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Howard Sherman: The great Sam Shepard plumbed the dark recesses of the American soul

Ed Harris and Barnaby Kay in a revival of Sam Shepard's Buried Child at Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Johan Persson
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To read, suddenly, unexpectedly, that playwright Sam Shepard had died was a shock on Monday morning. He was only 73 and his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – better known in the US as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – had been relatively closely held.

The losses, in my lifetime, of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee marked the passing of giants who had made their names in the 1950s, 1960s and the very start of the 1970s.

But Shepard was of the next generation, one of the artists who signalled new avenues in playwriting, emerging from the coffee shops and makeshift theatres of Greenwich Village, helping to define the Off-Broadway scene.

Only the passing of August Wilson, two years younger than Shepard, and gone more than a decade now, seemed comparably unfair – and too soon – when viewed among greatest lost voices of my theatregoing life.

In his most iconic years from the mid-1970s, when his work broke to a broader audience Off-Broadway and on regional stages, the plays seemed to tumble forth: Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, True West, Seduced, Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind followed on his early works like The Tooth of Crime, Suicide in B-flat and Action. He also collaborated with others, including Patti Smith and the director Joseph Chaikin.

Broadway was rare for him, and then only in revivals of works first seen elsewhere, save for Operation: Sidewinder in 1970 and his contributions to the revue Oh! Calcutta!.

At the same time, Shepard’s acting talent and vintage good looks brought him a measure of fame on film; first in Terrence Malick’s elegiac Days of Heaven and later in films as diverse as The Right Stuff, Black Hawk Down and Baby Boom. He even appeared on stage, playing the father in the US premiere of Caryl Churchill’s A Number at New York Theatre Workshop in 2004.

But the plays continued, perhaps to less acclaim. They included Simpatico, The Late Henry Moss, Ages of the Moon, and Heartless. His Pulitzer Prize recognition had come relatively early, for Buried Child in 1979.

For me, Buried Child was a singular touchstone, the play that, as I wrote in the foreword to an anthology I developed, changed my life.

I didn’t see the earliest productions, but I did see the play in 1979, its Pulitzer year, while still at secondary school, on a dark and stormy night at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. I had learned of the play from a review in Time magazine; I had maybe seen ten productions live at this point in my life, although I had begun reading them voraciously.

The damaged, secretive clan in Buried Child was unlike any family I knew, but their gothically-drawn lives were compelling, and the threats and pain played out before me were both shocking and thrilling.

This was nothing like the shows we had done in school, or even works I’d managed to read. To this day, I can describe moments in detail and could even sketch the set; I’ve discussed it at length with others who saw the production and even with one of the Yale Drama School students who was in it, the now well-known TV and stage actor Tony Shalhoub.

I developed a youthful theory that the (literally) buried child of the title was a spiritual relative of the imagined child of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – that Shepard had made literal what Albee had maintained as metaphor.

It has been said that Shepard was not much of a reviser of his own work, though he tinkered with Buried Child for its Broadway run and with The Tooth of Crime for an Off-Broadway revival at Signature Theatre.

I responded to the rawness, coming from a well-ordered family and having mostly seen and read well-made plays and musicals. By not being polished, Shepard showed me more possibility, and Buried Child proved the gateway drug to my theatre career, a direction reinforced shortly thereafter by the comparably dark and thrilling Sweeney Todd.

They say you should never meet your idols, but I did manage to meet Shepard once, in the most felicitous of ways. When his 2009 play Kicking a Dead Horse was in previews at New York’s Public Theater, my friend Ruth Sternberg, the company’s director of production, invited me to sit at the back of the house with her and the playwright, and then promptly went off to address some issue.

And so Shepard and I made small talk – about what else was playing in town mostly – but I did awkwardly tell him how much his plays had meant to me, and I thanked him for them, which he accepted very graciously.

Then we sat together and watched his play, only to talk more post-show when Ruth rejoined us, as stagehands grappled with the life-sized horse prop that Stephen Rea had just spent 90 minutes musing over.

I was too overcome by talking so amiably and inconsequentially with Shepard, as if this happened all the time, that I remember almost nothing of what was said, which weighs on me now that his voice is stilled.

He leaves behind a body of work that explored the dark sides of the American heartland, plains and deserts, that translated crumbling traditions and legends into modern drama for many who never walked or rode in the American west or worked on a broken-down farm.

He plumbed very dark recesses of the American soul and, like all great playwrights, his explorations will live on long after him, and will continue to be explored. I wish him peace.

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