Three-act play, winner of Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1979. Sam Shepard takes a macabre look at one American Midwestern family with a very dark secret. When Vince brings his girlfriend, Shelly, home to meet his family, she is at first charmed by the "normal" looking farm house which she compares to a "Norman Rockwell cover or something"--that's before she actually meets his crazy family--his ranting, alcoholic grandparents (Dodge and Halie) and their two sons: Tilden, a hulking semi-idiot, and Bradley, who has lost one leg to a chain saw. Strangely, no one seems to remember Vince at first, and they treat him as an intruder. Eventually, however, they seem to accept him as a part of their violently dysfunctional family.

Gradually, the family's dark secret begins to come clear. Years ago Dodge, the grandfather, buried an unwanted newborn (possibly the product of an incestual relationship between Tilden and his mother) in some undisclosed location in the backyard. From that point forward, the entire family lived under a cloud of guilt that is finally dispelled when Tilden unearths the unfortunate child's mummified remains and carries it upstairs to his mother. This act seems to purge the family of its curse. Corn now grows in the fields where nothing would grow for years.

The play ends with a proclamation of hope from Halie who says: "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 enough. Strong enough to break the earth even. It's a miracle."

Performance History

First produced at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco on June 27, 1978. Directed by Robert Woodruff.

First NY production - Theater for the New City on October 19, 1978. Directed by Robert Woodruff. It later moved to  the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village, where it played until April 15, 1979. A day later Shepard received news of his Pulitzer Prize.

First London production - Hampstead Theatre Club on June 19, 1980. Directed by Nancy Meckler.

On April 30, 1996, the play was revived for a two-month run on Broadway following a production at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The production, directed by Gary Sinise at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, was nominated for five Tony Awards and featured James Gammon and Lois Smith.

The play returned to NY for a 2016 run from February 2 to March 27 at the  Pershing Square Signature Center. Staged by the New Group production and directed by Scott Elliott, the play starred the husband and wife team of Ed Harris and Amy Madigan.

Sam Shepard:

"Buried Child and Tooth of Crime were tough plays to write. Other plays are easy to write, like Curse of the Starving Class, True West - they just kind of happened. But these plays were straggles. Not to say that I didn't have fun with them, but they were not the same breed of animal."


1978 New York performance:

Richard Edger, NY Times (November 7, 1978):
Mr. Shepard is an uncommon playwright and uncommonly gifted and he does not take denouncing for granted. He wrestles with it at the risk of being thrown...  "Buried Child", now at the Theater for the New City, takes the same theme. As a piece of writing, it may be less interesting but it seems to work far better on the stage. In the very gifted production directed by Robert Woodruff, it manages to be vividly alive even as it is putting together a surreal presentation of American intimacy withered by rootlessness.

Harold Clurman, The Nation (December 2, 1978):
What strikes the ear and eye is comic, occasionally hilarious behavior and speech at which one laughs while remaining slightly puzzled and dismayed (if not resentful), and perhaps indefinably saddened. Yet there is a swing to it all, a vagrant freedom, a tattered song. Something is coming to an end, yet on the other side of disaster there is hope. From the bottom there is nowhere to go but up.

 Although admitting Shepard was definitely not "commercial," the Nation's Harold Clurman, in his review of the Buried Child premiere at the Theatre for a New City on October 19,1978, called him "quintessentially American," and asserted, "I am convinced that he is not only a genuinely gifted but a meaningful writer." To illustrate Shepard's importance to the theatre and New York at the time of the production, Clurman observed, "The production cost $2,000: the actors receive a pittance. Two...

1986 Los Angeles performance:

Lawrence Christon, LA Times (April 11, 1986):
The South Coast Repertory's program notes for Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" quote Shepard as saying, "One of the weird things about being in America now is that you don't have any connection with the past. . . . You've got this emotional thing that goes a long way back, which creates a certain kind of chaos, a kind of terror."

"This emotional thing" has been a live wire in Shepard since the beginning of his writing career, but it wasn't until "Buried Child" that everything came together in a balance between expression and his roiling subconscious. "Buried Child" is a great play; the SCR production shows us how it belongs on a level with "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Glass Menagerie" in its evocative intricacy and culminating emotional impact.

1995 Chicago performance:

Richard Christiansen, Chicago Tribune (October 2, 1995):
As he did with Shepard's "True West" for Steppenwolf in 1982, Sinise has not so much reinvented Shepard as rediscovered him. The language, the characters, the predominant themes are all there, but juiced up by Sinise's patented brand of stage energy into a bizarre American folk tale that is at once hilarious and horrifying...   Thunder crashes, villains cackle, a jazz saxophone wails, an endless staircase leads to the farmhouse's second floor. It's all so eerie.  At times, Sinise's power plays threaten to bury the drama, replacing it with scenes of overripe performance and black humor.  But in the end, the director is faithful to his author, delivering stunned silence as well as hearty laughs and breaking the shenanigans with a shudder of terror.

1996 Broadway performance:

Malcolm Johnson, Hartford Courant (May 12, 1996):
Gary Sinise's revival of Sam Shepard's greatest play presents American regional theater at its strongest and most resonant...  Before winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979, Shepard's rural drama of disintegration, disfigurement, incest and infanticide blew away audiences at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Adrian Hall's production combined deep feeling for the land and its people with the fatalism of Greek tragedy. Sinise, nominated for a best-director Tony, is now proving at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre that lightning can strike twice. It is rare to see a second production that improves on one that remains vivid in memory. "Buried Child'' demonstrates that remarkable exception as it dissects a once ``happy'' family, now burdened with a past no one wants to remember. It reveals Shepard at the peak of his poetic powers, and Sinise explores every murky, brooding corner of a play that only seems more potent than it did nearly 20 years ago.

 Ben Brantley, NY Times (May 1, 1996):
"Buried Child" operates successfully on so many levels that you get dizzy watching it. It has the intangible spookiness of nightmares about home and dispossession, yet it involves you in its tawdry, mystery-driven plot with the old-fashioned verve of an Erskine Caldwell novel.


  Interview with Shepard about his 1996 rewritten version

  NY Times article - January 28, 2016