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The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy HERBERT BLAU Ifthe drama in the text, as we are always told, is to be realized on the stage, even on the stage there is something unrealized in American drama. Whatever the cause in our disheartening theater, there is a certain improvidence in our social history. From his earliest plays to his last, it troubled the imagination ofEugene O'Neill, still by sheer ambition our greatest playwright. He put the case against America when he was canonized by Henry Luce on the cover ofTIMEI , which - right after World War II, from which we emerged as a superpower - was announcing the imperium of the American dream. On the contrary, said O'Neill, this nation is the greatest failure because it has betrayed the greatest promise. He put the case against himselfin the enormous pathos ofLong Day's Journey Into Night, which almost transcends the limitations by the exhaustiveness of their confession, the obsessive massing of the desire to have it all out. O'Neill knew what the impediment was, the failure in the confession reflecting the failure in the promise. He said he lacked the language. It is a recurring lack in our major dramatists, as we see in Arthur Miller, when, for all his social and moral passion, he denounces the improvidence and asks for attention to be paid. Tennessee Williams had the language, but his lacks were of another kind, an insufficiency through the sensationalism (inherited by Albee) that makes one think of stage fright, a lurid necessity through the lyricism that betokens faintness of mind. The verbal and intellectual deficiencies of our theater were by no means diminished or compensated for by the tactile experimentation of the sixties and seventies, despite the claims made for an irreversible impact on our drama. Actually, there were innumerable plays written in this antiverbal period of assaults upon the text, when the actor at times seemed to be going it alone. If there was an impact of body language on the written drama, it released for the most part minor constellations ofatomized banality, a plethora of the unmemorable. The truth is that our best writers, granting a rare indulgence, pretty much stay away from our theater. Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy 521 I want to speak in this essay, however, of two writers who, while representative of the last generation of American dramatists, are so distinct among them, so evocatively gifted, that we can only regret the absence of an active literary environment in the theater for their more substantial development . One is white and a man, his gift widely acknowledged here and abroad; the other is black and a woman, and mostly neglected, even at home, and even by blacks. (By last report she is either so discouraged or exhausted that she may not be writing anymore.) Neither ofthem lacks the language. Ifthey still suffer from faintness of mind, that seems by now to come with the territory. What I want to talk about, mainly, through the work of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy, is the persistence of desire in language to overcome the failed promise. It is what we also saw in the logorrheic stutterings ofO'Neill: how the American drama remembers through every disenchantment the loose and elusive features of the American dream, attached to the endlessly retreating image of a lost innocence. Now I realize that the waning of the American dream has been so endlessly studied in American scholarship that it has become a banality of American thought. It is no less alluring for that - the dream so fractured, however, that it looks surreal or gothic, like a stained-glass window in a suburban tract where Edgar Allan Poe still lives - as they used to say of the Bird - not drunk, but freaking out on acid or high on speed. At the same time the endangered heroine (no pun intended) of gothic melodrama has turned feminist with a vengeance and, in the radical critique of the American family, has threatened our very conception of sexuality and, by a kind of toxic shock upon the incest barrier, may change the nature of what we...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 520-539
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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