Buried Child - Interview by Stephanie Coen
Source: American Theatre - September 1, 1996

Things at Stake Here - Interview about BURIED CHILD

Playwright Sam Shepard says that the rewritten version of his play 'Buried Child' is much better than the original version first staged in 1978 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year. Shepard cites the development of the character of Vince as one of the improvements in the new version. He reveals that his plan to rewrite his 1972 play 'The Tooth of Crime' is being spurred by a feeling of incompleteness regarding the play.

An interview with the playwright by Stephanie Coen

In a 1983 interview, you called Buried Child "verbose and overblown" and "unnecessarily complicated." Is it still something of a problem play for you?

No, not any more. I think I solved it. (Laughter.) But it was due to this production being able to cast a new light on it - and I guess, too, the amount of time between when it was originally written and the current production. It gives you a different perspective.

What changed the most for you?

There were a lot of things that were hanging, particularly with the character of Vince and his lostness and dismay at not being recognized. His predicament became clearer in retrospect. My emphasis was on the old man, on Dodge.

It's interesting that your focus went from the older character to the younger.

It's because of the structure of the play. You see the weaknesses, and one of the weaknesses is that Vince hadn't been fully explored. For one thing, the old man was a lot more fun. I could really go with him, but the kid wasn't so much fun. Now the kid is starting to become more and more apparent to me.

The revised text makes it clear from very early on that Tilden is the father of the buried child, something that is much more mysterious in the original play.

It was always implicated that he was, even in the original. I didn't want anything in the play to be gratuitously mysterious. And I felt that certain questions that were ignited in the play should find - not resolution, they shouldn't be resolved - but they should be at least followed through. One of them was this insinuation that Tilden was the father. And I thought, yes, of course he is, go with that.

Were you surprised that the Steppenwolf production was hailed as so funny?

I geared the play towards this humor, because I felt that the play in our first production was too heavy. There's a lot of humor in it - based mainly on Dodge's kind of out-of-the-side-of- the-mouth humor, his sarcasm, that strange World War II humor - that I wanted to emphasize. I think the play works because the audience is allowed into this kind of strange humor in spite of themselves. They have to laugh at this character, even though he's killed a child. Otherwise, it's deadly.

For this year's Signature Theatre Company season, you're rewriting your 1972 play The Tooth of Crime. What is the impulse for revisiting that play?

Well, I felt again that there was something incomplete about it. There's a strength to the play, and it doesn't go where I hoped it would go.

These are not easy plays. 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.

Which of your plays wouldn't you touch?

(Laughter.) I don't think any of them are perfect, but there are certain ones I wouldn't mess around with, because I think they are what they are, like Action, for instance. Probably True West. But again, nothing is perfect, it's just I have no desire to elaborate on them. They work.

Is it fair to say that your work suggests that the past is something you can deny, but you can't escape from?

I suppose you could say that. (Laughter.) It's not the main deal. The past is a memory. I mean, what is the past? Of course, as you grow older, the past looms a lot larger - you don't have as much future. (Laughter.)

As you grow older, are you more conscious of writing for history?

No, but I am aware of this chain of being, which takes on a different value than when I was 19, for instance, when you're trying to deny the chain of being - whatever came before me doesn't matter. That's cool for a while, but now it becomes important to me to understand the way my stuff is interconnected, the way it's a result of the past. I'm beginning to understand that I'm the direct product of something that's wild and woolly. They probably never even really had a notion about where they were going back then. Nobody could foresee this disaster.

Vince says in Buried Child, "His face became his father's face." Do you see that speech as a signature, of sorts?

This problem of identity has always interested me. Who in fact are we? Nobody will say we don't know who we are, because that seems like an adolescent question - we've passed beyond existentialism, let's talk about really important things, like the fucking budget! (Laughter.) Give me a break! There are things at stake here - things of the soul and of the heart - and we talk about the budget! Sorry to get excited. I'm sure that won't appear in Esquire.

In what?

What is this, Esquire?

American Theatre.


So do you think we'll just crash and burn?

Something good always comes out of it. I'm not a doomsday person. No matter what, the creative forces are powerful. Publicity is on the side of negativity, but it doesn't mean it's more powerful.

Is there anything about popular culture that's interesting you now?

Rodeo. There's some good music going on. The commercial aspect of what's going on deadens everything. It's very hard to get to something that has heart anymore, because everything's for sale, and it's for sale real cheap. You end up with a lot of what my Granddad used to call poppycock.