Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

Sam Shepard's Inter/National Stage

Johan Callens

Sam Shepard has come a long way. Broken into the theatre while a student at Mount San Antonio College, in Walnut, CA, he joined the Bishop's Company Repertory Players on a nation-wide tour and kindly bowed out in New York to try his luck as a writer on the burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway scene. This was in 1963. Three decades later, he has built himself a solid reputation, consecutively using New York ( 1964-71), London ( 1971-74), San Francisco ( 1974-83), Santa Fe ( 1983-87) and Orange County, Virginia ( 1987-) as home bases and garnering productions of his plays in the major cities of the United States. His film career gave him an even greater exposure, down to the tiniest theatres in the country's farthest reaches. William Kleb has interpreted Shepard's appearance in Terence Malick Days of Heaven (Fall 1978) as the consecration of his mythical status, i.e. mythical and American. A few months earlier, on the occasion of the premiere of Seduced (Trinity Square Repertory, Providence, 25 April, 1978), Mel Gussow and Jack Kroll indeed hailed the playwright as the most "American" of his generation ( Kleb 3 97)). When Buried Child opened the following year, one feature article for the New York Times was entitled "The Deeply American Roots of Sam Shepard's Plays," another "Sam Shepard's Obsession Is America."1 More recently Jiirgen C. Wolter has ventured that Shepard "is widely considered to be a typically American playwright, if not the most American of contemporary American playwrights," although this makes cross-cultural transplantation quite hazardous, as the foreign audience is liable to mistake Shepard's subjective vision of a culture for a confirmation of the media-created type ( Wolter197). For all that, Buried Child received the 1979 Pulitzer Prize, signalling Shepard's canonization in America, his promotion from "experimental" and "avant-garde" to "exemplary" artist, terms that are anything but unproblematical. In the present article I propose to explore Shepard's exemplarity.

To David J. DeRose the playwright's rise to fame involved a recuperation that could not have occurred entirely without his consent. Twice the critic believes the artist to have surrendered, if not to the lure of Broadway and Hollywood commercialism, at least to their hegemonic capacity to confer national status. Operation Sidewinder and A Lie of the Mind not only premiered in commercial New York venues, resp. Lincoln Center and the Promenade Theatre, for promotional reasons they also coincided with the

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