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.)