We live our lives in boxes. . . . The boxes I’m referring to, as is Sam Shepard in his disturbing, tempestuous play, “Fool for Love,” are the ones that constrict the space between our ears. (Epstein 1983)
The role of sound is extremely prominent in all the plays of the late American playwright Sam Shepard. However, it was during his period as writer-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco that he really began to explore in depth the expressive potential of all theatrical sonic elements, including voice, instruments, stage props and off-stage ambient sound. As we will argue, this experimentation culminates in the unique sound experience of the play Fool for Love (1983).
For this play, sound is constantly present in all his stage work scripts, revisions and director’s notes. He carefully sonified his stage environment with, for example, the use of a door wired to drums for increased volume and resonance. The unusual level of attention to sonic detail in the printed, published version of Fool for Love (Shepard 1983a) is the result of his obsessive concern for sound during rehearsals. Through our observation of the predominance of sound in the text itself, we will try to demonstrate how Shepard’s text does not simply address the reader but also reaches out to his “audience”—it is meant to be heard.
Shepard’s pluridisciplinary approach to stage works–influenced by music, film and literature—makes his theatrical sound worlds unique, crafted and detail-oriented. Shepard himself was a musician, and, for him, music played a prominent role in theatre:
I think music’s really important, especially in plays and theater–it adds a whole different kind of perspective, it immediately brings the audience to terms with an emotional reality. (Shepard 1974, qtd. in Marranca 1981: 187-209)
Shepard’s interest in music and theatre went as far as the writing of musical plays, including the rock play The Tooth of Crime (1972) and the operetta The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing his Wife (1976). More generally, in his plays his treatment of sound could be considered to be linked to his understanding of the role of music in performance.
Alongside musical elements, another feature of Shepard’s work is linked to his understanding of how voice functions in the theatre. This aspect developed through his work as an actor and, also, through his work with director Joseph Chaikin, whose theatrical explorations and directing approaches emphasized the creation of character outside the rigid conventions of the actors’ craft: character comes to be through improvisation exercises. In Chaikin’s workshops, it was through play and the exploration of voice and movement that the dramatic form emerged. Their collaboration started in New York, for the Open Theatre, and continued in San Francisco, with Tongues and Savage/Love. As Shepard himself wrote in his program notes for the Double Bill of these two plays (1979), the role of sound in these works was to create the right stage environment for the actor:
In one way, both these collaborations are an attempt to find an equal expression between music and the actor. They are like environments where the words and gestures are given temporary atmospheres to breathe in, through sound and rhythm. (Daniels 1994: 31)
During his time as writer-in-residence at the Magic Theatre (1976-83), Shepard began to experiment with an innovative, collaborative approach to writing theatre. His pieces remained works-in-progress long into the rehearsal process, as he adapted and re-wrote plays in collaboration with actors, stage directors and musicians. We have evidence in the numerous notebooks and workscripts from this period, now in the university libraries of Austin and San Marcos in Texas, that he rewrote his drafts with the actors as they underwent both exercises in improvisation and scripted rehearsals. As a result all aspects of performance—including scenography, sound effects and music—have become integrated into the texts themselves and generated a new type of theatrical text. With the interconnectedness of music, voice and text, in our opinion, Shepard let these experiments in sound change considerably his theatrical writing.
Fool for Love
The objective of the following study is to identify sound elements in Shepard’s text for Fool for Love and to draw out some methodological tools to analyze them. Shepard’s director’s notes (found in his notebooks) for rehearsals for the play in 1983 showed his determination to put sound in the foreground of his stage research (Shepard 1983b):
Wed. noon 1/26/83
Dynamics—work for a sense of shifts—tonalities. Where is the exact frequency of each scene?—where does it change and how? Where are you in relationship to the other actors—where and when do you correspond—where and when are you at oddsThink of it musically—rhythm, tone, builds—rising, falling, attacks, retreats, harmonies, dissonance—punctuations (door slams)
Listening—developing an ear that hears in 3 dimensions.
These director’s notes and work scripts show that sound receives more detailed attention in this play than any other. Shepard also experiments with breaking the theatre’s fourth wall by placing speakers beneath the feet of the audience as will be discussed below. In this play, he is a composer, in that he manipulates the soundscape in its entirety. However, in the published text, and unlike his earlier plays at the Magic, stage directions are kept to a minimum. How is then sound inscribed in the text of Fool for Love? We will try, through our study of three excerpts of the play, to draw out some elements of sound that we feel are important in the reading of the text. To do this we have tried to go beyond simple description of sound events and render some aspects of the play’s soundscape more visual, through experimentation with text layout and annotation.
Through this analysis we are seeking to develop tools to assist the reading of the sounds of the text, to help readers better perceive a theatrical text in its sonic and visual space for study and preparation purposes. Our hope is that this will serve scholars, producers, directors and actors to engage with the sound elements in this text and theatrical texts more widely. We have chosen to focus on three sound-driven elements: character building, character interaction and larger-scale structuring.
1) Character Building through Sound
For Shepard, characters are musical. Voice is what makes the character come to be: “Voice is the nut of it. Character is an expression of voice, the emotional tone underneath. If a writer is totally connected with the voice, it will be in the words” (Wren 1980: 76). The characters’ attitudes manifest themselves through rhythm, volume and pitch. Rhythm is the central element of all composition for Shepard, even in the composition of the character for the actor:
I studied a long time with a drummer from Ghana. He was totally amazing. And I found out that, particularly in African music, every rhythm is related. You can play 4/4, 5/8 and 6/8 all together at the same time and at some point there’s a convergence. . . . That was a big revelation to me, that rhythm on top of rhythm always has a meaning. So the same is true on stage. There are many possible rhythmic structures that an actor can hit, but there’s only one true one. There’s one moment when he has to meet. (Shepard qtd. in Lippman 1984: 13)
In order to highlight rhythmic patterning in the character of Eddie who, as Sara Antonelli (2002) suggests, builds himself onstage through his first monologue, Diagram 1 aims at rendering more visual the repetitive structures at play through a basic paradigmatic analysis. This opening speech uses dull, repetitive vocabulary that circles round in a fashion that perhaps mirrors the grating, recurring screech of leather that immediately precedes his speech as he waxes his bucking strap at the opening of the play.
The insistence upon short, fragmented phrases and frequent punctuation will drive the actor to an increased rate of breathing, a signifier for tension and anxiety. The words “you,” “look,” “me” and “here” recur as rhythmic punctuation, highlighting their meaningfulness within the context of both the monologue and the play’s overall plot. Limited vocabulary and repetition could be considered to show the unsettled character of Eddie: but, the verbal and rhythmic circling of Eddie’s monologue also serves to emphasize the silence of May, who does not (cannot?) produce a sound, and his increasing frustration with her unresponsiveness. Eddie’s voice is also the only sound source on stage, thus forcing the audience’s attention to his body: the repetition emphasizes the physical quality of the language uttered, mirroring the physicality of the character of Eddie. Eddie’s repetitive vocal patterns also create a form of insistence, circling in on May, a vocal violence in the face of her muteness.
Another vocal element crucial to character building and stage presence is that of intonation; the pitch pattern of an utterance has essential semantic implications. Furthermore, as with repetition at the level of the word, patterning of intonation can serve to shape the pace and rhythm of a text. Of particular interest in Eddie’s first monologue is the interplay of statements—which can be assumed to generally require falling intonation patterns—versus un-inverted questions, requiring rising intonation patterns. Diagram 2 renders this aspect more visual:
The visual opposition of the statements and questions of this monologue makes it easier to witness their different purposes. The descending-intonation statements serve to construct Eddie’s character, full of repetitive insistence and directives. The rising-intonation questions are trying to directly incite some response from May, to provoke interaction, and thus somehow rescue Eddie from the uncertainty of the situation in which he finds himself. The incessant switching of statement versus question intonation also once more throws into relief the tension in the silence of May.
2) Character interaction and emotional intensity
Shepard believes dialogue must change direction in order to maintain momentum on stage. As he states in an interview:
You begin to learn an underlying rhythmic sense in which things are shifting all the time. These shifts create the possibility for the audience to attach their attention. That sounds like a mechanical process, but in a way it’s inherent in dialogue. There’s a kind of dialogue that’s continually shifting and moving, and each time it moves it creates something new. There’s also a kind of dialogue that puts you to sleep. One is alive and the other’s deadly. It could be just the shifts of attitudes, the shifts of ideas, where one line is sent out and another one comes back. Shifts are something Joe Chaikin taught me. He had a knack for marking the spot where something shifted. An actor would be going along, full of focus and concern, and then Joe would say, No! Shift! Different! Not the same. Sun, moon—different! And the actors would say to themselves, Of course it’s different. Why didn’t I see that before? (Ryder Howe et al 1997)
In order to captivate the audience, dialogue must contain shifts. These shifts could be changes in character development, such as attitudes as Shepard suggests, or changes in the subjects addressed by the characters, for example. But, changes in the dialogue also mean changes in the sound structure and pacing. In Fool for Love, shifts in the texture of dialogue are audible, significant and often driven by other sound elements, as we try to show in Diagram 3. By using fixed column widths to transcribe a stretch of dialogue, a shift in overall length of interjections can be observed as the dialogue progresses. Different colour tones are used to represent relative volume of interjections. In Shepard’s text, the change of volume can be read through the use of punctuation—as in the repetitive use of the exclamation mark—or can be explicit in the stage directions.
The first part of this dialogue, the first of the play, is clearly fast-paced with rapid alteration of short, emotionally-charged interjections, once more with some circling of verbally repetitive elements (“smell,” “pussy,” “you,” “I”) with minor variations each time in each pitch (question/ answer) or sound. The lovers echo each other’s verbal rhythms. The slamming of the door momentarily interrupts this rapid-fire exchange and leads to a shift. The door slam is part of the actors’ interaction as, as Shepard wrote, it is the actors that control its effect:
See what I wanted was that the doors themselves produced sound, like an instrument so that the actors are actually able to control the volume and intensity of these sounds that are coming. . . like the actor can work with the sound so like the set is an instrument. (Shepard and Dark)
The slam leads to a progressive change in the overall rhythmic pattern of the interaction, as the length of May’s replies builds progressively, as if to prepare the audience for the climax—the monologue (Shepard 1983: 20), with its vivid message of jealousy, torture and murder that serves to embed the building of May’s character as the opening monologue did for Eddie.
3) Sound Structure of Play: Sound (Effects) As Structuring Element
. . . . it suddenly occurred to me that rather than having sound that accompanies it, you know like sound effects, we’d try to have the sound actually be a presence in the atmosphere. Because I thought what it would do was that it would put it more inside this idea that it’s happening inside. It would internalize it. (Shepard and Dark)
In his 1983 stage script, Shepard added in pen a sentence at the top of the first page: “This play is to be performed relentlessly without a break” (Shepard 1982). This sentence remains in the published version (Shepard 1983a: 13). In a single, intense musical episode, rhythmically punctuated by the slamming of doors, the characters of Fool for Love come and go in emotionally-charged counterpoint. A two-way confrontation builds to peaks of violent intensity before giving way to quieter, more reflective passages, which then in turn become confrontational. The musical structuring constitutes the intense emotional texture of the relationship that takes place between the two protagonists, bringing to life the violence of the scenes through both sound effects and the sonic harshness of the words uttered. To enhance this further, Shepard also thickened and wired the doors and walls to a sound system of bass drums and microphones when he staged this play, to emphasize the percussive quality of the stage violence through the impacts with the props (Bottoms 1998: 208). Aston and Savona, through their analysis of a performance of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, state that if the sound of an object is distorted by actors, the audience has an acute awareness of its material presence on the stage:
The process of defamiliarizing the objects established in stage space is further achieved by distorting the sounds they make . . . a disjunction between the sound and the object which made it . . . further reawakens our perception of the objects brought into play. (1991: 165)
The door of Fool for Love is a stunning example of such stage device. The door sound is amplified through a sonic system explicit in the stage directions:
. . . . we rigged these huge tanks up above the doors and behind the doors so that each time the doors slammed a mallet strikes the tank and produces this low deep sound and Dino has rigged up these hoses inside of them with microphones inside the hoses so that when the vibration feeds through the hose it come out underneath the audience in these speakers. . . . So that the whole impact of the noise on stage is felt directly . . . BAAAIM. (Shepard and Dark)
Shepard clearly intended the door slam to be an essential expressive and communicative device within the soundscape of the play. Diagram 4 is intended to represent how this and other sound elements interact to form the complete sound texture of the play. In an adaptation of the fixed column-width formatting of Diagram 3, the vocal interjections (continuing from the point in the play at which Diagram 3 ended) are tabulated with both length and volume of characters’ interjections schematized, using respectively size and color tone of block, alongside the door and wall slams that contribute to the sound experience, and the movements that contextualize these bangs and booms.
As indicated in Diagram 4, the sources of off-stage sounds and speech vary: the door sound resonates in the audience (via the under-seat speakers), the wall impacts are heard onstage but resonate further due to the strengthened stage wall constructions, the characters speak both on and off stage (including shouting from the bathroom for example). In addition, the two main characters are usually on separate areas of the stage, physically enforcing the to-and-fro effect of their conflictual exchanges. We can also see that the verbal repetitions find an echo in repetitions within the overall sound structure, with the door slams serving as rhythmic punctuation in a similar way to the recurring words and phrases.
What is striking, from this over-view of such a complex soundscape, is the variety of sounds produced both on and off stage—where will the next sound come from? The variations in volume, texture and sound source, the frequently fast pace of the exchanges and the contradictions between the characters’ words and their actions make it impossible for the audience to anticipate the drama or even to really relax. Voice and stage sounds unite in their communicative significance onstage. This onslaught of sonic effects unsettles the audience and makes it difficult rationally interpret what is going on: instead, the play becomes more about what the audience feels, an experience of the ears and body.
These attempts at visually highlighting the sound elements (rhythm, intonation, volume and structure) in these excerpts of Sam Shepard’s play Fool for Love could suggest further lines of investigation into the reception of his post-1978 plays and the stage possibilities they offer. Given the experimentations in performance and the hybridization of the musical stage and the theatre stage witnessed during his works of this period, perhaps these sonic readings can offer new ways of thinking about Shepard’s emerging sound-laden theatrical language. These methods and diagrams, although modest in scope and in need of further research on and off the stage, could help academics in the field of theatrical studies to read the various sonic effects implied in the text. For Shepard, this reading of implied sound seems a crucial element in comprehending his stage vision.
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Bottoms, Stephen J. The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
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Epstein, Arlene. Critic-at-leisure: South Shore Records. Wittliff Collections, SWWC 54, Box 3, Folder 12. San Marcos, TX: University of Texas, 1983. Unpublished Document.
Lippman, Amy. “Rhythm and Truths: An Interview with Sam Shepard.” American Theatre (April 1984): 9-13, 40-41.
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—. Fool for Love / The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1983a.
—. Fool For Love: Stage Notes—Magic Theatre. Wittliff Collections, Sam Shepard Papers, Collection 045, Box 3, Folder 10. San Marcos, TX: University of Texas, 1983b.
—. “Metaphors, Mad Dogs and Old Time Cowboys: Interview with Kenneth Chubb and the Editors of the Theatre Quarterly.” Theatre Quarterly 4.15 (1974): 3–25.
Shepard, Sam and Johnny Dark. Conversations Typescripted by Johnny Dark. Wittliff Collections, Shepard/Dark Collection, Section Casting 41, Box 4, Folder 2. San Marcos, TX: University of Texas.
Ryder Howe, Benjamin, Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson. “Sam Shepard, The Art of Theater No. 12.” The Paris Review 142 (Spring 1997). Web. 11 Oct. 2017.
*Caroline Schlenker graduated with a Ph.D. in English Studies at the Université Grenoble Alpes, in December 2016, with a cross-disciplinary thesis, The Implied Spectator in Sam Shepard’s plays: His Work at the Magic Theatre (1976-1983). Teacher of ESL at the engineering school Grenoble INP, she has been working on using acting as a tool for learning languages. She is in charge of implementing the status of Student Artist at Université Grenoble-Alpes, after being in charge of the coordination of acting workshops for the University as “Chargée de mission Culture.” She studied acting at UCI, has led acting workshops in English in Grenoble, has staged a number of plays for the University and is currently working on staging and performing a French version of the play Fool for Love with local actors and musicians.
**Rebecca Guy studied Music at the University of Manchester and the Royal Northern College of Music, before gaining a Ph.D. in Musicology and Semiotics from the University of Salford, supervised by Sheila Whiteley. She currently teaches English as a Foreign Language at Grenoble INP (Grenoble Institute of Technology) and the Université Grenoble-Alpes (UGA), and is a member of a research group working on prosody and oral production in language teaching, part of the UGA Innovalangues project.