Sam Shepard: Masterful Poet of the Theater
“What did the music say? Did you hear it?….What did it say?”
“It said that there was a chance.”
“What kind of chance?”
“A slim chance but still a chance.” (Suicide in B-flat)
While I have not done much thinking about Sam Shepard since I wrote my master’s thesis on his work in 1988 and I haven’t been able to see any of his plays since then, when asked “What writer’s work most deftly captivates you?” his was the name that sprang instantly to my mind.
It’s a bit difficult to explain why. This is partly because most of his work is written for the theater: and while it can hold its own as poetry on the page, it’s very difficult to pluck discrete passages out of context and have them evoke the full and incredibly powerful impact they have when delivered on stage, and in context.
I guess the main reason I love Shepard’s work is that he more than any other writer I know has so deftly captured–in powerful, spare, poetic prose written for the theater–the dreadful state of alienation, isolation, and decay of American society in the latter part of the 20th century. (“You’d think in a nation this big there’d be someone to talk to” is a representative line that captures so much in so few words.)
His work is dark, but there is a glimmer of hope in the center of the darkness. As one critic, Edwin Wilson wrote, “There have always been two kinds of writers who dwell on the negative aspects of life. One is nihilistic. The other cares passionately about a way of life he considers worthwhile. When it is threatened, he laments the loss in the strongest possible terms…Mr. Shepard appears to fall into this category…Though he does not state it directly, [his]…plays offer a stern, almost desperate warning. Unless we restore the integrity of the family, unless we renew our spirit, unless we respect the land, the American dream will fail.”
“A slim chance, but a chance,” you might say.
That is what the music of Sam Shepard’s poetic prose says to me. That things are pretty bad, but there’s a chance they could get better.
And he has been able to boil all this down to a line.
So many other lines in his work equally deftly capture and characterize–or more precisely, nail–American life at the end of the twentieth century. And–because he is American after all–there’s still a ray of hope about it all.
That is why his work so captivates me.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.