Bumpkins, Barbarians, Misfits, and Marginalized : A White Trash Tetralogy




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The concept and classification of “white trash” have historically presented disturbances to putative considerations of what it means to be white. White trash as a classification disturbs traditional conventions that have held whiteness as an unblemished, prescriptive identity. Scholars such as Nancy Isenberg and Matt Wray approach the concept of “white” as a social category, not a racial category. Perceiving whiteness merely as a racial construct in the United States is to misconstrue the concept since, for centuries, many people have been excluded from this category because of class and social differences rather than skin pigmentation. This misunderstanding has been illustrated throughout the history of American theatre, film, and television by misrepresentative depictions of rural white stock characters. Rural white characters have often been written and performed as crude, boorishly simple bumpkins and segregated from their social betters: the “real whites.” Popular rural white characters who appeared on the early American stage included Jonathan, the naïve and unsophisticated Vermont backcountry yeoman from Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787), Adam Trueman, the unworldly farmer featured in Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion (1845), and many other incarnations of the Yankee, a rural stock character concocted with a mix of absurd naiveté and a knack for confusing his more cultured acquaintances with his down-home parables and unappreciation for their social mores. The depictions of these stock characters grew more derisive throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. They were regularly depicted with tendencies toward criminality and lascivious acts in order to reinforce middle- and upper-class cultural power and traditions. The growing popularity of rural stock characters helped their (mis)representations to continue in film and television and propelled contemptuous stigmas of the stock character’s veridical counterparts in the twentieth century. This creative dissertation seeks to contextualize the idea of white trash in light of present demographic transformations in the United States through a compendium of my original plays: The Chicken Coop Stratagem, Stove Top Control, The Bookman, and Gary Stewart and the Last of the White Buffalo. The tetralogy interrogates and explores American rural culture through characters that have traditionally been categorized as “red necks,” “trailer trash,” “hillbillies,” and “crackers.” I place my original work in correspondence with the plays of Horton Foote, Rebecca Gilman, and Sam Shepard, playwrights who have given a legitimate voice to disenfranchised poor whites by avoiding the comical caricatures their predecessors and contemporaries have happily indulged. The research of scholars such as Anthony A. Harkins, Jessica Lynn Hester, Nancy Isenberg, Matt Wray, and others who have addressed the experiences and multiple representations of “white trash” will serve to tie my plays to this contemporary moment. The aim of this creative dissertation is to offer more complex and nuanced dramatizations of poor rural whites in order to contest their traditional stereotypes and to examine why these stereotypes exist.



Rednecks, Whites -- Race identity -- Study and teaching, Race in the theater, Playwriting, United States -- Race relations



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