The Tooth of Crime

by Sam Shepard
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

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.

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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 more a musical combat than a story with a through line. The dialogue, often a forced slang, part authentic and part fabricated, moves the play forward slowly. This is a futuristic world, where violence is delimited by power combats on “turf,” and each player tries to get “kills” as a way of keeping score. In the process, the “duel” takes on thematic substance—the role of jazz in the emancipation of the slaves is one particularly artificial and awkward example of the intrusion of styles into the dramatic action.

Hoss’s moll, Becky Sue, handles his weapons and serves as messenger to the other sinister participants in the game. In one scene she acts out roles both of sexual victim and sexual assailant, stripping herself with her own hands while protesting to an invisible assaulter, assumed to be Hoss. Difficult to cast and stage, The Tooth of Crime does not receive the same number of productions as other, more realistic, Shepard works. Nevertheless, it deserves consideration as a rock-and-roll musical drama, along with such musicals as Hair (1968) and Tommy (1975).

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