The John Wayne of the American Stage by Sara Keating
Source: Irish Times - August 27, 2011  (Edited)

Sam Shepard has been pushing the boundaries of theatre with every play he has written, from rock musicals to gritty realism. When ‘Curse of the Starving Class’ opens tonight, it will be his fifth play at the Abbey in five years. There’s much about his work that clicks with Irish audiences.

Sam Shepard is the John Wayne of American theatre: an archetypal cowboy, restlessly exploring the frontiers of dramatic representation. He has written some of the greatest social plays on the US stage ( True West and Buried Child ) and a futuristic rock musical ( The Tooth of Crime ). He has written play-poems ( Savage/Love ) and jazzy performance pieces for voice and percussion ( Tongues ). He has improvised one-act dramas with his lover Patti Smith at the iconic Chelsea Hotel ( Cowboy Mouth ). Since his emergence on the fringes of New York’s theatre scene, in the early 1960s, he has been pushing the limits of conventional dramatic territory farther and farther from the familiar realm of theatrical realism, to the unexplored deserts of a theatre based on voice alone. What has resulted is a canon of more than three dozen published plays and countless dramatic fragments, each piece of work a departure from the last.

Even those who don’t know Shepard’s plays will recognise his handsome weathered face from his film appearances, among them in Steel Magnolias, All the Pretty Horses, Days of Heaven and The Right Stuff , for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. From his work with Wim Wenders on the iconic anti-Western film Paris, Texas to his presence on New York’s eclectic 1960s rock’n’roll scene as a drummer with The Holy Modal Rounders, Shepard has become one of the final cult figures in contemporary US culture – “I’ll develop my own image. I’m an original man. A one and only,” as Hoss, a musican, says in The Tooth of Crime .

For the young Shepard who once said “I don’t want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock’n’roll star” there must be some satisfaction in the fact that, like Dukie, Dude, Galactic Jack, Salem, Crow and Jeez, the mythically named heroes of his plays, he has managed to become both.

It is not just the rugged cowboy image or his eclectic theatrical style that has made Shepard one of the most important playwrights working in the US. His pieces are deeply embedded with the evolution of the country’s culture and the failed myth of the American dream. If the glorified ideal of a Wild West being conquered by the heroic cowboy was the familiar template for American authenticity, for Shepard the frontier becomes a dangerous place where the superficiality of such dreams of individual freedom are revealed. If his diverse plays share a vision, it is the way they puncture the limitless freedom of pioneer country by refusing to allow it to be tamed.

“There’s no such thing as the West any more,” Austin, a Hollywood screenwriter, says in True West . “It’s a dead issue.” For Shepard, as for Austin, those myths are all used up. But if Shepard sets about exploding them in his work, in doing so he created a new myth: that of the untutored cowboy artist, which he himself has come to embody; an artist who has absorbed his genius from the “junk magic” landscape of the boondocks of the American South.

In the occasional interviews he has given over the years Shepard has always refused to intellectualise his writing, preferring instead to celebrate the unsung cultures of the ranch and the rodeo as his primary influences. “I hate the theatre. I really do. I can’t stand it,” he said in 1983, at the height of his success. Rodeos, he continued, are a more vital type of theatre, “a real confrontation, a real thing going on, with a real audience, an actively involved audience. I’ve been in a few rodeos, and the first team roping that I won gave me more of a feeling of accomplishment and pride of achievement than I ever got winning the Pulitzer Prize.” (He won the United States’ most prestigious literary award in 1979, for Buried Child .)

He became known, as the theatre critic Richard Gilman put it, as “the poet of the juke-box”, as happy to borrow from avant-garde theatrical forms as from Westerns and science-fiction films. Speaking of the messy end of his 1976 play Angel City , for example, he commented, “When in doubt, bring on the goo and slime.”

Shepard has rarely spoken about his theatrical influences. Indeed, the only writer he has ever singled out as an inspiration is Samuel Beckett, who “made American theatre look like it was on crutches. I don’t think Beckett gets enough credit for revolutionising theatre, for turning it upside down.”

Shepard’s most recent stage offerings – Kicking a Dead Horse , from 2007, and Ages of the Moon , from 2009 – are the clearest expressions of this influence. With their isolated wastelands, their reliance on monologue and their existential explorations, the homage to Beckett is evident in form and content. It seemed fitting that both plays had their world premieres in Ireland, and particularly apt that they were written for Stephen Rea, who performed in both, and Seán McGinley, who appeared in Ages of the Moon .

Jimmy Fay's new production of Curse of the Starving Class opens at the Abbey Theatre tonight. The director, who previously staged Ages of the Moon at the Peacock Theatre, as well as its 2006 production of True West , has been intimate with Shepard’s plays since his early 20s. “I was born in Canada but grew up in Tallaght,” he says, “and I found a familiar sense of wildness in his plays, a feeling that we were totally on the edge.”

This production of Curse of the Starving Class, for which Shepard has reworked the script, brings to five the number of Shepard productions at the Abbey in the past five years, suggesting the influence between Shepard and Irish drama is not one-way.

The first Shepard play to be produced at the Abbey was the first of the so-called family plays, which retreated from the expressionism of the 1970s to provide a slightly more realistic expression of American family life. Buried Child was directed by Art O’Brian in 1981; the theme of sins of the past haunting future generations is especially powerful in retrospect: within three years the metaphorical buried children of Shepard’s play became literal for Irish audiences, with babies being found in a shallow grave on a remote beach and a family farm in Co Kerry.

The play embodies a powerful fear that the corrupt influences of previous generations might never be shaken off, as Vince, its tortured son, puts it. “I thought I saw a face inside his face . . . And then his face changed. His face became his father’s face. Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath. And then his father’s face changed to his grandfather’s face and it went on like that . . . as though I could see his whole race behind him.”

For Fay, the family plays in particular speak powerfully to an Irish audience, even 30 years after they were written. “It’s startling,” he says, “how current Curse of the Starving Class is, for example, with its obsession with property. There’s a line where the mother, Ella, speaks about how you can never lose when you have property, and that is so close to the whole Celtic Tiger thing: this idea that a house is something that will make a fortune for you, that it’s not a home. And then of course there’s the family thing, which I think we can all relate to, especially in the Irish theatre: family love somehow corrupted or gone in different directions, where the mistakes that they made and the consequences are tearing them apart.”

But the influence of the past does not always have to be so destructive. For all his wanderings, Shepard eventually settled down to a life not so far from the one he fled as a young man in the early 1960s, living on a ranch with his wife, Jessica Lange, and their three now-grown-up children. “You are tied to a culture,” he once told the Paris Review. “You can’t get away from it.” Inescapable it may be, but it doesn’t have to end in tragedy.