I think of it as inexplicable sadness, although the explanation is actually pretty clear. It’s a distant sorrow, though, mourning a life that I have little connection to and even less actual contact with.
Sam Shepard has died, best known as an actor but cherished as a playwright, a dark, brooding, subversive voice that broke through the landscape of Mamet and Rabe and the rest of the 1970s theater world. His seminal (or breakout, I suppose) play was Buried Child, a fractured family drama that suggested fault lines in the domestic stories we tell ourselves. Something wicked isn’t coming our way; it’s buried in the backyard, he said, and we buried it ourselves, a long time ago.
Buried Child was first produced in the summer of 1978; two years later, I was in a summer repertory production of it, appreciating having the lead but frustrated by playing someone half a century ahead in life, with gray wigs and latex wrinkles. Not to mention doing the little dance we all had to do around our star power, actress Mercedes McCambridge (who played my wife, if you can imagine. Or maybe don’t imagine).
Another year would go by before I wrote my first play, influenced by Shepard but knowing the similarities ended with writing words for actors to say. His vision was alien to mine, richer and darker than anything I could create. I had little use for the others, to be honest, never jumping on those bandwagons with their metered vernacular, heavy on the profanity and light on the profound.
This wasn’t the case with Sam Shepard, and if I couldn’t emulate it I could at least admire. There was a lot to admire, and not just his writing: he owned the screen when he appeared in films, his tendency toward less always ending up more. I’d never compete there, either.
I didn’t know he had ALS. I didn’t know much about his life in recent years, aside from an occasional reboot of his canon, or a surprising role in a film I wandered across while searching for something else. That feels appropriate somehow, since Sam Shepard always struck me as a searcher, a seeker of something over the horizon and possibly only found in the past. He was almost a silhouette of the past, in fact, at the same time jarringly contemporary and a throwback to an earlier American man, leathery, lanky, solitary. Sorrowful.