This extract comes from a broader exploration of reversal and recognition in modern tragic drama across Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming and Sam Shepard's The Buried Child that I submitted for my Cambridge finals.
Pinter's family structure is composed of a series of non-relations based on individual contracts:
Max – I think I’ll have a fag. Give me a fag.
I just asked you to give me a cigarette.
Look what I’m lumbered with.
Dialogue becomes monologue to diagnose the reversed family as an external encumbrance where relation is denied and interrogative demands turn into rejections through silent pauses signifying tension beneath emptiness. Max, Joey, Lenny and Sam demonstrate no self-recognition as they tell stories about their pasts and relationships to turn the family ‘group’ into ‘a bunch of criminals’ searching for individual satisfaction. Teddy and Ruth both recognise the family system as a source of isolation. Teddy sees ‘you’re all just objects’ as the true structure while Ruth steps into the family as mother to Joey, wife to Max and whore to Lenny as Pinter declares that identity and family are psycho-social delusions constructed into roles meeting purely selfish needs:
Lenny – How did I know?
I decided she was.
Lenny’s self-centric process designs his reality arbitrarily. The family model multiplies these mutually isolating constructs until the basis of relationship is reversed into a savage economy of competing desires. Each character searches for a different ‘home’ in the play’s structure operating around three kisses as degenerating models of love-as-power: at the end of Act I Max and Teddy propose a ‘kiss and cuddle’ in a frustrated image of their original male power structure; this shifts to sexualised power as Act II opens with Lenny and Joey fulfilling their fantasy to kiss Ruth as her roles of mother, wife and whore intersect; the end of Act II Max asks Ruth to ‘kiss me’ demonstrating that Max shifts from the family-centre to peripheral dependency upon Ruth as the heartless core of the new structure. Ruth lets them use her image and body and embraces the world of object-relations to gain power over the men. This is her tragic home. The dehumanised objectification of others in The Homecoming displaces the ‘shared myth’ Steiner argues tragedy requires because their familial shift from patriarchy to matriarchy actually reveals ‘nothing's changed’: their individual contracts of mutual usage reverse the myth of mutuality in family relations. Recognition is also reversed from self-knowledge to the perception of other’s compulsions as Teddy sees the object-model and Ruth steps into the vacuum she identifies within the family centre. Ironically Pinter's anti-social resolution offers a monstrous and absurd 'marriage' of mutual convenience in the final image as an index of their tragically lost capacity for individuated love. Pinter's comic reconciliation minus true relationship forms a tragi-comic anagnorisis in the audience.
Sam Shepard’s Buried Child extends Miller’s reversal of the American myth and extends Pinter’s deconstruction of family stability. Shepard's tragic family depicts a dark existential enquiry into the self as another volatile mythology. Shepard totally reverses the process of recognition by undercutting identity itself. Shelly initially sees in their All-American farmhouse the ‘apple pie’ myth of family perfection that Willy chases, but Shepard reverses the basis of all relationship through an unreliable past where memories are fictions and history-as-sequence is undermined. Vince as prodigal child returns but is not recognised by his father or grandfather until he leaves to find whiskey and returns drunk in a violent reversal from total stranger into Dodge’s heir. His consistency of character dissolves as he now absurdly wants the house he wished to escape even as he ironically claims to have recognised himself genealogically:
And it went on like that. Changing. Clear on back to faces
I’d never seen before but still recognised.
The construct of a stable self is contradicted through the ‘changing’ surfaces Vince sees and which, in reverse, change Vince. This absence of identity applies throughout the play as Bradley's status transforms from powerful tyrant to tortured victim while his fingers inside Shelly's mouth form a symbolic rape that disturbingly changes her to feel at home. Characters step into and out of roles just as Shelly sheds her rabbit coat and Tilden wears it. Buried Child inverts Aristotle’s exemplar of tragic recognition in Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus: Tilden as the father of the buried child reveals mother-son incest, ‘I had a son but we buried him’. Shepard inverts Oedipus’s blindness as an act of insight into psychic denial and avoidance as Oedipus’s quest for truth is reversed into a child that is not recognised but buried. Tilden's final recognition bearing the baby-bones onstage dissolves the play. Dodge repeats ‘there’s nothing out there’ twice but in Shepard's constructed world in there’s nothing in there either. The constant play of mis-recognitions and self-denial combines with the exchanging of roles and entrances and exits to declare anagnorisis and family are impossible because both depend on a stable view of the self. Shepard’s Buried Child reverses this myth into chaos.