The play Fool for Love by Sam Shepard narrates a story of a couple undergoing a tumultuous reunion. The story is rich in controversial themes and motifs, such as alcohol abuse, violence, abandonment, and incest. Nevertheless, despite a disquieting mood, a closer inspection reveals an in-depth inquiry into the contemporary variation of the American Dream. The following paper aims to analyze themes from the play, identify the connections to the concept of identity, and determine whether the reality they are dealing with offers them a possibility to live the American Dream.
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The play is focused on a single period in lives of two main characters, May and Eddie. The entire play is set in a cheap hotel room which apparently serves as a place of May’s residence. The events are set in motion with the appearance of Eddie, who turns out to be May’s former love. Their conversation gradually reveals that Eddie’s main intent was to convince May to restore their old relationship and move with him to a farm in Wyoming where he wanted to live at one point (Shepard 24). May seems reluctant to accept his offer, as she claims to have found a job and worked hard at embracing her new life while severing ties with the previous one. Eventually, it becomes clear that their previous attempt ended in a disaster and May does not want to repeat her old mistakes. Several bits of information that surface during the conversation suggest numerous dishonesties on the part of Eddie, including an affair with a woman they both refer to as “the Countess.” As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Eddie and May are cousins but were oblivious to this fact when they engaged in a relationship since their father (an old man who is present at the stage for the entire time and provides occasional commentary) lived a double life by living with two different families in turns. At this time, May’s new date, Martin, arrives at the scene only to witness a tumultuous and inconclusive reunion of the former couple. The play ends with May starting to pack her bags, which, while never explained clearly in the play, probably illustrates her decision to follow her brother and former lover.
Prior to the analysis, it would be necessary to outline the author’s profile as well as the history of the play. Sam Shepard was a prolific American playwright, author, and actor. He wrote more than forty plays and had received numerous awards for his works, including a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award, ten Obie awards, and a nomination for five Tony awards. Fool for Love, in particular, was nominated for Pulitzer Prize for Drama (“The Pulitzer Prizes”).
Shepard’s works often focus on characters’ identity crisis and their struggle towards reconciliation (Roudané 156). Some scholars consider Fool for Love a part of the quintet which also includes A Lie of the Mind and three plays known as the Family Trilogy. However, it is necessary to point out that unlike the plays from the trilogy, neither Fool for Love nor A Lie of the Mind share any tangible intersection points with the other works aside from similarities in themes and motifs (Roudané 111). Thus, for the purpose of the analysis, the play will be viewed as a standalone work rather than a part of a series of plays.
According to the author, Fool for Love was written in the aftermath of breaking up with his wife (“Fool for Love”). The author also considered it a deeply personal emotional experience that was based on a lengthy and disturbing period in his life. Essentially, he describes it as a detailed account of falling in love, which he felt was necessary for him to share despite its highly intimate nature. By describing a scenario with no easy solutions, Shepard is able to reproduce the turmoil and confusion associated with the state.
The play was first performed in 1983 through 1984, with a subsequent revival in 2006. The initial response of the critics was mostly positive. Frank Rich of the New York Times suggested that despite an apparent connection to the previous works by the author, its capacity for self-reflection and the question it brings up help weaving it into the meta-narrative created by his other plays (“Fool for Love”). Michael Feingold characterized the play as exciting and rich in narrative and suggested that the performance was remarkable in particular because Shepard was able to stage it himself (“Fool for Love”). John Beaufort pointed out an abundance of minor details that add to the perception of tensions between the characters and create a setting where the viewer remains a passive observer despite witnessing the emotional outbursts of the characters (Beaufort).
He also emphasized the role of harsh and bitter humor, occasionally resorted to by Eddie and May, as a way to invigorate the most desperate situation. Interestingly, Beaufort also suggested an interpretation according to which the play depicts a betrayal and deterioration of the American Dream (Beaufort).The recent revival of the play was met with equal enthusiasm from the critics, who cited rich detail, a compelling setting, convincing dialogue, and realistic behavior of the characters. However, it is worth mentioning that some of the reviewers were dissatisfied with the performance of certain actors, toned down the conflict, and the lack of “chemistry” that would be helpful in fleshing out the characters (“Fool for Love”). However, the majority of reviews refer to the motifs of isolation, violence, family dysfunction and betrayal as the forming the core of the play.
As can be seen, the overarching theme of identity can be observed in some form across the play and in the reviews of the critics. Thus, in order to proceed with the analysis, it would be necessary to outline the involved concepts. The first concept, identity, can be traced to cultural identity theory, which is viewed as a person’s sense of belonging to a certain social group. The said belonging is facilitated through attaining the cultural features of a group, including language, religion, and traditions of a group. However, in addition to these categories, a multitude of less apparent factors, such as values, norms, social practices, and aesthetics also come into play and collectively form a unique combination of traits that are considered identity (Bollen).
In Shepard’s work, the idea of identity is manifested through the American Dream – an encompassing and loosely defined concept that supposedly permeates the American society. It should be mentioned that while American Dream initially referred to a concept where conscious and relentless effort combined with integrity and determination would inevitably lead to long-term success, it has significantly changed over the years, a process which some chose to describe as deterioration (Bollen). Some sociologists suggest that this change is a result of disillusionment in the moral and ethical values backing the concept. In addition, several persistent issues in socioeconomic and ethical domains add to the uncertainty and lead many contemporary citizens to regard the American Dream as anything from allegory to deliberate dishonesty (Bollen). Several themes in Shepard’s play align with the ideas expressed above and can be interpreted as his statement on the matter.
The first motif that is apparent throughout the play is that of power and control. The entire conversation between the main characters is permeated by relentless attempts on both sides to gain greater control over the situation. Eddie resorts to all sorts of behaviors to persuade May to join him in Wyoming. Interestingly, at some point, his persistence invokes the feeling of annoyance rather than determination and becomes borderline irritating at times. May, on the other hand, is less than willing to accept Eddie’s offer and resists him on every possible level, repeating the lines such as “I’m not leavin’. I don’t care what you think anymore. I don’t care what you feel. None a’ that matters. I’m not leavin’” (Shepard 40). In essence, both characters strive for greater freedom, as is expected from someone who is actively pursuing an American Dream. However, they try to do so at the expense of the freedom of each other, which clearly creates a conflict of interests since both seek control over the situation. While it is possible to interpret Eddie’s actions as persistence, it is more likely that he is interested in gaining complete control over the situation.
Closely related to the issue of control is the theme of violence. While the play features actual physical violence in negligible amounts, it is saturated with references to it. For example, May is so jealous of one of Eddie’s girlfriends, the Countess, that she threatens of violence to her at several points in the play. In one instance, she puts it plainly by saying “I’m gonna’ kill her ya’ know” (Shepard 23). Eddie is equally jealous of Martin, May’s new boyfriend, and voices his dissatisfaction with the situation several times throughout the play, making statements such as “I’m gonna’ nail his ass to the floor. Directly” (Shepard 35).
Some of the descriptions provided by the characters present the threat in an unusually vivid and elaborate manner, such as May’s threats towards the Countess: “I’m gonna’ kill her and then I’m gonna’ kill you. Systematically. With sharp knives. Two separate knives” (Shepard 23). In contrast, the actual physical violence is relatively rare and anticlimactic, such as in a scene where Eddie tries to prevent May from leaving the room by holding her. This difference between exceedingly hostile and violent statements and relatively uneventful conversation shows another disparity between the values upheld by the characters and their ability to live up to them. It is also possible to assert that the entire situation is on the brink of a collapse, and one misplaced phrase will set the events in motion. Similarly to struggle for power discussed above, the theme of violence creates a disturbing picture in which the American Dream appears in a distorted and disturbing fashion.
Familial ties are another important theme used in the play. Over the course of the play, the old man reveals the fact that both characters are essentially half-siblings. It is interesting to note that he does this in a peculiar manner by saying “I don’t recognize myself in either one a’ you. Never did” (Shepard 40). In this way, he basically distances himself from both of them and suggests that their current position is determined mostly by their mothers’ influence. This issue attains an additional perspective closer to the end of a play when May and Eddie debate their sibling status in front of Martin. While this situation can be interpreted as a way to cover the true nature of their relationship, the uncertainty and erratic manner of the argument suggest that at least some of confusion is genuine and can be attributed to the denial on each side. Presented in this way, familial ties become the opposite of what can be expected from an idea of the American Dream.
It is also important to acknowledge that the majority of the issues in the play can be traced to abandonment and betrayal. The tension exhibited by May can be attributed to the fact that she was betrayed by Eddie several times in the past, with the Countess being the latest and the most glaring example. It is also possible to interpret the initial premise of siblings who become lovers as resulting from the behavior of their father, who abandoned both of them at least once during the course of their lives. In fact, it is possible to assume that May starts to see Eddie’s actions as resembling those of their Old Man, and feels insecure and doubtful mostly because of this. With this in mind, it becomes clear why May is visibly shaken by Eddie’s emergence and distrustful towards his claims. In other words, the attraction between the two is stronger than both of them can resist, but it is also clear that there is no hope for such relationship to develop in any way other than it did before. In a certain way, Eddie and May are locked in the cycle of abandonment that may have been initiated by their father and is being sustained with their explosive spirits. While their story contains elements that suggest the search for identity as the main motif, the results of the search could not possibly be further away from the traditional perception of the American Dream as portrayed in popular culture.
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As can be seen from the information above, the prospects for both main characters are bleak. Nevertheless, it is also evident that while both lovers acknowledge the expected challenges and pay little attention to positive scenarios, they are seriously considering a reunion. With this in mind, it is possible to interpret the message as the incompatibility between contemporary reality and what is thought of as a traditional American Dream. The ease with which May’s best attempts disintegrate upon Eddie’s return suggests that they are unlikely to create a meaningful life that would contribute to the development of the entire society. Nevertheless, it is possible to expect that for them, such scenario is still the best option. While it is hard for me to feel compassion for such violent characters, I admit that I cannot think of the way in which the situation could be resolved better.
“Fool for Love.” Sam-Shepard.com, n.d., Web.
“The Pulitzer Prizes.” Puitzer.org, n.d., Web.
Beaufort, John. “Magic Theatre; Sam Shepard Drama Assaults Audience, Actors – and Scenery; Fool for Love Drama by Sam Shepard. Directed by Mr. Shepard.” The Christian Science Monitor, 1983, Web.
Bollen, Christopher. “Has US Literature Woken from the American Dream?” The Guardian. 2015, Web.
Roudané, Matthew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Shepard, Sam. Fool for Love and Other Plays. Bantam, 1984.