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.
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.
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.
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.