The Autobiographic in Buried Child and other plays
The FatherSon Conflictp
The Buried Child
Sam Shepard is known as one of the most accomplished playwrights in the United States, he also gained celebrity as an actor in a couple of American movies.
He has written more than 45 plays, different screenplays, and has received 11 Obie Awards, besides a Golden Palm Award and an Oscar nomination.
For the 1979 published play Buried Child he received the Pulitzer Price in the same year. This play belongs to Shepard's trilogy of family dramas, and is probably the one which marks the change of direction in his career to a more realistic style.
Critics do recognize a lot of differences compared to older plays, which are seen as surrealistic plays, or plays, which critics catogorize as parts of the Theatre of Absurd, like, for example,Fool for Love.
But reading Buried Child, the reader quickly realizes that the play may have started as a realistic play, but it turns out to be totally different. Step by step, Shepard creates a sarcastic play, which also could be seen as part of the Theatre of Absurd.
In a brilliant way, he combines the actual with the fictional. When the audience just starts to feel comfortable with the play, the plot changes immediately and disappoints their great expectations.
First, it will be helpful to give a short introduction to Buried Child:
The play is about a farmers family living near Illinois, in the middle of nowhere. On the surface the family seems to be normal, maybe just a bit frustrated. But in the background appears to be a secret, which connects the family in a very strange way, also every single member of the family tries to keep this secret.
The estranged son Vince, who left his home six years ago shows up at his grandparents' place for a surprise visit. He is accompanied by his girlfriend Shelly, who is, like him, heavily disturbed by the strange behaviour of her boyfriend`s family.
Where as Vince seems to surrender to unreveal the secret of his family, and probably is trying to find his new place in the family hierarchy, Shelly will not give up and tries to get behind the secret.
The American Repertory Theatre, in the program notes for their 1996 production of "Buried Child", stated:
"No native dramatist since Eugene O'Neill has probed so deeply the core of American pop mythology and set it on a collision course with the realities of American life. Buried Child explores the inner tensions of a rural existence, father-son relationships, and the place women hold in an increasingly ambiguous domestic atmosphere. Starkly poetic, humorous, and mysterious,Buried Child is a vision of a dysfunctional family transformed into a symbol of America's loss of innocence."
The following essay is divided into three main parts. The first part will give an idea of Shepard's use of autobiographical facts, the second focuses on the father-son conflict we often find in his plays. The last part 'The Buried Child' will be a direct interpretation of the text.
1. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHIC IN BURIED CHILD AND OTHER PLAYS
As mentioned before,Buried Child belongs to Shepard's trilogy of family-dramas, like Curse of the Starving Class (1977) and True West (1980). They are all very powerful dramas and told to be of an autobiographical nature.
Maybe, because Shepard seems to reveal just a few facts of his private life, critics recognize even more the autobiographic in his plays.
"Casting Shepard as a figure who is as wary of the media as J.D. Salinger may be somewhat hyperbolic, but the sense that Shepard is guarded in interviews is not unfounded. 'I don't want certain aspects [of myself] to be public', he told Kevin Sessums. 'They are not for public consumption. They're private, they belong to me, they don't belong to everybody and I refuse to let them out there.'..."
For example the farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, which Shepard uses for a lot of settings, reminds some critics of his grandparents' home near Chicago, which he discribes in Motel Chronicles, a so-called recollection of his own life.
"My grandfather sits as he always sat - in a hole of his sofa wrapped in crocheted blankets facing the T.V. He's like a skeleton now... He smokes and drinks continuously and spits blood into a stand-up brass ashtray like you see in lobbies of old hotels. [...] His world is circumscribed around the sofa. Everything he needs is within a three-foot reach. The T.V. is only on for the baseball. When the game ends my Grandmother comes in and turns it off. [...]"
This description reminds the reader of the entry-scene of Buried Child, but it looks more like a correspondence between the play and Motel Chronicles.
In the play, we find the sick grandfather Dodge stucked on his sofa, watching baseball on T.V. Through the whole play he never leaves the house, not even the living room. Unable to move, he vegetates on his sofa until he finally dies. His wife Halie meets his needs, but he does not seem to pay attention to her or to what she says.
Just before Shepard wrote Buried Child, which is on it simplest level an exploration of identity, he visited his grandparents' place, then drove on to his father's place out in the desert. (Here the reader probably recognizes relations to True West, where two brothers struggle with the relationship with each other, and, even more, have problems to have a healthy and warm relationship to their estranged father, who is a drunk living in the desert.)
Father and son haven't seen each others for years. After this visit they won't meet for long time, they might have had a big fight last time they met.
Shepard probably used the description of this trip to work things out, also when the family in Buried Child might be too strange to be explored as Shepard's family in real life. But, because of this trip he seems to get obsessed with his family again.
And again, there are hints hidden in Buried Child, that turn the interpretation of the play with certain autobiographical features, which is probably not of a 'true' autobiographical nature.
"SHELLY. I mean Vince has a thing about his family now. I guess it's a new thing with him. I kind of find it hard to relate to. But he feels it's important. You know. I mean he wants to get to know you again. After all this time. Reunite. I don't have much faith in it myself. Reuniting."
During the time Shepard spends in the house, he studies all the photographs pinned on the wall, and remembers different persons like his disabled uncle and the other uncle, the one who died in his own wedding night. All these characters, even himself (the homecoming son Vince), appear in Buried Child, the autobiographic seems nearly to be too obvious. So we may wonder if he uses at least some autobiographical components, or if he sets up every single story about his private life.
In the play Cowboy Mouth (1971) we find again possible relations to Shepard's 'private' life. By that time he is married to O-Lan Johnson (they have a baby son), he has an affair with Patti Smith, a punk-rock star of the early seventies. She is the co-writer of the play, they live in a hotel. Shepard is confused about the situation, on the one hand he wants to live a rock-and-roll life, on the other he loves his little family.
 program notes of "The American Repertory Theatre" production of "Buried Child", 1996, homepage of Harvard-University
 Ann Wilson: "True Stories: Reading the Autobiographic in Cowboy Mouth, 'True Dylan' and Buried Child", Rereading Shepard: Contemporary Critical Essays on the Plays of Sam Shepard, ed. by Leonard Wilcox, St. Martin's Press Inc., New York, 1993, p. 98
 Ann Wilson: "True Stories: Reading the Autobiographic in Cowboy Mouth, 'True Dylan' and Buried Child", Rereading Shepard: Contemporary Critical Essays on the Plays of Sam Shepard, ed. by Leonard Wilcox, St. Martin's Press Inc., New York, 1993, p. 109
 Sam Shepard: "Buried Child", Revised Edition, Dramatists Play Service Inc., New York, 1996, p. 30