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Critics

In response to:

Word of Mouth from the April 6, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

What price symbolism? What price obscurity? Shall a playwright communicate with his audience or only with himself? Judging by Elizabeth Hardwick’s review of Sam Shepard’s La Turista (unless her review was purposely as obscure as the play), as well as by the reaction of the mostly young hip audience I saw, Shepard seems to be talking almost to himself alone. Although I am aware that the New York Review did not intend its readers to take literally its reference to La Turista as “a mystery play” [NYR, April 6], the play in actuality does seem to remain a mystery to at least nine-tenths of its audience.

This is a play about the crux of our present situation: the US versus Vietnam. Mexico in the play is not really Mexico; it is Vietnam. The Americans (aptly named Salem and Kent) are in that foreign land. The Mexican (Vietnamese) Boy refuses mucho dinero with which they try to rid themselves of him. Then he expresses his defiance by spitting in the face of the American (who becomes hysterical at the insult), by telling him to leave, and by getting into the American’s bed himself (thus occupying his own country). The American Woman, our Motherland, tells the Mexican (Vietnam) how she too defied her father by spitting and was put out of the family. (The Revolutionary War, get it?) Then the American Man reappears dressed ready to fight, in the uniform recognized the world over as the image of America—that of the cowboy. (Hurrah for Hollywood!) The cowboy is killed by the ministrations of the superstitious native witch doctors. (Viet Cong.)

The American Woman (US) begs the Mexican Boy (now South Vietnam) to stay with her and show how strong he is, but he refuses. He is going to meet his father (North Vietnam) who up to now has refused to speak to him. He says his father will start to walk from way up there, and he himself will start to walk from way down here, and they will meet in the middle at daybreak, and talk to each other at last. (This of course, is the final unification of Vietnam in peace.)

In Part II we are in the US. The American Man has the sleeping sickness: he doesn’t want to stay awake. The Woman (US) insists that he must be cured of this so that they may go to Mexico (Vietnam) for a vacation, (our undeclared war). She calls a Doctor who turns out to be a gentleman of the Old South in dress and accent (Johnson), and who is accompanied by his son (Humphrey) who is learning the business. The son repeatedly explains to the two Americans how much his father knows, how right he always is, and how angry he becomes when his prescription for cure is not followed. The play ends with the young American screaming in defiance and terror, and the Doctor hysterically screaming back, “Do as I say! You must do as I say!” To top it all off, and as a broad hint that most of the audience does not seem to take, each part of the play ends with music: When Johnny Comes Marching Home!

There’s lots more, some of which I caught; I’m sure much of it eluded me, especially since I did not see the light until quite late in the play, so that most of my interpretation is made in retrospect. For this reason, although the play has power, I do not consider it a good play. However, the superb acting and the desire to see whether the second part would clarify the first part kept most of the audience in the theater. But from the snatches of conversation I heard on the way out, they remained mystified….

I believe that Sam Shepard’s motive in refusing to permit the critics to review his play was based on his theory that the members of the audience should be their own critics. Therefore, I stepped in where the critics were forbidden to tread. I hope Mr. Shepard does not mind.

Helen Easton

Bronx, New York

Elizabeth Hardwick replies:

I think Mrs. Easton’s interpretation of La Turista is very ingenious, but it also has the virtue of plausibility and a clear correspondence to the text. Still, as one sits in the theater at a play like this, it is not so much interpretations that immediately come to mind and please us as certain recognitions. It may well be that the political interpretation is the most satisfactory. The kind of structure Mrs. Easton finds in the play more or less corresponds to the ideas that came to my mind when I thought it over later. Still, literal “understanding” is not always the whole aim of an author. This is not the same kind of drama as Shaw or Ibsen or Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams and I do not feel the whole duty of the critic or the audience will be found in the effort to make it so. Images, episodes, impressions, and irony can be understood in another way, even though the effort to find the structure and the meaning, as Mrs. Easton has done, is certainly an enhancement of any work. I think part of the strength of La Turista lies in that feeling one has that there is a coherent structure binding the details and the parts together.

I have given further thought to the exclusion, or rather the indifference to the presence of the critics. I have recently seen several works written in an experimental style, unmindful of the sort of concoctions that have been successful in New York. And how sad it was to see the playwright and the cast go through their agony of apprehension and fear and hope just as if they were a big musical, created for nothing except the Broadway crowd. The serenity of those connected with La Turista was very much to the point. After all, isn’t it the case that the play most favorably reviewed this season is: You Know I Can’t Hear You When The Water’s Running? It cannot be wise for all playwrights to submit themselves to a jurisdiction that arrives at such verdicts. How these plays will find their audience without the notice, pro or con, of the newspaper critics is the most interesting problem in the theater today.

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