This two-act play with music tells the tale of the battle between two rock stars, Hoss and his young rival, Crow. It is a style war in which each battles for psychic territory. A combination of a heavyweight prizefight, a showdown, and the conventional gunfight in Westerns, the confrontation between Hoss and Crow is fought with music and competing styles. (Shepard wrote both lyrics and music.) Hoss, who has a self “something to fall back on in a moment of doubt or terror or even surprise,” seems to discover before his suicide that his “self” is linked to rules and codes that Crow ignores. Before putting a gun in his mouth, Hoss claims to be a "True killer" in whom “Everything is whole and unshakeable. Knows where he stands. Lives by a code. His own code.” Crow has shaken all of this, has pulled and pushed Hoss around from “one image to another.” Crow, conversely, forms himself from a congeries of images, as he boasts in his song: “But I believe in my mask—The man I made up is me.” In Round Three of their showdown, Cross warns Hoss to “get the image in line,” but Hoss fails to do so, Crow scores K.O. over his badly beaten opponent. Hoss is defeated, which is not merely personal defeat but also the destruction of the entire system in which he found self-definition.

The play was written in 1972 when Shepard moved to London with his wife and son to become a rock star. It combines realistic and nonrealistic elements, celebrates popular culture (rock music, movie Westerns, drugs, and cars), offers dramatic meditation on the subject formed within and, to a great extent, determined by contemporary (sub)cultures.

Shepard wrote both the music and the lyrics.

In 1997, Shepard rewrote the play as THE TOOTH OF CRIME (SECOND DANCE) which is the only version for which performance rights are currently available.

Sam Shepard:

"It started with language - it started with hearing a certain sound which was coming from the voice of this character, Hoss... It was a very real kind of sound that I heard, and I started to write the play from there. It just accumulated force as I wrote it."

Performance History

The first production was performed at the Open Space Theatre in London on July 17, 1972. It was directed by Charles Marowitz and Walter Donoshue. The music was composed by Shepard.

The first American production was performed at the McCarter Theatre at Princeton University on November 11, 1972. 

LaMaMa Productions (New York) - 1983 and 2006

  • Four Two-Act Plays
  • Sam Shepard: Seven Plays
  • Tooth of Crime: Second Dance
  • The Tooth of Crime and Geography of a Horse Dreamer: Two Plays
From the 2006 La MaMa production:

"Fails to re-create the frisson of his 1983 production... Sam Shepard is the closest the American theater has ever had to a rock-star playwright - not so much in terms of his fame, which has more to do with his film acting than his Pulitzer Prize, as in terms of his subjects and style. In the 1970s, his plays blurred the lines between theater and music in fresh and invigorating ways. Long before hip-hop, Shepard was sampling gangster chic and outlaw individualism, linking both to the dog-eat-dog logic of U.S. capitalism."  - Rob Kendt, Newsday

"While this revival clearly has a sentimental resonance for its creators and for those who may have seen it 20 years ago, the play now comes across as a museum piece of experimental writing that hasn't aged particularly well. And director George Ferencz's concept of staging it in rock-concert fashion also has a by-now familiar air. Still, this tale of the battle of wills between Hoss (Wise), a rocker trying to hold on to his stardom, and Crow (Nick Denning), a young challenger trying to usurp him, still has its moments of power, with Shepard's dialogue and rock music score displaying a visceral if unfocused energy that unfortunately lags well before the overlong work's conclusion."  - Frank Scheck, NY Post

"It is both gratifying and a little frightening when a play you had consigned to the crypt returns as a living prophecy for our times. La MaMa E.T.C.’s highly entertaining new revival of 'The Tooth of Crime' — Mr. Shepard’s musical comic-book melodrama from 1972 about celebrity, mortality and good old rock ’n’ roll, set in a sci-fi gangland — may not be the slickest show around. But as directed by George Ferencz, in a restaging of his 1983 concert-style production for La MaMa, this 'Tooth' achieves something far more important than professional perfection... Mr. Shepard wound up not thinking much of his music for “Tooth.” It’s true that the songs sometimes feel slack and generic. But as performed by a five-member band (seen through a transparent wall beneath the raised stage), they are appropriately infused with a film-noir tension"  - Ben Brantley, NY Times

"Two original cast members are back, along with helmer George Ferencz and some of the production creatives. But the show itself feels caught in a time warp, faithful to the ideas and theatrical style -- but not the driving energy -- that made it such a galvanic experience way back when."   - Marilyn Stasio, Variety

"In 'Tooth' Shepard deftly blends the patois of the Beat generation with the slang of drug culture and, with the arrival of Crow, the rhythms of early electronica. Even as he creates this new argot, Shepard invokes and shatters images of the picture-perfect '50s and the heroic Southwest, showing that even Hoss's beloved r&b is tainted with the lingering effects of slavery. Ferencz's staging echoes Shepard's mélange, uniting rock concert with Greek tragedy: Hoss's inexorable fall from stardom is punctuated with bursts of Shepard's original rock tunes. Tooth is thrilling theater that engages intellectually, emotionally, and viscerally."   - Andy Propst, Village Voice

From the 1983 La MaMa production:

"La MaMa's 'The Tooth of Crime' is raunchy. obscene, loud, astonishing, different and exciting. It's about gang war, class war, the pop culture war, where stars are killers. The game is rough, the stakes are high, the language is flash. Inventively staged by George Ferencz, in a stylized fashion, it's something between Greek tragedy and a rock show. 'The Tooth of Crime' is razor."   - Pia Lindstrom, WNBC-TV

"A slashing interpretation . . . the imagery is visceral and sexual . . .Ferencz has had the ingenuous idea of staging the entire evening as a rock concert. This production of 'The Tooth of Crime' is very razor."   - Mel Gussow, New York Times

"La MaMa's dazzling new production of 'The Tooth of Crime' is a spectacular show. Lean and mean and wired to the eyeballs, this bold new version turns the playwright's 1972 poetic fantasy about fame and power into a modern rock'n'roll war. It's all very exciting and unnerving, a stunning show."  - Marilyn Stasio, New York Post

Finally 'The Tooth of Crime' is given a production that has its actions and emotions in the right place. All the elements are laid out clearly and with emphatic force and no froufrou by someone who knows every inch of the dramatic action. Ferencz brings out, more strongly than I've seen it in any other production, the warmth of Shepard's despair. Ray Wise as Hoss gives a ferocious, magnetic performance of unyielding energy. 'The Tooth of Crime' is probably the best play written in English in the past decade."    - Michael Feingold, Village Voice