‘Renaissance man’ Sam Shepard dead at 73

Exit stage left: Shepard wrote 44 plays, 30 of which were produced when he was under 30.

Writer, actor, musician, fashion icon: Sam Shepard has been compared to the multi-talented geniuses of the Renaissance age. Should we all follow his example and cultivate a range of skills?

Not many people could be said to draw inspiration from both avant-garde writers and Hollywood heart-throbs. But then Sam Shepard was not like many people.

Shepard, who has died aged 73, was known above all as a playwright — the greatest of his generation in America, according to New York magazine. As a teen he fled his dysfunctional home in rural California and landed in New York, where he soon gained attention with his edgy, emotionally raw plays.

Although it draws on everything from Greek myths to science fiction, Shepard’s writing is highly autobiographical. He always returned to the theme of unhappy families. His 1979 play Buried Child, which won him a Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of a man who visits his relatives, only to find that none of them recognise him.

Not satisfied with his career, Shepard began acting in the 1970s. His charisma and looks earned him a wide following (and an Oscar nomination); his American West dress style became iconic.

Meanwhile, he continued to write: not just plays, but also scripts, novels, essays and songs. He directed films and plays. He was a drummer in a rock band, and even played the banjo for punk star Patti Smith.

As his obituaries noted, Shepard was a jack of all trades — a true “Renaissance man”.

This term describes a type of person who flourished in the Renaissance era. At the time, it was fashionable to think that humans should develop as broad a knowledge and as many skills as possible. Men like Leonardo da Vinci took this idea to its extreme, contributing to fields as diverse as painting, maths and botany.

As the human population grew and education spread, it became harder for an individual to stand out in several professions at once. The Renaissance man gave way to the specialist: someone who achieves greatness by focusing obsessively on one area (think of Albert Einstein or Roger Federer).

Today, our society — including our education system — tends to reward specialism. Is it time we brought back the Renaissance way of doing things?

Don’t I know it

No, say some. The concept of the Renaissance man does not make sense in an age when everything is so competitive. To make your mark, you need to find your skill, then practise a lot. Shepard was especially talented, but even he is mostly recognised for his plays. If he had focused exclusively on them, they would have been even better.

That would have been a shame, reply others. Some of the greatest insights in history came to people who were working across several disciplines. In Shepard’s case, acting certainly made him a better writer of dialogue. What’s more, multiple talents make us interesting and keep our minds active. Long live the Renaissance man.

You Decide

  1. Do you enjoy watching plays? Why (not)?
  2. What must a person have achieved before earning the right to be considered a Renaissance man or woman?

Activities

  1. Watch the scene from Paris, Texas in Become An Expert. In 500 words, say whether you think Shepard’s script is effective, and why.
  2. Class debate: “Sam Shepard would not have been seen as a ‘Renaissance man’ in the Renaissance era.”

Some People Say...

“A man can do all things if he will.”

— Leon Battista Alberti, Renaissance philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Shepard’s death was caused by complications from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), from which he had been suffering for some time. The disease gradually kills nerve cells, making speech and movement increasingly difficult. There is no cure, although the huge sums raised by the recent “ice bucket challenge” have helped researchers make progress.
What do we not know?
Shepard mostly kept his private life secret — the public was unaware of his disease until he died. Unlike many younger celebrities, he rarely gave interviews, did not use social media and liked to stay at home (he was afraid of flying). His plays shed light on aspects of his life, such as his alcoholism and troubled relationship with his father, but he was reluctant to discuss their themes in public.

Word Watch

Avant-garde
Used of “experimental”, originally a French term meaning vanguard, it describes people who lead the way with new ideas.
Pulitzer Prize
A highly prestigious award in the USA for achievements in literature, journalism and music.
Career
“I don’t consider it a career at all,” Shepard once said of writing plays. He did not place too much value on commercial success.
Oscar nomination
For his role as pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983).
Renaissance era
A period in European history (14th-16th century) defined by huge intellectual and social changes. It saw the rise of a new breed of secular philosophers who emphasised the potential of humans over the importance of God.
Focusing obsessively
One example is the current popularity of the “10,000 hours” theory, which stresses the importance of practising one skill. See the BBC’s article in Become An Expert.
Greatest insights
Francis Crick, one of the scientists who identified the structure of DNA, said that his background in physics had helped his work in biology. For more examples, see the Aeon article in Become An Expert.

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