Sam Shepard Shepard, Sam - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Sam Shepard 1943-

Born Samuel Shepard Rogers.

Emerging from the off-off-Broadway theater community in the 1960s, Shepard has been acclaimed as the premier American dramatist of his generation, particularly for his explorations of American myths and archetypes. Shepard's works are marked by a highly theatrical presentation emphasizing forceful language and visual imagery, and they commonly possess enigmatic structures that can be interpreted on both mythic and realistic levels. Thematically, his work often confronts the cultural identity of the United States, utilizing cowboy trappings and Western locales to dramatize the influence and corruption of the American frontier. Shepard has also been concerned with the dynamics of the American family, portraying the irresistible yet sometimes destructive force that relatives wield over one another.

Biographical Information

(Drama Criticism)

Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. His father was in the Army Air Corps, and after World War II the family shuttled between various military bases before settling in Duarte, California. Shepard has described his family life as chaotic; his father was an alcoholic, and he and Shepard eventually clashed in violent confrontations. In the early 1960s Shepard left home, eventually migrating to New York City in 1963. ";I was very lucky to have arrived in New York at that time,"; Shepard has stated, ";because the whole off-off-Broadway theatre was just starting."; By his own admission, he ";hardly knew anything about the theatre"; at that time, but his work soon became a staple of New York's experimental theaters. In addition to writing plays, he was a member of the rock band The Holy Modal Rounders in the late 1960s. His interest in music partially motivated his move to England in 1971, as he hoped to join a rock band in London. Although this plan never materialized, Shepard settled in the London area where he assumed the role of stage director for some of his plays. After returning to the United States in 1974, film acting became a new field of interest for Shepard. His movie credits include the films Days of Heaven, Frances, The Right Stuff (for which he received an Oscar nomination), and the film adaptation of his own play Fool for Love. With this exposure, Shepard attracted much media interest, attention that increased in the early 1980s when he divorced his wife to begin a relationship with film star Jessica Lange. For a time Shepard the movie star threatened to overshadow Shepard the playwright, but he continued to produce plays on a regular basis through the mid-1980s, often serving as the stage director for the initial presentations. Following the staging of A Lie of the Mind in 1985, Shepard's output as a playwright has slowed, although he continues to be involved in feature film projects as an actor, screenwriter, and director.

Major Works

(Drama Criticism)

Shepard's work is marked by a distinct style change mat occurred roughly midway through his career. His early oneact plays are abstract and absurdist explorations mat are often compared to the drama of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. These works eschew traditional plotting and characterization in favor of linguistic pyrotechnics, minimal story lines, and striking imagery. One of his trademark devices in these initial works are explosive and lengthy soliloquies—often referred to as ";arias"; by critics. The Rock Garden, one of Shepard's earliest works, offers a case in point. The play culminates in a verbal outburst by a teen-ager who details his sexual techniques to his dumbstruck father. Shepard's characterization in the early plays is also unusual. Avoiding conventional dictates regarding the creation of consistent and believable figures, Shepard often imbues his characters with cartoon-like qualities and also employs startling behavioral transformations. As Shepard has explained, he created characters that were ";constantly unidentifiable, shifting through the actor, so that the actor could play anything, and the audience was never expected to identify with the character."; Such an approach tends to emphasize the theatrical quality of the event itself as much as the story that is being presented, and Shepard exploits this situation by creating highly provocative images to command the audience's attention. In Operation Sidewinder a...

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Critical Reception

(Drama Criticism)

Overall, Shepard's work has received largely enthusiastic reviews, although critics have sometimes had difficulty articulating the merits of his unconventional methods. His initial plays were often dismissed as being bad imitations of the works of earlier absurdist playwrights, and detractors complained about the obscure nature of his work. Others have since championed Shepard's plays, however, recognizing them as part of the postmodern departure from traditional literary modes. Works such as The Tooth of Crime and Cowboy Mouth have been commended for imaginatively employing elements of popular culture and for critiquing the American fixation on fame and celebrity. Likewise, the nonrealistic elements of Shepard's dramas have been acclaimed for focusing attention on the act of performing and on the audience's role in the artistic process. His later works have also been generally well-regarded, but for somewhat different reasons. Their greater emphasis on content rather than form has led to wider popularity, but it has also prompted complaints that Shepard is repeating the same ideas rather than exploring new themes. The preponderance of masculine characters and archetypes in his work has led some critics to question his ability and desire to consider female characters in depth. Despite these reservations, reviewers have frequently granted Shepard a pivotal role in contemporary American theater, applauding his ability to create accessible dramas while pioneering nontraditional techniques. As Jack Kroll has stated, Shepard's work has ";overturned theatrical conventions and created a new kind of drama filled with violence, lyricism and an intensely American compound of comic and tragic power.";

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


Cowboys 1964

The Rock Garden 1964

Up to Thursday 1965

Dog 1965

Rocking Chair 1965

Chicago 1965

Icarus's Mother 1965

4-H Club 1965

Fourteen Hundred Thousand 1966

Red Cross 1966

Melodrama Play 1966

La Turista 1967

Cowboys #2 1967

Forensic and the Navigators 1967

Shaved Splits 1969

Holy Ghostly 1970

Operation Sidewinder 1970

The Unseen Hand 1970

Mad Dog Blues 1971

Cowboy Mouth [with Patti Smith] 1971

Back Bog Beast Bait 1971

The Tooth of Crime 1972

Blue Bitch 1973

Nightwalk [with Megan Terry and Jean-Claude van Itallie] 1973

Geography of a Horse Dreamer 1974

Little Ocean 1974

Action 1975

Killer's Head 1975

Angel City 1976

Inacoma 1976

The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife 1976

Suicide in B Flat 1976

Curse of the Starving Class 1977

Buried Child 1978

Savage/Love [with Joseph Chaikin] 1978

Seduced 1978

Tongues [with Joseph Chaikin] 1978

True West 1980

Jackson's Dance [with Jacques Levy] 1980

Superstitions 1981

Fool for Love 1983

A Lie of the Mind 1985

True Dylan 1987

States of Shock 1991

Simpatico 1994


Me and My Brother [with Robert Frank] (screenplay) 1969

Zabriskie Point [with Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Fred Graham, and Clare Peploe] (screenplay) 1970

Ringaleevio [with Murray Mednick] (screenplay) 1971

Hawk Moon (short stories, poems, and monologues) 1973

Rolling Thunder Logbook (journal) 1977

Jacaranda (text for dance and drama) 1979

Motel Chronicles (poems, prose, and monologues) 1982

Paris, Texas [with L. M. Kit Carson] (screenplay) 1984

Fool for Love [adapted from Shepard's play] (screenplay) 1985

The War in Heaven [with Joseph Chaikin] (radio play) 1985

Far North (screenplay) 1988

Letters and Texts 1972-1984 [with Joseph Chaikin] (non-fiction) 1989

Silent Tongue (screenplay) 1993

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Metaphors, Mad Dogs and Old Time Cowboys (1974)

SOURCE: An interview with the editors and Kenneth Chubb, in Theatre Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 15, August-October, 1974, pp. 3-16.

[In the following interview, Shepard discusses his background, his early experiences as a dramatist, and a number of specific plays.]

[Theatre Quarterly]: Born 5 November 1943 at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, say my notes. …

[Shepard]: They weren't kidding, it was a real fort, where army mothers had their babies. My father was in Italy then, I think, and we moved around, oh, to Rapid City, South Dakota, to Utah, to Florida—then to the Mariana Islands in the South Pacific, where we lived on Guam. There were three of us children.

Do you remember much about living on Guam?

I remember the tin-roofed huts that we lived in, because it used to rain there a lot, and the rain would make this incredible sound on the tin roof. Also there were a lot of Japanese on the island, who had been forced back into living in the caves, and they would come down and steal clothes off the clothes-lines, and food and stuff. All the women were issued with army Lugers, and I remember my mother shooting at them. At that time everyone referred to oriental people or to Philippino people as gooks, and it wasn't until the Vietnam War that I realized that gook was a derogatory term—it had just been part of the army jargon, all the kids called them gooks too.

You were in Guam until your father left the army?

Yeah, then we went to live with my aunt in South Pasadena, California—she somehow had some money through my mother's family, so we had a place to stay. But then we found a house of our own in South Pasadena, and I started going to high school.

What were your parents doing then?

My dad was still trying to get his degree, after the interruptions of the army, and he had to work for his Bachelors by going to night school. But my mother already had this qualification for teaching kids, so they were working it out with jobs. He was very strict, my father, very aware of the need for discipline, so-called, very into studying and all that kind of stuff. I couldn't stand it—the whole thing of writing in notebooks, it was really like being jailed.

But you did share your father's liking for music?

Yes, he used to listen to Dixieland music while he was studying, and he had this band—it wasn't really professional, more of a hobby, though they got paid for it. But he was a drummer, and that's how I learned to play, just banging on his set of drums. And then I started getting better than him.

What was the town like?

Oh, one of these white, middle-class, insulated communities—not all that rich, but very proud of the municipal swimming plunge and the ice-skating rink, and all that small-town-America-type stuff.

Did you have many friends?

Yeah, I did. I had one good friend, Ernie Ernshaw—the first guy I started smoking cigarettes with. Later he joined the navy, and I went back to see him about ten years afterwards, and he'd turned into this Hollywood slick-guy with tight pants and a big fancy hair-do. It was fantastic.

But you left South Pasadenawhen you were how old?

About 11 or 12, something like that. We moved to this avocado ranch, it was a real nice place actually. It was like a little greenhouse that had been converted into a house, and it had livestock and horses and chickens and stuff like that. Plus about 65 avocado trees.

You worked on the farm?

Yeah. You can't depend on the rain in California like you do here [London], so we had to rig up an irrigation system which had to be operated every day. And we had this little Wisconsin tractor with a spring-tooth harrow and a disc, and I made some money driving that for other people in the neighbourhood—there were a lot of citrus groves.

Did you like the change from small-town life?

I really liked being in contact with animals and the whole agricultural thing, but it was a bit of a shock leaving the friends I'd made. It was a funny community, divided into three very distinct social groups. There were the very wealthy people, who had ranches up in the mountains with white-faced Hereford cattle roaming around, and swimmingpools and Cadillacs. And then you'd get these very straight middle-class communities, people who sold encyclopedias and stuff like that. It was the first place where I understood what it meant to be born on the wrong side of the tracks, because the railroad tracks cut right down through the middle of this place: and below the tracks were the blacks and Mexicans.

Did this create tensions in school?

Oh yeah, there were a lot of anxieties. There were these Mexican guys who used to have tattoos and stuff, and I remember the incredible terror of looking into their eyes for even a flash of a second, because without knowing anything previously about the racial thing, just by looking at these guys you knew that you didn't have anything to do with them, and they didn't have anything to do with you. And that they wanted it to stay that way.

Were you a 97-pound weakling or a tough-guy?

I had a few fist-fights but I wouldn't say that I was a tough guy. I didn't grow until I was about 17 or 18, though, I was about five foot six.


I found that the friends I had were mese sort of strange guys. There was one guy who was from British Columbia—the one I wrote about in Tooth of Crime. He'd just come down from Canada, and he looked exactly like Elvis Presley. He had this incredible black hair-do and flash clothes, which nobody wore in school except for a few Mexicans—the white kids all wore Ivy League button-down numbers and loafers. So he was immediately ostracized, but he turned out to be a brilliant student—he didn't read any books, just got straight A grades. I got to be really good friends with him. And there were a couple of computer freaks, who were working at this aeronautics plant where they built computers for nose-cones. One guy used to bring in paper bags full of amphetamine and benzedrine from Mexico. I swear to god, those pills—if you took two of them, you were just flying. And these guys would work in the plant on amphetamine, and steal all these parts and sell them. The pay was really good too, and they got something like triple the money if they worked overtime, so they'd buy these incredible cars and go out stealing and looting … all on benzedrine and amphetamine.

Were they older than you, these guys?

Yes, everybody was older than me, because I was born in November, so I was always one year younger than everybody in my class.

But you really just wanted to leave high school as soon as you could?

Oh yeah, everybody did. I was thinking that I wanted to be a veterinarian. And I had a chance actually to manage a sheep ranch, but I didn't take it. I wanted to do something like that, working with animals. I even had the grand champion yearling ram at the Los Angeles County Fair one year. I did. It was a great ram.

Quite a break from this very pastoral sort of prospect, when you decided to go to New York?

Yeah. At that time the whole beat generation was the big influence. It was just before the time of acid and the big dope freakout, which was then still very much under cover. We talked about Ferlinghetti and Corso and Kerouac and all those guys, and jazz …

But you weren 't writing yourself?

No. I mean, I tried poetry and stuff, but it was pretty bad. But I went to New York with this guy Charles, who was a painter, and really just liked mat whole idea of being independent, of being able to do something on your own. I tried to get into the acting scene in New York, though I really very soon dropped out of that. We were living on the Lower East Side, and there were these jazz musicians, Danny Richmond who played drums, and I got into this really exciting music scene. The world I was living in was the most interesting thing to me, and I thought the best thing I could do maybe would be to write about it, so I started writing plays.

Why plays, rather than novels or poetry?

I always liked the idea that plays happened in three dimensions, that here was something that came to life in space rather than in a book. I never liked books, or read very much.

Did you write anything before you started getting performed?

Well, I'd written one very bad play in California—a sort of Tennessee Williams imitation, about some girl who got raped in a barn and her father getting mad at her or something … I forget. But the first play I wrote in New York was Cowboys.

Cowboys, why cowboys? Cowboys figure largely in lots of your plays. …

Cowboys are really interesting to me—these guys, most of them really young, about 16 or 17, who decided they didn't want to have anything to do with the East Coast, with that way of life, and took on this immense country, and didn't have any real rules. Just moving cattle, from Texas to Kansas City, from the North to the South, or wherever it was.

Why Cowboys No. 2, not just another title?

Well, I wrote the original Cowboys, and then I rewrote it and called it No. 2, that's all. The original is lost now—but, anyway, it got done at St. Mark's. And that just happened because Charles and me used to run around the streets playing cowboys in New York. We'd both had the experience of growing up in California, in that special kind of environment, and between the two of us there was a kind of camaraderie, in the midst of all these people who were into going to work and riding the buses. In about 1963, anyway—five years or so later it all suddenly broke down.

Had you had much to do with live theatre?

I hardly knew anything about the theatre. I remember once in California I went to this guy's house who was called a beatnik by everybody in the school because he had a beard and he wore sandals. And we were listening to some jazz or something and he sort of shuffled over to me and threw this book on my lap and said, why don't you dig this, you know. I started reading this play he gave me, and it was like nothing I'd ever read before—it was Waiting for Godot. And I thought, what's this guy talking about, what is this? And I read it with a very keen interest, but I didn't know anything about what it was. I didn't really have any references for the theatre, except for the few plays that I'd acted in. But in a way I think that was better for me, because I didn't have any idea about how to shape an action into what is seen—so the so-called originality of the early work just comes from ignorance. I just didn't know.

You were writing very prolifically around those early years.

Yeah, mere was nothing else to do.

So what were you doing for money?

I was working at a place called the Village Gate, which is a big night-club. Charles had a job there as a waiter, and he got me a job there too, and later I found out that all the waiters there were either actors or directors or painters or something like that who were out of work. It was a nice place to work because I got to see like the cream of American jazz, night-after-night for free. Plus I got paid for working there.

It was at nighttime so you were free during the day?

Right I worked three nights a week, and got about 50 bucks a week for doing hardly anything, except cleaning up dishes and bringing Nina Simone ice, you know. It was fantastic.

All those early plays give the impression that once you 'd got the habit you couldn 't stop. …

Yeah, I used to write very fast, I mean I wrote Chicago in one day. The stuff would just come out, and I wasn't really trying to shape it or make it into any big thing.

You wrote without any sort of planning?

Yeah. I would have like a picture, and just start from there. A picture of a guy in a bathtub, or of two guys on stage with a sign blinking—you know, things like that.

How important was it to you when your plays started to get performed?

It was frightening at first. I can remember defending myself against it mostly. I was really young for one thing, about 19, and I was very uptight about making a whole public thing out of something that you do privately. And I was strongly influenced by Charles—he was very into not selling-out, and keeping himself within his own sphere of reference. I felt that by having the play become public, it was almost like giving it away or something. I was really hard to get along with in those days, actually. I would always bitch a lot during rehearsals and break things up. …

How did Cowboys first come to get on stage?

The head-waiter at the Village Gate was a guy named Ralph Cook, and he had been given this church, called St. Mark's in the Bowery, and he started a theatre there called Theatre Genesis. He said he was looking for new plays to do, and I said I had one. He came up and he read this play, and two of the waiters at the Village Gate were the actors in it. So it was sort of the Village Gate company. Well, Jerry Talmer from the Post came, and all these guys said it was a bunch of shit, imitated Beckett or something like mat. I was ready to pack it in and go back to California. Then Michael Smith from Village Voice came up with this rave review [October 22, 1967], and people started coming to see it.

Did these early plays change much, between writing and the public performance?

The writing didn't change, I never changed the words. That's even true now, but, depending on the people you have, the performance changes. I was very lucky to have arrived in New York at that time, though, because the whole off-off-Broadway theatre was just starting—like Ellen Stewart with her little cafe, and Joe Chino, and the Judson Poets Theatre and all these places. It was just a lucky accident really that I arrived at the same time as that was all starting. This was before they had all become famous, of course—like Ellen just had mis little loft, served hot chocolate and coffee, did these plays.

So how much money did you make from those early playsnot very much?

No money. There wasn't any money at all, until the grants started coming in from Ford and Rockefeller and all these places that were supporting the theatres because of the publicity they started getting. Then they began paying the actors and playwrights—but it wasn't much, 100 dollars for five weeks' work or something.

How much did it matter to you that critics like Michael Smith started writing approvingly about your plays?

Well, it changes everything you know, from being something that you do in quite a private way to something that you do publicly. Because no matter how much you don't like the critics, or you don't want them to pass judgement on what you're doing, the fact that they're there reflects the fact that a play's being done in public. It means that you steadily become aware of people going to see your plays—of audiences. Not just critics, but people.

Did you feel part of this developing off-off-Broadway 'movement'?

Not in anything to do with stagecraft so much as in the ingredients that go into a play. … On the Lower East Side there was a special sort of culture developing. You were so close to the people who were going to the plays, there was really no difference between you and them—your own experience was their experience, so that you began to develop that consciousness of what was happening. … I mean nobody knew what was happening, but mere was a sense that something was going on. People were arriving from Texas and Arkansas in the middle of New York City, and a community was being established. It was a very exciting time.

Did you begin to think of playwriting as your real job?

Well, I never thought of it as my job, because it was something that made me feel more relaxed, whereas I always thought of jobs as something that made you feel less alive—you know, the thing of working ten hours a day cleaning horseshit out of a stable.

Did the second play, Rock Garden, also emerge from your experience of New York?

Rock Garden is about leaving my mom and dad. It happens in two scenes. In the first scene the mother is lying in bed ill while the son is sitting in a chair, and she is talking about this special sort of cookie that she makes, which is marshmallow on salt crackers melted under the oven. It's called angels on horseback, and she has a monologue about it. And then the father arrives in the second scene. The boy doesn't say anything, he's just sitting in this chair, and the father starts to talk about painting the fence around the house, and there's a monologue about that in the course of which the boy keeps dropping asleep and falling off his chair. Finally the boy has a monologue about orgasm mat goes on for a couple of pages and ends in him coming all over the place, and then the father falls off the chair. The father also talks about this rock garden, which is his obsession, a garden where he collects all these rocks from different sojourns to the desert.

The orgasm scene was the one used in Oh Calcutta! wasn 't it?

Yes—that production was pretty bad, and the play hasn't been done much in its entirety. Theatre Genesis did the first production, but I don't think it's been seen in England.

Then came Up to Thursday?

Yes. Up to Thursday was a bad exercise in absurdity, I guess. This kid is sleeping in an American flag, he's only wearing a jockstrap or something, and mere's four people on stage who keep shifting their legs and talking. I can't remember it very well—it's only been done once. It was a terrible play, really. It was the first commercial production I'd done, and it was put on with a bunch of other plays, in this off-off-Broadway-moves-off-Broadway kind of bill.

What about Dog and Rocking Chair?

Dog was about a black guy—which later I found out it was uncool for a white to write about in America. It was about a black guy on a park bench, a sort of Zoo Story-type play. I don't even remember Rocking Chair, except it was about somebody in a rocking-chair.

How do you feel about those early plays nowa bit vague, it seems!

Yeah, the thing is, I find it hard to remain with a certain attachment to things that I wrote. I've heard that a lot of writers make reams of notes before they even go into the thing, but with me I write plays before I go into something else. I may like write six one-act plays before I get to another kind of a play, and each play may be a sort of evolution to something else. I always feel like leaving those behind rather man hanging on to them.

You say the texts don't change much in rehearsaldo you revise much while you 're writing?

I hate to rewrite, but I can see the importance of it, mainly because of what it means for an actor to actually meet the task of doing this thing on stage. Just from directing Geography of a Horse-Dreamer myself, I've found I think I'm often too flippant about what I write—it's too easy to dash something off and say, okay, now act it: because when it comes down to the flesh-and-blood thing of making it work, it's a different world. I think that's where rewriting comes in—if it seems mat the angle that the actor has to come at is too impossible or too difficult.

So it's revision of the mechanics rather than of the language … ?

It may be that there's a hole somewhere that needs to be blocked. Something missing.

Are you concerned at all about how accessible your plays are going to be to an audience? I'm thinking of how you described earlier the common background of experience you shared in those early New York years. But now, obviously, you 're going to be writing for wider audiences, who don't necessarily share any similarities of background How far are you, or aren't you, concerned to give them a way in?

It depends on whether you're writing in social terms, or whether the things that you're taking on can cut through that somehow. You always start with some sort of social terms, because of being white, or living in England, or whatever the conditions are, but hopefully it can then cut into something that everybody has some touch with—otherwise it just remains a kind of cosy accessibility.

Isn't there a change, too, between the exclusive emphasis on private worlds in the very early plays, and the almost political sense of an outside threat in Icarus's Mother?

People talk about political consciousness as though it were a thing that you could decide in your head—that you can shift your ways of thinking and suddenly you have political consciousness. But I found that, especially in America, it came from the emotional context that you were moving in. I mean, people in New York are cutting themselves down everyday of the week—from the inside, you know, but the conditions come from the outside. Junk, heroin and all that stuff is a social condition and it's also an emotional response to the society they're living in. … But I don't have any political theories, if that's what you mean.

Around the time we 're talking of in the States, it was the peak of the anti-Bomb movement in England—were you caught up in anything like that?

I was in a few Civil Rights marches and stuff like that—but it's different. When you see that on the news it's one thing, but when you're in it it's a different thing, it's a whole different thing.

Can you say something about how Icarus's Mother germinated?

I was in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee, and for the Fourth of July we have this celebration—fireworks and all that kind of stuff—and I was in this sort of park with these people, with this display going on. You begin to have a feeling of this historical thing being played out in contemporary terms—I didn't even know what the Fourth of July meant, really, but here was this celebration taking place, with explosions. One of the weird things about being in America now, though I haven't been there much lately, is that you don't have any connection with the past, with what history means: so you can be there celebrating the Fourth of July, but all you know is that things are exploding in the sky. And then you've got this emotional thing that goes a long way back, which creates a certain kind of chaos, a kind of terror, you don't know what the fuck's going on. It's really hard to grab the whole of the experience.

And that's the circling aeroplaneIcarus's mother … ?

There's a vague kind of terror going on, the people not really knowing what is happening. …

How 'real' is the image in 4-H Club of those four guys in a kitchen killing rats?

Well, there's a big rat problem in New York, but maybe some of the people who talk about poverty and so on never had a rat in their house. And it's different when you have a rat in your house—doesn't all come down to talk.

Had you experienced that kind of poverty?

Yeah, in New York, sure—unless you have a million dollars lots of people experience that in New York. …

About your next play, Fourteen Hundred Thousand— I get the feeling that it changes direction two-thirds of the way throughthere's this play about building a bookshelf, and this other play about a linear city. …

Yeah, I had a long talk with an architect before I wrote that play, and stuck that into it. I was very interested in the idea of me linear city, because it struck me as being a strong visual conception as opposed to radial cities—the idea of having a whole country, especially like America, with these lines cutting across them. …

It makes a tremendous climax but it seems like the climax to another play somehow. …

Yeah, right.

To go back to what you were saying earlier about your plays developing from images, from mental pictureswas this a case of the image as it were switching half way through? And how should the switch work theatrically?

When you talk about images, an image can be seen without looking at anything—you can see something in your head, or you can see something on stage, or you can see things that don't appear on stage, you know. The fantastic tiling about theatre is that it can make something be seen that's invisible, and that's where my interest in theatre is—that you can be watching this thing happening with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, and that's the image part that I'm looking for, that's the sort of added dimension.

Does Fourteen Hundred Thousand maybe represent a kind of watershed between those early plays, which were largely concerned with simple … well, not really simple, but single images, and the plays after this, which start to get very much more complexand maybe the characters too start moving from the ordinary towards the extraordinary … ?

They're the same people, but the situations are different. What I was interested in was, like, you see somebody, and you have an impression of that person from seeing them—the way they talk and behave—but underneath many, many different possibilities could be going on. And the possibilities that I brought out, like in Icarus, could have taken a completely different direction. It's not as though you started out with a character who suddenly developed into another character—it's the same character, who's enlivened by animals, or demons, or whatever's inside of him. Everybody's like that. …

But I still feel that the plays get more complex—perhaps that the early plays are images, the later plays are more like metaphorscreating not one segment of a society through a fairly direct image, but finding another way of representing it—say in The Tooth of Crime.…

To me, that's the only thing I can do, because … first of all, I don't know what this world is. I mean, look at it. Like when you look at Ted Heath and Harold Wilson giving their opinions and trying to sell people on their programmes. If you showed those two guys on the stage it would be as boring as watching them on television—it wouldn't have any other dimension to it. Satire is another thing, but mere's very few people can do it really well—Jules Feiffer, but even he has to create another world to show something about this one. …

Well, can we try another tackclearly the early plays, from what you said about them, have their origins in your own childhood and adolescent world, and you're writing about that world. What are you harking back to, where do the images come from, for the later plays?

Well, they come from all kinds of things, they come from the country, they come from that particular part of the country, they come from that particular sort of temporary society that you find in Southern California, where nothing is permanent, where everything could be knocked down and it wouldn't be missed, and the feel of impermanence that comes from that—that you don't belong to any particular culture. I mean it wasn't until I came to England mat 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 the implications of what you grew up with start to emerge.

Is there a point at which you stopped writing plays about Southern California, say, and started writing plays about New York?

Yeah, but it's very hard to talk about, because … obviously, if you were writing in Jamaica, you'd be writing under a different influence, or even if a man wanted to write about the Industrial Revolution in England but went to South Africa to do it, he'd be writing under those conditions. He'd have to take on the conditions of where he's writing, he...

(The entire section is 12114 words.)

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Michael Smith (review date 22 October 1964)

SOURCE: A review of Cowboys and The Rock Garden, in The Village Voice, Vol. X, No. 1, October 22, 1964, p. 13.

[Smith is a critic, stage director, and theater director, whose books include Eight Plays from Off-Off Broadway (1966) and More Plays from Off-Off Broadway (1972). A drama critic for the Village Voice from 1959 to 1974, Smith wrote the following review of Shepard's first produced plays, becoming an influential supporter of the author's early work.]

I know it sounds pretentious and unprepossessing—Theatre Genesis at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bouwerie,...

(The entire section is 17137 words.)

The Tooth Of Crime

(Drama Criticism)


Robert Cushman (review date September 1972)

SOURCE: A review of The Tooth of Crime, in Plays and Players, Vol. 19, No. 228, September, 1972, pp. 49-50.

[The Tooth of Crime was first produced at London's Open Space Theatre in 1972. In the following review of that performance, Cushman criticizes the play as being a simplistic story of dueling musicians.]

I must begin, like everybody else, by quoting the programme note, though since it was prefaced by the injunction 'NB' I am perhaps only doing my duty: 'A good deal of this play has been written in an ";invented language"; derived from...

(The entire section is 10038 words.)

Buried Child

(Drama Criticism)


Harold Clurman (review date 2 December 1978)

SOURCE: A review of Buried Child, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 227, No. 19, December 2, 1978, pp. 621-22.

[Buried Child was presented in New York City at the Theatre for the New City in November, 1978, and went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979. Clurman, a highly regarded director, educator, and author, and the drama critic for the Nation from 1953 to 1980, wrote the following review of Buried Child, praising the improvisational energy of the play and the ";quintessentially American"; nature of Shepard's work.]


(The entire section is 7861 words.)

Fool For Love

(Drama Criticism)


Walter Kerr (review date 5 June 1983)

SOURCE: ";Where Has Sam Shepard Led His Audience?,"; in The New York Times, June 5, 1983, pp. 3, 16.

[Fool for Love was first presented at Magic Theatre in San Francisco in February 1983, with Shepard serving as the play's director, and this production later played the Circle Repertory Theatre in New York City. In the following review af one of the New York performances, Kerr criticizes Shepard as a ";cult dramatist"; whose work, despite its skilled presentation, addresses only a select audience and a limited range of topics.]

During the more than 20 years that...

(The entire section is 9302 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Cott, Jonathan. 'The Rolling Stone Interview: Sam Shepard."; Rolling Stone (18 December 1986): 166-68, 170, 172, 198, 200.

Interview that touches on various subjects, including Shepard's views on music and his play A Lie of the Mind.

Shepard, Sam. ";American Experimental Theatre: Then and Now."; Performing Arts Journal 11, No. 2 (Fall 1977): 13-14.

Shepard's reflections on experimental theater.


Bachman, Charles R. ";Defusion of Menace in the Plays of Sam Shepard."; Modern Drama XIX, No. 4 (December 1976): 405-15....

(The entire section is 1019 words.)