On a rainy day in rural Illinois in 1978, Dodge, a sickly man in his late seventies, sits on the couch in the living room of his old, rundown farmhouse. He stares at the television. After a while, Dodge looks to make sure that no one is watching him, then pulls a bottle of whiskey from underneath the couch cushion, takes a long drink, and returns it to its hiding place.
The opening moments of the play immediately establish Dodge, the family patriarch, as weak and vulnerable. The setting also gives us a sense of the family’s lack of success and prosperity. The decaying family farmhouse is a fitting metaphor for both the failure of the American Dream and the collapse of this family.
Dodge attempts to suppress a cough, but his wife Halie hears him, and she calls to him from upstairs, suggesting that Dodge take some medicine. From upstairs, Halie describes the torrential rain outside and blames it for Dodge’s ills. Dodge ignores her, takes another drink, and lights a cigarette. He has another coughing fit, and Halie threatens to come downstairs, but Dodge tells her not to.
The rain outside calls to mind the Biblical flood in Genesis—an image of both punishment and renewal. Dodge and Halie, far from being an ideal of family patriarch and matriarch, are ineffectual and constantly at odds. Halie doesn’t even appear until much later—we know her only by her voice—as the couple seems to want to avoid each other.
Halie again tells Dodge to take a pill for his cough. She wonders aloud whether taking medicine is the Christian thing to do, but concludes that Dodge might as well take it.
Halie advises Dodge not to watch any television programs that will get him excited, such as horse racing, and the two argue about what day of the week horse races are held. Halie recounts a fanciful story from a time before she and Dodge were married, describing how a handsome man once escorted her to a horse race. Dodge insults her for her promiscuity.
The anecdote about the horse racing not only shows how Halie seems to revise the past, but also further establishes the antagonistic relationship between husband and wife. The allusions to Halie’s extra-marital activity help to paint a picture of the couple’s specific dysfunction.
Halie lets Dodge know that she is going out to meet the minister Father Dewis for lunch, and that their son Bradley will be coming over later to cut Dodge’s hair. Dodge adamantly refuses to let Bradley cut his hair. Halie says that Tilden, their eldest son, is in the kitchen, and suggests that he might protect Dodge—an idea the Dodge scoffs at. Dodge calls out for Tilden and then goes into a horrible coughing fit.
Halie and Dodge’s argument about Tilden and Bradley further identifies problems the family is experiencing. The two adult sons are unable to take care of their aging parents like we might expect. In this exchange, Bradley is characterized as abusive and Tilden as unable to protect even himself, much less his father.
Tilden, a “profoundly burned out and displaced” man in his forties, enters, wet with rain and holding an armful of freshly picked corn. He simply stares at Dodge as Dodge’s coughing fit subsides. Dodge asks Tilden where he got the corn, and Tilden tells him that he has just picked it in the fields out back. Dodge insists that there hasn’t been corn out back since 1935, and Halie’s voice confirms this from upstairs.
Tilden seems to lack any emotional response to his father’s illness, emphasizing his “burned out” nature and also the fact that he may be mentally disturbed in some way. The first appearance of corn (the motif of the harvest) presents the possibility for eventual renewal, even though at this point Dodge seems wedded to the idea of his farm’s barrenness.
Dodge commands Tilden to return the corn to where he found out, but instead Tilden dumps the ears of corn on Dodge’s lap. Dodge asks Tilden if he’s in some kind of trouble. He tells Tilden that Halie has already told him about some mysterious incident in New Mexico that has landed Tilden back home in Illinois. Tilden exits to get a chair from the kitchen, and Dodge pushes the ears of corn off his body.
Dodge’s refusal of the corn is a refusal to acknowledge reality, much like his refusal to admit to his crimes. Tilden putting the corn in Dodge’s lap then forces Dodge to confront reality in a direct way. Here we also learn that Tilden has been forced to return home after trying to make a new life for himself elsewhere.
Tilden returns with a chair and pail and begins to husk the corn. Dodge asks Tilden what his plans are for the future, but says that he’s not worried about him. Tilden tells Dodge that he should have worried when Tilden was in New Mexico, but then changes the subject and asks Dodge for some of his hidden whiskey. Dodge plays dumb in response.
Although the details of Tilden’s time in New Mexico are hazy, the fact that Tilden brings up this lonely time to his father further emphasizes how the characters’ pasts weigh on them and their relationships in the present. Tilden is portrayed as a helpless, ineffectual man without a future.
From upstairs, Halie calls out to Dodge that Tilden should not be drinking anything. Unaware that Tilden can hear, Halie enters into a long speech about how she and Dodge need to stay healthy because Tilden can no longer take care of himself. She also reveals that their son Bradley accidentally cut off his leg with a chainsaw, and so he can’t be depended on to take care of the couple in their old age. Halie laments Tilden’s fall from All-American quarterback to disturbed criminal.
Halie continues to solidify our awareness of Bradley and Tilden’s dysfunction. The sons need to be looked after, and therefore are not suitable heirs to Dodge (or even functional adults). The mention of Tilden’s former athletic prowess demonstrates a uniquely American kind of nostalgia—it’s implied that the family once had achieved the “American Dream” (owning their farm, having a child who was a football star), but now that dream has collapsed forever.
Halie goes on to admit that once Tilden and Bradley exposed themselves as failures, she placed her hopes in her youngest son, Ansel. Halie finally enters from upstairs, appearing onstage for the first time. She is a woman in her sixties, and she wears full mourning attire. As she slowly descends the stairs, she lauds Ansel for his intelligence, bravery, and skills as a basketball player and soldier. She quickly skirts over the detail that Ansel died in a motel room.
Halie uses Ansel’s death as an excuse for the family’s demise without taking any responsibility herself. The quick reveal that Ansel died a rather humiliating death then demonstrates that Halie may revise the past in order to mitigate her feelings about the present. We see just how much Halie lives in a world of nostalgia (as she appears for the first time)—she seems to love her sons as they were in the past, but she is scornful of their present selves.
Halie, completely absorbed in her story, explains that Father Dewis wants to recommend to the city council that Ansel be commemorated with a statue. She then blames Ansel’s death on the fact that he married into a Catholic family. She explains that Ansel died on his honeymoon, and, in a disturbing set of images, Halie suggests that she knew Ansel was going to die because their parting kiss the last time they saw each other was irregularly dispassionate.
Halie’s faith in Ansel as the family’s would-be savior continues to be undercut by her bizarre allusions to the incestuous feeling she seemed to have had for him. All this hints at something more sinister, as we will see. We also see Halie again using religion as a basis for prejudice and superstition.
Halie finally comes out of her reverie, and angrily notices the husks on the floor of the living room. Halie asks Tilden where the corn has come from, claiming that she can see fields from her bedroom window and that there is no corn to speak of. When Tilden insists that he picked the corn out back, Halie threatens to kick Tilden out of the house. This makes him start to cry.
Halie’s denial of the corn’s existence aligns her with Dodge—mirroring their refusal to acknowledge their past crimes. Halie’s volatile reaction towards Tilden is in a way a representation of her intense and absolute refusal to revisit the family’s past trauma. We also see Tilden acting especially childlike and helpless here.
Dodge reprimands Halie for upsetting Tilden, but Halie warns the men that they’d better clean up the mess before Bradley comes and sees it. A short argument ensues where Dodge insults Bradley, disowning him as his son, and claiming that his real flesh and blood is “buried in back yard!” Everyone freezes at this comment and the mood abruptly changes. Halie tells Tilden not to go out back again, and then she exits for her lunch with Father Dewis, telling the men she’ll be back soon.
The argument that Halie and Dodge have about Bradley continues to stress the tense and antagonistic relationships that the family members have with each other. Dodge’s cryptic comment and the reaction that it elicits draw a mysterious connection between the family and the tract of land that now seems to produce crops. Combined with the title of the play itself, this increases the mood of something ominous and grotesque approaching.
Tilden scolds Dodge for his comments about the back yard, but Dodge refuses to apologize or discuss the matter further, instead turning the focus back to Tilden’s failure to be an autonomous adult.
As Tilden begins to head out back again—against Halie and Dodge’s wishes—Dodge has another violent coughing fit. Tilden gets him some water, and Dodge takes a pill. Tilden helps Dodge get settled, covering him with a blanket. Dodge asks Tilden to stay with him, and Tilden agrees to. When Tilden tries to remove Dodge’s baseball cap, however, Dodge refuses to take it off—he wants to protect himself against a haircut from Bradley.
In a sense, Tilden helping his ill father and tucking him in on the couch foreshadows a sort of burial process. Dodge is dying, and Tilden is attempting to help him pass on comfortably, and, in doing so, aiding in the renewal of the family—another ritual likewise associated with harvest. Bradley is again portrayed as a bully, even to his own father.
Dodge falls asleep. Tilden steals Dodge’s hidden whiskey, and then covers the sleeping Dodge with the corn husks and sneaks away.
This symbolic burial further emphasizes the power shift occurring in the family, and displays Tilden’s strange mental processes.
After a few moments, Bradley enters from the screen porch. His left leg is a wooden prosthetic, and he walks with a limp. He notices Dodge on the couch under the mess of corn husks. Bradley laboriously kneels beside Dodge, violently removes Dodge’s cap, and begins to shave Dodge’s head with a pair of electric clippers.
Coming out of Dodge’s pseudo-burial, Shepard presents another obviously poor choice for Dodge’s possible replacement in Bradley. Bradley’s abusive (and petty) behavior towards his father exposes even more bitterness between the family’s members, and again shows the childishness of even the grown children. Bradley’s violent shaving of his father’s head seems like another ritual associated with death—like shaving a prisoner before his execution, or shearing a sheep before slaughter.