Buried Child: Reborn

Gideon Lester explores Sam Shepard's work

 The last time Sam Shepard was seen at the American Repertory Theatre, he was not a happy man. He had spent four weeks at the Loeb Drama Center, collaborating with Joe Chaikin, founder of the Open Theater, on a new play about an angel who fell to earth in the Southwest. Throughout his stay, however, the reclusive cowboy-cum-playwright-cum-movie star had been hounded by the press. The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald ran interviews with cafe owners swearing to have seen him breakfasting with the actress Jessica Lange whom, it was said, he had secretly married only months before. Fans and students surrounded him every time he ventured into Harvard Square, and camera crews swarmed outside the Beacon Hill house where the couple were rumored to be lodging.

Finally, the strain became too great. Shepard threatened to shoot one of the more persistent paparazzi, then stormed into the office of Robert Brustein, A.R.T.'s Artistic Director, to resign from the project. Throwing his bags and hunting rifles into his waiting pickup truck (ever since a horrific plane journey in 1965 he has refused to fly) he rolled onto the Mass Pike, faced the setting sun, and disappeared from Cambridge forever.

Truth is not always stranger than fiction, and these events of eleven years ago would not look out of place in one of Shepard's own plays. Buried Child, which will be staged at A.R.T. in January, is a work rich in the turbulent, enigmatic humor that so characterizes the life of its author. A.R.T.'s production is being directed by Marcus Stern and is certain to be every bit as incisive and compelling as the productions he has directed for A.R.T. New Stages in the past two years, The America Play and The Accident.

Since its first appearance in 1978, Buried Child has been universally acclaimed as a work of extraordinary vision and force. In 1979, the play won the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a work premiering off-Broadway. Kevin Kelly of The Boston Globe spoke in 1980 of the play's "full, dazzling, almost blinding glare," while Ben Brantley, reviewing Steppenwolf Theater Company's current production in Chicago for The New York Times, affirmed Buried Child's status as "a bona fide classic: a work that conveys the mystical, cannibalistic pull of family ties even as they unravel."

Shepard has recently completed an extensive revision of the play, and it is this new version of Buried Child that Stern will direct at the A.R.T. The production will challenge many critical assumptions about the work's symbolic structure, which has, until now, generally been read as an almost arbitrary, surrealist imposition on a fundamentally naturalistic play. The combination of Shepard's textual changes and Stern's new interpretation will, for the first time, provide a truly coherent reading of one of America's most important and lyrical works of dramatic fiction.

The casting of Jeremy Geidt in the principal role of Dodge is highly appropriate for a play that takes regeneration and renewal as central themes, for Geidt is no stranger to the play. In 1979, he played Father Dewis in the Yale Repertory Theatre's production of Buried Child, directed by Adrian Hall, only weeks after the play's New York premiere at the Theater for the New City. According to contemporary reviews, the New Haven production was without doubt the better of the two, and The Boston Globe reported that "theatre gossip is calling Hall's version 'the real world premiere.'"

The enduring popularity of Buried Child stands as a tribute to the strength of Shepard's writing, for it is by no means an easy work to approach unaided. Together with the other so-called 'family plays' of Shepard's middle period, True West and Curse of the Starving Class, it is composed in a highly wrought, figurative style, filled with allusions to the Bible, as well as to deeply seated, archetypal structures that are never made fully explicit. Shepard believes that the world explored by his plays is an "emotional territory" rather than a mundane physical reality; he told New York magazine in 1980 that he believed theater's greatest power to be its ability to make visible a hidden, visceral energy. "You can be watching this thing happening," he said, "with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, . . . the image part, the added dimension."

Shepard's work is further complicated by the radical approach he takes to characterization in many of his plays, most notably in Buried Child. Traditionally, playwrights attempt to create an illusion of reality on stage, providing their characters with conventional needs and desires in a world governed by logic and causality. Shepard quickly abandoned such artifice, preferring to see his plays as complex pieces of improvised music. In Buried Child, for instance, characters enter carrying armsfull of carrots, cover each other with husks of corn, or shave each other's hair at whim. Frequently their actions cannot be explained simply as products of their character but rather as belonging to greater, ritualistic patterns of behavior.

Shepard's foreword to the text of Angel City (1976), certainly indebted to Strindberg's preface to Miss Julie in its fragmentary approach to the creation of a persona, is helpful in our understanding of characterization in Buried Child. "Instead of the idea of a 'whole character' with logical motives behind his behavior which the actor submerges himself into," Shepard wrote, "he should consider instead a fractured whole with bits and pieces of characters flying off the central theme. Collage construction, jazz improvisation. Music or painting in space."

Shepard's own life can appear to be the product of collage construction, so many and various are the roles he has played over the past fifty-two years. He was born Samuel Shepard Rogers III in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, an army base near Chicago, in 1943.

Having spent his early childhood as an "army brat," moving from one camp to another with his parents, his high-school years were spent in Duarte, California, and he studied agricultural science for three semesters at Mount San Antonio Junior College. In 1963 he left the West and moved to New York, a journey that he was to reverse symbolically in 1976, and which marked the beginning of his adult, creative life.

After frequent sorties into acting and rock music, Shepard began to write, and his first plays, Cowboys and Rock Garden, were produced at Theater Genesis, in New York in 1964. In 1971 he moved to London, where productions of The Tooth of Crime, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Curse of the Starving Class, and several psychedelic one-act plays enjoyed considerable success at the Royal Court, Open Space, and Hampstead theatres. Buried Child was written on his return to the United States, where for five years he worked as participating playwright at the Magic Theatre Company, San Francisco. His return to the American West, with all its mythological significance as the land of freedom and of vast, lonely spaces, marked a crucial transition in Shepard's life, and the cultural conflict between the east and west coasts has at no time been more profoundly explored than in the plays that he wrote over the following decade: True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985), and States of Shock (1991).

In 1976 Shepard added yet another impersonation to his repertoire and began acting in movies. Besides starring in, among others, Resurrection, Homo Faber, Voyager, Crimes of the Heart, and The Right Stuff, he wrote the screenplay for Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984) and directed Far North (1988). Robert Altman directed a film of Fool for Love in 1986, in which Shepard himself starred.

Inevitably, however, it is his current role for which Shepard is most famous - that of the reclusive cowboy, hidden on a remote Kentucky horse farm, surrounded by the rural pursuits that are the stuff of his plays. Whether or not this proves to be the final incarnation of one of America's most widely-performed playwrights (currently only Tennessee Williams is staged more frequently), it can be no coincidence that a quest for identity and emotional freedom is common to all his work. The new text of Buried Child closes as Vince, Dodge's prodigal grandson, prepares himself for yet another role, and a first true identity, as the new owner of the family farm. "I just inherited a house," he tells his long-suffering girlfriend Shelly. "I've finally been recognized. Didn't you hear?" It is precisely this search for self-knowledge and recognition that will lie at the heart of Marcus Stern's production of Buried Child, shedding new light on a play of extreme importance and restoring Sam Shepard to the American Repertory Theatre after an absence of eleven long years.

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