“I think without writing I would feel completely useless.”
— Sam Shepard
The theater and film community lost a vital creative artist when Sam Shepard died on July 27 from complications of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In 1979, Sam Shepard received the Pulitzer Prize for his dark drama, “Buried Child,” and in 1984, he earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff.” Shepard was compared to the laconic but magnetic Gary Cooper. In 1980, one of Shepard’s most popular “dysfunctional family” plays, “True West,” opened to acclaim; after three decades, it is often revived. “A Lie of the Mind” opened in 1985 and won the Drama Desk award that year for best play. In a recent interview, Shepard insisted “A Lie of the Mind” is a better play than “Buried Child.” “Lie” has not one but two dysfunctional families on stage, and possibly because of the split focus and length, “A Lie of the Mind” is rarely performed.
One of my favorite plays by Sam Shepard is “Tooth of Crime,” featuring two rock-and-roll stars battling to the death. I loved the music, and it had biting, resonant lines: “You’re dancing a pantomime in the eye of a hurricane.” Beckett scholar, Ruby Cohn, saw the play as an exploration of American culture: “Through highly imaged rhythmic monologues and through dueling dialogues, Hoss and Crow reveal themselves intimately, and through them we gain insight into a contemporary cacophony of big business, crime, sports, astrology, art” (Cohn, “The Word is My Shepard,” 183).
In 1980, I worked with Shepard at a summer playwrights’ festival in Marin, California. The Marin festival grounds were well manicured, and a theater stood nearby. When Shepard appeared, a cinematic image of the moody but doomed farmer from Terrance Malick’s “Days of Heaven” came to mind. Shepard seemed confident, yet shy, sitting on the grass smoking an Old Gold cigarette; he was reserved but polite.
“We don’t have to do anything,” he said, “but I have some exercises so that we can create and maybe find something new.”
A few murmured that he looked more like a rock star than a playwright. Though considered a poet of the theater, Shepard was wary of anything that sounded like “literature,” and seemed more comfortable discussing the care and racing of horses than theater or Hollywood. Shepard felt Shakespeare “was a saint” and admired the work of Samuel Beckett but didn’t understand Chekhov.
One of his main exercises encouraged a present-tense, first-person monologue from the viewpoint of a single sense: sight, hearing, touch, taste or smell. The purpose of the exercise was to discover the “voice,” that inner murmur of language that lives in every character. The exercise seemed simple but daunting. It was hard to stay focused on one sense. When one writer said he was afraid to step away from what was comfortable, Shepard said, “That’s great. Fear can give you courage.” Writers read their monologues one by one, later accompanied by music or a foley artist. Eventually, actors were brought to read, act or help create new monologues. (My actor was Carl Lumbly.) Shepard listened, and encouraged others to speak. He was non-judgmental, but one could tell which monologues intrigued him.
For me, the experience was thrilling and informative. On the last day of the playwrights’ festival, the media was allowed to watch and it became a circus event. The word was out that Shepard’s next film, “Resurrection,” would solidify his film stardom, and it did. In the words of critic, Ruby Cohn, Shepard was “fortune’s child.”
Shepard lived long enough to see his popularity and relevance as a playwright fade, but that happens to every successful playwright. Tastes change and the new work seems less effective, the past work somehow dated. In 2009 and 2015, Shepard was arrested for drunk driving, suggesting he had inherited his father’s curse. Shepard’s film career never lagged, however, and it is only a matter of time before this gifted writer’s best plays are revived.
In a recent interview with Carole Cadwalladr, Shepard said that regarding success, “Behind it is a certain horrible emptiness. … It’s the writing itself which is important.”
Important, indeed. Sam Shepard leaves behind a rich legacy of plays, prose and some memorable film roles. It is hard to imagine a future world theater without Shepard’s haunting “Buried Child.” The man is gone, but his work will survive.
Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an MA in English and creative writing. He is a retired instructor of English and speech communications from Idaho State University. He has written several articles for various outlets, including Atticus Literary magazine online.