Sam Shepard Saw It All Coming

The family battles he described foreshadowed our current national crisis.

Chad Batka / The New York Times / Redux

Last August, the actor Randy Quaid tweeted a photo of himself, stripped to his bike shorts and pretending to be passed out next to a body of water, probably in his adopted home state of Vermont. Quaid had not worked regularly since an apparent psychotic break in 2010, when he announced, looking agitated at a press conference in Vancouver, that a conspiracy of assassins called the “Star Whackers” intended to murder him and his wife, Evi. (He said the Star Whackers had already killed David Carradine and Heath Ledger, disguising Carradine’s death as autoerotic asphyxia and Ledger’s as an accidental overdose.) The Quaids then spent years in Canada seeking refuge from these imagined stalkers and their partners in the United States government. But now, in the photo, Randy looked to be in a state of enviable bucolic calm, like a bear snoring after a salmon lunch. Next to him was a computer tablet, a big knife, a bottle of Perrier, and—splayed out on the sun-warmed stone, like Quaid himself—a copy of Seven Plays, by Sam Shepard. The book appeared to be open to True West, the play in which he and his real-life younger brother, Dennis, starred as the quarreling brothers Lee and Austin off-Broadway 35 years ago.

Many of Shepard’s plays feel like journeys into psychosis, so it seems appropriate that Quaid would reach for Shepard as a guide to his own crack-up. That Shepard is starting to feel like a guide for the rest of us is more surprising. He died two years ago, at the age of 73, and although the valedictions from the dramatic world were respectful, few suggested that his work was acutely relevant. Some hinted that he represented the classic Western, a genre whose exhaustion Shepard himself had lampooned. Obituaries noted the good looks (described as “rugged,” although only his teeth were craggy) that helped make him a movie star, and his status as the “paragon playwright of the American West” (Los Angeles Times). Shepard, one might be forgiven for thinking, chronicled a cowboy world that is no more, and that indeed ceased to live in the American collective imagination sometime between the last episode of Bonanza and John Travolta’s dismount from the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy.

But Shepard plays are back in season, and they are neither antiquarian nor regional. They are modern—even visionary—and disturbingly universal. The best of the plays have all enjoyed revivals, most prominently a Broadway production of True West that ran through March of this year, with Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in the roles of Lee and Austin. The plays’ dominant notes are now darkly political. Critics have always thought of the family strife in Shepard’s dramas as representing deeper American strife. But now it’s clear that the nerves Shepard vivisected for five decades are precisely the ones that the past several years of political dysfunction have exposed: red America and blue, blended into a violent purple; the failure of the fortunate to respect the wretched; the consequences when the wretched seek their reckoning. Quaid’s life went the way of a Shepard script a decade ago, transforming into a self-devouring, hallucinatory version of itself. He was just a few years ahead of us.

For someone who became typecast as the “strong, silent type” (many of his obituaries succumb to that cliché, or strain to avoid it), Shepard produced a huge number of words, starting with a series of experimental plays in the 1960s New York theater scene. His dramatic work reached maturity in the late 1970s with Curse of the Starving Class (which recently finished an off-Broadway run), the Pulitzer Prize–winning Buried Child, and True West. He kept a journal while touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and in 1986, he co-wrote the song “Brownsville Girl.” At 11 minutes, it is either one of Dylan’s longest songs or Shepard’s shortest play. Sample lyric: “Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content.” Dylan, he later wrote, was chronicling “the whacked out corridors / of broken-off America.” Shepard devoted most of his life to a similar project: a never-ending tour of the American interior. Many of his settings are rural, remote, and ungoverned places whose inhabitants are sometimes left alone to stagger down paths to self-annihilation.

Anyone who has driven off the interstate through Nevada or Texas knows these places. Shepard kept returning there, to the troubled backwaters that in the past four years nearly everyone on the coasts has come to call, patronizingly, forgotten America. Pull over between towns, or sometimes even into one, and only the coyotes can hear you scream. In a 2009 short story, a Shepard-like narrator overhears cable news on in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Indiana, and complains that a Wolf Blitzer clone is

parading back and forth in front of a huge electronic map of the United States, magically touching it and brushing it in different areas, causing it to light up red in the South, blue in the North, giving the impression that the whole damn country is a cartoon show, divided up like apple pie, and no one actually lives here.

If Shepard’s characters at all resemble the people who live in these places, the American interior is troubled indeed. Starting with his appearance in The Right Stuff, in 1983, Shepard’s most famous characters began bifurcating, into the ones in his plays and the ones he played as an actor in Hollywood films. The characters in the plays exist to be unraveled and undone, usually by forces at first invisible and, by the final act, inevitable. But his best-known movie roles show us Shepard as an American hero: Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, Diane Keaton’s amused country boyfriend in Baby Boom (1987), General William F. Garrison in Black Hawk Down (2001).

These roles are a fantasy of American power and masculinity, self-possessed whether at the edge of outer space, in love, or at war. As Garrison, he watches stoically from his command post while 18 American soldiers are killed and mutilated. Shepard’s last scene has Garrison on his knees, swabbing the pooled blood of his men in a field hospital. A title card at the film’s close states that Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the Somali warlord who was Garrison’s adversary, was assassinated on August 2, 1996, and that Garrison retired the following day.

Did Shepard take these roles to shame his own characters—or did he write his characters to atone for the fantasies he created on-screen? The Shepard-written characters who start out most composed end up most deranged. We learn that the seeds of their derangement had germinated long before their entrance. Shepard plays do not just lack happy endings. The happy beginnings are all false, too. The characters with composure think they have escaped what afflicts everyone else onstage. They are naive, and are punished. Shepard’s insight is that Chuck Yeager shares a country with, say, Randy Quaid—and as long as one of the two is jinxed, both are doomed.


True West has long been known as Shepard’s funniest play, but only now does it feel like political allegory. Instead of sharing a country, the brothers Lee and Austin are stuck together in their mother’s kitchen, somewhere in suburban Los Angeles. The plot is simple: Austin is an Ivy League–educated screenwriter on the make, typing out a script at the kitchen table and preparing to close a sale to a major studio. His older brother, Lee, is a petty thief, uncomfortable in civilization after three months alone in the Mojave Desert. It takes a few scenes for the features of the dysfunction to emerge: alcoholism, latent or full-blown; Austin’s insecurity and fear of his brother; Lee’s loathing of Austin and drive to see him debased. Lee needles Austin into saying something haughty, thereby giving Lee a pretext to strike. “I’m not botherin’ you, am I?” Lee croaks, interrupting Austin at his typewriter. “I don’t wanna break into yer—uh, concentration or nothin’.” The play ends violently. Fate drives everything, and it’s hard to believe simultaneously that Lee and Austin’s relationship has gone so catastrophically wrong and that the relationship could have gone any other way. Long before blows land, the audience is taking inventory of the props, assessing which could be used by one brother to brain or strangle the other.

Previous revivals of True West have emphasized the brothers’ similarity. In the legendary Broadway production, in 2000, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternated roles, flipping a coin before each performance. The tension was psychological: We are not so different, you and I. In the Hawke-Dano version, the duality most noticeable was the one endlessly autopsied after the 2016 election, between the prosperous, educated, liberal elite and the unlettered, scrounging, embittered working class. What stands out is not the similarity of the characters—although that is still there—but their captivity together, and the mutual mauling it ensures.

As Austin, Dano stressed that he came in from “up north,” with the liberal arrogance expected of the Bay Area. At 48, Hawke was dissolute, his pretty-boy charm replaced with the bullish aggression of paunchy middle age. When I had seen True West before, I had imagined whiffs of body odor and whiskey wafting from Lee. In 2019, he reeked of meth, the modern scourge of inland California. Meth knows no political party (or if it does, pity the pollster who has to ring doorbells to find out which), but it is absolutely a bringer of misery.

With this minor transposition of circumstances, True West is a story of a meth (or opioid) zombie, who has come to extract a sacrifice from his more prosperous sibling. Dano played Austin in a panic, as he realizes that he is trapped in a room with a wild animal. Liberal condescension works about as well as you’d expect. He tries to domesticate Lee, to buy him off with comforts (“You could come up north with me, you know … I’ve got an extra room”). But Lee wants respect—or, more than respect, he wants proof that Austin, too, is feral.

Shepard understood Lee’s frustration: “Do you actually think I chose to live out in the middle a’ nowhere?” Lee asks. “Ya’ think it’s some kinda’ philosophical decision I took or somethin’? I’m livin’ out there ’cause I can’t make it here!” Shepard also appreciated how his resentment gives him tremendous inner resources. Like a mother who lifts a car off her child, a dim-witted brother proves suddenly, preternaturally capable. He becomes a genius at manipulation—a psychopath with a vendetta—to make his brother regret his disdain. This hillbilly elegy is a song of revenge.

Shepard never offered a way out of these messes, and I don’t see any counsel in these revivals either, other than despair. That is perhaps because he saw all sins as original sins, or at least as preexisting conditions. Buried Child begins with its main character’s visit to his family’s homestead, whose dirt-farm dysfunctions he seems to have escaped. But some family secrets cannot be escaped or ignored, and the backyard evidence of incest and infanticide is a curse that no act of will or heroism can break. Contrast that with Shepard the actor: His parachute always opens, his kisses are always reciprocated, his enemy is always slain.

Shepard himself came from a family that was more Shepard-playwright than Shepard–movie star. His own father, a drunk, was “extremely violent,” he told an interviewer, and likely traumatized by the experience of having burned civilians alive as a bombardier in the Second World War. When Shepard made his politics apparent, they usually came down to opposition to war: La Turista (1968) is seen as an anti–Vietnam War play; The God of Hell (which debuted in 2004, with Randy Quaid in the lead) takes aim at the policies of George W. Bush. But the despair is more profound. A title like Curse of the Starving Class looks Brechtian—rid us of the capitalists, and our liberation will be at hand—but Shepard realized that Brecht had things backwards. The torments of family life are not the fault of politics. The torments of politics are the fault of family life, with all its resentments and inborn (or inbred) rivalries, projected onto a political scale.

Shepard does not map directly to American politics, of course: Lee is not a Trump supporter, and Austin is not a Bernie bro. But all the impulses are there, and with them the prospect that in combination they are fatal. I confess I am unsettled by the possibility that Sam Shepard is dead but his greatest plays have converged on a single sequel. We are living in it.