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Obituary: Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard, who has died aged 73. Photo: Charles Sykes
Sam Shepard, who has died aged 73. Photo: Charles Sykes

A prolific playwright who inherited Arthur Miller’s mantle as the leading American playwright of his generation, Sam Shepard drilled into the dark underbelly of the American dream to often unsettling but always telling effect.

Having begun writing for New York’s experimental theatre scene in the 1960s, he went on to win a Pulitzer prize for his 1979 play, Buried Child, a macabre, claustrophobic work set in a small farmstead in America’s forgotten Mid-West. First seen in the UK courtesy of a visiting American student company at the 1979 Edinburgh Fringe, it was staged the following year at the Hampstead Theatre. Its portrait of a family at war with itself was an already familiar trope that seemed to collide, noted The Stage, the starkness of Samuel Beckett, the strange menace of Harold Pinter and the superficially banal domesticity of David Storey.

Shepard returned time and again to the plight of families and friendships left on the edges of modernity and money, casting a sardonic eye on the ‘American century’ with an often mordant wit that, by turns, flirted with impressionism and courted the surreal while being shot through with dialogue of muscular immediacy.

Many of his early plays found their way to fringe venues in the UK – although New York’s provocative La Mama Troupe notably brought Melodrama Play to the Mercury Theatre in 1967 – with the Royal Court championing him from 1969 (when it staged La Turista in its Upstairs studio space) and through the early years of the 1970s.

Shepard’s rising profile in the US had also come to the attention of Kenneth Tynan (then literary manager of the National Theatre), who commissioned him to write a sketch for the controversial nude revue Oh! Calcutta!, first seen at the Roundhouse and subsequently at the Royalty Theatre in 1970.

It was at the Royal Court that Shepard made his British directing debut with his own Geography of a Horse Dreamer in 1974 (filmed the following year by Granada Television). It starred a young Stephen Rea as the hick American youth Cody kidnapped by gangsters keen to exploit his facility for dreaming the winning horses in tomorrow’s races.

He worked again with Rea on Action at the Royal Court in 1974 and Kicking a Dead Horse (another solo show) at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin in 2007 and Almeida Theatre in 2008. At Rea’s encouragement, he also wrote A Particle of Dread: Oedipus Variations for a rare outing by the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry as part of its City of Culture programme in 2013.

The expectations created by the success of Buried Child were confirmed by a succession of searing plays. Directed by John Schlesinger, True West (a Pulitzer runner-up) was seen at the National Theatre in 1981. A stark portrait of sibling rivalry between two estranged, newly reunited brothers and their long-suffering mother caught in the middle, it starred Bob Hoskins, Antony Sher and Patricia Hayes. Echoed in his 1984 screenplay for Wim Wenders’ road movie Paris, Texas, it remains his most produced play.

Also a Pulitzer contender, 1984’s Fool for Love (set in a bare motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert) was indelibly staged by Peter Gill at the National Theatre with Ian Charleson and Julie Walters as the embattled lovers trapped in the past and too scared to move into the future. It was recently revived at London’s Found111 in October last year.

At the Royal Court in 1987, the Olivier award-nominated A Lie of the Mind, described by The Stage as “one of the most powerful and moving dramas in the London theatre”, returned to the theme of domesticity as a destructive force.

An unsavoury tale of an unhappy family and first seen in Sloane Square in 1977, Curse of the Starving Class was revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1991.

1995’s Simpatico at the Royal Court returned to trying to unravel the gambling gene that infuses America with the promise of a quick-fix solution to its elusive dream of happiness through wealth with barely concealed caustic contempt.

He also collaborated with the iconic songwriter Bob Dylan, co-writing (and appearing in) the 1978 tour documentary Renaldo and Clara, and again on the 1986 song Brownsville Girl from the Knocked Out Loaded album.

Shepard also achieved fame as a film actor, winning an Academy award nomination as Chuck Yeager, the no-nonsense test pilot training to become a pioneering astronaut, in 1983’s The Right Stuff. Other notable screen appearances included Frances (1982), Fool for Love (1985), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). He was also to be seen in the current Netflix series Bloodline.

Shepard published collections of short stories, essays and letters, won 10 Obie (Off-Broadway) awards and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.

His first novel, The One Inside – about “a loner who doesn’t want to be alone” – was published earlier this year and described by the New York Times as “a sharp-edged distillation of the themes that have preoccupied him throughout his career and serves as a kind of Rosetta Stone to such remarkable plays as Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind, Buried Child and True West”.

For some time, he had been living with a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as motor neurone disease.

Samuel Shepard Rogers III, born on November 5, 1943, died on July 30, aged 73. He is survived by ex wife O-Lan Jones and long-term partner Jessica Lange and three children.

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