Shepard has been called the first totally postmodern voice in American drama, largely because of the aggressively experimental nature of his early work, relying on collage and fantasy rather than straightforward narrative or coherent characterizations. Curse of the Starving Class (pb. 1976, pr. 1977) initiated a new direction in Shepard’s work, inaugurating a series of plays, including Buried Child, True West (pr. 1980, pb. 1981), Fool for Love (pr., pb. 1983), and A Lie of the Mind (pr. 1985, pb. 1986), concerned with explorations of domestic and family life—in contrast to his earlier focus on characters who were loners. Unlike the experimental variations on popular genres, such as science fiction, westerns, or rock operas, which typified the earlier plays, these works are, despite their sometimes expressionistic exaggerations, given realistic, even naturalistic settings and relatively realistic characters. Shepard had already confessed in 1974 that he would “like to try a whole different way of writing now, which is very stark and not so flashy and not full of a lot of mythic figures and everything, and try to scrape it down to the bone as much as possible.”
The relatively tight focus on a small family on a small farm in Buried Child can certainly be seen as an expression of Shepard’s new realistic and minimalist impulse. The realistic framework, however, always incorporates heavily symbolic actions and properties and a mythic reach in themes, and the contrast between the early and later works has often been emphasized at the expense of ignoring important continuities. The archetypes and mythic figures of the earlier plays have been worked into more extended narrative structures without losing the several layers of symbolic meaning they carry. While critics have sometimes disagreed about the relative merits of the work of these two stages, the awarding of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in drama for Buried Child suggests a consensus of opinion that this play is the most completely successful of the later period.