Sam Shepard began writing plays in the 1960’s and had many of them produced in New York before he reached the age of thirty. Fool for Love shares the one-act structure and relentless pace of earlier plays such as or Operation Sidewinder (1970) or Cowboy Mouth (1971), but it was written after Shepard’s longer “family plays,” such as Curse of the Starving Class (1976) and Buried Child (1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize in drama 1979. It combines the wild urgency of some earlier plays with more complex character development. The most significant innovation in Fool for Love is that many critics consider it the first Shepard play in which a woman’s character, May, is as fully and interestingly drawn as a man’s.
The term “realistic,” however, is not an accurate way to describe Shepard’s rendering of May, or any other of his characters, if by “realistic” one means objectively consistent. May’s character is not “absurd” in the traditional sense of that term, since the motivation for her actions is uncovered in the course of the play. Shepard’s style of drama is hard to define according to existing, traditional formulas. A director who worked with Shepard makes an interesting case for labeling Shepard’s work “hyperrealism.” What makes Shepard’s characters “hyperreal” is their awareness of what others consider “realistic” at the same time they have abandoned attempts to project an objective presentation of themselves. The audience meets all of them at a place well beyond the breakdown of objective pretense as a façade. All that the characters say and do comments on the discrepancy between the audience’s conventional concept of how they should behave and the way their own obsessions motivate them.
May’s character is an example of this dynamic. She is a pragmatist, a scathing foil to Eddie’s stock Shepard-style male caricature, whose occupation is that of a cowboy, “who dreams things up.” Unlike the women in earlier plays, May talks openly and frankly about her own emotional landscape and all its contradictory passions. The audience quickly learns that Eddie’s attempt to pacify her with fantasy during his long absences (a pile of fashion magazines) sends her packing in search of her own life. The play’s imperative to dramatize her reality is seen most strikingly when she tells Martin the rest of the story about her and Eddie, and, against the old man’s protests, Eddie quietly corroborates her version as the truth.
Another significant way in which Shepard plays with dramatic conventions in Fool for Love is his usual attention to dramatization of images rather than ideas. Often the most significant, climactic moments are underscored by stage images rather than by dialogue. Dialogue is part of the image being performed and is used for emphasis of these images. There are many examples of this in Fool for Love, among them the long, motionless opening position of May on the bed, unresponsive to Eddie’s coaxing, and the way Eddie and May physically back themselves up against and slam against the walls of the motel room as they argue. In this way stage directions place the dialogue in the visual context of the play more than the speeches themselves direct the action.
Although some contend the monologues in this play are prosaic by comparison to those in Shepard’s other plays, the images they evoke are still memorable. The presence of animal instinct as an overriding motivator, for example, is present in the old man’s speech about how he got May to stop crying one night by taking her unawares out into a herd of cattle neither of them could see. In other places, the clipped conversational style of the speeches emphasizes the physical settings each interaction dramatizes. Shepard uses words like paints or musical notes rather than as carriers of ideas. In Fool for Love, the fiery, tortured image of Eddie and May in the grips of incestuous love exhibits the contradictory way the American myth of masculinity defines love and the effect it has on American women.