Shepard, Sam (1943—)

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Shepard, Sam (1943—)

Playwright, actor, and director Sam Shepard is a serious and distinguished playwright whose work is performed by his peers and admired by critics and theatergoers in many countries. He is, however, most widely and popularly known, particularly in the United States, as a movie actor, notably in The Right Stuff (1983), writer-director Philip Kaufman's tribute to the Mercury project astronauts which has become ingrained in American popular culture. Shepard played Chuck Yeager and was Oscar-nominated for his fine performance. His stage and screen persona is in the strong and silent mold—tall, slim, cleft-chinned and good looking—and he has made effective appearances in numerous other films, among them Crimes of the Heart (1987), Steel Magnolias (1989) and Thunderheart (1992) that have varied in both quality and success. He co-starred with Jessica Lange, later his off-screen partner and mother of some of his children, in Francis (1982) and Country (1984).

It is, however, his work as a playwright that has defined Sam Shepard's cultural contribution. The structure of his dramatic language has received close critical attention as directors and scholars, like Stephen J. Bottoms, have striven to discover "how it is that his strange language and stage imagery so often seem to lodge themselves in the spectator's imagination with such peculiar force." Shepard's "peculiar force" of language earned him Obie awards for three early-career one-act plays in the 1960s, the New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award for Lie of the Mind (1985), and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Buried Child (1978).

Born Samuel Shepard Rogers in Mount Sheridan, Illinois, he endured an "army brat" childhood until his family eventually settled in California. He became interested in theater early, joined a church dramatic group, and later became a playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. He then moved to New York in the 1960s and began working off-off-Broadway as a writer and actor with such experimental groups as the La Mama company. The origin of Shepard's unique dramatic language can be traced to this early period and his subsequent move to London in 1971. The music scene ofGreenwich Village, the fragmented, improvisational nature of jazz, and the driving, electric sound of rock influenced the tone, structure, and characters of his initial theatrical experiments. Shepard's plays did not conform to the established, traditional dramas of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, a rebellion of approach that became a trademark of his work.

Eschewing both realism and conventional exposition, character conflicts and inner meaning in Shepard's plays are expressed through his use of syntax, imagery, and rhythm. In his preface to Angel City (1976), Shepard wrote a "Note to the Actors," revealing how music influences characterization. "Instead of the idea of a 'whole character' with logical motives behind his behavior which the actor submerges himself into, he should consider himself a fractured whole with bits and pieces of characters flying off the central theme. In other words, more in terms of collage construction or jazz improvisation." Although New York had witnessed the staging of almost 20 plays by Shepard between 1964 and 1971, drugs and a troubled affair with rock musician Patti Smith prompted a move to England, where he remained until 1974.

Of his major works, only the rock star/status-struggle drama Tooth of Crime (1972) was written and first produced in London; however, this distanced perspective on American culture significantly influenced Shepard's writing. In an interview conducted in England in 1974, he explained this creative dichotomy. "It wasn't until I came to England that I found out what it means to be an American. Nothing really makes sense when you're there, but the more distant you are from it, the more implications of what you grew up with start to emerge." What Shepard "grew up with" was to form what many critics have termed a "family tetralogy," created by the plays Curse of the Starving Class (1977), Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), and Lie of the Mind (1985). These works represent his major successes, and while all deal with the psychological dysfunction of the American family, he has remained an artist who resists traditional genre classification, mixing comic absurdism with the faintly sinister.

An actor writing for actors, the power of Shepard's language links him to a renowned tradition of American playwrights; yet, it is precisely this language, which is uniquely his own, that also separates his work from that of his predecessors. Actor Joyce Aaron, who originated many of the female roles in Shepard's early plays, concurs, stating: "Sam is a recorder of the authentic American voice. He starts from a certain perception of daily life, and then transforms that into a specific voice—a voice with its own rhythms and shifting consciousness, its unique, particular curve or leap.… That is part of the theatrical challenge and wonder of speaking Sam's language."

Sam Shepard wrote the screenplay for Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984), adapted Fool for Love to the screen in 1985 (and starred in it), and wrote an original screenplay, Far North (1988), in which Jessica Lange starred and which marked his none-too-successful film directing debut. In 1994, he wrote and directed Silent Tongue, but it was clear by the late 1990s that his natural metier as a dramatist was the live theater.

—John A. Price

Further Reading:

Bottoms, Stephen J. The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crises. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

DeRose, David J. Sam Shepard. New York, Twayne, 1992.

Marranca, Bonnie, editor. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. New York, Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1983.

Wade, Leslie. Sam Shepard and the American Theatre. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997.