Man from Nebraska

Source:  excerpt from “How to Get from Here to There: Poetic Connections in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, Man from Nebraska, and Superior Donuts,” by Deborah Kochman, M.A., master’s thesis, December 2011 (full text available @ http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/3187/)

In striking contrast to Letts’s earlier work, Killer Joe (1994) and Bug (1996), in which he prolifically employs vulgarity and violence to provoke an audience from their habitual gaze, Man from Nebraska subtly intrigues with silences “comfortable and otherwise” (Letts, Nebraska 2). At the onset of this minimalist play, these silences express more than words as the gentle shift from scenes and movements depicts the routine of everyday life: attending church, going to dinner, and visiting a terminally ill parent. To be sure, Letts does not completely abandon the use of sex, nudity, and violence, but what seems like a passing reference to the poetry of Pablo Neruda proves one of the most provocative aspect of this work – especially in conjunction with the two plays succeeding it, August: Osage County (2007) and Superior Donuts (2008), which likewise contain numerous references to poetry. In Man from Nebraska, Letts finely weaves references to Neruda’s poetry within the dialogue between Carpenter, an allegorical representation of the un-evolved Western world, and Tamyra, a young black woman who functions as his catalyst of change.  This chapter examines Man from Nebraska and the textual references to the poetry of Pablo Neruda that operate as a “poetic exchange” between the protagonist Ken Carpenter and his agent of change Tamyra and support the idea that art, specifically poetry and sculpture, evoke a transformation resulting in the protagonist’s emotional evolution.

This unoriginal premise of mid-life crisis (immortalized in the works of Sinclair Lewis and Saul Bellow, among others) follows a linear or Aristotelian plot structure: Carpenter experiences a “crisis of faith,” escapes to London, undergoes a transformation, and returns home a recreated man, seeking reconciliation with his wife and family. In Carpenter’s journey, London serves as the Shakespearean “green world” in which an individual undergoes a transformative process by encountering the unexpected, which evokes a sense of wonder, effects a metamorphosis, and results in an illumination.28 This transformative process commences when Carpenter strikes up a friendship with the hotel bartender, Tamyra, who introduces him to the world of art, beginning with the poetry of Pablo Neruda. After Tamyra identifies the book that she is reading as Neruda’s poetry, the following exchange occurs:

KEN.   It never held much interest for me. Poetry. As a subject. As kind of writing.

TAMYRA. As a form of literature.

KEN. Right.

TAMYRA. You prefer other forms.

KEN. I suppose so.

TAMYRA. You need a narrative.

KEN. Right.

TAMYRA. A story.

KEN. Yes.

TAMYRA. Otherwise, how would you ever get from here to there? (Letts, Nebraska 40-41)

Tamyra astutely sizes up her American customer and correctly identifies Carpenter with patriarchal, linear thinking.

According to Margaret Morganroth Gullette, this linear thinking begins in childhood and develops throughout youth and middle age as a result of “naturalized mega-narratives” (142). Gullette refers to these “mega-narratives as “life-course imaginaries” and explains that these narratives, which vary from culture to culture, include “comprehensive narratives . . . stories, prospective or retrospective, about moving through life” and are passed from generation to generation as well as depicted through novels and films (142). Gullette argues that these narratives contribute to the cultural construction of age as well the individual’s world view. Gullette also explains that some of the most influential “life-course imaginaries” are “invisible”:

Narratives may have the most power over us when they are invisible, that is, infinitely repeatable in ordinary life but unnoticed and unanalyzed. The “American Dream” is actually –whatever else it may be – such a narrative. It flourishes in the half-lit, semiconscious realm of conversation and writing, where all the other master narratives once dwelt. It is an example of a life-course imaginary told by people in their everyday lives, over time, about work and its consequences: first to themselves prospectively, then in media res, and finally, retrospectively. (143)

Generally speaking, the “American Dream” narrative includes the promise of personal fulfillment, opportunity, upward mobility, financial success (including the accumulation of goods and wealth), and home ownership. Gullette maintains that the “Dream” “seems purely personal or domestic” because of its focus on homeownership, but adds that “it is an economic life-course story” that “requires extrinsic measures like steady employment, a decent salary, security, and of course, a rising age/wage curve” (145). Similar to August: Osage County, Man from Nebraska begins with the premise that the “American Dream” and its focus on the pursuit of “extrinsic measures” results in an emotional or philosophical hollowness.

Utilizing the definition above, Ken Carpenter has fulfilled many life-course imaginaries including the “American Dream”: he enjoys a sound marriage, two healthy daughters, a successful career, a luxury car, a beautiful home, and the financial means to care for his elderly mother in a private nursing home. In fact, Carpenter enjoys the luxury of exploring his mid-life crisis — one that he articulates as a “crisis of faith” — by “vacationing” for more than three weeks in London. In Scene 7 of the First Movement, Carpenter awakens in the middle of the night shaking, weeping, and having difficulty breathing; he cannot answer his frightened wife Nancy’s questions about how to help (Letts, Nebraska 11-13). When she “approaches him with comforting arms,” the stage directions indicate that Carpenter “spasms, retreats” and rebuffs her three times (LettsNebraska 12). After strained moments, Carpenter confesses, “I don’t believe in God” (Letts, Nebraska 12). However, as the plot continues, Carpenter’s “crisis” seems to involve much more than his belief (or not) in God:

KEN. I don’t think . . . there’s a God. I don’t believe in him anymore.

NANCY. What do you believe in?

KEN. I don’t know.

***

KEN. Maybe we’re just . . . science. Like they say accidental science. . . .That doesn’t matter. I don’t know what I believe in. It doesn’t matter. But I don’t  think there’s a man in heaven, a God in heaven. I don’t believe there’s a  heaven. We die and . . . we’re done, no more, just.

***

The stars. In the sky. Don’t make sense. To me. I don’t understand them.

***

Can you explain the stars?

NANCY. No.

KEN. Then you can’t do anything. There’s nothing you can do. (Letts, Nebraska   13-17)

Here, the self-professed “man of faith,” who heretofore simply “accepted,” begins to question not only his belief in God, but his understanding of the world.  The morning following his “awakening,” Nancy suggests that he speak with their pastor, but Carpenter expresses hesitancy:

KEN. It’s a feeling.

NANCY. Sounds like an empty feeling.

KEN. I don’t know. Maybe.

NANCY. Well, isn’t empty bad?

KEN. Not necessarily.

***

KEN. Empty isn’t bad if it’s the truth. The truth can’t be bad, can it? (Letts, Nebraska 17-18)

This conversation suggests that Carpenter’s doubts extend beyond the existence (or not) of God; rather, Carpenter, now “awakened” to a sense of hollowness, seeks to question instead of blindly accepting. Consequently, what he initially articulates as a “crisis of faith” begins to emerge as a quest for meaning, which Carpenter struggles to communicate (Letts, Nebraska 17-18).

For example, after his morning conversation with his wife, Carpenter visits his daughter Ashley and confesses “a crisis of faith.” He explains that his “doubts” are “tied up with . . . with everything . . . my way of life, um . . . routines. My routine with your mother . . . And the job, and the, the town . . .” (Letts, Nebraska 21). Here again, Carpenter characterizes his “crisis” as religious doubt; however, his explanations (at home and later in London) contain few specific questions about God, faith, or religion. In fact, in the conversation with his pastor, he does not question religious beliefs or doubts or how one might undertake a modern religious quest. Oddly, they discuss the weather, their respective golf handicaps, and Carpenter’s need for a vacation. Moreover, Carpenter’s choice of London, the birthplace of literary not religious traditions, suggests a secular, not spiritual, journey. Thus, I maintain that Carpenter’s repressed sense of exploration causes him to identify this “empty feeling” with the only philosophical thought he is familiar: his faith (Letts, Nebraska 40-41). Furthermore, as a man who admittedly prefers a narrative, Carpenter conflates the Christian narrative of faith with the American Dream narrative, which — despite a successful marriage, healthy children and grandchildren, and his numerous “extrinsic measures” of success — results in his social, cultural, and emotional repression as well as a sense of hollowness (Gullette 145).

In the Third Movement, Carpenter’s encounter on the plane to London with successful business woman Pat Monday demonstrates his artlessness and reticent personality. On this first trip out of the United States in forty years and away from Nebraska for the first time in twenty, Carpenter awkwardly converses with Pat and fails to recognize her overt invitation for casual sex while in London. Pat’s worldliness and candor juxtaposed against Carpenter’s naiveté and inability to articulate the reason for his trip reveal Carpenter as socially and culturally stunted.

Further, in response to one of Pat’s questions, Carpenter mentions he is staying at the Leicester Square Sheraton; a “nice,” “centrally located” hotel in London’s popular theatre and cinema district (Letts, Nebraska 37). The mid-western insurance man’s selection of an American chain hotel might indicate either his preference for value or perhaps a lack of travel experience, but the hotel and its location also suggest Carpenter’s naiveté about how to undertake a quest for enlightenment. As Tamyra explains, Leicester Square is “designed for you lot, for Americans, to feel like America’s gutless version of England. You’ll get as an authentic experience at Epcot” (Letts, Nebraska 58).Within this simulacra,31Carpenter remains in a protected environment that prevents him from experiencing the “pain” required for authentic growth; as the insightful Tamyra observes, he “never really needed to leave Lincoln” (Letts, Nebraska 58).

Similarly, Carpenter’s “customer-bartender relationship” with Tamyra operates as another type of simulacra. The hotel bar offers yet another “safe” and familiar, but equally fraudulent environment. And once again, Tamyra provides enlightenment. When she comments to Carpenter that he has “a lot to say” to her (in contrast to his complaint that he has nothing to say to his wife), he replies, “You’re easy. You’re just the bartender” (Letts, Nebraska 55). Tamyra allows the comment to pass unchallenged, but when Carpenter “pines for his freedom,” the insightful barkeep educates her patron about “freedom” and illuminates the reality of their “relationship”:

Why do you think I’m nice to you? . . . because it’s my job, I listen to your stories, ask you questions, lend a sympathetic ear. Why do you suppose that is? Have an opinion? . . . For the money. I’m nice because you tip well. . . Americans speak the language of money. That’s your language, Ken. Money. You pay me to be nice to you. So I am. (Letts, Nebraska 56)

Thus, despite traveling 4000 miles with the intention of resolving a “crisis of faith,” Carpenter soon learns that this “Foreign but . . . not too foreign country” requires him not only to venture outside his comfort zone but to learn a new language: the language of poetry (Letts, Nebraska 43).

As discussed earlier, when Carpenter first meets Tamyra she identifies the book that she is reading as Neruda’s poetry. When he admits that poetry never held his interest, she playfully chides him about needing a “narrative”; the audience later learns the impact of this encounter (Letts, Nebraska 40-41). This first reference alludes to an unnamed book of Neruda’s poetry and occurs soon after Carpenter’s arrival in London. The second reference to Neruda’s poetry (in the Sixth Movement, Scene 11) is to “Sonnet 49” published in 100 Love Sonnets (1986) and, unbeknownst to both Carpenter and Tamyra, occurs the last time they see each other before Carpenter returns to Nebraska. He recites: “The sky folds its wings over you,/Lifting you, carrying you to my arms,/With punctual, mysterious courtesy./That’s why I sing to the day and to the moon,/To the sea, to time and all the planets,/To your daily voice, to your nocturnal skin” (Letts, Nebraska 76). While this sonnet is a typical, yet mature, love poem, and somewhat of an homage to Shakespeare’s sonnets to his “dark lady,”especially in its concern about ageing and the passage of time, it expresses Neruda’s tradition of associating women with nature and “making woman into a veritable force of the universe” (Costa 21). Thus, Carpenter’s decision to recite this poem to Tamyra demonstrates his engagement with poetry and his understanding of poetic language since the poem expresses not only his affection for her but acknowledges her role in his transformation.

Furthermore, the function of Neruda’s poetry within the play serves a dual purpose. First, as illustrated above, it frames Carpenter’s journey to emotional enlightenment, and second, it informs as to how his journey transpires. As Adam Feinstein observes, the young Neruda led an eccentric, bohemian lifestyle and conformed to the modernist view of “the poet as an outcast from bourgeois society” (2). Neruda, the Marxist-thinker-poet also believed that “that man – and writers, above all, had a duty to embrace life and commit to seeking social justice” (Feinstein 2, 36). Based on this assessment of Neruda, the connection between Neruda’s poetry and the figures who act as agents of change for Carpenter — the insightful and free-spirited Tamyra and her artist-sculptor and politically aware flat mate Harry — supports the view that the play urges this “man from Nebraska” not only toward a more fully evolved “passion” for life than he had previously experienced but also toward a new perspective on the world around him.

For example, Carpenter’s transformation begins when he leaves the Leicester Square Sheraton and ventures into Tamyra and Harry’s “bohemian” world. After an intoxicating night of dancing and partying, Carpenter and Harry engage in a brief but tense political debate about “swapping culture and education for aggression and capitalism” (Letts, Nebraska 64). However, Carpenter’s facile responses prove no match for Harry’s Oxford education, social-cultural awareness, and politically progressive philosophy. Later, after Carpenter expresses an interest in learning to sculpt, Harry’s artistic sensitivity aids Carpenter in his journey. Harry explains that sculpturing is not a “recreation” but rather an “interpretation” or a translation of the subject “[t]hrough [the artist’s] language” (Letts, Nebraska 74). Carpenter crudely attempts to sculpt his piece while Harry explains that “your belief, your expression of your belief: that’s art” (Letts, Nebraska 74). As Carpenter continues to sculpt in a rudimentary fashion, the piece eventually breaks, which causes Harry to exclaim: “You’re like some ape, one of those fucking apes from 2001” (Letts, Nebraska 75). Harry’s remark establishes the connection between Osborn’s “Nebraska Man” and Letts’s Man from Nebraska, which supports the proposition that Ken Carpenter functions as an allegorical representation of Western culture and that his journey is not faith-based, but rather more closely aligned with a struggle for understanding. By engaging with the arts, specifically poetry and sculpture, Carpenter becomes more intuitive and emotionally evolved.

Man from Nebraska opens with Carpenter’s wife delivering the line, “They’re finally going to tear down that ugly house” (3). Accordingly, in the tradition of Ibsen and other modern dramatists who, as Una Chaudhuri explains, address the “problematic of home,” Letts identifies the home that needs razing, presumably for the audience that he claims to have missed with his two earlier, grittier, plays (57-58).  As an allegorical figure, Nebraska Man” Ken Carpenter represents the dominant segment of the white, middle-class American population and their un-evolved, linear thinking, those who willing trade off “culture and education for aggression and capitalism,” resulting in a socially-culturally repressed and hollow middle class (Letts, Nebraska 64). However, Letts depicts this “Ape of the Western world” as capable of evolving. The references to Pablo Neruda’s poetry not only celebrate artistry and inspiration but suggest that the artist possesses the power to effect social change. Thus, when Ken Carpenter steps out of the Leicester Square Sheraton with Tamyra, he abandons his narrative centered on the pursuit of “extrinsic measures” and the “language of money” in exchange for the language of poetry and a new found awareness. As a result, this “Nebraska Man” discovers a more meaningful “poetic life” and returns home with a new perspective and defined purpose — fully capable of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with his family and tearing down and rebuilding his “home.”

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