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The Archive: How Buried Child dug at roots of US family trees

Paul Sparks, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan (above) in the New York production of Buried Child, which has transferred to London’s Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Monique Carboni
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Back in 1979, US producer Alexander Cohen observed: “The theater is going in a different direction. Buried Child just won the Pulitzer Prize. Sam Shepard is what’s happening to the theater, not Somerset Maugham.”

By 1978, Shepard had 23 plays under his belt, mostly trippy one-act sketches whose lack of structure and strange characters had won him a cult following. So prolific was Shepard that New York Times critic Walter Kerr joked: “He’s ready with a play whenever an institutional or repertory or village theater needs one.”

But, Kerr argued, his fanbase was “neither large enough nor varied enough to help him make that move toward bigness”. That was until Buried Child, the play that extended Shepard’s renown beyond his loyalists and thrust him into the mainstream.

Still, it was a long process: the play premiered on June 27, 1978, at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco – a venue for which Shepard had a particular fondness. Its success there helped it transfer to Off-Off-Broadway’s Theater for the New City later that year, followed by an Off-Broadway run at Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre) in 1979.

Yet Shepard would have to wait almost 20 years for his Broadway debut, when Buried Child was revived and significantly revised in 1996, the first time Shepard had ever rewritten one of his own plays. When asked in an interview before the 1996 production whether he still saw it as a problem play – he’d once called it “verbose and overblown” – he replied: “No, not any more. I think I solved it.”

The second of what was to become a loose trilogy of family tragedies – between Curse of the Starving Class (1977) and True West (1980) – Buried Child looks at a family of grotesques living in squalor on their long-fallow Illinois farm. There’s the dying patriarch Dodge, sneakily swigging whiskey and dragging on cigarettes when his preachy wife Halie isn’t looking. His two sons Tilden (a dimwitted disappointment) and Bradley (who cut off his own leg with a chainsaw) also hang around. Into this anti-idyll comes grandson Vince with his girlfriend Sophie in an ill-fated attempt to reconnect with his family. While shucked corn and artificial legs are flung around the stage, the truth about a child buried in the back garden begins to emerge.

Over the years, productions of Buried Child have included a run at the National Theatre in 2004, directed by Matthew Warchus, who said that the play was “as grotesque as a work by Mike Leigh, as biblical as an Arthur Miller”.

The play has had its devotees and detractors, both sides adamant in their positions. For some, the play was at the vanguard of American Gothic, a twisted successor to Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. Reviewing the New York run in Newsweek, Jack Kroll called it “fiercely melancholic and yet gallantly humane… a haunting, wounded beauty, strong, sweet, sad”, while the New York Times’ Mel Gussow praised the play’s “roots that are deeply embedded in the bedrock of our environment and our national mythology”.

Sam Shepard. Photo: Charles sykes
Sam Shepard. Photo: Charles sykes

The play’s detractors included theatre academic Otis L Guernsey Jr, who called Buried Child “a dismal, unstructured exploitation of both our malaise and our patience, a fashionably masochistic and unbearably tedious work”. For Kerr, the problem was the feeling of always being held at arm’s length, “elbowed away from the action, refused entry to the people”. He criticised “a posture that has not yet grown into a cohesive play, a conceit congratulating itself on its own artful dodging”.

Kerr and Clive Barnes, New York Post theatre critic and regular contributor to The Stage, battled each other from their respective papers, with an indignant Barnes writing “I cannot sit back and accept [Kerr’s] brilliant adversary position taken against Shepard”, whom he considered “America’s most important playwright.”

By the time Shepard’s Pulitzer win was announced, the show’s Off-Broadway run had already posted its closing notice. The producers partly blamed Shepard for this premature end, because he had refused to take part in publicity for the show. Already a successful actor by that point – he had been in Terrence Malick’s film Days of Heaven the previous year – Shepard, who lived in San Francisco and disliked giving interviews, reportedly never even went to see the New York runs.

Riding the success of its three US incarnations, where critics recognised the way the play grimly parodied and inverted great American family dramas – “the chaos and anomie at the heart of American life” as the New York Times put it – when it premiered in the UK at Hampstead Theatre a year later, critics were more circumspect. The Guardian’s Michael Billington praised Shepard’s ability to see the world “as if through some fish-eye lens” but “pretentious and shallow […] and something of a bore” was The Stage’s verdict, the critic suggesting Shepard reduce the play by at least half.

It was more than 20 years before the next major London production of Buried Child, when Warchus directed it at the National in 2004. With Shepard long established as one of America’s great dramatists, the reviews were uniformly positive. The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer found “both Shepard and the National at the top of their game”. In the West End, 12 years on, Buried Child is unearthed again in a production fresh from New York, with a high-powered cast including Oscar nominee Ed Harris as Dodge alongside his real-life wife Amy Madigan as Halie.

“Long before most of us had even heard the words ‘dysfunctional family’,” Linda Winer wrote in Newsday in 1996, “much less stomped the concept into the cliche of every daily talk show, Shepard’s tragicomedies were mucking around in the primal connections of our most gnarled family trees.”

Rarely revived, and now not as well known as many of Shepard’s other plays, Buried Child nevertheless broke new ground for American theatre and elevated Shepard from cult figure to cultural icon.

Buried Child is running at Trafalgar Studios, London until February 18

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