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Sam Shepard: The Playwright as Star

Sam Shepard portrait
Photo: Martha Holmes

Sam Shepard, the great Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who died July 27 at age 73, was a remarkably prolific writer over the past half-century, and he still found time to act in more than 60 movies and TV shows. The Billy Rose Theatre Division has been documenting Shepard’s work, particularly as a playwright, since nearly the beginning of his career. Portions of his rich legacy are available to anyone with a New York Public Library card.

Shepard’s early plays Cowboys, The Rock Garden, and Chicago were produced by Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in 1964-65, and reviews of those performances can be found in the Theatre Division’s Collection of Newspaper Clippings of Dramatic Criticism. The playwright earned the first of eleven career Obie Awards in 1965 for Chicago, Red Cross, and Icarus’s Mother. Clippings and programs for the latter, produced at Caffe Cino, are preserved in the Theatre Division's archives, along with those for many other productions. Shepard's work was also showcased in the mid-1960s by Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder's Playwright's Unit.

Other Shepard plays from the decade, including Up to Thursday, 4-H Club, and The Unseen Hand, were seen in venerable Off- and Off-Off-Broadway venues like the Cherry Lane Theatre, La MaMa ETC, and Judson Poets Theater. Forensic and the Navigators is the earliest Shepard work in the Theatre Division's archive of unpublished scripts used in production. The American Place Theatre Company Records contain scripts and production files, including photos, for the Shepard plays produced there over the years. These include La Turista (1967) and Cowboy Mouth (1971), which he cowrote and starred in with girlfriend Patti Smith. For several years, Shepard also played drums and guitar with the rock band Holy Modal Rounders.

True West
Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones in True West Photo: Martha Swope

During the 1970s, Shepard’s fame as a playwright grew and productions of his work spread. Tooth of Crime opened in London in 1972 before its American premiere at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ (where a production of his play Simpatico will be presented this fall). Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974) also premiered in London before being produced at by Manhattan Theatre Club in New York (see the Manhattan Theatre Club Records for production files). Curse of the Starving Class, in 1977, marked the beginning of the playwright’s work with Joseph Papp and the Public Theater, an association which also included Tongues (1979), True West,(1980), Simpatico, (1994) and Kicking a Dead Horse (2008). The Theatre Division’s extensive archive of New York Shakespeare Festival Records includes scripts, production files, and photos for these plays.

Buried Child program

Buried Child, Shepard’s dark dissection of an archetypal American heartland family, premiered at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 1978. The play, perhaps Shepard’s best known, opened later that year in New York's Theater for the New City, before settling in for a run at Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre). Information about that production can be found in the Lucille Lortel Papers, while clippings, photos, posters, programs, and scripts from several other productions are sprinkled throughout our collections.  In April 1979, Buried Child was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. By 1980, according to the Sam Shepard website, he was the most produced playwright in America after Tennessee Williams.

He also had embarked on a movie career. Earlier, he had contributed to scripts for Me and My Brother, Zabriskie Point, and Renaldo and Clara. But in 1978, he debuted as a film actor in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, making an immediate mark with his rangy handsomeness and air of authenticity (unlike costar Richard Gere, he was convincing as an early 20th-century American). He went on to a successful career as a leading man and character actor  in such movies as Resurrection, Country (which he starred in with longtime companion Jessica Lange), Baby Boom, and Black Hawk Down, and earned an Oscar nomination in 1984 for his performance as pilot Chuck Yaeger in The Right Stuff. He also wrote the script for Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and directed two films, Far North and Silent Tongue.

Lie of the Mind scriptAs a playwright, Shepard had a major Off-Broadway hit with Fool for Love in 1983, a production extensively documented in the Circle Repertory Company Records; he also starred in Robert Altman’s 1985 film version of the play. A starry 1985 production A Lie of the Mind at New York’s Promenade Theatre, directed by the playwright, was also a big success. (The Theatre Division's annotated script for that lengthy production runs to 231 pages.) Books about Shepard started being published, as well as hundreds of journal articles (see New York Public Library's theatre databases). The Theatre Division’s Carol Benet Collection of Sam Shepard Research Materials is made up of scholarly articles, reviews, scripts, programs, recorded interviews, notes, dissertation drafts, and correspondence collected in preparation for a dissertation on the playwright.


In addition to the Theatre Division’s paper material documenting Sam Shepard’s career, the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) holds recordings of more than 20 productions of his plays. One highlight of the TOFT collection is two recordings, taped the same day, of the 2000 Broadway production of True West, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternated the roles of the two brothers at the heart of the play. The TOFT archive is restricted to qualified researchers, so be sure to check their guidelines before visiting.

Buried Child finally made it to Broadway in a 1996 revival. This was touted as Shepard’s Broadway debut, although the Internet Broadway Database lists a 1970 run of his play Operation Sidewinder at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Shepard played with the Holy Modal Rounders in that production, which is documented in the Actor's Workshop and Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center Records. Also found on the playwright's ibdb page is the long-running erotic revue Oh! Calcutta!, to which he contributed material. By contrast, the Lortel Archives' Internet Off-Broadway Database lists 44 credits, and that doesn't include Shepard productions in smaller venues.

Shepard playing with Holy Modal Rounders
Shepard in Operation Sidewinder    Photo: Martha Swope

In addition to True West's Broadway outing, there was a revival of Fool for Love there in 2015. But the playwright was never really a Great White Way kind of author. His plays were often too elusive, too experimental, and too raw an expression of primal drives to be at home there, especially without star names attached.

Shepard’s last two new plays, Heartless (2012) and A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), were instead presented by Signature Theatre Company, the Off-Broadway venue which had devoted a whole season to the playwright in 1996-97. Signature operates under the principle that Sam Shepard devotees understand: the playwright is the star.

For more information on accessing the Billy Rose Theatre Division's archives, see our FAQ page. Ephemera like clippings, photos, programs, and reviews may not be cataloged online; if you visit, you can consult our card catalog for a more complete picture of these holdings.



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What a fantastic and fascinating post. Thank you, Billy Rose Theatre Division!!

Sam Shepard

Beautifully written article. Thank you.


Fantastic article, John. A delight to read.

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