Monday, July 31, 2017

Sam Shepard

Pulitzer-winning playwright; actor, writer, screenwriter, and director -- via the New York Times. My absolute idol as a playwright, long before his fame as an film actor eclipsed it to a degree due to his performance in 1983's "The Right Stuff" (though art-film lovers will remember him earlier, in Malick's "Days of Heaven" in 1978. Most of humanity will remember him as an actor, and he was a good one. He had that old-school reticent strength that is rare to find, the kind that emanated from Gable, Cooper, Mitchum, and Tracy.

But it's as a writer that he is truly staggering, in a way that hasn't really been explored. One of the few playwrights whose plays I studied and collected, beginning to end. (O'Neill, Brecht, Beckett, and Ludlam, you're welcome. Shakes, you're in, natch). He started off an American surrealist, a kind of Cocteau on steroids and bad whiskey. Even his earliest plays are beautiful, vibrant explosions of language, set in a hallucinatory universe populated by mythic figures ("La Turista," "Operation Sidewinder," "Cowboy Mouth," "The Tooth of Crime," "Angel City" -- any and all of which I would stage in heartbeat if such a thing were possible.)

As O'Neill did, Shepard eventually pared his style down, turning away from epic visions to more controlled studies of relationships, especially family ones. His characters becme more three-dimensional, and that much more agonizing to watch. "Curse of the Starving Class" guts the idea of the nuclear family. Much the same is true of "Buried Child" -- I was lucky enough to see the original production. These and other later works such as "True West," "A Lie of the Mind," and "Fool for Love" have joined the repertory, such as it is.

He was from the West, and of the West, and he loved it as much as I did. He was a cowboy, and I wanted to be one. He was skeptical, tough, but a romantic, a disappointed idealist. I would read his plays aloud, loving that easy lope of language he used (undoubtedly the result of excruciating effort). I felt that he said exactly what he wanted to say in a way only he could say it -- an unreal goal that I continue to set before myself. Dammit, I loved the guy's work. And he was a beau ideal for me -- a tough guy chock full of poetry.

 His language, his free way with dream and reality, and his whole unconventional approach to structure and staging, blew my mind wide open to the possiblities of the stage, and has influenced every single thing I have written since, theatrical or not. In fact, I won my only theatrical award staging and performing in "Cowboys #2." So hey, thanks, Sam! I hope I did you good.

In one of his last films, the underrated "Blackthorn," he says, 'I've been my own man. Ain't nothin' richer than that." I'd like to think that was true for him in life as well as art, but you know how things go. He hated flying. He hung with Bob Dylan. He lived with Patti Smith. He played drums for the Holy Modal Rounders.  The world is a little bit darker today. Thanks for writing down all you could. We'll try to keep it alive.