Sam Shepard uses elements of rock and roll and Westerns in many of his plays but nowhere with the skillful intensity that is achieved in The Tooth of Crime. In this respect, the play is the best representative of Shepard’s efforts to fuse and question these characteristics and stands as the epitome of his early attempts in plays of this nature. Because The Tooth of Crime helped to launch Shepard’s career by being the first to generate extensive critical approbation, it stands as an excellent introduction to his work at its early, arguably more raw stage.
Prior to The Tooth of Crime, Shepard had drawn upon an eclectic range of subjects integral to American culture. Thus, the occult and bounty hunters—Back Bog Beast Bait (pr. 1971)—mythic figures and film stars—Mad Dog Blues (pr., pb. 1971)—cowboys and rock and roll—Cowboy Mouth (pr., pb. 1971)—and an alien and a drunk—The Unseen Hand (pr. 1969)—populate his early plays. While this bizarre array of stereotypically American subjects continues to appear in his later plays, Shepard displayed a distinct growth toward more domestic concerns toward the end of the 1970’s.
This shift records simply another direction in Shepard’s attempt to articulate distinctly American concerns, with the family unit being a central issue. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (pr. 1978), for example, focuses on a family attempting to keep a sordid element of its past buried out of sight in a macabre manner of numbing denial. True West (pr. 1980), Fool for Love (pr., pb. 1983), and A Lie of the Mind (pr. 1985) have demonstrated Shepard’s concern with the realistic aspects of home life, drawing upon family relations and love in a manner which distinguishes a move away from his early work toward a more refined approach. His work in film (acting, scriptwriting, and directing) have helped to make him an even more visible figure in the America he has helped to reveal and define, drawing attention to the significant impact he has as a major figure in the theater (and later in film) since his first plays were performed in 1964.