Sam Shepard Shepard, Sam (Vol. 169) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard 1943-

(Born Samuel Rogers Shepard) American playwright, screenwriter, short story writer, director, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Shepard's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 17, 34, 41, and 44.

Shepard is considered one of the foremost playwrights writing for the off-Broadway stage, having won eleven Obie Awards, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child (1978). His works, including over forty one-act and full-length dramas, convey a surreal vision of contemporary American society in which myth frequently collides with reality. Shepard's plays examine a wide range of topics, most notably the spiritual dissolution of the family, the corruption of the artist by commercialism, the disintegration of the American dream, and the vanishing Western frontier and its culture. His interest in the legends and myths of the American West dominate his dramas, as do references to jazz, song lyrics, drugs, Hollywood films, and other components of American popular culture.

Biographical Information

Shepard was born on November 5, 1943, to Samuel Shepard and Elaine Rogers 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 began his acting career in California, but in 1963, he moved to New York City and became involved with several off-off-Broadway theater groups. His first one-act dramas, Cowboys and The Rock Garden, were part of the first Theatre Genesis show at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery in 1964. Although virtually dismissed by critics, the plays attracted a sizable cult following. Between 1965 and 1970, Shepard continued to write prolifically, completing more than fourteen plays. In 1971 Shepard moved to London where he pursued his interest in music, directed several productions of his own plays, and wrote a number of new works, including The Tooth of Crime (1972). In the mid-1970s, Shepard resettled in California, becoming the playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child, which also won an Obie Award. Eleven of Shepard's plays have won Obie Awards, including Chicago (1965), Icarus's Mother (1965), La Turista (1967), The Tooth of Crime, and Curse of the Starving Class (1976). A Lie of the Mind (1985) won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, the New York Drama Desk Award, and the Outer Critics' Circle Award for outstanding new play. Shepard was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986, and in 1992, he received the Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy. In 1994 Shepard was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. A revised version of Buried Child opened on Broadway in April 1996 and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Shepard has also worked as an actor, screenwriter, and director in several motion pictures. His screen acting career began in 1970 with the film Brand X. He was nominated for a best supporting actor award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1983 for his performance in The Right Stuff, and later appeared in several films, including the screen adaptation of his play Fool for Love (1983), Country (1984), Thunderheart (1992), and Black Hawk Down (2001). Shepard has written and directed two films—Far North (1988) and Silent Tongue (1993)—and has written a number of screenplays, most notably Paris, Texas (1984; with L. M. Kit Carson), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

Major Works

Shepard's early one-act plays—such as Cowboys, The Rock Garden, and Chicago—are abstract and absurdist explorations that have been compared to the works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. The plays are marked by their disjointed structure, visual imagery, and long monologues typically loaded with obscenity. For example, The Rock Garden culminates in a verbal outburst by a teenager who details his sexual techniques to his dumbstruck father. These works combine wild humor, grotesque satire, myth, and a sparse, haunting language to create a subversive pop art vision of America. Shepard continued to explore various combinations of sight and sound in his early full-length dramas as well. His first full-length play, La Turista, is a comedy about a couple who fall prey to intestinal illness while vacationing in Mexico. Operation Sidewinder (1970)—which satirizes the social and political upheavals of the 1960s—features a giant rattlesnake-shaped computer as the central figure and ends with a prolonged burst of machine gun fire.

Theatre scholars often mark Shepard's move to London in 1971 as the beginning of the second stage of his playwriting career. Shepard's most notable work from this period is The Tooth of Crime, which Shepard later revised as The Tooth of Crime (Second Dance) in 1996. The play tells the story of two rock musicians, Hoss and Crow, whose battle for prominence in the music industry resembles the actions of gunfighters in the Old West. Language plays a crucial part in the play, as Shepard employs urban slang, rock lyrics, and other pop idioms in place of the conventional weapons of gunfighters. At the conclusion, Hoss, realizing that the language he uses for “dueling” is dated, commits suicide, leaving Crow in command until the next challenger comes along. Shepard's residency at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco began a new stage in his career—the plays from this period typically focus on an artist's pursuit of identity and creative freedom, as well as the struggles that result from this search. Suicide in B-Flat (1976) suggests the stifling of creativity in the life of a jazz musician, while Angel City (1976) satirizes the film industry and the corruption of young writers.

Shepard's major plays of the late 1970s and 1980s are domestic dramas in which working-class families become victims of self-perpetuated violence, guilt, and abnormal fantasy. These works reject the cartoonish imagery in Shepard's earlier works in favor of more realistic plot lines and characterizations. Shepard uses the dissolution of a southern California family in Curse of the Starving Class to symbolize the demise of the Western frontier and American society in general. The action in Buried Child unfolds when a man named Vince returns to his midwestern home after a long absence. He is confronted with a dangerously unbalanced cast of relatives who harbor secrets of incest and murder. Eventually, these secrets are discovered along with an unwanted infant buried in the backyard years earlier. True West (1980) highlights the struggle between the dual natures of two brothers, Austin and Lee. Austin, a reserved screenwriter, has returned to their mother's house to finish a long overdue script for his Hollywood contact, Saul. Lee is a charismatic and violent criminal who lives in the desert and surprises Austin by arriving unannounced. After impressing Saul with stories from his sordid past, Lee pitches Saul his own idea for a movie. Saul immediately buys the idea and breaks his agreement with Austin. The thematic concerns in several of Shepard's later plays culminate in Fool for Love, which examines obsession, betrayal, myth and truth. The plot develops through alternating submission and rejection between two lovers who may be half-brother and half-sister. A Lie of the Mind continues Shepard's exploration of American families in emotional distress. The work centers on a married couple, Beth and Jake, whose violent relationship both destroys and redeems their families. Beaten to the point of brain damage by Jake, Beth is slowly recuperating under the watchful eye of her loveless parents and her vengeful brother. Jake, thinking that he has killed Beth, hides in his boyhood home under the care of his over-protective mother. Although the two characters become geographically distant, they remain emotionally bonded by their obsessive love for each other. Throughout the course of the play the true nature of both families is probed and revealed.

Shepard's plays dating from 1990 to 2000 continue his examination of the American family, the nature of father-son relationships, and the search for love and personal identity. In States of Shock (1991) a nameless American colonel and an amputee soldier named Stubbs arrive at a restaurant to celebrate the anniversary of the death of the colonel's son. Simpatico (1994) follows the tensions between two ex-partners, Vinnie and Carter, who once made a fortune by fixing a horse race. Years later, Vinnie threatens to blackmail Carter, now a successful horse breeder, with evidence of their past crime. In Eyes for Consuela (1998)—a two-act play based on the short story “The Blue Bouquet” by Octavio Paz—a vacationing American is assaulted by a knife-wielding Mexican named Amado, who wishes to present his lover Consuela with a bouquet of blue eyeballs. In The Late Henry Moss (2000), two brothers return home to confront each other and their violent past after the unexpected death of their father.

Shepard has published several collections of prose and poetry in addition to his plays. Hawk Moon (1973) and Motel Chronicles (1982) each contain a variety of prose pieces, poems, and speeches, while Rolling Thunder Logbook (1977) reprints a journal based on Shepard's experiences traveling with musician Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Cruising Paradise (1996) and Great Dream of Heaven: Stories (2002) contain short stories exploring themes of solitude and loss. Shepard has also written a number of screenplays, including the award-winning Paris, Texas, Far North, and Silent Tongue.

Critical Reception

Overall, Shepard's work has received largely enthusiastic reviews, although critics have at times had difficulty clearly delineating the merits of his unconventional methods. His initial plays have often been dismissed as poor imitations of the works of earlier absurdist playwrights, with detractors complaining about the obscure nature of his work. Others have since championed Shepard's plays, 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 obsession with 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. In general, his later works have received positive responses and have been touted for their greater emphasis on content rather than form. However, the preponderance of masculine characters and archetypes in Shepard's plays have led some critics to question his ability and desire to portray strong female characters. 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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cowboys (play) 1964

The Rock Garden (play) 1964

Chicago (play) 1965

Icarus's Mother (play) 1965

Red Cross (play) 1966

Cowboys #2 (play) 1967

Forensic and the Navigators (play) 1967

La Turista (play) 1967

The Holy Ghostly (play) 1969

The Unseen Hand (play) 1969

Operation Sidewinder (play) 1970

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

Back Bog Beast...

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Robert Brustein (review date 27 January 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “The Shepard Enigma.” New Republic 194, no. 3706 (27 January 1986): 25-6, 28.

[In the following review, Brustein offers a mixed assessment of A Lie of the Mind, noting that the “plotting is a little too undisciplined.”]

A Lie of the Mind is Sam Shepard's most ambitious play to date, the closest he has come to entering the mainstream of American drama. Directed by the playwright in association with professional producers, it has been mounted at the Promenade Theatre with a strong cast. Like David Rabe's Hurly-Burly, which also played that off-Broadway theater with box-office actors, it stands a good chance of moving...

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Gerald Weales (review date 14 February 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Great Divide: Shepard's Lie of the Mind.Commonweal 63, no. 3 (14 February 1986): 86-7.

[In the following review, Weales criticizes A Lie of the Mind, objecting to the “cartoon atmosphere” of the play.]

Sam Shepard's new play, A Lie of the Mind, runs for more than four hours, but its length does not herald structural innovation in his drama. He is still working in short scenes, as he has been since he turned up off-off-Broadway in the 1960s. In the new play, he cuts back and forth between two families and their homes on opposite ends of the stage, jumping from one painful or comic sequence to the next. The play, as...

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David Wyatt (essay date spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wyatt, David. “Shepard's Split.” South Atlantic Quarterly 91, no. 2 (spring 1992): 333-60.

[In the following essay, Wyatt explores the ambivalence of the characters and the world view in Shepard's body of work.]

Sam Shepard does not write dramas of recognition. His characters renounce insight and resist growth; they seem, instead, the scene for their author's projection of violent, contradictory, inchoate emotions. Shepard's language remains acutely aware of this, but it is an awareness in which the characters scarcely participate. Few of the characters believe in any existence apart from a role, and one purpose of the plays is to explore this. Yet it also...

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Donald L. Carveth (essay date fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carveth, Donald L. “The Borderline Dilemma in Paris, Texas: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Sam Shepard.” Mosaic 25, no. 4 (fall 1992): 99-120.

[In the following essay, Carveth explores Shepard's examination of the human “self” in Paris, Texas.]

As early as the 1950s, psychoanalysts began to report significant changes in the forms of psychopathology that appear to have emerged in response to a sociocultural situation characterized by Martin Buber as one of metaphysical “homelessness” and by Peter Berger and other sociological descendants of Emile Durkheim as one of an increasingly pervasive “anomie.” In contrast to the intrapsychic or...

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Robert B. Heilman (essay date fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Heilman, Robert B. “Shepard's Plays: Stylistic and Thematic Ties.” Sewanee Review 100, no. 4 (fall 1992): 630-44.

[In the following essay, Heilman provides a thematic overview of Shepard's plays, highlighting his literary style in each play.]

Any playwright with such a highly individualized manner as flashes out at us in the plays of Sam Shepard is likely to be called unique. There is of course no need to deny the uniqueness of Shepard's work. Even in his life, one can observe some shadow or flavor of uniqueness, or unusualness, or elected difference. Born Samuel Shepard Rogers, Jr., in 1943, he chose to be Sam Shepard. He began writing one-act plays, and...

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Sam Shepard and Carol Rosen (interview date March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shepard, Sam, and Carol Rosen. “Emotional Territory: An Interview with Sam Shepard.” Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (March 1993): 1-11.

[In the following interview—which is excerpted from Rosen's book Sam Shepard: A Poetic Rodeo—Shepard discusses his theatrical style and stage imagery as well as his concepts of rhythm, myth, voice, and character.]

Sam Shepard is, of course, a conundrum. He is undoubtedly one of the most intuitive practitioners of what Cocteau called “poetry of the theatre,” creating a personal, concrete, physical language of the stage to be apprehended sensually. This encoder of American signs onstage is also an actor's playwright,...

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Susanne Willadt (essay date March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Willadt, Susanne. “States of War in Sam Shepard's States of Shock.Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (March 1993): 147-66.

[In the following essay, Willadt analyzes the structure of States of Shock, emphasizing Shepard's sense of machismo and his portrayal of relationships between men.]


After a six-year silence, Sam Shepard, formerly one of the most prolific and most produced American playwrights, finally returned to the American theater with States of Shock. The play was first presented by The American Place Theatre in New York City on April 30, 1991, for a very limited run.1 As has been the case for so many...

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Robert Brustein (review date 2 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Plays for the Parch.” New Republic 212, no. 1 (2 January 1995): 28.

[In the following excerpt, Brustein offers a mixed assessment of Simpatico, faulting the play for its “manipulated suspense.”]

Sam Shepard's new play, Simpatico, which he also directed (at the New York Public Theater), has taken as many critical lumps as his last play, States of Shock. Viewed as an overarching dramatic work, Simpatico probably deserves a few knocks, but I found it an absorbing evening nevertheless, Shepard's best since Buried Child—not because of the cryptic writing, which is strong in individual scenes but...

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Robert Brustein (essay date 15-22 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Shepard's Choice.” New Republic 215, nos. 3/4 (15-22 July 1996): 27-9.

[In the following essay, Brustein offers a mixed assessment of Shepard's works, particularly Buried Child and Cruising Paradise, within the context of Shepard's attitudes towards being a celebrity.]

Challenging the camera over a period of thirty years, Sam Shepard's face appears in sepia and black-and-white on the jackets of three newly issued books. The chiseled bones, the two deep furrows in his forehead, the uncombed mane and dimpled chin are physical constants. What the camera also reveals is how the acid of years and circumstance have etched radical...

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Sam Shepard and Stephanie Coen (interview date September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shepard, Sam, and Stephanie Coen. “Things at Stake Here.” American Theatre 13, no. 7 (September 1996): 28.

[In the following interview, Shepard discusses Buried Child and his likes and dislikes among his various other works.]

[Coen]: In a 1983 interview, you called Buried Child “verbose and overblown” and “unnecessarily complicated.” Is it still something of a problem play for you?

[Shepard]: No, not any more. I think I solved it. (Laughter.) But it was due to this production being able to cast a new light on it—and I guess, too, the amount of time between when it was originally written and the...

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Francis King (review date 16 November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “Splinters and Doodles.” Spectator 277, no. 8783 (16 November 1996): 51.

[In the following review, King compares Shepard's fiction in Cruising Paradise with his dramas, faulting the stories as the “literary equivalent of doodles.”]

A few writers—Chekhov, Pirandello and Maugham at once come to mind—have achieved equal distinction in fiction and drama. But on the evidence of this collection of ‘tales’ (as the dust-jacket terms them), fiction is no more than a subsidiary occupation for the brilliant American dramatist Sam Shepard, along with his other subsidiary occupations, acting, the directing of films and the playing of...

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Don Shewey (essay date July/August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shewey, Don. “Sam Shepard's Identity Dance.” American Theatre 14, no. 6 (July/August 1997): 12-17.

[In the following essay, Shewey debates Shepard's mid-life quandaries, discussing the all-Shepard season at the Signature Theatre in New York, Shepard's collaborations with Joseph Chaikin, and his recent revisions to some of his best known works.]

Since 1991, the Signature Theatre Company in New York has been devoting its entire season to reconsidering a single playwright's body of work. In the past, artistic director James Houghton's choice of playwrights to honor has been undeniably worthy, yet the seasons Signature produced didn't so much alter as confirm...

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Susan Harris Smith (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Susan Harris. “Trying to Like Sam Shepard: Or, the Emperor's New Dungarees.” Contemporary Theatre Review 8, no. 3 (1998): 31-40.

[In the following essay, Smith assesses Shepard's current problematic critical reception, accounting for his early acclaim and his subsequently diminished reputation.]

When Eric Bentley tackled the problem of Eugene O'Neill's prominence, popularity and decline in his testy essay, “Trying to Like O'Neill”, in 1952, he began with a curse: “It would be nice to like O'Neill. He is the leading American playwright; damn him, damn all; and in damning all is a big responsibility. It is tempting to damn all the rest and make...

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Sam Shepard and Michael Phillips (interview date 8 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shepard, Sam, and Michael Phillips. “Sam Shepard's Family Values.” Los Angeles Times (8 November 2000): F1.

[In the following interview, Shepard discusses his casting decisions for and the inspirations behind The Late Henry Moss.]

Halloween Day 2000. Outside Theatre on the Square on Post Street, a woman sporting a French maid outfit trots up the sidewalk with a couple of Draculas and a faux homeless man. Nearby a genuine homeless man looks up from his fragment of bagel, muttering.

Inside, away from the sun, Sam Shepard and company are wading deep into rehearsals for The Late Henry Moss which opens Nov. 14. The wood-paneled hallway...

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Michael Phillips (review date 17 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillips, Michael. “A Man's Life Passes before His Bleary Eyes.” Los Angeles Times (17 November 2000): F1.

[In the following review, Phillips offers a mixed assessment of The Late Henry Moss, noting that the play has “nuggets of gold.”]

In 1986, Robert De Niro returned to the New York stage for a play called Cuba and His Teddy Bear. Two years later, Steve Martin and Robin Williams decided to wait for Samuel Beckett's Godot at Lincoln Center, provoking a similarly noisy stampede for tickets.

You'd have to go back that far, arguably, for the last time such attention-getting film actors caused such a theatrical stir,...

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Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 23 July 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “A Little Legend about Love.” New Statesman 130, no. 4547 (23 July 2001): 45.

[In the following review, Duncan-Jones praises a London production of A Lie of the Mind, calling the play a “triumph.”]

To label Sam Shepard's modern family melodrama A Lie of the Mind as “Greek”, “Shakespearean” or “Chekhovian” would be reductive, even though it has elements of all three. It is, above all, thoroughly American, right up to the symbolic climax in which a crumpled and bloodied Stars and Stripes is first unfurled, then carefully folded, and the choric old man Baylor (Keith Bartlett), seeming scarcely to notice...

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Ann Wilson (essay date 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Ann. “Great Expectations: Language and the Problem of Presence in Sam Shepard's Writing.” In Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights, edited by Kimball King, pp. 257-72. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Wilson examines the issue of linguistic “presence” in Shepard's plays, exploring the theological dimension of Shepard's dramatic language.]

Walt Whitman was a great man. He expected something from America. He had this great expectation.

—Sam Shepard, Action

Sam Shepard is the pre-eminent...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brater, Enoch. “American Clocks: Sam Shepard's Time Plays.” Modern Drama 37, no. 4 (winter 1994): 603-12.

Enoch examines issues of time in Shepard's plays, focusing on A Lie of the Mind and Fool for Love.

DeRose, David J. “A Kind of Cavorting: Superpresence and Shepard's Family Dramas.” In Rereading Shepard: Contemporary Critical Essays on the Plays of Sam Shepard, edited by Leonard Wilcox, pp. 131-49. New York: St. Martin, 1993.

DeRose explores how Shepard's plays incorporate contradictory definitions of postmodernism, tracing his artistic development toward conventional dramatic forms and...

(The entire section is 543 words.)