: "When I arrived in New York there was this environment of art going on. I mean, it was really tangible. And you were right in the thing, especially on the Lower East Side. La Mama, Theatre Genesis,… all those theaters were just starting. So that was a great coincidence. I had a place to go and put something on without having to go through a producer or go through the commercial network. All of that was in response to the tightness of Broadway and Off-Broadway, where you couldn't get a play done."
Shepard told New York he did his early work hastily. "There wasn't much rewriting done," he said. "I had this whole attitude toward that work that it was somehow violating it to go back and rework it…. Why spend the time rewriting when there was another one to do?" Kroll said: "The true artist starts with his obsessions, then makes them ours as well. The very young Sam Shepard exploded his obsessions like firecrackers; in his crazy, brilliant early plays he was escaping his demons, not speaking to ours." New York Times correspondent Mel Gussow, who has monitored Shepard's career, calls the playwright's early works "a series of mystical epics (on both a large and small scale) mixing figures from folklore with visitors from the outer space of fantasy fiction." The Shepard one-acts, still frequently performed at theatre festivals and universities, juxtapose visual and verbal images with dramatic collage. Stambolian said the technique "forces the spectator to view the surface, so to speak, from behind, from within the imagination that conceived it."
"Shepard draws much of his material from popular culture sources such as B-grade westerns, sci-fi and horror films, popular folklore, country and rock music and murder-mysteries," Modern Drama critic Charles R. Bachman wrote. "In his best work he transforms the original stereotyped characters and situations into an imaginative, linguistically brilliant, quasi-surrealistic chemistry of text and stage presentation which is original and authentically his own." According to Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic, the deliberate use of movie types "is part of Shepard's general method: the language and music of rock, spaceman fantasies, Wild West fantasies, gangster fantasies—pop-culture forms that he uses as building blocks, rituals of contemporary religion to heighten communion."
Some critics have dismissed Shepard's early work as undisciplined and obscure. Massachusetts Review essayist David Madden found the plays "mired in swampy attitudes toward Mom and Dad. Their main line of reasoning seems to be that if Mom and Dad's middle class values are false, that if they and the institutions they uphold are complacent and indifferent, the only alternative is some form of outlaw behavior or ideology." Other national drama critics have evaluated the one-act plays quite differently. In the New York Review of Books, Robert Mazzocco wrote: "If one is content to follow this hard-nosed, drug-induced, pop-flavored style, this perpetual retuning of old genres and old myths, one encounters, finally, a profuse and unique panorama of where we are now and where we have been." Stambolian said that Shepard "is in fact showing to what extent the mind, and particularly the modern American mind, can become and has become entrapped by its own verbal and imaginative creations." And, according to Barnes, Shepard "is so sweetly unserious about his plays, and so desperately serious about what he is saying…. There is more in them than meets the mind. They are very easy to be funny about, yet they linger oddly in the imagination." In his own assessment of his first plays, Shepard told New York he thinks of them as "survival kits, in a way. They were explosions that were coming out of some kind of inner turmoil in me that I didn't understand at all. There are areas in some of them that are still mysterious to me."
Shepard's first major production, Operation Sidewinder, premiered at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1970. En-gel described the two-act play as "an excellent example of how [Shepard] combines the roles of poet, musician, and playwright." Set in the Hopi Indian country of the American Southwest, Operation Sidewinder follows the attempts to control a huge, mechanical rattlesnake originally designed to trace unidentified flying objects. Air force commandos, Hopi snake-worshippers, black power activists, and even a beautiful but foolish blonde named Honey try to use the computerized sidewinder for their own ends. Engel notes that the "playful and satiric action is amplified by Shepard's production techniques. He assaults the senses of the audience by the use of intense sound and lights, and by various chants and songs." Shepard himself performed music in the play with a rock band, the Holy Modal Rounders. Although Engel said "the psychological resonance of stylized production, and not its sociological satire, is Shepard's aim," some critics called the work overly moralistic and stylistically confusing. "The difficulty of the play is in the writing," Barnes said. "The symbolic progression, while clearly charting the progress to atomic holocaust, is altogether too symbolic." Kroll maintains that the play's energy "has congealed in a half-slick pop machine with the feel of celluloid and the clackey sound of doctrinaire contemporaneity." Martin Gottfried viewed the play differently in Women's Wear Daily. "Everything about Sam Shepard's Operation Sidewinder is important to our theatre," Gottfried wrote. "More than any recent major production, it is built upon exactly the style and the mentality energizing the youth movement in America today."
In 1971 Shepard took his wife and infant son and moved to England. Having long experimented with drugs, the playwright sought escape from the abusive patterns he saw destroying fellow artists in New York. He also hoped to become more involved with rock music, still a central obsession. He did not accomplish that goal, but as Engel noted, he did "write and produce some of his finest works" while living in London. Gussow wrote: "As the author became recognized as an artist and found himself courted by such unearthly powers as Hollywood, he went through a Faustian phase. The result was a series of plays about art and the seduction of the artist." Plays such as Angel City, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, and The Tooth of Crime explore various aspects of the artist/visionary's dilemma when faced with public tastes or corporate profit-taking. Mazzocco felt that at this stage in his career Shepard chose to examine "not so much in political or economic parallels as in those of domination and submission, the nature of power in America. Or, more precisely, the duplicitous nature of 'success' and 'failure,' where it's implied that a failure of nerve and not that of a 'life' is at the basis of both." The playwright also discovered, as Richard A. Davis wrote, that "it is only within the individual mind that one finds his 'shelter' from the world; and even this shelter is not permanent, for the mind and body are tied together. To a great extent, Shepard's dramas have all been caught in this continual exploration of the same human problem."
The Tooth of Crime further strengthened Shepard's literary reputation. A two-act study of rock-and-roll stars who fight to gain status and "turf," the play "depicts a society which worships raw power," in Engel's words. London Times reviewer Irving Wardle wrote: "Its central battle to the death between an aging superstar and a young pretender to his throne is as timeless as a myth … and … has proved a durably amazing reflection of the West Coast scene. If any classic has emerged from the last 20 years of the American experimental theatre, this is it."
"Moving freely from gangster movies of the 40's to punk rock of the 70's, Mr. Shepard speaks in a language that is vividly idiomatic," Gussow wrote. Mazzocco called The Tooth of Crime "undoubtedly the quintessential Shepard play" and "a dazzlingly corrosive work … one of the most original achievements in contemporary theater. It is also the play that best illustrates the various facets—at once highly eclectic and highly singular—of [Shepard's] genius."
The Tooth of Crime, represented a stylistic departure for Shepard. Bachman contended that the work "utilizes … the traditional dramatic values of taut, disciplined structure, vivid and consistent characterization, and crescendo of suspense." The transition, however, from modernist to traditional style has hardly been smooth. According to Richard L. Homan in Critical Quarterly, Shepard has learned "to express the outrage, which gave rise to the experimental theatre, in plays which work through realistic conventions to challenge our everyday sense of reality." Shepard told New York that he sees a growing emphasis on character in his plays since 1972. "When I started writing," he said, "I wasn't interested in character at all. In fact, I thought it was useless, old-fashioned, stuck in a certain way…. I preferred a character that was constantly unidentifiable, shifting through the actor, so that the actor could almost play anything, and the audience was never expected to identify with the character…. But I had broken away from the idea of character without understanding it." Shepard's more recent plays explore characters—especially idiosyncratic and eccentric ones—for dramatic effect.
Gussow believed Shepard's new phase of writing reflects the changes in his own life. The playwright increasingly seeks to expose "the erosion and the conflagration of the ill-American family," Gussow said. Mazzocco said Shepard has "turned from the game to the trap, from the trail back to the hearth, from warfare in a 'buddy culture' to warfare among kith and kin." Four of Shepard's plays, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, True West, and A Lie of the Mind, document in scenes of black humor the peculiar savagery of modern American family life. New York Times contributor Benedict Nightingale found these plays peopled by a "legion of the lost," whose "essential tragedy … seems … to be that they are simultaneously searching for things that are incompatible and possibly not attainable anyway: excitement and security, the exhilaration of self-fulfillment and a sense of belonging, freedom and roots."
Buried Child and A Lie of the Mind, separated by seven years, examine disturbed families. In Buried Child, David Richards wrote in the Washington Post, Shepard "delivers a requiem for America, land of the surreal and home of the crazed…. Beyond the white frame farmhouse that contains the evening's action, the amber waves of grain mask a dark secret. The fruited plain is rotting and the purple mountain's majesty is like a bad bruise on the landscape." In Buried Child, son Vince arrives at his midwestern farm home after a long absence. A dangerous cast of relatives confronts him, harboring secrets of incest and murder. Richard Christiansen, in the Chicago Tribune, called the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "a Norman Rockwell portrait created for Mad Magazine, a scene from America's heartland that reeks with 'the stench of sin.'" Similarly, A Lie of the Mind presents a tale of "interior domestic violence, the damage that one does to filial, fraternal and marital bonds—and the love that lingers in the air after the havoc has run its natural course," Gussow wrote. In that work, two families are galvanized into violence when a jealous husband beats his wife, almost fatally. A Lie of the Mind won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best new Off-Broadway play of 1985, and Shepard himself directed the original production.
Fool for Love, which Shepard also directed, is probably his best-known work. The one-act piece has been produced for the stage and has also been made into a feature film in which Shepard starred. Fool for Love alternates submission and rejection between two lovers who may also be half-brother and half-sister. New York Daily News critic Douglas Watt said the ninety-minute, nonstop drama "is Sam Shepard's purest and most beautiful play. An aching love story of classical symmetry, it is … like watching the division of an amoeba in reverse, ending with a perfect whole." Fool for Love, wrote New York Times reviewer Frank Rich, "is a western for our time. We watch a pair of figurative gun-slingers fight to the finish—not with bullets, but with piercing words that give ballast to the weight of a nation's buried dreams…. As Shepard's people race verbally through the debris of the West, they search for the identities and familial roots that have disappeared with the landscape of legend." In the New Republic, Brustein found "nothing very thick or complicated about either the characters or the plot" and a lack of resolution to the play's ending. Still, the critic concluded that Fool for Love is "not so much a text as a legend, not so much a play as a scenario for stage choreography, and under the miraculous direction of the playwright, each moment is rich with balletic nuances."
Since 1978 Shepard has taken a major movie role each year, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Right Stuff. He has, despite his discomfort with the image, assumed a certain matinee idol status. "Shepard did not become famous by writing plays," Stephen Fay wrote in Vogue. "Like it or not, acting [has] made him a celebrity." Shepard does not like to be considered a screen celebrity; his attitude toward film work is ambivalent, and public scrutiny has made him a recluse. He told New York: "There's a definite fear about being diminished through film. It's very easy to do too much of it, to a point where you're lost. Image-making is really what film acting is about. It's image-making, as opposed to character-making, and in some cases it's not true." But Film Comment essayist David Thomson contended that Shepard's long-standing fascination with movies lures him into that sort of work. "His sternness wants to be tested against their decadence," Thomson wrote. "His restraint struggles to reconcile a simultaneous contempt and need for movies. The uneasiness hovers between passion and foolishness, between the lack of skill and a monolith of intractability."
Shepard has often contradicted his own persona. In Country, for instance, he portrays a farmer who wilts under pressure when threatened with foreclosure, and in Fool for Love he appears as a womanizing, luckless rodeo rider. According to Thomson, Shepard brings the same sort of integrity to his movie roles that he brings to his writing. "For five years or so," Thomson wrote, "he has been prowling around the house of cinema, coming in a little way, armored with disdain, slipping out, but coming back, as if it intrigued and tempted his large talent. And movies need him…. But as with all prowlers, there remains a doubt as to whether this roaming, wolfen, mongrel lurcher wants to live in the house or tear it to pieces with his jaws and then howl at the desert moon, queen of dead worlds." Shepard told New York: "I'm a writer. The more I act, the more resistance I have to it. Now it seems to me that being an actor in films is like being sentenced to a trailer for twelve weeks."
In 1983, German director Wim Wenders commissioned Shepard to write a screenplay based loosely on the playwright's book Motel Chronicles. The resulting work, Paris, Texas, was a unanimous winner of the Golden Palm Award at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. The film recasts many of Shepard's central concerns—broken families, the myth of the loner, and the elegy for the old West—in a story of reunion between a father and a son. In People magazine, Peter Travers called Paris, Texas the "most disturbing film ever about the roots of family relationships. Shepard's words and Wenders' images blend in a magical poetry." New York reviewer David Denby found the film "a lifeless art-world hallucination—a movie composed entirely of self-conscious flourishes," but most other critics praised the work.
For all his work in other media, Shepard is still most highly regarded for his playwriting. "He is indeed an original," wrote Edith Oliver in the New Yorker, "but it might be pointed out that the qualities that make him so valuable are the enduring ones—good writing, wit, dramatic invention, and the ability to create characters." Stambolian added, "It is certain that in a society drifting rapidly into the escapism of a permanent, and often instant, nostalgia, Shepard's plays are a sign of artistic health and awareness, and are, therefore, worthy of our attention." John Lahr elaborated on this idea in Plays and Players: "Shepard, who has put himself outside the killing commercial climate of American life and theatre for the last few years, seems to be saying … that the only real geography is internal." And, as New York Times correspondent Walter Kerr concludes, "everyone's got to admire [Shepard's] steadfast insistence on pursuing the vision in his head."
Shepard himself sees room for growth in his writing. "I guess I'm always hoping for one play that will end my need to write plays," he told Vogue. "Sort of the definitive piece, but it never happens. There's always disappointment, something missing, some level that hasn't been touched, and the more you write the more you struggle, even if you are riding a wave of inspiration. And if the piece does touch something, you always know you haven't got to the depths of certain emotional territory. So you go out and try another one." According to New Statesman reviewer Benedict Nightingale, "we can rely on [Shepard] to continue bringing a distinctively American eye, ear and intelligence to the diagnosis of what are, if you think about it, universal anxieties."
The playwright told the New York Times that he has no plans to stop. "I want to do the work that fascinates me," he said.
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