La Turista by Sam Shepard, in a dazzling production at the American Place Theater, is a work of superlative interest. The reviewers have not been invited to submit an evaluation of the play. It is merely there, for a month, appearing for the membership of the American Place and for those who find their way to it. I have no knowledge of the intentions and feelings about the reviewers of those responsible for this play; I went to it of my own free will and write about it under no duress and without asking permission. Still, it appears logical that when a play invites the press it is making a sort of plea or demand that the reviewer, under his contractual obligations to his publication, offer some comment about what he has seen. He may not have wished to go and he may not wish to write; he is a captive, arbitrarily condemned to the formation of an opinion. The production, by its foolhardy solicitations, condemns itself to the recognition of the opinions. Play and critic, thereby, become linked like suspect and detective.
The night I saw La Turista the American Place audience was, for the most part, utterly depressing; middle-aged, middle class, and rather aggressively indifferent: a dead weight of alligators, dozing and grunting before muddily sliding away. It felt like nothing so much as those same old evenings in our theater, evenings with the reviewers spaced about like stop signs. A further step in the liberation of the theater became evident: not only must the reviewers be freed of their obligation to go to a play, but the audience they have created, their bent twigs, should not be the object of special encouragement. It is hard to imagine anyone acting under the influence of the inchoate homilies of, for instance, Richard Watts who looks after our local and national morals for us, but, even in the case of La Turista, one could imagine a line slowly forming outside some box office and the people whispering, “Walter Kerr sort of liked it a little, and you know he never likes anything.” But, indeed, what good does it do a man to go to see something he won’t like just because the reviewers have told him to do so? He would be better off at home. Our new American theater cannot play to the old audience; it must have a new one.
IN “LA TURISTA” there is the poignant meeting on some pure level of understanding of playwright, director, and actor: the sort of unity that makes the Royal Shakespeare’s production of The Homecoming so rare. Jacques Levy, the director, is a theatrical talent of unremitting inspiration. The actors are all first-rate, but in Sam Waterston the play has a young actor of such versatility and charm that one hardly knows how to express the degree of his talents. With this play, the promise of the lofts of off-off Broadway, the dedication and independence, come to the most extraordinary fulfillment. You do not feel you are being given a package, assembled for a purpose, and in some ways this is disconcerting to the senses. The audience, accustomed to ensembles created as a calculation, may feel left out, slow to respond, trapped by a sluggish metabolism. In the long run, what is so beautiful is the graceful—in spite of the frenzied energy—concentration of the work as a whole, and for that, if one would take it in, the audience also has to work. (These new actors do not always even look like other actors. At the Café La Mama production of Futz, by Rochelle Owens, the troupe reminded me of Russian acrobats. They are large, somber, and plain. They stand on their heads, jump about as if they were going to break a bone, and leap into the air.)
Sam Shepard, the author of La Turista, is twenty-three years old and even so he is not new to the theater. He is not being “discovered” in this production. His plays have been off-off, in the Café La Mama repertory; he has been at the Cherry Lane and will soon be in print. La Turista is his most ambitious play thus far but still it is in the same style and voice as Chicago and his other one-act plays. The scene opens on an electrifying set: a bright, bright formica yellow hotel room in Mexico. A young American couple—Salem and Kent—are sitting up in their twin beds. They are covered with a deep bronze suntan make-up and are holding their arms out stiffly. On the beach, as a part of their vacation, they have gotten a painful sunburn. They talk of first, second, and third—and fourth degree burns.
“Well, the epidermis is actually cooked, fried like a piece of meat over a charcoal fire. The molecular structure of the fatty tissue is partially destroyed by the sun rays and so the blood rushes to the surface to repair the damage.”
“…It’s just the blood rushing to the surface.”
Mock scientific dialogue, inserted merely for itself, delivered in a cool, matter-of-fact way, but sharply, insistently, is characteristic of the writing. (Of course, the couple with their expensive, painful sunburns will bring to mind those other burns of our time.) The players hardly ever look at each other. There is a feeling of declamation, rather than of conversation or dialogue. And yet the monologues do not at all suggest that banality of Broadway—the “failure of communication”—but actually are quite the opposite. They are an extreme of communication. Kent, the young man, also has, in addition to his sunburn, “la turista,” the intestinal distress that affects Americans when they visit poor countries like Mexico. At this point in the play, a young Mexican enters. He is one of the world’s poor, with his American phrases (“I had to follow that cat around with a palm fan while he scored on all the native chicks.”)—he begs and yet he is intractable, unmanageable. He spits in the young American’s face.
As the act progresses, Kent becomes very ill. Two wonderfully absurd witch doctors, Mexican style, are brought in, with live roosters, candles, voodoo and crucifixes. Kent dies, a sacrifice to “la turista”—his lack of resistance to the germs of the country he arrogantly patronizes with his presence. The second act has all the same elements as the first, but they are acted out in a Summit Hotel sort of room in America and the witch doctors are two circuit rider charlatans in Civil War dress. Here Kent dies of sleeping sickness, or perhaps he is on drugs; in any case he has an American disease this time—he doesn’t like to be awake. His final monologue is a psychodelic tirade and he jumps, in his pajamas, through the hotel wall, leaving the print of the outlines of his body on the wallpaper.
GEORGE ELIOT SAID that she wrote her novels out of the belief in “the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop of its kind.” We all have a nostalgia and longing for this order because it has been the heart of European fiction and drama. Incident after incident, each growing out of the other, united in a chain of significant motivation, of cause and effect—moments of human destiny strung out like beads on a string. This is what we mean, perhaps, when we say we “understand” a work of literary art. Yet each decade brings us the conviction that this order is no longer present to the serious writer. It is most appealing to those writers who construct their works for some possibility of the marketplace. The episodic, the obscurely related, the collection of images, moods: connections in fiction and also in drama have become like those of poetry. Tone and style hold the work together, create whatever emotional effect it will have upon us. Out of episodes and images, characters and conflicts are made, but they are of a blurred and complex sort.
Formless images and meaningless happenings are peculiarly oppressive to the spirit, and the inanities of the experimental theater could make a man commit suicide. Sam Shepard, on the other hand, possesses the most impressive literary talent and dramatic inventiveness. He is voluble, in love with long, passionate, intense monologues (both of the acts end in these spasms of speech) which almost petrify the audience. His play ends with sweating, breathless actors in a state of exhaustion. The characters put on a shawl and begin to declaim like an auctioneer at a slave mart, or a cowboy suit and fall into Texas harangues. They stop in the midst of jokes, for set pieces, some fixed action from childhood, perhaps influenced by the bit in Albee’s Zoo Story. Despair and humor each of a peculiarly expressive kind, are the elements out of which the script of the play, is made. The effect is very powerful and if it cannot be reduced to one or two themes it is still clearly about us and our lives. The diction, the acting, the direction, the ideas are completely American and it is our despair and humor Shepard gets onto the stage.
To return to the decision about the critics: it is a sacrificial act of the most serious sort. It means nothing less than, after a fixed short run, if one is lucky enough to have that, the play may suffer simple cessation for want of those good and bad advertisements combed from the newspapers and television. Perhaps it is only young people, free of deforming ambitions, who would have the courage to submit to such a test. Or perhaps it is the strength of their art that allows them to wait for what will come or not come. There are worse things than silence.
Critics June 1, 1967