Throughout Sam Shepard’s oeuvre one can find ample evidence of his struggles with demons, some of them distinctively American.
By Robert Israel
A key to understanding playwright/actor/musician/author Sam Shepard, who died on July 30 at the age of 73 from ALS complications, might be found in a prose piece he included in his short story collection Day Out of Days, published in 2010.
“I now have an almost constant swirling chatter going on inside my heard from dawn to dusk,” Shepard wrote. “I never could have foreseen this when I was five, playing with sticks in the dirt, but I guess it’s been slowly accumulating over these sixty-something years; growing more intense, less easy to ignore. I wake up with it. I feed chickens with it. I drive tractors with it. I make coffee with it. I fry eggs with it. I ride horses with it. I go to bed with it. I sleep with it. It is my constant companion.”
Shepard tapped into the wellspring of his chattering “constant companion” beginning in the early ’60s, churning out one-act plays as a stoned hipster living in New York City’s Lower East Side. During that time, he played music as a member of the band the Holy Modal Rounders – his “Bird Song,” an ode to transcending the world through drugs was used in the soundtrack for Easy Rider. He lived with rock musician Patti Smith. He struggled with substance abuse, an appetite that would plague him all his life, including landing him in trouble with the law for driving while intoxicated in Illinois. Yet he remained sufficiently sober and resolute to write lucid pieces for the screen as well as winning a 1979 Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child.
I met Shepard as a boy reporter in the ’70s, at a party in Providence. He had arrived in advance of appearing in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. He was in town to chat with folks at Trinity Repertory Compny. In 1973, Trinity staged his Tooth of Crime; they later produced Buried Child. Director Adrian Hall – along with an ensemble cast – traveled with the latter play in a double-bill with John Steinbeck’s drama Of Mice and Men — to India and Syria, thanks to a U.S. State Department grant. Trinity is to be credited for helping to spread Shepard’s brilliance to a wider, global audience.
There was evidence of his pugnacious brilliance that night in Providence when we chatted. He was in his cups. He made it clear he was listening to his own Muse.
“I write whatever I feel like writing and I don’t give a good goddamn who likes my work or who hates it,” he told me.
He never mellowed. His work is original and assaultive. In Curse of the Starving Class the characters pelt one another with artichokes by the light of an empty refrigerator that glows eerily on center stage. In Fool for Love – he later starred in the film version of bis play, directed by Robert Altman – the male character lassoes his female paramour as if she’s a renegade palomino. And several of his prose pieces in Day Out of Days feature graphic descriptions of cruelty, including beheadings and headless bodies.
He will also be remembered for his indelible appearances in films like The Right Stuff and Days of Heaven. Shepard was clearly talented as an actor, but he often claimed he acted in films solely to raise the money he need to continue to write. His handsome and lanky cowboy good looks and demeanor gave way over the decades to a wizened steel grayness. He was increasingly cast as older men who held brutal sway over others.
Throughout Shepard’s oeuvre one can find ample evidence of his struggles with demons (some of them distinctively American) and, by his own admission, he never succeeded in taming them. They live on, in all their compelling force, in the pages of his prose, in his performances on film and, with their most visceral force, on stage.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at email@example.com.