Buried Child

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Buried Child
Written by Sam Shepard
Characters Bradley
Father Dewis
Date premiered 27 June 1978
Place premiered Magic Theatre
San Francisco, California
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting a farm house in Illinois, 1978

Buried Child is a play by Sam Shepard first presented in 1978. It won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and launched Shepard to national fame as a playwright. Buried Child is a piece of theater which depicts the fragmentation of the American nuclear family in a context of disappointment and disillusionment with American mythology and the American dream, the 1970s rural economic slowdown and the breakdown of traditional family structures and values.


  • Dodge - In his 70s
  • Halie - Dodge's wife; mid-sixties.
  • Tilden - Their oldest son; late forties.
  • Bradley - Their next-oldest son, an amputee; early forties.
  • Vince - Tilden's son; approx. 22.
  • Shelly - Vince's girlfriend;
  • Father Dewis - a Protestant minister; sixties.

Plot Summary[edit]

Act One[edit]

  • The scene begins in an old farm house on a failed plot of land in Illinois, and the characters Dodge and Halie are introduced. The scene begins with Dodge and Halie having a conversation with one another discussing events of their past. Halie is not seen in the scene as she is yelling from upstairs, while Dodge is sitting on the basement sofa. He occasionally sneaks drinks from a bottle hidden in the couch; it is evident that he is an alcoholic. They talk about their son Ansel who was a model son who was murdered years before, allegedly by his, psychotic, Catholic wife on their wedding night. They also talk about another son, Bradley, who is an amputee that comes and cuts Dodge's hair forcefully while he sleeps; Dodge is wearing a baseball cap to ward off this inevitability. Halie leaves to church, dressed in mourning, and tells the third son, Tilden, to look after Dodge. Tilden then enters the scene with an armful of corn which he claims grew in the field outside. Dodge states that nothing has grown in the field since the Dust Bowl and accuses Tilden of stealing from a neighbor. Dodge and Tilden then begin to discuss Tilden's past- they speak of how he "got into trouble" in New Mexico, and how in failing his attempt to leave the family home for a new life, Tilden was forced to flee following this incident. Tilden is evidently mentally unwell as he sits, shucking corn into a bucket. When Dodge falls asleep at the end of their conversation, Tilden covers him with the corn husks, creating a blanket before he goes outside into the rain. Bradley enters the room shortly after and shaves Dodge's head while he sleeps.

Act Two[edit]

  • The scene begins with the introduction of Vince and Shelly. Vince was headed to meet his father, Tilden in New Mexico but decided to stop over at his grandparents on the way there, Shelly was just tagging along for the ride. Vince was surprised when he had entered the house because Dodge hadn't recognized Vince at all. Shelly then believes they had entered the wrong house and tries to convince Vince to leave but he doesn't budge. Tilden then enters the room with a bundle of carrots and is disinterested of Shelly and Vince. Vince then gets Tilden's attention but Tilden doesn't recognize Vince. Vince then tries different methods to convince Tilden and Dodge, while Shelly helps Tilden with the carrots. Dodge then motions to Vince and tells him to go buy him alcohol and he does. While he is gone Shelly talks to Tilden and asks him questions about Vince. Tilden goes on saying that he doesn't recognize Vince but he does look familiar. Tilden also talks about the son he had a long time ago with his mother, Halie, but Dodge had killed the baby and buried him in the backyard. Bradley then re-enters the scene and begins to harass Shelly by sticking his hand in her mouth, he then takes a fur coat and places it over Dodge and then black out.

Act Three[edit]

  • The scene begins with Dodge presumming that Vince has run away and left Shelly. He also tells Shelly to not fear Bradley as he only has one leg. After some time Halie enters the house with Father Dewis, who we later learn that she is having an affair with. Halie then sees Dodge and Bradley lying shamelessly on the sofa and smiles in embarrassment to Father Dewis. Halie then starts a yelling match with Dodge and Bradley and they exchange several words until Shelly intervenes. In frustration Shelly grabs Bradley's wooden leg and waves off the rest of the family and she expresses her anger with them and with Vince. Father Dewis then tries to calm Shelly down and places the wooden leg onto a table. Soon after some time Vince returns and is drunk and hurling beer bottles at the house. Vince then climbs through the doors netting and states that he has to stay at the farm house with his family. Halie and Dodge then recognize Vince and Dodge hands him the ownership of the house and land, with the land Vince decides to stay at the house while Shelly tries to convince him to leave. Shelly then gives up on Vince and leaves the house, Vince grabs the wooden leg and throws it outside the house and Bradley goes crawling for it. Father Dewis then leaves the house and Halie heads upstairs to her room. The play ends with Vince realizing that Dodge had died and places a blanket and rose on him. Halie then begins to yell out that corn has bloomed in the backyard while Vince sits on the sofa motionless. In the final scene Tilden walks around the room with the corpse of a baby in his hands.

Context and Thematic Concerns[edit]

Disappointment and disillusionment with American Mythology and the American Dream[edit]

  • The character of Ansel- He is the son which Halie idolizes as an All-American hero despite his death due to suspicious circumstances in a motel room. Halie fantasizes about his potential to be a Hero, to be an All-American star basketball player, reflecting the American hope in the youth. Yet his death and subsequent denouncement reflects the disappointment and disillusionment which many people experienced when they realised the actuality of the American circumstance.
  • The two sons (Tilden and Bradley) both failed their parents' expectation- Both are expected to take over the farm or at least care for the parents in their old age, thus fulfilling the American mythology of the next generation taking over from the last. However both sons are handicapped – Tilden emotionally and Bradley physically. They are unable to care for their parents and thus unable to carry out the American Dream.
  • Dodge felt the failure of the farm and the family as whole. He had failed to make the farm successful, he had not even planted any type of crop for over thirty years. He felt he had not lived up to what a typical American family's dream should have been. The play often shows the father as generally just sitting around doing very little steeped in a major depression.
  • The character Shelly is used to show the audience what the ideal family should be. Her disgust with what she expects and what is actually reality helps to show the audience what the American dream should be.

1970s economic slowdown[edit]

  • The house itself is run down, reflecting the poverty of American farms.
  • Nothing has been planted in the fields.

Breakdown of traditional family structures and values[edit]

  • Dodge, the ineffectual patriarch, is meant to be the breadwinner and ethical guardian of the family. Instead, he takes on the role of a sardonic alcoholic who is bullied by his wife and children, and thus furthermore disempowered through their actions. His character reflects failed patriarchs in America who have failed to create the family environments idealised in the American Dream.
  • The act of incest and the resultant murder are indicative of a breakdown in the ethical rigidity which characterises the typical American family.
  • The character of Father Dewis, adulterous and unauthoritative, fails to fulfill the role of moral guardian assigned to him by society, thus reflecting the breakdown of morality and ethics within America.

Shepard's intention[edit]

Shepard's intention was to create a narrative which communicated and reflected the frustrations of American people but at the same time was engaging and entertaining. Set in a context which is easily recognisable, the American farming family, and centered around issues which are universal, the disillusionment with the American dream and the traditional patriarch, Buried Child reflects the universal frustrations of American people. The postmodern style which Shepard uses incorporates surrealism and symbolism in the realistic framework of a family drama. This platform allows for engaging visceral theatre. Shepard is able to create images in the imaginations of people through the use of surrealism and symbolism, evoke and harness the experiences of his audience through its postmodern nature and keep the audience comfortable in the trappings of realism.

Some critics consider it part of a Family Trilogy which includes Curse of the Starving Class (1976) and True West (1980).[1] Others consider it part of a quintet which includes Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985).[2]


Buried Child incorporates many postmodern elements such as the mixing of genres, the deconstruction of a grand narrative, and the use of pastiche and layering.

Mixing of genres[edit]

Buried Child is laid in the framework of realism; the play is essentially a family drama. However, added into the realistic framework are distinct elements of surrealism and symbolism. The three-act structure, the immediate time frame and the setting of the play in reality give it an overall realistic appearance. Yet the use of symbols such as the corn and the rain give the play a symbolist element while the fragmented characterisation and actions like the multiple burials of Dodge are somewhat surreal or dreamlike. The humour is also an essential element of the style, giving the play sardonic, black and even at times slapstick elements. All these stylistic elements combine to give the play an overall postmodern feel.

Character summaries[edit]


  • Aging dysfunctional patriarch of the family; in his 70s
  • Is an alcoholic romoo
  • Is dying
  • Has been emasculated by his son and the infertility of his fields
  • Is ashamed of Halie's conceiving the child and is ashamed of killing it
  • Sits and watches television and drinks


  • Lost son, he has no purpose, no direction in his life
  • Had sex with his mother
  • Is confused/ashamed/embarrassed about the child and its death
  • Is bullied by the other characters
  • Brings crops into the house from the field in the backyard


  • Aggressive brother
  • Lost his leg in a chainsaw accident
  • Is emasculated by the removal of his leg


  • The wife and mother in the family; in her mid-60s.
  • Nags Dodge
  • Had sex with her son and gives birth to her grandson/son
  • Abandons the family to socialise with Dewis and revel in the past
  • Hero-worships the images of her lost son


  • Tilden's son
  • Reclaims possession of the house
  • No one recognizes him when he arrives


  • Vince's girlfriend
  • Reluctant to be at Vince's grandparents' house
  • Determined to uncover the family secret
  • Utterly shaken at what she finds
  • Skeptical of family relations

Father Dewis

  • Priest
  • Enjoys drinking and socializing with women
  • Carrying on a not-so secret affair with Halie

Performance history[edit]

Buried Child premiered at The Magic Theater in San Francisco on 27 June 1978, directed by Robert Woodruff. Its New York premiere was at Theater for the New City in New York City on October 19, 1978.[3] Theatre critic Harold Clurman wrote, in The Nation, "What strikes the ear and eye is comic, occasionally hilarious behavior and speech at which one laughs while remaining slightly puzzled and dismayed (if not resentful), and perhaps indefinably saddened. Yet there is a swing to it all, a vagrant freedom, a tattered song." It transferred to Theatre de Lys, now the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

The show was revived for a two-month run on Broadway in 1996 following a production at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 1995. The production, directed by Gary Sinise at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, was nominated for five Tony Awards but did not win any. The script for the production had been reworked by Shepard, allegedly fixing edits that a previous director had made to the text without Shepard's authorization.[citation needed] Shepard writes that he had felt certain "aspects of the writing still seemed awkward and unfinished" in 1978 and that he was glad for the opportunity to revisit the script for the Steppenwolf production.[4]

Magic Theatre Cast
  • Dodge - Joseph Gistirak
  • Halie - Catherine Willis
  • Tilden - Dennis Ludlow
  • Bradley - William M. Carr
  • Shelly - Betsy Scott
  • Vince - Barry Lane
  • Father Dewis - RJ Frank
New York Premiere Cast


  1. ^ Simard, Rodney. “American Gothic: Sam Shepard's Family Trilogy.” Theatre Annual 41 (1986): 21-36.
  2. ^ Roudané, Matthew (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521777667
  3. ^ Richard Eder (1978-11-07). "Reviewed: Buried Child". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-02. 
  4. ^ Sam Shepard (2006). Buried Child. Random House, New York. p. viii. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Shepard, Sam (1984). Seven Plays. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-34611-3. 
  • Shepard, Sam (1997). Buried Child. New York: Dramatist's Play Service. ISBN 0-8222-1511-X. 

External links[edit]