Shepard’s Promotes Off-Broadway Theater Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The production of Buried Child established a new realistic and minimalist direction in playwright Sam Shepard’s work, and the play’s popular success contributed to the growing acceptance of alternative theater.

Summary of Event

Sam Shepard has been called the first totally postmodern voice in American drama, largely because of the aggressively experimental nature of his early work, a series of short one-act plays relying on collage and fantasy rather than straightforward narrative or coherent characterizations. Curse of the Starving Class Curse of the Starving Class (Shepard) (pb. 1976) initiated a new direction in Shepard’s work, inaugurating a series of plays—including Buried Child (pr. 1978), True West (pr. 1980), True West (Shepard) Fool for Love (pr., pb. 1983), Fool for Love (Shepard) and A Lie of the Mind (pr. 1985) Lie of the Mind, A (Shepard) —concerned with explorations of domestic and family life, in contrast to his earlier focus on characters who were loners. Unlike the experimental variations on popular genres, such as science fiction, Westerns, or rock operas, that typified the earlier plays, these later works, despite their sometimes expressionistic exaggerations, feature realistic, even naturalistic, settings and relatively realistic characters. Shepard had already confessed in 1974 that he would “like to try a whole different way of writing now, which is very stark and not so flashy and not full of a lot of mythic figures and everything, and try to scrape it down to the bone as much as possible.” Theater;Off-Broadway Theater;Off-Broadway Shepard, Sam Mamet, David Woodruff, Robert

The relatively tight focus on a small family in Buried Child certainly can be seen as an expression of Shepard’s new realistic and minimalist impulses. The realistic framework, however, always incorporates heavily symbolic actions and properties and a mythic reach in themes, and the contrast between Shepard’s early and later works often has been emphasized at the expense of attention to important continuities. The archetypes and mythic figures of the earlier plays have been worked into more extended narrative structures—Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child are three-act plays, expansive by comparison with Shepard’s earlier work—without losing the several layers of symbolic meaning they carry. Although critics have sometimes disagreed about the relative merits of the work of these two stages, the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;drama for Buried Child—one of the first plays never produced on Broadway to have won the prize—suggests a consensus of opinion that this play is the most completely successful of the later period.

Buried Child, in a production directed by Robert Woodruff, who had directed the premieres of two other Shepard plays, The Curse of the Starving Class and The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife (pr. 1975), opened at the Magic Theater in San Francisco on June 27, 1978. It was later produced in New York City at the Theater for the New City, where ticket demand soon had audiences spilling over into the aisles. Woodruff then moved the production to the somewhat larger, but still intimate, Off-Broadway Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village in December, 1978, where it ran for 152 performances, a record for a Shepard play. A separate production, directed by Adrian Hall, Hall, Adrian ran during the same period at the Yale Repertory Theater.

The play explores three generations of a grotesque and exaggerated, but also representative, American family. Beneath the elements of gothic horror—the father, Dodge, apparently has committed infanticide and the child he then buried may have been the result of incest between his son Tilden and Dodge’s wife, Halie—lies an exploration of archetypal family conflicts. At the realistic level, the plot is a story about the passing of the family farm, once barren but perhaps now revitalized, from the older to the younger generation, from Dodge to his grandson Vince (Tilden’s son). At the mythic level, the subject is the inheritance of an emotional sterility that has crippled the younger generation but that they can recognize, unearth, and transcend. Shepard criticizes the disintegration of the family but also recognizes the inevitability of conflict. Bradley, Dodge’s eldest son, symbolically dominates his father by cutting Dodge’s hair, but then Vince displaces both Bradley and Dodge as he throws away Bradley’s artificial leg and takes Dodge’s place on the couch after Dodge has willed him the house, land, and tools. Each generation can progress only through such a displacement of the preceding one, and the losses in the play are similarly inevitable. Dodge loses a son, as does Tilden, and Vince loses his girlfriend, Shelly, as he comes into his inheritance.

That there is somehow progress despite such losses is suggested by the play’s ending, which emphasizes fertility and the growth of crops even as Dodge lies dead on the stage. The language of the closing suggests, with its allusion to a miracle and a play on “sun” and “son” echoing the imagery of Christian resurrection, that a symbolic renewal has taken or is about to take place even as Tilden brings the buried child out of his grave. As horrible as the past has been, the dead son it has denied and hidden has been brought to light and faced during the course of the play, and the new generation, as represented by the living son, Vince, has taken the place of the old generation. The buried child may be the source of a family curse that had begun to infect even Vince, and its removal may signal the curse’s end and an expiation of the sins of the previous generation. The coming fertility, however, is only suggested, not guaranteed, and when Vince assumes the exact posture of Dodge and Shelly decides to escape, the implication seems to be that any optimism at the ending must be cautious.

Although the setting is scrupulously realistic, Shepard relies on the symbolism of his props and actions as much as he does on words to tell his stories. Tilden’s burying of Dodge under corn husks both reenacts Dodge’s burying of the child and foreshadows Tilden’s exhumation of the child at the play’s end. The buried child is itself a powerful visual symbol, especially for an unprepared audience of a realistic production, when Tilden carries in the rotten shroud covered with mud at the end. Halie’s emotional estrangement from the rest of the family is as clear from her frequent delivery of her lines from offstage as it is from the lines themselves, and her entirely black mourning outfit further symbolizes the point that her family is dead to her, and perhaps has been since the sacrifice of the buried child. By extension, her appearance in the last act in bright-yellow clothing with her arms full of yellow roses, emblems of passion, can be seen as an element of the movement toward hope at the end of the play. She leaves the roses downstairs, however, and finishes offstage (upstairs), where she began; the ending of the play is ambivalent.

Significance

The origins of the Off-Broadway theater are difficult to fix with any precision, but the establishment in 1956 of the Obie Awards, Obie Awards given annually by the Village Voice for distinguished theatrical achievement Off-Broadway (and, since 1964, Off-Off-Broadway), provides a convenient starting point. Beginning with revivals of classic American and European drama, the Off-Broadway theater moved in the early 1960’s to an emphasis on new experimental work by avant-garde playwrights such as Jack Gelber, Edward Albee, and Arthur Kopit. With more than three dozen plays produced since Cowboys and The Rock Garden were first performed in 1964, Shepard has been the most prolific and the most consistently successful, with both audiences and critics, of all the American dramatists who emerged on the Off-Broadway scene in the 1960’s. The awarding of an Obie to Buried Child marked the tenth time one of Shepard’s plays had been so distinguished; up to that time, no other American playwright had won more than two Obies. Shepard’s combination of longevity and popularity, terms not generally applicable to experimental writers, has contributed significantly to the relative health and stability of the American alternative theater.

Sam Shepard.

(Martha Holmes)

Buried Child helped to confirm the legitimacy of the alternative theater in the United States by winning the Pulitzer Prize, an award traditionally given only to Broadway productions. The play’s Off-Broadway run was a record for a Shepard play and easily could have led to a Broadway production, but Shepard instead challenged the commercial theatrical establishment by refusing to let the play be co-opted for Broadway, arguing that the large audiences on Broadway would destroy the intimacy needed in the theater experience. Signs that his challenge was to be a successful one soon followed; once Buried Child had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the way was opened for other alternative playwrights to win mainstream awards. The Pulitzer awards for drama for both 1983 (Marsha Norman’s Norman, Marsha ’night Mother, pr. 1982) and 1984 (David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, pr. 1983) went to plays on the basis of regional productions outside New York, continuing the trend toward decentralization in the American theater.

Shepard’s theatrical success fed off his career as a film actor, which brought him a recognition factor generally denied to American playwrights and extended the audience for his work well beyond the usual theatergoing public. His string of critical successes in the theater probably had drawn less popular recognition than his nomination for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). His screenplay for Paris, Texas (1984), voted best film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984, also had given him name recognition to an audience outside the theatrical community.

Shepard’s play Fool for Love, which opened at the Magic Theater in 1983 in a production he also directed, was made into a film in 1985. The film version was directed by Robert Altman Altman, Robert and starred Shepard, who also wrote the screenplay, appearing with established stars Kim Basinger, Randy Quaid, and Harry Dean Stanton. Although some critics thought that the film version lacked the edge of the performed play and revealed weaknesses in Shepard’s acting ability, there is little doubt that the rapid adaptation, starring well-known artists, extended Shepard’s name recognition to a new and larger audience.

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Just as Shepard’s success in the Off-Broadway theater helped to pave the way for greater recognition of other avant-garde playwrights, his seemingly effortless transition to success in films may have helped playwrights such as David Mamet make similar transitions. Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago (pr. 1974) was made into the film About Last Night (1986), and Mamet went on to become one of the film industry’s most respected writers and directors, achieving critical as well as popular acclaim for films such as House of Games (1987) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997).

The success of Shepard and other Off-Broadway and regional playwrights (Mamet’s work, for example, is based in the Chicago theater) has been such that the formerly marginal “alternative” theater, sometimes thought of as a training ground from which actors, directors, and writers would graduate to Broadway, has in some respects come to dominate the Broadway theater. In part because of Broadway’s high production costs and in part because of the antipathy toward Broadway held by Shepard and other playwrights, the traditional Broadway stage is no longer the major venue for serious drama. Many playwrights have found it advantageous to guide their plays through the more flexible and experimental Off-Broadway and regional theaters as part of their development process, often revising scripts substantially while they are being performed, as Shepard did with Buried Child.

Apart from Neil Simon, no major American playwrights of the 1980’s had their new works regularly produced on Broadway, although some plays did go there after success Off-Broadway, and 1986 marked the first time that not-for-profit theaters provided more weeks of work for artists than all forms of commercial theater combined. The contemporary American theater, exemplified by Shepard’s work, seemed to reflect the rapid cultural transitions occurring in the United States throughout the 1980’s and to flourish as a result. Theater;Off-Broadway

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auerbach, Doris. Sam Shepard, Arthur Kopit, and the Off-Broadway Theater. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Provides an introduction to Shepard’s life and work through 1979. Compares and contrasts Shepard’s work with Kopit’s and analyzes the “healthy reciprocity between playwright and theater” that made Shepard’s work so well suited to the Off-Broadway theater. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bigsby, C. W. E. Modern American Drama, 1945-2000. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Survey of postwar American theater helps readers to place Shepard’s work in context. Chapter 7, “Sam Shepard: Imagining America,” includes discussion of Buried Child.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hart, Lynda. Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Presents an informative biographical sketch of the playwright along with relatively detailed analyses of ten plays, including Buried Child.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Kimball, ed. Sam Shepard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1988. Collection of twelve essays deals with several aspects of Shepard’s work through the mid-1980’s. Two essays focus on Buried Child.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mottram, Ron. Inner Landscapes: The Theater of Sam Shepard. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984. Presents a general biographical and critical overview of Shepard’s career, with discussion of most of the plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orr, John. Tragicomedy and Contemporary Culture: Play and Performance from Beckett to Shepard. New York: Macmillan, 1991. Locates Shepard’s work in a contemporary tradition of the genre of tragicomedy that includes playwrights such as Luigi Pirandello, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet. Divides Shepard’s career through 1986 into three stages and offers commentary on most of the plays. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oumano, Ellen. Sam Shepard: The Life and Work of an American Dreamer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Primarily a biographical treatment, covering Shepard’s life and career up to 1985. Offers little critical discussion of the plays, but presents valuable, if usually brief and anecdotal, commentaries by Shepard and his intimates. Includes photographs, bibliography, list of productions (not entirely accurate or complete), and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roudané, Matthew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Collection provides a wide range of critical essays, interviews, and commentaries on Shepard’s work. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.

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