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.