Sam Shepard, born November 5th, 1945, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, is one of the US’s most well known playwrights and actors. His father was a farmer and his mother was a teacher. As a teenager, Shepard went to Duarte High School and worked as a farm hand in order to support his mother and brother after their own farm went under due to his father’s alcoholism. In college Shepard studied agriculture, but soon dropped out and decided to runaway with an acting company called The Bishop’s Company. It is here that his interest in writing dark plays centered around broken families stems from. He wrote three plays considered to be a family trilogy: Buried Child, True West, and The Curse of the Starving Class. All three of these plays stand in stark contrasting opposition to what the perception of ideal American Life is supposed to be like.
Curse of the Starving Class, published in 1976 is considered the first of this trilogy. It tells the story of the Tate family: Ella (the mother), Weston (the father and a drunk), Emma (daughter) and Wesley (son). They live on a farm that is failing, and Wesley is the only one who strives to keep it running when everyone else seems to be giving up hope. His father, as mentioned is a drunk, and we can already see great similarities to Shepard’s own life.
True West, published in 1980, is the third in this series. It tells the story of two brothers Lee and Austin who it seems have always been at odds: Lee, the drifter/thief and Austin the straight edge screen writer. The two reunite after several years of being apart and the story unfolds. Austin is housesitting for his mother who is vacationing in Alaska, and doing some research for his new screenplay, when Lee shows up, back from the desert. The jealousy between these two siblings is not obvious at first, but as the play goes on we see Lee trying to get in on his brother’s project, and later we see Austin wanting to leave his cookie-cutter life and join Lee in the desert. When Lee tries to leave, after deciding that Austin’s lifestyle doesn’t quite suit him, Austin strangles him with a telephone chord. Shepard uses foreshadowing in order to predict this murder attempt when Lee tells Austin: “You go down to L.A. Police Department there and ask them what kinda people Kill each other the most. Who do you think they’d say?… Family people. Brothers. Brothers-in-law. Cousins. Real American type people” (23-24). Shepard’s dialogue actually reflects the prevalence of violence between siblings in our current society- these incidents are noted among the most common types of violent domestic crimes (Kreinert 331).
Buried Child was originally published and produced in 1978 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco with the direction of Robert Woodruff. In the same year, the play made its New York City premiere at the Theater for the New City. In 1979, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Shepard, whose own life was very tumultuous, having an alcoholic veteran father likely suffering from PTSD, as we can see, has a tendency of writing plays that reflect that. This one was of particular interest to me, not only because it won the Pulitzer but also because it seems to portray the biggest dysfunction yet: a dysfunction that, like in all three of these plays, serves as an obstacle to the family’s prosperity and acquisition of the American dream.
“Buried Child” is a three-act play with 6 focal characters: Vince, Shelly, Tilden, Dodge, Halie and Bradley. Dodge and Halie are married and have two children, Tilden and Bradley (who is the eldest, and also an amputee). Vince is Tilden’s son, and Shelly is his girlfriend from LA. The secret of this family, which is not revealed in detail until the very end in Act 3, is that Tilden and his mother, Halie, had an incestuous relationship together which resulted in the birth of a baby boy. They all tried pretending that the baby was Dodge’s, but Dodge knew that it was not his, as he had not slept with his wife in years. Fueled by anger and jealousy, Dodge drowned the child and buried it in the field behind the house. Now having to keep this secret and live with the embarrassment, this is when things fell apart for the family. Tilden literally went insane with grief and guilt, Halie became obsessed with going to church perhaps to find salvation (it is also hinted at that she and Father Dewis have some sort of flirtatious relationship on the side), and Dodge gave up his duties tending the farm choosing instead of wallow in his own misery on the couch drinking whiskey and smoking packs of cigarettes. Their farm was now barren and ultimately fruitless.
Vince left his family six years prior, and returns to visit with Shelly. Upon their arrival to the farmhouse, which they find in poor conditions, nobody recognizes him, and Halie is out with Dewis. Immediately, Shelly is doubtful that this is actually Vince’s family. Who could blame her? After much useless probing, Vince leaves to go get Dodge more whiskey and leaves Shelly alone with his dysfunctional family. Considering that there is a haggard and crass alcoholic on the couch, a clearly mentally disturbed man who does nothing but bring in crops from outside, and an angry amputee in the house, all of who Shelly has absolutely no relation to whatsoever, it’s not at all credible that this LA girl would actually stay in the house. Nonetheless, she does stay because she realizes that there is something being covered up by this family and she simply must find out what it is. It is important in theater to remember that a performance is not necessarily supposed to be realistic. Shelly’s character, though not at all realistic, is imperative to the story because she is the one that brings out the final confession from Dodge, which then leads to the resolution. It is important for me to tell you all this upfront because as a first time reader/viewer of the play, I found it rather frustrating because I didn’t like the way it flowed, but I suppose that this is unanimous in the representation of the theme, and critic Susan Abbotson made this clear to me when she said: “The disjunction in Buried Child seems to increase as the play progresses, with Act 3 almost dissolving into chaos, because that is the nature of life.”
In America during the 1970’s when this play was written, there was so much going on socially and economically. One could say it was chaos. To name a few things, the Cold War was coming to an end, President Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal, and the oil crisis left the economy in a sudden and terrible recession. As a result there was something going on psychologically with Americans. According to Spark, Erstling and Boehnlein (The American Journal of Psychotherapy), the “social consciousness movement” with its distrust of the “system” stressed cosmic societal concerns. Despite [an emphasis] on community, social consciousness was inevitably replaced by self-involvement and the desire to get away. Taking all this into consideration along with the “American dream”, it makes sense why a man like Dodge (or Weston Tate) would have moved his family to the Midwest in order to raise a farm. A farm would have made them self-reliant and prosperous. Being self-made after all, IS the American dream. Picking up and leaving is also a reflection on Shepard’s own life, as he was a military brat and he and his family moved from base to base in his early childhood before settling onto their farm. Finally at age 19, right in the middle of all the aforementioned, Shepard made his way to New York City to pursue theater with only a few months of acting experience under his belt.
The plays are supposed to be relatable. I for one find it hard to relate, but Shepard writes in such a manner that it brings lightness and humor to his dark subject matter (he accomplishes this in True West and Curse of the Starving Class as well). There has to be humor or else one couldn’t get past how dark this trilogy is. As morose and macabre a play as Buried Child is, it still managed to end on a hopeful note which is important. In the last scene, Tilden comes into the house carrying the muddy skeletal remains of his deceased child and brings it upstairs to Halie. With the truth revealed it is as if all the family’s troubles have been lifted. Now there is corn in the fields again, everyone remembers who Vince is, and Halie closes the play by saying:
Good hard rain. Takes everything straight down deep to the roots. The rest takes care of itself. You can’t force a thing to grow. You can’t interfere with it. It’s all hidden. Unseen. You just gotta wait ‘ill it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong though. Strong enough to crack the earth even. It’s a miracle, Dodge. I’ve never seen a crop like this in my whole life. Maybe it’s the sun. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the sun.
One cannot ignore that Sam Shepard has a talent for writing racy plays, filled with violence and very other touchy and morose subjects. It is obvious that he puts a lot of his personal life into his work, as we can see the recurring theme of an alcoholic father, or a son who needs to support his mother as well as a disconnect between brothers. We know that Sam Shepard’s upbringing was not ideal, and that for him the “American Dream” isn’t quite real, but we must thank him for being so honest with us about it because at the end of all his plays we are still left with hope, and despite the macabre, perhaps hope is his message to us all in a time where the American Dream seems all too unreal.
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