Buried Child Essays and Criticism
by Sam Shepard

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The Harvest Ritual

(Drama for Students)

Sam Shepard has often been called a mythic playwright, one whose work summons the contradictory images and archetypes of American life—killers and cowboys, Hollywood and farmsteads, rock n' roll and the open road. He is, as Wynn Handman, the artistic director of the American Place Theatre once remarked in an interview with Newsweek, ‘‘like a conduit that digs down into the American soil and what flows out of him is what we're all about.’’

What often flows out of Shepard are characters and stories that are at once exciting and recognizable as American allegories as well as shocking and repulsive for what they tell us about human instinct and behavior, regardless of cultural background. His is the gift of sight where many fear to look—a sort of witch doctor of modern America or, as Jack Gelber wrote in his introduction to Shepard's Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class & Other Plays, a shaman. ‘‘Anthropologists define the shaman as an expert in a primitive society who, in a trance state induced by drugs or music or other techniques, directly confronts the supernatural for the purposes of cures, clairvoyance, the finding of lost objects, and the foretelling of the future,'' Gelber explained. ‘‘Sam Shepard … is a shaman—a New World shaman. There are no witches on broomsticks within these pages. That's the Old World. Sam is as American as peyote, magic mushrooms, Rock and Roll, and medicine bundles.’’

Shepard's unique brand of American shamanism has led him to explore the thoughts in the mind of a murderer seated in the electric chair in Killer's Head (1975), and the hip, dexterous verbal wit of dueling rock musicians in The Tooth of Crime (1972). He has plumbed the depths of the film industry and pop culture in plays like Angel City (1976) and True West (1980), and wrestled with quirky relationships in Cowboy Mouth (1971) and Fool for Love (1983). One of the most interesting features of these plays is their portrayal of recognizable rituals. From the seemingly random rules of engagement Hoss and Crow observe in The Tooth of Crime to the Indian bones and totems used by Rabbit to jump start the creation of a stalled disaster movie in Angel City, rituals of one kind or another figure prominently throughout Shepard's work.

Perhaps nowhere, however, is ritual as important as in Buried Child. On its surface, the play seems like a fairly typical, if somewhat dark, family drama, but surprises lie in wait below. In an article for Modern Drama, Thomas Nash noted, ‘‘here, behind the seemingly trivial squabbles and musings of a typical Midwestern family, are the shadows of sacrificial rites and the shades of dying gods.’’

The ‘‘sacrificial rites’’ found in Buried Child, though perhaps not immediately obvious, parallel primitive agricultural rituals associated with planting, tending, harvesting, and celebrating crops, activities which were essential to non-industrialized agrarian societies. As Venetia Newall noted in an article for Man, Myth, and Magic, ‘‘It is difficult for us to realize nowadays, with tins and frozen foods available throughout the year, and imported tropical fruits on our tables even in the middle of winter, the anxiety which our ancestors felt as they waited for the annual harvest.’’

To help relieve their anxiety, and to rejoice as a community when their efforts met with success, early farming cultures developed a variety of rituals meant to bless the earth and the seeds that were sown, appeal to the various gods that represented elements necessary to crop growth, such as rain and sunshine, and preserve the spirits that inhabited the fields and their bounty from year to year. Such rituals have surrounded the planting and harvesting of wheat, corn, and rice—the principal crops of most of the earth's population—for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, for example, worshiped Demeter, the goddess of grain, and developed rituals designed to please her, keep her spirit alive within their crops, and...

(The entire section is 4,246 words.)