Buried Child

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A: Sam Shepard Pf: 1978, San Francisco Pb: 1979; rev. 1995 G: Drama in 3 acts S: Living area of farm, Illinois, 1970s C: 5m, 2fDodge, a sickly alcoholic in his seventies, bickers with his wife Halie, some 10 years his junior. Their oldest son Tilden, a simple-minded former athlete in his forties, has come home after some ‘trouble’ in New Mexico. He has a younger brother Bradley, who lost his leg in a chainsaw accident, but his mother mourns for her son Ansel, a soldier, whose death she blames on his Catholic bride. Dodge denies being Tilden's and Bradley's father, insisting that his child is buried in the back yard. Halie leaves for lunch with Father Dewis, and Tilden slips out when his father falls asleep. Bradley appears and begins cutting his sleeping father's hair. That night, Vince, Tilden's 22-year-old son, arrives with his tarty girlfriend from Los Angeles, Shelly. Vince has not seen Tilden for six years and is on his way to New Mexico, where he imagines his father to be still living. Neither Dodge nor the returning Tilden seems to recognize Vince. Dodge persuades Vince to go and buy him a bottle of whiskey. When he is gone, Tilden asks to touch and then hold Shelly's rabbit-fur coat. He then tells her about the baby that Dodge murdered and buried. Shelly becomes nervous, especially when Bradley enters and demands to put his fingers in her mouth. He drops the fur coat over Dodge's head and stares at Shelly. The following morning, Vince still has not returned with the whiskey, but Shelly appears to have settled in to the eccentric household. Halie brings in Father Dewis and is embarrassed to find Bradley asleep on the sofa beside his wooden leg. Shelly makes sure that attention is paid to her by demanding to know the secret about the buried child. Dodge says that the child was the product of Halie's adulterous affair and that he drowned it ‘like the runt of a litter’. Vince arrives back very drunk, smashing empty bottles. He cuts a hole in the porch screen with a large knife and enters. Father Dewis and Halie hurriedly go upstairs to hide. Dodge wills the house to Vince, who refuses to leave with her when Shelly goes. Dewis goes, and Bradley crawls off after his wooden leg, which Vince cruelly threw out of the door. Dodge dies unnoticed, and Halie marvels at all the vegetables growing out back. Tilden appears, holding the decomposed corpse of a baby.

A: Sam Shepard Pf: 1978, San Francisco Pb: 1979; rev. 1995 G: Drama in 3 acts S: Living area of farm, Illinois, 1970s C: 5m, 2f

Buried Child earned Shepard the Pulitzer Prize and is arguably the most powerful of his many plays. While the events of the play can all be accepted on a realistic level, the eccentric characters and their repeated refusal to recognize each other or embrace their own past take the action into surrealist mode. There is also the pregnant symbol of the buried child, suggesting a sacrifice that has rendered the land fertile and also the potential for a fulfilled life which has been destroyed by Dodge and his sons, but which may be renewed with the arrival of young Vince.


Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights) — Theatre.

Reference entries

Sam Shepard (b. 1943)

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