Edward Albee’s The Goat and Sam Shephard’s Buried Child are both twentieth-century Pulitzer prize winners, two compositions which reveal challenges to conventional norms of family, love, and relationships. Both of these plays display numerous similarities regarding family. Both present a desirable and ideal nuclear family on the exterior; however hide a dark underlying secret and abnormalities that serve to destroy the family. The female antagonists, Shelly in Buried Child, and Stevie in The Goat are stable figures; however their discovery of the horrifying family secrets resulted in them becoming unstable, and subsequently losing their sense of realism and having mental breakdowns. These breakdowns are emblematic of the women reaching their wits end, rendering them unable to cope with what they once thought was invulnerable.
The Goat focuses on Martin, the loving husband and father, Stevie, the loving wife and mother, and their fifteen-year-old son, Billy. The play revolves around the time when Martin and Stevie have been married twenty years, it is Martin’s fiftieth birthday, and Martin has just been announced the youngest person ever to win the Pritzker Prize — architecture’s version of the Nobel Prize. All aspects of their family are in harmony and unity; traits that many families would aspire for. Martin praises his marriage with Stevie to his best friend Ross, exclaiming, “I’m in love with Stevie, she owns every part of me” (1578) right before we learn of Martins’ affair. He tells Ross that and he has been engaging in sexual intercourse with a goat, a goat that he reveals he is in love with. The unveiling of Martin’s affair was a pivotal moment, leading to the digression of their families unity and subsequently causing Stevie’s breakdown and vengeful murder.
In Buried Child, before we are introduced to the absurdities of the family, the play focuses on Vincent and Shelly — a young couple on a road trip to surprise visit Vincent’s family whom he has not seen for six years. Vincent describes his childhood to Shelly, illustrating the ideal family. When Shelly first sees the exterior of the house, she, with a hint of mockery, says, “This is it? I don’t believe this is it!… It’s like a Norman Rockwell cover or something… Where’s the milkman and the little dog? What’s the dog’s name? Spot. Spot and Jane. Dick and Jane and Spot… Dick and Jane and Spot and Mom and Dad and Junior and Sissy!” (1116). Shelly believes she is entering a traditional, all-American home; however, she realizes upon meeting her husbands deranged family that none of them knows who Vincent is. Unlike The Goat, there is not a single pivotal event that surrounds the plot in Buried Child. The reader is introduced to numerous absurdities and instances from each member of the family throughout the play that lead to Shelly’s ultimate breakdown.
In both Buried Child and The Goat, the children intensify the abnormalities of their family as a whole. In The Goat, Stevie and Martin’s son Billy is a homosexual teen, which does not pose as problematic until further in the novel when Martin and Billy share an erotic and sexual kiss. Billy’s homosexuality is put in comparison with Martin’s affair with a goat. Although, it is clear that bestiality surpasses homosexuality in all instances. Martin calls Billy a “fucking faggot” (1581) after uncovering the truth about his father, in an attempt to compare the perplexing nature of his father’s affair to his own misgivings about his sexuality. Joy Huang, author of “Who is Sylvia or Who Are We?…” addresses Martin’s name-calling, suggesting that prior to this outburst, Martin was accepting of his sons homosexuality to sustain the image of the perfect, loving family. However, once Martin’s affair is exposed, he uses Billy’s homosexuality in comparison to his bestiality, showing that he was not truly accepting of his son’s queerness, and only pretended to be in order to uphold his families image (Huang).
Incest is not the dominating issue in The Goat; however, it is the major cause of disturbance in Buried Child when we uncover the truth about Hailie and Tilden’s incestuous relationship between mother and son. Having a child out of incest leads Dodge to drown and bury the incestuous baby, a secret Dodge harbours for many years. Bradley, the other son of Hailie and Dodge, is an amputee. He cut off his own leg with a chainsaw, confirming his mental instabilities. The children reinforce the abnormalities within the family by challenging the conventional ideals of the nuclear family. Billy, Bradley, and Tilden’s mental and physical instabilities and abnormalities serve as issues that would affect any family; however, are only minor in comparison to the larger issues of bestiality, incest, and infanticide (Opipari).
Tolerance, and the limits to which a person can be pushed before reaching their breaking point, is an important factor in Shelly and Stevie’s downfall. Stevie’s emotions change over the course of the play from laughter, disbelief, humiliation, despair, and rage, all leading up to her violent murder. Stevie shows extreme tolerance when she learns of her husbands affair with a goat. She demands an open discussion about the affair, asking Martin all of the gruesome details and mechanics behind his sexual relation. Stevie patiently listens to her husband discuss his love for a farm animal before she acts upon her disgust. Stevie leaves without telling Martin where she is going, revealing she is on the verge of a breakdown. In the next scene when Ross comes to the house and asks where Stevie is, the reader is reminded that Stevie is still gone, foreshadowing the event of her return. Shelly does not exhibit as much tolerance as Stevie, exemplified when she immediately talks back to Dodge and repeatedly expresses her disinterest with Vincent’s family and her will to leave. She exclaims, “I thought this was going to be turkey dinners and apple pie and all that kinda stuff,” (1112) openly conveying her disappointment with Vincent’s family. Shelly tolerates being verbally tormented by Dodge, but Bradley and Tilden push her to her breaking point. Bradley symbolically rapes Shelly by shoving his fingers in her mouth to assert his dominance and Tilden molests Shelly by feeling up her fur coat. Only after these physical attacks does Shelly begin to show signs of her upcoming breakdown, by conforming to the family’s peculiarity as she further reaches her limit of tolerance (Mustazza, 40).
Benjamin Opipari, author of “Shame: silencing the secret in Sam Shephard’s ‘Buried Child’” introduces the True to Family Systems Theory (TFS), a theory which does not focus on the traumatic event, rather on the family’s reactions and ability to cope with the stress of the event. This theory argues that if a family engages in an open discussion, they will be able to overcome their issues and return to normalcy. According to TFS theory, staying silent about a traumatic event will only reinforce shame. A lack of discussion and concealing secrets makes a family prone to dysfunction (Opipari). In Buried Child, the years of repressed silence and secrecy served to only make the exposure of the event more dramatic. The True to Family Systems Theory coincides with The Goat, as Stevie, Billy, and Martin all have an open discussion on Martin’s affair and Billy’s homosexuality. Even though Stevie takes measures into her own hands by viciously killing the goat, their discussion would allow the family to return to normalcy faster.
The family in Buried Child is conscious of their taboo secret, and the need for it to be kept private between the family. In attempt to conceal their family’s secret, they heighten the normalities and attempt to present themselves as ordinary. However, doing so only further adds to the dysfunction of the family. Hailie, the maternal figure continuously preaches her religious beliefs throughout Shephard’s play: religious beliefs which result to be a conflict of interest as it is later uncovered that her relation to Father Dewis is more than just churchgoing, involving a romantic affair. Lynn Shields, author of “The Fall of the Great Modern American Family Myth in Sam Shephard’s ‘Buried Child’…” argues that the family’s downfall is caused by their failure to live up to the standards of an unrealistic family myth, which consists of stable, and mutually independent family members. Shield’s discusses the implications of their deceased son Ansel, who is described as smart, popular, athletic, and a “genuine hero” (1109). Ansel was the only reputable one in the family, and after he passes away, there is nothing propitious left.
In attempt to conceal Martin’s affair in The Goat, Ross struggles with Martin, trying to convince him that his affair is not only immoral to Stevie, but is rape to an animal for which he could go to jail, lose his job, and the Pritzker Prize he had just been announced the winner of. Ross is the only character left that has not gone mad. Stevie and Billy’s normalcy recedes once Billy initiates an erotic and sexual kiss with his father, and Stevie violently murders the goat. Ross’s character initially is thought to have good intentions by attempting to maintain homeostasis within the family by telling Stevie of Martin’s actions. Ross attempts to put an end to his affair with a goat; however, Stevie’s breakdown and the corrupting of the family would not have occurred had he not have sent the letter to Stevie initially.
Both Shelly and Stevie have breakdowns at the end of the play as a result of learning the dark and disturbing secrets and their inability to cope with it. Stevie, after undergoing an array of emotions leaves the house abruptly, finds the goat, and kills it. She brings back its dead body to their home to show Martin that his affair is over. Catalina Florina Florescu, author of “Who is not Sylvia? A character analysis of Stevie from Edward Albee’s The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia?” argues that Stevie killing the goat is an attempt to end their affair, because she is unable to cope with the situation. Stevie’s solution to the issue was to kill what was in the way of their quintessential marriage. Florescu describes Stevie’s actions as undergoing what she calls D.R.R Marital Syndrome. “D” stands for desire, which is Stevie’s desire for love and marriage explicated at the beginning of the play. “R” stands for rejection, which Stevie experiences when she discovers Martin’s affair with a goat, and asks, “how can you love me when you love so much less?” (1582). The second “R” stands for revenge, which Stevie seeks through her vengeful act of killing Sylvia. As Stevie’s argument with Martin progresses and her anger escalates, she begins smashing furniture and vases. Her yelling and swearing intensifies up until she leaves. Her extreme anger upon leaving signals that she is leaving for a purpose, which we later discover was to kill Sylvia. All the throwing and breaking of her household items were signals leading up to her murder and revenge.
Upon meeting Vincent’s family and being verbally mocked and ridiculed by Dodge, Shelly remains tough-minded, and does not let Dodge’s comments go without retaliation. Vincent repeatedly tells Shelly not to aggravate him, but she holds a sense of dominance over Dodge by not letting herself become insulted, and reacting to his comments. However, it is Tilden and Bradley who cause Shelly’s vulnerability, inducing her to submit to the family’s absurdities. Leonard Mustazza, author of “Women’s ‘Roles’ in Sam Shephard’s Buried Child” explains that Shelly’s ‘smart talk’ and audacious reprisals stop after Bradley’s symbolic rape, and her conformity begins when she refers to Dodge as grandpa. Shelly’s breakdown starts when Hailie returns with Father Dewis and calls her a stranger, and exacerbates when Tilden exposes the family secret to her. Once the secret becomes exposed, Shelly then exposes Bradley for shoving his fingers in her mouth. She wreaks havoc by stealing Bradley’s prosthetic leg, leaving him immobile as a form of symbolic castration (Mustazza). By breaking down the barriers and exposing all of the sequestered secrets in front of the entire family, Shelly is simultaneously breaking down herself.
The question of “what happens next?” poses an issue in both plays. What is there to do when your husband is having sexual intercourse and claims to be in love with a goat? Or when you find out that your boyfriend’s mother and brother had an incestuous child together that the father drowned and buried in the backyard. Both of these plays end abruptly after Shelly and Stevie’s breakdown, leaving the readers to ponder upon what happens next, or if the families return to normalcy. For Stevie, a divorce is a solution one would see as fit, however Huang argues against this, stating that divorce cannot be the solution because mixing together the murdering of the goat, and an affair produces an epistemological betrayal. The vile act of murdering the goat is a means of restoring their reality, and would allow for a reinstatement of normalcy, so divorce would not be necessary (Huang). In Buried Child, there is no closure for Shelly. Dodge dies at the end of act three, and Vincent comes back the next day after running out and explains that he plans on inheriting the house. Shelly, wanting nothing more than to leave the family leaves Vincent behind. One can assume that Hailie and father Dewis become romantically involved now that Dodge has passed, Tilden and Bradley will continue living their lives as previously, but we do not know what is next for Shelly and Vincent’s relationship. With Vincent almost losing his own mind also upon his return, and Shelly being unable to cope with the families horrific secret and abnormalities Shelly would leave Vince if he plans on inheriting their home, ending the relationship and returning to homeostasis.
Shelly’s and Stevie’s mental breakdowns subsequent to discovering these horrific secrets leads to their own self-destruction. Both Shelly and Stevie reach their breaking points within the confines of the home as a result of their family and loved ones. Stevie’s killing was an act of desperation to get rid of what was hindering their relationship and resolve her marriage. Shelly yelling at Vincent’s family and stealing Bradley’s leg was a result of being unable to cope with the families dysfunctions and darkness. It is not the disturbing secrets that shatter their homes, but the reactions from Shelly and Stevie, which wreaks havoc among the family. Initially, we are introduced to the quintessential, all-American families and homes, but the discovery of a dark past and repressed secrets have shattered their family and all those in relation to the family. Both Buried Child and The Goat raise the issue of what happens to the perfect families once they are challenged by the conventional ideals of love, family, and relationships.
Albee, Edward. “The Goat” The Norton Anthology of Drama. Edited by Peter Simon, Norton & Company Inc, 2009, 1567-1604
Florescu, Catalina Florina. “Who is not Sylvia? A character analysis of Stevie from Edward Albee’s The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia?” Academic OneFile, 2011, p. 135+.
Huang, Joy Shihyi. “Who is Sylvia or who are we?: Alternative subjectivity in Albee’s the goat or, who is Sylvia?: Notes toward a definition of tragedy.” Tamkang Review, vol. 42, no. 1, 2011, p. 127+. Academic OneFile,
Mustazza, Leonard. “Women’s ‘Roles’ in Sam Shephard’s Buried Child.” Literature in Performance, vol 5, no. 2, April 1985, p. 36.
Opipari, Benjamin. “Shhhhhhame: silencing the family secret in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child.” Style, 2010, p. 123+
Shephard, Sam. “Buried Child” The Norton Anthology of Drama, Edited by Peter Simon, Norton & Company Inc, 2009, 1102-1149
Shields, Lynn W. “The Fall of the Great Modern American Family Myth in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child”, “A Lie of the Mind”, “Fool for Love”, and “True West” Edited by Ann Arbour, Texas Woman’s University, 1993, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global