An American Icon Comes to Life
Artistically, historically and culturally, Sam Shepard represents a touchstone to the last half of the 20th century. He has had a celebrated life and career beginning as a young, rebellious one-act off-Broadway playwright in the 1960s to his unexpected fame as a Hollywood star in the 1980s. He has been influenced by a number of important people including Bob Dylan and Jessica Lange. Sam Shepard's life, creative process and connections can be seen firsthand through his papers housed at the Wittliff Collections.
Chad Hammett, senior lecturer in the English department at Texas State, has spent considerable time exploring Sam Shepard's papers. He started his research with the idea of writing a book on Shepard but before he knew it, he was being asked to shape the contents of a book around the 40-year correspondence between Sam Shepard and long-time friend, Johnny Dark. He edited the book, Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark that was published by the University of Texas Press for the Wittliff's Southwestern Writers Collection Series.
Who is Sam Shepard?
I would characterize Sam Shepard as one of the most important American writers of the last 100 years, and arguably the best American playwright of the last 50 years. It's not surprising that Sam Shepard is the most produced playwright after Tennessee Williams.
Shepard has been a tremendously well-applauded writer. He was the recipient of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child, won 11 OBIEs for his plays, received the Palm D'Or at Cannes Film Festival for his screenplay, Paris, Texas, as well as an academy-nomination for his performance in The Right Stuff.
What makes Shepard stand apart from other writers?
Sam is significant in that he captured something about America in his writing. I think there is a long history of myth in the United States, whether it's the myth of the American West or the myth of the American family. And Sam has done a great job of exposing the cracks in some of those myths. That is one of the things that have made his work endure.
Sam Shepard has been active as a playwright, actor, director, screenwriter, author and musician. How he has managed to successfully sustain himself in multiple roles?
It is very unusual for one person to wear so many different artistic hats. From his 50 plus plays he has written like True West, Buried Child and Fool for Love that continue to see performances around the world to his 60 plus appearances in films, he has been able to succeed in a lot of different areas of artistic endeavor. He has been a musician, written songs with Bob Dylan and performed with the band, the Holy Modal Rounders. It's unusual in that a lot of artists have tried to cross genres. The writer, Norman Mailer tried his hand at movie directing and was not very successful. Bob Dylan tried to become a film star and didn't really cross over as well as Sam has in all of these different pursuits. Sam is a really talented man. He goes at each of these different artistic avenues with such zeal that it translates into his work.
How has Shepard's restless energy and wandering nature inspired his work?
Shepard's restlessness and wandering nature matches that of America's. For example, just look at the tales of people crossing the Bering Strait or people on the Mayflower. This has always been a place for exiles and wanderers. And Sam is able to capture that because he himself is somebody who left home at the age of 18, split from Duarte, California, and kind of remade himself as this American icon. In terms of rootlessness and being able to write about rootlessness, it takes one to know one. Sam has been really good at being able to capture that part of the American experience.
For Sam, moving from place to place is his America. Driving is part of the American experience whether it's the driving of a mule team across Nebraska or driving along Route 66 on a family vacation. The best example of his wandering nature and the way it translates into his work is the way he started the writing of the play, Simpatico. There was an interview inThe Paris Review with Sam a few years ago in which he claimed he began writing the play on the steering wheel of his truck as he drove I-40 across the country. In the notebook that shows the beginning of Simpatico, he wrote the heading: "I-40 driving west." Sam describes that he would be able to look down and write three or four seconds, look up and scan the empty highway and then look back down again and write another three or four seconds as he crossed the country. So I don't know if you wanted to be on the road with him at the same time but it certainly created a good play.
As a writer, what has stood out for you about Shepard's creative process?
The biggest thing that stands out to me as a writer about Sam's creative writing process is the fact that his work in the archives belies our conception of what an artist is. Often we are taught to believe the artist is in commune with the gods, that the muse speaks, the artist writes and all of sudden there is this perfect thing. Sam's work shows that this isn't the case. Art doesn't spring fully formed into the world. Art is making an attempt, failing, going back, failing again, going back, rewriting, repurposing and reusing until you get it into a form that is ready for the rest of the world.
What led the Wittliff to acquire Shepard's papers?
The Wittliff acquired the Sam Shepard papers in large part because of Sam's relationship with Bill Wittliff. With Bill Wittliff's active involvement in the film industry, he had the opportunity to meet Sam on the set of a movie being filmed here in Texas in the 1980s. Soon after, they worked together on a number of Bill Wittliff's projects including Raggedy Man andCountry, and also developed a friendship. Their relationship made it easy for Bill to go to Sam and ask him to be one of the original donors when the Wittliff Collections were getting started.
Many people often ask what Sam's relationship is to Texas and the Southwest. I think we can call Sam an honorary Texan, even though he has never lived in the state. He set a number of pieces here. He has filmed quite a few movies in the state. Most important, he writes about the American Southwest. It's really a perfect match to have the Sam Shepard papers at Texas State.
What is included among Shepard's papers in the archives?
The collection has some remarkable holdings. Sam writes most things by long hand first. The archive has quite a few of the densely packed notebooks that are integral to his work. Other materials from his time as a director and playwright include scripts, storyboards and draft of stories and drafts of plays at every conceivable stage of the artistic process -- from the germ that went into the notebook to the final draft from the publisher to check for errors before publishing. In addition, there are actor's scripts, press cards, lots of photographs, home movies, audio of article interviews, letters from friends, congratulatory messages from fans and other mementos from a career spent in the public eye.
Why are the notebooks important to Shepard's work?
Shepard is rarely without a notebook. He usually has one by his side to jot down ideas. I find the notebooks amazing because you see his total process, warts and all. He writes in red pen as he starts a new play and revisits it with a blue pen a few weeks later as he tries to line out some things before he attempts another draft of a scene. In all of his notebooks, we get to see his thoughts and moods revealed.
What is found in the Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark Collection?
This is a complementary collection to the Sam Shepard papers. The Wittliff was able to acquire 272 letters that were exchanged over 40 years between Sam and his friend Johnny Dark. The correspondence represents gripping, gut-wrenching letters where the men open themselves to each other with surprising honesty. Shepard's letters give the deepest look anyone may ever get into his personal philosophy while in Dark's letters, we discover insights into Shepard's character only an intimate friend could provide. This collection provided my source material for editing Two Prospectors. It also inspired the making of the documentary, Shepard & Dark that documents the men reminiscing as they shift through years of correspondence in preparation for turning the materials over to the Wittliff for the creation of the book. I don't know anyone else who has edited a book of letters for a literary figure and had a movie made at the same time. It was a fun and rewarding experience.