Sam Shepard is known for his quintessentially American plays, plays that look at issues of American national identity—independence and self-sufficiency, the American family, the American West—and show its dark shadows. Buried Child looks at an American farming family that has self-destructed and dissolved after a tragic event. Curse of the Starving Class also looks at the decay of the American family and the American dream, cut off from its traditions and from any kind of economic independence. True West examines the rivalry between two estranged brothers whose sparring primarily concerns the question of authentic American masculinity. Fool for Love looks at a destructive couple at a motel in the middle of the Mojave Desert, struggling to understand one another and understand their respective family histories. Shepard's characters, in all of his plays, represent Americans who are grappling with the legacy they have inherited, one that is often marred by abuse, addiction, and faded glory.
Shepard's ambivalence about the "American dream" is reflected in his biography. An Illinois farm boy who grew up all over the American West, and abandoned city life to start his own ranch while also writing plays, Shepard's public persona, to a certain extent, was that of literary American cowboy. Additionally, he often looked to his own family history, its disappointments, devastations, and its orientation within the broader history of America, for inspiration. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1997, Shepard talked about the ways that his own family history inspired his depictions of mothers and fathers in his play, and its connection to the America of his youth: "Those Midwestern women from the forties suffered an incredible psychological assault, mainly by men who were disappointed in a way that they didn’t understand. While growing up I saw that assault over and over again, and not only in my own family. These were men who came back from the war, had to settle down, raise a family and send the kids to school—and they just couldn’t handle it. There was something outrageous about it. I still don’t know what it was—maybe living through those adventures in the war and then having to come back to suburbia. Anyway, the women took it on the nose, and it wasn’t like they said, Hey Jack, you know, down the road, I’m leaving. They sat there and took it. I think there was a kind of heroism in those women. They were tough and selfless in a way."
Shepard continued to ruminate on the nature of American identity and the failures of the "American dream" up until his death, and even began to criticize a certain American myopia that was characteristic of his own work and success. He thought that America and American literature's greatest sin was centering itself at the expense of the world, and in an interview with The Guardian, in 2014, he said of his own work, "I couldn't see beyond the motel room and the desert and highway, I couldn't see that there was another world. To me, the whole world was encompassed in that. I thought that was the only world that mattered." Furthermore, he saw America as a nation "on our way out," saying, "We're on our way out. Anybody that doesn't realize that is looking like it's Christmas or something. We're on our way out, as a culture. America doesn't make anything anymore! The Chinese make it! Detroit's a great example. All of those cities that used to be something. If you go to a truck stop in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, you'll probably see the face of America. How desperate we are. Really desperate. Just raw." Any attachment his audiences may have to his work, Shepard saw as a wilted belief in "the American fable...That you can make it here. But you don't make it."