Renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright chat about his career
Sam Shepard now lives on a working farm in Kentucky, where he rides horses, makes coffee and writes. With more than 40 titles under his belt, he turned 67 last month – the same age as his father when he died – but has no plans to slow down. Last month he accepted yet another award, the 2010 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, and is knee-deep in a new production called Darlin’ Companion.
Since your career as a screen actor took off in the ’80s, you’ve written fewer plays. Is there a link between acting more and writing less? No. By my mid-thirties, I’d written dozens of plays. I had no idea where I was going and I just plunged in. That becomes less interesting the more you find out about the form. And it requires more time. So writing less plays didn’t have anything to do with my career as an actor. The [movie] I’m in right now, I’ve been on hold for five days, so I’m stuck in a motel on Interstate 15, writing my ass off. [Laughs]
You speak about a general we, a general father. What about you and your own father and how that dynamic played out in your work? The reason I was writing him was not to re-inhabit my father, make him come back to life. It was the notion of the father as the figure beyond one’s own father. The more you talk about it personally, the more you take away from the impact of [plays such as] Buried Child [for which Shepard won the Pulitzer]. It’s not intended to have a realistic basis.
Did your father ever see your plays? He sat through a production of Buried Child in Santa Fe. He charged into the play and started yelling at the actors. They kicked him out, then they realised he was my father and they let him back in. And he started the same thing over again. [Laughs]
Did he ever ask about your work? No, no, no, no. I remember him calling me after I won the Pulitzer Prize, and he said it would be remiss not to congratulate me. But beyond that, he didn’t say anything, no.
Much has been said about that thread of violence in your work in terms of your father’s influence, his violence and his alcoholism. Theatre critic John Lahr wrote that for you and your characters, ‘there is no escaping the father.’ Would you agree with that? Yeah, I do. We see our father in ourselves, we see our son in ourselves. It’s an old story.
Critics have also said that you find it hard to be close to someone without wanting to kill them and occasionally acting on the instinct. Is this true? [Laughs] I was unaware of that. There is a barbarism and bloodlust and primitivism in a lot of the stuff. There’s a savageness in us that is far more interesting than the sophisticated.
Where has the barbarism come from? How do you account for it? America. Being raised in America. Everything that constitutes what we call America – its collapse and its terror and, yeah, the raggedness of it.
Seven Plays by Sam Shepard is available from Amazon.com, Dhs40.