The Tooth of Crime

The Performance Group, UBC, 1973

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All photos © Guy Palmer 1973

The Performance Group, under the direction of Richard Schechner, presented Shepard's The Tooth of Crime in 1973 in the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC. According to Guy Palmer, it was advertised as a "Work in Progress" (in rehearsal for the NYC opening at the Performance Garage on Wooster Street). For Schechner, the rehearsals "opened the seam between performance and theatre":

This opening of the performance-theatre seam was facilitated by an environment that not only was dominated by a central construction that made it impossible for a spectator to see everything from a single vantage, but which required the scenes to move from place to place, audience following...In a condensed and reduced way, TPG's Tooth was like a medieval pageant play; the actual progression of events in space matched the awakening of consciousness on the part of the drama's protagonist, Hoss. (Performance Theory 73-74)

In a letter to Shepard during negotiations for performance rights, Schechner explained:

I want to look at the play nakedly, approach its language not as dialect but as a way into the heart of the play and a way to uncover things in the performers playing the roles. I can't say what the results will be because our way of working is truly to let the rehearsal process take its own course, uncover what is to be uncovered. We find the style of a production by rehearsing it....(Marranca 163)

For his part, Shepard was uneasy with Schechner's approach, having just gone through a public dispute with Charles Marowitz over his Open Space production of The Tooth of Crime in London. Shepard had expressed a desire that the actors also be rock musicians "with chops," at one time suggesting Lou Reed for the role of Hoss.

In an interview with Kenneth Chubb, Shepard revealed his concern that the production should stay true to the vision of the writer:

...I think [Schechner's] lost. I think he's lost in a certain area of experimentation which is valid for him. He feels that he wants to experiment with the environment of the theatre, which is okay, I've nothing against it. Except when you write a play it sets up certain assumptions about the context in which it's to be performed, and in that play they had nothing to do with what Schechner set up in the theatre....It can be okay--the playwright isn't a holy man, you know. Except that I'd rather the experimentation took place with something that left itself open to that--a play that from the start defines its context as undefinable, so that you can fuck around with it if you want to. (203)

Shepard envisioned The Tooth of Crime as a rock-inflected spectacle, a classic agon between the aging rocker Hoss and the irreverent gypsy upstart Crow. In their signifying match in Act 2, Hoss learns the hard way that Crow plays by a different set of codes: while both ostensibly improvise their verbal attacks on one another with vituperative solos, Crow scores points when he breaks the codes of expected performance decorum and lacerates the psychological defenses Hoss uses to bolster his self-esteem. In Shepard's vision of the play, this performance using words as weapons takes place up on the stage--think rock concert--with a strong center of focus on the insult-slinging rivals. It's a generational conflict, as well as being a symbolic style match between a fading rock aesthetic and the contemptuous posturing of punk.

Despite his misgivings, Shepard allowed Schechner's production to go ahead. In a letter to Shepard during the rehearsal period, Schechner explained his approach to the staging:

We accept your words as written, and the parts that they are organized into, and the basic flow of the action. But the rest of the scenic activity is our responsibility; we must work long and hard to find our own places within the world of your script. Or, to put it another way, we accept your script as part of an artwork yet to be completed....Our five years of work entitles us to the claim of creativity, just as your work as a playwright entitles you to the identical claim. We don't want to dismember your work, or do it against its own grain; but we want to accept it as a living term of an artwork of which we are the other living term; and together bring the performance into existence. (italics in original; Marranca 166)
Their different visions exemplify a trend in the early 70s to reconfigure the roles of writer, actor, and director in the making of theatre. Guy Palmer, who took the photos used here, expressed reservations about the success of the production in a letter to me: "The device of intermingling actors and audience may have been under study; for myself, I prefer to observe through the fourth wall. In this case, I found it difficult to find the point of interest--akin to watching a three-ring circus." In this case, the desire of the playwright to tell a story on stage with words and actions may have been complicated by the desire of the performers to find themselves--their "own places" within the world of the script.

References

Chubb, Kenneth and the Editors of Theatre Quarterly. "Metaphors, Mad Dogs and Old Time Cowboys: Interview with Sam Shepard." American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. Ed. Bonnie Marranca. New York: PAJ Publications, 1981. 187-209.

Palmer, Guy. Personal Correspondence. 1991.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Theory. Revised ed. New York: Routledge, 1988.

---. "The Writer and the Performance Group: Rehearsing the Tooth of Crime." American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. Ed. Bonnie Marranca. New York: PAJ Publications, 1981. 162-170.

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© Marshall Soules 2001