Buried Child explores three generations of a grotesque and exaggerated, but also representative, American family. Beneath the elements of gothic horror—Dodge’s infanticide and the suggested incest between Tilden and Halie—lies an exploration of archetypal family conflicts. At the realistic level, the plot is a story about the passing of the family farm, once barren but perhaps now revitalized, from the older to the younger generation. At the mythic level, the subject is the inheritance of an emotional sterility which has crippled the younger generation but which they can recognize, unearth, and transcend. The constant bickering over small things among the family members which helps them avoid their larger fears and concerns, the failures of recognition and communication, Halie’s infidelity and Dodge’s drinking have all contributed to the disintegration of the family both as a unit and as individuals. Shepard criticizes this disintegration, but also recognizes the inevitability of conflict. Bradley symbolically dominates his father by cutting his hair, but then Vince displaces both Bradley and Dodge as he throws away Bradley’s leg and takes Dodge’s place on the couch after Dodge has willed him the house, land, and tools. Each generation can progress only through such a displacement of the preceding one, and the losses in the play are similarly inevitable. Dodge loses a son, as does Tilden, and Vince loses Shelly as he comes into his inheritance.
That there is somehow progress despite such losses is suggested by the play’s ending, which emphasizes fertility and the growth of crops even as Dodge lies dead on the stage. The language of the closing suggests, with its allusion to a miracle and the play on “sun” and “son” echoing the imagery of Christian resurrection myth, that a symbolic renewal has taken or is about to take place even as Tilden brings the buried child out of his grave. His two earlier entrances were with armloads of fresh crops, and the parallel implies that the third entrance also somehow represents fertility rather than death alone. As horrible as the past has been, the dead son it has denied and hidden has been brought to light and faced during the course of the play, and the new generation, represented by the living son, Vince, has taken the place of the old generation. The buried child may be the source of a family curse that had even begun to infect Vince, and its removal may signal the curse’s end and an expiation of the sins of the previous generation. The coming fertility, however, is only suggested, not guaranteed, and when Vince assumes the exact posture of Dodge and Shelly decides to escape, they imply that any optimism at the ending must be cautious.
American Dream In literature, as in life, the American Dream contains elements of adventure on the open road, the exploration of far frontiers, and family and financial success. These ideas permeate nearly all of Shepard's plays and are used effectively as a criticism of contemporary American society in Buried Child. In this dark vision of the American Midwest, Shepard presents the disintegration of the American family and suggests that, as a culture, Americans have an embarrassment of riches and a paucity of spirituality and morality. For most of the play, his view of America in the late-twentieth century is one of selfish, brutal, and hypocritical tyrant wannabes who care little for one another and are mainly interested in physical pleasures and power over others.
Dodge, the father and grandfather of the household, talks about things that American patriarchs are supposed to...
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talk about—family, the farm, even baseball. But he is not the loving, nurturing father who knows best. ‘‘You think just because people propagate they have to love their offspring?’’ he growls. ‘‘You never seen a bitch eat her puppies?’’ His wife, Halie, is certainly no better. Though she feigns religious piety and pines for the days of traditional values, in her old age she is carrying on an affair with the family's pastor and in her younger days committed incest with her oldest son, an act that resulted in a mid-life pregnancy. This American family is definitely not the happy, well-balanced stereotype portrayed in popular media.
Shepard's use of backwoods country twang in the voices of his characters, along with images of the land outside big cities and the uncharted vastness of open spaces in America, suggest some of the country's earliest and most important myths—the frontiersman, westward expansion, and rugged individualism. Vince, initially one of the ‘‘outsiders’’ of the play, has a quintessentially American road experience late in the play that causes an epiphany that sends him back to the farm with a renewed sense of purpose. In a frenetic monologue, Vince describes how he drove all night through the rain with the windows open, ‘‘clear to the Iowa border.’’ En route, he examined his reflection in the windshield and saw his face changing into the faces of generations of his past, ‘‘every last one. Straight into the corn belt and further. Straight back as far as they'd take me.’’ Vince's experience is a reminder of the interconnectedness of individuals, families, and whole communities in America and lends the play's climax a faint glimmer of hope. As Vince assumes control of the household, and Tilden carries the corpse of the exhumed ‘‘buried child’’ upstairs to its mother, there is the sense that, through the lessons learned by mistaken generations, this family, and America as a whole, may revitalize itself, stir from the ashes of moral destruction, and rise, Phoenix-like, to soar again.
Family Acknowledging his thematic interest in the concept of family, Shepard once observed, ‘‘What doesn't have to do with family? There isn't anything. Even a love story has to do with family. Crime has to do with family. We all come out of each other—everyone is born out of a mother and father. It's an endless cycle.’’ Still, in spite of everyone's common evolution from a father and mother, the family ties in Buried Child become more twisted and significant than most people ever experience.
The play begins realistically enough, with the offstage voice of an elderly wife, Halie, nagging her semi-drunken, oafish husband (appropriately named Dodge) who lies on a lumpy sofa all day watching television. Very quickly, however, this stereotypical image of a marriage in its twilight years turns into a nightmarish vision of adultery, incest, and murder. The couple's eldest son, Tilden, has returned home after a twenty-year absence. He has been in some kind of trouble in another state and is obviously suffering from mental illness. Bradley, their second son, has lost a leg in a chainsaw accident and terrorizes his father and brother. A third son, Ansel, was, according to Halie's skewed recollection, murdered on the night of his honeymoon. His mother remembers him as the accomplished adult he never grew to be; she wants to have a statue of him erected in the town square.
Into the midst of this motley clan plunges Vince, son to Tilden and grandson to Dodge and Halie. He has returned home after a six-year absence, hoping to find the perfect, warm, and normal American family he remembers from his youth, complete with turkey dinner on the table and smiling, kindly grandparents. Oddly, though, no one seems to recognize him, though the other men of the house quickly take a liking to his girlfriend, Shelly, who has come along for the ride. The most horrific aspect of this house of horrors is the terrible secret they have kept for decades: Tilden is the father, with Halie, of the slain Ansel; Dodge, resentful and threatened, murdered the infant and buried it in the yard.
Shepard's view of family life in the American Midwest recalls some of the best-known family tragedies of dramatic literature, from the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex to Shakespeare's King Lear to Miller's Death of a Salesman. Each of these works calls upon primal urges and fears buried deep inside humanity—lust, jealousy, love, and greed—to reveal essential, if undesirable, truths about family relationships and humankind.