The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Buried Child begins with a darkened stage, gradually brightened by the light from an upright lamp and a large, old-fashioned television set, which gives off a flickering blue light but no image or sound. The light reveals Dodge, sitting on a worn-out sofa, dressed in an old tee shirt, khaki work pants, and brown slippers, covered by an old brown blanket. Next to the sofa is the lamp and a small night table with several bottles of pills on it. Dodge, thin and sickly-looking, stares at the television as more light fills the stage. It is day, and there is the sound of light rain. Behind the sofa is a large, screened-in porch. An old wooden staircase with frayed carpeting on the steps leads up and offstage. A screen door leads from the porch to the outside, a solid interior door leads to the kitchen (offstage). Dodge drinks from a bottle of whiskey hidden under a sofa cushion, then begins coughing, first quietly then more loudly. He stifles his coughing when his wife, Halie, calls from offstage upstairs.
The old couple bicker about several seemingly trivial topics, Halie remaining out of the audience’s view, until Dodge calls Tilden in, apparently only to irritate Halie, who does not want him disturbed. Tilden enters from the kitchen, his arms loaded with fresh ears of corn that he has picked “out in back.” Tilden is in his late forties, dressed in muddy construction boots, work pants, plaid shirt, and faded windbreaker. He is wet from the rain...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Although the setting is scrupulously realistic, Sam Shepard relies on the symbolism of his props and actions as much as words to tell his stories, and the burying of Dodge under husks by Tilden both reenacts Dodge’s burying of the child (perhaps Tilden’s) and foreshadows Tilden’s exhumation of the child at the play’s end. Halie’s emotional estrangement from the rest of the family is as clear from her frequent delivery of her lines from offstage as it is from the lines themselves, and her entirely black mourning outfit further symbolizes the point that her family is dead to her, and perhaps has been since the sacrifice of the buried child. By extension, her appearance in the last act in bright yellow clothing with her arms full of yellow roses, emblems of passion, may be seen as an element of the movement toward hope at the end of the play. She does, however, leave the roses downstairs and finishes offstage (upstairs) where she began; the ending of the play is again ambivalent.
The struggle to transfer power from one generation to the next is also told visually, in images of castration: Bradley cutting off Dodge’s hair, Vince in turn taking away Bradley’s (phallic) leg. Dodge’s impotence had been anticipated by his position prone on the couch and his burial under the corn husks, Bradley’s by the amputation he had already suffered. The perversion of other natural emotional relations is similarly suggested through actions and...
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In many ways, Buried Child exists outside of time and apart from history. The plot of the play is the ages-old, familiar story of youth overthrowing age, intertwined with murder and incest, death and resurrection—terrible human impulses that have shocked and fascinated audiences for thousands of years. The play's characters are mainly archetypal figures, recognizable from centuries of stories and myths scattered across cultures and around the globe. Still, Shepard's family drama is anchored in a particular place and a particular age—1970s America—and this environment, if not directly obvious in the play, certainly influenced the playwright and his work.
Although practically any era can be called an age of turbulent politics for one reason or another, the 1970s were particularly difficult and painful for the United States. The decade saw the end of the painful Vietnam War which altered a great many Americans' perception of war as an unsavory but noble effort. It was also during this era that the country developed a cynicism toward the democratic process and the people it elevates to its highest offices. This cast of doubt has plagued American politics ever since. The problem evolved from a series of unsuccessful presidents, corruption in public...
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In literature, a symbol is something that represents something else. Symbols are often used to communicate deeper levels of meaning. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel The Scarlet Letter, for example, the red letter “A” worn by Hester Prynne is a symbol not only of her supposed crime (adultery) but also of her neighbors' bigotry and her own courageous pride. Buried Child, like most of Shepard's plays, is suffused with symbolism, which he uses to communicate deeper, though sometimes ambiguous, levels of meaning to his audiences.
Some of the strongest symbols in Buried Child are related to nature and fertility and reinforce the play's central image: the dead, buried child in the field. The vegetables Tilden continuously carries into the house are one such symbol. Crops have not been raised on the family farm for many years. In all that time, the fields have gone unplanted and have grown over with weeds and scrub brush. Still, Tilden manages to harvest the fallow fields, just as he was capable of conceiving a child with his own middle-aged mother years before (it is suggested that Halie was past menopause, and therefore fallow herself, when her tryst with Tilden occurred). Realistically, his harvest is nonsensical, but as a symbol, it complements his dreadful act of incest and illustrates his obsession with his lost child, his need to pull life from the dead...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1978: On April 17, trading on the New York Stock Exchange reaches a record single-day volume of 63.5 million shares. On November 1, the Dow Jones industrial average soars 35.34 points, a record-breaking advance for a single day of trading.
Today: Trading on the New York Stock Exchange is often ten times the volume of two decades ago, with over 600 million shares changing hands on a single day. Single day rises and drops of hundreds of points at a time are becoming common. In March of 1999, the Dow average closes above 10,000 points for the first time in history.
- 1978: In Bakke vs. the Regents of the University of California, the U.S. Supreme Court affirms a lower court decision requiring the University of California Medical School to admit Allan P. Bakke, a white male who claimed he was a victim of "reverse discrimination" as a result of the school's minority admissions plan.
Today: The Bakke case is again making headlines across the country as American universities and state governments wrestle with Affirmative Action policies that many, including a handful of vocal minority leaders, say are outdated and unfair. Colleges in Texas and Michigan are named in lawsuits by disgruntled student applicants, and forced to abandon admissions and hiring practices that favor minority applicants.
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Topics for Further Study
- Shepard incorporates many symbols into Buried Child in order to communicate deeper levels of meaning to his audiences. Consider the importance of Bradley's artificial leg, Dodge's baseball cap, and the blanket from the living sofa as symbols in the play. What might each one represent? How are they used by different characters? How do they affect your understanding of the play's plot?
- Read another contemporary American family drama, such as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or August Wilson's Fences, and discuss the contrasting views of family each playwright presents in his work. Consider such things as: the responsibilities of parents; animosities among family members; sibling rivalries; and the effects of domestic violence.
- Sam Shepard has been called a postmodern writer. Research postmodernism as a style in late-twentieth-century drama. What elements of postmodernism does Shepard incorporate in Buried Child? Which does he ignore?
- Several scholars and critics pointed to corn and its harvest as one of the central images and ritual influences in Buried Child. Using an encyclopedia or the Internet, research the history of this important crop and try to find two to three examples of rituals associated with its planting and harvest....
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- While Buried Child has not yet been turned into a film, other Shepard plays are available on video, including Fool for Love, directed in 1985 by Robert Altman and starring Kim Basinger and Shepard himself; and True West (1986), directed by Allan Goldstein and starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.
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What Do I Read Next?
- In a career spanning more than thirty years Sam Shepard has produced dozens of one-acts, full-length dramas, and screenplays. Some of his more popular plays include The Tooth of Crime (1972), Curse of the Starving Class (1977), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), and A Lie of the Mind (1985). These are all available in collected anthologies of Shepard's work such as Sam Shepard: Seven Plays and The Unseen Hand and Other Plays.
- Buried Child echoes the plots, characters, and themes of some of the greatest plays in Western dramatic literature. Consider reading Oedipus Rex (c. 430-425 B.C.), Sophocles' tragedy about murder and incest in ancient Greece.
- Death of a Salesman (1949) is Arthur Miller's modern tragedy about mediocrity and struggling with the American dream. Buried Child echoes many of its themes of disillusionment, delusion, and shattered hope.
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) is Edward Albee's dark and twisted portrayal of a middle-aged couple's fights...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Auerbach, Doris. ‘‘Buried Child.’’ In her Sam Shepard, Arthur Kopit, and the Off Broadway Theatre. Twayne, 1982, pp. 53-61.
Clurman, Harold. Review of Buried Child. In the Nation, December 2, 1978, pp. 621-22.
Gussow, Mel. Review of Buried Child. In the New York Times, January 2, 1979, p. C7.
Hart, Lynda. ‘‘Realism Revisited: Buried Child.’’ In her Sam Shepard's Metaphorical Stages. Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 75-87.
Kalem, T. E. Review of Buried Child. In Time, December 18, 1978.
Kroll, Jack, Constance Guthrie, and Janet Huck. ‘‘Who's That Tall Dark Stranger.’’ In Newsweek, November 11, 1985, p. 71.
Kroll, Jack. Review of Buried Child. In Newsweek, October 30, 1978.
Marranca, Bonnie. ‘‘Sam Shepard.’’ In American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, p. 108.
Nash, Thomas. ‘‘Sam Shepard's Buried Child: The Ironic Use of Folklore.’’ In Modern Drama, Vol. XXVI, no. 4, December, 1983, pp. 486-91.
Newall, Venetia. ‘‘Harvest.’’ In Man, Myth, and Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural. Marshall Cavendish, 1970, pp. 1214-18.
Raidy, William A. Review of Buried Child. In Plays and Players, February, 1979, pp. 36-37....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Bigsby, C. W. E. “Sam Shepard.” In Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Bottoms, Stephen J. The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Cima, Jay Gibson. Review of Buried Child. Theatre Journal 35 (December, 1983): 559-560.
Cohn, Ruby. “Sam Shepard: Today’s Passionate Shepard and His Loves.” In Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim. Munich: M. Hueber, 1981.
Hart, Lynda. Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.
King, Kimball. Sam Shepard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1988.
McKellan, Kathleen. Review of Buried Child. Theatre Journal 48 (May, 1996): 225-226.
Marranca, Bonnie, ed. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1981.
Perry, Frederick J. A Reconstruction Analysis of “Buried Child” by Playwright Sam Shepard. Lewistown, N.Y.: Mellen, 1992.
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