Samuel Shepard Rogers VII has been compared to Eugene O’Neill in theatrical range and power. He is the son of Army Air Force bomber pilot Samuel Shepard Rogers and Jane Schook Rogers. Between 1943 and 1955, the family moved often from army post to army post, including a stay in Guam. They finally settled in California, residing during Shepard’s teenage years on an avocado and sheep ranch in Duarte. Shepard found some aspects of the ranching life attractive but chafed against the ordinariness of his relationship with his parents and the tedium of rural society. He became enamored of motion pictures and their heroes, took up jazz drumming, and read Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. In 1962 he auditioned for the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players and began a six-month tour as an itinerant actor, ending up in New York City’s East Village in 1963. There he secured a job at the Village Gate, which introduced him to the country’s best jazz musicians and to Ralph Cook, who launched the Theatre Genesis, as well as Sam Shepard’s career, in the 1960’s.
The atmosphere of East Village and the impetus of Off-Off-Broadway theater perfectly nurtured Shepard’s eclectic talent. In 1964 he made his debut as a playwright with Cowboys and The Rock Garden, two one-act plays that introduced several of his themes and stylistic techniques. In The Rock Garden he presents a father who revels in his lifeless arrangement of rocks, whereas the son builds a counterpointed description of his sexual techniques with women until it subsumes the father’s drone in an explosion of metaphors. This conflict of generations, brought forth through metaphorical language that rises from a dark, nearly bare stage, is typical of Shepard’s early plays. The open stage requires audience members to exercise their imaginations in order to “complete” Shepard’s dramatic scenes.
Taking his lead from the Beat generation and from jazz improvisation, Shepard creates “transformational” characters, who act themselves out through disruptions, explosions, contradictions, and shifting realities. Often they fear the loss of their individuality because of some unnameable force, and they move and talk rapidly in an attempt to invent themselves as larger-than-life figures. As a member of the first generation of playwrights to grow up under the influence of rock music and television, Shepard is preoccupied with various mythic models of the mass media–the cowboy, the Indian, the rock star, the gangster, the film star, the gothic monster, the business magnate–and with the desire to escape the traps of body, geography, or system.
Many of Shepard’s characters do escape or transform themselves on the stage. For example, several in Operation Sidewinder emerge to a “fifth world” of Hopi legend, as the corrupt “fourth world” comes to final destruction. The mythical figures of The Mad Dog Blues join hands and exit dancing through the audience. In La Turista Kent ends the play by swinging from a rope at the back of the theater, crashing through the set, and leaving only his outline behind. These attempts at escape stem from the playwright’s serious concern that America was “cracking open and crashing into the sea”–an outlook that led him to rely on apocalyptic endings, not necessarily motivated or prepared for by the dramatic plot. They also reflect his personal restlessness.
Eventually, however, Shepard began to recognize that escape is not always possible. Many of his mature plays rely on bankrupt myths of the frontier and the old West. In The Tooth of Crime, for example, an established rock star, Hoss, dreams of shucking off his responsibilities and his retinue to strike out like a “gypsy killer” into open territory. Instead, his personality and reputation are usurped by Crow, a young challenger, and he finally kills himself as a last act of independence. Curse of the Starving Class portrays a family one member describes as having “nitroglycerine in the blood”–a condition that leads to their destruction and the loss of their ranch. Buried Child, for which Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, is a dramatization of blighted family relationships, brought forth by incest between mother and son. So long as the dead child of that union remains buried on their property, no crops grow, and the family members are mentally or physically crippled. Only a violent intrusion by an outsider can unearth their secret and make their farm, as well as their lives, productive again.
Eyes for Consuela is based on the Mexican writer Octavio Paz’s short story “The Blue Bouquet.” In it, Henry, a middle-class American whose marriage has disintegrated, flees to a decrepit hotel in a Mexican jungle. There he meets a philosophical Mexican bandit Amado, who threatens to cut out Henry’s blue eyes as a gift to his wife, Consuela. Henry insists that his eyes are brown, not blue, but this does not impress Amado. Throughout two acts the men argue, drink tequila, and trade life histories, as Amado contends that Henry’s despair is an example of anxiety caused by the complexity of American civilization.
A major concern in Shepard’s work, hinted at in the plays discussed above, is that the nuclear family may also be a bankrupt myth–that power struggles, conflicts, and obligatory role-playing destroy most family relationships. True West, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind all illustrate the playwright’s preoccupation with the family’s decay and the fragility of modern love. In Shepard’s family conflicts, women appear to have the lesser voice, seeming only to support the males in their macho strivings. Yet as Florence Falk points out, Shepard’s women are resilient survivors, whereas the men often remain empty inside their macho images. Later plays, such as Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind, have countered critics’ complaints about his female characters by presenting women who work through their debilities and establish themselves as equal or even superior to their men.
Shepard’s dramatic imagination and power have been widely recognized, but opinion is unsettled as to his eventual stature in American drama. While his plays have not been produced on Broadway, the sheer volume of his work commands attention. Besides writing plays, Shepard has acted in many films, including Days of Heaven (1978), Resurrection (1980), Raggedy Man (1981), Frances (1982), Country (1984), Fool for Love (1985), Crimes of the Heart (1986), and The Right Stuff (1983), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He has received the Pulitzer Prize, the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival for the screenplay of Paris, Texas, and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for A Lie of the Mind, as well as more than a dozen Obie awards for dramatic excellence. In 1998 the Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) Great Performances devoted an hour-long TV program to Shepard’s life and plays. All these achievements and honors make him, at the very least, one of the leading lights in American arts and letters.