SAM SHEPARD 1978
After more than a decade as Off-Broadway’s most successful counter-culture playwright, Sam Shepard achieved national fame and attention with his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning family drama, Buried Child. The play is a macabre look at an American Midwestern family with a dark, terrible secret: Years ago, Tilden, the eldest of three sons belonging to Dodge and Halie, committed an act of incest with his mother. She bore his child, a baby boy, which Dodge drowned and buried in the field behind their farmhouse.
The act destroyed the family. Dodge stopped planting crops in his fields and took to smoking, drinking, and watching television from a lumpy old sofa. Halie, apparently seeking salvation, turned to religion with fervor. She spouts Chritian platitudes and cavorts with the hypocritical Father Dewis. Tilden went insane with guilt and grief, spent time in jail in New Mexico, and has only recently returned to the farmstead, perhaps to set everything right. The secret is drawn out into the light of day, and the family curse apparently lifted, with the arrival of Vince, Tilden’s estranged son, and his girlfriend, Shelly.
With its lower-class, sometimes humorous, recognizable characters and dialogue, Buried Child resembles the mid-century American realism and grotesquerie of Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) or Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire). However, its roots in ritual and its approach to monumental, timeless themes of human suffering—incest, murder, deceit, and rebirth—resemble the destruction wreaked by the heroes of Greek tragedy. The play contains many of Shepard’s favorite motifs: a quirky, often frightening, family of antagonists contained in a claustrophobic farmhouse somewhere in the great American Midwest.
Reviews of the play’s New York premiere at the Theater for the New City on October 19, 1978, were mainly complimentary and congratulatory. Critics who had followed his ten-year career Off-Broadway were happy for Shepard’s mainstream success, while mainstream critics who were unfamiliar with the playwright were pleased with the new discovery. Even critics who weren’t quite sure what it was they had found in Buried Child assured their readers that they liked the play. In the Nation, Harold Clurman wrote, “What strikes the ear and eye is comic, occasionally hilarious behavior and speech at which one laughs while remaining slightly puzzled and dismayed (if not resentful), and perhaps indefinably saddened. Yet there is a swing to it all, a vagrant freedom, a tattered song. Something is coming to an end, yet on the other side of disaster there is hope. From the bottom there is nowhere to go but up.”
Shepard may have felt the same way. Whether he sought it or not, Buried Child marked a turning point in his career. With its success, he found his plays in demand in New York and across the country, and during the next ten years he created commercial successes like True West, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind that found their way to Broadway and film. In 1995, Shepard rewrote Buried Child (the original director made changes to the play that went against the playwright’s intentions). The new, author-approved version premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago before transferring to Broadway in April, 1996. In both cities, the play was hailed as a comical and insightful presentation of the disintegrating American dream.
Like the plays he writes, Sam Shepard’s life and career have been unpredictable, wide-ranging, well-traveled, and, ultimately, quintessentially American. Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on November 5, 1943. His father was in the Army Air Corps, and the family moved around from base to base before settling on an avocado ranch in Duarte, California. There, the future playwright found a love for horses and the outdoors that has remained with him ever since. He also picked up his father’s drums and discovered a love for music that found its way into many of his plays.
In his semi-retirement, Shepard’s father became an abusive alcoholic. After a series of violent confrontations, young Sam joined a touring repertory theatre group called the Bishop’s Company, left home, and eventually found his way to the opposite coast: New York City. His arrival in New York in the early-1960s couldn’t have been better timed. Although he was only nineteen years old, with a few months of acting experience and a single, unproduced play to his credit, the Off-Broadway theatre scene was just gaining momentum. It was there, in the tiny experimental studios and renovated churches of the underground theatre movement, that Shepard found his niche as a playwright.
His first professional production was a pair of one-acts, Cowboys and The Rock Garden, produced by Theatre Genesis at Saint Mark Church-in-the-Bowery in 1964. Although the popular press dubbed the new writer’s work a pale imitation of Absurdist author Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), the Village Voice and other counterculture publications gave him rave reviews and encouraged him to write more. Over the next several years, Shepard produced a series of experimental, poetic, musical one-acts and full-length plays that earned him a string of Obie Awards (Off-Broadway’s equivalent of the Tony Award) and a cult following in New York and London, where he temporarily relocated in the early-1970s.
The Tooth of Crime (1972) and Curse of the Starving Class (1977) earned Shepard wider recognition, and larger audiences, but it wasn’t until Buried Child (1978) that he gained mainstream acceptance. The play earned Shepard his tenth Obie Award (no other American playwright has won more than two) as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama. With typical, Midwestern-style humility, Shepard declared, “If I was gonna write a play that would win the Pulitzer Prize, I think it would have been that play, you know. It’s sort of a typical
Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It wasn’t written for that purpose; it was a kind of test. I wanted to write a play about a family.”
All of Shepard’s plays are characterized by an obvious love of language and a flair for visual imagery. Often, the imagery he conjures is of the American West. His characters are obsessed with American myths and metaphors—cowboys and Indians, ranches, deserts, and other wide open spaces—and often the plots of his plays parallel familiar folk tales or religious parables. Thematically, he is often concerned with the American Dream and its effects on families, though the fathers, mothers, and sons that inhabit his work tend to be much darker, even more frightening aspects of those that appear in the plays, movies, and television of popular culture.
Since the success of Buried Child, Shepard has produced other popular plays, two of which, True West (1980) and Fool for Love (1983) have been turned into films. In the 1970s, Shepard himself turned to film, finding his way back to acting. He has appeared on screen in such films as Days of Heaven, Frances, The Right Stuff, and Steel Magnolias, as well as Robert Altman’s film version of his play Fool for Love (1985).
Buried Child occurs in a single setting: the large downstairs living room of a dilapidated Midwestern farmhouse. The creaky old estate is occupied by an odd, eccentric, and often frightening family who are removed from any traces of civilization outside. At the beginning of the play, Dodge, the clan’s leader, is lying on a dingy old sofa, half-asleep, watching a television with no sound. As he listens to the rainfall outside, he begins to cough, tries to stifle his hacking with a slug of whiskey from a hidden bottle, and manages to stifle his choking only when his wife, Halie, calls to him from upstairs.
The opening dialogue between Dodge and the unseen Halie, though relatively short, provides a great deal of important exposition in a play that requires careful attention to clues and minor details. The plot of Buried Child, like most of Shepard’s plays, is not often simple and direct but unfolds in a series of strange encounters and unsettling symbols.
Halie and Dodge, though married for quite a few years, seem estranged. She remains upstairs, except when she leaves the house. He seems to dwell downstairs, on the sofa, and he never goes out. He drinks, smokes, wears filthy clothes, and watches television almost constantly. She seems to have a preachy, religious streak in her, advocates propriety, and nags her lumpish husband incessantly.
Still, Halie, like almost all the characters in the play at one time or another, recalls the past, a time when things seemed more exciting, more normal. Remembering a day she once spent at the horse races, Halie says, “Everything was dancing with life! Colors. There were all kinds of people from everywhere. Everyone was dressed to the nines. Not like today. Not like they dress today. People had a sense of style.” It is obvious from the very beginning of the play that something happened to this family—something mysterious, secret, and tragic—that has forever altered their lives.
While Halie continues ranting from upstairs, and Dodge lapses into one of his coughing fits, their eldest son, Tilden, appears with an armload of corn which, he claims, he just picked from the field out back.
In spite of Dodge’s protests that he never planted any corn, and that the produce was probably stolen from a neighbor’s farm, Tilden pulls up a stool, puts down a milk pail, and begins husking the vegetables. While he works, Dodge questions him about his plans for the future. Apparently, Tilden has been away from home for more than twenty years, off in New Mexico by himself, and has only recently reappeared. Dodge seems eager to send him on his way again—an anxiety that begins to make sense later in the play, when Tilden’s earlier illicit relationship with his mother surfaces.
Meanwhile, from upstairs, Halie continues her oration. She calls down to warn Dodge that they must care for Tilden, since he can no longer care for himself. Halie remembers the glory days of Tilden’s youth, when he was an All-American football player and the family had such high hopes for his future. His younger brother, Bradley, they felt, was destined to fail, and all their dreams would come alive in Tilden. When Tilden turned out to be troublesome, Halie continues, they staked their hopes on Ansel, the youngest of the boys who, Halie claims, may not have been as handsome, but was by far the smartest. She rambles on about Ansel’s accomplishments as a basketball player and a soldier, mourns his tragic death in a motel room on the night of his honeymoon, and suggests Father Dewis, their pastor, might help them erect a statue of their fallen son in the town square.
Halie finally descends the stairs. She is dressed completely in black, as though mourning, and on her way to a lunch appointment with Father Dewis. She argues with the two men about the rain outside, the corn on the floor, and Bradley, causing Dodge to complain, “He’s not my flesh and blood! My flesh and blood’s out there in the backyard!” A hush falls over the room. Dodge has spoken the apparently unspeakable in this household. While his comment goes unheeded and unexplained for the time being, it haunts the rest of the play, as the family’s terrible secret is slowly revealed.
Halie finally leaves for her rendezvous with the pastor. Dodge curls up on the sofa and falls asleep. Tilden steals his whiskey and leaves. Then, in the silence that falls over the house, Bradley stomps in through the front door, the hinges of his wooden leg creaking as he walks. He removes Dodge’s baseball cap, plugs in a pair of electric clippers, and begins cutting his father’s hair while he sleeps. The lights fade on the first act.
Later the same night. Vince, Tilden’s son, appears with his girlfriend, Shelly. They are traveling across the country from New Jersey to see Vince’s father, who they think is still in New Mexico, and have stopped by unannounced to visit Dodge and Halie. They are expecting a joyful family reunion. Instead, they are greeted by the grumpy, drunken Dodge and the distant, half-crazed Tilden, neither of whom seem to recognize Vince.
Dodge hollers for more whiskey and rails about the haircut he was given while he was asleep, which has left him with patchy bald spots and cuts on his scalp. Tilden brings in an armload of freshly picked carrots, which he proceeds to cut and scrape in preparation for dinner. Shelly is initially terrified by the gloomy house and its strange inhabitants. She urges Vince to leave and at least spend the night in a hotel and return the next day. Vince, however, is adamant about staying. …