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Sam Shepard was a significant figure in American theater who is recognized for advancing the genre with his novel plays, the most renowned of which is Buried Child, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize and established him as a playwright. Shepard spent a large portion of his childhood in the Midwest, and the most of his plays are set in that region (Lawson). The turmoil that would exist in an American household during the 1970s recession was dramatized in Buried Child. Shephard's inspiration for the play may have originated from his own childhood experiences growing up in a chaotic family in the American west. In his career that spanned almost half a century, Sam Shepard is credited with writing 44 plays on various topics such as romance and fiction, but he is best known for writing familial dramas True West and Buried Child which significantly elevated his career.
Sam Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan in the State of Illinois in 1943, as the first child of an officer in the United States Airforce and a teacher (Biography). Due to the nature of the occupation that his father had in the US. Air Force, the family, found themselves being constantly on the move. Shepard, therefore, did not have the stability to develop meaningful social relationships in his younger days which would be later reflected in his writing. Eventually, the family settled in Duarte California where they adopted a farming lifestyle which had influenced Shepard to pursue a degree in agricultural studies but dropped out to pursue a career in theater (John).
Apart from his love for theater, which began at an early age, this decision was also informed by the dysfunctionality that existed at home. He described his father as a violent alcoholic which led to the creation of a toxic environment at home that Shepard was keen on escaping. Following a two-year tour with "The Bishop's Company Repertory Players," a theatrical troupe, he settled in New York where he chose to pursue a playwriting career in the Off-Off-Broadway scene (Biography). It is here that he would use his childhood experiences in the West as inspiration to write some groundbreaking plays such as Buried Child which contained novel themes and concepts that transformed theater.
Shepard`s childhood in a dysfunctional home acted as the motivation behind a majority of the characters in his which made them seem very authentic which eventually, led to his recognition as a playwright. The setting of the majority of his plays was in the Midwest as was his childhood; therefore, he used this understanding to come up with characters and stories that blended into that environment. His first recognition as a writer came after two years in the Off-Off-Broadway scene where he was awarded OBIE awards for Chicago, Icarus's Mother, and Red Cross (Biography). This success can mainly be attributed to the authenticity of the characters and the storylines.
Through his plays, Shepard offered a new perspective on what the American experience was by depicting how life in the rural communities of America. He depicted how life in some rural communities and households in the Midwest were during various historical periods such as the economic recession of the 1970s. By depicting how life was in the Midwest in some of his plays like Buried Child and True West, Shepard shed light into a rarely seen side of American life that was not being represented in the plays at the time (John). His breakthrough as a playwright came in the late 70s and early 80s when he released three immensely successful plays namely: Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, and True West (Biography). All of these plays focused on the familial drama that exists in many dysfunctional households in America with critics praising the authenticity that the characters and storylines had.
These plays were widely successful mainly because they had been inspired by real events in Shepard's life. Of the three, Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child would go on to win OBIE awards and a Pulitzer nomination for each, eventually, it was Buried Child that won Shepard a Pulitzer Prize (Biography). It was during this period that Shepard was also establishing himself as an actor by acting in films such as Days of Heaven, Resurrection, and The Right Stuff, earning accolades and recognition along the way (Lawson). This would mark the beginning of a successful career as an actor that he would pursue till his death on 27th July 2017, at age 73. However, even after having a glorious acting career, Shepherd is best remembered for his play Buried Child which like most of his plays was revolutionary due to the uniqueness of the themes, storylines, and characters.
Buried Child is a play about a dysfunctional family living in the American Midwest that was being consumed by a dark secret; a child had been born out of an incestuous relationship between the eldest son and his mother with the father choosing to kill and bury the child (Shepard 64). As a result of this, the family members became distant and dysfunctional. The father, Dodge, became an alcoholic choosing to idle around the house in front of the television instead of working on the farm as he used to (Shepard 7). His wife, Halie, who felt guilty for what she had done sought salvation by dedicating her time and effort to religious activities in the church, however, she ends up cheating on her husband with father Dewis.
Their son Tilden became consumed with the what he had done and had to go away to New Mexico in search of a new life for himself away from his family. However, this does not work out as he expected and he is forced to return home as a burnout. With his stay in New Mexico being characterized by unspecified problems, he seems to have been affected emotionally to the point of developing a mental illness (John). The other surviving son, Bradley, has an amputated leg following an accident at home which had turned him into an aggressive person who constantly bullies everyone around him. The arrival of Tilden`s son Vince heralds what could be the lifting of the curse that the household seemed to be under since the dark secret about the baby that Halie had with Tilden is addressed openly (John).
The Play is set in a Midwestern setting which Shepard could have drawn inspiration from his childhood and adulthood since it mostly spent in the south-western regions of America. The play in some aspects also closely resembles Shepard`s childhood in a dysfunctional home where his father was an abusive alcoholic which influenced him to quit school and leave his home. Through this play, Shepard shed light into the disillusionment that existed in dysfunctional homes mainly in the rural Midwestern regions of America. Buried child represented the widespread disillusionment that many Americans in rural areas had with the American dream after there was a slowdown in the economy.
The play having an American frontier setting can be considered as being symbolic to the playwright's life who grew up in similar conditions and spent a considerable part of his adult life living in the desert (Oumano 56). He utilized his knowledge of the life in households in the American West to come up with the characters and the events of the play (Lawson). In the play, the most visible theme is the failure of the characters to realize the American dream and the hopelessness that this gives them. The playwright uses the Midwestern region of America to show the disillusionment that these individuals have after failing to achieve their dreams and the dysfunctionality that exists in the social relationships in these communities.
Shepard was one of the earliest playwrights that chose to show the failure to achieve the American dream and the effects this was having on the individuals that failed to do so. Everyone in the play was a representation of a failed attempt at achieving various aspects of the American dream which is epitomized by one having a happy family and owning a home. Dodge had earlier on been successful at farming with his farm being productive enough to cater to his family needs. However, this later changed when he felt emasculated by his eldest son fathering a child with his wife, causing him to sink into a life of alcoholism resulting in the farm falling into disrepair.
After failing to find happiness in his family, Dodge resulted to taking alcohol and idling around since he decided that he would not plant anything on the ground he buried that baby, this leads to him being in a state of helplessness in his old age since he relied on other members for food (Shepard 14). The dysfunctionality and poverty that the household has can be attributed in part, to Dodge killing the child born out of the illicit affair of Halie and her son and burring it in the farm which he vowed never to work on again. This act of murder is what led to the destruction of his family owing to the harshness of the act however moral it seemed to him.
Haile is another character that sought to have her family achieve the American dream but her fixation with Tilden, one of her sons who played football, leads to them having a sexual relationship. The effects of this shameful act set her family on the course of destruction and despair. Her surviving sons are burnouts who cannot take care of themselves let alone their parents and just like their parents the two, Tilden and Bradley, have drifted apart (John). Haile`s relationship with Tilden causes irreparable damage to her relationship with Dodge, and as a result, they drift away from each other. Her discontentment with this situation is what causes her to result in escapist behavior such as practicing insincere religion, promiscuousness and nostalgic memories that can be best described as fantasies (Shepard 18).
Tilden, the eldest son, had left the family farm in search of opportunities in the State of New Mexico after his child was killed by Dodge. However, he did not succeed and is now back in the family home under unclear circumstances after having encountered problems in New Mexico. One can also deduce that Tilden has a form of mental illness that the other family members like his mother and brother capitalize on to mistreat him. The failure by Tilden to achieve his success and freedom after he left for New Mexico is the major reason he became mentally ill which could have been caused by the despair he felt (John).
Bradley who is the youngest of the remaining sons could have been the one to take over the activities of the farm once his brother left for New Mexico and his father was unwilling to continue farming. However, he is unable to ascend to this leadership role due to an accident that saw him lose his leg making him lose his autonomy and has to rely on his family members for support. The inability to fulfill his dreams causes Bradley to develop bitterness which he expresses by bullying other members of the family such as Dodge and Tilden who cannot fight back (Shepard 56).
Vince is the only family member who at the beginning shows hope of turning the fortune of the family around by helping everyone get back to their former motivated and successful selves. He can be considered as being successful after having escaped pursuing a dream of becoming an artist which he did. Apart from attaining success as an artist, he also found a companion with whom he intended to start a family with, but before he could proceed, he wanted to connect with his family. Even though he is perturbed by what he finds he cannot escape the pull that the situation has on him.
Vince the only character who could have become the new head of the household and steer it in the right direction which can be considered as a personification of the American dream gives up on everything; his relationship, and dreams of becoming an artist. Vince falls into a state of failure and disillusionment making him give up on making his dreams come true and in the process living a happy and fulfilling life.
Buried Child is considered as an important contribution to American theater because of the change that the nation was undergoing during the time. The play was released when the U.S. economy was in recession due to a crash in the stock market combined with an oil crisis brought about by an embargo. Due to the recession, many households were struggling to survive with countless others losing hope of ever achieving the American dream. Sam Shepard depicts how life would have been for a middle-class American family during this period which can be evidenced by the numerous shattered dreams. The play represented a country which was considered as the ethical and economic leader of the world as being unsure of its future standing in the world which was a novel concept at the time, earning the play and playwright recognition.
Shepard, Sam. Buried Child. Dramatists Play Service Inc, 1997.
Oumano, Ellen. Sam Shepard the life and work of an american dreamer. WH Allen & Company, 1986. 184 pgs
John Simon. “Buried Child.” Drama for Students, Encyclopedia.com, Retrieved from, www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/buried-child.
Lawson, Mark. “Sam Shepard: the man who conquered Broadway and Hollywood.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, Retrieved from, www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jul/31/sam-shepard-broadway-hollywood-pulitzer-academy-award.
Biography. “Sam Shepard.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, Retrieved from, www.biography.com/people/sam-shepard-9481676.
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