Howlround’s Lily Janiak recently wrote a wonderful essay regarding one of my favorite plays of all time, Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. She uses a recent production at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco as a jumping off point, going into discussions regarding how this piece of theatre allowed her insight into her southern roots in a way which she had not thought possible before. What struck her upon first reading the play in high school was the manner of speech the characters used, especially Dodge. Janiak notes that throughout her upbringing, she was taught that “the best way to speak is to give your listener as little of yourself as possible, to not inflict yourself upon the world and to expect nothing in return.” I love this play dearly, and yet I have never heard it’s language (or any of Shepard’s language, for that matter) described as eloquently or accurately as I did in this passage. A trap that many can easily fall into while playing Shepard’s word is to assume that his characters and brutal, awful people with little to no emotional depth within them. However, as Janiak beautifully notes, this could not be further from the case. Rather, his characters act the way they do due to a remarkable inability to express themselves and their deep emotional lives in any other way.
Unfortunately, however, Janiak’s remarks regarding the recent production at the Magic did not exactly indicate a glowing review. Rather, there is a suggestion that the theatre has lost touch with the reasons that Shepard had so many of his plays premiere there. Janiak observes that the Loretta Greco’s direction is “out of touch with Shepard’s aesthetic,” while Rod Gnapp’s Dodge “anticipates his lines, many of his finely crafted responses greased and ready for launch seconds before they leave his lips.”
While this is disappointing to hear, I still know that Shepard’s work is not only completely relevant, but also incredibly potent and effective to theatergoers even to this day. The recent College of Fine Arts productions of Buried Child and Shepard’s early work Back Bog Beast Bait are testaments to this. It is also important to note that the America in which Shepard wrote this piece in 1978 is a distinctly different place than it is today. This does not mean, however, that comparisons cannot be made. When Ms. Janiak remarks that “no drama since has so perfectly captured the way our ideals about family, religion and community have failed us and we them,” she is encapsulating in a single sentence why this piece of theatre is so important still today. While on the campaign trail in 2008 in San Francisco, then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama landed in hot water when he described certain people in “a lot of small towns in the midwest” who, scared of impending change in this country, “cling to guns or religion” in order to maintain some degree of power in their lives. While his statement may have lacked tact, at the very least Obama was describing the people in Buried Child, specifically Dodge, rather accurately. A case could even be made that one of these people Obama speaks of appears at least once in every Shepard play, whether as a central character or a secondary one. These people see a rapidly changing America around them, and they do not know what to do. Everything they once thought of as a sure thing is being pulled out from under them, and what do they do? Sure, some of them cling to guns and religion. Others may look fondly into the past while refusing to acknowledge the present or future, as many of Shepard’s characters do. What is important to note, however, is that while his plays are often wildly funny, Shepard never approaches these people with an idea of mockery in his head. Rather, he presents them to the world with an air of empathy, which is why, in my opinion, he is one of the most important American dramatists of all time.