Bad pennies and dead presidents: Money in modern American drama

Date of Completion

January 2007


Literature, Modern|Theater|Economics, Theory|Literature, American




This dissertation compares the treatment of money in a range of American plays from the Great Depression to the early twenty-first century. In these works money is a site of anxieties regarding the relation of signs to the real: a "monstrous" substance that seems to breed itself from itself; a dangerous abstraction that claims for itself a "hard" reality, transforming lived reality into an abstraction. At the same time, money's self-generating properties have made it a serviceable metaphor for the American ideal of "self-making"; money's ability to exchange means for ends, abstract for concrete, representation for real, has made it an emblem of our postmodern condition. Money has been conceived as a malevolent force robbing us of our natural relation to the world and to ourselves, and as an empowering one with which me way remake this relation. ^ This ambivalence about money constitutes an important animating tension of American drama. Furthermore, anxieties surrounding money resemble in important ways anxieties surrounding theatre, and the plays' treatment of money reveals interesting tensions between a persistent American dramatic realism and naturalism, and a philosophical and aesthetic postmodernism. Chapter one provides a brief introduction to some of the history of thinking about money, and looks specifically at concerns over "hard" and "soft" currencies from the nineteenth century to the present. Chapter two reads Sidney Kingsley's Dead End (1933) as profoundly ambivalent in its association of money with both self-making and self-immolation, as well as with the construction and destruction of the American family. Chapter three focuses on Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), seeing in the salesman's search for a "hard" value the fear of an absence of value in mid-century American life. Chapter four finds in David Mamet's American Buffalo (1979) an attempt to "naturalize" economic relations between men by projecting money's monstrous tendencies onto women. Chapter five looks at Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog (2001), arguing that the naturalism of Parks's treatment of money complicates the deceptively simple postmodern notion of identity as performative. In an afterward I note patterns of symbols shared by the plays and tie their ambivalence toward money to the American preoccupation with authenticity. ^