Sam Shepard Shepard, Sam (Vol. 17) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard 1943–

(Born Sam Rogers) American playwright, screenwriter, short story writer, poet, and actor.

At the age of twenty-two, Shepard had his first off-off-Broadway production and he quickly established a reputation for speaking the language of the young and the disenchanted. He seems to thrive on the controversy attendant to avantgarde writers, and has written more than thirty plays to date. Most of them exhibit a compelling love of words. The idioms and phrasings of popular songs, Western tall tales, and old movies seem to have influenced his style and lend a powerful rhythm to his dialogue. Shepard is extremely interested in the folkways of the American West, especially in those of Native Americans. Operation Sidewinder, for example, devotes much of its plot to an explanation of the significance of the snake to the Hopis.

Shepard also seems to have benefited from his association with several experimental theater groups such as Open Theater and the Café La Mama troupe, where he has found the freedom to develop his own feeling for stagecraft. His sets sometimes verge on the surreal—the protagonist in Chicago spends most of the play in a bathtub—forcing the audience to approach his play in terms of a central, framing metaphor.

Criticism of Shepard's work usually focuses on the overall coherence of his plays. Though they are generally only one act long, their abundance of symbols offers a multitude of possible interpretations. Critics have thought variously, for example, that the Maid in Red Cross who is taught to swim has at the end died, become a fish, undergone evolution in reverse, or experienced a spiritual revelation. Thus Shepard's work has been called frustratingly ambiguous or even hopelessly contradictory.

In his best works Shepard's prolific imagination seems to produce just enough to make everything fit. One of his most successful plays to date has been The Tooth of Crime, an allegorical story of two rock musicians, Hoss and his challenger Crow, who battle it out for control of the musical scene. Here the characters succeed on a symbolic level, speaking lines that to some critics suggest other, classic confrontations in literature. The development of the metaphor of the shootout through the language of rock and roll is sustained and effective.

Shepard has also published a book of notes entitled Rolling Thunder Logbook. Bob Dylan, intending to make a film of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, hired Shepard to write on-the-spot dialogue. When the film project was abandoned, Shepard consolidated his writings and published this loosely structured journal of his experiences during the tour. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

Adrian Rendle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Madness in drama has reached a … universal point of contact in the world of knife-edge dreams and hopes as realized by Sam Shepard….

The marvellous thing about Shepard is that he reads just as well as he plays. For the avant-garde this is unusual. Enthusiasts might be forgiven for defending some plays by saying things like—'Ah, but it was all in the way he masturbated.' Shepard has no need of such excuses. He is a dramatist.

La Turista is a dance and a drama without ever giving in entirely to either of those titles. It is total in its involvement of human feelings and it is up-to-date in reflecting the expanding theatrical imagination without ever becoming indisciplined. The play deals with the incurable state of mankind which is maimed by a state of over-civilization. That is perhaps a trifle crude as a capsule for something that is so wide in its vision. But what a thought it is when taken seriously by a dramatist who knows his avant-garde business without ever becoming faddy or fixated. (p. 91)

The World's sickness, like Kent's is not to be dealt with by witchcraft or twentieth century treatments. The sickness is of our own making. In a sense La Turista becomes the most powerful morality play of our time. (p. 93)

Adrian Rendle, "New Published Plays: 'La Turista'," in Drama, No. 95, Winter, 1965, pp. 91, 93.

Richard F. Shepard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Up to Thursday"] centered on (1) a young man lying in bed under an American flag and (2) four handsome, very young people sitting on straight-back chairs. The examination of drama not being altogether a police case, it is not necessary to pin down motive.

The author draws brightness from the banalities of conversation. Some of his devices are theater of the absurd à la Abbott and Costello, but he cuts deeper. He delineates the initial shyness of a relationship and the unreserved candor of an intimacy. In so doing, he uses vulgarities to establish his franchise as a freeborn playwright, but no matter, he demonstrates stagecraft.

Richard F. Shepard, "'Up to Thursday'," in The New York Times (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1965 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).

Robert Pasolli

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Red Cross is an enigmatic play on many counts, the playwright having left out a great deal of information ordinarily thought pertinent. He avoids elements of exposition, like identification of the scene and of the relationship of Jim and Carol. He avoids delineation of character, such as whether Jim is psychotic, playful or merely young. He leaves unclear the intention of the action: are the calisthenics symbolic masturbation, is the swimming lesson symbolic intercourse? Even his theme is elusive: is the encounter essentially between youth and maturity, man and woman, son and surrogate mother, or physicality and spirituality? His obvious symbols are ambiguous too, like the trickle of blood that appears on Jim's face at the end of the play, which could be an emblem of his having been defeated by the maid, or merely the testament of his lively lice—if, indeed, the lice were real in the first place. Those are some of the possibilities which Mr. Shepard hints at but does not confirm. Rather, he leaves them in suspension, as ambiguities which resonate against one another and against the stage action that produced them.

One wonders why ambiguity doesn't alienate the audience by obfuscation. I think the answer is that the playwright never looks up, but he plunges right through his stage action, giving no sign that he is aware of the peculiarities lurking behind it. It is bravura playwriting, sure and authoriative, and gives us an experience akin to the chambermaid's death by drowning. Like her, we glow with euphoria afterward, wondering about the experience. We have been tricked by the play's vitality, as she has been by Jim's, and our recompense for having submitted is, like hers, the pleasure of confrontation with a queer and mysterious reality.

Robert Pasolli, "Theatre: 'Red Cross'," in The Nation (copyright 1966 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 202, No. 8, February 21, 1966, p. 224.∗

Robert Pasolli

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chicago is a play of vivid stage imagery, slippery symbols and an unbridled indulgence of imagination. It possesses the barest outline of recognizable reality…. [I] think Mr. Shepard intends by it only to lend a minimal credibility to his stage action. The hero, for example, spends all but the final moments of the play in a bathtub, but I don't think the device is meant to do more than locate him and render his existence recognizable…. The tub and the hero in it are stage images, vivid and forceful, and Mr. Shepard gives no indication of wanting them to stand for specific ideas.

Chicago, however, is not without intellectual content, consisting in the interaction between the hero and several acquaintances who wander past his tub and in a long mockheroic monologue—a quite extraordinary evocation of carnal picnicking on the beach that midway along assumes a life of its own, the story taking control of the storyteller.

From all of this it emerges that our alienated hero is hung up, probably on the lag between his imaginative faculty and his intellectual capability; i.e., the alienation felt by the artist. Beyond that I am less sure, but the hero seems to be calling for a more felt life, both a greater perception and a greater physicality. (p. 405)

Robert Pasolli, "Theatre: 'Chicago'," in The Nation (copyright 1966 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 202, No. 14, April 4, 1966, pp. 403-06.∗

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Chicago"] is a fantasy-comedy about a young man in a bathtub….

What gives the play its delights is Mr. Shepard's ability to follow fast after the ephemeral half-thought that is usually unspoken….

The ending—in which the hero's private world is breached by other people and by his acknowledgement of the audience—seems to me to hurt the play. Nevertheless, this is a free-flowing, salty and touching little rhapsody on a small incident seen through the prism of fancy.

Stanley Kauffmann, "'Chicago'," in The New York Times (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1966 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).

David Madden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The audience responded to separate theatrical moments, touches, stunts in [La Turista], though it could not follow the alogic of the play, to use [an] appropriate term. It did follow the play's drift, its strident tone, its attitude of abuse, rebellion and anguished confusion.

In its presentation of the fragments of the author's confused response to the complex society against which he is reacting, the production makes a kind of eclectic free use of elements of the avant garde theatre, and of films such as Truffaut's and Godard's. This new theatre creates new structures for human experience out of radical combinations of the structures of games, rituals, marches, processions, oratory,...

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Sydney Schubert Walter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If the initial production of Fourteen Hundred Thousand was in any way a success, it was only in demonstrating to both myself and Sam Shepard some pitfalls that can be encountered when director and playwright work together. From a critical point of view the production was undeniably a failure.

Fourteen Hundred Thousand is a script characterized by an emphasis on language and a highly formal structure. It is true that the dialogue is elliptical, diffuse; that the play is composed of oddly dissimilar fragments joined together without apparent transitions. This diffuse dialogue, however, these strange fragments, are carefully arranged into a precise pattern. The formality is even carried out in the severe lines and deliberate balance of the set, and in the stage directions. These indicate precisely balanced arrangements of characters which emphasize the isolation of one from another. As the play progresses, words become more important, action less important, until it culminates in a technical description read from a book. (p. 62)

Fourteen Hundred Thousand is a rich and provocative script, and I feel certain that the right production concept will result in a moving theatrical event. I hope some director will accept the challenge which this play offers. (p. 63)

Sydney Schubert Walter, "Notes on 'Fourteen Hundred Thousand'," in Five Plays by Sam Shepard (copyright © 1967 by Sam Shepard), The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967, pp. 62-3.

Jacques Levy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Red Cross is a cool play—in the sense that it is dense, not brought to the point of intellectual clarity, embedded in a series of metaphors which are all interconnected—and because it is a cool play, it must be treated as such, not "hotted up" by filling in the seemingly empty places where not enough is said to make for clear, unitary, conscious meaning. (Two facts are relevant here: [1] Sam can be extraordinarily precise and articulate whenever he feels the necessity of it; [2] He is not a willful obscurantist.) Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them, and what he wants to do has no relationship to the purging of emotions through identification or total involvement. It is more like the way changing a room's temperature does something to the people in it. And because the writing is cool, one must continually skirt the big sucking vacuum-trap of trying to make those astounding verbal trips into some kind of imagist poetry (like Dylan Thomas reciting Bob Dylan). To be simultaneously involved and detached as the play is, as a surgical operation is, as a cat staring is—that's the trick for a production of this play. (pp. 97-8)

Jacques Levy, "Notes on 'Red Cross'," in Five Plays by Sam Shepard (copyright © 1967 by Sam Shepard), The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967, pp. 96-8.

Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Red Cross"] is a disagreeable, and hateful, play. It is also as mysterious and haunting as [Mr. Shepard's] "Chicago" of a few seasons back. Preceded by earsplitting, abrasive rock music that goes on forever, and then by dead silence, "Red Cross" is about a man who is afflicted with body lice. The setting is a cabin in the woods where everything is dead white…. The lice, needless to say, are invisible and (let us hope) metaphorical, so that the question literally becomes: What is eating this infested fellow in this antiseptic setting—a fellow whom we see, at the end, with blood pouring down his face? Although various snap answers, sociological and political, may come to mind, they are not necessarily Mr. Shepard's. His metaphor is his secret…. [The play] is horrid, it is occasionally (and surprisingly) moving, and it is absolutely unrecommendable.

Edith Oliver, "The Theatre: 'Red Cross'," in The New Yorker (© 1968 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 12, May 11, 1968, p. 91.

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shepard is one of the most stimulating figures in the off-and-off-off-Broadway theater; in Red Cross, he conjures up a day in the estival life of a young couple in a forest cabin. She wakes up with a vision of her head splitting open someday on a ski slope; while she goes off to do the shopping, he entertains the maid who comes in from town with tales of his crab lice that have, he claims, bothered him for years. He also gives her a swimming lesson on top of two parallel beds. When his wife (or companion) returns, she has itchy privates and he, suddenly, a cracked-open skull. The transference of ailments is rather perfunctory and little more than a disembodied coup de théâtre. But the scene with the maid is spectacular dementia…. This is a surreal ontogeny (or phylogeny) in reverse, a weirdly alive regression throbbing and thrashing about on the stage….

At times an inspired, prophetic hallucination takes over. It is an infection caught from an absurd world; transmuted, it makes the theater break out in a rash of genius.

John Simon, "The Stage: 'Red Cross'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1968 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 13, June 14, 1968, p. 384.

Gerald Weales

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Except for Melodrama Play], which has something approximating a conventional plot, [the plays collected in Shepard's Five Plays] are all constructed in the same fashion. He puts a number of not very well differentiated characters into a situation in which an undefined something seems to be going on and lets them talk, either in long monologues or in exchanges that tend toward single-sentence lines. It is possible to find meaning, in the traditional sense, in his works, to assume that the bookcase chore in Fourteen Hundred Thousand is a lifetime task, unwillingly undertaken; that Icarus's Mother is about the bomb; that Melodrama Play is incidentally concerned with making satirical...

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Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Everything about Sam Shepard's "Operation Sidewinder" is important to our theatre. More than any recent major production, it is built upon exactly the style and the mentality energizing the youth movement in America today. It is conceived and written in the pop style, a sort of cross between pop art and McLuhanism. It is very cool. It incorporates this sense and look with those of pop art … and pop—in the same sense—music. It is very American in its feel, its concerns, its attitudes again a reflection of what's going on.

For all these things, Shepard's new play is important because it at last brings onto a stage what is so energetic in America today, giving the theatre a chance to be modern, to...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Operation Sidewinder"] is clearly an interesting and for all its apparent naïveté a possibly significant play.

I cannot say that at first sight I understood it, but this may be as much my fault as Mr. Shepard's, even though at the moment I arrogantly doubt it. Mr. Shepard has written a phantasmagoric satire about the end of the world—or at least about the end of American materialism.

Mr. Shepard divides people into those of the snake and those of the lizard. Snake people are of the spirit and lizard people are of the earth. And the lizard people win the final confrontation with an explosion to end all explosions….

There are many contrasts here. The contrast...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The style of "Operation Sidewinder" is that of the comic strip, which gives the author's occasional seriously uttered banalities the nervous poignancy of anything that is said at the wrong time and place. If it is the function of the comic strip to make extreme activity take the place of—and not merely disguise the lack of—genuine content, the function of a play is to do precisely the opposite; once Mr. Shepard has exploited his POW!s and ZAP!s he is left with little but magical incantations to offer us, and they are not enough. (p. 115)

If Mr. Shepard will indulge his talent and ignore his mind, he cannot be disappointed when his audiences fail to be moved by a Disney version of...

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Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Operation Sidewinder] makes two complementary points: contemporary America is a scene of total madness and brutality, and this is so because a break between spiritual and material values is destined to destroy us. (p. 380)

[Much] of the play is dull. This is due only in part to the impression of aimlessness made by the peculiar sequence of scenes. Contributing even more to a strange boredom is the fact that the play's satire, for all its extravagance and color, is banal. There are random killings, popular obscenities, and a farcically conceived atmosphere of "Wild West" abandon. These are very much like the simplistic blasphemies about the idiotic heartlessness of our reigning mercantile,...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Despite my worst instincts I cannot prevent myself from mildly loving the plays of [Sam Shepard]…. He is so sweetly unserious about his plays, and so desperately serious, about what he is saying.

Mr. Shepard is perhaps the first person to write good disposable plays. He may well go down in history as the man who became to drama what Kleenex was to the handkerchief. And just like Kleenex he may well overcome….

[He] bombarded my beleagured mind … with two simple little plays (I scarcely understood a word of them) "The Unseen Hand" and "Forensic and the Navigators." Read those titles again, dear reader, or even dear readers, for they give the flavor of the work. Not so much...

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Catharine Hughes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There] are occasions when I have no idea what to say about Sam Shepard….

Shepard is very much the avant garde man of the moment….

The Unseen Hand—part science fiction, part caricature western, part allegory—is Shepard very much into his own (mixed) bag, a sort of 'The Apocalypse Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out'….

Shepard [takes] potshots at many of the favourite American myths and realities. (Azusa, incidentally, stands for "everything from A to Z in the USA'). At times he resorts to clichés and banalities nearly on a par with those he indicts—'They have a revolution now and everything stays just like it was'; 'Why should you feel...

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Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard is fascinated by America's folk heroes, which for him means not merely historical and legendary figures, but also movie and pop stars. These larger-than-life people and their illusions—almost everyone wants to be someone else—populate the stage in his free-wheeling new play "Mad Dog Blues."…

[Kosmo] is apparently a modern prototype of the movie cowboy. Yahoodi … is not so apparently a modern prototype of the movie gangster, although he acts shifty and dreams about being Bogey. It is possible that Mr. Shepard did not mean the two to represent anything except themselves, but the emanations they give off of their classic predecessors add an extra level.

The best...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard is one of those natural dramatists who is almost obsessed with dramatic form. In "Melodrama Play" …, Mr. Shepard is as much concerned with being melodramatic as with being playful.

He is trying to take the essence of the old melodrama—its exaggerated expression of understandable feeling and its use of music for accentuation and extension—and to give it a new life. The attempt has often been tried before, but always at the expense of the melodrama. In such contemporary updatings the form was presented—slightly off-key—in a manner meant to be laughed at. Mr. Shepard, on the other hand, is doing the far more difficult feat of exploring the form's present validity….


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Richard A. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sam Shepard] has a tremendous ability to make words bring the imagination of an audience to life. (p. 12)

Distances, levels, and points of view are important to Shepard's plays. [In Icarus' Mother the] pilot observing the characters below, and the characters observing him above are both fascinated by each other. The pilot is literally burning up his excess energy: he trails it in the sky and writes the formula for it in the air. We can assume he took off from the earth and separated himself from the others. If we can accept Howard's explanation of a pilot's situation, a pilot, however much he tries to maintain control above, is always tempted to look down. What he sees is beautiful to him,...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shepard's plays have a spine that is the thrust of his perceptions. The vertebrae are not obvious because the energy of the perceptions creates a field or an aura surrounding them. We have fields of musculature around our spines, and then electric charge around the musculature—so have these plays. Plays are organisms. (p. 1)

The Cowboy Mouth is just the opposite of what it looks like. It is pure elegance of intellect.

The slapdash of the speeches and the spontaneousness of Cavale and Slim make a shape that is a pawprint of the Universe. The ego of the artist settles into the field of the self's unattached experience and information and makes them a whole—then extends...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Shepard writes mythic plays in American jazz-poetry. He writes about today but obliquely, which is possibly the only way today can be written about. He is trying to express truths wrapped up in legends and with the kind of symbolism you often find nowadays in pop music. His command of language is daring and inventive—some of the words sound new, and quite a few of them actually are. The playwright has a musician's command of speech rhythms and links them to character and thought patterns. It is a lean and supple language, hip and bouncy. In a way, it is a white man's version of black argot—but not quite. It has its own way of dealing with words, and, while it clearly acknowledges a debt, it does have its own...

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Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard, at around thirty, is one of the three or four most gifted playwrights alive. His "The Tooth of Crime" is … strong and vivid and funny…. The play, like Mr. Shepard's wonderful "The Unseen Hand," of several years ago, is a comedy with science-fiction trimmings. It is about an aging and garrulous fellow of the Old West called Hoss, whose control of his territory is threatened by a "new" man, an icy, impersonal, taciturn young fellow called Crow. The play is also about the nature of fantasy (Mr. Shepard may be the first dramatist since [Luigi] Pirandello to bring us news on the subject of illusion and reality) and about power and feeling and the end of romance, and in the Old West Shepard has found the...

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Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard is a voice from the "underground," a poet's voice. His plays are mythic. They speak of the contemporary world and subliminally convey a social "message." They possess no specific ideology, they proclaim no prophesy except the ultimate doom of the present state of civilization. They express a yearning for restoration through the ancient virtues of kindness and human brotherhood, unity of flesh and spirit. Because he employs no philosophic identification tags, what he tells us must of necessity remain somewhat vague or ambiguous.

The Tooth of Crime … is a characteristic Shepard play and possibly his best….

The sum is often a sort of surrealist automatic writing,...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Unseen Hand is a hallucination based on fact—a compound of nostalgia and celebration in the face of the more tawdry elements of American life—which draws its energy from a compost heap, the flamboyant vulgarity of California culture.

Partly observed, partly absorbed, the characters of the play are a weird blending of authentic types and media constructs….

Shepard's approach is simply to place these disparate characters against a contemporary landscape, and let them work upon each other….

[Shepard] continues to confront American popular culture with a kind of manic exuberance—not exalting its every wart and pimple, like Andy Warhol, but...

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Charles R. Bachman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For several years Sam Shepard has been acknowledged as the most talented and promising playwright to emerge from the Off-off Broadway movement. Now, more than a decade after his work was first performed, he is increasingly recognized as one of the more significant dramatists in the English-speaking world. (p. 405)

Shepard draws much of his material from popular culture sources such as B-grade westerns, sci-fi and horror films, popular folklore, country and rock music and murder-mysteries. In his best work he transforms the original stereotyped characters and situations into an imaginative, linguistically brilliant, quasi-surrealistic chemistry of text and stage presentation which is original and...

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Michael Feingold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard fills the role of professional playwright as a good ballet dancer or acrobat fulfills his role in performance: That is, he always delivers; he executes feats of dexterity and technical difficulty that an untrained person could not, and makes them seem easy. Occasionally the performance is merely dexterous, done with soundness but not with the deepest feelings. Even then, the performance is always satisfying; rarely is there a slipup. Shepared is reliable, a professional secure in the authority of his techniques…. Shepard has the real playwright's gift of habitually transposing his feelings and visions into drama as a mere matter of praxis. He speaks through the theatre as naturally as most of us speak...

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Chet Flippo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Rolling Thunder Logbook] is more remarkable for what was left out than for what was put in. In his introduction, Shepard cannily seeks to defuse such criticism by saying that reasons for the tour and the failure of the film don't matter, that the only purpose of the book is to provide a taste of the experience.

That's thin reasoning for an equally thin book. Shepard's style here could best be described as hit-and-run journalism; an image garnered here, a scrap picked up there. There are some good scraps, nonetheless: Roger McGuinn's nightmares about being assassinated onstage; the buffoonery behind the attempts at making a film; Jack Kerouac's brother-in-law's bar; the transformation of a...

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Michael Feingold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Shepard's plays] have no extrinsics. Not only their meaning lies in themselves, but also their mode and their tradition. Shepard's theatre, as much as Richard Foreman's or Robert Wilson's, is the theatre of a private artist—one who happens to have the gift of making instant public connection with his words. The other web of connections that we call stage convention isn't there; the inner sense comes to you unmediated, direct, implacable—make of it what you will….

[Icarus' Mother and Cowboy Mouth] deal with the essential elements of theatre—play and illusion. In Cowboy Mouth, written in collaboration with Patti Smith, the two characters are plainly playful avatars of...

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Robert Palmer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard's "Rolling Thunder Logbook" is a particularly interesting literary genre, the rock-tour-as-mythic-quest narrative. It is interesting primarily because the Rolling Thunder tour in 1976 was interesting….

[Clearly], Mr. Shepard's book could have been more than interesting. The poets of the Beat Generation, early folkies like Mr. [Ramblin' Jack] Elliott, and the penetration of their strain of ambient bohemianism into the mainstream of American culture, with Bob Dylan in the vanguard, constituted a cultural revolution, if not quite a social one. The repercussions of this revolution have died down somewhat, but they are still very much with us.

Rolling Thunder was not simply...

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Thomas P. Adler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Curse of the Starving Class] Shepard displays some of the same anti-capitalistic bias and revolutionary fervor Shaw once did, but here without the novelty in form that is almost a trademark of Shepard's earlier plays. Nothing of the rock culture in this one; instead, we are given an old-fashioned, evidently autobiographical, family problem play, mostly naturalistic (though punctuated by poetic cadenzas) and so banal in its outlines as to make us wonder if this alltime favorite genre has not run its course….

I would like to report that the play works better and more creatively on the symbolic level, but here the imagery tends to excess. The empty refrigerator that the characters stare...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard is phenomenal. He is the best practicing American playwright, I think, now that Tennessee Williams is doodling….

Curse of the Starving Class … is another of Shepard's heartbreakers—it contains so much, yet it finally comes to not enough…. [It] deals with California sheep raisers and thus immediately strikes a distinctive Shepard note. He often deals with non-urban people, often in the West; most of our playwrights are urban in setting and feeling….

Shepard stokes a simmering heat under the whole play, even under the punchy comic sections, a ruthlessness, a kind of anger that makes the essential drama seem to be not in the story but between the writer...

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John Lahr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of all contemporary American playwrights, Sam Shepard alone still has romantic feeling for the landscape. He is not a city playwright; but a Midwestern wanderer who has driven the backroads of the land, tramped its wilderness, scored on its main streets, and explored in his writing the mythology of the nation. He is a protean figure; and the weird terrains of his plays sparkle with the insights of a man who has inhabited many worlds—musician, addict, cowboy, bad-ass horse breeder, and even … movie star….

Shepard's greatest asset as a playwright is his voracious curiosity about America. But if he dissects the society with unusual precision, he is also contaminated by part of its sickness. In a...

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Michael Feingold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In one of the more revealing images of Sam Shepard's Seduced, the mind in pursuit of an idea is compared to a bird of prey swooping down on a rabbit. The image is both homey and disturbing, typical of Shepard in its physicality, its seeming innocence, and the hidden terror it carries: A simple cowboy lost in our insane urban society, at heart he may be more frightened than anyone else by the sensitivity of his perceptions, the lucidity of his thoughts. The tension in Shepard's paradoxical self—the mind of a Kafka trapped in the body of a Jimmy Stewart—probably explains the triumphant success of his screen persona in Days of Heaven….

The paradox Shepard embodies in Days of...

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Carol Rosen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard is a playwright of zap-pop-pow action, and he is a playwright of comic-book verbs: his plays flash, zoom, and screech across the stage. Primary colors ooze through neon tubing, jazz and rock music shoot through a sound system, and characters hurl words like weapons, wounding each other with Shepard's heightened version of American English, a language of riffs, culled from slang, jargon, punk talk, dime novels, and B-movies. Shepard floods his stage with such language, a codified language of energy sounding through space; and he peoples his stage with the lone heroes of American myths. Gangsters, rock stars, cowboys, and science-fiction images cohabit on his stage; rub-outs, hits, showdowns, and take-offs...

(The entire section is 760 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The plot of Buried Child] is a little too reminiscent of Pinter's The Homecoming. The funny, bitchy family infighting may owe something also to Edward Albee. The mother sequestered upstairs, who at play's end apostrophizes the sun, may be derived from Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman and the Osvald of Ghosts. But Buried Child has a strong visual life on stage, and the images do make a kind of sense. We get only adequate dialogue: sometimes wryly funny, sometimes menancing, often despairing, but never distinguished. The visual images, however, have a powerful presence for which the words are a sufficient underpinning.

Clearly, the land, the back yard, pushes the past back up...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

William A. Raidy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sam Shepard's vast canvas of the disintegrating American landscape, both physical and spiritual, continues in a rather fragmented way in his new drama, Seduced …, which deals on the surface with the last day on earth of a mysterious billionaire tycoon made in the image of the late Howard Hughes.

As usual, the prolific Shepard chooses to use both comedy and allegory, as well as deep-rooted symbolism, to make his philosophical points. Most of the audience are willing to take this drama on its surface level, a vision of Howard Hughes, in him germproof self-imprisonmment, entertaining a few of his favourite doxies from the past and musing about his days of strength and glory. Shepard, of course,...

(The entire section is 236 words.)