Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833

By the time Buried Child opened in New York in 1978 Sam Shepard was well-established as a counterculture playwright. The play earned him his unprecedented tenth Obie Award—no other American playwright had garnered more than two of Off-Broadway's highest honor. But with Buried Child Shepard had also found his way into the mainstream theatre, complete with larger audiences, critical raves from the popular press, and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979.

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Although admitting Shepard was definitely not “commercial,” the Nation's Harold Clurman, in his review of the Buried Child premiere at the Theatre for a New City on October 19, 1978, called him ‘‘quintessentially American,’’ and asserted, ‘‘I am convinced that he is not only a genuinely gifted but a meaningful writer.’’ To illustrate Shepard's importance to the theatre and New York at the time of the production, Clurman observed, “The production cost $2,000: the actors receive a pittance. Two utterly worthless musicals now on Broadway cost more than $1 million each.’’

What was it about Buried Child that elicited such excited response? For several critics, it was Shepard's ability to tap into America's self perception in intriguing new ways. ‘‘Buried Child, for all its enigma, is a powerful reflection, no matter how 'funny' the mirror, of the dilemma of present day America,’’ wrote William A. Raidy in Plays and Players. Raidy called the play Shepard's most interesting to date and the most stimulating play of the Off-Broadway season. He further noted, “Shepard reaffirms his position as one of America's most adventurous and imaginative playwrights.’’

In his review for Time, T. E. Kalem suggested, ‘‘If plays were put in time capsules, future generations would get a sharp-toothed profile of life in the U.S. in the past decade and a half from the works of Sam Shepard. His theme is betrayal, not so much of the American dream as of the inner health of the nation. He focuses on that point at which the spacious skies turned ominous with clouds of dread, and the amber waves of grain withered in industrial blight and moral dry rot.’’

Shepard was also praised for his use of language and unique, strong character portrayals. In New York magazine, John Simon declared of Buried Child, “This is the best Shepard play I have seen in some time, which means that it is powerful, obsessive stuff, intensely theatrical, not always disciplined but always wildly poetic, full of stage images and utterances replete with insidious suggestiveness even if they don't yield unequivocal meanings.’’ Critic Jack Kroll wrote in Newsweek: “Like Tennessee Williams Shepard writes strong parts. Even the 'minor' characters—a futile Catholic priest here—are fully magnetized to the play's core.’’

Because he was still relatively young (thirty-five at the time of Buried Child's premiere) and hadn't established himself yet as a major popular playwright, Shepard's work still drew comparisons to many other writers. In the New York Times, Mel Gussow noted, ‘‘The buried child of the title, though actual, reminds us of the imaginary child in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is a dark secret, whose existence is never to be acknowledged in public. Although the play deals with a homecoming—one of several points in common with Harold Pinter—it is equally connected to Edward Albee.’’ In American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, Bonnie Marranca added, “An odd play for Shepard, in the sense that his plays have always been identifiable by their striking originality. This one has the most echoes of plays of other writers: Ibsen's Ghosts, Pinter's Homecoming, and Albee's The American Dream come immediately to mind.’’

In deeper explorations of Buried Child's literary conventions, scholars have observed Shepard's unique, tricky blending of realism with symbolism, which achieves unexpected results for audience members. ‘‘Shepard's play carefully sustains a realistic veneer, adhering almost formulaically to the familiar Ibsen/Strindberg brand of realism in theme and structure,’’ observed Lynda Hart in Sam Shepard's Metaphorical Stages. Hart pointed out that Buried Child contains all the essential elements of a well-made, realistic drama, including a naturalistic set, meant to represent a shabby, middle-class American living room; psychologically real, motivated characters; and a fatal secret, hidden in the past and revealed gradually by exposition and character discoveries, until a horrifying climax pulls many of the clues together. Still, she noted, some pieces of the puzzle don't fit. ‘‘Motives are left undiscovered,’’ Hart pointed out. ‘‘The past is revealed but fails to illuminate the present; character becomes increasingly disorganized and action unpredictable. The two antithetical forms [realism and symbolism] jarringly combine to produce an uneasy, inexplicable action that taunts our ability to make our observations intelligible.’’

Shepard revised the text of Buried Child for a Steppenwolf Theatre production in Chicago in 1995. His changes made it more clear that Tilden was the father of the “buried child,’’ and, according to most reviewers, introduced more humor into the play. The Chicago production was successful enough to earn a Broadway run of the revised play in 1996, which has since prompted several revivals in regional theatres across the country.

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