In "Buried Child," what are the most prominent themes?
The most prominent themes in the play are disillusionment with the American Dream, the devastating impact of the past, and the link between hypocrisy and self-deception.
Sam Shepard begins his play by highlighting a disintegrating family unit. Dodge is the patriarch; he's an alcoholic in his late seventies and is described as "very thin and sickly-looking." Dodge's physical appearance mirrors his impoverished family's degradation. There is little affection between Dodge and his wife, Halie; in essence, they share an adversarial relationship.
Halie treats Dodge with open contempt, and it is obvious that she is deeply disappointed with Dodge. We later learn that Halie is not the paragon of virtue she portrays herself to be. She is presently having an affair with Father Dewis, and years ago, she had an incestuous relationship with Tilden, one of her sons. The product of this relationship was a baby who was subsequently drowned by Dodge, Halie's husband.
By Act Two, some major themes become prominent. Halie imagines herself to be spiritually and intellectually superior to everyone in her family. However, she is self-deceived: her malicious, self-absorbed, and bigoted nature is clear to the audience, but Halie is oblivious to her failings. She blames Ansel's Catholic wife for his death. Halie appears to link all Italian Catholics with the Mafia, and she describes Ansel's wife as the "Devil incarnate." Halie's self-deception fuels her hypocrisy. She prides herself on her religiosity but sees nothing amiss about having an affair with a priest.
Both Halie and Dodge's destructive actions in the past come back to haunt the family in the present. Dodge becomes a shell of a man after murdering and burying an innocent infant. He becomes ineffectual and neglects his farm and his family. Tilden also withdraws and becomes mentally unstable and emotionally stunted. As for Halie, she seeks solace in Father Dewis' arms and clings to futile notions of perfection. In the play, she continually refers to Ansel as the All-American, perfect son. She imagines that her family once exemplified everything that encompassed the American Dream: a perfect family living in a perfect house.
Even Bradley refuses to acknowledge the painful past. When pressed about the "buried child," he exclaims:
I’m not telling her anything! Nothing’s wrong here! Nothing’s ever been wrong! Everything’s the way it’s supposed to be! Nothing ever happened that’s bad. Everything is all right here! We’re all good people! We’ve always been good people. Right from the very start (from Act 3 of Buried Child).
Halie exhibits the same denial; she threatens to disown Dodge if he tells Shelly the truth. However, Dodge refuses to oblige Halie. He tells Shelly that the family used to be a flourishing one and that it once epitomized everything good about the American Dream. Then, Dodge openly acknowledges that the family was destroyed by Halie and Tilden's incestuous relationship. He admits to drowning Halie and Tilden's baby and at the end of Act 3, Tilden enters the house with the corpse of the "buried child." This macabre act may be cathartic in nature, but it is also symbolic: Shepard is highlighting the necessity of facing the past in order to facilitate healing. The implication is that the American Dream cannot be retrieved without honest self-examination and forgiveness.
In this play, the central physical action is of one character who rarely speaks who keeps bringing piles of vegetables onstage that he has unearthed from the garden (carrots, etc.). Eventually he brings the skeleton of a child, exposing (visually, but not in words) a long-hidden family secret. The main themes related to this action are that of family secrets, and the notion that immoral acts may be redeemed through honesty and forgiveness. But it is also possible to interpret the main theme as one of the constancy of human evil, and the unwillingness or inability of people to change their behavior or admit wrongdoing.