Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

William W. Demastes


American drama has ever occupied a stepchild position in scholarship, its denigration rooted in the lure of domestic realism for even the most resistant of our playwrights. Maligned as solipsistic and regressive, this "leviathan" of mainstream American theatre putatively upholds through its content the unity of the mythologized family and through its form the closure of classical realism. Yet the legacy of this leviathan is an epistemological subversion and a transformative impulse. Those very plays which apotheosize American domestic realism ironically undermine its foundation in psychological causality, narrative linearity, transparent language, unmediated consciousness, and unified meaning. Destabilizing that objective reality perceived through a binary logic of subject/object, post-war playwrights prophesied a shift from a Cartesian/Newtonian epistemology and bequeathed a legacy of reality as uncertain and boundaries as blurred. Reflecting this postmodern shift in family, feminist, and scientific theories, contemporary playwrights have furthered this legacy of a liminal realism. Critics, however, persist in denouncing mainstream American drama; the most vitriolic among these are feminists who are willing to forego broad audiences so great is their fear of both domesticity's circumscription of women and realism's reinscription of dominant ideology. It is a feminist redemption, then, which proves most persuasive, emerging provocatively from family theory's and feminist film criticism's conceptualization of family and realism respectively as unstable systems. These echo chaos theory's concept of unpredictability in nonlinear dynamical systems, a perspective which reveals alternative futures on America's theatrical and cultural stages. Fittingly, as the imperative of feminism is transformation, its possibility is signalled by female characters in America's linchpin plays. Culturally scripted as ghosts or monsters, these (M) others haunt their houses and the stage as chaos haunts order and performance, text. Derridian "hymen" or Prigoginian "hypnon," they embody the systemic flux of a Butterfly Effect, pushing the family to evolve from a gendered hierarchy and realism from an Oedipal order. From O'Neill to Mamet, American playwrights have evoked a consciousness beyond binary logic and negative mimesis, a consciousness which begs a reevaluation of American drama and America itself as liminal realms.