Near northern California's Marin County hills, the
playwright-actor Sam Shepard leads a deceptively quiet
life, sharing a modest suburban hacienda with his wife,
O-Lan, their 11-year-old son, Jesse Mojo, O-Lan's mother
and stepfather and four dogs. The 1979 Pulitzer Prize
winner for drama favors this isolated "sphere of
reference" - playing drums with a local jazz group and
hauling his sorrel quarter horse to the rodeo in Santa
Rosa in his custom Ford pickup. The former resident
genius of Off Off Broadway, whom some critics have
hailed as the best practicing playwright in America, has
become a fair true-to-life cowpuncher when he is not
away working on a Western movie.
"I don't go to the theater - I go to the rodeo, go to
the track a lot, too - I guess you could say my cultural
appetites are kinda narrow," Shepard says in a cagey
Western drawl during a lunch break from a rehearsal for
the world premiere of "True West," which will have its
New York opening at the Public Theater next month.
He has put off a rip to see his acting agent in Los
Angeles to sit, benignly vigilant, in a rear row of San
Francisco's Magic Theater, his tooled cowboy boot draped
over a knee, offering suggestions when asked for them
and chuckling occasionally at an actor's well-time
delivery. Friendly, unassuming, Shepard nevertheless has
a habit of avoiding a stranger's eyes. He is naturally
wary of journalists and gives few interviews. Writing
plays, he tells me, "isn't something you talk about.
It's something you do." He would rather talk about
"You know," he says, "the rodeo's a pretty weird setup.
There are actually ranch hands who do this sort of thing
for a living up here. Then come the sports guys, like
me, who come in half-cocked. Or these T.W.A. pilots who
go to get their hats knocked off and stuff."
Shepard's five-year relationship with the Magic - a
small, third-floor theater in Fort Mason, a former naval
facility now turned alternative culture center - seems
to suit his temperament ideally, removing him from the
competitive pressures of the New York theater. In this
theatrical homestead, his plays are animated by a single
creative tension: the struggle between his wish to find
a home in the contemporary wilderness and the opposing
urge toward a pure, unfettered freedom. Shepard has no
plans to attend the Public Theater production of "True
West". He will not set foot in a plane, and depsite
seven years in Manhattan in the 1960's and early 1970's,
he never thought of it as a place anybody would call
After high school, Shepard
enrolled at a local junior college, but ended his formal
education three semesters later. He was about to take a
job managing a sheep ranch when he joined a repertory
theater touring the nation's churches. He needed to get
out of Duarte: His family was tearing itself apart from
He lasted only a few months on the tour. By the spring
of 1963, he was sharing a cold-water flat in the urban
badlands of Manhattan's Avenue C with Charles Mingus,
Jr., an old high school friend. The son of the legendary
black jazz artist helped Shepard land a job using tables
at the Village Gate three nights a week, leaving Shepard
free to wander the streets with Mingus, literally
pretending to be a cowboy in what Norman Mailer calls
"the Wild West of American night life." Soon fafter his
arrival, he changed his name from Steve Rogers to Sam
Shepard, "because it was shorter."
early 1964, a fledgling theater at St.
Mark's-in-the-Bowery was looking for new playwrights.
Shepard offered them "Cowboys", a rowdy Beckettian
western based on his street adventures with Mingus. The
persona of the cowboy was largely a fiction at this
point, a romanticization of his rural life in Duarte.
The only exposure he'd had to "real" cowboys was "seeing
Leo Carrillo, the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy in
the Rose Parade."
"Cowboys and a second play, "Rock Garden," ("about
leaving my mom and dad"), opened Theater Genesis's first
season in the fall of 1964. The daily papers slammed the
plays as bad imitation of Beckett, but Michael Smith of
The Village Voice gave the 20-year-old newcomer a rave
notice. Without that review, Shepard probably would have
packed it in for California.
recognition as one of the finest talents of the new Off
Off Broadway theater came about remarkably swiftly.
Churning out one-act plays by the dozen, he won two of
The Village Voice's Obie awards for Off Broadway and Off
Off Broadway theater within three years. In 1966, he
garnered the first of many academic productions at the
University of Minnesota; Yale and Princeton produced new
works in later years. In 1967, he spent his first grant,
a Rockefellar, on a Dodge Charger and a classic
In the mid-1960's, Shepard became the drummer for the
Holy Modal Rounders, and wrote the first of several
rock-influenced plays. The Rounders, basically an
"amphetamine" band, drew Shepard more deeply into drugs
- a part of his New York life style and free-form
writing habit from the beginning. He escaped the draft
in 1965 by pretending to be a heroin addict.
In the summer of 1967, Shepard completed his first
full-length play, "La Turista," written in Mexico under
the influence of amphetamines and dysentery. One week
into rehearsals in New York, he replaced the last two
acts with a single act - the first time, he says, he had
ever rewritten anything. "La Turista" caused Elizabeth
Hardwick, in The New York Times Review of Books, to call
him "one of the three or four most gifted playwrights
"La Turista" signaled the
beginning of the end of his enchantment with Off Off
Broadway. Theater became a job and Shepard responded
with some of the most outrageous plays of his career. A
major work for his first "uptown" audience, "Operation
Sidewinder" (1970), proved a critical catastrophe, with
subscribers to the new American play series at Lincoln
Center canceling in droves.
Under the pressure of growing notoriety and an
increasing drug problem, Shepard fled New York "for
good" in 1970 with his wife, O-Lan, an actress and
fellow Californian whom he had married in 1969, and
their 2-year-old son. He moved to England, hoping to get
into a rock-and-roll band.
"It was incredible luck to be around when something like
Off Off Broadway was getting off the ground," recalls
the ear's brightest star. "But the 1960's were kinda
awful. I don't even want to think about it."
Shepard claims he learned two things in England: how
much work it takes to make good theater, and that it
might mean something to be an American.
The family survived at first on meager royalties and
grants. Staying for a time in Shepard's Bush in London,
he began a new three-act play set in a jail. Buring what
he had written and starting over, he swiftly completed a
new version set in an unrecognizable space and time,
which became "The Tooth of Crime", still considered by
some critics to be his finest work...
Despite what some critics took to be a nearly perfect
union of metaphor and language, "Tooth" appalls Shepard
today: "You don't want to mess with people's psyches
like that. I sure did mess with mine. You just don't
want to heave a bunch of baboons out in the street.
People are crazy enough. I'm not denying it, though -
it's there for anybody to read the damn thing."
Most of Shepard's work in London was of a less sinister
nature. He never made it into a rock band, for he was
given free rein at the Theater Upstairs at the Royal
Court, where he directed for the first time. Working
with actors he considered among the finest in the world,
he began to ascribe most of his "so-called originality"
to ignorance. The director Peter Brook saw one of his
plays and, Shepard recalls, "he told me I should start
thinking about character more.
With an increased sense of discipline and possibility,
Shepard and his family returned to the West in 1974 "to
find our roots." They moved in with O-Lan's mother and
her new husband in a Northern California tract home
never Corte Madera - "the kind of place with paisley
felt wallpaper in the bathroom," recalls a friend.
Shepard took a three-year lease on a nearby 20-acre
ranch, the Circle Y, not to live there but to raise
appaloosas. Soon afterward, they moved to their present
home, where Shepard writes his plays in longhand on
yellow pads before typing them on a battered Austrian
manual. He has not touched drugs or seen the Empire
State Building in five years.
Shepard has found a new contentment in the West, but his
Americanism has always run deep beneath his unruly pop
mythologizing. Fascinated by violence and embarrassed
before life, his theater proceeds from a vision of
radical innocence, a surrender of identity to the
mysterious power of mythic blood...
used to be a lot more interested in situations," Shepard
says, "or just the sound of words, and what that did to
characters. Characters seemed like a corny idea, a
narrow reference. Now I'm interested in character on a
I ask him why he wrote "True West".
"Does it change the perception of the play if I don't
answer that?" Shepard says, but answers anyway:
"I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that
wouldn't be symbolic or metphorical or any of that
stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels
like to be two-sided. It's a real thing, double nature.
I think we're split in a much more devastating way than
psychology can ever reveal. It's not so cute. Not some
little thing we can get over. It's something we've got
to live with.
"I worked harder on this play than anything I've ever
written. The play's down to the bone. It opens up new
ground for me. I can see a lot of new directions. It's
human ow. One-to-on. I was real embarrassed by 'Buried
Child' - lot of toe-scrunchers in there. That's why I
dig the Greek myths, like 'Oedipus Rex.' This
devastating harm coming down from the heavens. No Jung,
no Freud, any of that. No 'language' or trappings at
all. Now that's a story."Shepard missed rehearsals only
once in a while; one night he arrived late in a new
G.M.C. pickup, big enough to haul the horse trailer to
his next movie location, in Maxwell, Texas. In "The
Raggedy Man," Shepard plays a disabled World War II
veteran who returns hom, unrecognized by his wife,
played by Sissy Spacek, the wife of the film's director,
We took off into the cool San Francisco night, past the
drugstores and restaurants on Chestnut Street, heading
for a bar, sharing tales about growing up in California
- a place he hardly recognizes anymore. Developers
bought the Circle Y out from under him two years ago.
"There is a fact of experience here that only a few
people understand," he said softly. "It's more diffused
now, since there are so few true Westerners. But still
there are places here where people are really part of
the land. The place you come from influences everything.
The fact that Pablo Neruda was a son of the jungle is to
me me what makes him a great poet. He never lost his
perspective. Now artists are wiped out in the same way
as everybody else. They're cut off from where they come
Nostalgia and discovery sometimes appear as similar
emotions. The great American playwright may be an
impossibility these days, but it may be safe to call Sam
Shepard the playwright laureate of the West:
consistently, ruthlessly true to his experience of a
wilderness where America has always hidden its promise
and its dream.