From the Archives….Edward Albee Reviews Sam Shepard’s Icarus’s Mother, 1965

Another notable piece from the Voice's vaults.

Icarus’s Mother, by Sam Shepard, was presented at Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street. Here is the review of the play that Edward Albee wrote for the November 25, 1965, issue of The Village Voice.

For those of you who are busy people, facts first, implications later. (And by facts I mean, of course, nothing closer to the truth than my opinions.) Sam Shepard is one of the youngest and most gifted of the new playwrights working off-Broadway these days. The signature of his work is its unencumbered spontaneity—the impression Shepard gives of inventing drama as a form each time he writes a play. His new theatre piece, “Icarus’s Mother,” is presently on view at the Caffe Cino. Sad to say, it gives the impression of being a mess.

Implications and general ruminations (for those of you who have the time): The playwright in the United States doesn’t have a particularly healthy environment to work in these days; audiences, by and large, think less for themselves than they might; not all of our theatre critics are sufficiently informed about the past or tuned in to the contemporary; the majority of our serious playwrights find they must do battle with exterior as well as interior devils; as a society, we tend to judge quickly and superficially.

Albee, circa 1961
Carl Van Vechten
Albee, circa 1961

The value of off-Broadway and its cafe adjuncts lies not only in its enthusiasm for sustaining plays without which the uptown theatre is unreal and preposterous—the work of Beckett, Genet, Pinter, Claudel, deGhelderode, for example—but, as well, in offering new, experimental playwrights (such as Sam Shepard) a proper ambiance in which to try things out, over-reach, fail and, if they have the stuff, finally succeed.

More Serious

If Shepard’s new theatre piece, “Icarus’s Mother,” fails to please, by which I mean fails to engage one, the failure is of no importance so long as the piece is merely one random experiment, one spontaneous throw-off, one way-stone on the path toward the creation and recreation of theatre. If, on the other hand, this play signals, as I have the disquieting suspicion it does, the beginnings of a premature crystallization of Shepard’s theatre aesthetic, then the failure of the play is a good deal more serious.

I have no way of telling you what “Icarus’s Mother” is about, but, then again, up until now, at any rate, what Shepard’s plays are about is a great deal less interesting than how they are about it. His “Up to Thursday,” for example, was about a boy about to be drafted, but in that play the resonance, the overtone was far more interesting and important than the note. Usually, the sparks which rise and shower in Shepard’s plays are far more pertinent than the nature of the stone to which he touches his talent. In “Icarus’s Mother” though—oddly enough a play in which fireworks are an important motif—the sparks which rise and shower seem arbitrary and unmotivated, we are not allowed to assume we know (or sense, rather) the nature of the experience, and we are forced to look for the touchstone, and we cannot find it.

Merely Levitating

This is the first of Shepard’s plays in which I have felt he was merely levitating, and it is also, curiously enough, the first of Shepard’s plays in which I have felt that he was inhibitedly more concerned with the note than with the resonances. It is the nature of Shepard’s art, so far, that while his plays are, of course, ABOUT something, we must SENSE his intention—his subject, if you like—and react through intuition. In any but the most didactic play it is uninvolving to have to know the nature of the concern at once in order to participate in the reality of it. In a Sam Shepard play it is fatal.

Of course, “Icarus’s Mother” may be about nothing at all. It may be stream of consciousness pure and private, or it may be calculatedly random and unintegrated, but I doubt it. I suspect that it is very much about something, but it is Shepard’s way that if we have to ask ourselves what it is, then it becomes nothing. I like to think that this play is nothing more than a blunder, a misstep along the way, but if Shepard is beginning to super-impose message, or symbol, or story, or, indeed, naturalistic motivation on the existing, very great “reality” of his plays, he must start taking into account the very different artistic responsibilities these usually very normal elements impose on him.

Best Lacking

For whatever the reason, the spontaneity and inevitability that are the best things about Shepard’s work are lacking in “Icarus’s Mother.” Having only seen the play, not read it, I have no way of knowing if this may be, in any part, a fault in the direction by Michael Smith. Smith is one of our few enlightened critics and is himself a playwright. He knows it is the function of the director to illuminate the playwright’s intention and I would imagine that he and Shepard worked together on the project and are convinced that the wattage is fine.

The play’s stage manager is Fred Katz. The lighting, by Johnny Dodd, was very effective, and the sound—some of it unquestionably the loudest in recent theatrical history—was by Francis Fisher. It was very nice, too.

The actors were John Kramer, Lee Worley, Cynthia Harris, James Barbosa, and John A. Coe. They … well, how can I put it most accurately? … they seemed unconvinced and detached.

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