BOOKS: A biography reveals the real Sam Shepard.
John Winters’s biography is a solid survey of the American icon’s life but fails to illuminate his genius as a playwright
Sam Shepard occupies a slightly schizophrenic position in American culture. He is one of the most important playwrights of the last half-century, savagely deconstructing the American zeitgeist in innovative language charged with vernacular speech and weighted by existential dread. Yet just as Shepard entered the period of his greatest plays with “Curse of the Starving Class” in the late 1970s, he also embarked on an acting career that turned him into an icon of all-American authenticity, most notably in his Oscar-nominated performance as test pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff.”
Over the years, Shepard’s screen persona has been conflated with his achievements as a writer, creating “the intrepid artist-cowboy of popular imagination,” as John J. Winters puts it in his new, thoroughly researched biography. Winters’s goal is to reveal “the chasm that exists between the Shepard the public sees and thinks it knows, and the man himself.” Taking advantage of the playwright’s papers in recently opened university archives, as well as the 2013 publication of correspondence between Shepard and his friend Johnny Dark, Winters does indeed capture a personality more anxious and self-doubting than previous biographers have grasped. Regrettably, this does not lead to keener insights into his plays, and sometimes Winters’s efforts to demythologize Shepard come across as the desire to take him down a peg or two.
But “Sam Shepard: A Life” provides a capable survey of Shepard’s life and work. Winters takes time to debunk Shepard’s claim that he was a hell-raising teen in Southern California by quoting a classmate who called him “nice, polite, quiet” and pointing to his membership in the Future Farmers of America. It’s one of many instances of Winters’s pedantic tendency to correct self-mythologizing reminiscences, offered in the first flush of fame, that Shepard has long since disavowed. A warm portrait of Shepard’s strong, supportive mother balances more familiar material about the alcoholic father whose violence finally prompted 19-year-old Sam to leave home in early 1963.
Shepard landed a job with a touring theater company and arrived in New York City eight months later. A year after that, not quite 21, he made an explosive entrance onto the off-off-Broadway scene with the double bill of “Cowboys” and “The Rock Garden.” Winters conscientiously recaps these apprenticeship years without betraying any special enthusiasm for the aggressively experimental work that thrilled adventurous theatergoers — and provoked subscription cancellations at the American Place Theatre and Lincoln Center.
He’s clearly relieved to get to the playwright’s famous sevenmonth affair with Patti Smith and their collaboration on “Cowboy Mouth,” “important because it showed Shepard how to write a true rock ’n’ roll play.” Winters isn’t exactly a gossip, but he’s most comfortable sketching Shepard’s personal life and identifying autobiographical elements in his writing.
Those details are certainly relevant when the narrative arrives at the family plays. Goaded by director Peter Brook, who told him he needed to pay more attention to character, and his own uneasy sense that “I was maybe avoiding a territory I needed to investigate,” Shepard brought his paternal heritage of violence and alcoholism onstage in “Curse of the Starving Class” (1977), “Buried Child” (1978), “True West” (1980), “Fool for Love” (1983) and “A Lie of the Mind” (1985). These astonishing works marry the legacies of Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett in scorching dramas that sound like absolutely no one else’s and yet are rooted in theatrical tradition.
Winters dutifully traces Shepard’s major themes: the mutability of identity counterposed against the taint of heredity, the blight of “progress” and the fatal consequences of our alienation from the land. What he doesn’t really do is convey the spell these plays cast, the mesmerizing immersion in the river of language that pours from Shepard’s characters. Previous biographers have attempted this by quoting Shepard’s cascading soliloquies at length; Winters rarely excerpts more than a line or two. Whether he was denied permission or simply chose this approach, it seriously hampers full appreciation of Shepard’s genius.
“Deep analysis of his dramatic work is available in many scholarly books,” Winters writes defensively. This book is for “those interested in the man, his key works, his major films, his ideas, and his life.” Those subjects are all here, covered in the depth that sentence suggests. Winters skates through Shepard’s acting career, spending more time on the early films that shaped his image, such as “Days of Heaven” and “Frances.” The latter launched a relationship with costar TOP: Todd Cerveris, left, as Austin and Ted Koch as Lee in “True West.” Jessica Lange that endured for nearly 30 years, and we get ample information about their turbulent partnership, his drinking and her mood swings. It’s the stuff of a thousand Hollywood biographies, and although Shepard is a solid, conscientious actor, his work in the movies pales in comparison to his extraordinary accomplishments as a playwright.
Winters needn’t write deep, scholarly analysis, but it’s disappointing to find him unable to capture for general readers the distinctive qualities that make Shepard’s plays central achievements in the modern theater. The new material about his personal issues isn’t interesting enough to compensate for this failure.
SAM SHEPARD A Life By John J. Winters Counterpoint. 432 pp. $30
Sam Shepard, in 2014 photo, wasn’t even 21 when he made a splash in New York.