Hailed as "the poet laureate of the American West" American playwright Sam Shepard has received critical praise, amassed numerous grants, prizes, fellowships, and awards, seen his plays produced all across the nation in venues ranging from Greenwich Village coffee shops to college campuses, regional theatres to Broadway houses, and achieved an iconic status enjoyed by only a rare few in the history of American theatre.
He was born Samuel Shepard Rogers in Fort Sheridan, Illinois on November 5, 1943. His father, also named Samuel Shepard Rogers, was an Air Force pilot who had fought in World War II. During Shepard's childhood, the family shuffled between various military bases before finally settling in California, where they raised sheep and grew avocados on their farm in Duarte. In a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, Shepard described Duarte as "a weird accumulation of things, a strange kind of melting pot -- Spanish, Okie, black, Midwestern elements all jumbled together. People on the move who couldn't move anymore, who wound up in trailer parks." This is where Shepard spent the impressionable years of his youth, and the effect is evident in his plays. But there was a much darker spectre that haunted Shepard's adolescent years--that of his father's descent into alcoholism and the deterioration of the family. "My father had a real short fuse," Shepard would later tell biographer Don Shewey. "He had a really tough life -- had to support his mother and brothers at a very young age when his dad's farm collapsed. You could see his suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another one. It was past frustration; it was anger."
In high school, Shepard took little interest in his classes, but read poetry and played drums in a garage band. During this period, he also happened to read Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, an experience that says transformed him. He went on to study agriculture at San Antonio Junior College, but soon abandoned his studies to join a company of touring actors. At the age of 19, he found himself in New York, where he changed his name to Sam Shepard and, still inspired by his reading of Beckett's play, decided to become a playwright.
Shepard launched his dramatic career in 1964 with the Theatre Genesis production of two one-act plays, Cowboys and The Rock Garden, at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery. In reviewing Shepard's initial offering, Village Voice critic Michael Smith wrote: "The plays are difficult to categorize, and I'm not sure it would be valuable to try.... Shepard is still feeling his way, working with an intuitive approach to language and dramatic structure and moving into an area between ritual and naturalism, where character transcends psychology, fantasy breaks down literalism, and the patterns of ordinariness have their own lives. His is a gestalt theater which evokes the existence behind behavior. Shepard clearly is aware of previous work in this mode, mostly by Europeans, but his voice is distinctly American and his own." The young playwright solidified his reputation with a series of one-act plays that followed and which were produced in experimental off-off Broadway venues such as La Mama, Cafe Cino, the Open Theatre, and the American Place Theatre. He churned out plays by the dozens, prompting one friend to joke that Shepard wrote plays like other people took drugs. When he wasn't writing, he was reading plays by other dramatists he admired--absurdist figures such as Beckett, Luigi Pirandello, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter.
Shepard would later shy away from his early plays, saying "They were chants, they were incantations, they were spells, or whatever you want to call them. You get on 'em and you go. To say they were well-thought out, they weren't. They were a pulse." (Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself). Matthew Roudané, however, defends Shepard from himself, saying: "Sam Shepard conferred upon the American stage its postmodernity in the 1960s ... he interjected a youthful, exuberant, and experimental voice that extended our appreciation of a postmodern aesthetic.... He traverses the borders of faith, logic, and social coherence to reconnoiter a mythic and cultural terrain filled with uncertainty and the near-absence of love. His is a Zolaesque world, a malevolent universe in which a sense of bafflement and loss prevail" (The Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard).
Shepard's first full-length play, La Turista, was performed at the American Place Theatre and won an Obie in 1967. The Tooth of Crime (1972), a rock-drama written during the four years he lived in London, tells the story of two rock-stars of different generations who battle for territorial domination of an empire. Their duel to the death is not a gun battle, but a rap session in which each musician uses verbal incantations in order to pierce the mask and shatter the confidence of his opponent. The play was staged in its American premiere at Princeton University in 1972. Curse of the Starving Class followed in 1978, marking a new direction in Shepard's approach. The plays written from this point on feature a somewhat more realistic style, although they retain devices of disturbing and imaginative surrealism such as the absent-but-present father who is able to confer with the son and daughter who have conjured him up in Fool for Love (1982).
In the mid-1970s, after returning to California, Shepard was appointed playwright-in-residence at San Francisco's Magic Theatre and wrote the plays that would secure his reputation. Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, and True West, which he wrote in a creative burst of three years, "ripped the door off the hinges, smashed the toasters and exposed an incredible torment at the core of postwar American families" (Kevin Berger, Salon Magazine). Buried Child earned Shepard the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (although he later claimed he "got a greater feeling of accomplishment and pride of achievement" from winning a roping contest in a rodeo), and True West eventually received a critically acclaimed Broadway production starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly.
Shepard's plays are not easy to categorize. They combines wild humor, grotesque satire, myth, and sparse, haunting language to create a subversive pop art vision of America. They blend images of the Old West, rock and roll, drugs, television, and the spiritual starvation of the modern family. They express a profound sense of loss and nostalgia for the pre-urban world. In the modern world, he seems to suggest, the connection between myth, land, and a feeling of purpose in life has been shattered. As Johan Callens writes: "Although Shepard expressly refuses to resort to mysticism and talk of 'holy art' lest he be accused of sophistry or woolliness, both conceptions are clearly imbued with a sense of mystery, which he is eager to explore and loathe" (Sam Shepard: Between the Margin and the Centre). Stephen James Bottoms describes Shepard as "one of the most resolutely iconoclastic playwrights of recent decades: even by comparison with other experimentalists of his own generation, his work is unusually complex in terms of its decenteredness, its multiplicity of layers and perspectives. And while his writing rarely, if ever, displays the kind of self-conscious analytical rigor characteristic of the work of European postmodernist playwrights like Peter Handke, Howard Barker, and Heiner Müller, the restlessly chaotic spirit of Shepard's best plays capture the confusion of contemporary experience with a peculiar immediacy and intensity" (The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis). According to C.W.E. Bigsby, "Shepard is, above all, a poet of the theatre. Nothing he has written shows the least desire, on his part, to earth his work in prose. Language is placed under such pressure, indeed, that at times it collapses in on itself as characters opt for silence or are driven to it. He deals in images. His characters are archetypes, shaped not by environment or even history, unless it be the history of myth, but by elemental passions" ("Blood and Bones Yet Dressed in Poetry: The Drama of Sam Shepard"). As C.W.E. Bigsby points out, "Shepard has no desire to stage the bland exterior of experience. He wishes to slice through the rope" (Modern American Drama).
Also a respected actor, Shepard has appeared in numerous films including Days of Heaven (1978), Frances (1982), The Right Stuff (1983) which earned him an Oscar nomination, Crimes of the Heart (1986), Steel Magnolias (1989), The Pelican Brief (1993), Hamlet (2000), All the Pretty Horses (2000), Swordfish (2001), Black Hawk Down (2001), and Charlotte's Web (2006). Reportedly, however, he only acts in movies to support his writing habit. "You can't make a living as a playwright," he says. "You can barely scrape by."
Shepard's screenplay for Paris, Texas won the Golden Palm Award at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. In 1986 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1992 he received the Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy. In 1994 he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.
Shepard has lived with Oscar-winning actress Jessica Lange (who he met during the filming of Frances) since 1983. The couple has two children: Hannah Jane (born 1985) and Samuel Walker Shepard (born 1987). Shepard also has a son, Jesse Mojo Shepard (born 1970) from a previous marriage.
Shepard's other plays include:
- Cowboys (1964)
- The Rock Garden (1964)
- Chicago (1965)
- Icarus's Mother (1965)
- 4-H Club (1965)
- Red Cross (1966)
- La Turista (1967)
- Cowboys #2 (1967)
- Forensic & the Navigators (1967)
- The Unseen Hand (1969)
- Oh! Calcutta! (1969, contributed sketches)
- The Holy Ghostly (1970)
- Operation Sidewinder (1970)
- Mad Dog Blues (1971)
- Back Bog Beast Bait (1971)
- Cowboy Mouth (1971, co-written with Patti Smith)
- The Tooth of Crime (1972)
- Action (1975)
- Curse of the Starving Class (1978)
- Tongues (1978,co-written with Joseph Chaikin)
- Buried Child (1978)
- True West (1980)
- Savage/Love (1981, co-written with Joseph Chaikin)
- Fool for Love (1983)
- A Lie of the Mind (1985)
- States of Shock (1991)
- Simpatico (1993)
- Buried Child (1995, revised)
- Eyes for Consuela (1998)
- The Late Henry Moss (2000)
- The God of Hell (2004)
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