One-act play. "Icarus's Mother" finds five spoiled, idle kids lazing around a beach after a Fourth of July picnic, waiting for night to fall and the fireworks to begin. Two boys, Howard and Bill, initiate a series of vicious psychological games, which operate on a system of reward and punishment, where the only stakes are belonging. A small airplane flying overhead prompts Howard to create a fantasy in which the pilot is waving to his adulterous wife - whose role he insists his girlfriend Pat take despite her discomfort. When Pat expresses a desire to take a walk alone for a while, Howard leads Bill and the others - Bill's girlfriend Jill and the nerdy hanger-on Frank - in a ritual of ostracism so brutal that it reduces Pat to tears; then Howard's aim shifts as he guides the rest of the group in mocking Frank's wish to go off by himself to pee in the woods. A later game brings the focus back to the airplane, which Howard pretends has crashed into the ocean; when that fantasy turns into horrifying reality, it's as if Howard and Bill's make-believe machinations can come true by sheer force of their viciousness.

Performance History

Caffe Cino, New York, 16 Nov. 1965 - directed by Michael Smith with cast: Cynthia Harris, Jim Barbosa, Lee Worley, John Kramer and John Coe
First London production: Open Space Theater - Spring 1971 - directed by David Benedictus.


Eward Albee, Village Voice, November 25, 1965
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Chicago and Other Plays, Applause Theatre Book Publishers, NY -1981.
Also published by:
Urizen Books, NY -1981
Faber and Faber, London -1982.
Continuum, NY -1983.
Five Plays by Sam Shepard:  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
Also published by:  Faber and Faber, London - 1969
The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, Continuum, NY -1983.

Director Michael Smith: “Icarus’s Mother” is perhaps not a coherent play—the title is certainly off the wall—and my memories are probably distorted. These were excellent actors: Lee Worley, Jim Barbosa, Cynthia Harris, John Kramer, John Coe. But I confused them by dwelling on the apocalyptic themes of the play, the symbolic freight of the jet plane they watch flying crazily overhead, the ambiguity of the relationships—ideas, not actions. I was distracted by the technical demands—smoke signals from the campfire, terrifying sound effects—which overtaxed the resources of the Cino. We had a hard time making the play work, and Sam was not much help. It was only in the last week before opening that I focused on the reality of the picnic, which at last gave the actors something to play.

Won the Village Voice's Obie Award for Distinguished Plays (1965-1966 season)

Fifteen One-act Plays, Vintage, 2012