Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533
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.
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