Shepard, Sam. Buried Child.
Summary & Analysis
Dodge: In his late seventies. Thin and sickly, plagued by fits of cough. Cures himself by whiskey drinking and smoking rather than taking his medicine. Former prosperous farmer and baseball player.
Halie: About sixty-five. Dodge's wife. Vital for her age. Ostensibly displays her pretended Christian morality.
Tilden: In his late forties. Dodge and Halie's eldest son. Burnt out, displaced, confused. Former baseball player.
Bradley: In his early forties. Dodge and Halie's next eldest son. His left leg is wooden. Poses as an authoritative person but proves to be a weak one.
Ansel: Dodge and Halie's late youngest son. Soldier. Basketball player.
Vince: Twenty-two. Tilden's son. Saxophone player.
Shelly: Nineteen. Vince's beautiful girlfriend. The most sane of the characters.
Father Dewis. In his sixties. A Protestant minister. Respectable looking but apparently corrupt. As a spiritual father ineffective.
The play is introduced by Pablo Neruda's verses:
"While the rain of your fingertips falls,
while the rain of your bones falls,
and your laughter and marrow fall down,
you come flying."
The words are related to the rain during Acts One and Two, the hysterical laughter especially of Dodge but also of other characters, and the bones that Tilden carries in his arms in the conclusion of the play.
The setting is a former farmhouse in Illinois. The interior is equipped with old battered furniture. A sofa, TV set, lamp, and night table in the room. A staircase leading somewhere up. Upstage behind the sofa is a screened-in porch with a board floor. Beyond are dark elm trees.
Introducing Dodge: A rainy day. Dodge sits on the sofa wrapped in a blanket. He stares at the TV absent-mindedly. Occasionally he takes a sip from the bottle of whiskey which he hides under the cushion. Halie's voice is heard from upstairs. She hears Dodge coughing and scolds him for not taking his pills. Halie is perhaps hard of hearing for Dodge must often repeat his replies. This reinforces the apparent failure in communication of the couple. Dodge is bothered by his wife's talk.
Halie's Former Lover: Halie recalls her young days. Before Dodge she knew a horse breeder who could have taken her to one of the sunny states, California or Florida, she does not know which. Dodge ironically remarks that the man certainly never touched her, which foreshadows Halie's infidelity discussed later in the play. Halie seems to associate sun with a happy life and rain with a spoilt one. Halie announces that she is leaving for a lunch with Father Dewis, she wants to discuss with him the prospective erection of a memorial of their dead soldier son Ansel.
Dodge's Haircut: Halie mentions that Bradley is coming to give Dodge his hair cut. Dodge resolutely refuses to have his hair cut again only after two weeks. He complains about Bradley having him made almost bald the last time and cutting his hair in his sleep. Halie pays little attention to Dodge's protests.
Tilden's Corn: Tilden appears with a bunch of corn ears in his arms. He claims to have picked it at the backyard. Dodge remarks that there has been no corn planted at the back for the last thirty years. Tilden insists on having the corn from there. Dodge concludes that Tilden has stolen it and tries to make Tilden to return it from where he took it. Dodge never had any troubles with neighbours and does not seek to have any now.
Corn Husking: Tilden brings in Dodge's old milking stool and a pail and starts husking the corn, dropping the ears in the pail and throwing the husks at the floor. Dodge tries to talk to Tilden, reminding him that he cannot stay with them in the house forever. Tilden does not give any relevant response as to his plans for future. He only demands from Dodge a sip of whiskey about which he knows Dodge is hiding. Dodge denies having any whiskey on him but Tilden will not be refused. Halie comes down and gets furious on seeing the mess on the floor. She is anxious about Bradley coming and seeing the disarray. Neither of the men pays her much attention.
History of Sons: Halie holds a long plaintive monologue about the disappointing history of her sons. She expected from Tilden to take over the responsibility and take care for the old parents. Tilden however left to New Mexico, got himself in troubles, and ended up in jail. Now he has returned after twenty years to his parents because he felt lonely and did not know where else to go. Halie put her hopes on Bradley next. Bradley got his leg amputated with a chainsaw and is now hardly able to take care for himself. Then Ansel married an Italian Catholic woman, much to Halie's dismay. Halie knew the woman was a witch and in her eyes she could read that she would kill her son. Halie thinks it unfortunate that Ansel did not die in action but was killed in a motel room. Still she seeks to have his memorial erected, a life-size statue with a rifle and a basketball in either hand.
Tilden's Sleep: Halie's complaints upset Tilden who starts crying silently. Halie focuses her anger on Dodge who in turn lets slip a reproach that Tilden is not his own son. Halie thinks Dodge's remark unfair and ignores it. She warns Dodge to have an eye on Tilden and not to let him go out to the backyard. When Halie leaves, Dodge has a severe fit of cough and is forced to take a pill. He lays down on the couch with his baseball cap on and refuses to remove it. He makes Tilden promise that he will not leave the room while he is sleeping. Dodge falls asleep. Tilden collects the husks and spreads them over Dodge's body, as if he were burying him. He steals Dodge's whiskey bottle and leaves. Bradley arrives, removes the cap from Dodge's head, and cuts his hair in his sleep.
Vince's Homecoming: A rainy night. Vince and Shelly are on their way to Vince's father whom they believe to be still in New Mexico. Shelly cannot help herself laughing at the strange picturesqueness of the house. She recalls a children's story about an ideal family living in an ideal house and starts reciting it. Shelly's giggling and her recital annoy Vince who is serious and tense about his coming to his grandparents after some six years of not seeing them.
Confrontation with Dodge: In the house they find Dodge sleeping on the couch. His hair is cut extremely short and his head is cut and bleeding at several places. Dodge mistake Vince for Tilden and starts accusing him for having left him alone and vulnerable to Bradley's clippers. Vince identifies himself but Dodge does not recognize him and denies having a grandson. Dodge comments that Vince and Shelly do not answer his expectation of an ideal couple, he sees something incompatible in them. Dodge offends Shelly, who comes from L.A., by expressing his hatred for what he calls the Sunshine States.
Danger of Sleep: Dodge realizes that his whiskey is gone and starts looking for it madly. He accuses Vince and Shelly for having stolen the bottle and refuses to calm down: "I don't wanna lay down for a while! Every time I lay down something happens. ... You go lie down and see what happens to you! See how you like it! They'll steal your bottle! They'll cut your hair! They murder your children! That's what'll happen." The murder of children may refer to the death of Ansel or to the later Tilden's revelation concerning Dodge's murder of Halie's illegitimate baby.
Confrontation with Tilden: Tilden suddenly appears in the room with an armful of carrots. Vince identifies himself again but Tilden does not acknowledge him. Tilden admits that he had a son once but that he buried him. Tilden suggest to Shelly cutting the carrots together and Shelly submits. Tilden brings in the milking stool and the pail and the two start working. Meanwhile Vince tries in vain to make the two men recall him. He performs little tricks of his childhood, such as drumming on his teeth, which are supposed to refresh the men's memory. Dodge watches the TV disinterested. He pays more attention to the beautiful Shelly than to Vince. Tilden is occupied with the carrots. Despite her being scared by the strange men, Shelly seems to be also a little amused by the bizarre situation.
Buried Child: Dodge keeps on demanding someone to go and buy him some whiskey. Shelley speaks to Vince in Dodge's favour and Vince eventually collects the money for the drink and leaves to buy it. Tilden is attracted by Shelly's rabbit fur coat. He touches it, then asks to be let to put it on, and finally Shelly says he can keep the coat. Tilden unexpectedly brings out a hideous family secret. He tells Shelly that Dodge drowned a little baby, buried it secretly, and would not tell to anyone where the grave lies. Dodge desperately tries to prevent Tilden from talking, he slips from the couch and crawls on the floor in Tilden's direction. Bradley arrives and witnesses the situation. He does not help Dodge from the floor, but orders Shelly to open her mouth and puts his hand into her mouth. He takes away Tilden's coat and covers Dodge's head with it, again as if burying him.
Hopeful Morning: A sunny morning. Dodge spent the night lying on the floor, covered with Shelly's coat. Bradley is soundly sleeping on the couch. The mess from carrots cutting has been cleared. Shelly appears with a cup of broth and offers it to Dodge. Dodge refuses it, annoyed, and demands his whiskey. Vince has not returned yet and Dodge suspects him from running away with his two dollars. Shelly assures Dodge that Vince is certainly returning but Dodge blames her that she is "a funny chicken": "Full of faith. Hope. Faith and hope. You're all alike you hopers. It it's not God then it's a man. If it's not a man then it's a woman. If its not a woman then its the land or the future of some kind. Some kind of future."
House Power: Shelly has already recovered from her fright last night. Now she only has a strange feeling of being alone yet being at home: "The feeling that nobody lives here but me. I mean everybody's gone. You're here, but it doesn't seem like you're supposed to be. ... I don't know what it is. It's the house or something. Something familiar. Like I know my way around here." Shelly slept in Halie's room, which is decorated by many family pictures. Shelly comments on a picture of Halie standing out in the corn, holding a baby in her arms, and looking as if she were wondering how she got there, even as if the baby did not belong to her. Dodge drily observes that he had warned Halie that farm was no city. As to family history, Dodge refuses to remember anything of it, he thinks the line of dead family members inconsequential.
Pretentious Christians: Halie and Father Dewis enter, slightly drunk and engrossed in a familiar conversation. Dodge pleads Shelly to stay with him and she does. Dodge covers his head with Shelly's coat. Halie teases Dewis, wondering whether he is not afraid of punishment. Dewis replies in the negative, with a rather irreverent remark on God, and adds: "That's just between you and me of course. In our heart of hearts we know we're every bit as wicked as the Catholics." Halie is in rage at the spectacle which opens before her guest's eyes. She whisks away Dodge's coat and covers Bradley's wooden leg which stands reclining at the couch. Dodge demands the coat back. Halie gives him Bradley's blanket and in turn Bradley starts yelling at Halie to have it back.
Whiskey and Roses: Halie consults Dewis as to how she is supposed to treat a stranger in her house as a Christian woman. She decides to give Shelly some whiskey and pours it into Shelly's cup despite her protests. Dewis carries a bunch of yellow roses for Halie. Halie smells them as she reaches into his pocket for the whiskey and comments: "They almost cover the stench of sin in this house. Just magnificent! The smell." Halie takes one of the roses and throws it onto Dodge's blanket, as if she were throwing it onto the coffin in a fresh grave.
Shelly's Involvement: Halie realizes that Tilden is not present and blames Dodge for having let him go away. Shelly tries to understand the situation and find out how it stands with Vince and the family that does not know him. Halie ignores her, so Shelly smashes her cup against the door and takes away Bradley's wooden leg, making him immobile. Bradley pleads his mother for help, whimpering as if he were a little helpless child. Dewis ineffectually tries to calm the situation down. Shelly explains how Vince was anxious to return to the places of his boyhood and how he was always talking about his family, so that Shelly created an exact picture of it in her mind. Now she finds that the familiar picture does not respond to reality. Shelly realizes: "I know you've got a secret. You've all got a secret. It's so secret in fact, you're all convinced it never happened."
Dodge's Expiation: The family denies that there would be anything wrong with them. Only Dodge changes his mind, announces that he remembers all perfectly well and that he is willing to tell Shelly. The other family members are dismayed but Dodge does not care. Dodge explains that once they were a well established family and their farm was prospering. They were about to enjoy the middle age in peace when unexpectedly Halie got pregnant. They did not plan any more children and they have not been sharing the same bed since about six years. Dodge let Halie had the child on her own, without doctors or nurses. The baby survived and wanted to pretend that Dodge was its father, though everyone knew it was not the case. Tilden took liking to the child almost as if he were his father; maybe because the child shared his fate of being an illegitimate offspring. Dodge saw the baby as a threat to all that they have accomplished and drowned it.
Vince's Takeover: Suddenly Vince comes crashing through the screen porch door, drunk and singing a war song. Halie recognizes him but now Vince acts as if he did not know the people. He starts smashing empty liquor bottles on the porch. Vince threatens: "Maybe I should come in there and usurp your territory!" Halie appeals to Dewis to rectify the situation but he proves incompetent and unwilling to involve: "I'm just a guest here, Halie. I don't know what my position is exactly. This is outside my parish anyway." Vince starts breaking into the house by cutting a hole in the screen. He talks in military terms and suggests an exchange of prisoners, regarding Shelly as a prisoner of war. Halie is wondering what happened to the sweet and nice boy that Vince used to be. Dewis leads Halie upstairs, dropping the bunch of roses besides the wooden leg at the staircase.
Dodge's Testament: Shelly wants to leave but Vince is unwilling to go and threatens her: "Off limits! Verboten! This is taboo territory. No man or woman has ever crossed the line and lived to tell the tale!" Shelly slips out of the house to the porch. At the same moment Vince manages to get in by climbing through the hole in the screen, holding his knife in his teeth. Bradley crashes off the sofa and starts crawling towards his wooden leg. Dodge boldly proclaims his last testament, while Vince inspects his inheritance. The house goes to Vince, the tools to Tilden, but the rest of the farming implements should be burnt in the fields at night and his body should be put on the top of the bonfire.
Vince's Family Heritage: Shelly tries to make Vince leave but he absolutely refuses: "I just inherited a house. ... I've gotta carry on the line. I've gotta see to it that things keep rolling." Vince explains that he was running away last night in the car. In the windshield he could see his face and it suddenly started transforming into the faces of his ancestors, going back to the very beginning when the first farmers in the family settled in the Corn Belt state of Iowa. Shelly gives up and says goodbye to Vince. Vince goes on examining his inheritance. He picks up the wooden leg, torturing Bradley and preventing him from reaching it. Bradley follows his leg off stage.
Dodge's Death: Dewis comes down and asks Vince to see his grandmother. Vince replies: "My Grandmother? There's nobody else in this house. Except for you. And you're leaving, aren't you?" Dewis tries to take distance from what is going on and once again shows him incompetence as a spiritual father: "She's going to need someone. I can't help her. I don't know what to do. I don't know what my position is. I just came in for some tea. I had no idea there was any trouble. No idea at all." Dewis exits. Vince realizes that Doge is dead. His death has come completely unnoticed by anyone. Vince covers Dodge's body with the blanket, covers his head, and places the bunch of roses on Dodge's chest. He lays down on the couch, with his body in the same relationship to Dodge's.
Exhumed Past: Halie's voice can be heard from upstairs, similarly as in the opening of the play. She talks to Doge and announces that Tilden was right about the corn in the backyard. There is miraculous crops of corn, carrots, and potatoes. She thinks it might have been the rain. Tilden appears, carrying a corpse of a small child. Vince continues staring at the ceiling, as if Tilden were not there. Tilden slowly makes his way up the stairs. Halie keeps on talking. She thinks the crops is a miracle and suggests that it might have been the sun. Silence. Lights go to black.
AuthorShepard, Sam. (b. 1943).
Full TitleBuried Child.
First PerformedSan Francisco: Magic Theatre, 1978.