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 Christian 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.