Thursday, August 3, 2017

SAM SHEPARD, THE O’NEILL AND 1969

By Dominique Paul Noth

Shepard in his 20s
The death of Sam Shepard brought back the summer of 1969 when my bride and I were housed on the same dorm floor as Shepard, then in his 20s and already a force in experimental circles though his most famous  plays – “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Buried Child” and “True West” -- were still a few years away. In his New Yorker tribute, critic Hilton Als rightly describes Shepard as close to being America’s first hip-hop playwright.

Even then, coming from Ellen Stewart’s off-Broadway stew at La Ma Ma, he was something of a sensation at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut – dressed in black with a cowboy hat, handsome and taciturn. The handsome and taciturn he kept all his life as playwright and actor. 

I was flattered to be invited because I was merely the second-string drama critic at The Milwaukee Journal.  (In those days, no one at our newspaper had any title, much less first or second string, but I only got the theater reviews the music critic Walter Monfried didn’t want and since he didn’t want Harold Pinter, Brecht, Ionesco, Becket or that “dreadful French pervert” Jean Genet, I was much in reviewer heaven – making enough of a mark that the now defunct New York Theater magazine tapped me as a correspondent). 

The most memorable event of that year was my marriage. Part of our extended summer honeymoon was being invited to the O’Neill where I sat in and contributed to meetings with Philadelphia’s Ernie Schier, New York Herald Tribune’s Judith Crist (then noted movie critic but previously, as she put it, “Second string to God” – God being Walter Kerr) and several others who were supporting the National Theater Institute and would later found the American Theatre Critics Association.

I enjoyed running into Shepard in the hallway but cannot say I had  intense conversations with him. I don’t think many critics ever had. I also found the young writer John Lahr hard to approach, but I did speak with a newcomer actor named Michael Douglas (attending with his mother) and also had some delightful chats with New York stage actor Earle Hyman, later best known as the Huxtables grandpere on “The Cosby Show.”

My memory going back is somewhat blurred because I am not sure if Hyman was there for some scenes that were staged by O’Neill artistic director Lloyd Richards or was  part of the Trinidad troupe gathered by late poet and elegant conversationalist Derek Walcott – whom I was also in awe of.  Here I witnessed the first US production of his “Dream on Monkey Mountain,” still a great work of poetry and drama but then unknown to the assembled critics.  I recall liking it with an enthusiasm others blamed on my Midwest roots. 

I confess being most impressed at the welcome as an equal by theater writers whose names I knew well – Henry Hewes, Eliot Norton, several others  and Schier, who was inordinately kind to me and Louise. Even Crist put up with my disagreements about movies.

Why did these memories flood back with Shepard’s death? I’ve interviewed enough celebrities that I am long past name dropping.  Besides, with the exception of Douglas, most of these names would mean nothing to outsiders.

Partly it was because I wish I had the foresight to get to know Shepard better and that twinge of regret was there when I last saw him in a movie, where the brevity of his role perfectly fit the story but had me wishing for more, “August: Osage County” (2013).

I recall those 1969 times because of what they represent of the American theater scene in what were then my salad days and the shaping environment for so many who made theater vital to their lives. 

The regional theater movement was taking root, experimental playwrights of quite different weight like John Guare, Edward Albee and Shepard were trying their wings, and theater  reviewers were being challenged nightly to stay with or stay ahead of what was happening in theater (not to mention film). And what was really happening was, like in modern music, often more daring than their editors were willing to hear about.

Today we are going through a remarkable Renaissance of writing talent streaming onto the stage from many mediums. They are not all designed to be as memorable as the touchstones of the past but it will be hard to say now which  will endure in the future.  All seem sturdily connected to the pulling threads of our society even as our society is being pulled apart in terms of cultural icons. 

We may never again be as uniform in our judgment of art or great theater, but I recall how in 1969 we leaped toward the unknown, really without knowing what would endure.  We  have to do that even more today.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee