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Sam Shepard is widely acknowledged among contemporary scholars and critics as one of the major playwrights of the second half of the twentieth century—particularly of the late 1970s and 1980s. He has been awarded eleven Obies (being the first American playwright to win three Obies in one year) and a Pulitzer Prize, and his screenplays have been shown at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, with Paris, Texas winning the Palme d’Or in 1984. His works continue to be produced around the world.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up Western
Sam Shepard was born on November 5,1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. He was given the name Samuel Shepard Rogers, which his forefathers used for six generations, and nicknamed Steve, as were the six preceding “Sams.” He later dropped the nickname and family surname, becoming Sam Shepard. His father served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, and the family spent time on army bases in South Dakota, Utah, Florida, and Guam. Retiring from the service in 1949, Shepard’s father settled the family first in South Pasadena, California, and then in 1955, on a ranch in Duarte, California. Shepard developed a lifelong interest in the land and animals, especially horses, working in his teens as a ranch stable hand. He also developed an interest in music, initially from his father, who played drums with a semi-professional band and enjoyed Dixieland jazz.
Shepard spent only a year at a local community college, where he pursued agricultural science, hoping to work with animals, and got involved with the theater. He soon found a ticket out of his small community by joining a touring theater group; he left the troupe in 1963 to remain in New York City. Through his job at a jazz club, he met Ralph Cook, founder of the group Theatre Genesis. Cook encouraged Shepard to write, and by late 1964 had produced Shepard’s first two one-act plays, Cowboys and Rock Garden. Shepard quickly developed a following in what became known as the Off-Off-Broadway movement, which had sprung up as a reaction against the commercialism of Broadway and even Off-Broadway, and against theatrical realism. This reaction spurred a new wave of theatrical experimentation and encouraged a host of unknown playwrights, inspired not by literary tradition, but by aspects of pop culture, including comic strips, commercials, movies, and the worlds of music and drugs.
Becoming a Playwright
Shepard’s first two one-acts played to small audiences for a few weeks, garnering poor reviews from mainstream theater critics, until a review in New York’s influential alternative weekly newspaper The Village Voice suddenly brought him a large audience. From then on, Shepard wrote and was produced frequently, with his plays recognized by the likes of Edward Albee, performed on programs at major theaters in New York and Chicago, and winning a number of Obie awards.
By the mid-sixties, Shepard was living with the actress Joyce Allen, who acted in a number of his plays. A trip they took together to Mexico in 1965 was the inspiration for Shepard’s first full-length (two-act) play, La Turista (1967), which further developed his favored cowboy theme. It was the first Shepard play produced in an established venue outside Greenwich Village and ran for two weeks, garnering Shepard his fourth Obie and a glowing review in The New York Review of Books, an intellectual beacon.
The 1960s also saw Shepherd’s increased involvement in music: he joined two bands and incorporated their music into his plays. He also made his first forays into the movies, cowriting several films including 1969’s Zabriskie Point with renowned filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. National recognition also increased with Shepard’s various successes: he received a Rockefeller grant, university fellowships, two more Obies, and, in 1968, a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. In 1969 he married the actress O-Lan Johnson (aka O-Lan Jones), and in 1970 their son Jesse was born. They were divorced in 1986 after numerous separations and reconciliations.
In 1970 Shepard met the rock poet Patti Smith and moved with her to the Chelsea Hotel, a temporary home and gathering place for many of the most famous writers, musicians, and visual artists of the 1960s and 1970s, from Bob Dylan to Jack Kerouac. Patti Smith inspired Shepard to write prose poems, several of which were published in Hawk Moon (1973), dedicated to Smith. She also collaborated with him on The Cowboy Mouth (1971), one of the most popular short plays in Shepard’s canon.
Escape from the New York Theater Scene
In 1971 Shepard and Johnson reconciled and moved to England to escape the stifling New York theater scene. His work proved popular in theater-savvy London, and the Shepard family stayed for three years. There, he wrote The Tooth of Crime (1972), one of his most popular plays. Set in a post-apocalyptic, Western-tinged future world, The Tooth of Crime displayed a new theatrical complexity and has proved difficult for later directors to produce, mostly owing to Shepard’s use of music in the staging.
After leaving England, Shepard and his family eventually settled on a horse farm in Northern California. He soon became a fixture of the San Francisco theater scene and found it offered him a freedom that the New York and London scenes lacked. One of Shepard’s plays from this period, Buried Child (1978), won the Pulitzer Prize as well as another Obie, garnered him unanimously good reviews and went quickly to production Off-Broadway. That same year, Shepard made his first featured appearance as a movie actor in Days of Heaven. He has since acted in more than twenty domestic and foreign movies and movies made for television, earning an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff in 1983.
In the summer of 1980, one of Shepard’s most popular and frequently produced plays—and by far the most accessible to mainstream audiences—True West— had its premiere. A production the following fall attracted negative reviews and closed after an eight-week run. The play’s original director resigned, and Shepard issued a public statement essentially disavowing his involvement. The play was redeemed, however, by the highly successful Steppenwolf Theater production in Chicago.
In 1982 Shepard met actress Jessica Lange on the set of Frances, in which they costarred. After Shepard’s divorce from Johnson, they moved in together and have been a couple ever since; they have two children: Hannah (born 1985) and Walker (born 1987). Soon after, Shepard wrote the screenplay for Paris, Texas (1984), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie, directed by Wim Wenders, builds on the themes of the search for identity and the idea of the West that Shepard’s plays had long explored.
While Shepard’s dramatic output has decreased since 1990, he remains one of the most produced playwrights in America. His literary canon is diverse, including plays, screenplays, and radio plays, prose, and poetry. He has also appeared regularly as an actor, on both stage and in film, both in his own work and in that of others. In his dual status as a highly lauded playwright and popular celebrity, Shepard holds a distinguished place among American dramatists.
Works in Literary Context
Although Shepard’s plays are infused with the sights and sounds of music and popular culture, they are also guided by the themes of the Western, in more or less explicit ways. The notion of the West has evolved over time in literature and film: in the nineteenth century it stood for freedom, opportunity, and challenge as settlers from the crowded cities of the eastern United States took their dreams westward. As the West proved difficult to govern, the idea of the Wild West came to dominate the popular imagination, inspiring such works as Owen Wister’s classic The Virginian (1902), which dramatizes what was known as ”plains justice”: the people taking the law into their own hands. Real-life outlaws such as Jesse James (1947-1882), whose mythology grew larger than life after their deaths, helped keep the fantasy of the Wild West alive. With the advent of film, and as the lawlessness of the West was fading into memory, a number of themes crystallized into cinematic formulas: the sheriff vs. the outlaw (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and many others), the good-hearted drifter (as in 1953’s Shane), and of course, the outlaw gang (see 1969’s The Wild Bunch). Shepard began writing his Western-themed plays in the mid-1960s, when the Western had already begun to be appropriated by other movie genres, at times being used as a parable of the present day, at other times substituting unlikely characters, such as Hippies, for the classic cowboys, outlaws, lawmen, ranchers, and Indians. Shepard was thus freed to use Western themes to explore identity, family, and America, while employing characters, images, and scenarios that would be quite familiar to audiences from their long history with the Western.
Works in Critical Context
The critical response to Shepard’s work is often holistic, in that critics view the dozens of plays as one long theatrical fantasia as much as individual works. Speaking of Shepard’s work as a whole, Richard Eder wrote in the New York Times that it is marked by ”a spirit of comedy that tosses and turns in a bed of revulsion.” Critics have noted that 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 set to American musical rhythms, as New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes noted: ”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.” Sidney 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.”
In Buried Child, 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.” 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.”’
- Bottoms, Stephen J. The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Roudane, Matthew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Shewey, Don. Sam Shepard. New York: Da Capo, 1997. Wade, Leslie A. Sam Shepard and the American Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
- Barnes, Clive. ”What’s Opened in the Theater?” The New York Times, March 25, 1973.
- Christiansen, Richard. ”Shepard’s Play Chills to Marrow.” Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1979.
- Eder, Richard. ”Theater Review: Buried Child.” The New York Times, November 7, 1978.
- Hardwick, Elizabeth. ”Word of Mouth.” New York Review of Books, April 6, 1967.
- Homan, Sidney. ”American Playwrights in the 1970’s: Rabe and Shepard.” Critical Quarterly, Spring 1982.
- Richards, David. ”America the Depraved.” The Washington Post, April 22, 1983.
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