I always liked Sam Shepard as an actor. He stood out. There was a toughness about him, an authority. Which, is maybe why he played so many army officers, policemen, FBI agents and general ‘tough guys’. Until last year I had no idea Sam was also a writer. In fact, he is far more revered for his writing then his acting. The man one a Pulitzer Prize for fuck sake! All this was new to me.
Roughly 12 months ago, I saw his play ‘Buried Child’ on the West End. At the interval, my girlfriend Alex went to get some drinks and came back with gift, a collection of Shepard’s plays (Sam Shepard plays 2). We both thought the play was brilliantly intense. It was nothing like we were expecting. I would soon learn that’s a common theme in the writers work. Since then I’ve been reading as much of his plays, short stories and novels that I could get my hands on.
‘Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark‘, is a catalogue of 40 years’ worth of correspondence between two soul mates. They meet after Johnny Dark sees one of Sam’s plays and enquires to “what drug he wrote it on?”. Soon after Sam falls in love and marries John’s step daughter ‘O-Lan’, before they move to England with their young son ‘Jesse’. This is when their correspondence starts. Dark in America. Shepard in London.
When the Shepard’s return to America three years later, the Shepard’s and the Dark’s move in together and form a tight family unit. During this time, director Terrance Malek asks Sam if he’d fancy acting in ‘Days of Heaven’ which he does and suddenly Sam Shepard goes from writer to actor. Four years later Sam falls in love with Jessica Lange while working on the film ‘Frances’ and he leaves his wife. The letters at this time give an insight into a man torn apart by love and guilt. You can see how it effects Sam as a writer. Sam’s life is constantly moving. Working all over the country on different films and plays. While Dark’s life is very still. He remains at home looking after Sam’s son ‘Jesse’ and his sick wife Scarlett. Both happy and content for the most part. But, with flashes of what I can only describe as deep depression.
In general the letters reflect two men on the outskirts of society. Mostly spending time alone, reading and reflecting on ‘the big questions’ life throws at you. Happiness, purpose, fulfilment, the list is long. The two friends act as a lighthouse for each other. A little bit of light, when the world gets too dark.
Both men at separate times struggle with their past, their fathers, their addictions. John’s is pot and for a period of time pain killers. Sam’s is alcohol (like his father). What you get through 300 odd pages of letters is this overwhelming sense of reality. Two men’s genuine lives. Warts and all, as Oliver Cromwell put it. It’s a bitter sweet read at times but, one which is genuinely comforting to the soul.