Buried Child
Cover of Playbill for 1996 Broadway production
Written bySam Shepard
Date premieredJune 27, 1978
Place premieredMagic Theatre, San Francisco
Original languageEnglish
SettingIllinois farmhouse, 1978

Buried Child is a play written by Sam Shepard that was first presented in 1978. It won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and launched Shepard to national fame as a playwright. The play depicts the fragmentation of the American nuclear family in a context of disappointment and disillusionment with American mythology and the American Dream, the 1970s rural economic slowdown, and the breakdown of traditional family structures and values. In 1979, Shepard also won the Obie Award for Playwriting. The Broadway revival in 1996 received five Tony nominations, including Best Play.

Plot summary

Act I

In an old farmhouse on a failed plot of land in Illinois, the characters Dodge (in his 70s) and Halie (in her 60s), an old married couple, are introduced. The scene begins with the couple having a conversation with one another, discussing events of their past. Halie is not visible in the scene as she is yelling from upstairs, while Dodge is sitting on the basement sofa. He occasionally sneaks drinks from a bottle hidden in the couch; it is evident that he is an alcoholic. They talk about their beloved son Ansel, who was purportedly murdered years earlier by his wife on their wedding night. They also talk about another son, Bradley, an amputee who comes to cut Dodge's hair forcefully while he sleeps; Dodge is wearing a baseball cap to ward off this inevitability.

Halie leaves for church dressed in black and tells the oldest son, Tilden, to look after Dodge. Tilden then enters the scene with an armful of corn, which he claims grew in the field outside. Dodge states that nothing has grown in the field since the Dust Bowl, and accuses Tilden of stealing from a neighbor. Dodge and Tilden then begin to discuss Tilden's past; they speak of how he "got into trouble" in New Mexico, and how in failing his attempt to leave the family home for a new life, Tilden was forced to flee following this incident. Tilden is evidently mentally unwell as he sits, shucking corn into a bucket. When Dodge falls asleep at the end of their conversation, Tilden covers him with the corn husks, creating a blanket, before he goes outside into the rain. Bradley enters the room shortly after and shaves Dodge's head while he sleeps.

Act II

The scene begins with the introduction of Vince and Shelly. Vince was headed to meet his father Tilden in New Mexico but has decided to stop over at his grandparents' house on the way there; Shelly is just tagging along for the ride. Vince is surprised when he enters the house as Dodge does not recognize him at all. Shelly then believes they have entered the wrong house and tries to convince Vince to leave, but he does not budge. Tilden then enters the room with a bundle of carrots and is uninterested in Shelly and Vince. Vince then gets Tilden's attention, but Tilden also does not recognize Vince.

Vince tries different methods to convince Tilden and Dodge of his identity, while Shelly helps Tilden with the carrots. Dodge then motions to Vince and tells him to go buy him alcohol, and he does so. While he is gone, Shelly talks to Tilden and asks him questions about Vince. Tilden goes on saying that he does not recognize Vince but he does look familiar. Tilden also talks about the son he had a long time ago with his mother, Halie, but Dodge had killed the baby and buried him in the backyard. Bradley then re-enters the scene and begins to harass Shelly by sticking his hand in her mouth. He then takes her fur coat and places it over Dodge and blacks out.


The scene begins with Dodge presuming that Vince has run away and left Shelly. He also tells Shelly not to fear Bradley as he only has one leg. After some time, Halie enters the house with Father Dewis, with whom, the audience later learns, she is having an affair. Halie sees Dodge lying on the ground and Bradley lying shamelessly on the sofa and smiles in embarrassment to Father Dewis. She then starts a yelling match with Dodge and Bradley, and they exchange several words until Shelly intervenes. In frustration, Shelly grabs Bradley's wooden leg and waves off the rest of the family, expressing her anger with them and Vince. Father Dewis tries to calm Shelly down and places the wooden leg onto the table.

Soon after, Vince returns drunk and hurls beer bottles at the house. He then climbs through the door's netting and states that he has to stay at the farmhouse with his family. Halie and Dodge then recognize Vince, and Dodge hands him the ownership of the house and land. With the land now his, Vince decides to stay at the house, while Shelly tries to convince him to leave. Shelly gives up on Vince and leaves, and Vince grabs the wooden leg and throws it outside the house; Bradley goes crawling for it. Father Dewis leaves the house and Halie heads upstairs to her room. Vince realizes that Dodge has died and places a blanket and rose on his body. Halie then begins to yell out that corn has bloomed in the backyard, while Vince sits motionless on the sofa. In the final scene, Tilden walks around the room with the corpse of a baby in his hands.


Context and thematic concerns

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Disappointment and disillusionment

1970s economic slowdown

Breakdown of traditional family structures and values


Shepard's intention

Shepard's intention was to create a narrative that communicated and reflected the frustrations of American people, but at the same time was engaging and entertaining. Set in a context which is easily recognizable, the American farming family, and centered around issues which are universal, the disillusionment with the American dream and the traditional patriarch, Buried Child reflects the frustrations of American people. The postmodern style that Shepard uses incorporates surrealism and symbolism in the realistic framework of a family drama. This platform allows for engaging visceral theatre. Shepard is able to create images in the imaginations of people through the use of surrealism and symbolism, evoke and harness the experiences of his audience through its postmodern nature, and keep the audience comfortable in the trappings of realism.[citation needed]

Some critics consider it part of a Family Trilogy, which includes Curse of the Starving Class (1976) and True West (1980).[2] Others consider it part of a quintet that includes Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985).[3]


Buried Child incorporates many postmodern elements such as the mixing of genres, the deconstruction of a grand narrative, and the use of pastiche and layering.[citation needed]

Mixing of genres

Buried Child is laid in the framework of realism; the play is essentially a family drama. However, added into the realistic framework are distinct elements of surrealism and symbolism. The three-act structure, the immediate time frame and the setting of the play in reality give it an overall realistic appearance. Yet the use of symbols such as the corn and the rain give the play a symbolist element while the fragmented characterisation and actions like the multiple burials of Dodge are somewhat surreal or dreamlike. The humour is also an essential element of the style, giving the play sardonic, black and even at times slapstick elements. All these stylistic elements combine to give the play an overall postmodern feel.[citation needed]

Performance history

Buried Child premiered at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco on June 27, 1978, directed by Robert Woodruff. Its New York premiere was at Theater for the New City on October 19, 1978.[4] Director Harold Clurman wrote in The Nation: "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."[This quote needs a citation] The play transferred to Theatre de Lys, now the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

The show was revived for a two-month run on Broadway in 1996, following a production at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 1995. The production, directed by Gary Sinise at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, was nominated for five Tony Awards but did not win any. The script for the production had been reworked by Shepard.[5] Shepard wrote that he had felt certain "aspects of the writing still seemed awkward and unfinished" in 1978, and that he was glad for the opportunity to revisit the script for the Steppenwolf production.[6]

In February 2016, the play began performances Off-Broadway, produced by theatre company The New Group and directed by Scott Elliott.[7][8] It ran for two months (February 2 through April 3, 2016) at The Pershing Square Signature Center.[9][10] A live stream was held on March 30, 2016, on the fee-based service BroadwayHD.[11] The production was nominated for two Lucille Lortel Awards, for Outstanding Lead Actor (Ed Harris) and Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Paul Sparks).[12]

The New Group's production of Buried Child transferred to Trafalgar Studios in the West End for a 14-week run, beginning November 12, 2016.[13]

Notable casts

Character San Francisco (1978) New York (1978) Broadway (1996) Off-Broadway (2016) West End (2016)
Dodge Joseph Gistirak Richard Hamilton James Gammon Ed Harris Ed Harris
Halie Catherine Willis Jacqueline Brookes Lois Smith Amy Madigan Amy Madigan
Tilden Dennis Ludlow Tom Noonan Terry Kinney Paul Sparks Barnaby Kay
Bradley William M. Carr Jay O. Sanders Leo Burmester Rich Sommer Gary Shelford
Shelly Betsy Scott Mary McDonnell Kellie Overbey Taissa Farmiga Charlotte Hope
Vince Barry Lane Christopher McCann Jim True Nat Wolff Jeremy Irvine
Father Dewis RJ Frank Bill Wiley Jim Mohr Larry Pine Jack Fortune


  1. ^ a b Buried Child analysis, encyclopedia.com
  2. ^ Simard, Rodney. "American Gothic: Sam Shepard's Family Trilogy." Theatre Annual 41 (1986): 21–36.
  3. ^ Roudané, Matthew (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521777667
  4. ^ Eder, Richard (November 7, 1978). "Reviewed: Buried Child". The New York Times. Retrieved August 2, 2008.
  5. ^ Brantley, Ben (May 1, 1996). "Theater Review; A Sam Shepard Revival Gets Him to Broadway". The New York Times.
  6. ^ Shepard, Sam (2006). Buried Child. New York: Random House. p. viii.
  7. ^ Paulson, Michael (May 12, 2015). "Ed Harris and Amy Madigan Join New Group's Buried Child Revival". The New York Times.
  8. ^ Gerard, Jeremy (October 8, 2015). "American Horror Story's Taissa Farmiga Joins Ed Harris, Amy Madigan In Buried Child Revival". Deadline Hollywood.
  9. ^ Clemet, Olivia (December 3, 2015). "Mad Men Star Rich Sommer Joins Cast of Upcoming Off-Broadway Revival of Sam Shepard's Buried Child". Playbill.
  10. ^ "Buried Child, Starring Ed Harris & Amy Madigan, Extends Again Off-Broadway". Broadway.com. February 17, 2016. Retrieved February 17, 2016.
  11. ^ Cox, Gordon (March 28, 2016). "Streaming Service BroadwayHD Bulks Up With Buried Child Livestream". Variety. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  12. ^ Cox, Gordon (March 30, 2016). "Broadway's The Humans Leads Lucille Lortel Awards Nominations (FULL LIST)". Variety.
  13. ^ "Buried Child Tickets". London Box Office. September 1, 2016.

Further reading