Since 1985, Shepard has written and directed two films, Far North (1988) and Silent Tongue (1993), and staged only two new full-length plays, States of Shock (1991) and Simpatico (1994). In these projects, Shepard sounds familiar notes of family strife (Far North and States of Shock), cowboy and Native American romanticism (Silent Tongue), and conflict between two superficially different men who are locked in a kind of compulsive symbiosis (Simpatico). It is perhaps the familiarity of these themes which generally left audiences and critics cold, wondering whether Shepard has himself run out of gas. Michael Feingold, of the Village Voice-- the champion of Shepard's early plays-- writes that "For all its playfulness, Simpatico has a strangely pallid tone; it feels less like a Shepard play than a B-movie script by someone who's read a lot of Shepard. The rhapsodic speeches and fraught, quirky tableaux tend to be offered with an apologetic smile, as if the author knew his material was too familiar but didn't know what to write instead." (p. 77)
Indeed, as I sat through the first production of the previews in the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, Shepard, who also directed the play, sat in the back row-- just behind me-- impassively, maybe even bored. It was a good performance, though, and a good play: the audience chuckled occasionally and often felt a deep current of menace running just beneath the thin veneer of humor (enhanced as it was by the rumble of subway trains from beneath the theater). But it clearly lacked the kind of raw energy which brought Shepard acclaim as a playwright. Gone was the risk-taking that John Lahr hailed in 1973 as an antidote to the "rigor mortis" besetting the American theater (in Marranca, p. 56)
But 1996 promises to be a busy year for Shepard. There is a planned production of a revised Buried Child scheduled to open on April 30th, a revised Tooth of Crime and a new play opening in the fall, and a collection of vignettes called Cruising Paradise-- from which "Three Stories" was excerpted-- to be published in May. (Schiff, p. 85) If the past is any indicator, however, these Shepard works will not present anything radically different from what we have already seen. Shepard has chosen to revisit his past by recycling two of his plays, but he is also covering familiar ground in the first available glimpses of his book. As with any other sampling of Shepard's work, the questions are the same, though the author is no closer to answering them definitively. The rewrites for Buried Child will most likely not include an exhumation, and Cruising Paradise will almost certainly not depict any character arriving in paradise. On the contrary, these new works are preordained to resist conclusions.
To Shepard, it seems, all the world's a stage on which to enact a wide array of roles. It is not a matter of mere entertainment, however: Shepard, like his many characters, feels a need to perform and to fully inhabit these roles. In trying on the mask, however, they seem to notice that the mask is less convincing from the inside, even as they feel first-hand the power that the mask has over others. It produces a split in the psyche. And it is this ambivalence that has, for Shepard, been not only his primary subject, but his personal mode as well, sending the artist on an impossible quest to stave off anxiety with the hope that a redeeming truth might yet come across to the audience. Or that Shepard might yet come across a redeeming truth himself.
And that has perhaps been his greatest contribution to American letters.