Identity is one of the major themes in the play, as each character struggles to come to terms with who they are, and often has difficulty remembering or understanding who they are, especially in relation to the titular dead child. Dodge struggles with his relationship to his identity as patriarch of the family. He has fallen from his position of eminence and is relegated to the couch, sneaking whiskey while his wife blatantly carries on an affair with a priest. Halie struggles with her identity as a mother, reminiscing about her dead son, Ansel, but paying very little attention to those who need her most. Tilden is particularly haunted by the question of identity, having struggled to live up to the glory he once had as a high school fullback. He is now a pathetic shell of a man who can barely move forward with his life. Finally, the question of identity is thrown into focus by the dead child buried in the backyard. The family members are struggling to keep up a facade of family unity and togetherness, but this is hiding a dark and horrifying secret that completely tarnishes their reputation and has changed each of their identities for the worse.
In addition to these relatively straightforward examinations of identity, the play itself explores the notion of identity by staging many misunderstandings and misidentifications. Dodge and Tilden barely recognize Vince when he enters the house, but also do not throw him out or question him more about who he is. Vince and Shelly, both outsiders, seem to get strangely absorbed into the logic of the house, in spite of the fact that no one knows or recognizes who they are. At the same time, they experience a strange pull towards the house, and a familiarity. Both Vince and Shelly seem to recognize the home as theirs, even though Vince hasn't been there for six years, and Shelly has never been. In this sense, Shepard examines the question of identity by suggesting that perhaps there is no such thing—that we shed and take on different identities all the time. Indeed, in Buried Child, identity is not a stable category, but an ever-changing designation, which others are constantly either giving or snatching away.
In the same way that identity is unstable in the play, so is time. While we know that the play takes place over the course of two days, it is unclear just exactly what goes on within that time and if it is within the limits of time and space that we understand to constitute "reality." The first suggestion that time is not what it seems comes from the fact that Tilden, Dodge and Halie's eldest son, is living at home as a dependent, in spite of the fact that he is in his 40s. While it is never explicitly addressed, Tilden is understood to be unsuited for adult life, which has landed him back at home. In this sense, time is not working out for Tilden in the way that it works for the rest of the world. Then, when he brings in a number of different crops that he found growing in the backyard, Dodge and Halie insist that nothing has grown back there since 1935. This would suggest that there is some kind of lapse in time that is creating an uncharacteristically fertile backyard. Another instance in which Shepard inverts and plays with the concept of time is in Vince and Shelly's arrival. Even though Vince has only been gone for six years, no one, not even his father, recognizes him. Additionally, Shelly, who has never been to the house, is scared of the family at first, but soon blends in and feels at home, more quickly than she ought to. She even talks about the fact that the house feels familiar, even though she has never been there.
Thus, Shepard subverts the notion of linear time throughout the play. While the action of the play itself takes place in order, the audience also gets the sense that different times and experiences are being superimposed over one another, that theatrical time is something altogether different from time as we know it in real life. Nowhere is this more evident than at the end, when Tilden enters the house carrying the corpse of the buried child as if it were a root vegetable. He has literally dredged up the past and brought it back into the present, forcing all of the characters to deal with this shameful history.
The ways that time and identity are subverted and unstable directly connect to another of the play's themes, incest. Later in the play, we realize that the "buried" child is the result of an incestuous affair between Halie and her son, Tilden. This incestuous affair is a subversion of time and identity all at once, in that it transgresses barriers of age and familial roles and completely rips apart the family. While no one directly addresses the theme of incest—it is only indirectly alluded to—it is part of the family's trauma and is directly responsible for its dissolution.
Incest is implied by Dodge's insistence that he and Halie were not sleeping in the same bed when she got pregnant with another child, as well as his recollection of the fact that Tilden was very affectionate with the child.
Halie and Tilden's incestuous affair is what leads the more central horrific act, Dodge's murder of the child. In his recollection of the events, Dodge simply says, "I killed it. I drowned it. Just like the runt of a litter. Just drowned it." He confesses plainly to infanticide, after explaining why he could not stand to raise the child as one of his own. This confession of infanticide is, in many ways, the climax of the play, and the horrible deed that most haunts the family. If the incestuous affair was not bad enough, Dodge's murder of that child completely ruins the family and pulls them apart from one another.
The American Dream
The play vaguely alludes to the theme of the American Dream. The family at the center is the quintessential American family, a farming family that once lived happily off the land, and which Shelly first compares to a Norman Rockwell painting. They are the archetypal middle-class American family: a mother, a father, a football star son, and a successful farm. However, their fate took a turn because of the tragic events mentioned above, which has left each member of the family completely unable to integrate into society, move forward in time, or find success now. While they might look like a photograph of the "American dream," their dreams and happiness has faded quite a bit and been tarnished by the sinful secrets under the surface.
When Vince returns home, he appears to represent the American dream, as a young man with a saxophone case and dreams of greatness. However, as he learns more about his family's history, he gets pulled into their orbit and his dreams become centered around the farm and inheriting the house.
A great deal of the play is centered around the secret of the buried child and the repression of this secret. Because it is the title, the audience spends much of the play wondering what the story of the buried child is, if it is an actual event or a symbol. As the play progresses, we learn that the buried child is real and that the characters are doing all that they can to keep the secret safe. Many of the conversations throughout the play seem to cover up this brutal and shameful family secret, diversions from the actual devastating truth.
Repression and the divulgence of secrets come up explicitly twice in the play. First, in Act 1, Tilden and Dodge talk about the relationship between talking and silence. Tilden believes that not talking is akin to death, as he tells Dodge, "Well, you gotta talk or you'll die...That's what I know. I found that out in New Mexico. I thought I was dying but I just lost my voice." Then later, Shelly gets Tilden and Dodge to each tell her their version of the story about the buried child by suggesting that she can handle them talking about whatever they want. "You can tell me anything you want," she says to Tilden, encouraging him to divulge whatever's on his mind.
Agriculture and Growth versus Decay and Death
Throughout the play, Tilden keeps bringing in different vegetables from the backyard, even though Dodge and Halie insist that nothing has grown back there in years. Whether by fluke or magic, vegetables are growing yet again in the backyard of this once successful farm. The theme of growth and agricultural abundance are important to the play, and it ends with Halie ruminating on the nature of growth and plants. She says of the crops out back, "You can't force a thing to grow. You can't interfere with it. It's all hidden. It's all unseen. You just gotta wait til it pops up out of the ground." This description of growth, though it has to do with plants, mirrors the way that Dodge describes the birth of Halie and Tilden's lovechild earlier. Dodge says, "It lived. It wanted to grow up in this family. It wanted to be a part of us." The child, like the plants, is a delicate but strong entity, something that survived and lived against the odds.
The theme of growth, birth, and agriculture is contrasted with the themes of death, degeneration, and burial. The story of Halie and Tilden's child is punctuated by Dodge's murder of the child and his burial of it in the ground (a reversal of the image of harvest) and no sooner has he finished telling the story of the buried child than Dodge dies peacefully on the couch. Shortly after this, Tilden brings in the corpse of the buried child, covered in mud, as if he were harvesting another vegetable from the ground. In this way, Shepard puts the themes of birth/growth and death/decay alongside one another, suggesting that they are closely linked within both the natural and the familial domains.
Buried Child Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Buried Child is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.