2. The Hollowness of American Myths in Buried Child
2.1 The Myth of the Generic Middle-Class Family in the U.S
2.2 The Myth of the American Midwest
4. Works Cited
“This study holds that the coherence of the [American] nation owes much to the potency of its communal ‘stories’, those myths given prominence in cultural consciousness.” (Wade 3). According to Wade, the American culture is based on certain myths, on complex systems of attitudes, beliefs, and values that are characteristic for a specific society or group (cf. Collins Dictionary 1077). The history of the nation and the experience of westward expansion resulted in certain myths that are still present in the American imagination (cf. Companion Drama 286). U.S. playwright Sam Shepard is known for his interest in national myths, which he defines as mysteries that speak to the emotions and feelings of people, and in the prominence of such myths in modern society (cf. Graham 112). Thus, Shepard sees his plays as tools for cultural conversation by which he questions American myths (cf. Companion Drama 291). One of Shepard´s most popular plays is the family drama Buried Child, which unfolds the dark secret of a family living in a farm house in Midwestern Illinois (cf. BC ).
This term paper will focus on two myths which are dominant in Buried Child: The myth of the generic middle-class family in the U.S. and the myth of the American Midwest. How does Sam Shepard reveal these myths in his family drama, and how does he demonstrate their hollowness? The first chapter will be based on the myth of the generic American family, on its definition, its appearance in the play, and on the question how this myth is criticized. The second chapter will focus on the myth of the American Midwest in the same line.
2. The Hollowness of American Myths in Buried Child
2.1 The Myth of the Generic Middle-Class Family in the U.S.
As Buried Child is a family drama, the most obvious myth which appears in the play is the myth of the generic middle-class family in the U.S. In general, the term family refers to “a primary social group consisting of parents and their offspring, the principal function of which is provision for its members” (Collins Dictionary 588). Thus, the generic household relies on the husband who provides for his dependent wife and children. This family system with a male household head is cherished by families of the American Midwest (cf. American Midwest 1028), the region in which the action of the play takes place and which evokes another myth that will be discussed in the second chapter.
Agricultural production in Midwestern areas such as Illinois has always relied to a great extent on family labor and, consequently, on the farmer as patriarch of the family, who supervised the work of the other family members (cf. American Midwest 1028). These nuclear families were the basis of economic development and progress, but they also promoted inequality within the family because the patriarch owned the whole property, which was transferred to his children by means of family inheritance (cf. American Midwest 1027-1028).
Which image of a family is depicted in Buried Child ? The myth of the generic U.S. family is immediately evoked by the description of the play´s characters: The nuclear family household consists of Dodge, the old farmer, his wife, Halie, and their sons, Tilden and Bradley (cf. BC 62). In addition, there is Vince, representing the third generation of the family, and Father Dewis, a Protestant minister (cf. BC 62). The domestic setting of a farm house with a wooden staircase, a sofa, an old-fashioned T.V., and elm trees (cf. BC 63) is another aspect which indicates the nostalgic image of a happy family (cf. Graham 99). Though the reader recognizes soon that this image is not verified by the action and the characters of the play, the myth of the generic U.S. family is continuously presented to the reader. As an example, Vince and his girlfriend, Shelly, expect a warm homecoming when Vince returns after six years of absence to his family (cf. Graham 90), and Vince demands respect for his family and his heritage of Shelly when they enter the house (cf. BC 84). Later on, Shelly tells Vince that she was expecting a happy family with “turkey dinners and apple pie” (BC 91). The myth of the nuclear family is presented not only by Shelly, but also by Dodge and his wife, Halie. While Dodge mentions only once the past in which he and his offspring “were a well established family” (BC 123), Halie seems to be the one who still has vivid memories of the past and who holds on to the image of a united family. She constantly talks about her sons, Tilden and (dead) Ansel, who used to be promising all-Americans, the one as a sporting star, the other as a war hero (cf. BC 72). Moreover, the walls of Halie´s room are covered with pictures that tell the story of the farm and the family (cf. BC 110-111). Vince, the returning son of Tilden, is another character who shares the myth of the generic family: He inherits the house by the patriarch, Dodge, and states his intention to carry on the family line (cf. BC 128-130).
To sum up, Shepard confronts the reader in different ways with the myth of the generic U.S. middle-class family in the play; first by use of the domestic setting, then through
the characters. In the nuclear family, Dodge adopts the role of the male household head and patriarch farmer, whereas Halie is the mother who puts all her hope in Tilden and Ansel, who represent the promising American youth (cf. Cambridge Companion 180). Furthermore, there is the Protestant minister, Father Dewis, who can be seen as outside help for the family as he can provide faith and guidance in situations of crisis (cf. Graham 81). The plot of Buried Child is based on the specific myth of the generic family of the American Midwest as well, as can be seen in the final scene of the play when Dodge transfers the farm´s properties to his grandson, Vince, by proclaiming his last will (cf. American Midwest 1027; BC 128-130).
As often as the myth of the generic U.S. family is evoked in the play, the myth is also criticized and ridiculed. The hollowness of the myth of the nuclear family with a patriarch farmer is most visibly expressed by the appearance of Dodge, the breadwinner of the family. Dodge, as a caricature of the patriarch (cf. Wade 100), is addicted to alcohol and sits immobilized and sick on his couch (cf. BC 63). In contrast to his role as head of the family, who supervises the work of others, he is distanced to or afraid of the family members. Dodge does not want his wife to come near him (cf. BC 64) but is, at the same time, afraid to be left alone by his son, Tilden (cf. BC 69). Referring to his other son, Bradley, Dodge states that “he doesn´t belong in this house” (BC 76) and is afterwards almost scalped by him when Bradley violently cuts Dodge´s hair (cf. BC 82-83). His lack of power and his weak position in the family is evident when Dodge is repeatedly covered with a blanket or Shelly´s fur coat (cf. BC 107-115). Furthermore, Dodge fights with his sons for the place on the sofa and for his baseball cap (cf. BC 80-108). Halie, the mother in the family, is equally distanced and alienated from the other family members (cf. Abbotson 161). She spends much time on the stairs so that she is not directly involved in family concerns (cf. BC 64), and she idealizes her dead son while criticizing all the other male family members that are alive: “What´s happened to the men in this family! Where are the men!” (BC 124). Moreover, Halie is dressed completely in black and only changes her dress and her attitude of mourning when she goes out with her affair, Father Dewis, in a yellow dress and quite drunkenly (cf. BC 113). The dysfunction of the nuclear middle-class family becomes even more obvious when the reader learns that the two sons of Halie and Dodge are weak and helpless characters. Tilden, a former all-American, was in prison, returned to his family, and is now dependent on his parents (cf. BC 68-105). In the course of the play, Tilden is chased away by his younger brother, Bradley, a man which seems to be aggressive but who is, in fact, physically as well as mentally crippled and entirely helpless without his wooden leg (cf. BC 120). Shelly and Vince are further characters who prove the myth of the generic U.S. family to be hollow and defunct: In contrast to his expectation of a warm homecoming to his family, Vince is neither recognized by his grandfather nor by his father (cf. BC 87-92). Moreover, Shelly is terrified by the bizarre family members and tells them: “You´re the strangers here, not me” (BC 121).
As a result, the family who inhabits the Illinois farm house seems to be a mere caricature of the generic middle-class family in America. The bizarre characters live in an absurd world which is haunted by violence, hostility, and emotional sterility (cf. Bottoms 159; Abbotson 163). The dysfunction of the family is visualized by the characters’ miscommunication and by the atmosphere of constant distrust and competition (cf. Bottoms 162): The members of the family seem to need each other but fear to appear vulnerable and are in danger of being displaced by another family member (cf. Bottoms 163). As an example, Dodge´s place on the couch is later occupied by Bradley and then by Vince (cf. BC 108-131). Dodge himself is the embodiment of nihilism (cf. Cambridge Companion 180) and a parody of the patriarch, wearing a cap as crown and fighting with his sons for the sofa or the throne (cf. Wade 100). The lack of male authority in the family is emphasized by several symbolic burials of Dodge, by the robbing of his scalp by Bradley, and by Halie, who is dressed in black and who seems to mourn the whole family (cf. Cambridge Companion 114-118). Even Vince, who could have brought new hope into the dysfunctional family, inherits at the end of the play not only the farm house but also the family´s tendency towards violence (cf. Graham 48): He crashes into the house and tortures his uncle Bradley while his grandfather dies. The lack of guidance and morality is another aspect of the family´s dysfunction and is represented by Father Dewis, who is accused by Halie of being no help in family crisis: “Father, why are you just standing around here when everything’s falling apart?” (BC 126). The fact that the family cannot help itself and that it is denied help and support by outside institutions like the church reflects the absurdity of the myth of the generic U.S. family (cf. Graham 81).
Referring to the title of the play, the most obvious sign for the hollowness of the myth is the buried child itself, the product of the incestuous relationship between Halie and Tilden. The baby revealed the dysfunction of the family and did not match with the image of a typical farmer family; consequently, it was killed by Dodge to preserve the myth of family unity: “We couldn´t allow that to grow up right in the middle of our lives. It made everything we´d accomplished look like it was nothin´. Everything was cancelled out by this one mistake.” (BC 124).
 BC = Abbreviation for Buried Child.
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- Sam Shepard Buried Child USA Midwest American Midwest American myth Nuclear family family play drama American drama American threatre American theatre