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
is important to delineate such borders because a number of
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
vast northern tributaries of the Mississippi River, from western
Quantic, focusing more on the Great Plains than on the states in the
have made particular progress in anatomizing the sociological contours
R. Shortridge has provided helpful analysis of the enduring association
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
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
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.
certain resonances between midwestern culture and national mythology,
successes of the region have not always been understood by outsiders.
James Hurt argues in Writing
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
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).
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
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
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.
Dorothy and her three companions begin their journey along the
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
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.
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
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
many portraits of the
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
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
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
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.
its historic beginnings, the
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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.
to other regions of the country, the
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
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
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
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 every play set in 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
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.
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
a deeper level, the rootedness of the
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
element of communal pressure restraining the individual in the
For a fuller discussion of Thornton Wilder’s strong connections to
the Midwest, see my essay, “Wilder’s Dramatic Landscape: Alienation
Effect Meets the
Carlson, Marvin. Performance: A Critical Introduction.
R. L., and and Peter S. Onuf. The
The Adrienne Kennedy Reader.
The Role of Place in Literature.
Vaughn. The Faith Healer.
Dufva. The Nature of the Place: A Study of
Heartland: Poets of the
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.