The theater world has paused to mourn the passing of Pulitzer Prize-winner Sam Shepard, the boldly original and unconventional playwright who worked to find meaning in the raw characters and culture of the modern American west.
Sam Shepard knew hard work – he rode horses, sheared sheep, and picked California oranges and avocados before moving to New York to channel the combined influences of the 60’s avant-garde, theater demigod Samuel Beckett, and an angry hard-drinking father into a passionate, intuitive, and distinctly modern American voice.
Sam Shepard’s brooding narratives conjured existential conflict between striving but disconnected characters in more trouble than they knew. His fleeting images and outbursts never settled. “A play’s like music,” Shepard said, “ephemeral, elusive, appearing and disappearing all the time.”
Shepard never gained mass appeal in the way that Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller did - but no playwright in the last 50 years has had a greater impact or inspired more young voices. Cowboy playwright Sam Shepard made American theater cool.
In his recent review of Shepard’s work, LA Times critic Charles McNulty asked, “Why shouldn’t theater artists pose as direct an assault on the senses as a Charlie Parker jazz riff or Janis Joplin wail or a Jackson Pollock action painting or a Lenny Bruce harangue?”
McNulty continued, “Shepard didn’t see why he should have to choose between Beckett and Bob Dylan, and lucky for him, countercultural rebels were busy dismantling these obsolete divisions.”
News of Shepard’s death came just a day after I had attended a presentation by Upper Valley theater activist Jarvis Green, who’s formed an African-American theater company and plans to tour the state in coming years with the entire ten-play cycle by the also-late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. Green’s recent JAG Productions run of Wilson’s Fences, in Woodstock, boasted a first-class cast and received rave reviews.
Like Sam Shepard, August Wilson interrogated the American dream and rooted his stories in place. Wilson’s Pittsburgh Hill District provided an intimately specific canvas from which he articulated potent and universal themes of black experience that speak to the white working class, as well.
How exciting it would be to see Jarvis Green’s dream of an energetic black Vermont theater company come true. And for all ages to enjoy the spellbinding and timely work of another of America’s greatest playwrights, right here at home.