Shepard has something of the American cowboy in him—the dreamer, the drifter, the outdoorsman, the individualist, the misfit. These traits are coupled with a deft linguistic touch, a visual imagination based on observation, and a sophisticated view of the value of myth in articulating the modern human condition. His works tend to be enigmatic; they seem almost right but somehow off the mark, as though too much reality would get in the way of Shepard’s describing the chaos of actual day-to-day existence. Shepard is obsessed with a “loss” of some kind, often identified by critics as the failure of the American spirit, of “America in flames,” or as the dilemma of the rugged individual consumed by high technology in a world too complex for individual achievement and success.
Shepard’s heroes are, if not sociopaths, at least angry and isolated loners, always bordering on the violent; when this violence is turned against women, the plays get frighteningly sadistic. There is an edge of Old Testament righteousness gone sour, as though too strict an upbringing has evoked a rebel response—but with an underlying need for rules just under the dialogue.
The structure of the plays is imperfect. Superficially realistic in the later works, but stylized and theatrical in the earlier works, the plays move quickly into what has been called suprarealism, an enlarged version of realistic, detailed life that somehow transcends itself to speak, however vaguely, of larger orders and disorders in the playwright’s universe. Robert Cohen, in his discussion of Buried Child, defines suprarealism as “a device that seeks patterns beneath the surface of everyday reality, and meanings in the silences that punctuate everyday speech.” Far from being a symbolic writer or an allegorist, Shepard manages to speak of reality while at the same time tapping into universal combats with his specified opponents. For example, Hoss and Crow in The Tooth of Crime, besides fighting their own duel to the death, are fighting the eternal battle of the successful figure struggling to keep his reputation versus the newcomer, full of energy and undaunted by the reputation of the current champion. In this work, as in Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974), the artist himself is the subject of the action.
The same Jack London or James Dean attitude that can make the male American seem romantic and inaccessible at the same time is present in Shepard’s work. There is also a taint of incest, a hint of forbidden love, in the character studies as the plots unravel, never spoken directly but implied by the narrative voice (as in Fool for Love) or hinted at in the dialogue (as in Buried Child). If the work is autobiographical in any way, it is in Shepard’s obsession with interfamily affections and emotions, both tender and violent.
While it would be too facile to say that Shepard is searching for his father, the characters in his work are all struggling with a father who fell under the demands of American individuality. The obsessive, often violent, attraction of male to female protagonists cannot be ignored when examining his work, but it would be a mistake to simplistically identify those themes with the playwright’s own biography. The attraction takes on its violent stage form as a signal to the depth and importance of essential relationships such as male/female love or family ties. No social philosopher, Shepard stays well inside the personal worlds of his own experience, neither casting about for historically viable motifs nor seeking commercial success. His ideas and images are distinctly his own.
Shepard’s plays are probably parts of a whole imaginative construction, as were the works of Eugene O’Neill, with whom Shepard is often compared, and whose family served as grist for his mill as well. The whole epic, whose parts will emerge as Shepard continues his work, develops the chaotic impulses that work within him. His single subject is an examination of what went wrong, somewhere, somehow, in his life as well as in the American Dream. His concentration on family distortions allows ready comparisons with other American playwrights, such as Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets, who also found their themes inside family life.
Shepard’s major themes are the loss of the American Dream, the romance of the West, the artist’s exploitation by commerce, the “musical” significance of contemporary dramatic rhythms, the breakdown of the family unit because of unspoken parental imperfections, and the ongoing search for place and identity in a fragmented world. In the final analysis, however, themes are not as important as lyrics for Shepard. Ruby Cohn names her chapter on Shepard “The Word is My Shepard,” and Bonnie Marranca speaks at length of Shepard’s poetic voice. In a sense, all his plays are songs, written to a rhythm and beat that is entirely his own. They make sense only in near-rhymes, and the parallels to myth are imperfect, sketched in, barely recognizable. Neither a thinking playwright nor an intellectual analyst, but an instinctive observer of human beings, Shepard is writing song lyrics for the stage, caring not so much about the content as the amorphous, yet distinctive, form and rhythm of human relationships.
First produced: 1967 (first published, 1968)
Type of work: Play
In mirrored acts, a pair of tourists fights the hallucinating effects of disease, assisted by a voodoo doctor and his son.
Shepard wrote his first two-act play while living in Mexico; the mirroring acts give him a structure for his ideas that would work in several subsequent plays, including The Tooth of Crime, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, and Operation Sidewinder. Shepard takes advantage of the automatic tendency on the part of the audience to compare and contrast the events of each act, thereby informing both parts in the examination.
Kent and Salem are traveling in Mexico (in act 1) when Kent becomes very sick with la turista, the Mexican slang name for diarrhea. In a crazed, fevered state, Kent is “treated” by a native doctor and his son. Salem interrupts the dialogue with long monologues of the past, a device that Shepard had employed in earlier, short plays. Salem’s speeches add color and shadow to the bare plot. In act 2, which takes place earlier in time than act 1, Kent suffers from sleeping sickness (judging from the symptoms). Again, a doctor and his son are called in to help; Kent becomes violent in his hallucinations, eventually crashing through the wall of his room.
“La Turista” is both the tourist and his disease—a displacement of the artist, with concomitant suffering. Two figures, echoed in each act, on one level the doctor and his son, are on another level the appeal to the hero of a cosmic cure to a universal sickness. The two invade the privacy of the tourist with a curative, but at the expense of forcing Kent and Salem into the mythic structure of the alien place, transforming “tourist” mentalities (removed and temporary) into serious participating members of an old cult. The acts are reversed in time, the second act coming before the trip to Mexico of the first act.
The first act’s disease is replaced in the second act by a kind of sleeping sickness, to counteract which Kent is walked up and down until he can find the strength to leave the theater entirely. His rambling, inchoate monologue, underscored by “Doc,” tells the story of Doc himself, in the present tense, seeking “the beast” in a Western setting. In the second act, the “cult” participation involves the storytelling and the crying out of the fevered victim, a freeing of the soul from the body. The disease invading Kent is insidious, destructive from the inside, and one of its symptoms is delirium, here vocalized in ranting speeches whose content seems arbitrary, almost a jazz improvisation around a theme. As the monologue climaxes in pain and absurd sacrifice, Kent swings from a rope, crashing through the upstage wall, leaving his silhouette in the drywall, like a cartoon character in an absurdist universe.
Critics point out several important features of this play: the mirrored acts, each of which contains a reflection of the other; the Western pioneer motif, especially of Kent’s final speeches; the enigmatic characters of the Mexicans; and the cold, almost brutal love relationship. Easy connections with cigarette brands, Kent and Salem, can be made, as an indictment of American myth, for example, but in this early work, any speculation as to real meaning takes more effort from the critic than the playwright put into the play’s subcontext.
The Tooth of Crime
First produced: 1972 (first published, 1974)
Type of work: Play
Two rock-and-roll hoodlums duel with words and bravado for the commercial turf of musical stardom.
The Tooth of Crime is a large idea, a play imbued with the energy and chaos of jazz and rock, a 1960’s look at the future alterations in the nature of the duel, and the challenge of sexual and power-oriented dominance as found in competitiveness. This play attempts to combine street-gang dueling traditions with the commercial competition of the rock-and-roll industry: Hoss (“Rip Torn only younger”) opens the first act with a “flyting,” or bragging of his superiority; Crow (“just like Keith Richard”) opens the second act as the young upstart ready to duel the famous but aging Hoss.
The result, despite its shouting violence and rapacious arena, is a strangely touching portrait of the aging artist, torn between continuing popularity and an admission of his own mortality. The cycle of leadership and popular appeal drives the plot forward, from Hoss’s early claims to superiority, through his moments of doubt (in which he is encouraged by his “moll” Becky and his gang of singing hoods), to the second-act duel, a stand-off. The finale, an imperfect and inconclusive scene in which Hoss kills himself, ostensibly to take Crow’s victory from him by choosing to “lose to the big power,” implies that the cycle will continue, with Crow eventually finding the same hollowness, only temporarily concealed by the “image” of his commercial and popular success.
Shepard adds songs to this piece, the lyrics in the country and western style, the music in the rock-and-roll idiom. Hoss’s gang (called Four Guys when singing together) acts as commentary to the action, underscoring the violence and combativeness of the scenes. Taken alone, the combined western/rock musical numbers do not make much sense, but as background to the almost dancelike violence of the players, they serve as a kind of film score to the nonverbal combat: “We’re fighting ourselves. . . . He’s my brother and I gotta kill him.”
The central act, a rock duel between Crow and Hoss, substitutes for physical violence a competition using language instead of weapons; the metaphor makes this play more a musical combat than a story with a through line. The dialogue, often a forced slang, part authentic and part fabricated, moves the play forward slowly. This is a futuristic world, where violence is delimited by power combats on “turf,” and each player tries to get “kills” as a way of keeping score. In the process, the “duel” takes on thematic substance—the role of jazz in the emancipation of the slaves is one particularly artificial and awkward example of the intrusion of styles into the dramatic action.
Hoss’s moll, Becky Sue, handles his weapons and serves as messenger to the other sinister participants in the game. In one scene she acts out roles both of sexual victim and sexual assailant, stripping herself with her own hands while protesting to an invisible assaulter, assumed to be Hoss. Difficult to cast and stage, The Tooth of Crime does not receive the same number of productions as other, more realistic, Shepard works. Nevertheless, it deserves consideration as a rock-and-roll musical drama, along with such musicals as Hair (1968) and Tommy (1975).
Geography of a Horse Dreamer
First produced: 1974 (first published, 1974)
Type of work: Play
A prophetic dreamer of horse race results, kidnapped by hoodlums, changes his predictions to dog races and is rescued by his brothers.
In this portrait of the artist exploited by big business (a recurrent theme with Shepard, who nevertheless found a commercial outlet for his talents quite early in his career), the artist is a dreamer, and his dreams are his art. The hero, Cody, has been kidnapped by thugs, who cull race winners from his dreams, moving him from place to place. As in all Shepard’s two-act plays, the two acts bear likenesses to each other that underscore their differences. In act 1, it is horse racing that Cody dreams about, but in act 2, he has switched to dog racing. Once the thugs understand the switch, they continue to let the dreamer do his work. Cody’s brothers rescue him from the Doctor (a sinister figure representing cold-blooded murder) in a violent ending, which unfortunately seems almost tacked onto the mood of the rest of the piece.
A displacement from one’s locale, another standard Shepard theme, is what makes the dreams so vivid and so destructive. When Cody is removed from his (Western) homeland, he suffers. Shepard is saying that the artist has been displaced from his “geography,”...
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