Brow Beat

The Genius of Sam Shepard Was Relentless, Without a Break

Sam Shepard in 2007.
Sam Shepard in 2007.

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Here’s how I discovered Sam Shepard:

In the ’90s, back before Giuliani and co. broken-windowed the last vestiges of seediness from Times Square, the Drama Book Shop lived above some kind of adult emporium. I was there, looking for plays. The highest honor in my high school was directing a one-act your senior year. It was the brass ring, and even though I was only in eighth grade, I was planning how I would clutch it.

This was my first ever visit to the Drama Book Shop, but it would become an annual pilgrimage, largely due to the moment when, after asking the clerk for some good one-acts, I was first told about Sam Shepard. A minute or two later, he had placed Fool for Love and Other Plays in my hands, and he was evangelizing about the bizarre virtues of a play called Suicide in B Flat. I remember thinking: Who is this gorgeous man on the cover, and how did he come up with a title like that?

I read Suicide in B Flat, entering Shepard’s be-bop nightmare in which a jazz musician may have killed himself or may have committed murder. I didn’t get it, but I was beguiled by it. I immediately tore into Fool for Love, which opens with maybe the greatest stage direction of all time: “This play is to be performed relentlessly, without a break.”

“Relentlessly and without a break” is a pretty good way of describing both the feeling of Shepard’s work and his prolific genius itself. From 1964 to 2014, Shepard wrote more than 40 plays and 10 films. He wrote without the brakes on, or perhaps he cut them. The myth of Shepard has always been in part fueled by his writing some of his early plays under the influence and never revising them. But as his career went on, he became a meticulous craftsman of language, even while always experimenting with structure. He pursued the limits of the form, the limits of language, the limits of what the word could do on stage, and then he pushed these limits ever further out, creating an expanded imaginative space that the rest of us are lucky to be able to play in.

I didn’t understand this at 13, but, like nearly every other American theater artist I know, when I encountered Shepard’s work, I could feel the world break open a little bit more. I will never know what it was like to see Shepard’s work explode on the stages of Caffé Cino and La MaMa in the ’60s but even reading it I caught some of the shrapnel. I felt adult, sophisticated. I thought I had made some groundbreaking discovery, this brilliant writer who no one but the clerks at the Drama Book Shop knew! It wasn’t until an old friend of my older sister’s saw me reading Seven Plays a few months later and said “Oh, that Sam Shepard, he is one sexy man,” that I realized, much to my shame, that he wasn’t my secret at all. By the time I was reading Shepard, he had already been in 16 films, including The Right Stuff and Days of Heaven. He had already written Paris, Texas. He had already wooed Patti Smith and Jessica Lange. He was already one of the coolest men alive. He would remain so until his death on Thursday at the age of 73.*

If you only know Shepard from his work in film, I envy you right now. You have the chance to read Fool for Love and Buried Child and True West and The Curse of the Starving Class and Tooth of Crime and Lie of the Mind and Cowboy Mouth and so many others for the first time. You have the chance to meet this writer who gave us all so much, whose shadow we all play in. Often, writers who shoot for dream logic in their writing wind up producing work that’s like listening to someone describe their dreams. The experience of Shepard’s work is like actually entering someone else’s mind during REM sleep. In his plays, characters and events follow their own, never-explained rules. Someone might go home and discover that his family has forgotten who he is. Two brothers, one a drifter, the other a hack screenwriter, might switch identities and selves while stealing dozens of toasters. A man might be able to predict the winners of horse races in his dreams, and wind up a prisoner of the mob, chained to a bed, awaiting fatal surgery to remove the dreamer’s bone from his neck. When you crack a Shepard play, you never know what is going to happen, and you never know what has happened to these broken down American dreamers right before the play has begun. Often, the journey of his plays—much like the plays of Harold Pinter, with whom Shepard was often compared—involves discovering both, even as memory, the self, and language prove unstable.

Here’s one such moment of instability from Shepard’s masterpiece Buried Child. In it, the damaged Tilden, talking to his son’s girlfriend Shelly and his alcoholic father Dodge, suddenly remembers a moment from his own past while stroking her rabbit-fur coat.

TILDEN: I had a car once! I had a white car! I drove. I went everywhere. I went to the mountains. I drove in the snow.

SHELLY: That must’ve been fun.

TILDEN: (still moving, feeling the coat.) I drove all day long sometimes. Across the desert. Way out across the desert. I drove past tiny towns. Anywhere. Past Palm Trees. Lightning. Anything. I would drive through it. I would drive through it and I would stop and I would look around and I would see things sometimes. I would see things I wasn’t supposed to see. Like deer. Hawks. Owls. I would look them in the eye and they would look back and I could tell I wasn’t supposed to be there by the way they looked at me. So I’d drive on. I would get back in and drive! I loved to drive. There was nothing I loved more. Nothing I dreamed of was better than driving. I was independent.

DODGE: (eyes on the TV) Pipe down, would ya! Stop running off at the mouth. (TILDEN stops. Stares at SHELLY)

SHELLY: Do you do much driving now?

TILDEN: Now? Now? I don’t drive now.

A lesser writer would’ve imbued Tilden with conventionally beautiful language in this moment, language that reflects the transcendence Tilden has lost, rather than the losing of it. But Shepard’s plays often found their focus and their drive in the losing. And, like a great jazz musician doing a set of country songs, Shepard’s free, boundary-pushing writing looked to the American West and, often, the cowboy, to find this loss, which he assayed and pursued with compassion and a rare bravery.

I’ve never read a writer less afraid of risking embarrassment or self-parody. Take Shepard’s 1972 play The Tooth of Crime, a dystopian sci-fi almost-musical in which an aging rock star named Hoss attempts to consolidate and expand his power against a number of threats, including his old rival Mojo Root Force and a young up-and-comer named Crow. It culminates in what I can only describe as a rap battle, which Hoss loses. Crow ends the play sitting atop Hoss’s throne after Hoss kills himself. The Tooth of Crime is Shepard’s Zardoz, a work so totally original, and utterly bananas, that it transcends ideas of quality until you’re just grateful an artist singular enough to create it lived.

Shepard’s bravery required a similar courage from his collaborators, and one of the reasons why his plays became so famous was for their searing performances. Not for nothing did Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly choose starring in True West to signal their ascension to the pantheon of Great American Actors in 2000. I asked stage director Daniel Aukin, who directed a recent revival of Fool for Love starring Sam Rockwell on Broadway as well as the premiere of Heartless, one of Shepard’s final plays, about this. According to Aukin, “It was really clear to me that Shepard loves actors, and loves great acting. He’s really interested in what happens when an actor is working without a safety net, so what he’s making is something that invites that, creating the conditions for something to happen that was going to draw on the things that actors didn’t even know they had. There’s nowhere to turn except towards the unknown.”

His plays mix impulse, a blasted Americana speaking through archetypes like cowboys and noir detectives, a love of the broken places in people, and a willingness to explore and dramatize the unconscious. There’s a direct line between Shepard’s work and both David Lynch (particularly Twin Peaks) and Denis Johnson (particularly Jesus’ Son).

And Shepard’s literary achievements are not limited to his plays. His ramshackle dreamers, crime tales, and vernacular poetry also appear in very fine short stories and a collection of sketches from three years of his notebooks called Motel Chronicles. Dig this bit from December 1979, for example:

I knew a guitar player who called the radio “friendly.” He felt a kinship not with the music so much as with the radio’s voice. Its synthetic quality. Its voice as distinct from the voices coming through it. Its ability to transmit the illusion of people at a great distance. He slept with the radio. He talked to the radio. He disagreed with the radio. He believed in a Faraway Radio Land. He believed he would never find this land so he reconciled himself to listening to it only. He believed he’d been banned from the Radio Land and was doomed to prowl the air waves forever, seeking some magic channel that would reinstate him to his long-lost heritage.

Shepard’s writing was that magical channel, a frequency sometimes obscure but always compelling when you landed on it. My Facebook feed right now is filled with an outpouring from all kinds of writers about how Shepard changed their lives. Some of these writers are heady experimentalists, some write science-fiction thrillers of the stage. Others write for TV or make work that’s more realistic. Everyone remembers the moment that Shepard opened a door for them that they’ve been walking through for the rest of their career.

If you still haven’t walked through that door, start with Buried Child, move onto Fool for Love or True West, and then drift along, like a cowboy poet, through the vast expanse of his America, fractured, at risk of forgetting itself, grasping toward the ineffable with heartbreak and grace.

Correction, July 31: This article originally stated that Shepard died Monday His death was reported Monday, but he died on Thursday.