Sam Shepard (1943-2017) : A personal recollection of the great American playwright a month after his passing away.

Sam Shepard
Sam Shepard

About a month ago I was reading an article by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal in which she described the prototype of the ‘ideal American male’ and the extent to which the current president of the United States fits this role model or not, as the writer states in this case.

In Miss Noonan’s words the typical example of the American male goes like this:

The way American men used to like seeing themselves, the template they most admired, was the strong silent type celebrated in mid-20th century films - Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda. In time the style shifted and we wound up with the nervous and chattery.

In total agreement with this description, my mind began racing trying to match a current personality who would fit such an endangered species. However, no matter how hard I tried, I could come up with only one name: Sam Shepard

Three days later, the shock of being informed of his untimely demise at the age of 73, brought back to mind Miss Noonan’s theory along with an impromptu dinner I had some twenty years ago with America’s foremost playwright.

Located on Seventh Avenue across the street from Carnegie Hall, Trattoria Dell’Arte has always been a safe bet for a late-night dinner as it extends service till roughly midnight, making it a haunt for post-theater diners. And so one late night I hurried into the room craving for its famous oven pizza and seeking shelter from the pouring rain.

Sitting alone at a table by the window was a figure that seemed somehow familiar. Without realizing how I got there, within a few seconds I was standing in front of his table asking: “Mr. Shepard, might I join you for dinner if I promise not to discuss Sam Shepard?

Bewildered by such boldness, yet amused, Sam Shepard answered: “Sure, but dinner is on me!”, flashing the confident smile that had become his trademark.

Immediately after having settled into my chair an invitation for what I think was whiskey came along. Whether it was whiskey or bourbon, didn’t seem to matter as I had never been able to hold this category of spirits and therefore feel an aversion to them, so I declined. A debate erupted as according to the great playwright drinking whiskey was what separated men from boys. And so he launched into a soliloquy about the masculinity of holding in one’s hand the crystal-bottomed whiskey glasses used to consume the spirit. He even went as far as to advise me that should I not want to drink it neat, I could always dilute it with some soda, to which he grimaced. This forced me to tell him that in my fetus state, I had been affected by whiskey due to my mother’s addiction to it and therefore would always have a reaction to it.

Becoming sincerely apologetic, he revealed that being the son of an alcoholic father he could understand, adding: “The last thing I’d want would be to bring out such memories!” And so, settling for a glass of vodka instead, we had to a heart-to-heart about his drinking, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the difficulties of rehabilitation in the world in which we live.

But then he took me on an amazing journey across his America.

He talked about the endless horizons of the Great Plains, the distant mountain ranges set against clear blue skies and the great rivers that crisscross the continent; huge natural wonders all of which inspire freedom. He went on to describe the beauty of crossing such a magnificent landscape and the sense of belonging this instilled.

I can still hear the cadence of his voice working its way spontaneously towards a natural climax, every word building on the enthusiasm of the previous one. This was the same America which Jimmy Stewart refers to in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the America of Henry Fonda and of Gary Cooper, a magnificent land ‘from sea to shiny sea.’

He then began staring out of the window at the falling rain. Its rhythmic patter on the pavement seemed to have transported the writer to some distant reality, his head nodding along as he followed some train of thought. When his attention finally returned from this inner journey the tone of his narration turned grim exposing a sense of inner conflict. ‘As long as you refrain from stepping indoors,’ he firmly pointed out. In the America he had just painted he perceived the roof over people’s heads not as a shelter but as a lid separating them from the glorious sky, adding that within these confines, which are the building-blocks of the America Dream, people were bound to encounter another America where they were trapped in the reality of their day-to-day lives. A problem that was not temporal but eternal, some sort of curse that afflicted America.

It was the contrast of this land of seemingly infinite expansion with one’s own personal limitations - the obsession with the quest for the American Dream which, if not fully materialized, will inevitably return to haunt and destroy you – situations left unspoken and unresolved by most, yet courageously addressed by the quintessential American man , whose confrontation with such a destiny would bring about the necessary conflict that produced the gripping and sizzling American drama that would become Sam Shepard’s trademark, making him one of the most important exponents of American Realism.

Starting in the 1920s with the plays of Eugene O’ Neill, American Realist Drama is a distinctive way of perceiving the world, revolving around the lives and activities of ordinary people many of whom may be sidetracked to the fringes of society. Passing through the works of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and David Mamet, among many, the simplicity and directness of this genre is in opposition with twentieth-century European theater which is mostly conceptual and ambiguous in nature.

A re-staging of the table by the window at the<em> Trattoria Dell’ Arte</em> some 20 years later
A re-staging of the table by the window at the Trattoria Dell’ Arte some 20 years later

We jumped on the waiter’s recommendation for coffee as in those pre-Starbucks days, good espresso was a rare occurrence in New York, available only in Italian restaurants and selected cafes. And so we began comparing the various New York espresso temples. His heart was set on the eccentric Café Reggio in the Village, with its mismatched seats and huge gleaming-brass espresso machine, a haunt of his during his early New York years in the sixties.

The restaurant was about to shut and so we walked out into the street. It had begun to drizzle again. He then casually asked me why, at some point during our conversation, I had referred to him as a leading American playwright. My matter-of-fact answer: “Because so many drama teachers and students select monologues and scenes from your plays for classwork or auditions” , made the stern face break into a smile of satisfaction.

Bidding me goodnight with a firm Humphrey Bogart-like handshake he looked at me in the eye and whispered as if in complicity:

You know, what many people say about me is true, I am a cowboy at heart. Now get going before you get me talking more about myself!

Identifying himself with the most legendary figure of American culture, Sam Shepard was everything I had expected him to be: the embodiment of the Great American Icon.

The late-night cowboy did not ride away into the sunset but faded into the drizzling rain. As I began walking away I felt like turning round, taking one last glance at this extraordinary man but this would have brought me back to the present, away from the spell to which I had been bound.

The man certainly knew how to weave legend………..

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