Sam Shepard is the best example of the new wave of Off-Off Broadway. Originally from California, Shepard travelled intensively, especially in the East Cost to try to get his plays produced, among other artistic endeavours. When Shepard arrived in New York in early 1960s, theatre was going through a profound change and so was society. Vietnam, Kennedy, sexual revolution, cults, Cold War, racial movements, consume boom… Americans were changing, adapting to the new time, but they chose to deal with the future leaving the past behind, not wasting any thought on what they did, how they did and most importantly why they did whatever it was: drug, careless sex, abortion, theft, arrest, well, the list seems endless.
Shepard, like a man of his time, could not have been unaffected by what was going on around him and the freedom that fringe theatre offered seemed to be the green ticket that would shape his future career as an actor, musician and playwright. Everything was possible, but unlike his contemporaries, he decided that before one looks forward, one must first look back. Buried Child and The Tooth of Crime are examples of this. Shepard, in developing these plays, had a concern with exploring what was repressed.
These both plays present elements of madness, like in Buried Child by the way the family talk to each other and by not recognizing a direct member of the family; and in The Tooth of Crime madness also comes through language and of behaviour: Hoss can’t figure it out if he is a living legend but dead businessman, or an active businessman and no legend at all, not to mention the rock star taste of the actions. Young Crow knows better what he is, or at least what he wants to be: Only the positive aspects of Hoss, rejecting everything else that won’t help him to greatness.
Both plays are dark in ambience. In The Tooth of Crime Gothic elements can be recognized in the behaviour of the characters, plot, music and set. In Buried Child darkness can be seen in the rain, in the mood of the family, in the hidden truths, in the drinking habit and even in religion. Not to mention violence, when in both plays men seem to want to prove their masculinity by their aggressiveness, not self-assurance. Even the weirdo Tilden, in Buried Child, is aggressive for having slept with his mother and for exposing the truth of his killed baby to a complete stranger, just happening to be spending some hours in the house.
Shepard’s plays are plays within plays. In The Tooth of Crime characters are performing to each other at all times even though they seem so sincere like Hoss’s doctor and Hoss’s assistant, Becky, but when Crow arrives although he doesn’t change his behaviour when other people are in the room, his willingness to become the new Hoss depends on the perfect performance, that is why he rehearses Hoss’s walk before he can claim his throne. In Buried Child the performance is simply the fact of pretence, making so as if the family was normal and happy and no incest child had ever been born. Avoiding the truth is avoiding the pain and thus avoiding a chance for redemption. Living in fantasy seems to be less risky than facing fear and having to do something about it.
Shepard’s world is as American as it can be: set descriptions, language, stereotypes, behaviour, fondness for show and fantasy. Tackling America’s shame Shepard tackle’s the American fear to have to come out of the mythical world, out of an illusion, where everybody seem to be so comfortable.
At first it took me some time to get into Shepard’s dark and quick paced mood with all the transformations going on, and it cost me some time to understand what he was trying to do, but now that I seem to have grasped a thing or two about his craft, I found his work incredibly exciting and open ended, the kind of work that leave me working it out in my mind long after I finished the play.
Luciana B. Veit