“A sympathy for the brokenness of humans”: The mythic, grotesque work of Sam Shepard

Kate Maltby in New Statesman:

Gettyimages-81287774In a 1984 interview with American Theatre magazine, the playwright and actor Sam Shepard pondered human knowability. “I feel like there are territories within us that are totally unknown. Huge, mysterious and dangerous territories. We think we know ourselves, when we really know only this little bitty part… Catharsis is getting rid of something. I’m not looking to get rid of it, I’m looking to find it. I’m not doing this in order to vent demons. I want to shake hands with them.” Catharsis remained something notably lacking from the plays of Shepard, who died today in Kentucky at the age of 73. His characters stumble blindly, brutalizing and needling each other with fists and words, but they rarely stagger into self-knowledge. There is no reward for suffering. Shepard was born in 1943 on the Fort Sheridan military base in northern Illinois. His father, a hardened alcoholic, moved the family to the American southwest after the war, where Shepherd worked on ranches and made the first steps in his own troubled relationship with alcohol. He would later talk frankly in a Paris Review interview about his second-generation alcoholism – which saw him arrested at least twice for drunken driving – and the societal disruption he observed in his working class community when its men returned from the second world war.

But while Shepard would draw inspiration from his Western roots to fuel his drama, he also fled from them. By 1962, he was living in Greenwich Village New York and creating plays at the emerging Theatre Genesis under the name Sam Shepherd. After winning six Obie awards between 1966 and 1968, he became viable as a commercial screenwriter. By the age of 28, Shepherd was living between NYC and Hollywood. This success in film would also lead to significant work as an actor and eventually an Academy Award nomination for his performance as pilot Chuck Yeager in the The Right Stuff. His greatest achievement, however, was always as a playwright. If Shepherd was less known in the UK than his native US, it is perhaps because his particular brand of American gothic feels acutely alien in London or Edinburgh. Even to American audiences, throughout the 50 states, the pioneer-country violence of Shepard’s scenarios often seemed exotic in its rural absurdity and archaism.

More here.