The Play

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Fool for Love is set in a “stark, low-rent motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert.” A general clutter of female things can be seen through the bathroom door at far stage right. At far stage left, a small platform framed by black curtains holds an old maple rocking chair draped with an equally worn horse blanket. As the play begins, the lights fade to darkness. Merle Haggard’s song “Wake Up” is heard, its volume swelling as the lights rise.

As the lights come up, Eddie speaks first to May, attempting to mollify her, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are at a pause in a long argument of violently conflicting emotions. Eddie has come to take her back after an absence of some duration, having abandoned her to sit, as she puts it, “in a tin trailer for weeks on end with the wind ripping through it.” She accuses him of sexual infidelity during his absence and threatens to kill Eddie and his lover with two sharp knives, one for each of them, “so the blood doesn’t mix.” When Eddie tells her that he has “a piece of ground up in Wyoming,” she refuses to go. She has become a “regular citizen,” with a job as a short-order cook. She accuses him of attempting once again to sucker her “into some dumb little fantasy,” only to disappear. She refuses to let him spend the night, but when Eddie agrees to leave, she calls him back, kisses him tenderly, “then suddenly knees him in the groin with tremendous force.”

As Eddie lies on the floor, crumpled in pain, the lights come up on the Old Man, who has been sitting all along in the rocker. As the stage directions point out, “even though they might talk to him directly and acknowledge his physical presence,” the Old Man “exists only in the minds of May and Eddie.” When he speaks, he interjects a confusing element of incongruity into the play; he points to a nonexistent picture of singer Barbara Mandrell and informs Eddie that he is, as he puts it, “actually married to Barbara Mandrell in my mind.”

May reenters, preparing for a date. She changes onstage into a “sleek red dress,” transforming “her former tough drabness into a very sexy woman.” Eddie now betrays his own sexual jealousy; he exits suddenly and violently, slamming doors behind him, only to return with a shotgun. When she tells Eddie that he has “no right being jealous,” Eddie hints at something deeper and darker, a pact, a connection “decided long ago.” Thoroughly disturbed, she tells Eddie to leave; he exits, yet his departure only upsets her more.

The Old Man now speaks to May of her childhood and, in the process, reveals himself to be her father. May, however, does not listen. Too “involved with her emotion of loss,” she moves slowly around the room, pressing herself against the walls.

When Eddie enters, he has assumed an ironic air with the masculine swagger of a rodeo cowboy, telling her that she can introduce him to her date “as your brother or something. Well—maybe not your brother.” The headlights of an automobile pass across the room, and Eddie, thinking it is May’s date, taunts her, telling her to “blow kisses in the moonlight.” As it turns out, however, it is not her date’s automobile, but a “huge, extra-long, black Mercedes Benz” belonging to Eddie’s lover. He is obviously frightened of her—for good reason. Pistol shots are heard offstage, then breaking glass. He douses the lights and pins May to the floor...

(This entire section contains 1150 words.)

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to protect her. She, however, struggles free and turns the lights back on.

The light again rises on the Old Man. As he speaks, May and Eddie stand staring at each other, “not ‘frozen,’” but rather in a “suspended moment of recognition.” The Old Man reveals May and Eddie’s connection. The Old Man, married to Eddie’s mother, had carried on a secret, adulterous relationship with May’s mother. Eddie did not know he had a sister “until it was too late.” As he put it, “by the time I found out, we’d already—you know—fooled around.”

Headlights again slash across the stage. Eddie, again thinking it is his lover, attempts to protect May by dousing the lights and pushing her into the bathroom. They scuffle. This time, however, it is not Eddie’s lover, but May’s date, Martin. As the stage lights come up, he is “about to smash Eddie with his fist.” After his momentary heroics, however, Martin turns out to be exactly as May had described him earlier: “a very gentle person” and just a bit stupid. Eddie resumes his ironic, taunting air. Slowly, Martin begins to realize that he is in the middle of an intensely emotional secret between Eddie and May. He attempts to leave, but Eddie restrains him and reveals the full extent of his incestuous relationship with May. In a long monologue, Eddie tells of one night when he followed along as the Old Man took a long walk through the darkness to May’s mother. It was then that Eddie first saw May. As he tells it, from “the second we saw each other, that very second, we knew we’d never stop being in love.”

May at first denies it, but when Eddie insists the story be told, and Martin indicates that he would not “mind hearing the rest of it,” May sets out to correct Eddie’s version. She tells how her mother was obsessed with the Old Man and “kept hunting for him from town to town.” When she found him, however, the Old Man disappeared, “just vanished,” and “nobody saw him after that.” As May’s mother grieved over her loss, May herself was already lost to her own obsessive love for Eddie. “After being with Eddie,” as she puts it, “I was filled with this joy.” To stop the relationship, May’s mother goes to Eddie’s mother and reveals it to her; unable to cope, she commits suicide.

The play ends abruptly and inconclusively. Headlights once again cut across the stage. There is the sound of a loud collision, shattering glass, and an explosion. The light of a gasoline fire illuminates the upstage window. Martin informs Eddie that his horses have been released. Eddie exits, saying, “well, I just can’t let her get away with that. What am I supposed to do. I’ll just be a second.” May begins packing a suitcase. When Martin asks if she is going with Eddie, she replies simply, “He’s gone.” She exits, leaving Martin alone with the Old Man. Merle Haggard’s song, “I’m the One Who Loves You,” swells in volume as the lights fade, leaving only the fire glow in the upstage window.

Dramatic Devices

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Sam Shepard characteristically creates a thematic and emotional resonance by using the stage setting as a metaphor for the interior lives of the characters, and Fool for Love is no exception. The stage marks out not only physical space for the play’s action, but an interior space as well. The “stark, low-rent motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert” is, properly speaking, May’s room. The spare furnishings, the faded bedspread, the metal table with the worn formica top, and the picture window framed by “dirty, long, dark green plastic curtains,” all reflect her despondency.

Eddie invades May’s room. (In the film version, for which Shepard wrote the screenplay, he literally bursts through the door.) Like the Old Man, who kept “disappearing and reappearing,” Eddie repeats the pattern not only in May’s life, but also on the stage. The physical dimensions of the room can barely contain him. At one point, he does “a backflip across the stage and crashes into [the] stage right wall.” He exits and reenters several times during the play, and the movement is always marked with a physical violence that reflects his emotional turmoil. When he exits, he slams the door behind him and the “door booms.” As originally staged, the doors were electronically amplified with microphones and bass drums, accentuating the slamming to surreal proportions. With the masculine swagger of the stunt man and rodeo cowboy, Eddie may yearn for the unconstrained life, but he can no more accept an empty freedom than he can accept his confinement in the room.

The long monologue, another characteristic Sam Shepard device, is used extensively at the end of Fool for Love. Each of the major characters relates at some length an incident from his past, creating parallels between the past and the present. In Eddie’s monologue, for example, he relates how the Old Man took him along one night to visit May’s mother and how he first saw May:I thought we were just out for a walk. And then this woman comes to the door. This real pretty woman with red hair. And she throws herself into his arms. And he starts crying. . . . And then through the doorway, behind them both, I see this girl.

At this moment, “the bathroom door very slowly and silently swings open revealing May standing in the doorframe backlit with yellow light in her red dress.” Both the Old Man’s obsessive love for May’s mother and Eddie’s obsessive love for May are drawn explosively together in the immediate present by May’s sudden stage appearance.

Initially, May seems painfully confined by the shabby room and Eddie’s love for her. Like her mother, who would “pull herself up into a ball and just stare at the floor,” May is first seen sitting “on the edge of the bed facing the audience . . . head hanging forward, face staring at floor.” In the course of the play, she exits the room only once—and Eddie “runs off stage after her” and “carries her back onstage screaming and kicking.” Unlike her mother, however, she continues to rebel, not only against Eddie but also against her confinement. The opening stage direction suggests that “this play is to be performed relentlessly without a break,” but one might better say until a break finally takes place. After Eddie exits for the last time, it is May’s final escape from the room that marks the climactic end to the play.

Places Discussed

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*Mojave Desert

*Mojave Desert (moh-HAHV-ee). Southern California desert that is a defining image of the American West. It is a vast and dangerous place that one must travel through, just as May and her half-brother Eddie navigate through their troubled relationship. The desert creates a forbidding atmosphere as it imposes its vastness around the shabby motel.


Motel. Located on the edge of the Mojave Desert, this dingy, unnamed motel is the home of May. For playwright Sam Shepard, the motel room symbolizes the loneliness and romance of the American Highway. It is a place to rest and replenish as one travels through the vast wilderness of relationships. May originally comes to the motel to escape Eddie and their incestuous love affair. However, the motel offers little comfort. Although Eddie has driven more than two thousand miles to find May, the transient nature of the motel room setting and the open road that lies outside foreshadows his inevitable abandonment of May. It also parallels their father’s constant traveling from household to household, woman to woman, eventually abandoning Eddie’s mother, who commits suicide. Not a destination in and of itself, the motel room reflects the idea that the real action in May and Eddie’s lives occurs in their traveling from place to place.


*Wyoming. Rocky Mountain state in which Eddie promises to make a home for May. He has plans to move their trailer to a ranch there. The theme of the American West is displayed as May rejects Eddie’s offer just as she rejects his “Marlboro” man lifestyle as a rodeo cowboy and stuntman. Nevertheless, Eddie dreams of the cowboy life as he cleans his gun, dons metal spurs, and coils his lassos performing rope tricks to entice May.

Historical Context

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In 1983, the United States was a country of contradictions. Its president was Republican Ronald Reagan, who served a total of two terms with his conservative, anti-Communist platform. Reagan was a former movie actor who often played western hero roles; his presidency was greatly informed by his persona as an actor, as he co-opted heroic cowboy rhetoric in his diplomatic dealings and made highly effective use of his television-ready talents. Reagan was also seen as family man, though he was the first president to have been divorced. Many Americans responded to Reagan’s role as president, though a number of critics, finding the former thespian’s politics superficial and showy, complained that the executive’s position was little more than that, a role essayed by an actor.

In 1982, a five-year recession ended for the United States. While inflation in 1983 was only 3.2%, the economy was only relatively prosperous despite Reagan’s promises. Reagan’s government promoted supply-side economics and de-industrialization. There were many mergers and acquisitions as the government promoted deregulation for big industries. Tax cuts were given to the rich and the government spent a great deal of money building up the military (the era marked the largest peacetime growth of U.S. defense in history). The American stock market was in the midst of a bull market (a trading trend in which high optimism results in aggressive trading). While there were tax increases for social security, the wealthy had more disposable income.

Along those lines, the lifestyle of the wealthy became a popular topic for a large part of the country. Appearances were important and glitz ruled on television, movies, and books. Popular television shows included fictional soap operas such as Dynasty and Dallas and infotainment mainstay Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Material success was seen as important. Books like Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins in 1983 also promoted glitzy lifestyle. In 1983, movies such as Risky Business and Trading Places promoted a ‘‘have it all’’ mentality. This consumer boom stretched to the common man but not far. David Mamet’s 1983 play Glengarry Glen Ross showed the darker side of the pursuit of material wealth.

Common people did not do as well as their upper class counterparts. They did not benefit from economic prosperity. There was a decline in real wages. At the beginning of 1983, the number of unemployed was 11.5 million. By the end, it was about 35 million. There was more corporate uncertainty as heavy industry became deindustrialized Kim Basinger as May in a scene from director Robert Altman’s film adaptation; this scene shows May at work in the cafe, a setting that is only alluded to in the stage version and deregulated. The homeless rate increased about 25% per year in the 1980s. There was increased violence on American streets and handgun sales boomed. There was also increased tensions between races, and child abuse became a national crisis.

Some popular musicians expressed the turmoil of middle- and lower- class life. In 1983, there was a Rock against Reagan tour, organized to protest the president’s economic policies that favored the minority rich while penalizing the lower- and middle- classes. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band also were quite popular in the mid-1980s. Springsteen, a ‘‘normal guy’’ from New Jersey, looked and dressed like a working man. He promoted patriotism, a hot topic at the time, yet questioned America’s values in songs like his 1984 hit ‘‘Born in the U.S.A.’’ Springsteen was also one of the earliest artists to use music videos to promote his songs on MTV.

Another segment of society that suffered in the 1980s were farmers. There was a serious farm crisis during this period. Farmers produced more than they could sell. Land prices fell sharply. Many farmers had heavy debt and numerous family farms went bankrupt. The federal government was forced to subsidize farms and farmers. In 1985, the first Farm Aid benefit concert was held to help troubled farmers pay off their debts. Several movies were also made on this subject beginning in 1984. One, featuring Shepard the actor, was called Country.

Literary Style

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SettingFool for Love takes place in a motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California. All the action is confined to one motel room, occupied by May. It is a cheap room with faded paintings and old fashioned floors and furnishings. Adjacent to the room is a bathroom and the parking lot. The Old Man sits in a rocker inside the room, from which he can observe the proceedings and comment as necessary. Because this room is May’s and a symbol of her growing sense of independence, Eddie’s presence seems like an invasion as he tries to control her within it and lure her out of it. May ends up leaving on her own, but the Old Man, her father, remains, as he will be part of her consciousness forever.

Sound Effects
The tensions in Fool for Love are economically and effectively emphasized by sound effects. Every time Eddie or May bangs into a wall, the stage directions call for it to ‘‘boom.’’ According to the stage directions, the front and bathroom doors are supposed to be specially constructed to make the boom louder when they are slammed shut. This effect underscores the volatile emotions at hand.

Eddie’s other woman, ‘‘The Countess,’’ never makes a physical appearance, but her presence is made known by sound and light effects. The audience sees the head beams of her Mercedes and the sound of the car pulling up in front of May’s room. The countess’s anger is amplified by the sounds of her pistol shooting out the window of Eddie’s truck, her releasing Eddie’s horses from their carrier, and, finally, her setting his truck on fire. These sound effects make real May’s suspicions about Eddie, and, in turn, give Eddie an excuse to physically protect May from The Countess.

Near the end of Fool for Love, May and Eddie each have long monologues which allow them to tell their version of their shared past. When Eddie finds himself alone with Martin, May’s date, he takes the opportunity to relate his and his sister’s past. Eddie does this to shock Martin, scare him away so that he can have May all to himself. Eddie tells Martin about when he first met May, not knowing that she shared the same father as he. Eddie emphasizes the fact that they were in love from that first moment onwards. May overhears this story from the bathroom and interrupts when Eddie makes this claim. Then, in her monologue, she gets the opportunity to tell her side of the story. She finishes what Eddie has started, telling Martin what happened after they met. May describes their meeting, the discovery that their father was leading a double life. Their father left both of them. Eddie’s mother committed suicide, while May’s mother withdrew into herself. While Eddie only sees the good in their loving, May sees the tragic swells that have touched other lives.

The Old Man does not like May’s version. Yet he, too, has a monologue near the beginning of the play. He describes an incident from May’s childhood when he was living with her and her mother. May was a child upset during a long car ride. The Old Man stopped near a field and walked her around in it. The cows they came across had a calming effect on the child, and May was quiet the rest of the time. The Old Man’s story is the first time he acknowledges that he is May’s father. It makes him seem human and compassionate, not the kind of unfeeling womanizer who would lead a dual life with two separate families.

Compare and Contrast

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1983: Cellular phone service is tested in Chicago. The bulky phones cost $3000, while monthly service fees total about $150. The target audience is businessmen who need to keep in constant touch with clients and their home office.

Today: Cellular phone service is available throughout the United States. Palm-sized phones are available. Phones and rates are relatively inexpensive. Many people use cellular phones to keep in touch with loved ones from anywhere at anytime.

1983: Early Macintosh computers are introduced. The Lisa model is the first to feature a mouse. IBM announces its development of a chip that can story 512K of memory.

Today: Personal computers are available for under $1000. Memory capabilities can measured in the gigabytes. The mouse is obsolete on laptops, which can feature trackpads to move a cursor. With widely available access to the Internet, people can easily remain in contact with their friends and family around the globe.

1983: The United States invades the island of Grenada. Marines land to protect U.S. citizens (and interests) from the Marxist government.

Today: The United States protects its interests by participating in the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) bombing of Kosovo, among other military operations.

Media Adaptations

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Fool for Love was adapted by Shepard for the screen in 1985. Directed by Robert Altman, the film features Shepard playing the role of Eddie and Kim Basinger as May.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brustein, Robert. Review of Fool for Love in the New Republic, June 27, 1983, pp. 24-25.

Hughes, Catharine. ‘‘The World of Sam Shepard’’ in America, November 5, 1983, p. 274.

Kalem, T. E. Review of Fool for Love in Time, June 6, 1983, p. 79.

Kerr, Walter. ‘‘Where Has Shepard Led His Audience?’’ in the New York Times, June 5, 1983, sec. 2, p. 3.

Kleb, William. ‘‘Sam Shepard’s Free-for-All: Fool for Love at the Magic Theatre’’ in Theater, Summer-Fall, 1983, pp. 77-82.

Kroll, Jack. ‘‘Badlands of Love’’ in Newsweek, June 6, 1983, p. 90.

Rich, Frank. ‘‘Stage: ‘Fool for Love,’ Sam Shepard Western’’ in the New York Times, May 27, 1983, p. C3.

Shepard, Sam. ‘‘Fool for Love’’ in Famous Plays of the 1980s, Laurel, 1988, pp. 33-95.

Simon, John. ‘‘Soft Centers’’ in New York, June 13, 1983, pp. 76-77.

Further Reading
Bottoms, Stephen J. The Theatre of Sam Shepard: Studies of Crisis, Cambridge University Press, 1998. In this book, Bottoms takes a critical look at Shepard’s life through his plays, including an extensive discussion of Fool for Love.

Brater, Enoch. ‘‘American Clocks: Sam Shepard’s Time Plays’’ in Modern Drama, Winter, 1994, pp. 603-13. In this article, Enoch explores the critical role time plays in Shepard’s Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind.

Marranca, Bonnie, editor. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard, Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1981. This collection of critical essays covers Shepard’s career as a playwright and interviews with the playwright. The book also includes essays on directing and acting in Shepard’s plays.

Rosen, Carol. ‘‘‘Emotional Territory’: An Interview with Sam Shepard’’ in Modern Drama, March, 1993, pp. 1-12. In this interview, Shepard discusses his whole career as a playwright, actor, director, and thematic concerns in plays such as Fool for Love.


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Auerback, Doris. Sam Shepard, Arthur Kopit, and the Off Broadway Theater, 1982.

Bank, Rosemarie. “Self as Other: Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind.” In Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, edited by June Schlueter. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

Bigsby, C.W.E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Vol. 3, Beyond Broadway, 1985.

Hart, Lynda. Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. In the section of her book about Shepard’s brand of realism, “Realism Revisited,” Hart devotes several pages of discussion to the staging of Fool for Love.

Londre, Felicia Hardison. “A Motel of the Mind: Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind.” In Rereading Shepard, edited by Leonard Wilcox. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. An interesting discussion of motels as metaphors for states of mind and heart in Shepard’s plays.

Marlowe, Joan, and Betty Blake, eds. New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews 44, no. 19 (1983): 212-216. Six reviews from New York papers. Gives a wide range of interpretive opinions about the original Shepard-directed production.

Marranca, Bonnie, ed. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard, 1981.

Mottram, Ron. Inner Landscapes: The Theater of Sam Shepard. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.

Oumano, Ellen. Sam Shepard: The Life and Work of an American Dreamer, 1986.

Tucker, Martin. Sam Shepard. Literature and Life: American Writers. New York: Continuum Press, 1992. Contains an interesting discussion of Fool for Love that speculates about possible autobiographical links to the romantic and family dynamics explored in the play.

Wetzsetson, Ross. Introduction to Fool for Love and Other Plays by Sam Shepard. New York: Bantam Books, 1984. An insightful and readable description of Shepard’s dramatic sensibility, with special attention to Fool for Love.

Wilcox, Leonard, ed. Rereading Shepard: Contemporary Critical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide