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A synopsis, history, and criticism of the play by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin


Tongues is a play about voices. Voices traveling. Voices becoming other voices. Voices from the dead and living. Hypnotized voices. Sober voices. Working voices. Voices in anguish.

The Speaker sits on a bare stage, in a straight-backed chair, facing the audience, a Mexican blanket draped over his lap. The Percussionist, dressed all in black, sits directly behind him, unseen except for his arms which seem almost to be an extension of the Speaker.

Throughout this short play, the Speaker seems to be searching for his voice ... his identity ... reaching out ... trying to make contact with some unknown entity. An ex-lover? Someone who has died? God? Himself? The play ends with his possible enlightenment. "Today the tree bloomed without a word," he says. "Tonight I'm learning its language."


Tongues was first performed in 1978 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. The production featured Joseph Chaikin as the Speaker and Sam Shepard on percussion. Shepard was later replaced by Skip LaPlante and the production was transferred to the New York Public Theatre in November 1979.


Tongues and Savage/Love ... are more theater pieces than plays. They're the outcome of Shepard's and Chaikin's experiments with a dramatic form stripped of accessories, of plot elements and physical action, reduced to essentials of sound and utterance. When they rise, as they sometimes do, to a point of mysterious and resilient lyricism, they reach us as reminders at least of Shepard's wide and far from exhausted gifts.

RICHARD GILMAN, Sam Shepard: Seven Plays

The cumulative effect of Tongues' strange combination of everyday voices, dream voices, spirit voices, and so forth is to conjure up a remarkably poetic sense of human possibility, a sense that there are many different dimensions of being besides the waking ego ... and the last line finally confesses what the whole piece has implied, the complete inadequacy of words or concepts to express the life of the spirit.

STEPHEN JAMES BOTTOMS, The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis

Tongues in every way represents a collaboration of two very separate theatrical talents. Its performance clearly represents the distinction. Chaikin the actor faces the audience and brings through his body a dazzling variety of voice. Shepard the author is virtually invisible, his back to Chaikin. Yet his percussion accompaniment helps stress the rhythms of language and asserts his presence as the author who has created the rhythmic language of these poems.

BARRY DANIELS, Joseph Chaikin & Sam Shepard: Letters and Texts

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