Dramatizing the Midwest

Originally published in MidAmerica XXXIV (2007): 59-78.

 mong major regions of the United States, the Midwest is the least understood and has only recently received the kind of analysis and assessment other areas have long since enjoyed.  "To some the Middle West is a place of idealism and democratic temperament, but to others it is bland, materialistic, and conservative" (Shortridge 1).  John T. Flanagan, writing in 1961, called the midwestern states “probably the most heterogeneous group in terms of population in the entire Union” (qtd. in Stryk vii).  James R.  Shortridge points out that in popular national perception, the Great Plains are often conflated with the Old Northwest states of the upper Mississippi River basin (85).  The consensus among most scholars has settled on the Midwest comprised of twelve states, from west of the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania — Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri — to the eastern portions of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, to the west of which begin the Great Plains and wide-open spaces. The northern regional limit is Canada, while the southern border runs along the Ohio River and the southern edge of Missouri and Kansas. 

It is important to delineate such borders because a number of America’s best plays and playwrights have arisen from an intersection of regions.  William Inge, one of the leading midwestern dramatists, hovers in Bus Stop and Picnic near the Kansas border of the West.  Marsha Norman, born and raised in Louisville on the Ohio River, foregrounds a border sensibility in Getting Out and ‘night, Mother that combines midwestern and southern features in a way that Beth Henley’s plays, for instance, do not.  Both George S. Kaufman and August Wilson arose out of Pittsburgh.  Kaufman spent most of his later life in the New York orbit, but he continued to collaborate with midwestern authors, among them Edna Ferber and Ring Lardner.  Wilson has set a series of plays in Pittsburgh and has lived and worked productively for years in Minneapolis-St. Paul while achieving his remarkable run of successes at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

The novelist Kurt Vonnegut has argued that the Midwest is distinguished not only by the “nasal accent” of its native speakers but, more importantly, by the “tremendous bodies of pure water like our Great Lakes . . . incredible quantities of fresh water all around us, in lakes and streams and rivers and raindrops and snowdrifts, and no undrinkable water anywhere!”  Vonnegut also celebrates the “millions and millions of acres of topsoil . . . as flat as pool tables and as rich as chocolate cake.”  The Midwest is carved, indeed, by

the vast northern tributaries of the Mississippi River, from western Pennsylvania all the way to the doorstep of the Great Plains, between whose boundaries prehistoric glaciers deposited unimaginably rich topsoil that even today serves as the nation’s bread-basket.

Diane Quantic, focusing more on the Great Plains than on the states in the Great Lakes collar, has pointed out their shared pattern of extreme weather patterns and dramatic thunderstorms punctuating a seemingly uneventful landscape.  This meteorological dialectic is a representation of a broader midwestern psychological opposition between surface placidity and sudden eruption that appears frequently in drama from the region, most iconically perhaps in the plays of William Inge.  While it may be true that "in Midwestern history, like Midwestern fiction, not much seems to happen," a dramatic shift in register between quotidian ritual and cataclysmic interruption has often disconcerted critics of theatrical writing from the Midwest (Cayton 141).

Historians have made particular progress in anatomizing the sociological contours of America's heartland.  Andrew R. L. Cayton and Peter S. Onuf's The Midwest and the Nation sees "the triumph of bourgeois culture" in "the states carved out of the Old Northwest Territory . . . best exemplified in the democratic, egalitarian relationships of enterprising midwesterners" (xvii-xviii).  Pointing out the importance of rivers and railroads in the region's development, Cayton and Onuf argue that "the Midwest embodied . . . the truest and fullest expression of a liberal, capitalist society.  The apotheosis of middle-class values and the Midwest was one and inseparable" (84-95).  As we shall see later, these regional dispositions make themselves manifest in the subjects and characters represented in midwestern drama. 

James R. Shortridge has provided helpful analysis of the enduring association of the Midwest with the national myth of pastoralism: "The region has come to stand as a symbol for this important aspect of American culture and thereby has derived a measure of prestige"[1].  His research suggests that the notion of "the Middle West as a mature paradise filled with wholesome, progressive people was virtually unchallenged between 1898 and 1915" (36).  But this analogy became increasingly fraught as cities in the Midwest began emerging as technological centers: "Detroit's urban-industrial success was not incorporated into this regional model, presumably because its urban imagery was so strong that it would have threatened pastoral themes" (Shortridge 10).  The continuing evolution of the heartland has "produced a host of contradictions, distortions, and misunderstandings" (1).

Another helpful paradigm detailed by Shortridge is the life-cycle analogy.  Whereas the East is often perceived as mature, or even in decline, the West has commonly been regarded as dynamic and youthful.  The Midwest, by contrast, is characterized as "simultaneously youthful and mature" (32).  The nation's mid-section is associated with the entire span of the human life cycle—"youth, maturity, old age" (Shortridge 31).  Imbedded in this life-cycle analogy is also the perception of the Midwest as a balanced and balancing, or mediating, region of the country, grounding the more extreme aspects of the two seacoasts. 

For all these reasons—egalitarian social structures, pastoralism, and balanced cycle of life— "the Middle West came to symbolize the nation and to be seen as the most American part of America" (Shortridge 33).  Historically, "the year 1920 marks a clear apogee for the Middle West," as the confident blend of pastoralism and technological progress signified by the Saint Louis World's Fair of 1904 and other midwestern celebrations ran headlong into challenging and disorienting realities (Shortridge 38).  To a significant degree, the heartland became, in subsequent decades, the battleground between the national myth of pastoralism and developing industrial technology which contradicted and undermined it.

If the Midwest does represent as "the most American part of America," such status often comes at the cost of masking conflictive realities that do not fit into the nostalgic pastoral vision imposed from outside.  Ethnically speaking, the heartland is far more racially diverse than the "whitebread" myth would suggest, incorporating Native Americans, blacks, and a wide arrange of Europeans, along with increasing numbers of Latino immigrants.  This intersection of cultures is not always easy or comfortable; as Quantic points out, "the myth of the melting pot brings a mixture of hope and denial" (93).  The region has long since become significantly urbanized, yet "the welfare of the small farm and global corporate growth seem to be mutually incompatible" (Herr 141).  The pastoral myth leaves no room to imagine the widespread bankruptcy of family farms, take-over by globally oriented agri-business, or disintegration of small towns with few economic prospects. 

Despite certain resonances between midwestern culture and national mythology, successes of the region have not always been understood by outsiders.  James Hurt argues in Writing Illinois: The Prairie, Lincoln, and Chicago that Chicago "was by the end of the [19th] century first among modern cities: a new phenomenon that also could not be read in traditional languages" (4).  For Hurt, the supposed "nothingness" of the Midwest is simply "the new," the prairie, Lincoln, and Chicago all representing "versions of the American other" that outsiders were unprepared to encounter (3-4).  Midwestern writers who became successful nationally like William Dean Howells, Earnest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and Rachel Crothers have been interrogated for their deceptively plain style and moral tone, two major features of the midwestern aesthetic that have not always translated well to a critical establishment based largely in the Northeast.



o currently existing critical theory seems ideally suited for analyzing midwestern drama, though many approaches offer general guidance for understanding the broader culture of the region.  Conventional dramatic theory, from Aristotle to Bertolt Brecht and beyond, is of course essential to interpreting and understanding the structure and performance of midwestern plays.  However, such theory does not take us far in delineating the midwesterness of drama written about or in the central U.S. as distinct from that originating elsewhere.  Any detailed study of theatre from the heartland needs to rectify standard generic features and structures with manifestations of regional geography and cultural disposition. 

Leonard Lutwack's investigation of the "rhetoric of place" has direct relevance to drama.  His classic study, The Role of Place in Literature, argues that "all places serve figurative ends . . .," both "as attitudes about places that the writer picks up from his social and intellectual milieu . . . and as materials for the forms he uses to render events, characters, and themes" (32, 12).  Lutwack distinguishes between scene, setting, and landscape, analyzing such features as centrality, horizontality, and concepts of time, motion, objects, and activity enacted on or within particular spaces.  By mapping out linkages between, for instance, the forest and sexuality or particular buildings and the body, we can better understand the "moral geography" of how humans adapt to and interact with their environments (32).

Another field of enquiry that offers great potential for future exploration is performance theory.  This cultural approach expands beyond conventional analysis of playscripts and acting before an audience to a much broader consideration of identity formation and "patterned behavior" in society (Carlson 3).  Richard Schechner, in a seminal introduction in The Drama Review in 1973, advocates a broader study of "performance in everyday life," including ritual, sports, public behavior, patterns of communication and other features of community life (Carlson 11).  Performance theory, when combined with insights from the geography and culture of the region, can help articulate the ways the Midwest has been performed: how Midwesterners "perform" their native region for themselves and others; how the heartland has been "staged" for and received by a national and international audience. 

Effective analysis of midwestern drama requires an eclectic approach, borrowing methods and insights from cultural studies, performance theory, critical regionalism, and related disciplines.   Common threads recur—among them a bias in the heartland toward practicality, restraint, understatement, fecundity, cyclical thinking, social equality, and performative masking, among other traits and dispositions—that seem more marked than in the drama of other regions.  But the Midwest revealed in theatrical performance differs in substantive ways from the same region depicted in fiction, poetry, memoirs, traveling writing, or popular media.  The limits of the dramatic genre itself—for instance, the necessity to restrict location to a performable minimum—focus more attention on iconic place, dialect, and character.  Nonetheless, the portraits of the Midwest which emerge from plays set in the region, or written by its inhabitants and visitors, are strikingly evocative and little understood as expressions of cultural identity.




n terms of iconic midwestern themes, one could hardly improve on Illinoisan Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, with its Kansas farm and folksy lifestyle twisted by storms and taken, astonished, through animated fields to a city of glittering skyscrapers.  This masterwork insightfully juxtaposes the region’s most salient dramas: flamboyant weather, the tension between wanting to stay rooted in home and soil or to escape for adventure, the aliveness of nature which can aid or torment, the sharp, glistening verticality of cities rising insistently from flat or rolling landscapes.  These are quintessential dramas of the Midwest, which remain fixed in our imaginations from an astonishingly small number of books and movies, among them State Fair, Field of Dreams, and A Thousand Acres (all, interestingly enough, set in the typological state of Iowa). 

The classic 1939 film incarnation of Baum's novel with Judy Garland in the title role conveys several different perspectives on landscape.  At the outset and again at the end, the settled midwestern farmhouse, rendered in black and white with comfortable rhythms enacted among trees, fields, and livestock, operates as a framing locus of nurture and stability.  Soon, however, the tornado twists apart Dorothy's comfortable waking-world assumptions with an alternately dream-like and nightmarish vision of defamiliarization.  This dialectic between extremes of placidity and violence seems peculiarly midwestern.  Lurking in the regional placidity is a potential for boredom or stultification to erupt into sudden violence having the power both to kill and to renew and transform. 

The story begins with repression and a strong desire to escape, for which Dorothy will later be made to feel guilty.  The neighbor spinster, Miss Myra Gulch, whose very name conveys her dry barrenness, calls down the law on the Gale family for Toto's disobedience in her garden.  Dorothy calls Miss Gulch "a wicked old witch," foreshadowing her re-appearance as Wicked Witch of the West later, and longs for "a place where there isn't any trouble."  She gets her wish after running away from home to the gypsy-like wagon of itinerant Professor Marvel, whose crystal ball evokes her guilt for wrong-doing.  A sudden tornado, appearing as if to rebuke her selfishness, causes Dorothy to run home, but the door to storm-cellar safety is locked and she falls against the bed, knocked unconscious by an unmoored window-pane.

Initially, Dorothy's imaginary departure from her quotidian world is cinematic, as she watches scenes pass by her floating bedroom window.  Once landed in Oz, however, she experiences a radical shift from black-and-white cinematography to color, her landscape thereby transfigured in vibrant dimensions.  In contrast to the no-nonsense devotion to chores like feeding the chickens and hogs that denominated farm life at the outset, here the society seems almost European in its refinement and glamor, though conspicuously reduced in size.  Dorothy literally towers over the Munchkins, who are dressed largely in Elizabethan costumes and in one instance in Lederhosen.  She evens appears sturdy and reliable beside her protectress, Glinda, Good Witch of the North.  This imaginary world is strikingly ceremonial and festive, with widespread dancing and a horse-drawn carriage on which Dorothy and Toto are paraded as heroes for having vanquished the regionally symbolic Wicked Witch of the East.     

Once Dorothy and her three companions begin their journey along the Yellow Brick Road, the landscape becomes very alive - with vitality, with magic, and even with torment.  This signifies a midwestern understanding of landscape having its own power and dynamism, at least partly beyond the control of humans.  Glittering Emerald City serves as an idealized version of many urban vistas in the heartland that rise abruptly out of the relatively undramatic woodlands or fields, with glass towers that glint in sparkling contrast to the exposed open windows and blowing curtains of the original farmhouse.  The dialectic thus enacted between urban and rural is consistently reinforced, as is the paradigm of departure and return, home and away.

Within this series of settings, Dorothy operates as a quintessential Midwesterner.  She is conspicuously wide-eyed and innocent, archetype of the surprised naïf we see in Howells' plays, or in the Vietnam trilogy of David Rabe.  Dorothy is also iconically "nice" and good-hearted in a stereotypically midwestern way.  On the other hand, she remains practical, straightforward, and no-nonsense in her actions and dealings with others.  She also has no tolerance for sham and pretense.  Her unveiling of the fraudulent Wizard near the end represents an archetypal example of midwestern insistence on truth-telling.  Dorothy also stands up for the weak and against injustice, most noticeably in her encounter with the Wicked Witch of the West, when she rescues Toto and innocently destroys her opponent. 

Dorothy's three companions all represent deficiencies: of heart, mind, and courage.  Interestingly enough, the conglomeration of animal (Lion), vegetable (Scarecrow), and technological (Tin Man) brings together three major components of midwestern life, inextricably woven together in economic and social dependency.  On the other hand, we are made powerfully aware of their individual shortcomings and the desire each one has for completion.  In classic Joseph Campbell style, the completeness is achieved through a common quest involving journey and return, augmented by trials, mentors, and spiritual apotheosis.

The Wizard of Oz, himself a native Midwesterner, signifies the emigrant who left the region and, like William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, or Johnny Carson, performed colorful tricks for outsiders.  The Wizard masks himself in performance designed to obscure his humble, plain-speaking origins.  Dorothy's outing of him is satisfying theatrically in a paradigmatic way, but the Wizard also reveals a pitiable side as someone who tried to play a game of glamorous appearances and, for all his masquerading, is nevertheless found out.  This reinforces midwestern disapprobation of dishonesty while displaying the lengths to which natives hide, or feel the need to hide, their regional identities.

Yet the Wizard does enact a series of what could be called practical miracles, reinforced by maxims of sensible morality.  He awards an honorary degree to the Scarecrow, a medal for bravery to the Lion, and a ticking heart to the Tin Man, each presentation delivered with by down-to-earth truisms.  Earlier, the Dorothy told the Scarecrow, "You could be another Lincoln, if you only had a brain," reinforcing the midwestern democracy of opportunity available to anyone willing to work for it.  The Wizard also orchestrates a plan for Dorothy to return home—by means of a hot-air balloon marked "State Fair, Omaha."  Though he fails in his pompous, technology-based performances designed to impress, the Wizard nonetheless does "complete the quest" for three of the four companions by means of his down-home wisdom.

The final moral lesson of Oz comes from Glinda, given to Dorothy just before her return.  The Good Witch tells her that "you always had the power to go back to Kansas."  The magic incantation, "There's No Place Like Home," seems almost frighteningly astute in its enunciation of midwestern ideology regarding the home.  As we shall later discover, this ideology undergirds most of mainstream drama from the heartland, rooted in domestic realism yet spinning periodically into astonishing worlds of longed-for desire or haunting torment.  The movie provides at least two other final twists: once Dorothy has awakened in her familiar, black-and-white Kansas bed surrounded by family members, she cannot convince those gathered around to believe her astonishing narrative of "a truly alive place."  Despite her sense of alienation, however, she intones a pledge of social conformity: "I'm not going to leave here ever, ever again."

Unlike many portraits of the Midwest by outsiders, particularly on television or popular film, The Wizard of Oz does not gloss over pain and struggle, despite its upbeat surface and ending.  It also revels in crops and landscape and innocence, refusing to apologize for its provinciality.  Obviously, the film I have discussed cursorily does not do justice to Baum's more complex vision expressed over a range of inter-connected works.  But the classic motion picture has lodged itself in American consciousness in ways that few other works have, The Music Man or State Fair among them.  Its visual iconography is easily and clearly understood by viewers.  Baum's masterpiece marked the ascendancy of midwestern culture at the turn of the twentieth century.  The Wizard of Oz also prepared the way for later appreciation of midwestern habits of thinking and being, down to the encoded Germanness of the Munchkins. 



or more than a century, the preferred dramatic mode in midwestern plays has been domestic realism, which nonetheless almost invariably turns transcendent at key moments during the action.  This characteristic does not mark all plays from the region; the most experimental works, like those of Adrienne Kennedy, for instance, escape into more abstract theatrical territory.  And one may legitimately question whether midwestern plays are inherently realistic, or only those that have reached the national public and won recognition and awards.  Certainly, the national bias, like the regional one, has been toward "expanded realism" since the arrival of Twain and Howells.  But the midwestern preference for domestic realism encompasses defining features that set it apart from other varieties in the same mode, suggesting a deeper causality.

A sizable majority of midwestern plays have been set in the home, certainly those that have become most famous and successful.  This even applies to works like David Mamet's American Buffalo, where the seedy pawn shop functions as the only real "home" the three characters know.  The domestic pattern dominates the stage works of the originators of midwestern drama, Twain and Howells, which are not set in the heartland but in the East.  Yet the full implications of characteristic midwestern elements clustered around domestic realism can be most clearly seen beginning with The Faith Healer (1909) by William Vaughn Moody, the first significant drama actually set in the Midwest. 

The home, of course, is a central setting in virtually all cultures, and from every region of the country.  But the midwestern home differs in key respects from the northeastern, southern, or western homes in the United States, at least as depicted on stage.  The domicile in the nation's mid-section is portrayed as deeply rooted in its environment, whether rural or urban, fundamentally egalitarian (and middle-class), and without significant history or legacy.  It typically offers grounding and solace for its occupants and can be relied upon for stability.  Dramatic characters occupying the home exhibit fewer (if any) class barriers compared to other regions.  In many plays the home serves as a kind of character in its own right, much like Eugene O'Neill's New England homes, but without the menacing, haunting, or imprisoning qualities.

The uniqueness of the midwestern home can be seen most clearly by comparing it to those located elsewhere.  It lacks the strong historical legacy of the Northeast, with echoes of Puritanism and witch-hunts on the one hand or exclusive social hierarchy on the other.  William Dean Howell's Boston plays focus precisely on this social exclusivity and its injustice to talented Midwesterners like himself.  The southern home, by contrast, is inescapably shadowed by the tragic legacy of slavery and the Civil War.  Not even the contemporary domestic setting of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart (1986) can escape the long arm of this racial dynamic.  The western home lies at an opposite extreme; as plays by William Saroyan, Sam Shepard, and others make clear, the western domicile is transient and fragile.  The region's inhabitants understand the inherently transitory nature of domesticity that began with tepees, wagons, and mining camps.  One only needs to compare the midwestern farmhouse of Shepard's Buried Child to his western motel in Fool for Love or the trashed-up apartment in True West to see the stark difference.

In establishing the domestic setting, the midwestern playwright typically provides an extended depiction of daily chores.  Great emphasis is placed on rising, making breakfast, going to work, returning from work, preparing and eating supper, and going to bed.  These activities occur in plays from other regions, of course, but the typical play from the heartland does not just feature eating or sleeping.  Most often, characters are shown actually performing chores like washing dishes, ironing, or cooking as part of the dramatic action, so the audience gets a sense of their disposition toward work and social responsibilities.  Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun enacts these daily rhythms with particular care and loving detail.  The various chores or tasks serve to delineate character and familial relationships.

These daily activities, moreover, are most often rendered emblematically, suggesting a rhythm of daily life that seems routine and comfortable, even comforting.  So the cooking of dinner, or Berniece's evocative ironing of her daughter's hair in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, functions not merely as stage business but embodies a more fundamental pattern of living and relating to other people and the physical environment.  This emphasis on simplicity has historical precedence: "the moral tone of Middle-western life acted as a deterrent to ostentation and arrogance" (Shortridge 30).  Thornton Wilder blatantly calls attention to these unadorned rhythms in his revolutionary one-acts and Our Town by denuding the stage and forcing audience attention on iconic quotidian gesture and language.1

In collaboration with these daily rhythms, the midwestern understanding of time differs from that seen elsewhere.  Residents of mid-America are strongly influenced by the regular cycle of seasons experienced in their midst, whether they are farmers or gardeners or not.  Unlike the long months of cold in the high Rockies, with an organizational focus on skiing and other winter sports, or the beach attractions and long summers of golf of the coastal South, the progression of midwestern time through planting, fertilizing, weeding, watering, harvesting, and wintering over has become deeply imbedded in both the mental and social landscapes of the region.  Not surprisingly, enactment of time in midwestern plays is strikingly cyclical without, at the same time, calling much attention to itself.  Again, Wilder's Our Town and The Long Christmas Dinner offer perfect examples of cyclical time enacted according to its own structuring rhythms, within which the midwestern home is firmly situated.

Within the foundational frame of domestic realism in midwestern drama, another crucial ingredient makes itself known: at some point in nearly every midwestern play of this persuasion, the language or the situation turns choric or transcendent.  I use the term "choric" because not infrequently, as in the plays of Wilder or August Wilson, the dramatic action actually leads to a chorus of characters chanting together.  In many African-American plays, the choric element originates in African chant or slave songs or spirituals.  In other plays, like those of Moody, Howells, or Lanford, a ghost speaks, or a gramophone or tape-recorder—always some other-worldly presence outside the quotidian that shifts the plane of the characters' experience.  It is as if midwestern drama begins in domestic realism, is grounded in it, but then challenges its assumptions by spinning off into unknown psychic territory far from the reliable everyday.

From its historic beginnings, the Midwest has distinguished itself as a more egalitarian area of the country, with a higher percentage of middle-class wage-earners.  Blacks escaping from the South and immigrants from many cultures, despite lingering racism, could own farms and businesses and work alongside whites in factories.  Many unions were racially integrated fairly early.  Women also enjoyed greater freedoms compared with other regions.  For these and other sociological reasons too complicated to consider in detail, midwestern drama reflects that emphasis on social justice and civil rights from Twain and Howells onward.  The region produced a bumper-crop of important female playwrights during the first three decades of the twentieth century, clustered around the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing equal suffrage for women.  The range of African-American dramatists from the Midwest is second to none.

A number of commentators have remarked on the laconic understatement characteristic of midwestern discourse.  Compared with the stereotypes of the fast-talking Easterner or the story-telling Southerner, the classic Midwesterner seems distinctly linguistically challenged, at least shy or cautiously spoken.  Yet the Midwest as enacted on stage often forms a dialectic between rhetorical litotes and emotional outburst.  Mark Twain's stage Missourians are flamboyant talkers, a complete contrast to Howell's subdued midwestern gentlemen.  Any number of characters in the plays of Crothers, Glaspell, Wilder, Inge, or Lanford Wilson speak in clipped sentences, only to erupt later in a barrage of words no doubt set loose by a general pattern of linguistic repression.

A similar dialectic operates on the level of social pressure toward conformity fighting against desires for individuality of expression or action.  Strong communal forces can be witnessed in a number of midwestern plays, particularly in Glaspell, Wilder, and Inge.  Our Town articulates both this collective ethos and the tragic toll such norms can take on someone like Simon Stimson, who commits suicide.  The same oppressive dynamic appears in Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.  The pathetic downfall of characters who do not fit into the midwestern small town—or the stalwart rebellion of a character like Miss Lulu Bett who fights back—stands in sharp contrast to the southern indulgence, even celebration, of the "madwoman on the porch."  Whereas eccentricity is valued in the South as an assertion of individuality and colorful distinction, often the central drama in a midwestern play features a misfit suffering alone and unsupported, seeking to escape the entrapments of social convention and language.  William Inge's pathological shyness seems like a perfect embodiment of this phenomenon, leading to his premature suicide in 1973.

Practicality receives especially strong emphasis in midwestern plays.  Characters are often judged on their competence to complete tasks or solve problems.  The many incarnations of William Dean Howells' "natural gentleman" from the Midwest includes several engineers and/or inventors who literally solve mechanical problems like a stalled elevator between floors.  On a more subtle level, the beleaguered husband in Rachel Crothers' As Husbands Go launches a subdued but highly effective, concrete counter-attack to win back the affections of his wavering wife.  Tennessee Williams' Jim O'Connor, who features in two of his Saint Louis plays, as Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie takes night classes, attends a conference on future development in Chicago, and plans soon to be married.  From Williams' perspective, such characters know how to function effectively and productively in the world.

On the level of ideas, certain dialectics imbedded in dramatic conflict emerge with particular frequency in midwestern plays.  One of these involves the struggle between staying put and dealing with challenging realities versus escaping to what seems like greater opportunity or freedom elsewhere.  This paradigm is deeply rooted in the early history of the region, when thousands of settlers decided either to remain in the heartland or to pull up stakes and move to California for cheaper land or for gold.  In twentieth-century drama, the playwright most haunted by this dilemma was Tennessee Williams, most of whose more than a dozen plays set in the Midwest deal with precisely this conflict.  The most important, certainly, is The Glass Menagerie, long since established as an American classic but rarely recognized as midwestern. 

Another related dialectic involves the clash between individual desire and community pressure.  This fundamental conflict also operates in much fiction from the region; Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser spring immediately to mind.  Again, the immigrant history of the Midwest, occurring considerably later than in the Northeast and much of the South, required the forging of small towns and cities through the fires of different ethnic perspectives and frequent sacrifice of individual liberties and prerogatives.  William Inge and Lanford Wilson devote considerable attention to this foundational conflict, but it surfaces in many plays given strong pressures toward social conformity in the Midwest, where misfits are often driven underground or expelled.  The flip side of this conflict, however, often results in a community which broadens itself to include new and divergent voices, as at the end of Moody's The Faith Healer

Yet another conflict derives from the heartland's diehard contention with language.  Midwestern characters are frequently depicted as struggling to articulate and come to terms with their desires, which, often as not, are repressed to fit in with social norms but then explode into full view.  Obviously, this is not just a matter of language but a much broader emotional articulation involving action and, frequently, violence.  Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba offers a particularly clear instance of this paradigm, with a nightmarish depiction of Doc's drunken attack on his wife.  Inge's other works encode the same pattern of calm erupting into storm, while the departing characters in Tennessee Williams' Saint Louis plays likewise struggle to name their discontent. 

A particularly striking example of this "coming to language" occurs at the end of Adrienne Kennedy's powerful Ohio State Murders.  The central character, who as a student at The Ohio State University was confronted by appalling, arbitrary racial prejudice, also has to endure the brutal kidnapping and murder of her twin daughters.  The police fail to investigate the murders, pressured to cover up what was feared would develop into a city-wide scandal.  At the end of this deliberately understated re-narration of tragic events never explored or prosecuted, Suzanne responds to her critics simply, "And that is the main source of violent imagery in my work.  Thank you" (173).  Here we have, in the final line of the play, not only characteristically clipped, powerful midwestern speech but also the bringing of language to frame a reality that, until then, had no name.

Compared to other regions of the country, the Midwest seems especially "karmic," to rely on a culturally slippery term.  This results probably from the region's fundamental ties to food crops and cash livestock nourished in the nation's "bread-basket."  Unlike, say, tourism or tobacco farming, or tin and copper mining, the main products of the Midwest are literally eaten by the populace and harvested for livelihood and export.  In the West, rapacious exploiters can, and do, sweep into town, excavate or chop down all the resources, and then abscond to new sites, leaving local residents to cope with the denuded results. 

In the Midwest, by contrast, overuse of pesticides or fertilizers can literally lead to poisoned water and crops and ruin profits and lives.  So a built-in system of agricultural retribution ricochets consequences rather quickly and dramatically back on the residents, whereas exploitation elsewhere—for instance, bad shore management on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast or over-farming of cotton that leaches the soil—has less direct consequences on the physical well-being of the natives.  This difference is one more of degree than of kind, but Midwesterners can suffer almost immediately and certainly viscerally from polluted crops and livestock.

This karmic element can be seen especially clearly in Arthur Miller's two midwestern plays, The Man Who Had All the Luck and All My Sons.  Particularly in the former work, a kind of Jewish, Old Testament retribution, inversion of the Job narrative, operates with devastating consequences.  In the plays of August Wilson, the karmic influence almost always involves the legacy of slavery and racial violence directed against blacks, which shadows characters escaping to the North and haunts them even in the relatively freer and more benign Midwest.  The Piano Lesson enacts this dynamic not only in the central conflict but also in the very piano which occupies the center of the stage, with its elaborate, artistic carvings of Southern black victims.  The Midwest, as depicted on stage, is not a region where one can escape the consequences of one's actions. 

The preceding elements dominate midwestern plays, particularly those which have gone on to win national recognition and awards.  However, more experimental, non-realistic features have also marked midwestern drama as a counter-trend or alternative dynamic, dating back at least to William Dean Howell’s verse satire, Priscilla, and other early plays.  This avant-garde (for lack of a better term) strain in drama from the heartland runs through the feminist experimentations of Rachel Crothers and Susan Glaspell in the first third of the twentieth century.  Also in the 1920s, the Little Theatre movement in Chicago and elsewhere revitalized dramatic performance in the region and explored new theatrical terrain. 

Thornton Wilder’s fusion of Pirandellian and Brechtian elements with the midwestern tradition achieved national exposure in the 1930s in a way that revolutionized American theatre.  In some of her late, posthumously produced plays, particularly What Use Are Flowers?, Lorraine Hansberry moved beyond conventional realism into an apocalyptic aesthetic.  Perhaps the most radically experimental of all major playwrights from the Midwest, however, is Adrienne Kennedy, whose challenging, evocative, surreal plays have jolted audiences out of traditional assumptions into entirely new theatrical experiences of fractured time-space, layered symbolism, and fundamentally destabilized character interactions.

Such thorough-going experimentation also grows from midwestern roots and the paradigms outlined above, in many cases through a fundamentally egalitarian regional mind-set carried to logical, practical extremes.  In the case of Howells, the assertion of midwestern dignity and values against the northeastern hegemony enacts an overturning of regional inferiority.  Crothers and Glaspell assert female rights, while Wilder anatomizes over-simplified notions of “middle-American” habits and culture.  Hansberry's experiments often decode race issues, while Kennedy’s are yet more radical:
not only an equation of rights between blacks and whites, males and females, upper and lower classes, but also an inseparable, interpenetrating connectedness of history and legacy.  Experimental drama along these lines is grounded in bedrock midwestern principles of equal rights and pragmatism enacted against various forms of oppression. 


Obviously, not every play set in the Midwest exhibits the mainstream patterns characteristic of the region.  In addition to experimental works that defy easy categorization, plays written by visitors to the heartland like Arthur Miller exhibit their own cross-regional traits.  Nonetheless, it is surprising how dominant this regional disposition has remained for more than a century.  The plays of Twain and Howells, though not set in the authors' home region, nevertheless encode the recognizable features.  A perfect example to illustrate the workings of these various regional elements can be found in William Vaughn Moody's The Faith Healer (1909), the first stage masterpiece actually set in the Midwest.  The defining elements evident in this play recur right through the century, with some accretions through African-American drama, all the way to David Auburn's Proof and beyond, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

The Faith Healer is one of two great plays Moody wrote before his untimely death, both using geography to represent aspects of the American character.  The Great Divide (1906) is set in both the mining area of Arizona and a sitting-room in Massachusetts, enacting a dialogue between East and West.  The Faith Healer, by contrast, is set in a “farm-house, near a small town in the Middle West” and never leaves its rooted place (3).  The entrance door “opens upon the side yard, showing bushes, trees, and farm buildings” (3).  Though the weather improves from persistent fog to resplendent sunshine on Easter morning at the end, it seems to enwrap the play and its inhabitants, offering security, solace, and renewal.

The language and emotional longing are kept in check, enacted through a pattern of daily chores, until the arrival of the Faith Healer, an “otherworldly” drifter from the West, who brings along an Indian boy he revived after three days, now called Lazarus.  Biblical allusions permeate the play.  Martha concerns herself with chores and running the household, while her sister Mary, incapacitated since the drowning of her brother five years before, and the emotionally wounded Rhoda respond immediately to the ministrations of the Faith Healer.  Mary experiences compelling visions that deracinate her from everyday routine and annoy her down-to-earth husband, a devotee of Darwin and Spencer.

On one level, The Faith Healer enacts a contest between religion and science, belief and material evidence; on another, a clash between true religion and false.  Rev. Culpepper, the local minister, rejects the Faith Healer’s brand of ministry as fakery and the multitude who surround the farm-house as misguided idolaters.  Mr. Beeler, on the other hand, rejects the Faith Healer as a modern-day Pan, who seduces women and believers with “this hoodoo business” (57).  Both can be seen as representatives of midwestern common sense under challenge.

For his part, the Faith Healer experiences a crisis of faith while staying at the settled farm-house, temporarily losing his vaunted healing powers.  After decades of wandering in the West, he falls in love with the grounded Rhoda and sees “the vision of another life” (30) in her.  Initially, he shrinks from what he fears will be a contest between his divine calling and more earthly love.  Eventually, he recognizes that Rhoda’s pure (if wounded) heart is part of “the new-risen hope” he has found in the Midwest, his confidence and healing powers return, and he enables Mary to walk for good after five years in her chair (157).

In the context of paradigms presented earlier, The Faith Healer can be seen as enacting the "coming to language" pattern of midwestern plays.  Although much of the action entails a conflict between individual desires and community norms, and to a lesser extent the karmic remnants of earlier events, the central dynamic, arrived at particularly by the end, involves Mary, Rhoda, and the Faith Healer all coming into their own proper articulations of their deepest selves.  Only part of this involves actual language as such, but the larger process of articulation through behavior and action leads not only to healing and fulfillment of hitherto unmet individual needs but also to productive resolution of conflict and integration into the community. 

Mary, Rhoda, and the Faith Healer are thereby renewed in this place, in concert with the movement through Good Friday to Easter, and religion has been restored to some balance with science and pragmatism.  The Faith Healer is a rich play with an overall momentum from sickness, allied with guilt and loss, to renewal and health.  The process takes place in the settled midwestern home, under Biblical auspices undergirded by romance and realization of dreams.  Common sense and pragmatism, embodied in domestic realism, do battle with idealistic or mystical longings, manifest in ritual, music, and religious prayer and chants.   For his period, Moody’s neglected masterpiece features surprisingly strong and complex female characters in balance with men. 

The national success of The Faith Healer and later midwestern plays, especially those in the broad mainstream of transcendental realism, derives in significant measure from the region’s unprepossessing habits of thinking and expression.  The heartland often seems appealing for its straightforwardness that is neither exclusive nor condescending.  Hierarchies are almost invariably disdained in midwestern writing, though communal pressures like those experienced by the invalid Mary can be debilitating.  With less focus on ancestry and tradition, works from the region like The Glass Menagerie or Come Back, Little Sheba can be more accessible than those from elsewhere.  Their emphasis on direct speech and everyday rhythms speaks to the American mainstream with immediacy.

On a deeper level, the rootedness of the Midwest feeds on American nostalgia for a simpler life located somewhere in the mythic past.  The myth includes comfortable daily ritual, reliable and meaningful hard work, and connectedness to the environment, whether rural or urban.  In this construct, mirrored in classics like Our Town, neighborliness is crucial to survival, and both people and life seem to “matter.”  This is a sentimental notion, but the myth is significantly true, and so deep is the longing in the American psyche for this imaginary heartland that midwestern drama has continued to resonate well. 

Stylistically, the common-sense turn of midwestern thinking and expression is embodied in domestic realism, mixed or in tension with fantasy, surrealism, or abstraction.  This combination transfers easily to television and film, bridging the gap between American pragmatic materialism and a longing for spiritual or other-worldly experience.  Midwestern plays seem tailor-made for the cinema in a way that those of Eugene O’Neill, for instance, do not.  William Inge’s four major plays moved seamlessly from Broadway to Hollywood and became great hits in the 1950s, pulling the two coasts closer together.  In the subsequent era of Civil Rights, feminism, and Gay Liberation, midwestern plays gave voice to those concerns in a down-to-earth way that effectively integrated those ideals into a realistic context that permitted wider acceptance and dissemination. 

The element of communal pressure restraining the individual in the Midwest may not resonate as well nationally in an era of rampant individualism.  But for its other signature qualities, midwestern drama remains central in twentieth-century American theatre, embodying many of the iconic preoccupations and conflicts in our national life.  The very invisibility of midwestern drama—the way playwrights like Howells, Glaspell, Wilder, Rabe, and Mamet move to New York, California, or beyond without notice or trespass—has been a hidden strength, permeating and reflecting the culture to itself in a way that is neither surprising nor disconcerting.  Midwestern theatre is recognizable and comfortable, so deeply resonant with the national consciousness as to be accepted as simply “American.”


1 For a fuller discussion of Thornton Wilder’s strong connections to the Midwest, see my essay, “Wilder’s Dramatic Landscape: Alienation Effect Meets the Midwest,” American Drama 15:1 (Winter 2006): 43-61. BACK

Works Cited

Carlson, Marvin.  Performance: A Critical IntroductionLondon & New York: Routledge, 2004.

Cayton, Andrew R. L., and and Peter S. Onuf.  The Midwest and the Nation: Rethinking the History of an American RegionBloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Hurt, R.  Douglas.  "Midwestern Distinctiveness."  The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History.  Eds. Andrew R.  L. Cayton and Susan E Gray. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001.  160-179.

Kennedy, Adrienne.  The Adrienne Kennedy ReaderMinneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2001.

Lutwack, Leonard.  The Role of Place in LiteratureSyracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1984.

Moody, William Vaughn.  The Faith HealerNew York: Macmillian, 1910.

Quantic, Diane Dufva.  The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains FictionLincoln: U Nebraska P, 1997.

Shortridge, James R.  The Middle West: Its Meaning in American CultureLawrence: U Kansas P, 1989.

Stryk, Lucien.  Heartland: Poets of the MidwestDe Kalb, IL: Northern Illinois U P, 1967.

Vonnegut, Kurt.  “To Be a Native Middle-Westerner.”  Indiana Humanities Council, www.ihc4u.org/kurt.htm, October 2004.

The Wizard of Oz.  Dir. Victor Fleming.  Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939. 

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