Born Samuel Shepard Rogers on an Army base in 1943, growing up mainly on a California ranch, arriving in New York City in the 1960’s, living for three years in London, gifted in timpani, devoted to sports, and an outdoorsman of the working kind, Sam Shepard is almost a living example of the kind of characters he puts on the stage. After high school graduation (in Duarte, California, in 1960), Shepard experimented with several lifestyles and occupations, including ranch hand, sheep shearer, and rock-and-roll musician. The early successes of one-act plays such as Cowboys (1964) and The Rock Garden (1964, and 1969, as part of Kenneth Tynan’s Broadway revue Oh! Calcutta!), especially in the Off-Off-Broadway theaters of New York in the 1960’s, gave him the incentive to continue in drama (other genres, as well as music and art, drew him and still invest his plays with variety and a unique creative signature).
Shepard moved to New York at nineteen and changed his name to Sam Shepard. Waiting tables at Village Gate allowed him to pursue his interests in theater, which he did by writing several one-act plays which were produced Off-Off Broadway at such venues as La Mama, the Open Theatre, and the American Place Theatre and with such works as the now familiar Cowboys. By the time of the 1965-1966 theater season, the up-and-coming playwright with the mixed reviews had won Obie Awards (granted by The Village Voice) for Chicago (1965), Icarus’s Mother (1965), and Red Cross (1966).
An avant-garde comedy, La Turista, was produced in 1967 in New York and in 1969 in London. His first full-length success, Operation Sidewinder (1969), was performed as part of the inaugural season of the new producer/directors of Lincoln Center, Jules Irving and Herbert Blau. The play, combining American Indian folklore with high-technology weaponry, drew strong critical response in both directions, but it clearly marked Shepard’s debut as an important new writer of the American cultural present.
In 1971, with much acclaim came The Mad Dog Blues. With its success, Shepard took wing to England, where he lived for the next three years, writing numerous international hits, such as The Tooth of Crime (1972) and Geography of a Horse Dreamer 1974). By the late 1970’s, Shepard would have a substantial bibliography, one that included Buried Child (1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize. By the mid-to late 1980’s, he would pen such notable plays as the disturbing and yet undeniably stunning and provocative True West (1980) and the equally explorative and evocative A Lie of the Mind (1985), which won the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In 1986, Shepard was elected into the...
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Sam Shepard, as much a poet as a playwright, prevails as a major literary and theatrical voice because his themes speak to a sense of lost dignity in American culture and society. What the American West means to Shepard and his characters is so successfully expressed in the plays that he will always be seen as a critic of the present day, despite his own natural abilities to survive in it. All of Shepard’s plays are cries for another time, whether expressed in the ultramodern idiom of rock and roll or in the voices of lost American heroes misplaced on the concrete sidewalks of the big city.
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