Buried Child: Wikis


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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
IBDB profile

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.


Plot Summary

  • Dodge - in his seventies
  • Halie - Dodge's wife; mid-sixties
  • Tilden - Their oldest son
  • Bradley - Their next-oldest son, an amputee
  • Vince - Tilden's son
  • Shelly - Vince's girlfriend
  • Father Dewis - a Protestant minister

Context and Thematic Concerns


Disappointment and disillusionment with American Mythology and the American Dream

  • 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 fantasises 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.
  • The failure of the farm and the family as whole- In failing to make the farm successful (Dodge has not planted anything for a number of years) Dodge has failed to fulfill his American Dream. He thus sits and decays in the living room, manifesting his disappointment and disillusionment through his physical immobility.
  • When Shelley arrives she outlines what the ideal American farm house should be, the reality which greets her is very different. This reflects the disparity between reality and the fantasy, embodied in the American Dream, of American life.

1970s economic slowdown

  • 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

  • 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 is furthermore disempowered through their actions. His character reflects the 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 and thus reflects the breakdown of morality and ethics within America.

Shepard's intention

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.


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. The use of humour is also an essential postmodern element.

Mixing of genres

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


  • Aging dysfunctional patriarch of the family; in his 70s
  • Is an alcoholic
  • 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 into house crops 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
  • Has sex with her son and gives birth to her grandson/son
  • Abandons the family to socialise with Dewis and revel in 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 grandparent's house
  • Determined to uncover the family secret
  • Utterly shaken at what she finds
  • Skeptical of family relations

Father Dewis

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

Performance history

Buried Child premiered at The Magic Theatre 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.[1] 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, where it became the first Off-Off-Broadway play to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.

The show was revived for a two-month run on Broadway in 1996 following a production at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. 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.

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. ^ Richard Eder (1978-11-07). "Reviewed: Buried Child". The New York Times. http://theater2.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?res=FC77E7DF1738E632F25754C0A9679D946990D6CF. Retrieved 2008-08-02.  

Further reading

  • Shepard, Sam (1984). Seven Plays. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 0553346113.  
  • Shepard, Sam (1997). Buried Child. New York: Dramatist's Play Service. ISBN 082221511X.  

External links


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