Shhhhhhame: Silencing the Family Secret in Sam Shepard's Buried Child

By Opipari, Benjamin | Style, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Shhhhhhame: Silencing the Family Secret in Sam Shepard's Buried Child


Opipari, Benjamin, Style


Few families in American drama are as dysfunctional as the unnamed family in Sam Shepard's Buried Child (referred throughout as the Shepard family). The play is about a family of misfits and outcasts who has tried unsuccessfully for years to cope with the emotional destruction inflicted upon them by the horrible acts of incest committed between the mother Halle and son Tilden, as well as the ensuing murder of the newborn child by Halle's husband Dodge. Halie and Dodge's other son, Bradley, does not live with them but visits occasionally and is prone to fits of violence because of how poorly he perceives his family treats him. The family tries desperately to establish some sense of normalcy by suppressing the horrible events in hopes that they will disappear from the family's collective memory. However, the arrival of Tilden's forgotten son Vince and his girlfriend Shelley forces the family to confront the incest and murder once Shelley senses that something is amiss in the family. This family systems analysis focuses not on how the event itself affects family functioning but instead on the subsequent reaction to the event: the overwhelming sense of shame felt by all members. It is this shame that cripples the family.

Buried Child premiered on 27 June 1978 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. It moved to the Off-Broadway Theatre for the New City in October 1978, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. As Shepard's first true commercial success, Buried Child is the second in his trilogy of family plays, bookended by Curse of the Starving Class in 1977 and True West in 1980. With its themes of infanticide and incest, it has understandably undergone considerable psychoanalytic criticism. Matthew Roudane, for instance, writes, "One need not be a devout follower of Freud to respond to the Oedipal dimensions in the play ... the buried child and the buried truths of the past, repressed through years of denial, rejection, and indifference, are the greatest sources of disconnection in the family" (219). However, other critics have also spoken of the family dynamic in the play and the dysfunctional interactions among the members. Christopher Bigsby, for example, writes that "Shepard is concerned with the failure of the relationship, the space between those who should be physically and emotionally close" (182). In addition, DeRose notes, "The family is a black hole that holds its offspring in a deadly grip, eventually sucking them back into its vortex" (99). Both critics discuss the effect of the secret on the family's functioning. More specifically, Bigsby's "space" is the distance among the members, whose interpersonal relationships and emotional closeness have all but evaporated because of one long-standing secret. The "vortex" in Day's work can be seen as a reference to the circular causality in the family as the members are unable to extract themselves from the dysfunctional behavior loops. Many literary critics focus on the play's thematic discussion of the American West and its frontier imagery, but even this can be fraught with Freudian language: "Faced with an alienating, spiritually bankrupt and repressive society, the individual rebels by turning inward in a desperate belief in and nostalgic longing for some inner, essential truth" (Grace 184).

The family members in Buried Child suffer from a host of disabilities, both physical and emotional. Tilden is a slow-witted man in his forties with the emotional age of a young adolescent. He exhibits a degree of anti-social behavior: we learn from the backstory that while away from home he committed a violent crime. His brother Bradley has an amputated leg. The frail father Dodge's heavy reliance on alcohol further debilitates his already weak body. Collectively, these traits would present a problem to any family, but in fact they are only a minor sideshow to the primary systemic dysfunction engendered by the single traumatic event--the incest--that has changed the family unalterably. …

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