In many ways my hero of spoken words, Sam Shepard will always be the writer who penned the absurd and equally surrealist Lobster Man for a play that was perhaps too bizarre for most.
I first encountered his work as a junior in college. I had to study a playwright and at random picked him for my author to study.
Through his work I discovered the theater of the batshit crazy. He came out of the 60s, a late hippy whose work never seemed to make much sense. His early plays were an extreme form of Avant Garde, both disturbing and schlocky in their unkempt behavior, as if a schizophrenic tripping on LSD had discovered a typewriter for the first time. The second part of the statement might be true.
Shepard was gifted in the way Shakespeare was. He was poetic but not in meter in rhyme. He had a knack for a particular American vernacular the way Bukowski had. He channeled the demons of the back roads of the American West, where junkies and cowboys intermingled at the Devil’s corner.
A few plays stick out. There’s obviously the one with the Lobster Man, in which the monst figure becomes a rock n’ roll God. The title escapes but the character is forever etched in my memory. I know because I got to play the part that college class, complete with costume and all.
But there was also Buried Child, a haunting tale of incest and sins of an American family haunted by a past that is biblical in its implications.
And of course, there is True West, a tale of two brothers at odds in lifestyle, who deem it necessary to trash their mother’s house in a battle of egos. Any grown child will know the struggle that can occur when poverty and destitution fall prey to one’s own destiny.
Of course, most people are familiar with the scribe through his acting career. Most notably, Shepard was nominated for an Oscar for his subtle performance in the film The Right Stuff, in which he portayed famed autopilot Chuck Yeager.
Shepard, however, was more than just a thespian. He was also a student of music, performing a banjo on Patti Smith’s cover Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana.
But to me, he was always be the surrealist genius penning plays I still have no fucking clue are about. I know there’s mythology, and a haunting spirit of the American west, but honestly, I like the mystery of them unfolding in their bizarre trappings of the stage. In many ways, he was my Cormac McCarthy: that haunting figure looming out West whose work never seemed to escape my consciousness.
He’s the reason I became a playwright, because if he taught me one thing, it’s that the stage is capable of portraying anything, no matter how wild the imagination seems to run. For that, I’ll always be forever grateful.
RIP Sam Shepard, the world could use you again.