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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 Woolf?), dug up from the corn rows and tragically reintroduced. The child is the buried secret of the family that must be dealt with in order for the family finally to find rest in the present.

The details of the play—such as Tilden pouring corn husks over Dodge, with the corn husks sticking in his hair and hat; Bradley, the older brother, his artificial leg a prop dominating the action as Bradley dominates Vince’s girlfriend, forcing his finger into her mouth; the suggestion that Halie has spent the night with the minister (she comes home in a different dress from the one she wore when she left)—add up to a very dark family portrait indeed. The mother, cheating on the old man, is a shadow of the lust that once dominated the family. Tilden’s simple madness, contrasted with his former football glory, transforms his character from the pathetic mold of Lenny in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) into a brooding, giantlike Tiresias (the seer in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus from the fifth century b.c.e. ). Bradley’s artificial leg may remind one of the lame king in the Arthurian legends and the quest for the Holy Grail. Finally, the last image of the play leaves the entire story only partly told,...

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perhaps hinting that Shepard will return to this destructive family in subsequent work.

This is not the chronicle of a real family, despite the play’s realistic trappings, but of the struggle of every family to reconcile itself to the imperfections, the “humanness” of the parents, whose offspring, losing their youth day by day, have romanticized them beyond recognition. The play is not so much about revealing secrets as it is about forgiving or understanding the parents as people. However, Shepard allows no reconciliation or forgiveness to enter into the play’s climactic scene.

The tone of Buried Child marks a turning point for Shepard. While still far from a realistic play, it depicts an actual family dwelling, with recognizable characters acting in a “real” world. It is a family gone wrong somewhere in its past. Critics have offered various explanations for the central symbol, the buried child—the secret that has disintegrated the family. Is the child a real one, possibly the product of an incestuous union? How did it die? Who was responsible for the burial itself; was it agreed upon by the family, or was it the act of an individual? (Tilden carries the little body wrapped in rags onstage at the end of the play.) And how does the return of Vince precipitate the play’s action?

These and other questions will remain, but critics agree that a deeply mythic, symbolic death is implied in the action. Whether Shepard meant to depict a real child or was returning to his theme of a lost American spirit is a matter of theatrical interpretation. As a stage event, Buried Child is a powerful experience, full of tensions and puzzles, gripping as it unfolds. Such acts as Tilden slowly showering the sleeping figure of his father with corn husks linger in the viewer’s mind long after the play is over. When the play is done carelessly, the flaws in its exposition get in the way of the theatrical experience, which turns into an exasperating and unfulfilling evening. When performed effectively, it never leaves the imagination.