Thursday, December 16, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Unburying the Dead"

A scene from the 2006 New York revival
Unburying the Dead
Douglas Messerli

Sam Shepard Buried Child, Magic Theatre, San Francisco, 1978

In Rome I read Sam Shepard’s Buried Child for the first time, surprised by how similar it was to my own play The Confirmation. In both plays the action centers on a dysfunctional family to which the return of a family member accompanied by an outsider results in the revelation of a terrible family secret that may or may not be true. In both plays the vernacular of American everyday phrases and clichés combines with the bizarre behavior of family members to create a highly comical tone. I love the comic scenes of Shepard’s play, the absurd upstairs/downstairs conversation between husband and wife, Dodge and Halie; the hilarious gardening of Tilden, who discovers whole armfuls of corn and carrots in a backyard without a garden; and the mad family interchange between Dodge, Tilden, Vince and Shelley, in which grandfather and son seem unable to recognize or even recall the existence of Vince, who Halie later describes as having been “the sweetest little boy.” But then, this family hardly recognizes family members with whom they live, each describing one another as utter failures, and yet each nearly unable to care for himself.

The play is flawed, however, by the heavy metaphor (and possible reality of) the “buried child,” purportedly a child that came late in Halie’s life and was killed by her husband because it was the offspring of another man. Were Shepard simply to use this as metaphor, allowing the audience to heavily doubt Dodge’s admission—as they learn to doubt all of his other statements—it would still float heavily upon the play, but it might remain aloft. For, quite obviously, all Dodge’s and Halie’s children are “buried,” remnants of the couple’s desperate embracement of the American Dream. Tilden, the eldest, has a criminal record and, having lost his freedom, has also lost much of his mind. Bradley is half a man, an amputee and, in the manner of a Beckett character, is unable to even move throughout much of the play; Ansel—the basketball and soldier hero—is, in fact, dead, another buried child for whom Halie seeks a memorial statue, basketball in one hand, rifle in the other. This family’s refusal to recognize Tilden’s son, Vince, renders him, like the others, incapable of action, independence, escape. He may have come home to re-experience—as Shelley sees it—a Norman Rockwell vision of home life, but has found instead a household right out of The Addams Family. As a man of inaction, Vince is the rightful inheritor of the estate, and when Shelley’s departs, he is doomed to a life, like all the others, without vitality and love.

Shepard, however, cannot leave his metaphor alone, forcing Tilden to dig up the symbol and, in mud-covered clothes, visually “serve it up,” so to speak, to the audience. Like Jonathan Barofsky’s Hammering Man, Shepard drives his message home, deadening any true wonderment that previously existed in the work.

Café Mancini, Rome, October 15, 2003
Copyright (c) 2003 by Douglas Messerli

No comments:

Post a Comment