In a world drowning in celebrity, the news of Sam Shepard’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a shock of the old kind: A powerful and elusive presence has vanished. It’s the type of disappearance Shepard captured with élan not just in his plays, but also with his striking, affectless acting and even in the way he carried himself through and along the edges of a culture increasingly dedicated to fame as a weapon and commodity.
It’s true that Shepard was showered with the type of accolades people pay attention to -- a Pulitzer Prize, in 1979, for his play Buried Child, an Oscar nomination for Phillip Kaufman’s epic history movie The Right Stuff (1983), and a long relationship with a real Hollywood star, Jessica Lange. Yet these noteworthy accomplishments barely capture the force of his art and influence, especially in the Bay Area of the late 1970s and early '80s.
By the time Shepard became the playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in 1975, he had written almost 30 plays. Without directly chronicling the Summer of Love generation, say in the way Hair (1967), Godspell (1970), and Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) would attempt, Shepard’s early work captures the dislocation, societal upheaval, and jazzy, jagged rhythms of an America in revolt against itself.
Those qualities made many of his plays such as Icarus’s Mother (1965), The Unseen Hand (1969), Cowboy Mouth (co-written with then girlfriend Patti Smith, 1971), The Tooth of the Crime (1972), and Action (1975) seem like documentaries of the Manson family’s early years. To the mainstream and even avant-garde theatrical establishment, Shepard was barely writing plays. Instead, he was creating theatrical events that more closely resembled the force of music.
The question was, where was Shepard heading? The answer was west, and to a slightly different aesthetic -- one that would reimagine what realism might be after the revolution.
To say that Shepard's Magic Theatre world premieres were significant is a vast understatement. Without losing any of its edge or inventiveness, his work mutated from experimental and oppositional to simply present. He wasn't an outsider anymore; he was the eye of the storm.
Bay Area audiences were the first to see Buried Child, True West (1980) and Fool for Love (1983), along with Action, Angel City (1976) and his collaboration with director Joseph Chaikin, Tongues (1978). This bounty secured the Magic’s national reputation as a playwright's theater of true importance.
Of course, this type of fact is the stuff of testimonial. Look at the work, we say. Look at all the good that was done. It’s an appropriate way to celebrate the dead, though I’m not sure it quite works for Shepard.
What was strange about this artist's achievements was how electric and transforming they were. Shepard's work and presence imbued the Bay Area with a desire for significant theater — and so it wasn’t just the Magic that flourished, but also the Berkeley Stage, the Eureka Theatre, the Julian Theater, and a host of other experimental groups that picked up on, responded to, and took on his shifty, off-beat challenges (in part, that they too might command the center of the national stage, or at least Shepard made it all seem possible).
Sam Shepard was a great playwright whose plays are a product not of the times, or institutions, but of a vision. And visions are rare. They don’t come because we want them to, or because there’s a grant for them, or because we create the proper organization. They come because some people feel the world with more intensity, and follow the stars before them to wherever they might lead. And in turn, we follow them with an equal intensity, and suffer a real loss when they're no longer around to show the way.