Did Playwright Sam Shepard Predict the Future?

Revisiting one writer's take on America in 2019

Sam Shepard
Sam Shepard on the set of the 2005 film "Stealth"
US Navy

In Sam Shepard’s plays, families buckle and collapse under the weight of trauma, financial anxieties or long-suppressed secrets. Frenetic dialogue is punctuated by shocking confessions or moments of conflict, and personalities can flip on a dime. In his play True West, the dynamic between two brothers — one a successful screenwriter, one an unpredictable drifter — is in a constant state of flux. Famously, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly’s 2000 Broadway production involved the two actors alternating these roles on different nights, a deft touch that accentuated the play’s themes.

Shepard died in 2017, but his work lives on — in new productions of his plays, in his long career as an actor and through his books. His posthumously-released novel Spy of the First Person was praised in the New York Times. “There are echoes of Beckett in this novel’s abstemious style and existential echoes,” wrote Dwight Garner in his review.

Writing in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood makes the case that Shepard’s body of work has become even more relevant to modern American society in recent years. 

Critics have always thought of the family strife in Shepard’s dramas as representing deeper American strife. But now it’s clear that the nerves Shepard vivisected for five decades are precisely the ones that the past several years of political dysfunction have exposed: red America and blue, blended into a violent purple; the failure of the fortunate to respect the wretched; the consequences when the wretched seek their reckoning.

It’s a thoughtful examination of how Shepard’s preferred themes converge with the present state of American politics, and why his work resonates more deeply than ever. A number of Wood’s conclusions are chilling, even as they also leave the reader clamoring for more revivals of Shepard’s plays. 

While Wood’s essay stays close to the sociopolitical implications of several of Shepard’s plays, notably True West and Buried Child, another comment of Shepard’s also resonates in the current moment. 

“We prefer the image to the human being. We’d rather watch you on television than talk to you,” Shepard said in this 1996 interview around the time of an off-Broadway revival of his apocalyptic rock and roll play The Tooth of Crime. In an era where conflict is increased by people talking at one another’s social media presences, rather than engaging in dialogue, it fits in all too well with the current state of the nation.

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