Theater

Sam Shepard (1943–2017): The Punk Rock Cowboy Who Never Stopped Searching

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He was — even more as time went on — the living, breathing image of a cowboy: tall, preposterously thin, ruggedly handsome, and maximally taciturn unless words were absolutely necessary. The few brief times I encountered him in this century, I would always think for an instant that I was encountering an ambulatory myth — The American Cowboy — and not my longtime acquaintance, Sam Shepard, the playwright, that quirky constructor of hypnotically fascinating plays, who had really wanted to be a rock drummer and had somehow settled for being a world-class movie star instead, while continuing to turn out quirky, fascinating plays.

The cowboy exterior was a genuine part of Sam’s complex reality. He loved horses and raised them; he didn’t care much for urban life and its endless technological encroachments. He didn’t like air travel — a writer-character in his play Angel City goes from the East Coast to Hollywood “by buckboard” — and I would be surprised to learn that he owned a smartphone. What he did own that belied the strong-and-silent cowboy exterior was a questing, reflective, poetically visionary mind, steeped in art, literature, and philosophy. Put it another way: Sam’s breakthrough film as an actor was Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), which features long, lingering close-ups of its main characters. The other actors’ faces look attractively composed in these shots; Sam’s face, though equally still, reveals a thought process going on behind the eyes. It should; you are watching him write Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child, which appeared not long after the film was shot.

The profusion of plays that Sam turned out (45 is the current approximate total) testifies to the range of his mind’s activities. They come in all shapes and sizes, from seemingly (but not really) traditional small-cast two-acts to sprawling spectacles and gnomic sketchlike dialogues. Some of the early plays take their strategy from abstract-expressionist or pop art painting (Jackson Pollock was a lifelong admiration). A middle period draws on modern jazz, surrealism, and science fiction. Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974) tips its hat to the classic Broadway farce Three Men on a Horse, while Action (1975) takes partial cues from Peter Handke’s then much-discussed The Ride Across Lake Constance. The late play Kicking a Dead Horse (2007) contains a buried commentary on Henry James’s The Ambassadors.

While this twisting trail of associations led through the fecund jungle of Shepard’s rich inner life, full of emotions in constant turmoil, his seemingly imperturbable front was not a mere mask concealing inner demons. The child of an alcoholic father, Shepard early developed a strong anchor in common sense and plain speaking. It’s visible in his stagecraft as well as in some of the most pungent moments of his dialogue, and in the immaculately lucid form of a masterpiece like True West (1980). I’ve spent more than one afternoon in New York watching Sam as playwright interact with directors of his work; in San Francisco I spent a joyous few hours watching him stage the first production of Fool for Love. No mad visionary was visible on those occasions. Everything he had to say to actors, designers, directors was pure practicality — cowboy practicality, if you like, the kind you learn when you and your horse are alone in open country, with no one else around to solve any problems that might arise.

Of course, the mad visionary side also sometimes got the upper hand. One or two of the middle-period plays, like Back Bog Beast Bait and Forensic and the Navigators, are cryptic almost to the point of indecipherability. I have actually never seen a performance of Cowboy Mouth, though I was editing it for publication in a small-press volume of Sam’s plays while he and his co-author, Patti Smith, were in rehearsal with it. I went to the second performance. Sam didn’t: Being the hypotenuse in the triangular relationship that is the play’s context had gotten to be too much for him. He had left Patti and gone back to his wife. Subsequent performances were canceled; those who hadn’t been at the opening night had missed the show.

But such occasions were rare. The great sustaining force of Sam’s creative life — now so shockingly cut short by the misery of ALS — has been his ability to marshal all the elements that made him a magical figure, from the practicality on up to the hallucinatory sense of otherness, and pour them into the body of work, as a writer for the stage and an actor for the screen, that he has left behind. That he won more Obie awards than any other playwright — ten — surely is indicative. Suddenly his achievement looks tremendous: The tall thin man who rarely spoke, it turns out, had an immense amount to say.

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