The Relationship between Surrealism and Corporeality in Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin’s Tongues, Savage/Love and The War in Heaven

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Author: Emma Creedon
Editor: Jennifer Stock
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,884 words

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[(essay date 2013) In the following essay, Creedon argues that Shepard’s early plays co-created with Joseph Chaikin, Tongues, Savage/Love, and The War in Heaven: Angel’s Monologue, draw parallels between the crisis of language and physical failures. She contends that an undervaluing of communicative language and of rational control liberates the automatist surrealist expression of these theatrical works.]

This essay investigates language’s failure to transcend its corporeal origin, particularly in the context of Tongues (1978), Savage/Love (1979) and The War in Heaven (Angel’s Monologue) (1985), theatre pieces that Shepard co-created with Joseph Chaikin. This essay interrogates how an analysis of the relationship between Surrealism and corporeality can provide an insight into the treatment of language in these works. The language of Surrealism offers us a new vocabulary with which to address these performance pieces as a means of addressing the anti-naturalistic stage image that emerges in production. Thus, a Surrealist aesthetic emerges in the images of corporeal dismemberment, the suggestions of mediumship and simulated aphasic articulation. As the correspondence between Chaikin and Shepard as published by Barry Daniels in 1994 testifies,1 both writers were greatly influenced by the radical devaluation of language in the plays of Samuel Beckett. As Beckett suggests, “there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”2 This essay argues that Chaikin and Shepard’s drama demonstrates an attempt to free language from its physical origins by producing “thought music” akin to the Surrealists’ attempt to encapsulate “spoken thought.” Thus it seeks to transcend the death that corporeal demise determines, an endeavour that ultimately is futile.

Tongues was first performed by Joseph Chaikin at the Magic Theatre, San Francisco in 1978 with Sam Shepard as the percussionist, dressed in black, seated with his back to both the audience and Chaikin so that only his arms were visible as they play the instruments. Eileen Blumenthal described the image as “vaguely suggesting a multi-limbed Hindu god”3 while William Kleb wrote: “Only Shepard’s bare, sinewy arms were visible as he reached out to pick up and play the different instruments.”4 In this arrangement, the image of Chaikin’s body was deceptive, his arms were not his own; they were phantom limbs, drawing comparisons with the aesthetics of bodily fragmentation in Surrealism. The very foundations of Surrealism are equated with the experience of carnal trauma. André Breton trained as a physician, along with Louis Aragon at the Parisian military hospital of Val-de-Grâce during the First World War. Amy Lyford has investigated how Surrealist imagery was informed by the “aesthetics of dismemberment” as evident in Val-de-Grâce as “a place that represented bodily trauma in terms that were as visual as they were physical or psychological,”5 distinctly the trauma of the male body. Eileen Blumenthal suggested of the premiere production of Tongues that the total stage image was indicative of illness.6 Surrealism, as Lyford points out, is fundamentally based on...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100126223