Sam Shepard, who passed away last Thursday as a result of complications from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), has been an integral part of America’s artistic landscape for half a century. As a playwright and actor, Shepard distinguished himself as a unique voice and presence since bursting on the scene in the late 1960’s. If you are (somehow) not familiar with Shepard’s work, it is incumbent upon you to explore his plays, in particular, starting with his experimental (often called “absurdist”) theater pieces through his riveting family dramas that earned three Pulitzer nominations (with one winner). My Shepard odyssey began in the early 1970’s when my colleague, Peter Tarshis (a brilliant artist in his own right), introduced me to the thriving experimental theater scene on the Lower East Side of New York City --- groups like Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre, Richard Schechner’s Performance Group (the predecessor to the Wooster Group, 1975), Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Project (1968), and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater were eye-opening and brilliant. Peter instigated a trip to see Shepard’s “The Tooth of Crime” (maybe by the Performance Group?) and I was hooked on Shepard from that point on. Shortly after that, my classmate Charles Levin was in a Yale Repertory production of “The Geography of a Horse Dreamer” and Shepard’s bizarre, haunting imagery had sunk its teeth deep into my soul.
Starting with “The Curse of the Starving Class” (1978) Shepard’s plays became more “naturalistic” and were, at least on the surface, ”family” dramas. “Buried Child,” “Fool for Love,” “True West,” and “A Lie of the Mind” moved his work from the late 1970’s through the 1980’s when Sam, the actor, suddenly became a well-known Hollywood performer as a result of his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Right Stuff” (playing test pilot Chuck Yeager). His screenplay for Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas won the Golden Palm Award at Cannes in 1984 and Shepard was the talk of the town, appearing on magazine covers, collaborating with Bob Dylan, and marrying Jessica Lange. And that’s around the time I dove in full bore (as I am wont to do) --- studying the man and his work.
In 1985 I was teaching in the English Department at Winchester High School, just north of Boston, and, for some reason, they needed someone to direct their fall drama production. I volunteered with the stipulation that I wanted to do the Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child --- even though there are only seven characters (high school’s generally look for maximum participation numbers, not necessarily the quality of their productions). Having watched the aforementioned Mr. Tarshis execute a number of challenging (and small cast) productions at Blind Brook High School in Westchester, I persisted, they relented, and 14 young actors (principals & understudies) embarked on what became our three month seminar on Sam Shepard and a wonderful production. It was emotional, intense, and deeply educational. Seeing The New Group’s production of the play (with Ed Harris and Amy Madigan leading the cast) in March 2016 it resonated like a tuning fork! Pulitzer finalist playwright Christopher Shinn saw the production and said: ”I felt the play pulsing with Sam Shepard’s unconscious, and I realized how rarely I feel that in the theater today.” (NY Times August 1, 2017) And that’s what Shepard’s plays do --- more than any others in modern American theater.
Was he “our greatest living playwright” before he passed away last Thursday? Who knows --- that kind of label is hard to assign to anyone and Shepard, certainly, would laugh off the entire notion. Yet his work has already withstood the “test of time” measure (Buried Child won the Pulitzer in 1979, almost 40 years ago!) and there’s no reason to doubt it will continue to be performed far into the future. What’s more significant, is that we are losing his voice. On March 15th I was in a Barnes and Noble and picked up Shepard’s last work of prose, The One Inside, a novel (of sorts) that investigates that vast psychological interior landscape the author probes in all his work. In the Foreword, Patti Smith, the poet and singer, describes the main character this way: “He’s just going to keep on living till he dies.” (p. xi) Which is kind of what Shepard did. Early in the book the narrators says, “I’m exactly one year older than my father was when he died . . . as though it were some kind of achievement rather than raw chance. Rather than happenstance.” He finishes the chapter reflecting on “Nabokov’s answer to why he writes --- ‘aesthetic bliss”’--- that’s all, ‘aesthetic bliss.’ Yes. Whatever that is.” In Shepard’s world, everything was a mystery and it was all right there! inside us --- to be plumbed, and probed and prodded.
Invoking his father is a recurrent Shepard theme and his passing leads me down that path, too. Like my father, Shepard was approaching his 74th birthday when he passed away and, like my dad, he was not someone who sought the spotlight and was clearly comfortable in his own (“masculine”) skin. Years ago, I ran across a photo of my Dad (taken in 1972) and it reminded me of Shepard’s picture on the cover of his Fool for Love and Other Plays. There’s a rare smile on each man’s face, and their flannel shirts and swept back hair creates a resemblance that struck me then --- and now. And I think it speaks to how deeply Sam Shepard’s art resonates that, in writing a eulogy for Sam, I can’t not mention my own father.