Bad Romance: Parallels Between The Goat and Buried Child
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
The Importance Of Production Elements Within Buried Child
Within the elements of production, the concepts of costume and set are fundamental factors in establishing the world of a play. Through the creation of these elements, the concept, content and context of a play can be exposed and explored by both the audience and the actors. In Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child, the context of the play is a defining factor in representing characters and plot, identifying key themes and symbols. In my personal understanding of the play, the role of set and costume provides an insight into Buried Child that goes beyond dialogue. Due to this, the role of costume and set are equally as important as character in determining the atmosphere and tone of the play.
The creation of character is a crucial part in the writing of a play. In terms of production, costume provides a first impression on the audience, instantly exposing possible traits, personality and identity of the character.
When reading Buried Child, the distinct differences in personality and relationships between characters are heightened through costume. When exploring the play, the differences between Halie’s and Shelly’s characters are distinct. Halie, being part of a younger generation as well as being influenced by the second-wave feminism movement, is dressed considerably differently from Halie, despite their shared gender. Shelly is described as wearing a purple rabbit-fur coat, heels and tight jeans, the epitome of early 80’s fashion. This fashion forward outfit reinforces Halie’s personality and role within the play; a woman adapting with the time. This heavily contrasts with Halie’s outfit, described as being black, conservative and similar to 50’s fashion. The thirty-year time gap between the 50’s and 70’s was a time of immense social change, especially in regard to woman’s role in society. This is gap is reflected in their relationship, the costumes further heightening the tension between the two characters.
When producing the play, these differences could be further conveyed through the costume. In my production of the play, the addition of bright, vibrant colors to Shelly’s outfit would further determine her character’s era and unsuiting setting. This color difference would separate Shelly from the house; the faded, colorless upholstery and furniture compared to her bold outfit.
Halie’s costume change in the Third Act is a clear representation of how character is reflected in the costume. Upon Halie’s return, she appears in a new outfit; a bright, yellow sundress. This dress acts as more than a costume, but as a representation of a different version of her character. As mentioned above, the difference between colors within costume reflect the character. Yellow, being a bright and bold colour depicts an image of happiness, joy and hope. From Halie leaving in a black outfit and returning in a yellow one, we are given the impression that Halie experiences happiness when outside the house, illustrating the impact of the setting which I will later discuss. As Shelly wears bold outfits, Halie’s similar outfits renders the idea that Halie has aspects of Shelly’s youthful, future-orientated personality within her. The role of costume within this play serves as a visual guide for the audience, revealing further information in regard to the context of the play.
Similarly, the story of Buried Child is completely dependent on the atmosphere and character that the set creates. The set of Buried Child is especially significant due to the stationary nature of it; characters are never all offstage. This setting, the character’s family house, serves as a reflection of the family. The home is depicted as worn-out and neglected, yet shows remnants of a happy and prosperous home.
In class, we explored the idea of space and movement within the setting of Buried Child. Through analyzing all the character’s personalities and intentions, we were able to create a space that reflected the mood of the story. An example we focused on was the role of the couch. Dodge is positioned on the couch for the majority of the play, and the impression is created that it acts as his safety net; a safe, familiar space. We conveyed this through distancing the couch from the rest of the set, implying not only a physical separation but also a mental separation between Dodge and the rest of the characters. This spatial distancing was also utilized for the location of the front door. By placing the door far away from the living space, the gap between inside and outside the house becomes larger, and therefore the gap between the outside world and the house also becomes larger. This symbolizes the idea of isolation, which is important in the plot of the play.
When reading the play, the dynamic of Halie and Dodge’s relationship is made clear through the set. The dialogue between the two characters in the beginning of Act 1 occurs on different levels of the house; Halie being upstairs and Dodge being downstairs. On the first read, the actors playing Halie and Dodge said the lines whilst yelling in order to indicate the distance between them. The approach of yelling instantly created a difference tone to the scene, portraying the idea of a loveless and disinterested relationship. The layout of having Halie being upstairs implies that she is above Dodge, in more than terms of levels. This provides us with the knowledge that Halie has the main authority in the house, being the only person that resides upstairs. The audience are never shown the second level, expressing the idea of secrecy and hidden information to the audience such as the photo wall described by Shelly in Act 2. The role of set in this example provides a deeper insight into the play, illuminating the dynamics and traits of the characters.
The use of set and costume within Buried Child are vital in the support and development of the play. Through applying relevant costumes that reflect the context the play, the actors and audiences are given a deeper understanding of the themes and symbols that the play focuses on. This use of style and color in costume creates an insight into the social and emotional status of the characters, helping convey their role and intentions. The stationery setting allows for interesting use of space and movement and further exposes character dynamics. Together, both costume and setting are integral features of Buried Child, exemplifying key themes and concepts as well as establishing the atmosphere of the play.
Conflict-Causing Communication in Shepard’s Buried Child
Conflict is inevitable in any relationship. However, if left unresolved, conflict can fester and make things worse. Sam Shepard writes plays that tackle issues with the mid-21st century American family and the American dream, including unresolved conflict and terrible family secrets. In Shepard’s Buried Child, an unnamed family struggles with conflict-causing communication styles, but when effective communication is restored, the family is able to prosper again. These five styles are denial, disqualification, displacement, disengagement, and pseudomutuality. Shelly, an outsider, is the unsung hero of the story. She encourages the family to stop using the conflict-causing communication styles and to face their problems head on.
Buried Child is structured around an unnamed dysfunctional family. Right away, audiences can see that the family is not communicating effectively, having some sort of a “pact of silence” about a serious issue (Porter 110). The audience can only hear snippets of discreet conversations because the family members are trying to pretend that a certain problem does not exist. When Vince and his girlfriend Shelly come to visit unexpectedly, Shelly sees firsthand that there is a terrible secret hidden beneath the surface, literally and figuratively. The secret and the child are uncovered at the play’s end with the help of Shelly. The unnamed family, which includes Dodge, Halie, Tilden, Bradley, and Ansel (deceased) was once a “well-established family” (Shepard 3.369). However, Halie and Tilden have an incestuous son, and Dodge, out of anger and resentment, kills the child and buries him in the backyard. After the baby is conceived, the family is no longer a normal family in pursuit of the American dream. The family members dance around the problem of the baby for years. Their shame makes them “suffer from alienation among themselves and isolation from society” (Porter 107).
The buried child is the start of the breakdown of communication – a breakdown that is not restored until years later. According to Opipari, the family’s strained communication is a coping mechanism for the “emotional destruction” brought about by the incest (123). The Family Systems Theory says that when a family deals with a stressor, communication and flexibility are key (Blom and Dijk 208-209). Thus, in the case of the Buried Child family, this closed-off communication system is what affects “their ability to cope in an emotionally stable manner” (Opipari 125). Even further, Blom and Dijk report that the real problem with conflict is its “tendency toward excessive stability, perhaps even ‘rigidity’” (212). It is not just the incestuous child that is causing the family’s problems; it is also their lack of communication about it. The family wants to retain their “stable” image by hiding their secrets underground.
In essence, the family has such terrible problems because none of them will communicate openly, honestly, and effectively with each other. The characters refuse to back down from the five conflict-causing communication styles for years because they “desperately insist on the reality of their illusion” (Varró 347). Furthermore, Varró says the Buried Child family members have found the most effective means of communication between them to be repeated insult, something that houses neither love nor compassion (350). Families are considered a system, so the parts (individuals) must contribute to the well-being of the whole (family) for the system to be successful (Blom and Dijk 197). However, Shepard’s unnamed family does not contribute in a positive way to their family system. Instead, each of the members is only concerned about themselves.
The first conflict-causing communication style is denial. Denial is when one partner refuses to acknowledge the problem (Cox and Demmitt 22). The family denies that almost all conflict exists, not just the conflict about the buried child. This happens many times in the play, mainly coming from Tilden and Dodge. For example, when Dodge tells Tilden, “I know you had a little trouble in New Mexico,” Tilden responds with, “I never had any trouble” (Shepard 1.198-200). Dodge even denies that he has a drinking problem, “What whiskey? I haven’t got any whiskey” (Shepard 1.235). When Dodge tells Tilden to shut up about the baby, Dodge is hoping silence will convince everyone that nothing ever happened. The family has tried to “establish normalcy” through the suppression of the event, thinking that is the best solution (Opipari 123). It is important to note that the characters are unreliable narrators, and almost all of them lie (Porter 111). It can be inferred that all of the characters remember the incident of the buried child and know their own faults, but lie to cover it up, choosing to live in full denial of the past. To prove this, Shelly finds a picture in the house that has the baby in it and confronts Dodge about it. Although the family is denying the dead baby out loud, they still have a picture of it, which prevents them from forgetting entirely. Something as simple as the individuals refusing to take blame or responsibility for the family’s problems is what has continually caused the conflict to deepen and remain unresolved.
The second form of conflict-causing communication is disqualification, which is when a person intends to cover an emotion and deny that a real conflict exists (Cox and Demmitt 22). Bradley is the key source of this communication style and the main character who refuses to let Shelly be the hero. For example, in Act III, Bradley is terrified of having the police invade his parents’ home. He hides his fear and denies the problem when he says, “ I’m not telling her anything! Nothing’s wrong here! Nothing’s ever been wrong! Everything’s the way it’s supposed to be! Nothing ever happened that’s bad! Everything is all right here! We’re all good people!” (Shepard 3.341-343). By covering his evident fear, Bradley instead displays anger toward Shelly, which further aggravates the problem. Another example of disqualification is when Halie asks Dodge if he has taken his pills. Instead of expressing his humiliation over his health, Dodge denies the problem by developing a sudden interest in the weather, saying “It’s not raining in California or Florida or the racetrack” (Shepard 1.331). Dodge would rather deny how insufficient he feels than be honest with himself and his family. With Dodge being the patriarch of the family, it is likely that Bradley learned his violent behaviors and disqualification conflict style from him.
The third form of conflict-causing communication is displacement. Similar to disqualification, it is when a person places emotional reactions somewhere other than the real conflict source (Cox and Demmitt 22). Halie is the family member who has the most problem with displacement. Whenever there is conflict, instead of addressing it, she only wants to talk about her dead son Ansel, his greatness, and how he could have stopped all the problems from happening. This happens multiple times throughout the play, the most obvious being when Dodge confesses to drowning the incestuous child, “Ansel would’ve stopped him! Ansel would’ve stopped him from telling these lies! He was a hero! A man! A whole man! What’s happened to the men in this family? Where are the men?” (Shepard 3.409-411). Halie’s dysfunction begins when “Tilden turned out to be so much trouble, I put all my hopes on Ansel.” (Shepard 1.275-276). However, Dodge appears to communicate with this style as well when he says he let Halie have the incestuous child on her own (Shepard 3.388). Instead of communicating his hurt to Halie, he displays anger and forces her to deal with the full pain of childbirth. A final example is when Shelly, the intruder, is trying to unveil the family’s secret. Dodge and Halie, to hide from the confrontation, suddenly develop “concern” for where Tilden is. Instead of addressing the family secret, they try to get off the topic and put their uneasiness and unrest into finding Tilden.
Halie also displays serious problems with disengagement, the fourth conflict-causing communication style. This is when family members avoid conflict by simply avoiding each other (Cox and Demmitt 23). Halie’s first display of this is when Dodge declares his flesh and blood is buried in the backyard (Shepard 1.392-393). To this, Halie responds, “That’s enough, Dodge. That’s quite enough. I’m going now. I’m going to have lunch with Father Dewis” (Shepard 1.394-395). When Vince asks Dodge where Halie is, Dodge responds, “Don’t worry about her. She won’t be back for days. She says she’ll be back but she won’t be. There’s life in the old girl yet!” (Shepard 2.97-98). Dodge may think Halie’s avoidance is for infidelity, but she is actually hiding from the shame that Dodge holds over her. Halie’s disengagement gets much worse when Dodge is sharing the secret of Halie’s incestuous child, “I’m not listening to this! I don’t have to listen to this!” (Shepard 3.377-378). Halie thinks that if she hides from her family, she will in turn be hiding from her problems. However, this is not true. An outsider, Father Dewis, even encourages Halie to hide from the problem when he says, “Halie, maybe we should go upstairs until this all blows over” (Shepard 3.467). Hiding from a problem does nothing good because a problem will never be exposed without direct confrontation.
Finally, there is pseudomutuality – when family members appear to be perfectly happy and delighted with each other so that no hint of discord can spoil the perfect family image (Cox and Demmitt 23). Opipari says this is “typical of families who hide a shameful secret” because they want to “appear functional to the outside” (127). This is perhaps the strangest style, but there are still instances of it in Buried Child. Pseudomutuality can also come from the actual appearance of a family’s residence, as seen when Shelly says, “It’s like a Norman Rockwell cover or something” (Shepard 2.7). A comical example of pseudomutuality comes from a stage direction when Halie finds Shelly in her house, “She lets out a shriek of embarrassment for Father Dewis” (Shepard 1217). This indication reveals that Halie does not want any outsiders to see that her family is less than perfect. She may know that her family is imperfect, but for pseudomutuality to succeed, no one from the outside can find out the truth. This continues when Halie says, “Father, there’s a stranger in my house. What would you advise? What would be the Christian thing?” (Shepard 3.185-186). Halie again fuels the flame with this conflict style when she says, “They almost cover the stench of sin in this house. Just magnificent!” (Shepard 3.195). In this example, she is saying something rude or offensive to the family, but does so in a way that outsiders (Shelly, Father Dewis) should not be able to follow along. Halie is clearly trying to impress Father Dewis by being an approachable and fair housewife, without giving away any hint of discord in the house.
Shepard’s unnamed family in Buried Child is a mess, so he gives Shelly, an outsider, the role of dissolving the family’s denial of their problems and uncovering the secret. Only she can see the truth. She realizes that the family refuses first to acknowledge the past, “So the past never happened as far as you’re concerned?” (Shepard 3.83). She then sees right through the family’s denial when she says, “I know you’ve got a secret. You’ve all got a secret. It’s so secret in fact, you’re all convinced it never happened” (Shepard 3.335-336). Once Shelly calls out the denial, Dodge finds the courage to finally speak about the buried child. However, not all family members are as ready as Dodge to spill the secret. Halie does not want to listen and Bradley is angry because “We made a pact between us!” (Shepard 3.360). Shelly is the only character who will accept her own flaws, which is why she is the perfect character to help the family. When Vince and Shelly first arrive at the house, Vince tells Shelly that “They might think something’s wrong with you” (Shepard 2.37). But instead of taking the defensive side, Shelly simply says, “There is” (Shepard 2.38). Although a minor detail, the fact that she accepts her flaws proves that she is the only person who can help the family heal.
Once Shelly encourages the family to communicate effectively and talk about the buried child, good things begin to happen. First Dodge dies in peace. It is not until after Dodge tells the story of the buried child that he “settles my affairs once and for all” (Shepard 3.481). In his last speech, he leaves the house to Vince. Soon after, he dies peacefully. It can be inferred that Dodge would not have died until the family’s communication had been restored. If not however, the cloud of guilt and shame would have still covered the family even after Vince took over the estate. Second, Shelly has the courage to leave. When she and Vince first arrive, Shelly is afraid to be there because none of the family members seem to recognize them. Slowly, she gains confidence and feels safer around the family. But it is not until after communication is restored and Vince returns that Shelly has the courage to leave the unnamed family and Vince behind. In this way, she is the unsung hero of the story and is only present when she is needed to resolve the conflict.
In addition, the rain stops. It is not until the beginning of Act III that there is “no sound of rain” (Shepard 1213). When the rain falls, the family is living in denial of their problems. However, when the rain stops, the family restores their communication and relationships. Finally, more vegetables can grow in the garden. Halie concludes the play with words of admiration, “I’ve never seen such corn. Have you taken a look at it lately? Tall as a man already. This early in the year. Carrots too. Potatoes. Peas. It’s like a paradise out there, Dodge. You oughta’ take a look. A miracle” (Shepard 3.540-553). Although it is implied that the vegetables have been growing since the beginning of the play, it is not until the end that Halie notices. To her, the growing of vegetables is a miracle that she can see after the family’s communication is restored. The blindness is lifted from her eyes so she can finally see the truth.
Without Shelly’s intervention, the family may have never fixed their communication problems or acknowledged the buried child. When the secret is uncovered and Dodge dies, most of the strife disappears. Vince is left behind to continue the legacy, for better or for worse. In light of an American Dream lost, Shepard encourages audiences to focus on what really matters – relationships. To make relationships successful, families need to communicate openly, honestly, and effectively. In Buried Child, Shepard successfully presents a broken family that, with the help of Shelly, makes things right in the end when they learn to communicate.
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