The cow­boy play­wright

Sam Shep­ard, a brood­ing screen pres­ence, rewrote the rules of the stage.


Eu­gene O’Neil brought grav­i­tas to the Amer­i­can the­ater. Ten­nessee Wil­liams al­lowed it to lyri­cally sing. Arthur Miller raised its po­lit­i­cal tem­per­a­ture. And Edward Al­bee in­fused it with an ab­sur­dist flair.

But it took Sam Shep­ard, the great­est play­wright to emerge from the eco­nom­i­cally strapped, ar­tis­ti­cally fer­tile off-off Broad­way move­ment launched in the 1960s, to make the Amer­i­can the­ater fi­nally seem cool.

Shep­ard, whose death from com­pli­ca­tions of Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease at age 73 was an­nounced Mon­day, may be re­mem­bered by the en­ter­tain­ment me­dia as the hand­somely chis­eled film star who was long linked ro­man­ti­cally to Jes­sica Lange. But his en­dur­ing legacy ex­ists as the au­thor of such emo­tion­ally naked, dream­like dra­mas as “The Tooth of Crime,” “Curse of the Starv­ing Class,” “Buried Child” (awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979), “True West,” “Fool for Love,” and “A Lie of the Mind.”

Not ev­ery­one will agree with me that he was Amer­ica’s best drama­tist since Wil­liams. But as some­one

who has taught play­writ­ing for years, I can say that, if Sa­muel Beck­ett has been the god of mod­ern the­ater, Shep­ard has been the more ac­ces­si­ble demigod who has in­spired more young tal­ents than any other.

An Amer­i­can orig­i­nal who care­fully bur­nished an im­age as a writ­ing cow­boy, Shep­ard flirted with cat­e­gories only to elude them. He may have looked like a rodeo star, but he was a nat­u­ral avant-gardist with a deep ex­is­ten­tial­ist streak.

Born in Illi­nois and raised in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, he came of age cre­atively in the early 1960s in Green­wich Vil­lage. Car­ry­ing the Amer­i­can West on his back, he im­mersed him­self in the fu­sion of rad­i­cal new devel­op­ments in jazz, rock ’n’ roll, com­edy, poetry, the vis­ual arts and, yes, even­tu­ally, even the the­ater, which was about to re­lin­quish its long­stand­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a cul­tural lag­gard.

Shep­ard trav­eled to New York with a tour­ing troupe he joined af­ter his stint as a de­liv­ery boy in Pasadena, a job he took af­ter work­ing as ranch hand around Chino. Act­ing was his way out of the cul­tural desert.

He was still a teenager when he ar­rived in New York. “I was knock­ing around, try­ing to be an ac­tor, writer, mu­si­cian, what­ever hap­pened,” Shep­ard re­counted to the Paris Re­view. He bunked with a group of mu­si­cians, one of whom was the son of jazz great Charles Min­gus, and worked as a bus­boy at the Vil­lage Gate, a night­club in the cen­ter of the down­town ferment. It wasn’t long be­fore he fell in with a crowd that was pre­sent­ing plays that be­haved more like rowdy per­for­mance col­lages than lit­er­ary dra­mas.

Why shouldn’t the­ater artists pose as di­rect an as­sault on the senses as a Char­lie Parker jazz riff or a Ja­nis Jo­plin wail or a Jack­son Pol­lock ac­tion paint­ing or a Lenny Bruce harangue? Shep­ard didn’t see why he should have to choose be­tween Beck­ett and Bob Dy­lan, and lucky for him, coun­ter­cul­tural rebels were busy dis­man­tling these di­vi­sions.

The bur­geon­ing off-of­fBroad­way scene that in­cluded Caffé Cino, the Jud­son Po­ets’ The­ater, La MaMa and The­atre Ge­n­e­sis cared less about ré­sumés and train­ing than about raw ex­pres­siv­ity and dan­ger­ous pas­sion. The bar to en­try wasn’t high if you had con­vic­tion. Play­wrights who were bap­tized in these wa­ters — Lan­ford Wil­son, Maria Irene Fornés, Ter­rence McNally, Jean-Claude van Ital­lie — changed the course of con­tem­po­rary drama, and Shep­ard rose to the head of this thrillingly in­sub­or­di­nate class.

“Sam was an ex­cit­ing cen­tral fig­ure in our young Green­wich Vil­lage ’60s rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ater,” van Ital­lie wrote to me af­ter news of Shep­ard’s death. “A mar­velously in­tu­itive and imag­i­na­tive play­wright and friend, he lan­guaged the times.”

Critic Richard Gil­man, re­call­ing Shep­ard as a young man ab­sorb­ing the ex­am­ple of di­rec­tor Joseph Chaikin at the Open The­ater in 1965, writes of “a James Dean-like youth with an un-Dean-like in­tel­lec­tual glint in his eyes.” Chaikin, who was con­duct­ing vi­tal the­atri­cal re­search on the pres­ence of the ac­tor and the re­vi­tal­iza­tion of rit­ual, had a mas­sive in­flu­ence on Shep­ard’s play­writ­ing imag­i­na­tion. Gil­man points to “trans­for­ma­tions,” ex­er­cises in which im­pro­vi­sa­tions were rapidly changed to build agility, sup­ple­ness and en­sem­ble unity, as a cru­cial link be­tween these two fig­ures.

An out­law who has be­come part of the main­stream, Shep­ard is now en­sconced in the the­atri­cal canon, but it is still dif­fi­cult to find a vocabulary that can pre­cisely ac­count for his bril­liance. “A play’s like mu­sic — ephemeral, elu­sive, ap­pear­ing and dis­ap­pear­ing all the time,” Shep­ard told Amer­i­can The­atre mag­a­zine in a re­mark that il­lus­trates the crit­i­cal chal­lenge.

Most the­ater­go­ers know the great fam­ily plays (“Buried Child,” fore­most among them.) There are some who see his ear­lier and more ex­per­i­men­tal ef­forts as a long ap­pren­tice­ship that fi­nally cul­mi­nated in this se­ries of do­mes­tic dra­mas, in which the au­thor is con­fronting the mem­ory of his bru­tal, al­co­holic father.

This is a rather sim­plis­tic way of ap­pre­ci­at­ing a play­wright whose ca­reer doesn’t lend it­self read­ily to a nar­ra­tive of pro­gres­sion. The aes­thetic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion isn’t some­thing Shep­ard grad­u­ated from. “True West” and “Fool for Love” are still driven more by sub­jec­tive emo­tion than by plot, still play fast and loose with time, and still be­lieve that “char­ac­ter” is some­thing that we in­vent for each other rather than a ves­sel that we sail safely in­side of on the jour­ney from cra­dle to grave.

Shep­ard will be re­mem­bered for the way he took pop cul­tural myths on a mod­ernist ride, for his de­con­struc­tions of the Amer­i­can dream and the fame game, and for the leap in our un­der­stand­ing that char­ac­ter is more mer­cu­rial and per­for­ma­tive than psy­cho­log­i­cal re­al­ism would have us be­lieve. But I cher­ish Shep­ard above all for the way he trans­formed the wounds of the male psy­che into con­crete the­atri­cal sounds and images that could cut through the ha­bit­ual un­truths that deaden not only our the­ater but our lives.

Fa­thers break­ing down doors, hus­bands bear­ing down on their wives, a brother uri­nat­ing on his sis­ter’s art­work, a lover las­so­ing a rope while brood­ing about his for­bid­den beloved — Shep­ard re­vealed the di­vided hearts of men, long­ing for con­nec­tion while cov­et­ing in­de­pen­dence, forced into bat­tle and yet un­able to stop fight­ing once they’ve re­turned home. The for­mal ad­ven­tur­ous­ness, which con­tin­ued through­out his some­what less suc­cess­ful later plays, ban­ished sen­ti­men­tal­ity and fore­stalled psy­cho­log­i­cal self-in­dul­gence.

Like all great artists, Shep­ard told us our story as he was trans­fig­ur­ing his own. The so­cial di­men­sion of his work, he in­sisted, was se­condary to the ex­is­ten­tial con­flicts an­i­mat­ing his dra­mas. But the prism through which he viewed the hu­man tragi­com­edy was un­mis­tak­ably Amer­i­can. No play­wright of his gen­er­a­tion has man­aged to put more of our cul­tural life on­stage.

Shep­ard thought imag­is­ti­cally, and I have seared in my mind the im­age of him laugh­ing up­roar­i­ously with Lange as they watched “The Lieu­tenant of Inish­more” at the At­lantic The­ater Com­pany in New York. It’s no sur­prise that he was as re­spon­sive as an au­di­ence mem­ber as he was as a play­wright.

A fi­nal im­age: Walk­ing home from the New York Pub­lic The­ater af­ter see­ing a re­vival of “Ac­tion,” a Shep­ard play in which char­ac­ters speak and act in ways that will frus­trate any­one ex­pect­ing a com­pre­hen­si­ble story to emerge, I turned to my sig­nif­i­cant other at the time and tried to ex­plain the prob­lem I had with the pro­duc­tion in lan­guage that was so in­co­her­ent and non­se­quen­tial that the two of us laughed all the way home at just how ac­cu­rately Shep­ard had nailed our con­di­tion.

Robert Caplin For The Times

SAM SHEP­ARD, shown in Man­hat­tan in 2006, had an ex­is­ten­tial­ist air de­spite hav­ing bur­nished an im­age as a writ­ing cow­boy.

Jay Thompson South Coast Repertory

ED HAR­RIS, seated, and John Ash­ton are shown in 1981 in Shep­ard’s play “True West” at South Coast Repertory Sec­ond Stage.

Chris Schwartz A Noise Within

SAM SHEP­ARD’S play “Buried Child,” shown at A Noise Within, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.