The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Buried Child begins with a darkened stage, gradually brightened by the light from an upright lamp and a large, old-fashioned television set, which gives off a flickering blue light but no image or sound. The light reveals Dodge, sitting on a worn-out sofa, dressed in an old tee shirt, khaki work pants, and brown slippers, covered by an old brown blanket. Next to the sofa is the lamp and a small night table with several bottles of pills on it. Dodge, thin and sickly-looking, stares at the television as more light fills the stage. It is day, and there is the sound of light rain. Behind the sofa is a large, screened-in porch. An old wooden staircase with frayed carpeting on the steps leads up and offstage. A screen door leads from the porch to the outside, a solid interior door leads to the kitchen (offstage). Dodge drinks from a bottle of whiskey hidden under a sofa cushion, then begins coughing, first quietly then more loudly. He stifles his coughing when his wife, Halie, calls from offstage upstairs.

The old couple bicker about several seemingly trivial topics, Halie remaining out of the audience’s view, until Dodge calls Tilden in, apparently only to irritate Halie, who does not want him disturbed. Tilden enters from the kitchen, his arms loaded with fresh ears of corn that he has picked “out in back.” Tilden is in his late forties, dressed in muddy construction boots, work pants, plaid shirt, and faded windbreaker. He is wet from the rain and has a burned-out expression. Dodge begins to argue with him, denying that any corn grows out back. Tilden stares at him, then walks slowly over to him and dumps all the corn into his lap. He exits to the kitchen as Dodge angrily pushes all the corn off his lap onto the floor and sneaks another drink. He hides the bottle quickly as Tilden returns with a milking stool and a pail and begins husking the corn, throwing the husks and silk onto the floor and dropping the cleaned ears into the pail. They talk allusively about Tilden’s past in New Mexico and argue about whether Dodge has whiskey hidden in the sofa cushions, an argument occasionally joined by Halie, who is still offstage. As the discussion turns to the other sons, Bradley and Ansel, Halie enters slowly from the top of the stairs.

Halie is dressed entirely in black, as if in mourning. She remains entirely absorbed in a monologue about her dead son Ansel as she descends and then wanders about the room, not noticing the two men or the corn until she finishes speaking. After arguing with and threatening them, she leaves to have lunch with Father Dewis. Dodge puts on a baseball cap as protection against Bradley shaving his head (as he has apparently done before), then takes some pills and falls asleep on the couch. Tilden pulls the whiskey from under the cushion, takes a long drink, and puts the bottle in his pocket. He gathers the corn husks and gently spreads them all over Dodge’s body, completely covering him except for his head, then exits to the kitchen.

Bradley appears on the porch and enters through the screen door. He is a big man with muscular arms and shoulders, wearing a gray sweatshirt, baggy dark pants, and black janitor’s shoes. His left leg is wooden, having been amputated above the knee, and he walks with an exaggerated, almost mechanical limp, accompanied by squeaking sounds of leather and metal from the harness and hinges of the false leg. Bradley takes an electric hair clipper from his pocket, knocks away some of the corn husks, and pulls off Dodge’s cap. He switches on the clippers and, as the lights dim slowly to black, cuts Dodge’s hair while he sleeps.

Act 2 opens on the same set, now at night. Dodge is still asleep on the sofa, with his hair cut extremely short, his scalp cut and bleeding in places. The corn, husks, pail, and stool have been removed. The lights come up as Shelly laughs offstage and she and Vince appear outside the porch and enter. Shelly is nineteen, beautiful, wearing tight jeans, high heels, a purple tee shirt, and a short rabbit fur coat. Her makeup is exaggerated and her black hair is curled. Vince, Tilden’s son, is about twenty-two, wears a plaid shirt, jeans, dark glasses, and cowboy boots, and carries a black saxophone case. Shelly laughs and giggles uncontrollably as they pause on the porch, Vince hesitating to enter after his absence of six years. They enter, and Vince sets down his saxophone case and goes up the stairs and offstage.

Shelly picks up Dodge’s cap, puts it on, takes it off, and then touches one of the cuts in his scalp, waking him abruptly. He snatches the cap away and puts it on. She nervously explains that they were stopping by on their way to New Mexico to see Tilden and calls for Vince. He descends and addresses Dodge as “Grandpa,” but Dodge seems not to...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Although the setting is scrupulously realistic, Sam Shepard relies on the symbolism of his props and actions as much as words to tell his stories, and the burying of Dodge under husks by Tilden both reenacts Dodge’s burying of the child (perhaps Tilden’s) and foreshadows Tilden’s exhumation of the child at the play’s end. Halie’s emotional estrangement from the rest of the family is as clear from her frequent delivery of her lines from offstage as it is from the lines themselves, and her entirely black mourning outfit further symbolizes the point that her family is dead to her, and perhaps has been since the sacrifice of the buried child. By extension, her appearance in the last act in bright yellow clothing with her arms full of yellow roses, emblems of passion, may be seen as an element of the movement toward hope at the end of the play. She does, however, leave the roses downstairs and finishes offstage (upstairs) where she began; the ending of the play is again ambivalent.

The struggle to transfer power from one generation to the next is also told visually, in images of castration: Bradley cutting off Dodge’s hair, Vince in turn taking away Bradley’s (phallic) leg. Dodge’s impotence had been anticipated by his position prone on the couch and his burial under the corn husks, Bradley’s by the amputation he had already suffered. The perversion of other natural emotional relations is similarly suggested through actions and...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Tilden Emerging from Cornfield Published by Gale Cengage

In many ways, Buried Child exists outside of time and apart from history. The plot of the play is the ages-old, familiar story of...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

In literature, a symbol is something that represents something else. Symbols are often used to communicate...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 1978: On April 17, trading on the New York Stock Exchange reaches a record single-day volume of 63.5 million shares....

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Shepard incorporates many symbols into Buried Child in order to communicate deeper levels of meaning to his audiences. Consider the...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

  • While Buried Child has not yet been turned into a film, other Shepard plays are available on video, including

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • In a career spanning more than thirty years Sam Shepard has produced dozens of one-acts, full-length...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Auerbach, Doris. ‘‘Buried Child.’’ In her Sam Shepard, Arthur Kopit, and the Off Broadway...

(The entire section is 435 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bigsby, C. W. E. “Sam Shepard.” In Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Bottoms, Stephen J. The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Cima, Jay Gibson. Review of Buried Child. Theatre Journal 35 (December, 1983): 559-560.

Cohn, Ruby. “Sam Shepard: Today’s Passionate Shepard and His Loves.” In Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by...

(The entire section is 164 words.)