First performed in 1978 and winning a Pulitzer Prize the following year Buried Child has been heralded as a work of extraordinary vision and force...We all know how I feel about plays though...and this one didn't really blow me away. The plot seemed somewhat simplistic and a little too obvious...also if the narrative hinges on a family secret that has never been discussed...maybe the secret shouldn't be the title of the play?
Act I: Dodge and Halie, now in their late sixties are essentially slowly waiting to die. Dodge, an old codger type with a drinking problem, hides in the basement in a state of existence only slightly elevated from being comatose. The first portion of dialogue is shouted, Halie from the top of the steps down at Dodge...something about Florida, something about horse racing...then Tilden, their oldest son comes wandering in from the fields with an armful of corn...and there's a big discussion/argument about the fact that no one has planted corn in over 12 years and so on. Then Halie wanders away to run errands, leaving Dodge with an admonition not to let Tilden out of his sight, to take his pills and not to drink the whiskey he has hidden between the sofa cushions. The scene ends with Bradley, the next oldest son, hobbling into the room with his wooden leg in a huff, noticing his father asleep on the couch and shaving his head while he sleeps...
Act II: We meet Vince, Tilden's alleged son, although no one seems to either recognize him or even remember he exists, and his girlfriend Shelly. Shelly serves as a foil for the narrative, she wanders around trying to get people to drink beef bullion and drawing out their deepest and darkest secrets...like the one about a buried child. Tilden, who is a Flowers for Algernon type minus the temporary cure, starts telling Shelly about the little tiny baby that just disappeared...while Dodge yells half-heartily "no. don't. stop." While the family secret slowly skin by skin is peeled away. Finally Bradley materializes to shout a bunch of threats and derisive comments around, circling Shelly like a vulture before finally putting his fingers in her mouth. (Oh yeah, Shelly is hanging out with the family alone because after everyone failed to recognize Vince he was coerced into making an errand to buy more booze for Grandpa...if he can't remember me sober maybe a little alcohol will help...)
Act III: Shelly, who is now completely at home at the veritable strangers house, has been wandering around during the intermission snooping through family albums. She is still clinging to the idea that somewhere buried deep beneath all the extreme weirdness there is a Norman Rockwell family waiting to be discovered. She starts talking to Dodge about the pictures she's seen and Dodge seems not to remember the life upstairs filled with the accouterments of a happy American family. In walks Halie with a priest, both of whom seem to be drunk and are still in the process of drinking and "tittering"...Halie is shocked to find Bradley's wooden leg exposed, his leg somehow being extremely embarrassing and she frenetically runs around trying to hide the evidence of his amputation..."You can't leave this house for a second without the Devil blowing in through the front door!" She exclaims while covering up his wooden leg...Halie is surprised to find Shelly loitering around holding a cup and saucer...there's a discussion about who drank the bullion...which seems somewhat irrelevant at this point...and then somehow the family begins arguing about the skeletons in the closet for Shelly's benefit "...I'm just trying to put this all together." Finally Tilden wanders back and then Vince shows up, drunk and exhibiting a Mr. Hyde personality. The gang's all here! Shelly who has served her purpose in dredging up all the secret family detritus after seeing Vince who now seems to be as crazy as the rest of his family, leaves and Vince is left to admire the estate he is now proprietor of as his grandfather rattles off his will and testament and then dies..and Halie is back upstairs shouting down a monologue about the rain while Tilden wanders in with the skeleton of the buried child:
"Good hard rain. Takes everything straight down deep to the roots. The rest takes care of itself. 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. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong though. Strong enough to break the earth even. It's a miracle, Dodge. I've never seen a crop like this in my whole life. Maybe it's the sun. Maybe that's it. Maybe it's the sun."
I don't know. Maybe I'm jaded from reading too many books from the 1970's...but this didn't seem Pulitzer material to me. I doubt if it would receive a Pulitzer today considering the fact that incest and infanticide is no longer as edgy as it was then. We've become immune to anything shocking from the horrific establishment of reality TV and a wider exposure to real life. That being said, a play about the failure of the American Dream...the family isn't a Norman Rockwell painting but rather a Francis Bacon with all the distortions and disillusionments that come from looking in the mirror and finding something truly hideous...feels a little overworked. Did we still think there was an American Dream in the 70's? I thought we had worked that out of our system with Theodore Dreiser. Denis Johnson's characters live in a hellish world where there is always a modicum of hope beneath the sludge of reality...which I think tends to be a more interesting plot line then: American family has horrible skeletons in the closet...the American family has been eroded and disillusioned.