A family drama, a strange parody of the warm families of many previous American plays, the three-act Buried Child is perhaps the best known of Shepard’s work. From the striking images of the old man on the couch to the moment when his son carries in the buried child from the cornfield, the play embodies all that is best about Shepard’s combining of realistic family drama with larger mythic patterns. Either as American gothic or as a modern-day version of Greek tragedy, the play invites examination on many levels.
The opening of the play sets the tone of the entire piece; Dodge is lying asleep or drunk on the couch, “a sedentary cougher solaced only by television and whiskey,” as Ruby Cohn describes him. He holds the center of the stage while his family—wife Halie, an aging flirt in league with the local clergyman; half-wit son Tilden, silently returning again and again to the family secret; and vicious son Bradley, crippled but powerful, full of sexually destructive energy—lives a half life in the shattered family home.
When a young grandson, Vince, brings home his girlfriend to meet the family, the worst in them is called out, and one can see the decay of the American family in general, caused in part by the wanderlust of the previous generation (brought about by war) and in part by the avoidance of unhappy truths—family secrets hidden away in the cornfield.
Vince, traveling adventurously through the United States with his girlfriend, drops in on the family for some reminiscences; his father, Tilden, does not recognize him, nor do his grandparents. The prevailing sense of the awkward, unwelcome meeting is that the youth of the house—its promise, its reputation, its future—has been “buried” along with a real corpse, the buried child, the secret in the corn. Although far from explicit, the plot seems to suggest that the buried child is the result of an incestuous union of the mother and one of the sons.
As in all Shepard’s “family cycle” plays, which also include True West (1980) and Curse of the Starving Class (1976), the ostensible battle of the family is enlarged by the oddly symbolic details. The most important of these is the buried child of the title (reminiscent of the absent child in Edward Albee’s 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia...
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