Literary Allusions in Sam Shepard's Buried Child

By Cadullo, Bert | Notes on Contemporary Literature, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Literary Allusions in Sam Shepard's Buried Child


Cadullo, Bert, Notes on Contemporary Literature


The "dark elm trees" (p. 11) beyond the screened porch in Sam Shepard's Buried Child (Urizen, NY: 1979) are a reminder of Eugene O'Neill's Desire under the Elms (1924), which, like Shepard's play, focuses on a father-son rivalry and one son's desire to claim his inheritance. In O'Neill's drama, the patriarch takes a young wife who falls in love with his youngest son; when the wife and son have a child, the old man is deceived about its paternity. But the lovers experience guilt, and the wife, unable to bear the thought of separation from her husband's son, kills the baby. In Shepard's drama, the wife also bears a child that is not her husband's and was probably fathered by her oldest surviving son, but she has the husband murder the little boy.

Shepard ties Buried Child not only to Desire under the Elms, but also to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The biblical son's return was meant to be an occasion for rejoicing. When he kneels before his father and says, "I have sinned against heaven and you; I no longer deserve to be called your son," the father responds, "Quick! Bring out the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet." And when the prodigal's older brother, who had remained faithful, complains about not being rewarded, the father replies, "You are with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice. This brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost, and is found."

In Buried Child, a number of allusions to Luke's parable appear, but they are amplified and distorted. For instance, there are two prodigal sons. The first is Tilden, who has returned to the family after twenty years of doing nothing in New Mexico. He says to his father that he had nowhere else to go except home, but Dodge retorts, "You're a grown man. You shouldn't be needing your parents at your age. It's un-natural. There's nothing we can do for you now anyway. Couldn't you make a living down there? ... Support yourself? What'd'ya come back here for? ... I never went back to my parents" (p. 25). Tilden certainly did not come back to see the twenty-two-year-old Vince, the second prodigal son, who was ostensibly raised by Dodge and Halie but has not seen them or his father since he was sixteen. When Vince appears, Tilden merely stares at him, more or less refusing to recognize his son; instead he declares, "I had a son once but we buried him" (p. …

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