Sam Shepard’s plays are more alive than a lot of people you’ll meet. I can remember where I was when I first read True West, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class. I remember how the words seemed to sweat and bleed and tear from the page.
I remember turning the page in True West to discover Lee smashing the typewriter with a golf club while Austin made toast in an endless line of stolen toasters (“There’s gonna be a general lack of toast in the neighbourhood this morning”). I remember Tilden walking up the stairs carrying the eponymous buried child and thinking this was what I wanted theatre to be. I remember the matter-of-fact stage direction “Wesley enters again from right carrying a small live lamb” in Curse of the Starving Class and feeling like I’d been given permission to write anything I wanted.
These are sort of the Big Three, the plays that are most often mentioned, but the reason people love Shepard’s work is the scope of it. It’s one of the most restless and startling bodies of work in all of drama. Taken as a whole, the plays almost form one long story that spans America, but it’s a story made up of so many strange and disparate parts. He could play every instrument and make it sing with the same singular voice. Always surprising, but always unmistakably Shepard.
Along with the Big Three, the Seven Plays collection that stands as the most familiar volume of his work contains rock’n’roll nightmare The Tooth of Crime, the farce-like fever dream La Turista, the “piece for voice and percussion” Tongues and the poetry cycle Savage/Love; surely the best-ever value for money a play collection could offer.
Shepard could write the great American play and he could deconstruct it, too. His love of Beckett and the myths of America fused beautifully to create works that remain blisteringly current in their wrestling with theatrical form, but satisfyingly classical in their treatment of character and narrative. They’re filled with music and poetry and incredible stage imagery. They’re packed with a love of cinema and rock music but rooted in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles.
When I first found Shepard I felt I’d discovered the kind of theatre for me. The plays are committed to immediacy, liveness and theatricality, but the experimentation never dilutes the humanity or the richness of the narrative. One of his earliest great plays, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, was staged at the Royal Court after Shepard moved to London in the early 70s. He made the Court his home for a while, and Geography … is like a blueprint for what came after. A strange tale of a group of gangsters keeping a young psychic chained to a bed so he can dream which horses to place bets on, Geography is filled with the things that are present in all of the great plays that followed it. There’s the brilliant title. The plot that pushes fiercely at the walls of reality. The spectre of the American West that’s both idealised and torn to pieces. The ruthless theatricality, built around live acting. And an incredible final image that I won’t spoil here.
Whenever I teach or speak to groups of writers, Shepard is one of the first playwrights I draw their attention to, if only to urge them (and remind myself) that one of your biggest jobs as a playwright is to justify why you’ve asked everyone to show up and sit in the same room. Put on a show. Show us something we’ve not seen before. Something we can’t get anywhere else. Killer’s Head, a two-and-a-bit page monologue about buying horses, delivered by a guy strapped into an electric chair (originally performed by his Days of Heaven co-star Richard Gere) is perhaps his purest version of this. An American flipside to Beckett’s Not I, it’s also one of the few plays that feels truly punk in spirit – it’s a little like a Black Flag song in its intensity and speed.
But unlike a lot of writers who emerged from an experimental theatre scene, Shepard’s writing never lost the edge when he transitioned to writing plays that had more classical structures and elements. Buried Child is an “American family play”, but it’s also one that bucks and kicks against the tropes of those plays with howls of violence and anger. True West is almost naturalistic at first, then explodes into stranger territory as the wrestling match of the two brothers takes on mythic proportions. Curse of the Starving Class is a sort-of version of The Cherry Orchard, but one where a main characters pisses all over the kitchen. The imagery, immediacy, and fire of his early work was always present in the later plays – only now it was being used to interrogate larger concerns about life, death and love.
It’s a shame that the broader conception of his work has remained rooted in his use of the American West as a myth for some of the plays. The image painted of the plays is often one of grunting, growling masculinity. I think that’s based partly on his stroll out of the desert in The Right Stuff. But there’s a wounding tenderness in his writing that sticks with me more than any of the cowboy imagery. It’s perhaps most obviously present in Paris, Texas – a film brimming with pain and love, and able to bring hardened souls to tears in numerous scenes, many wordless.
But it’s there in the plays in spades. When Tilden becomes infatuated with Shelly’s rabbit-fur coat in Buried Child. When Jake returns to Beth, the wife he beat hideously at the opening of A Lie of the Mind, a broken man reduced to almost primitive status by the end of the play, telling her “Everything in me lies. But you”. Or in Curse of the Starving Class, where Emma stands among her deeply dysfunctional family and talks simply about her wish to be a mechanic: “I like the idea of people breaking down and I’m the only one who can help them get on the road again. It would be like being a magician. Just open up the hood and cast your magic spell.”
I’ve formed entire friendships through a mutual love of Sam Shepard. At university my director friend Clive Judd and I would sit up late in the various horrible flats we lived in and talk about the plays endlessly like the nerds we were and are. I became friendly with Joe Penhall almost entirely because he sensed a mutual love of Shepard (Joe interviewed Shepard for the Guardian in 2006), and I don’t think we’ve ever met up and not mentioned him. It’s writing that inspires deep loyalty and devotion.
His work has been an endless inspiration and provocation to me and countless others. He wrote more than a few of the greatest plays ever, one of the greatest films ever (Paris, Texas), and was co-lead in another of the greatest films ever (Days of Heaven). He wrote wonderful prose fiction. I could talk about his writing for days and still never manage to quite explain what it is I love about it. It hits me in the heart, the gut. Like music. I’m envious of anyone yet to discover it for the first time.