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31 July 2017

“A sympathy for the brokenness of humans“: The mythic, grotesque work of Sam Shepard

The Oscar wining actor and acclaimed playwright has died at the age of 73.

By Kate Maltby

In a 1984 interview with American Theatre magazine, the playwright and actor Sam Shepard pondered human knowability. “I feel like there are territories within us that are totally unknown. Huge, mysterious and dangerous territories. We think we know ourselves, when we really know only this little bitty part… Catharsis is getting rid of something. I’m not looking to get rid of it, I’m looking to find it. I’m not doing this in order to vent demons. I want to shake hands with them.”

Catharsis remained something notably lacking from the plays of Shepard, who died today in Kentucky at the age of 73. His characters stumble blindly, brutalizing and needling each other with fists and words, but they rarely stagger into self-knowledge. There is no reward for suffering.

Shepard was born in 1943 on the Fort Sheridan military base in northern Illinois. His father, a hardened alcoholic, moved the family to the American southwest after the war, where Shepherd worked on ranches and made the first steps in his own troubled relationship with alcohol. He would later talk frankly in a Paris Review interview about his second-generation alcoholism – which saw him arrested at least twice for drunken driving – and the societal disruption he observed in his working class community when its men returned from the second world war.

But while Shepard would draw inspiration from his Western roots to fuel his drama, he also fled from them. By 1962, he was living in Greenwich Village New York and creating plays at the emerging Theatre Genesis under the name Sam Shepherd. After winning six Obie awards between 1966 and 1968, he became viable as a commercial screenwriter. By the age of 28, Shepherd was living between NYC and Hollywood. This success in film would also lead to significant work as an actor and eventually an Academy Award nomination for his performance as pilot Chuck Yeager in the The Right Stuff.   

His greatest achievement, however, was always as a playwright. If Shepherd was less known in the UK than his native US, it is perhaps because his particular brand of American gothic feels acutely alien in London or Edinburgh. Even to American audiences, throughout the 50 states, the pioneer-country violence of Shepard’s scenarios often seemed exotic in its rural absurdity and archaism.

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Shepard found, in the mid-West, an elemental landscape – the twentieth century descendants of great American pioneers have decayed into inbred, animalistic beings, rotted by poverty. His natural literary successor is perhaps not a playwright, but the Appalachian memoirist J. D. Vance., whose Hillbilly Elegy was acclaimed last year as an insider portrait of Trump country.

What lifts Shepard’s work above poverty porn is a deep, instinctive sympathy for the brokenness of human beings. Where this is the stuff of horror – the 1978 play Buried Child shows us the impact of incest and subsequent infanticide in a rural family –  it is also the stuff of myth. As Shepard would later continue in that famous American Theatre Magazine interviewer, “I just feel like the West is much more ancient than the East. Much more. It is. I don’t know if you’ve traveled out here at all but there are areas like Wyoming, Texas, Montana, and places like that, where you really feel this ancient thing about the land. Ancient. That it’s primordial…It has to do with the relationship between the land and the people – between the human being and the ground.”

The mythic is always present in Shepard’s work, but so is the grotesque. At times, it’s hard to cut through: despite the praise of other critics, I found the recent London production of Buried Child more like a hammer horror film than a piece of theatre. It wasn’t helped by a nigh-complete cast change after its very successful New York run, or by Ed Harris giving an all-consuming “star turn” in a bubble entirely detached from the rest of his cast. By contrast, I fell in love with James Hillier’s production this spring of A Lie of the Mind, starring Gethin Anthony (so much more than a Game of Thrones actor.) Perhaps it’s because A Lie of the Mind substitutes Shepard’s perennial theme of incest (see also A Fool for Love) with a more quotidian horror of domestic violence; perhaps it’s because Hillier played down the surrealism for the pressingly real. In the final scene, an aging Montana patriarch tenderly folds the American flag, with a gentler touch than he has been able to find for his brain-damaged daughter. It is a pure Sam Shepard moment.

Shepard died in Kentucky, but he spent much of his career in New York, where he was known as a generous mentor, irascible curmudgeon and inveterate womanizer. One collaborator tells the following story: “During his last play at the Signature Centre – A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) which starred Stephen Rea – every day, one to several gorgeous young women would come up to the box office and say that Sam had left them a ticket. Of course he never had, but every night he’d be out at bars, meet women, and told them to come see the show and said they’d have a comp. This was a daily occurrence while he was in town.” His only marriage was to actress O-Lan Jones, with whom he has a son. He also had relationships with Patti Smith – who claimed not to have heard of him – and Oscar-winner Jessica Lange, with whom he leaves a son and a daughter. His mentees in American drama, especially through the La MaMa centre in NoHo, New York, are too numerous to count. 

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