From the start of Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime, the reader is presented with a show. Act one opens with Hoss singing “The Way Things Are” in which he, sardonically, seems to hit the nail on the head when it comes to American culture: “here’s another illusion to add to your confusion.” (Shepard 203)
America is a country built on principles of justice, faith, and freedom, but those principles are all too often eclipsed by capitalistic drive, human nature, and survival.
The conflict between the idealism with which this country was settled and the reality with which it has to contend is what brings the confusion. Illusion, in all its various forms, is how America copes with that confusion. It’s like Hoss says, “we’re insulated from what’s really happening by our own fame.” (207)
Act one reveals Hoss as a veteran rock star, already at the top, but determined to keep building that “stairway to Heaven.” He is a performer, true, so lost in his act that the only structure holding him together is the code of the game; the principles which he finds to be broken more and more: “the code’s going down the tubes.
These are gonna be the last days of honor.” (217) He finds it difficult to adapt to all of the confusion; he’s desperately holding on to the code, his principles, but he’s finding that he might be the only one playing by the rules at this point. It seems that Shepard is heralding Hoss’ initial naivety as the authentic hypothetical American Way, as unauthentic a way as it really is.
Hoss is unfortunately too late in realizing that the game is a farce, yet another illusion piled onto layers of established illusions. It dawns on him that Crow, the Gypsy killer, marking him is essentially the same thing Hoss did to achieve his status. He says to Galactic Jack, in a moment of clarity, “that’s how we started ain’t it. We went up against the Dudes. Wiped ‘em out.” (212) He starts to see the vicious cycle of his pursuit of power and fame, all parallel to America’s own, and, through Hoss, Shepard makes a particularly bold statement about America’s culture when he says, “the future’s just like the past.” (218)
Crow represents the next generation of performers in act two. He is seeking the fame and fortune that Hoss worked for by dodging the code and dethroning the king. He is more devious, perhaps even more determined, and better adapted to a reality in which justice, faith, and freedom are ideals rather than principles. He doesn’t follow a code, and to him, the game is about a victory rather than enjoyment of the game play itself.
As he says of himself in “Crow’s Song,” “I believe in my mask–The man I made up is me.” (232) Crow’s character brings even more illusion to the confusion. He is young and inexperienced, and “tough as a blind man,” (249) as Hoss points out right before his suicide. Hoss even explains the worthlessness of “all this invisible gold…this collection of torture,” before taking his final mark, but his words fall on the deaf ears of youth, determined to do better than those before, despite making the same mistakes.
Crow will see the spotlight for a while, as America does, but the cycle will come around again and, as Cheyenne tells him near the end of the play: “They’ll be comin’ for you next.” (250)
Shepard, Sam. “The Tooth of Crime.” Seven Plays. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. 201-251.