A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard’s works, especially those concerning the American family, have been growing in popularity.  Once considered too far out, these plays are becoming more and more significant, especially as it is recognized that while they may look naturalistic, their  symbolic and mythic overtones speak to our times.  In London in 2004, Buried Child , Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, was a hit at the National Theatre, while an earlier production of A Lie of the Mind at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre may well have given impetus to the renewed interest in Shepard’s plays.  Both were excellent revivals, both presenting Shepard’s unique, tragic-comic view of the dysfunctional family.  Shepard continues to act, perhaps best remembered as Chuck Yeager in the movie version of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.”  He received plaudits most recently in New York playing Salter, the father in Caryl Churchill’s A Number, called upon to confront not one but “a number” of sons after a tragic loss caused him to investigate cloning.  Concurrently, his new play The God of Hell was seen in New York, a minor work, yet bearing the Shepard stamp of presenting the extraordinary as ordinary, when the devil arrives, in the person of a G-man, on a Wisconsin dairy farm where he confronts the farmer and his wife.   Scheduled for the fall of 2005 is Fool for Love, to be directed by Ed Harris.

“Buried Child” at the National Theatre, as impressively directed by Matthew Warchus, is both haunting and hilarious, with Shepard’s view of the American family far from the picture depicted in advertisements or a Norman Rockwell cover, to which the skeletal homestead is compared. The comparison is made by the girlfriend of hip musician Vince (Sam Troughton), who is bringing his sexy partner Shelly (Lauren Ambrose) home to the decrepit family farm in Illinois, which he left six years ago.  But no one there recognizes or acknowledges him. “I’m nobody’s grandfather – least of all yours,” grandparent Dodge tells him. A fixture of the sagging brown couch, patriarch Dodge (M. Emmet Walsh) wheezes, coughs, and drinks all day, while grandmother Halie (Elizabeth Franz)  flirts with the local priest and is about to begin an escapade with him regarding a monument to a son who would, she insists, be a hero had he not died in a motel room on his honeymoon -- with a Catholic.  Vince’s father Tilden (Brendan Coyle), once a football star, is now somewhat retarded, bringing into the house armloads of carrots and corn from a field known to have been infertile since 1935.  The creepiest family member is Uncle Bradley (Sean Murray), whose artificial leg is the result of his mishandling a chainsaw.

When Vince departs in search of whiskey for his grandfather, Shelly is left on her own with leering Dodge, simple-minded Tilden, who loves to stroke her rabbit fur coat, and belligerent Bradley, who finds sexual pleasure by sticking his fingers in her mouth. Timid and frightened at first, she gains strength in these encounters, and even defends herself from Bradley by grabbing away his prosthetic leg while he thrashes on the floor

Despite the surprises, like the infertile field suddenly seen to be bursting with crops, and the hilarity, like grandma searching the minister’s trouser pockets for a whiskey flask, there is a mythic overtone that lifts the action to another level. The macho image of the hard-drinking American male and his fixation upon sex, sports, shooting, and tools, prevails in the household.  Death and birth  -- the mystery of the buried child – are recurring themes in this surrealist microcosm of middle America.  No matter how strange the individual members of this dysfunctional group, or how weird their actions, the family bond is all-important.   That Vince realizes this is apparent in his determination to stay on the farm, willed to him orally by Dodge just before he dies, insisting there is no such thing as heritage, just “a long line of corpses!  There’s not a living soul behind me.  Not a one.  Who’s holding me in their memory?  Who gives a damn about bones in the ground?”  Despite his cynicism and nihilism, the recumbent Dodge tells Shelley, “There’s nothing a man can’t do.  You dream it up and he can do it.  Anything.” To which she replies, ”You’ve tried, I guess.”

Life and Works

Samuel Shepard Rogers III was born on November 5, 1943 in Fort Sheridan, Illinois,  while his father, Samuel Rogers, an officer in the Army Air Corps, was stationed in Italy, later serving in Guam and the Philippines before settling with the family in Duarte, California. As Shepard describes his father as “a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic,” it is easy to see how the absent father becomes a fixture in Shepard’s plays.  The playwright recounts that his father “was full of terrifying anger,” that “he had a tough life – had to support his mother and brother at a very young age when his dad’s farm collapsed.  You could see his suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another one.”

Young Sam attended high school in Texas and junior college in California, becoming impressed there with the works of Samuel Beckett and with jazz and abstract art.  He answered an ad in a local newspaper and joined a touring repertory group, the Bishop’s Company.  Arriving in New York, he decided to stay, finding work as a bus boy at the Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, where the off-Broadway movement was beginning to flourish. The headwaiter at the Gate, Ralph Cook, opened such a theater at St. Marks in the Bowery, where Shepard’s first play, “Cowboys,” was staged.  A number of works followed, including his first full-length play, “La Turista,” based on a vacation he and actresss Joyce Aaron took in Mexico, spent in a “sweltering motel room in the Yucatan.”  After touring as a drummer with the Holy Modal Rounders and co-writing the film “Zabriskie Point,” he wrote a rock opera about cowboys, “The Unseen Hand.” (1969).

Married to actress O-Lan Johnson  in 1969, he became the father of a son Jesse (for Jesse James) but soon began a relationship with Patti Smith, and the two collaborated on “Cowboy Mouth” during their nine-month affair.  After the work opened, he went to England, where he wrote “The Tooth of Crime,” which   was produced in 1972 at the Open Space Theatre, and “Geography of a Horse Dreamer,” premiering in 1984 at the Royal Court, with Shepard directing Stephen Rea and Bob Hoskins. Returning to the U.S., Shepard and his family settled on a 20-acre ranch in Mill Valley, California.  Here he began to write seriously.  “It suddenly occurred to me that I was mainly avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate, which was the family.  I was a little afraid of it, particularly in relation to my old man and all of that emotion.  I didn’t really want to tiptoe in there and then I said, ‘well, maybe I better.’”

His family plays that resulted are considered his best: “Curse of the Starving Class” (1978), “Buried Child,” awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, and “True West”(1980).  Recently revived on Broadway, “True West” concerns two brothers, one a tough, thieving drifter and the other an up-tight Hollywood writer.  In the topsy-turvy world of Hollywood, the drifter sells his idea for a Western to a producer who initially arrives to option the work of the writer brother.  Part of the hilarity that results is the drifter’s dictation of his story to his brother, though their vicious fight at the end is more serious than comic.  Their mother entering and surveying her ruined kitchen while they fight calmly suggests, as she had done when they were little, that they take their fight out of doors. It is currently being revived in the U.K., at the Bristol Old Vic.

“A Lie of the Mind,” staged  recently by London’s Donmar Theatre, presents two dysfunctional families.  In one, the mother (Sinead Cusack) keeps her son (on whom she may have designs other than maternal) in bed by hiding his pants.  However when his brother is in trouble for having beaten his wife, the bed-confined brother escapes to help him, using, in place of trousers, the American flag given the family when their military hero father died.  He heads for the second family, that of the victim, who has lost her mind.  The head of that family is more interested in deer hunting than in family matters, for it is the last day of the deer-hunting season and he is determined to shoot a deer – but by mistake shoots the rescuing brother. (“He should have been wearing red.”) His wife encourages him to refrain from shooting any more quarry, for the freezer is full of venison, and besides, “I can get all I want from the nearby supermarket.”

Shepard as an actor has made his mark in Hollywood, with an impressive appearance as test pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” (1983), adapted from Tom Wolfe’s book about the first astronauts and the birth of the space program , and in “Frances” (1982), in which Jessica Lange portrays actress Frances Farmer. The film “Paris, Texas,” which he wrote, directed by Wim Wenders, is about a man who drops out of life for four years because of his fears for his relationship with his wife, and the events that ensue when he tries to reestablish contact, helped by the family and his child.  Meeting Ms. Lange when they worked together on ”Frances,” they were immediately drawn to each other, and have been together since that time.  They have a daughter and a son.

Shepard’s later plays include “States of Shock” (`1991), a response to the Gulf War, “Simpatico” (1994), and “When the World was Green,” with Joseph Chaikin (1996).

  “God of Hell,” which premiered in New York in November 2004 he describes as “a takeoff on Republican fascism.”  Randy Quaid and his wife J. Smith-Cameron live on a Wisconsin dairy farm, the only one in their vicinity, since the government began paying their neighbors not to farm. Their old friend Haynes (Frank Wood) is sleeping in their basement, a fugitive from a government research project.  Somehow, when he touches another person, a flash of lightning ensues.

 When a smooth-talking G-man named Welch (Tim Roth) arrives with a briefcase, selling patriotic paraphernalia like cookies in the shape and color of an American flag, it is apparent that there is more here than meets the eye.  Sure enough, plutonium is the issue, hence the play’s title, as Pluto is the ruler of Hell.  After hanging strings of American flags around the room, Welch asks why there is no flag on the farm’s flagpole.  “It’s empty,” he complains.  “Barren.  Just the raw wind slapping the naked ropes around….Sickening sound.”