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

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY WENDY SMITH book­world@wash­post.com Wendy Smith is the au­thor of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and Amer­ica, 1931-1940.”

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.

SCOTT SUCHMAN

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.

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