What Exactly is Sam Shepard’s Aesthetic?

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While Sam Shepard will always be remembered for his starring role as Dolly Parton’s husband in that cinematic masterpiece that is Steel Magnolias, he also wrote a few plays along the way!  Tongue-in-cheek aside, Sam Shepard’s status as one of America’s greatest playwrights seems unquestioned.  More difficult to articulate, however, is precisely what the specific qualities of Shepard’s works are, perhaps due to the swirling of influence evident in his plays.  His plays are, in many ways, intrinsically American,
as Shepard grapples with failing of the American Dream, and the tragedy of the shattering idyllic domestic life (often, literally, at the hands of Shepard’s set-destroying characters).  In this sense, Shepard appears to be the natural successor of the family tragedies of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.
However, this alone is too narrow a qualification, for Shepard’s work first began to spring forth from the avante-garde Off-Off-Broadway scene of the late 1960’s, particularly through his work with the experimental theatre group The Open Theater.  Here one can perhaps find the source of Shepard’s formal innovations, evident in plays such as The Tooth of Crime, which, while in one sense a traditional Western, delivers its story through a world that is both sci-fi and rock and roll, where his characters appear to break into new voices and behaviors.  Shepard himself wrote in his preface to Angel City that the actor should consider his character “a fractured whole with bits and pieces of characters flying off the central theme.  Collage construction, jazz improvisation.  Music of painting in space.”  Shepard’s characters engage the domestic tragedy with a violence of imagery and spontaneity that set themselves fully apart from the Tyrone Family and Willy Loman.
Undermain Theatre has performed two of Shepard’s plays in the past, Killer’s Head, and The Late Henry Moss, both of which display these two influences, Shepard’s agon with the domestic and the shifting evocative imagery and slang of the character’s dialogue.  Now, with Ages of the Moon, Shepard appears to be pushing himself further into another evolution, wearing his Beckettian influences on his sleeve with Ages of the Moon‘s own two ragged clowns, Ames and Byron.  Be sure to be on the look out for these traces of Beckett and Waiting for Godot when Ages of the Moon opens on October 15th.
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