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A plot synopsis, history, reviews and criticism of the play by Sam Shepard


In his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning family drama, Buried Child, Sam Shepard takes a macabre look at one American Midwestern family with a very dark secret. When Vince brings his girlfriend, Shelly, home to meet his family, she is at first charmed by the "normal" looking farm house which she compares to a "Norman Rockwell cover or something"--that's before she actually meets his crazy family--his ranting, alcoholic grandparents (Dodge and Halie) and their two sons: Tilden, a hulking semi-idiot, and Bradley, who has lost one leg to a chain saw. Strangely, no one seems to remember Vince at first, and they treat him as an intruder. Eventually, however, they seem to accept him as a part of their violently dysfunctional family.

Gradually, the family's dark secret begins to come clear. Years ago Dodge, the grandfather, buried an unwanted newborn (possibly the product of an incestual relationship between Tilden and his mother) in some undisclosed location in the backyard. From that point forward, the entire family lived under a cloud of guilt that is finally dispelled when Tilden unearths the unfortunate child's mummified remains and carries it upstairs to his mother. This act seems to purge the family of its curse. Corn now grows in the fields where nothing would grow for years. The play ends with a proclamation of hope from Halie who says:

You can't force a thing to grow. You can't interfere with it. It's all hidden. It's all unseen. You just gotta wait til it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong enough. Strong enough to break the earth even. It's a miracle.


Buried Child was first produced at the Magic Theatre, San Francisco, on June 27, 1978. It was directed by Robert Woodruff with the following cast:

  • DODGE: Joseph Gistirak
  • HALIE: Catherine Willis
  • TILDEN: Dennis Ludlow
  • BRADLEY: William M. Carr
  • SHELLY: Betsy Scott
  • VINCE: Barry Lane
  • FATHER DEWIS: Rj Frank

On April 30, 1996, Buried Child was revived for a two month run on Broadway following a production at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago for which Shepard had revised the script, reportedly fixing edits that the original director had made to the text without Shepard's authorization. The production, directed by Gary Sinise at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, was nominated for five Tony Awards and featured the following cast:

  • DODGE: James Gammon
  • HALIE: Lois Smith
  • TILDEN: Terry Kinney
  • BRADLEY: Leo Burmester
  • SHELLY: Kellie Overbey
  • VINCE: Jim True


Buried Child is the theatrical equivalent of an optical illusion: it messes with your mind. Thematically you could sum it up very simply as an eloquent depiction of the inescapability of the family bond, a favorite subject for Shepard and indeed many American playwrights, and in that respect it ranks right up there with The Glass Menagerie and Long Day's Journey Into Night. But what's extraordinary about Buried Child is that, like Shepard's best plays and decidedly unlike most conventional family dramas, it acts on the audience the same way the tensions of the play act on the characters. It becomes the things it is about--emotional violence and the mystery of the family bond.

DON SHEWEY, Sam Shepard

In Buried Child, the religious concerns are all-pervasive, from the presence of the ineffectual, flirtatious priest, to the invocation of the ancient corn gods, to the literalizing of the Christian resurrection in Tilden's exhumation of the buried child who died for their sins. In this play there is a miracle--corn grows where none has grown for years--but instead of fertility and rebirth, the miracle yields death and decay.

JOHAN CALLENS, Sam Shepard: Between the Margin and the Centre

Buried Child is a miniature of what was occurring everywhere in America: that individual disconnect which leads to social anarchy. But even so, the country--that productive land of fructifying bounty--lurches on, in a kind of evolution of its own. The social fabric is rent; yet the land multiplies. And, in fact, the buried child may well be the "fertilizer" or energy which makes the land productive--a sad commentary, but also a recognition that something does still function.

FREDERICK ROBERT KARL, A Chronicle of Wasted Time

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.


After dropping numerous pointed yet confusing clues, Shepard never solves the riddle of the buried child. Who was the father? Tilden? Ansel? Someone else? Why did Dodge kill it? And why does nobody recognize Vince when he arrives? A true mystery, Shepard suggests--such as how we were chosen to be born into a particular family, or how we turn out the way we do--remains a mystery. The only solution the play offers is an "impossible" one: that Vince and the buried child are the same person, each one a fantasy of what the other might have become under different circumstances.

DON SHEWEY, Sam Shepard

If, on the level of familial guild, Buried Child exposes the way in which the patriarchy tries to impose order by silencing transgressive sexuality, on the level of national guilt the play ... may well be suggestive of a kind of historical amnesia, through which an unresolved historical event has been repressed.

THOMAS P. ADLER, "Repetition and Regression in Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child"

The disjunction in Buried Child seems to increase as the play progresses, with Act 3 almost dissolving into chaos, because that is the nature of life.

SUSAN C.W. ABBOTSON, Masterpieces of 20th-century American Drama

Through plays such as Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child, Shepard might ultimately be signaling the way in which contemporary American drama itself refuses to be bounded any longer in either content or style. It is a project in which he has helped lead the way, by wedding radical ambitions to traditional form.

THOMAS P. ADLER, "Repetition and Regression in Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child"

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