The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Tooth of Crime begins with Hoss, a Star Marker, singing a rock song, “The Way Things Are.” Images of self-doubt, numbing deadness, betrayal, and the loss of heroes are introduced in the song as “dark, heavy lurking Rock and Roll” reinforces the ominous threat of graphic violence which looms constantly throughout the play. Hoss’s song introduces his troubled quest and establishes his hope of becoming firmly established at the peak of the American mythos of stardom. “Sometimes in the blackest night I can see a little light,” he sings. “That’s the only thing that keeps me rockin’—keeps me rockin’.”

His groupie, Becky Lou, enters and discusses their preparations for Hoss’s next move in the cross-country “game” that he and other “killers” are playing. Although this game is never fully explained, it appears to be a futuristic combination of the rock and roll music industry and gang warfare. The array of guns she displays and the talk of fast cars attest the thirst for power and speed felt so strongly by the killers. They are all maneuvering for strategic moves which will propel them into the top position of the game, providing them with the tenuous status of a star. Hoss summons his astrologist, Star-Man, who, like Tiresias in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, is asked for advice to rid Hoss of his malaise. Star-Man offers him some sage advice, but Hoss can barely contain his desire for the number-one position and the gold record that comes with it. Hoss wants to go against the rules of the game, but Star-Man cautions him that doing so will risk voiding his play. As Becky Lou reminds him, “You can’t go against the code, Hoss.” Star-Man elaborates on this risk as he cautions Hoss to restrain his desire and maintain his status as a solo player or risk losing his chance for achieving “something durable, something lasting.” He says, “How’re you gonna cop an immortal shot if you give up soloing and go into a gang war. They’ll rip you up in a night. Sure you’ll have a few moments of global glow, maybe even an interplanetary flash. But it won’t last, Hoss, it won’t last.”

Becky Lou attempts to assuage Hoss’s doubts once Star-Man leaves, but it is clear while they discuss his position as a “true genius killer” that he is sensing a significant challenge to this position. His next song, “Cold Killer,” reaffirms his belief in his ability to attain the rank of top killer as he launches into a rock-patter which displays his expertise in the game.

Hoss’s confidence is weakened when his disc jockey, Galactic Jack, enters and assesses Hoss’s position in the game. Solo players have taken over and “Gang war is takin’ a back seat,” he says, which would be good news for Hoss except that another player, Mojo Root Force, has overstepped the boundaries of acceptable play and taken one of Hoss’s duly appointed properties. The concept of Gypsy...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A central issue of The Tooth of Crime is relayed through the Western-like showdown between Hoss and Crow that is framed in rock and roll imagery. Hoss embodies values of the older, established code of the game. He has prospered by following that code only to find at this point in his life that the rules of the game have changed—and, more important, the game has bypassed him. The game provided the superstructure of his value system; without it, he is set adrift with no remaining ground of assurance. Crow, on the other hand, is the young challenger who typifies the newest manifestation of an ever-changing game. He has adapted to its changes and uses them to his advantage against Hoss, whose role has been diminished, ironically, by the very tradition that the game fostered—the very tradition, moreover, that has helped him to achieve his position as a Star Marker. Crow challenges Hoss’s belief in the game, thereby presenting a stronger example of frontier individuality than the rule-bound trappings promoted by the traditional game that has so successfully shackled Hoss.

Sam Shepard uses the duel to illustrate this clash between outdated and updated rules as Hoss quickly founders against his better-equipped opponent. The rock and roll framework for this fight illustrates a characteristic component of Shepard’s drama by drawing upon a young and lawless American tradition which has nevertheless changed in a similar fashion. Thus, Hoss is...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bottoms, Stephen J. The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Cohn, Ruby. “The Word Is My Shepard.” In New American Dramatists, 1960-1980. New York: Grove Press, 1982.

DePose, David J. Sam Shepard. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Hart, Lynda. Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Marranca, Bonnie, ed. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 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. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.

Powe, Bruce W. “The Tooth of Crime: Sam Shepard’s Way with Music.” Modern Drama 22 (March, 1981): 39-46.

Wade, Leslie A. Sam Shepard and the American Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.