Today is the birthday of the favorite playwright of my early twenties (and still one of my favorites) Sam Shepard, born 1943. I think he is America’s greatest stage poet, and, along with Bob Dylan, a demonstration of the practical applications of the techniques of the beats. His pure experimentalism however does prevent most of his work from crossing a certain line of audience (and some critical) acceptance.
Some encyclopedia of theater (Cambridge, maybe?) had an appallingly inept entry for Shepard—something about how his early plays were “bad”, and then he started to become a “real” playwright with Curse of the Starving Class. I think the majority of the theater public shares this ignorant idea (both artists and audiences). It is an idea which I STRONGLY do not share. It is a philistinism. Some have a tin ear for what off-off-Broadway was (and is) supposed to be about, and their “openness” sort of stops at a certain comfort level of realism…. No art form is more conservative than the American theater. Fine art had its Armory Show in 1911 and the acceptance of abstract expressionism and other crazy movements in the 40s, 50s and 60s (at least in the art world itself). While people are less forgiving of atonal music, etc., John Cage and others at least have had their day at America’s top cultural venues. Gertrude Stein was publishing challenging writing a century ago. But abstraction and anti-realism in the theater has never attracted more than a small minority of aficionados, notably (and fortunately) the critical staff at the Village Voice. The artists enjoyed the satisfaction of receiving OBIEs in their formative years, and healthy audiences of the curious during the sixties. But then the artists themselves seemed to “grow out of” bohemia, making more conventional, commercial work as they got older, and enjoying broader success. Meanwhile, the more experimental type of work which they had abandoned continued to languish in small theaters, lofts, basements and store fronts without ever receiving institutional support. In fact, if anything it became LESS accepted after its brief heyday.
I know I have argued elsewhere for classicism in the theater. Ironically, the type of experimental work I am thinking of is a step in the direction of classicism…is closer in spirit, and often in reality, to classicism than conventional realism, or the conventional commercial play. Idealism, mythology, larger than life characters, a broad acting style, poetry, dreams—these are what I am after in the theatre.
It may be overstating the obvious, but Shepard’s plays – especially the early ones – seem very much inspired by the drug experience, and definitely drug culture. A common feature of the early ones are paranoid fantasies spun by one or more characters, hilarious in their elaborateness, getting all worked up about something that hasn’t even happened yet and may never happen. A feeling of some vague menace lurking just outside the door makes the early plays feel a lot like Pinter’s. I would not be surprised to learn he and maybe Albee were influences. Another drug-like quality is role playing…the “freedom to play” that the characters exhibit. A character will start pretending to do something, and then the reality of the pretense starts to become real. Fantasy takes over. Another is the frequent inability of characters to accomplish even the simplest tasks, or conversely, their absolute fascination with the quotidian, as though they had never encountered it before. A feature of one of the transitional periods (1968-1972) is a collage-like thrusting together of stereotypical characters and situations from vastly different cultural sources, having an LSD effect similar to the cover of Sgt. Pepper or Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python…cowboys interacting with space aliens, for example in The Unseen Hand. And of course the plays are populated with hippies…even if they are hippie/cowboys, hippie/rock stars, etc. Political radicals and their revolutionary activities also recur.
Shepard is above all an American playwright. Everything about the culture obsesses him, and it should. More than any other American playwright he understands and employs the mythos to its fullest advantage. He is as American as Shakespeare is English…not just part cowboy but part baby boomer, part Lower East Side beatnik, part Hollywood star, part jazz musician, he seems one of the few who can swallow this big, multi-faceted pill in its totality.
Addendum: Shepard passed away in 2017. Go here for a much lengthier tribute, featuring in-depth appreciations of most of his plays, which I published at that time.