Sam Shepard is quite a piece of work.
And, most of his
dazzled admirers admit, he more or less assembled
himself, using ancient myths and modern cultural debris
to form a new hero. Now at 41, Shepard seems positioned
to be one of the 20th century's key artistic figures,
the quintessential American playwright, "the inkblot of
the '80s," to borrow a phrase from his friend and
producer, John Lion.
In contrast to the
European tradition of the theatrical intellectual,
Shepard told one interviewer, "the American playwright
should snarl and spit, not whimper and whine."
He writes with a
beauty and power which moved him from the fringe theater
into a more widespread appreciation, including a
Pulitzer Prize for drama five years ago and recurring
productions of his plays, such as "Tooth of the Crime"
which opens in San Diego this week.
Born into an
itinerant Army family, he grew up in rural California,
just near enough to the Old West to claim it for his
own, establishing a cowboy background which emboldens
him decades later to declare that his rodeo successes
gave him more satisfaction than his Pulitzer.
On the New York
arts scene when rock music was just beginning its decade
of influence, Shepard became a pretty good drummer,
living the fantasy of the rock star with the group
called the Holy Modal Rounders.
When pop music
began to fade back into triviality during the early
1970s, he retreated to England, a literary refugee
living as a family man in fashionable poverty off grants
and scanty royalties.
Riding a new wave
of interest in his work, as that of numerous
contemporaries began to run dry, Shepard returned to
California in the mid-1970s and entered a new, more
accessible phase of writing which climaxed with the
Pulitzer for "Buried Child."
Not content with a
mere master playwright's reputation, he began acting in
films, with instant and increasing success, until his
smoldering, Gary Cooperesque portrayal of test pilot
Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff" won him an Oscar
nomination for best supporting actor last year.
John Lion, who runs
San Francisco's Magic Theater and has premiered most of
Shepard's plays in the last decade, compares Shepard's
impact to that of Elvis Presley, noting that both men's
works "signify a change in the structure of American
society that cuts much deeper than critical catch
phrases such as 'the birth of rock and roll' or 'the
death of the American West.' "
Writing in American
Theater, the magazine of the Theater Communications
Group, Lion says Shepard and Presley are the new
manifestation of the "noble savage," seeming to have
come from nowhere with no formal training to become the
stuff of popular myth.
"But," Lion adds,
"beneath each persona lies an objective, calculating
artist who has basically altered the way we look at
Not being a
creator, Presley reached the limitations of the
performers' art and tragically crashed in confusion. But
Shepard seems positioned for the long haul, looking for
new worlds to conquer.
"I'm not a poet
yet," he told an interviewer recently. "I'm working on
That interview is
news in itself, since Shepard, citing very plausible
reasons, rarely talks for publication.
piece, originally published in the Harvard Advocate,
that university's journal of arts and literature, and
reprinted in American Theater, is essential material for
all Shepard admirers. It came about when the playwright
unexpectedly agreed to a tape-recorded conversation on
New Year's Day, 1983, with a 19-year-old Harvard student
named Amy Lippman, who was visiting San Francisco for
"I'm not putting
myself in the same category as Mozart at all," Shepard
told Lippman, "don't get me wrong, but the story with
him was that he heard this music. It was going on, and
he was just open to it somehow, latched onto it, and
wrote it down.
Shepard said, speaking of his plays' content, "are in
the air, all around us. And all I'm trying to do is
latch onto them. I don't feel like it's a big creative
act, like I'm inventing all this."
The things that
Shepard finds in the air around us have varied widely in
form since he wrote his first plays in 1964, "Cowboys"
and "Rock Garden."
(No copy remains of
the former but Shepard reportedly thinks "Rock Garden"
is one of his best works. A scene from it was
incorporated into the nude revue "Oh, Calcutta!" and the
royalties from that seemingly endless run often have
tided him through lean times.)
His plays include
cowboy vernacular, hip musician slang, gangster
dialogue, science-fiction jargon, sports talk and even
scholarly argot. (He told a British interviewer in 1974
that he never liked books and rarely read, but his then
most-recent play, "Cowboy Mouth," includes references to
Villon, Baudelaire and Gerard de Nerval, just as his
earlier "Tooth of the Crime" mentions both Brecht and
The style of
Shepard plays has varied from the absurdist "Chicago" in
1965 to the recent group of American domestic dramas
beginning with 'The Curse of the Starving Class" in 1976
and continuing to last season's "Fool for Love," one of
two Shepard plays now in extended New York runs. The
other, "True West," is beginning its third year
In between there
have been western plays ("Cowboys #2," "Back Bog Beast
Bait"), science fiction plays ("The Unseen Hand,"
"Operation Sidewinder"), plays about the creative
process ("Angel City," "Geography of a Horse Dreamer")
and the two major culture-shock plays from the early
1970s -- "Cowboy Mouth" and "Tooth of the Crime" --
which seem to sum up Shepard's philosophy so far.
Even Shepard isn't
sure how many plays he has written, although he is known
to be occasionally selective in his remembering. There
are at least 40 of them, ranging from sketches to
full-blown baroque operas. Many have music; practically
all of them stand up well years later.
himself into the creation of plays with the fearsome
concentration of genius -- he told Lippman that he wrote
"about 16 versions" of "Fool for Love" -- but when he's
finished, to the frustrated consternation of subsequent
producers, he usually loses interest in them.
"Once that first
production happens," he said to Lippman, "then I don't
care what happens to it really. I'm not concerned in
tracking it down, in following it around like an
ex-lover or something."
produced in San Diego date back to 1968, when Robert
Glaudini directed "Chicago" at Theater Five in Pacific
Beach. Glaudini subsequently worked with Shepard on
"Cowboy Mouth" and "Back Bog Beast Bait" at New York's
American Place Theater in 1971 and, in 1978, Shepard
wrote a play, "Red Woman," for Glaudini to perform at
the first Padua Hills Playwright's Workshop-Festival in
"I respect him for
what he's done," says Glaudini, who stays in touch with
the playwright. "I mean, with the movie success and all,
there have got to be changes. Look what he's dealing
with. But his Hollywood commitments don't mess with his
theater. He's continually investigating some inner
productions have included important versions of "Curse
of the Starving Class" and "True West" at the San Diego
Repertory Theater and "Angel City" and "The Unseen Hand"
at the Marquis Public Theater.
This week, the San
Diego Rep finally will bring "Tooth of the Crime" to
town, in a production staged by Sam Woodhouse and
opening Thursday night for a seven-week run.
In the 1972 play,
written during Shepard's self-exile in England, the
world is controlled by hard-living pop stars such as
Hoss, the aging singer who rules America's prime
territory of Las Vegas and must withstand the constant
challenge of new kids like Crow, a ruthless striver with
a killer instinct.
In winning his way
to the top, Hoss grew into an industry devoted to
staying there. In Crow, he recognizes the inevitable
successor, but he's not ready to quit. The showdown is a
brilliant duel -- of words, a battle in which the winner
is he who can dodge the bolts of rhetoric while
delivering the stylistic stiletto.
Put in the
perspective of time and place, "Tooth of the Crime" may
have grown from a Shepardian dream of a confrontation
between the old -- Elvis Presley -- and the new --
probably Mick Jagger. But the playwright, as his
subsequent career suggests, undoubtedly saw himself as
the transitional figure, the bridge between successive
variations of that same myth.
Myth, of course,
looms large in Shepard's work, which is full of strange
heros in askew landscapes borrowed from the Old West,
the pop universe, the epic future and related fantasies.
"The thing that's
powerful about a myth," he told Lippman, "is that it's
the communication of emotions, at the same time ancient
and for all time.
"I'm not interested
if (my play) reminds you of your mother or your sister,
or your cousin, or anything like that. Everybody has
something like that.
"But if emotions
that come up during a play call up questions, or seem to
remind you of something that you can't quite put your
finger on, then it starts to get interesting. Then it
starts to move in a direction we all know, regardless of
where we come from or who we are. It starts to hook up
in a certain way.
"Those, to me, are
The critic Doris
Auerbach finds that Shepard's resistance to personal
publicity and invasions of his privacy is part of his
own self-constructed myth as "the mysterious stranger
whose origins may not be questioned," but she approves.
"In a society where
the artist is almost as rapidly consumed as his wares,
this attitude has an element of healthy
self-preservation about it," Auerbach says.
writing," answers Glaudini, when asked why Shepard,
almost alone, has survived the glittering group of the
1960s experimental playwrights.
Sam Shepard is
around. He's been in San Diego off and on. He can be
found hanging around the Magic Theater in San Francisco.
These days, he's in Hollywood a lot. He has had homes in
this and that backwater of California and Arizona and,
occasionally, he likes to strike out on Jack
Keroauc-like expeditions along the nation's highways.
(His recent book of poetry and notes, "Motel
Chronicles," from City Lights Press, is fascinating
evidence of his restlessness.)
Though reputed to
be an open and easy conversationalist, Shepard on the
record is evasive on questions of a theatrical nature,
especially dealing with his own work. He told Lippman
that he never goes to the theater, that he can't stand
it, that "there's more drama that goes down in a rodeo
than 100 plays you can go to see."
But he talks to
people other than Harvard sophomores that way, too. His
point seems to be that he would rather the work spoke
The power of
Shepard's plays beginning with "Tooth of the Crime" owes
much to his uncanny accuracy in capturing the imagery of
the decaying American West. In the Lippman interview,
the playwright said he found the historical West a more
ancient and attractive world than "the tight little
forest civilization that happened back East."
But Lion, his most
frequent theatrical associate in recent years, finds
Shepard's West to be broader than a geographical
a world which seems on the surface to make sense in the
traditional Western (read 'Occidental') way, but on
closer examination is seen to use the logic that we
associate with realism and naturalism to show us that
the world doesn't make sense, can never make sense, will
never make sense."
But Lion finds that
Shepard moves through the breakdown easily, offering his
reportage with humor and good will.
"This is because
Shepard writes about people we all know, and, as
Americans, are comfortable and familiar with. And he
writes about what we think, but don't say, what we want
to do, but don't do, and what we desire, but don't get."
As for myths, Lion
notes that any civilization's myths break down with
repetition until they have only a shadow of their
original vitality. But, as Beckett noted in "Waiting for
Godot," and Lion echoes, myths are all we have to cling
Sam Shepard, in his
plays and in the icon he is becoming on the screen, is
one of the major repositories of American myths for our