"The Nightmare of the Nation": Sam Shepard and the Paradox of American Identity

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Madachy, Paul Seamus
Bryer, Jackson
ABSTRACT Title of Dissertation: "THE NIGHTMARE OF THE NATION": SAM SHEPARD AND THE PARADOX OF AMERICAN IDENTITY Paul Seamus Madachy, Doctor of Philosophy, 2003 Dissertation directed by: Dr. Jackson Bryer Department of English Sam Shepard's plays depict a world in which his characters struggle with a paradox of life in America. Incapable of ever attaining any semblance of their perception of American identity, they also cannot ever define themselves outside of a national character. This paradox occurs, Shepard argues, because Americathrough its literature, culture, and very historyhas promoted and perpetuated a sanitized version of historical events, one that celebrates a self-sufficient, pioneering spirit while de-emphasizing the violent and exclusionary reality of America's past. The unreality of this image instills in Shepard's characters an incessant escapist impulse that emerges as a distinctly American characteristic. Shepard's plays and writings expose this American identityrepresented by the strong, hardy figure of the farmer/pioneer/cowboyas an illusion and suggests that any successful notion of identity must acknowledge the character-shaping influence of the past as well as admit to the reality of an American identity that is inherently violent and inaccessible to most Americans. As Shepard continues to write, his characters have evolved as they attempt to find new forms of American identity. Chapter One provides a detailed discussion of Shepard's perception of American identity, identifying the source of the fundamental elements of that national character. Chapter Two elaborates on the escapist impulse that pervades Shepard's work, examining the distinct patterns of escapism that Shepard's characters display. Chapter Three explores the shift in Shepard's focus from escape to confrontation, wherein his characters start to realize the futility of denying individual and national heritage and are forced to confront the reality of American character by acknowledging its flaws and the enormous influence of the past. Chapter Four will examine the state of an America that has been stripped of its national myth. Shepard argues that the nation must discover an "essence of myth" that will help provide a collective identity for America.