Collected in print, Shepard's hard-hitting plays

Fool for Love and Other Plays, by Sam Shepard, with an introduction by Ross Wetzsteon. New York: Bantam Books. 307 pp. $6.95. Each of the plays in this collection has a plot and characters for the same reason jet fighters have wheels -- to get off the ground. Personal history, interlocking events, and the representation of stable, enduring character all have a small place in these dramas compared to the spectacle of Shepard thinking in them. Shepard works out the problematic connections of artistic creativity to reality in a world ruled by money, and forces the truth from mass culture's symbols of freedom and identity through violent exaggeration.

``Geography of a Horse Dreamer,'' subtitled ``A Mystery in Two Acts,'' mixes the plots of gangster, gambling, and mad scientist movies with the lore of Buffalo Bill Cody to dramatize a problem that occupies several of the plays: How will an artist make truth beautiful in a world where, as the thug, Santee, says to the protagonist, Cody, ``That's how it is. You got the genius, somebody else got the power. That's how it always is, Beethoven.''

The corrupting power is not only financial, but moral and spiritual as well, exerted through public adulation. In ``Suicide in B flat,'' a piano player kills off surrealistic incarnations of the musicians that influenced him so he can recover a pure imaginative identity. Confronted by another musician, who is also a fan, the murderer, Niles, spurns the public's need for a pop messiah.

Audience beware, Shepard's heroes say, there will be no cozy identification, no vicarious uplift here. Instead there is violent destruction of the means to popularity, an insistence on the taking the risk of authenticity.

``Seduced,'' the least original work here, takes up the problem of independence in the figure of a fictionalized Howard Hughes, struggling, in his last days of madness before death, to rediscover that purity of freedom which first led to his ambition to own planes. ``Action,'' the most demanding and austerely beautiful of the plays, ironically sets the same problem of freedom against the background of a Christmas dinner in a barren flat, where an ex-con (yet one more popular symbol of defeated American masculinity) details, in riveting speeches, the destructiveness of society's belated and ferociously thorough interest in a person who has done wrong.

And finally the title play, ``Fool For Love,'' Shepard's demonic version of the Lubitsch-style romantic comedy, where the couple bicker their way to bliss, brings the problem of truth in storytelling to its emotional limit. In a sympathetic staging of the emotional world of country/western music, a brother and half-sister tell differing stories of how they fell in love with each other. Their desolate pursuit of each other sends them, by the play's end, across the Mojave Desert, Shepard's symbol for all the fatal risks lovers face. At their best, these plays take us to a similar wilderness, to desire's badlands, but never delicately, never except by charging there. Reading or seeing Shepard's work, we feel dazed and still curious, still eager, at the end, for one final revelation.

But we are left where Jeep is in ``Action'': ``I got no references for this.''

Theoharis C. Theoharis teaches drama at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also published work on Joyce's fiction.

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