Buried Child (1978)
By Sam Shepard
In his introduction to Seven Plays, Richard Gilman writes, “the real difficulty I share with many critics [who study Shepard] isn’t so much deciding what the work is as knowing how to write about what it is.” Two sentences into this response, and I’m already beginning to appreciate the precision of that distinction. And yet, despite the skill with which Gilman explores Shepard’s work (his introduction has that accessible insight that seems lacking in the voice of much academic writing), I don’t think he ever solves his original problem. As I read, I underlined sentences like, “[His plays] spill over, they leak. They change chameleon-like, in self-protection as we look at them,” and “Above all, it’s about performing, and here the relations between art and life become particularly close.” Gilman’s observations sound wonderful, poetic-almost, the type of critical writing I strive to produce. But I’m not sure if wielding “a critical vocabulary that won’t be composed of cliches and stock phrases” brings him any closer to Shepard. Perhaps it’s my own lack of experience with Shepard’s work. I don’t yet see him as a “dramatist who slips out of all the categories,” and am therefore unwilling to concede a need to “devise a strategy of discourse” specifically for him. Instead (and I realize that this has probably been done many times before, even, I think, by Gilman himself), it seems that Shepard’s plays, particularly a family drama like Buried Child, can be placed on a categorical timeline, one point in the evolution of a form. How far is it, really, from O’Neill’s Tyrone to Shepard’s Dodge?
Gilman admits that “the trevail of the family” is a theme central to many of Shepard’s plays. In Buried Child, Shepard updates the family drama, situating it amidst the cultural upheaval of late-70s America. As the curtain rises, we find Dodge, the family patriarch, staring blankly at a television, his face illuminated by only the blue flickering of the picture tube. For Shepard, TV seems to offer an alternative to real interaction and communication. When Halie questions Dodge from upstairs, he just continues staring, sitting silently in morose resignation and isolation. He is a chilling character, more an extension of the couch than a father. When Tilden arrives with the mysterious corn, Dodge exposes his own hopeless isolation. “I haven’t had trouble with neighbors here for fifty-seven years,” he screams. “I don’t even know who the neighbors are! And I don’t want to know!”When Dodge finally does respond to his wife’s repeated calls, their communication is hampered by distance. “Dodge, are you watching baseball?” she asks. “No.” “What?” she asks. This (“What?”) becomes a common refrain for Halie, revealing her inability to actually hear him (or perhaps her lack of desire to do so).
Dodge’s and Halie’s conversations (like many others in the play) are superficial and ritualistic, consisting mostly of trivial discussions of the weather and the children. Their roles seem well rehearsed. She asks him if he needs a pill; he says no. She tells him to keep an eye on Tilden; he says things will be fine. She leaves to meet Father Dewis; he takes another sip from his hidden whiskey bottle. Shepard does complicate their interaction, though, with strange (at times, almost absurdist) moments of tension. The first occurs when Halie mentions the man who took her to the New Year’s Day races. It is the first statement that elicits an emotional response from Dodge. “I bet he taught you a thing or two huh?” he says bitterly. “Gave you a good turn around the old stable.” As in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Shepard provides hints about his play’s sub-text early in the opening act. Dodge’s bitterness is, of course, later explained by Halie’s infidelities and the resulting pregnancy.
Another, and much stranger, cause of tension between Halie and Dodge is their debate over whether or not their son, Bradley, should be allowed to cut his father’s hair. It is scenes like this, I’m sure, that Gilman would say “spill over” and “leak,” complicating any simple reading. I’ll freely admit my difficulty with the scene, and with the one in which Bradley does, in fact, shave Dodge’s head, cutting him and drawing blood. It seems ripe for Freudian analysis, an Oedipal conflict realized in the threatening actions of a powerless son. It also reinforces the corporeal nature of Dodge’s body. Halie often mentions the stench of his decaying frame, and in their discussion, Dodge describes the last time she allowed Bradley to cut his hair, saying, “Time to dress up the corpse for company! Lower the ears a little! Put up a little front! . . . My appearance is out of his domain! It’s even out of mine! In fact, its’ disappeared! I’m an invisible man!” Once we learn the story of the buried child, Bradley’s violence against his father also becomes strangely justifiable, an act of outward concern (for his father’s appearance) and subconscious revenge.
Gilman mentions “the search for roots” as another central motif in Shepard’s work. This search is characterized in Buried Child by Tilden and Vincent, a father and son who both return to the family in hopes of creating meaning in their lives. Shepard first describes Tilden as “profoundly burned out and displaced.” He has recently returned home after getting in some trouble in New Mexico, but claims that his reason for returning was simply that he was lonely, “more lonely than I’ve ever been before.” But Tilden is hardly welcomed as a prodigal son. He is instead seen only as a disappointment, a shadow of his lost potential. He seems to take on a ghost-like quality throughout the play, particularly in its final scene, as he emerges with the decaying corpse of his murdered brother (his murdered child?) in his arms. He also seems to have the magical ability to produce vegetables from air, those strange buckets of corn and carrots that so preoccupy him during the first two acts. Like Bradley and his clippers, the scenes involving Tilden and his vegetables throw off simple explanation. In his introduction, Gilman acknowledges those supporters who claim that Shepard has one creative foot within avant-garde circles, that he isn’t “talking about anything but rather making something.” The images here, particularly that of Tilden burying his sleeping father in cornstalks, is fascinating and lasting. Obviously, Shepard designed that image as a challenge. But the image is laced with too many resonating elements—the “milking stool” with its inherent maternal overtones, the fertility of the backyard burial ground, the “roots” of the fruitful crop, the burial of Dodge under the product of that crop—to be explained away as simply a message to the eyes, rather than one to the mind (to use Gilman’s terminology).
Vince adds another level of difficulty to a reading of Buried Child. Like his father, Vince has also returned to Halie’s and Dodge’s home in hopes of uncovering his roots. What he finds instead is a family who has forgotten him. (“It’s much better not to know anything,” says Dodge.) Even his own father is unable to remember Vince. “I had a son once,” Tilden says, “but we buried him.” Vince actually spends little time on stage—his trip to fetch Dodge a bottle of whiskey becomes a night-long drive and drinking binge. Shepard instead shows us Vince’s perspective through an outsider’s point of view. Shelley is an interesting addition to the mix. She is the only character with “some kind of future”; she is a creature made of “faith” and “hope” (it seems that “love” is conspicuously absent, perhaps only from Dodge’s vocabulary). So when she describes Vince’s quest, it is one made of stops at drive-ins and football fields, a nostalgic trip through pleasant memories. His violent re-emergence, that crash through the screen door, is all the more shocking after Shelley’s quiet innocence. With his return, Vince takes on his legacy, the house itself and the secrets buried around and within it. He also takes on its pain, thereby sending Shelley away.