Shepard arrived in New York in 1963 with no connections, little money and vague aspirations to act, write or make music. “I just dropped in out of nowhere,” he told the New Yorker in 2010. But Shepard quickly became part of the off-off-Broadway movement at downtown hangouts like Caffe Cino and La MaMa. “As far as I’m concerned, Broadway just does not exist,” Shepard told Playboy in 1970 — though many of his later plays would end up there.
His early plays — fiery, surreal verbal assaults — pushed American theater in an energized, frenzied direction that matched the fractured 1960s. A drummer himself, Shepard found his own rock ‘n roll rhythm. Seeking spontaneity, he initially refused to rewrite his plays, a strategy he later dismissed as “just plain stupid.”
As Shepard grew as a playwright, he returned again and again to meditations on violence. His collection “Seven Plays,” which includes many of his best plays, including “Buried Child” and “The Tooth of Crime,” was dedicated to his father.
“There’s some hidden, deeply rooted thing in the Anglo male American that has to do with inferiority, that has to do with not being a man, and always, continually having to act out some idea of manhood that invariably is violent,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “This sense of failure runs very deep — maybe it has to do with the frontier being systematically taken away, with the guilt of having gotten this country by wiping out a native race of people, with the whole Protestant work ethic. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s the source of a lot of intrigue for me.”
Besides his plays, Shepard wrote short stories and a full-length work of fiction, “The One Inside,” which came out earlier this year. “The One Inside” is a highly personal narrative about a man looking back on his life and taking in what has been lost, including control over his own body as the symptoms of ALS advance.
“Something in the body refuses to get up. Something in the lower back. He stares at the walls,” Shepard writes. “The appendages don’t seem connected to the motor — whatever that is — driving this thing. They won’t take direction — won’t be dictated to — the arms, legs, feet, hands. Nothing moves. Nothing even wants to.”
Shepard’s longtime editor at Alfred A. Knopf, LuAnn Walther, said Shepard’s language was “quite poetic, and very intimate, but also very direct and plainspoken.” She said that when people asked her what Shepard was really like, she would respond, “Just read the fiction.”