When Sam Shepard’s Buried Child won the Pulitzer in 1979, he’d been writing plays for nearly a decade, but this accomplishment solidified his place as a master of quirky dialogue, haunting atmospheres, and as a profound voice for the conflict between American hearts and minds. While his earlier works tended toward the absurd and experimental (described by The New York Times as “[feeling] like fiery hallucinations, with the melting logic of acid trips”), the realism of Buried Child resonated with a broader, more conservative audience who could relate to its domestic, midwestern setting and themes of family dysfunction, secrecy, and perceptions of masculinity.
Despite being distinctly of the ‘70s, the play never aged out of relevancy. A 1996 Broadway production of Buried Child garnered five Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. More recently, Buried Child had a two-month off-Broadway run in 2016 which received a pair of Lucille Lortel Award nominations, including Best Actor for its star, Shepard’s long-time pal, Ed Harris. (The March 20, 2016 performance was live-streamed by Broadway HD, which is available from Alexander Street – see details below.)
Shepard was a prolific writer who penned nearly 50 plays that put him in league with the geniuses of American drama. According to a biography in ProQuest’s Literature Online (LION):
In choosing to focus on the self-destructive nature of family myths, Shepard allies himself with the giants of American stagecraft: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. However, at the same time, Shepard is also an experimental writer, and his concentration on masculine violence, terse dialogue and surreal conflict suggests affinities with Harold Pinter and David Mamet.
In a 1978 rare interview, Shepard spoke with Don Shirley of The Washington Post and shed some light on his creative drive: “Myth speaks to everything at once, especially emotions,” he said. “By myth, I mean a sense of mystery and not necessarily a traditional formula. A character for me is composite of different mysteries.”
Shirley added: “Sam Shepard, theatrical navigator of American myths, is becoming something of a myth himself in the American theatrical world. As his fame and influence increase, he is becoming more introspective and private. He is a man of mystery, and this probably pleases him to no end.”
Shepard was a mystery in the way that Renaissance Men often are, possessing such an abundance of interests, talents and passions, it’s almost incomprehensible to the rest of us. Beyond his work as a celebrated playwright, Shepard was a director, an Oscar nominated actor (The Right Stuff), sometimes psychedelic rock musician (as drummer for the band Holy Modal Rounders), and author of novels, short stories, essays, and memoirs.
Arriving in New York from Illinois in 1963, he roomed with the son of renowned bassist Charles Mingus (the play Cowboys #2 is based on their relationship), and cultivated friendships and collaborations with the likes of Bob Dylan, John Cale and future punk Renaissance Woman, Patti Smith. Immersed in the exploding jazz scene, Abstract Expressionism and counterculture outlaws who lived by their own rules – and who inspired many of his early plays – Shepard developed an acute understanding of American eccentricities and contradictions, both rural and urban.
At least in part, this understanding is why Shepard’s plays endure, and will endure. As flawed and as damaged as his characters can be, they are relatable. Even when we may not want to, we see something of ourselves in them. As the Daily Beast noted in a recent eulogy, “His characters, a legion of the lost, persistently seek to reconcile things that aren’t just incompatible but probably unattainable: excitement, the exhilaration of existence, with security, a sense of belonging.”
Multimedia resources for exploring the works and legacy of Sam Shepard:
Buried Child (video)
Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child returns 20 years after its last major New York production, with this revival by The New Group in association with Lisa Maitlin, directed by Scott Elliott. Dodge (Ed Harris) and Halie (Amy Madigan) are barely hanging on to their farmland and their sanity while looking after their two wayward grown sons (Rich Sommer and Paul Sparks). When their grandson Vince (Nat Wolff) arrives with his girlfriend (Taissa Farmiga), no one seems to recognize him, and confusion abounds. As Vince tries to make sense of the chaos, the rest of the family dances around a deep, dark secret. This wildly poetic and cuttingly funny take on the American family drama gleefully pulls apart the threadbare deluded visions of our families and our homes.
(Available in the BroadwayHD Collection and DDA; see the script.)
True West (audio play)
Pulitzer-Prize winner Sam Shepard’s classic comedy is a story of estranged brothers Austin and Lee. Shepard compares and contrasts the reality of the two brothers by forcing them to come to terms with each other; with themselves; and with family.
(Available in the Audio Drama: The L.A. Theatre Works Collection; see the script).
Here’s the script.
Nightingale, B. (2017, Jul 31). This is how sam shepard revolutionized theater. The Daily Beast.
By, D. S. (1979, Jan 14). Searching for sam shepard. The Washington Post (1974-Current File).
Brantley, B. (2016, Feb 17). Review: In shepard's 'buried child,' a father and family dissolve into darkness. New York Times (online)