The time of Sophocles’ dramatizing Oedipus and Antigone has passed and a great many changes has happened to the stage, but since there are things that have no end with the passage of time we still can find traces of myths in our modern drama that are beautifully adapted to our modern era. Sam Shepard’s family play Buried Child depicts a retelling of many mythic stories from the myth of Oedipus to the Egyptian myth of Osiris. In this essay a mythic light is shed on the stage of Shepard’s masterpiece.
The rules of the family structure are shattered and broken down, especially this is portrayed through the mother-and-son coupling. As Claude Lévi-Strauss mentions the “incest taboo” is a way of obtaining a wife “from some man outside his own hereditary line.” Something that Tilden is unwilling to do, and because of that he returns to his family home. When Dodge says he is too old to live with his parents, Tilden replies “I didn’t know where else to go.” Levi-Strauss believes marriage is a relationship between two no-relative men to exchange women, something that Tilden has done with his father, the exchanged woman being Halie. So like a classical play the structures have been destroyed and as a result chaos has come.
Some critics see the setting of the house as a microcosm of a kingdom. “Dodge has become a parody of the patriarch, with his baseball cap crown, sofa throne, and blanket mantle, over which the younger generations fight. His sons battle weakly, having lost their promise and seeming almost as debilitated as their father.” (161) in this kingdom of men, all are struggling for dominating the sofa, i.e. Dodge’s place. His place on the sofa represents the patriarchy or Jacques Lacan’s Father. He tries to keep his authority in the family, while his sons especially Bradley fight in order to posses it. “Bradley, Dodge’s next son, tries to dominate his father by cutting Dodge’s hair, but is displaced in turn by Vince, who throws away Bradley’s false leg (indicative of Bradley’s own impotence) and takes Dodge’s place on the sofa, which Bradley had tried to inhabit. Each of Bradley’s attempts to dominate end in failure with him whimpering for aid. Dodge wills Vince his house, land, and furnishings, disinheriting his own sons in preference for a grandson he hardly knows, and one assumes this can only be a decision based on spite.” (161)
Bradley’s attempts to own the sofa seems ironic, since it seems that Dodge as a father figure has castrated his phallic ego and he is just striving in vain to prove his masculinity. We can inter it when Dodge says to Halie “You tell Bradley that if he shows up here with those clippers, I’ll separate him from manhood!” This happens when Shelley and then Vince steal away his wooden leg from him. Dodge, as the father of the family is the authoritative power and tries to sustain his power; among his offspring Tilden has violated his rules by sexually substitute the father’s place and Bradley is the one who tries to dismantle the father, (he cuts his hair while he is sleeping with wounding his scalp, and wants to posses his sofa and blanket) but it is Vince who is in obedience of Dodge, and because of that Dodge announces him as his successor.
Like the myth of Oedipus this family is cursed with an incestuous secret. Tilden talks about his “disappeared” baby. And the audience just near the end of the play discovers that Tilden’s missing child’s mother has been presumably Halie:
“â€¦we were a well-established family once. Well-established. All the boys were grown. The farm was producing enough milk to fill Lake Michigan twice over. Me and Halie here were pointed toward what looked like the middle part of our life. Everything was settled with us. All we had to do was ride it out. Then Halie got pregnant again. Out the middle of nowhere, she got pregnant. We weren’t playing on havin’ any more boys. We had enough boys already. In fact, we hadn’t been sleepin’ in the same bed for about six years.” (109)
The image of their golden years of the past, a “well-established” family having a productive, fruitful farm is in contrast with the present situation of the family whose lands had not produced crops anymore. That is what happened in the myth of Oedipus whom after killing his father, marrying his mother, Jocasta, and becoming the king of Thebes, is confronted by a plague of infertility that strikes the city of Thebes; crops no longer grow to harvest and women do not bear children.
Instead of hanging herself like Jocasta, Halie tries to keep the incestuous sin hidden; she spends most of her time “upstairs” looking at the family albums and pictures, representing that she is reluctant to realize the present reality, and instead keeps locking herself in the nostalgia of “well-established” past memories. While Dodge is talking about this secret, Halie claims to go upstairs, but Dodge stops her: “Where are you going?! Upstairs?! You’ll just be listenin’ to it upstairs! You go outside, you’ll be listenin’ to it outside.”
Contrary to Halie, Dodge never goes upstairs or even outside, and he even prevents Tilden to go outside too. Upstairs and the family pictures symbolize Dodge’s consciousness and his conscience, since he is the one that “drowned” the child. His disinclination to talk about the past is pictured when e.g. Shelley inquires about the baby in the pictures, Dodge refuses to answer, and even in his habit of watching TV instead of facing people and talking to them. Also “Dodge’s drinking is a classic reaction to guilt, as a person attempts to obliterate the memory of his or her past with alcohol.” (Abboston 161)
As Susan Abboston writes “There is an implication that the child may have been the result of an incestuous relationship between Ansel and Halie, who seems to have idolized her youngest son. She fondly recalls how he kissed her, and how she was devastated by his marriage to another, after which he soon died. It is more likely, however, that the father was Tilden, who was so solicitous of the child while it lived, and talks of having lost a son.” (Abboston 161) Talking about his son, Tilden uses a plural pronoun “We had a baby. Little baby. Could pick it up with one hand. Put it in the other. So small that nobody could find it. Just disappeared. We had no service. No hymn. Nobody came.” On the part of Ansel, some critics doubt his existence “thinking he may be Halie’s creation to help her deal with all that has happened”. If we take Tilden as an Oedipal character he does not end like Oedipus, but if according to other critics we take Ansel, the youngest son of Dodge and Halie as the child’s father, we see that he has already been sacrificed as he has died in a motel room.
Not only is the child buried, but also all the characters try to bury themselves too.
“This family constantly argues over minor things to avoid having to face their own failures and complicities. The number of times characters cover themselves or each other with blankets, coats, or corn husks symbolizes the extent to which all are complicit in hiding from the truth, and each other. This is a family so buried in guilt they have lost the power to communicate even on a daily basis.” (Abboston 163) Dodge and Bradley try to cover themselves under the blanket, Tilden hides outdoors among the crops and Halie is hidden upstairs, “Things keep happening while you’re upstairs, ya know. The world doesn’t stop just because you’re upstairs. Corn keeps growing. Rain keeps raining.”
There are many hints that the house is the world of the dead. At the beginning of the play Dodge asks Halie “Are we still in the land of the living?”(13) Even Dodge considers himself dead when he talks about Halie as “There’s life in the old girl yet!” Vince gets aware of this world of the dead, and decides to stay in his grandfather’s house to renew it. His return to the house after six years also shows the importance of family as people’s root. He realizes that he is connected to this family, “that his identity is intricately bound to the bones of this family, notably the male bones.” (Hall 102) his looking in the mirror also reminds us of Lacan’s mirror stage, since he recognizes he is in need of this family in order to have an identity.
“While looking in the mirror, Vince has discovered an even better device with which to gain a sense of self, complete, whole, and historical through the patriarchal line. The dissolution at the end, however, presents a threat, and it brings Vince back to his home and informs his decision to remain he will stop the dissolution by taking Dodge’s place, by making the choice that will perpetuate the patriarchy. He has discovered his masculine mission.” (Hall 102)
In act three, we see “bright sun” and “no sound of rain” the sun’s uncovering from the clouds foregrounds the baby son’s uncovering from the earth. “Tilden’s earlier entrances with crops reflect on his final entrance with the corpse: all connect to suggest fertility and progress. Darkness and rain are replaced by bright sun; the rain, having created new growth, suggests that death can be replaced by new life.” (Abboston 163) and this is an echo of the myth of Osiris. “In the myth of Osiris, often linked to the ritualized death of the corn king, the king dies to return the land to life with his sacrifice-so Dodge, the family patriarch, dies, and the new blood, Vince, inherits the land.” (Abboston 164) So that like a Dionysus myth we see death and mingle together, by Dodge’s death and Vince’s authority we confront a restoration, regeneration and renewal.
“The “sun,” which has brought out the crops, is echoed by the “son” Tilden carries in his arms at the close. If the buried child has been the source of the family curse, then its exhumation may signify the end of that curse and an expiation of the sins of the previous generation. The dead son whom the family has avoided and denied has been brought to light and faced, and the murderer, Dodge, has died, allowing the living son, Vince, to take charge with a clean slate.” (164)