The Tooth of Crime Summary
by Sam Shepard

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The Tooth of Crime Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 522 words.)