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Remembering Sam Shepard: A Reading List

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Avant-garde, non-conformist, musical and a resolute outsider, playwright, screenwriter, songwriter and actor Sam Shepard died this week at the age of 73.

One of the US’ most celebrated and prolific contemporary playwrights, he wrote almost 50 plays, often using his nomadic childhood and dysfunctional family as material for his work. He started out in New York with a series of one-act plays, which quickly gained recognition from the public and critics alike. In 1967 he wrote his first full-length play; an allegory on the Vietnam War. He played drums and guitar in a rock band, continued to write plays, struck out in screenwriting and became an actor; he is probably best-known for his role in Terrence Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven. The list of talented artists he worked with is innumerable—Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Altman, Wim Wenders—Shepard alternated between cinema and theatre, his writing becoming more political with the times, reflecting complexity and darkness. Most recently he took on a role in the Netflix series Bloodline, and published a book last February called The One Inside.

Patti Smith, with whom Shepard had a relationship and long friendship, wrote a lovely tribute to Shepard in The New Yorker. Shepard would sometimes call her, out of the blue, late at night:

I’d happily awake, stir up some Nescafé and we’d talk about anything. About the emeralds of Cortez, or the white crosses in Flanders Fields, about our kids, or the history of the Kentucky Derby. But mostly we talked about writers and their books. Latin writers. Rudy Wurlitzer. Nabokov. Bruno Schulz.

“Gogol was Ukrainian,” he once said, seemingly out of nowhere. Only not just any nowhere, but a sliver of a many-faceted nowhere that, when lifted in a certain light, became a somewhere. I’d pick up the thread, and we’d improvise into dawn, like two beat-up tenor saxophones, exchanging riffs.

All photographs courtesy http://www.sam-shepard.com

Motel Chronicles

In Motel Chronicles Sam Shepard chronicles his own life: his birth in Illinois, childhood memories of Guam, Pasadena and rural Southern California, adventures as a ranch hand, waiter, rock musician, dramatist, and film actor. Scenes from this book form the basis of his play Superstitions, and of the film (directed by Wim Wenders) Paris, Texas, that won the Golden Palm Award at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. It is a scrapbook of short stories, autobiographical reveries, poetry and photographs, as gives insights into Shepard's entire canon. 

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Fifteen One Act Plays

Filled with wry, dark humor, unparalleled imagination, unforgettable characters, and exquisitely crafted storytelling, Sam Shepard’s plays have earned him enormous acclaim over the past five decades. In these fifteen one-acts, we see him at his best, displaying his trademark ability to portray human relationships, love, and lust with rare authenticity. These fifteen furiously energetic plays confirm Shepard's status as our most audacious living playwright, unafraid to set genres and archetypes spinning with results that are utterly mesmerizing. Included in this volume:

Ages of the Moon

Evanescence; Shakespeare in the Alley

Short Life of Trouble

The Unseen Hand

The Rock Garden


Icarus’s Mother

4H Club

Fourteen Hundred Thousand

Red Cross

Cowboys #2

Forensic & The Navigators

The Holy Ghostly

Back Bog Beast Bait

Killer’s Head

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When Roscoe, a 65-year-old Cervantes scholar, runs off with a young woman named Sally, he decides to stay a while in her family home. Soon he discovers that Sally’s house—once inhabited by James Dean; perched precariously over the San Fernando valley—is filled with secrets, sadness, and haunted women who cannot leave themselves or anyone else in peace. From Lucy, Sally’s suspicious sister, to Mable, their Shakespeare-quoting invalid mother, to Elizabeth, Mable’s lovely and mysteriously mute nurse, the forces of the house conspire to make Roscoe question his assumptions about everything. As scars and histories are revealed, Shepard shows, as only he can, what happens when the secrets simmering within a family boil over. Heartless masterfully explores the irrevocability of our pasts—and the possibility of life begun anew.

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True West

Austin, an earnest screenwriter on the verge of success, is working on a script he has sold to a Hollywood producer while house-sitting for his mother in LA. When his brother Lee a drifter and petty thief decides to stop by, he pitches his own idea for a movie and convinces the producer to ditch Austin's love story for his own trashy Western tale. Now they must work together to secure the deal. But with mistrust and jealousy bubbling under the surface and the heat of a Californian night melting away their inhibitions, their own flaws threaten to get in the way. True West exposes the cracks in the American Dream.

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Late Henry Moss, Etc.

These three plays are bold, explosive, and ultimately redemptive dramas propelled by family secrets and illuminated by a searching intelligence.

In The Late Henry Moss–which premiered in San Francisco, starring Sean Penn and Nick Nolte–two estranged brothers confront the past as they piece together the drunken fishing expedition that preceded their father’s death. In Eyes for Consuela, based on Octavio Paz’s classic story “The Blue Bouquet,” a vacationing American encounters a knife-toting Mexican bandit on a gruesome quest. And in When the World Was Green, cowritten with Joseph Chaikin, a journalist in search of her father interviews an old man who resolved a generations-old vendetta by murdering the wrong man. Together, these plays form a powerful trio from an enduring force in American theater.

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Simpatico: a Play in Three Acts

Set within the netherworld of thoroughbred racing, this hair-raisingly funny play explores the classical themes of memory, loyalty, and restitution. Simpatico launches readers into regions where high society meets the low life, and where, as one of the main characters observes, "someone is cutting someone else's throat."

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The One Inside

This searing, evocative narrative opens with a man in his house at dawn, surrounded by aspens, coyotes cackling in the distance as he quietly navigates the distance between present and past. Memory overtakes him: in his mind he sees himself in a movie-set trailer. By turns, he sees the bygone America of his childhood: the farmland and the feedlots, the rail yards and the diners—and, most hauntingly, his father's young girlfriend, with whom he also became involved, setting into motion a tragedy that remained with him. The rhythms of theater, the language of poetry, and a flinty humor combine in this meditation on the nature of experience, at once celebratory, surreal, poignant, and unforgettable.

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Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.