Buried Child: May the Best Man Win
Families are assumed to be close-knit, loving and supportive. When something goes awry, when there is a major trauma, the core of the unit can be drastically altered, and can fail to fulfill those functions. The stronger members of the family step up to assume the leadership roles by virtue of their ability to adapt to the circumstances, or because of the need to compete and win the alpha position. When Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child was first introduced, in 1978, it was hailed as a study of the flip side of the modern American family, showing how dark and dysfunctional the Norman Rockwell image had become. Given the state of the country at that time, the play seemed on point. While it has been reviewed and analyzed as containing the elements of a classic Greek tragedy, with its themes of incest and infanticide, Buried Child can also be examined from a broader, Darwinian view as a study of the de-evolution of a family unit after a crisis, and its subsequent revitalization.
Before we can attempt an analysis, we need to understand the play. A family in shambles, living on a once-fertile and booming farm, exists in the miasma of a terrible event. Dodge, the erstwhile head of the family, drinks and coughs his way through the days, ensconced on the bedraggled sofa. Halie, his wife, an ageing flirt, spends her days indulging in a dalliance with the local preacher. The couple has three sons, one of whom is dead, and the other two who are damaged, either physically or psychologically. The eldest son, Tilden, had a child, Vincent, who as a young adult has come back home to visit, with his girlfriend in tow.
The members of the family are beaten and weak. They have become demoralized by traumatic events that occurred years before the play starts, and the ugly secret they all must keep, so that even the land has gone sere and dead. Unlike species fighting to survive in their environment, they have surrendered, and...