At this point, would anyone disputenthat Sam Shepard is considered ourngreatest American playwright today?nOf course there arc peripheral possibilities,ncontenders such as Mamet,nRabe, Guare, Wilson (about whom,nmore next month), and lesser candidatesnin Durang, Norman, Henley.nBut from all quarters, Shepard seemsnto have inherited the mantle (dubiousnto begin with) from O’Neill by way ofnWilliams.n”He is the best practicing Americannplaywright, I think, now that TennesseenWilliams is doodling,” wrote anless-than-satisfied Stanley Kauffmannnin response to the first American productionnof Shepard’s Curse of thenStarving Class in 1978. “Sam Shepardncaught the first wave of the Off-nBroadway revolution in 1964 and rodenit further than any of his Americanncontemporaries,” explained John Lahrnin a critical investigation which wentnon to reproach Shepard for “[clinging]nto the romanhc notion that somehownthe ragged edges of his plays werenauthentic, when they were just sloppy.”nDon Shewey, in his recent biographynof Shepard, eliminates all equivocations:n”He has no rivals as the mostnimportant and original American playwrightnto emerge since TennesseenWilliams.”nAt the ripe young age of 42, Shepardnhas more than 40 plays beneathnhis cowboy belt. But aside from ancoterie of early followers, only the lastnhandful of plays appear to “count” innterms of establishing a wider reputationnfor the author, beginning withnMad Dog Blues in 1971, then pickingnup momentum with The Tooth ofnCrime in 1973, and more or less crescendoingnin 1978 with Buried Child,nfor which he won the Pulitzer Prize.n(On the premise that Tooth of Crimenwas Shepard’s consummate achievement,nJohn Lahr felt that the award fornBuried Child “continued the Pulitzerntradition of honoring the right playwrightnfor the wrong play.”)nAlthough Shepard has probablyngained more converts in the past fewnyears than he secured in the first decadenand a half of his career, he cannhardly be said to have come out ofnnowhere. Born in Illinois, reared innCalifornia, trained in New York, educatednat Yale (sort of—his degree isnfrom Mount San Antonio Junior Col­nlege), and escaping some years ago tonEngland where he wrote Tooth ofnCrime, Shepard appears literally tonhave come from everywhere.nShepard’s ubiquitous backgroundncontributes indirectly to the mystiquenthat surrounds him. It also encouragesnthe notion that he is the epitome of thenAmerican myth, as defined by thenwanderlust that first motivated the pioneernand later typified the travelingnsalesman. As an early champion ofnShepard, Robert Brustein extended thenmetaphor of the nomad by describingnShepard as an explorer of a differentnsort, a discoverer of metaphysical terrain:n”With Sam Shepard, the Americanntheatre takes a step beyond thenNewtonian universe into a world ofndream, myth, and inner space.” Butnconsidering how fertile the dramaticnsoil was in the 60’s when Shepard wasncultivating it, and how receptive thenmarketplace was to innovation, Shepardnwas not unique in being a pioneernso much as in enduring long enoughnto receive the credit.nThe Shepard mystique is predicatednon ambiguity. His dramas typicallynsuggest far more than they deliver. Butnas such, they prove ready receptaclesnfor the theatergoing public and thencritics who are desperately and traditionallynin search of a playwright.nPerhaps taking notice of the bitternlesson that neither Williams nor Albeenwas spared, Shepard shrewdly avoidednthe early attention that they both welcomed.nWhen his La Turista premierednat the American Place Theaternin 1967 for a four-week run, criticsnand reviewers were not even invited tonattend (this didn’t prevent ElizabethnHardwick from “covering” it in a ravennotice—later included as the introductionnto the published version of thenscript—in which she proclaimed it “anwork of superlative interest” that containsn”the poignant meeting on somenpure level of understanding of playwright,ndirector, and actor”). To thisnday, a Shepard play has yet to play in anBroadway house, where it would reachnas many people in a week as it reachesnin several months at an off or off-offntheater. In the numerous interviewsnShepard has granted recentiy, or 21nyears after his writing career began, henacknowledges that he previously evadedninterviews.nEven as his physical profile has beennnnappearing with greater frequency onnthe Silver Screen, eliciting comparisonnwith Gary Cooper, Shepard hasnstill maintained a “low profile” withnscrupulous calculation, until recentiy.nWell-armored with Obies and Pulitzersnand praise from the right sources,nShepard has finally relented. The criticsnand reviewers who joined the bandwagonnin the mid-70’s are barely awarenof how inaccessible his earlier worknwas. Theatergoers who discover Shepardnwith his newest work, A Lie of thenMind, will never suspect that he isntouching on the same tired themesnthat he ostensibly resolved in his lastnfive plays. Each of Shepard’s last fivenplays is concerned with some variationnof the family; and each is about asndifferent from the other as an episodenof Dynasty is, say, from an episode ofnAs the World Turns.nMuch has been made of how Shepardnhas continued the O’Neill traditionnof dramatizing the tragedy ofnAmerica through the tragedy of thenfamily. But despite reports to the contrary,nShepard’s American family isnnot yours nor mine so much as it is thenone that we fear might live across thenhall or down the street or in somenplace we may have visited without everngetting to know any of the inhabitants.nShepard engages our attention by tappingnour paranoia and feeding it backnto us in quasi-surrealistic stage terms.nShepard’s American family is comprisednof amputees {Buried Child),nthieves [True West), wife-beaters (A Lienof the Mind), murderers (BC), perpetratorsnof incest (BC and Fool for Love),nalcoholics and deserters {Curse of thenStarving Class and ALOTM), pathologicalnbars and certifiable loonies (allnof them). Shepard’s America has gonenover the brink, and the insane residentsnon the other side are withoutnrelief or without the redeeming significancenof Oswald in Fellini’s La Stradanor Boo Radley in Lee’s To Kill anMockingbird. His characters have personalitiesnthat are murky and transientnto begin with, and frequentiy interchangeablenduring the course of thenplay (the brothers in TW; the fathernand son in COTSC; the brother andnsister who become lovers and thenvague role of their mysterious father innFFL; the multiple confusions innALOTM). If, via Shepard, O’Neill’snAmerican family has come of age, itnMARCH 1986 / 39n