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Sam Shepard, the cowboy playwright who rewrote the rules of the American stage – Los Angeles Times

Eugene O’Neil brought gravitas to the American theater. Tennessee Williams allowed it to lyrically sing. Arthur Miller raised its political temperature. And Edward Albee infused it with an absurdist flair.

But it took Sam Shepard, the greatest playwright to emerge from the economically strapped, artistically fertile off-off Broadway movement launched in the 1960s, to make the American theater finally seem cool.

Shepard, whose death from complications of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 73 was announced Monday, may be remembered by the entertainment media as the handsomely chiseled film star who was long linked romantically to Jessica Lange. But his enduring legacy exists as the author of such emotionally naked, dreamlike dramas as “The Tooth of Crime,” “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Buried Child” (awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979), “True West,” “Fool for Love,” and “A Lie of the Mind.”

Not everyone will agree with my assessment that he was America’s best dramatist since Williams. But as someone who has taught playwriting for years, I can say that, if Samuel Beckett has been the god of modern theater, Shepard has been the more accessible demigod who has inspired more young talents in the last few decades than any other.

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Like all great artists, Shepard told us our story as he was transfiguring his own. The social dimension of his work, he insisted, was secondary to the existential conflicts animating his dramas. But the prism through which he viewed the human tragicomedy was unmistakably American. No playwright of his generation has managed to put more of our cultural life onstage.

Shepard thought imagistically, and I have seared in my mind the image of him laughing uproariously with Lange as they watched Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. It’s no surprise that he was as responsive as an audience member as he was as a playwright.

A final image: Walking home from the New York Public Theater after seeing a revival of “Action,” a Shepard play in which characters speak and act in ways that will frustrate anyone expecting a comprehensible story to emerge, I turned to my significant other at the time and tried to explain the problem I had with the production in language that was so incoherent and non-sequential that the two of us laughed all the way home at just how accurately Shepard had nailed our condition.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

MORE ON SAM SHEPARD:

Obituary: Pulitzer winner dies at 73

On film, turning screen time into visual poetry

Playwright, actor and … drummer

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