(Isaac Butler’s and Dan Kois’s article appeared in Slate, 7/25; via Pam Green.)
Here’s how I discovered Sam Shepard:
In the ’90s, back before Giuliani and co. broken-windowed the last vestiges of seediness from Times Square, the Drama Book Shop lived above some kind of adult emporium. I was there, looking for plays. The highest honor in my high school was directing a one-act your senior year. It was the brass ring, and even though I was only in eighth grade, I was planning how I would clutch it.
This was my first ever visit to the Drama Book Shop, but it would become an annual pilgrimage, largely due to the moment when, after asking the clerk for some good one-acts, I was first told about Sam Shepard. A minute or two later, he had placed Fool for Love and Other Plays in my hands, and he was evangelizing about the bizarre virtues of a play called Suicide in B Flat. I remember thinking: Who is this gorgeous man on the cover, and how did he come up with a title like that?
I read Suicide in B Flat, entering Shepard’s be-bop nightmare in which a jazz musician may have killed himself, or may have committed murder. I didn’t get it, but I was beguiled by it. I immediately tore into Fool for Love, which opens with maybe the greatest stage direction of all time: “This play is to be performed relentlessly, without a break.”
He wrote without the brakes on, or perhaps he cut them.
Relentlessly and without a break is a pretty good way of describing both the feeling of Shepard’s work and his prolific genius itself. From 1964 to 2014, Shepard wrote more than 40 plays and 10 films. He wrote without the brakes on, or perhaps he cut them. The myth of Shepard has always been in part fueled by his writing some of his early plays under the influence and never revising them. But as his career went on, he became a meticulous craftsman of language, even while always experimenting with structure. He pursued the limits of the form, the limits of language, the limits of what the word could do on stage, and then he pushed these limits ever further out, creating an expanded imaginative space that the rest of us are lucky to be able to play in.