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Corn and Carrots
Unpacking the metaphors in Sam Shepard's BURIED CHILD
~ Spoiler Warning: Don’t read this if you don’t want to know the ending. ~
If you take it at face value, you’ll totally miss the mark with Buried Child, the 1979 play that earned Sam Shepard a Pulitzer Prize. The metaphors are not subtle, though. Shepard doesn’t pull any punches. It’s quite obvious there is something going on behind the obvious when Tilden carries the corn and then the carrots into the house. There is no life growing around the house, we are told again and again. There hasn’t been any corn on the farm since 1935. So where is Tilden getting the corn and the carrots? His mother accuses him of stealing it. His father is just bewildered. Tilden is bringing vegetables into a house that has probably reeked of death since 1935—or at least since the tragedy that no one wants to talk about.
“Every family has a buried child,” my mother says. It’s true. We all have things we avoid mentioning because it’s too painful. If we touch it, who knows what will happen? Will we be able to stop it, control it? Or will we fall apart and lose what flimsy grip we have on sanity?
Of all the people in this Illinois family, it’s Tilden who seems to lie as near as possible to the truth. On the surface, he seems loopy, but that’s only because he has disconnected himself from the realities woven by the others. He does not accept the realities adopted by his mother as she goes through the house (in mourning dress) talking nonsense. “Ansel was a hero?” he asks her incredulously as she remembers her dead son in glorious terms.Ansel is not the “buried child,” but he is someone Halie (Tilden’s mother) is comfortable recalling. She’s proud to boast about Ansel in spite of his Catholic marriage. Well, nobody’s perfect. (Humorously, as Shepard biographer Robert Greenfield points out, the author admitted to having an uncle who married into the Chicago mafia; Halie, in the play, conflates Catholics and mafia.) But that disconnect between Halie and Tilden, just on the subject of Ansel, is a perfect illustration of the conflicting realities that are forced to coexist in this house of death and shame.
“All American” is a word we hear a lot in this play. Ansel was an All American hero, as Halie remembers him. She reminds Tilden that he, too, could have been great. Now the parents have given up all hope for Tilden. It’s a house and family full of dashed hopes and lost dreams. There’s another brother, Bradley, who even lost his leg (in a chainsaw accident) and hobbles around on a fake one. Greenfield notes that Shepard’s real-life father had a brother who lost a leg at the age of ten.Greenfield also draws a comparison between the playwright and the homecoming grandson in the play, Vince. Vince is Tilden’s son. We meet Vince and girlfriend Shelly at the head of Act II. Astonishingly, Vince goes unrecognized by anyone in the family, even his own father. Tilden admits to Shelly that there is something familiar about Vince, not his face exactly, but the face within his face. I can’t help pondering this obsessively. What does that mean? Has Vince’s familiarity been buried by the years of estrangement? Is there a correlation between Vince and the buried child in the backyard? Tilden doesn’t recognize Vince, but he cannot forget the dead baby. He grieves for it more openly than the rest of the family. He longs to talk about it with Shelly in spite of his father, Dodge, yelling at him to shut up.
Vince is truly horrified that no one recognizes him and we sense that he can’t run away fast enough. He uses a liquor run (for grandpa Dodge) as an excuse to bolt, and he returns the next morning (in Act III) drunk. Fascinatingly, it’s a drunk Vince who everyone suddenly recognizes. He has to sink his mind below consciousness before he is familiar again. Numbed reality passes for sanity. Dodge can finally die (he’s been dying since Act I) after confessing the whole story of the buried child and bequeathing his house and farmland to Vince. Now Vince feels he is home and must stay. “I can’t leave now, I have a house,” he tells Shelly, who never had and never will have a connection there.
Robert Greenfield—author of True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times—is not the only Sam Shepard expert who sees autobiographical elements in Buried Child. Don Shewey, author of an earlier Sam Shepard biography,told Susan Loewenberg of LA Theatre Works that Buried Child is “very much a portrait of [Shepard’s] family.” Shewey goes on to say that, while Sam did not grow up in Illinois, the character Vince is very much like young Sam going to visit his grandfather in that state. “Vince, in the play, is the Sam Shepard character,” Shewey says. “This is kind of based on something that happened to Shepard when he was living in New York and went on a long road trip and took his girlfriend with him and stopped in Illinois to visit his grandfather….” Still, Shewey is careful to stress that the story is not limited to a subjective experience. As my mom said, metaphorically, “Every family has a buried child.” And Shewey says: “We’ve got lots of dead bodies buried in all the states that we live in. We’re a country built on the corpses of Native Americans and you could say that’s all there in the play.” The buried child, we might say, represents buried personal dreams, buried American dreams, mythologies, and fallen glories. “I have a house now,” Vince tells Shelly. The house of all these fallen dreams and rising hopes now sits on Vince’s shoulders. Shewey makes the suggestion that Vince is, in a way, the buried child that Tilden brings back into the house at the end. That is definitely something I thought of—there’s an undeniable correlation between Vince and the once-unmentionable buried child. Shewey says, “There’s who we are and there’s who we might have been.” The buried child is now recognized, acknowledged, and comes into the house to take its place.
See notes 3 & 4: Don Shewey brings this up in the La Theatre Works interview, referring to the mother and the son’s irreconcilable memories.
Greenfield, Robert. True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times. Crown, 2023.
Shewey, Don. Sam Shepard. Da Capo Press, 1997
LA Theatre Works interview following the Audible recording of UCLA’s performance of Buried Child in 2011