I am so glad that Matt Johnson began a discussion of Sam Shepard's Buried Child, which along with A Lie of the Mind is a favorite play of mine. The complexities that Matt discusses make the play a wonderful leaping off place for exciting discussions of secrets, death and rebirth, and the American way of life.
I tend to look at the play more as myth than realism. Dodge, the pioneer and founder of the farm who hasn't planted a crop since the Depression; the next generation of sons, All-Americans all, and all crippled (physically, mentally) or dead, and lost; and the third generation, Vince, who is an artist (jazz musician).
For me, the last image of Tilden bringing the remains of the buried child up the stairs -- to confront his mother? -- is haunting. But what fascinates me is the question: why now? Why, after all this time, can the baby be unearthed now?
I think the answer centers on Vince, about whom, despite his long absence in the middle of the play, I think the play is about. Vince is an artist returning to his roots from the big city. At first, nobody recognizes him, which seems very, very strange. But when DO they recognize him? When his returns drunk and violent, having seen his ancesters in the rearview mirror back through generation after generation, into the heartland.
It is his return that is the catalyst for revelation of the family secret. It is his return that releases Dodge from his death-in-life to real death, following the ritual burial by his son under the sheaves of corn. This is the story of the Fisher King -- a decaying land ruled over by a wounded King that needs to be restored by a young knight who asks the right question.
The question that fascinates me, and that causes the most energetic discussion amongst my students, is what we are to make of the ending, when Dodge (in surely the most unnoticed stage death in dramatic literature) is replaced by Vince, who, drunk and violent, assumes Dodge's exact position on the couch. The play comes full circle: Hallie is chattering on upstairs, only this time she can SEE the fields of vegetables that on her son could see before. Are we to see this ending as negative: Vince has given up his artistic aspirations and been sucked back into the decaying family atmosphere and assumed the same abhorent characteristics of the now-dead former King Dodge? Or is it positive? Vince, the young artist who previously had denied his heritage and become a city boy, has returned home to claim his heritage and heal the wounded land -- past secrets will be unearthed, and the harvest will once again be bountiful.
While strong arguments can be made for both interpretations, I lean toward the latter. While Vince is drunk and violent, and while he does assume the same exact position on the couch as his predecessor, I think his realization in the car -- when he was running away from his home, but had a vision of his heritage stretching back into the mists of time -- is that you can't run from your family, you can't deny your roots, you must claim them. Initially, he must re-enact the ritual drunkenness and violence of the past -- a Bacchanalia of sorts -- before settling down to restore health to the kingdom. I think it is significant that he is an artist -- that it is an artist that must, in this generation, uncover the sins of the past, and heal the present using Dodge's inherited tools as well as new tools that he plans to acquire. The buried secret of America's past (this is, after all, an All-American family in America's HEART-land) must be dug up, acknowledged, even embraced, so that the rebirth can occur.
What is that buried secret in America's heartland? I don't know -- there are so many possibilities. And that is what makes Shepard's play so rich, so fascinating, and such a masterpiece.