The Myth of Sam Shepard
By Brent Stansell, Dramaturg
“Leading Man, Playwright, Maverick.”
Thirty years ago, when Newsweek put those words next to Sam Shepard’s chiseled profile on its cover, the magazine mythologized the playwright as “America’s cowboy laureate” and an “American fantasy.”
Ironically, this was exactly the kind of mythologizing Shepard spent his playwriting career attempting to dismantle.
Shepard’s plays deconstruct our American mythologies, exposing the lies and delusions we live under. In over 50 plays, Shepard explores many of the same themes again and again: the promise and failures of the American dream; a vision of the world ruled by men and defined by violence; how the performance of self contains inherent contradictions between familial, individual, gendered and national identities; and the psychology, spirituality, and “emotional territory” of a world disconnected from meaning. He explores these themes within novel dramatic structures, using ironic humor alternating with intense lyricism and
gripping physical action.
When Shepard started his prolific career in the 1960s (with his first production opening before he even turned 20), his early work quickly exploded in the off-off Broadway theater movement at places like Caffé Cino, La Mama, the Open Theatre, the American Place Theatre, and Theatre Genesis. As a California native, he also had an artistic home at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco (where Fool for Love was originally produced). The breadth and exploratory scope of his early work were astonishing. He wrote short, nonrealistic pieces with wild plot twists and inconclusive endings, resisting traditional dramatic structures. His early plays were filled with surreal images and dream worlds, metaphors, music, and the modern myths of rock ‘n roll, movie stars, and the American West. Arguably, more than any other American playwright, Sam Shepard brought postmodernism to the theater in the 1960s and contributed to the idea emerging that meaning is subjective, interpretive, and unstable. For Shepard, any search for objective truth is pointless, the reliability of narrative is always in question, and the imaginary always has more power than reality.
Most critics agree that Shepard made his greatest contribution to American drama when he wrote his “family trilogy” including Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979), and True West (1980). Shepard was inspired to focus more on his characters, moving away from his experimental phase, arguably resulting in his most substantive and impactful work. His characters are often victims and victimizers attempting to fill the emptiness, abandonment, disconnectedness, and loss in their lives with a hunger for drugs and sex, violence, and love. He explained his shift in focus by saying, “It suddenly occurred to me that I was maybe avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate which is the family. And I avoided it for quite a while because, to me, there was a danger, and I was a little afraid of it.” Throughout these plays, the family is the source of tremendous pain and Shepard finds danger in its destructive nature (including incest and infanticide) and in its perpetuation of cycles of violence and suffering (much like Greek tragedy).
In writing Fool for Love (1983), Shepard attempted to write a romantic confrontation between a man and a woman for the first time, telling the story from the perspective of the female character. Some critics believe Fool for Love and Shepard’s next play A Lie of the Mind (1985), which explored similar themes, extended his exalted “family trilogy” into a “family quintet.” After writing about an endless cycle of male violence in True West, Shepard said that his move to female characters was an attempt to explore a way out for men because he was “beginning to realize that the female-side knows so much more than the male side. About childbirth. About death. About where it’s at.”
But perhaps more than any other Shepard play, Fool for Love attempts to deconstruct the myth of Sam Shepard, the man.
Fool for Love was written while he was experiencing tumultuous changes in his personal life, starting a romance with actress Jessica Lange while separating from his wife O-lan. At the same time, Shepard was also working on his relationship with his alcoholic father, having recently visited him in New Mexico. But part of Shepard’s mystique is that he never speaks about his personal life directly. His plays are often “departures” from real life, inspired by his own autobiography, but never directly linked (although Shepard has admitted that the conversation about Barbara Mandrell in the play and the story about the cow field are almost pulled verbatim from conversations with his father). Shepard has said about the autobiographical elements of Fool for Love: “I never intended the play to be a documentary of my personal life. It’s always a mixture. But you can’t get away from certain personal elements that you use as hooks in a certain way. The further I get away from those personal things the more in the dark I am.”
Shepard’s plays are never “documentary” because the line between reality and fantasy is always intentionally blurred. Scholar Sherrill Grace notes about Shepard’s plays: “However straightforward they may seem at first, however careful Shepard may be about realistic details or with characters who seem very familiar, sooner or later an audience is forced to abandon the comfortable realm of logic, clarity, predictability and familiarity for an illogical realm of intense emotion, violent unpredictability and complex symbolic, inner states.” Shepard’s realism is not the cozy realism of families quibbling over the dinner table; Shepard’s worlds evoke the violent, lustful, dangerous realities of Edward Albee, the meticulously defined and otherworldly creations of Samuel Beckett, and the tragicomic threat of Harold Pinter.
With such tremendous work to his name, no wonder Newsweek would feature Sam Shepard on its cover. As a man always transforming his life—a wanderer traveling from California to New York, escaping to live in England, then moving to a ranch in Santa Fe; as an artist always finding new ways to express himself—drifting from playwriting, to music, to acting, to directing, and then to screenwriting; as a playwright placing his own life struggles within the larger frame of the American experience; with 11 Obie awards, an Academy Award nomination, endless accolades, and a Pulitzer Prize to his name, it is no wonder why Newsweek would so easily cement Sam Shepard’s mythic reputation as a great American “leading man, playwright, maverick.”
The cast includes: Christine Callsen, James Radack, Julia Morrissey, Vashti Sadejy, Renana Fox, Rob Perkins, Karin Roscinek, Audrey Bertaux, Thavma Phillips, KyoSin Kang, Devora Zack, Sarah Gaumond, Michael Claybourne, AAEnglish, Mary Suib, Amy Kellett, DC Cathro, Che’ Lyons, Sisi Reid, Keith J Miller, Kia Braganza, Yasmin Thomas, Theresa Buechler, Karina Hillard, Jennifer Knight, Miriam Foye, Natalie Cutcher, Rafael Sebastian, Bob Manzo, Andrew Keller, Phil Dickerson, Matthew Rubbelke, Lisa Hodsoll, Jonathan Feurer, Cyle Durkee, Sophie Schulman, Regie Cabico, Bonita Brisker, Audrey Bertaux, Kevin Collins, Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Albertha Joseph, Karen Lawrence, Caitlin Shea, Gracie Terzian, Ann Fraistat, Brandyn Ashley Poole, Christine Alexander, Clarissa Barton, Justus Hammond, Taunya Ferguson, Wesley Brown, Lauren Kieler, Graziella Jackson, Jenet Dechary, Alex Alferov, Marc Crow, Vanessa Nolan, Gwen Outen, Eternanda Fudge, Kari Ginsberg, Audrey Meshulam, Amal Saade, Sara Dabney Tisdale, Gray West, Leigh Anna Fry, Ryan Patrick Welsh, Samuel Wright, Elizabeth Darby, Kecia Campbell, Elizabeth Hansen, Paul Lysek, Jon Towson, & more!