Sam Shepard

Definition

Theater

  • (Samuel Shepard Rogers; 1943 ) US playwright and film actor, whose works explore issues of masculinity and family breakdown in "the whacked out corridors of broken off America". Shepard was born in Illinois, the son of an army pilot, but grew up mainly in California, where his parents ran a farm. His relationship with his violent, alcoholic father informs much of his work, as do his early experiences as a ranch-hand and a performer in rodeos. At the age of 19 he abandoned his college studies to join a touring theater troupe and made his way to New York, where he became immersed in the nascent Off-Off Broadway scene. His first plays, the one-acters Cowboys and The Rock Garden, were produced as a double-bill in 1964. Over the next 10 years Shepard would make his name with some 30 short plays that blend European-style absurdism with grass-roots Americana and the disruptive energies of the new youth culture. In 1965 - 66 he won three Obies in the same season with Chicago, Icarus'Mother, and Red Cross: La Turista, his first full-length piece, followed suit in 1967. By the end of the 1960s Shepard was also playing in a rock band ("I don't want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock and rollstar") and was embroiled in a turbulent relationship with poet-singer Patti Smith, with whom he wrote Cowboy Mouth (1971). He had also developed a drug problem. To escape both, Shepard decamped to London, where he wrote The Tooth of Crime (1972), a fantasy about two gangster-like rock stars, and Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974), which was seen at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs.

    In the mid-1970s Shepard returned to America, where he took up a ten-year appointment as writer-in-residence at the magic Theatre in San Francisco. Subsequent plays showed a more conventional approach to narrative and a new preoccupation with themes of family conflict. This is first evident in Curse of the Starving Class (1978), in which the dysfunctional Tate clan struggle for control of the family farm, and Buried Child (1978), a gothic drama of incest and infanticide that earned its author the Pulitzer Prize (Shepard later remarked that he took more pride in his youthful victory in a rodeo roping contest). The so-called 'family trilogy' of plays was completed by True West (1980), a black comedy about the near-murderous rivalry between two brothers. The play enjoyed a lengthy run in New York, as did the torrid Fool For Love (1983), about the explosive quarrelling of two lovers who turn out to be half-siblings.

    The 1980s also saw Shepard's first big success as a screen actor, with his Oscar-nominated performance in The Right Stuff (1983). He has sinceappeared in some 40 films, including the screen version of his own Fool ForLove (1986). His other work for the cinema has included the screenplay forParis, Texas (1984) and Far North (1988), which hewrote and directed for his long-term partner, film star Jessica Lange.

    Since the mid-1980s new works for the stage have appeared only sporadically. They include the award-winning A Lie of the Mind (1986), another epic study of family breakdown and domestic violence, the blackmail drama Simpatico (1993), The Late Henry Moss (2001), and Ages of the Moon (2010).

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