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Going West: The Evolution of Sam Shepard

In our biography of Sam Shepard, we explored his rich life and career. Sam Shepard’s experiences—his complicated relationship with his father, childhood in rural California, and rock star lifestyle—often informed his work and his ambivalent feelings towards fame, kinship, and love. The style of Shepard’s plays evolved throughout his career, often mirroring his own experiences. But despite that evolution, he never once strayed from his attempts to embody the existential struggles for identity and connection in his writing. We can clearly see how his work evolved over time while maintaining these key overarching themes by taking a deeper look at some of his most notable plays.

THE TOOTH OF CRIME (1972)

In The Tooth of Crime, an aged rock star Hoss and his young rival Crow battle for fame and power. This play with music showcases the experimental, fractured structure that dominated much of Shepard’s early work. Shepard’s aesthetic sensibilities were fully on display in this show: from Westerns, to film-noir, to rock ’n’ roll. In 1972, the year this play was written, Shepard moved to London with his family to become a rock star. Here, he captured his developing fascination with Hollywood, fame, and image. In The Tooth of Crime, he crafted a pointed exploration of self through the lens of a wild, psychedelic, sci-fi ride.

CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS (1978)

Shepard’s Obie Award-winning play Curse of the Starving Class shows a family of four struggling to keep their lives and relationships together as they’re losing their California farm due to debt accumulated by their alcoholic father. In this play, Shepard developed more of a classic dramatic structure while maintaining his frenetic style and emotionally raw dialogue. This play is considered the first of what many call Shepard’s “Family Trilogy:” a series of dysfunctional family dramas that includes Curse of the Starving ClassBuried Child, and True West.

TRUE WEST (1980)

In True West, Shepard explores the tense relationship between two brothers in the suburbs outside of Los Angeles. Like the other plays on this list, True West has seemingly autobiographical elements. The ghost of the brothers’ father permeates their conflict, reflecting Shepard’s struggle to reconcile his past with his abusive, alcoholic father. Both brothers navigate the complex landscape of American masculinity, trying and failing to find their places within it. Shepard claimed that he wanted to “write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff.” This is a departure from his earlier work and illustrates his shift to naturalism in order to express all of the confusion of finding yourself within the context of the American Dream and within your relationships with others. 

FOOL FOR LOVE (1983)

Fool for Love follows the explosive relationship between two young lovers in a run-down Mojave Desert motel. Over the course of the play, Shepard unravels the story of how destiny and curious family ties seem to have brought the couple together. Like most of his other works, this play is grounded in some of Shepard’s personal truth, as it was written after breaking up with his wife O-Lan Johnson. This play delves into the question of whether or not we can overcome the predetermination of our bloodline. Like many of his plays, an “Old Man” serves as a haunting figure and warning for what the characters could become.

A LIE OF THE MIND (1985)

Shepard’s Drama Desk Award-winning play A Lie of the Mind alternates between two families wracked by domestic violence and its aftermath. This play exemplifies how the themes of fatherhood and looming father figures dominated some of Shepard’s most famous works. Although the anxiety and frenzy of Shepard’s plays never tempered, his later plays were less psychedelic trips than family melodramas rooted in realism. This play is often spoken about alongside Shepard’s Family Trilogy because of the similar themes, but the richness of its exploration of how love and redemption can exist against all odds in some ways sets it apart.

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