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British Association for American Studies


Issue 14, Spring 2009: Article 3


Issue 14, Spring 2009: Article 3

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 14, Spring 2009

Live and Let Li(v)e: the Reduction of the American Dream and the Destruction of Queer Bodies in Laramie and Beyond

Christopher Young-Kramaric
© Christopher Young-Kramaric. All Rights Reserved

The essential tension that has driven this argument is a literary exploration of that which is real and that which is imagined in America. Of particular interest is the symbolic and psychological role that the Frontier, the promise of Westward Expansion, and the responsibility involved therein, played in the development of the American psyche. Each of these aspects of the American West’s legacy will be considered by addressing the question of how the closing of the Frontier—and with it the inescapable end of promise—led to a reduction of the American Dream and the destruction of queer bodies in the American West. This uniquely American conundrum will be explored by means of explicating its now structured and reoccurring representation in the writing of the American West as depicted in Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project. As such, this argument sets out to establish four main points: first, the American Dream and the Frontier share an inescapable reflexive relationship with each other; second, the American Dream, in response to the closing of the Frontier, underwent a reduction; third, this process has resulted in the destruction of queer bodies on the former Frontier; fourth, this process has been structuralised and incorporated into writing on and of the American West.

The debate over what exactly the American Dream is has been a major subject of discussion for decades now but for the sake of this argument the American Dream is best understood as closely related to the promise created by the American Frontier. The American Frontier and the notion of Manifest Destiny greatly shaped the American perspective of the Dream because America was cast as the recipient of a God-given mission to move westward, expand, build and profit. In the introduction to 1970’s American Dreams, American Nightmares, David Madden claims that:

‘The edenic promises of the American land helped shape aspects of the American character; ironic and paradoxical tensions between romantic and idealistic elements in that character, as it experiences the land, helped produce the American Dream’.[1]

In understanding Madden’s claim, the land and the possibility it promised was both romanticised and idealised in the American psyche, and by extension, the American Dream itself is a highly romanticised and idealised idea. The discussion of the promise of possibility appears quite often herein, and when it does, it is best understood as the very root of the American Dream.

Another central aspect of the American Dream is responsibility. Madden understands this aspect of the American Dream to be ‘a responsibility to transform the Dream into realities’ for some, and to ‘expose ways in which the Dream has failed’ for others.[2] Admittedly, this paper is more closely aligned with the task of the latter group, largely because—as this argument will prove—the realisation implied in the former is impossible. There is no guarantee of prosperity implicit in the American Dream. There was an overabundance of land and a certain promise of possibility during the early years of Westward expansion; as such, in the infantile stages of the collective American psyche’s development, possibility became that which was expected. Whether the task at hand is proving that the Dream can be made true or proving that the Dream in fact has no substance, there is an essential responsibility that accompanies its existence and that every American has been burdened with.

Connected with this responsibility is the concept of agency, understood here as the capacity for human beings to make choices and impose those choices on the world and on others. The essential problem with the American Dream—the reason it is counted here among that which is imagined in the American West—is alluded to in Madden’s discussion of responsibility. The American Dream, with its whole-hearted defence of Manifest Destiny and its affinity for the promise of possibility, seems at first to grant autonomy to not only the American Nation, but also to those entrusted with its expansion and growth. This, however, is nothing more than the imagined, and by now accepted, reading of the American Dream; in actuality, the American Dream represented the dissolution of American agency. This argument sees the American Dream as allowing no choice, no free will for the American populace: the economic and cultural demand to expand American presence and identity in the West was a task laid upon America, in most constructions by God himself, leaving Americans themselves with no active choice in the matter. After the Frontier years of American history, the Dream became nothing more than an unrequested inheritance. While it may be tempting to construe the responsibility of the individual American to prove the truth of the Dream as an expression of individual agency, that responsibility is better understood as originating from the passive role each has taken as an unwilling recipient of the American Dream. The problematic nature of the passive loss of agency on the part of America was not fully felt during America’s formative years when there was still land to be settled, cities to be built and money to be made, but as the implicit promise of the American landscape lost legitimacy with the closing of the Frontier, the loss of agency became apparent in American society.

A final point of clarification is what exactly is meant by a reduction of the American Dream. As the Frontier—the tangible embodiment of promise and possibility—closed, so too did the initial understanding of the American Dream. As land grew scarce and certain-possibility dwindled, individual failure and a failure to uphold the responsibility imparted upon Americans in the formulation of the Dream became new realities. As such, the Dream was reformulated and reduced as a means of not only alleviating the blame for individual failure economically, socially, or otherwise, but also as a means of preserving the belief in the Dream itself. In a sense, Americans have constructed a new dream which places them as the sole agent of their success (should they be so lucky to achieve success) and innocent bystanders to their own failures. The sense of a national goal and communal prosperity that was once heralded by Manifest Destiny has been replaced by an extreme individualism which has become the new formulation of the American Dream.

Of prime concern to this argument is how this cultural occurrence affects the queer bodies present on a landscape once defined by the possibility of the American Dream and now marred by the reduction of it, as well as how this process has been structurally embedded in literature. It is a structure that has been repeated over and over again in texts from Cather’s O Pioneers! to Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat. This argument, however, limits its scope to The Laramie Project. In doing so, the existence of this reduction is not only brought to life through the phrase ‘live and let live’, but the undeniable structure which illuminates this reduction’s relationship to the queer body in literature can also be explored. This structure is important in that it reveals a common, inevitable and recurring destruction of queer bodies in the literature of the American West, and by extension sheds light on the reality of queer existence in an America unknowingly fighting to preserve a dream that has never truly been anything other than a false promise.

The Laramie Project, written by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project in 2001, recounts the true story of a gay student’s brutal murder. On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, was lured by two straight men to a distant location on the outskirts of the town where he was beaten, tied to a fencepost and left for dead. During the murder trial that followed, the two men accused of this heinous crime, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, revealed that the motivating force behind the murder was Matthew’s homosexuality.

Not long after Matthew Shepard’s murder, Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project made their way to Laramie, Wyoming, and conducted a series of interviews with residents that would later serve as the basis for their minimalist play, The Laramie Project. In Kaufman’s introduction to the piece he describes the technique developed by the Tectonic Theater Project as ‘moment work’, whereby theatre is both created and analysed from a structuralist perspective, and all of the actions within the course of the performance occur as moments rather than in set scenes. Kaufman’s structuralist approach enables this argument to search for the underlying structure that informs The Laramie Project.

Using this technique, The Laramie Project becomes less of a performance and more of an interaction with the very people who live in Laramie. At the same time, however, they are made less like residents of Laramie and more like residents of America, as the surface level collapses to reveal underlying commonalities. Readers are given first-hand access to the emblematic symbols of America whose words and dramatic depictions serve as reiterations of similar scenes that have played out and continue to play out across the American landscape. Furthermore, in creating a theatre piece that reads at once as both performance and historical record, as fact and as fiction and as a middle ground between the socio-cultural history of America this argument attempts to access and the literature that it uses as its means, Kaufman has positioned The Laramie Project in a stylistically and theoretically queer space.

If what Kaufmann and the Tectonic Theater Project members claim is true, The Laramie Project not only developed from a structuralist perspective, but consequently reveals a structure that occurs again and again. Structural elements within The Laramie Project operate on two levels, perhaps better explained as functioning in two separate realms that are intrinsically interrelated: the historical and the narratological. Because of the emphasis put on the minimalist scenery and chameleonic role-taking within The Laramie Project the specificity of location and individual identity is de-emphasised. In effect, Laramie becomes just another town, the townspeople indistinguishable from any other residents of a dying Western city. This skewing of identity, setting and communal identification is the historical functioning of structuralism within the text. The innate features of the ‘American’ on the former Frontier remain while the temporal and superficial dimensions of the characters themselves fade in to the background. Highly connected with this historical structuralism is the telling of the story itself, the narratological structure. Again, because Kaufmann has succeeded in collapsing the American identity and its historical grounding—leaving only the core pieces of identity—the narrative itself comes to represent a story that is told again and again in the American West, perhaps with variant details, but with a core structure that remains constant at any time and in any place where the Frontier promise once thrived.

The complex structuring of this uniquely American phenomenon consists of six elements which remain true regardless of variant setting, characters or plot details. Although an initial formulation, these elements can best be defined as follows: (1) establishing a location defined by its relationship to promise; (2) the promise is threatened; (3) the onset of paranoia is confirmed through the retention of the ‘old’; (4) the queer body threatens the ‘old’ with its ‘newness’; (5) the introduction of a reductive motif which reduces the American Dream and reclaims agency, and (6) the queer body responds. An evaluation of various ‘moments’ within The Laramie Project allows for a more comprehensive understanding of what causes this structure, how it operates, and the consequences that spring forth from it.

The first element, establishing a location defined by its relationship to promise, serves as narrative reinforcement of the idea that Laramie is a location, like many others, defined by a deeply-rooted American relationship not only to space itself, but to the past promise which that space held. A look at moments with Sergeant Hing, the lead investigator of the Shepard murder, and Rebecca Hilliker, the director of the theatre programme at the local university, illuminates this understanding of location.

Sergeant Hing: It’s a good place to live. Good people—lots of space. Now, all the towns in southern Wyoming are laid out and spaced because of the railroad came through.[sic] It was how far they could go before having to refuel and rewater. And, uh, Laramie was a major stopping point.

Rebecca Hilliker: There’s so much space between people and towns here, so much time for reflection.[3]

The emphasis in Hing’s statement is clearly on what Laramie was in relation to the promise of Westward movement and prosperity. Laramie, Wyoming, therefore, offers specificity while its situation in a Frontier location constructs a commonality, which allows the reoccurring structure of the ‘live and let live’ motif that will soon play out there to be displayed as common to the American West as a whole. Rebecca Hilliker’s comment about space reinforces the correlation between the initial promise of the American Dream and the concept of space. The insinuation that space allows for reflection and is therefore a positive aspect of the Western landscape suggests a reformulation of increasing alienation on the closing Frontier as something to be viewed positively rather than negatively. Space equalled possibility at one time and now its continued existence in an altered state allows for reflection on that which has been lost in Laramie and in America. This first element is necessary to locate the narrative not in a specific town, but in a uniquely American environment that has been shaped not only by its relationship to the Frontier, but also by its insistence on the reality of the promise of possibility.

With the second element of the structure, the threatened promise manifests itself as an external force for which no logical reason can be offered without threatening the establishment of the American Dream. To admit the real possibility of failure and the literal end of progression would be to kill the heart of the Frontier promise that created the American Dream. This tension is best explored in an exchange between a company member and a resident of Laramie.

Greg Pierotti: So this (Laramie) was a big ranching town?

Alison Mears: Oh, not just ranching, this was a big railroad town at one time. Before they moved everything to Cheyenne and Green River and Omaha. So now, well, it’s just a drive-through spot for the railroad—because even, what was it, in the fifties? Well, they had one big roundhouse, and they had such a shop they could build a complete engine.[4]

This moment contains a nostalgic look at the promise that Laramie once held, a promise that Alison’s comments prove has expired. The Laramie Project goes a step further than just showing the promise as threatened, it is already gone and those left in the wake of its memory have a difficult time reconciling the end of what was. It is worthwhile to point out that even in her seemingly tacit acknowledgement of the promise coming to an end, Alison is unable to avoid focusing on the hope the past contained. Immediately thereafter, Marge Murray, another third generation resident of Laramie, chimes in with her own defence of the promise, connecting herself and her familial heritage to the legacy of the American Dream in Wyoming by pointing out that her mother worked in the aforementioned roundhouse. This moment gives voice to the experience of the promise of the American Dream dying out. The women, representative of the American West, shift back and forth between acknowledging the death of the Dream that built Laramie and shaped them, and their desire to blissfully invoke the past.

Norman Mailer once claimed:

Our country was built on the expansive imagination of people who kept dreaming about the lands to the West. When the frontier was finally closed, imagination inevitably turned into paranoia (which can be described, after all, as the enforced enclosure of imagination—its artistic form is a scenario) and lo, there where the westward expansion stopped on the shores of the Pacific grew Hollywood.[5]

As imagination dies out, paranoia sets in; it is that paranoia that manifests itself, at least in the case of the American West, in the form of a desire to retain the ‘old’. Nostalgia and the myth of what America once was become necessary for preservation—a search for and retention of what Madden calls the ‘usable’ past. One of the most persistent, vital and unquestionably destructive constructions of history in America comes in the form of idealised and historically-misinformed perceptions of gender roles and sexual normativity. Prior to having an extended written history, the maintaining of historical awareness, and by extension the American Dream, was accomplished through a historical process that relied greatly on oratory. Most times, the oratory that informed this referential historical perspective was religious in nature. Religious truths function as a link to universal truths that know no time; additionally, one may even go so far as to suggest that their God-given origin allows them to be easily construed as applicable in a country whose motivating task was believed to be handed down from God himself. Too often in these discourses, queer bodies serve to undermine the traditional, hegemonic role of the man, risk destroying or recasting the traditional familial unit which stood at the core of Frontier growth for so long, represent death because of their relationship to reproduction, and are conceived of as willingly accepting passivity. This last aspect is perhaps the greatest threat of all to a nation reacting quickly and unconsciously to protect a Dream that forced them into a passive role. This structural element is achieved in The Laramie Project through a moment that brims with religious rhetoric and the exposition of supposedly absolute truths.

Doug Laws: God has set boundaries. And one of our responsibilities is to learn: What is it God wants? So you study Scripture, you look to your leaders. Then you know what the bounds are. Now once you kinda know what the bounds are, then you sorta get a feel for what’s out-of-bounds. There is a proclamation that came out on the family. A family is defined as one woman and one man and children. That’s a family. That’s about as clear as you can state it. There’s no sexual deviation in the Mormon Church.[6]

Baptist Minister: The word is either sufficient or it is not.[7]

Doug Laws, a Mormon Church leader, and the unnamed Baptist minister are presented not because of an overwhelming relevance to the story of Matthew Shepard, but because of their relevance to a society grasping for something ‘old’ which must also be necessarily true even in the face of a shifting cultural and geographic landscape. They both establish boundaries that hope to contain the aspects of society that supposedly threaten its natural order—the queer bodies—and to limit a broader understanding of what and who plays a valid role in a shared American history.

The fourth structural element, the queer body threatening the ‘old’ with its inherent ‘newness’, is best displayed in a moment with Sherry Johnson, a university official, who explains that at the same time Matthew Shepard was murdered, a patrolman was killed in an automobile accident. She expresses outrage at the minimal press coverage his death received saying, ‘…here’s one of ours, and it was just a little piece in the paper’.[8] She continues:

…the media is portraying Matthew Shepard as a saint. And making him as a martyr. And I don’t think he was. I don’t think he was that pure. Now, I didn’t know him, but…there’s just so many things about him that I found out that I just, it’s scary. You know about his character and spreading AIDS and a few other things, you know, being the kind of person that he was. He was, he was just a barfly, you know. And I think he pushed himself around. I think he flaunted it. Why they exemplified him I don’t know. What’s the difference if you’re gay? A hate crime is a hate crime. If you murder somebody you hate ’em. It has nothing to do with if you’re gay or a prostitute or whatever. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.[9]

Because Matthew himself never appears in the play, the threat of the queer body is something never witnessed first-hand, but rather recounted in the words of the townspeople. In her statement, Johnson has drawn a line—one death belongs to a collective ‘us’, an ‘us’ that she distances from the murder of Matthew in her casting of him as wholly other. Space once held promise, and she turns to the creation of space between her community and the queer body as a means of putting the threat further from her. The irrational threat that his and all queer bodies pose to the American West comes into focus. He is associated with disease, moral questionability and promiscuity and, therefore, represents a sickness that is contributing, in her formulation, to the continued undermining and depletion of the historical tradition whose formulation has served to bolster the American Dream in the West for so long. Her final utterance, her non-understanding, speaks volumes about the situation in question. She does not understand any of what is happening to her or her world. She too is a victim and her confusion regarding the resentment she feels as a result of her own lost American agency serves as further validation of a threat being present. Her only sense is that something has gone wrong and she must find something or somebody to direct her anger towards. Unfortunately, that ‘something’—in Johnson’s and most other people’s formulations—is the queer body.

The introduction of a reductive motif that reduces the American Dream and reclaims agency brings this argument to the vital concept of ‘live and let live’. This motif is best understood in terms of what Madden calls a ‘rugged individualist rhetoric’ similar to that of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, the protagonist from The Fountainhead, who proclaims:

A self-sufficient ego. Nothing else matters. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing. I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave-society.[10]

While not explicitly named as such in every text that explores queer bodies after the closing of the Frontier in the American West, this ‘live and let live’ motif is both recurrent in other formulations and closely connected with the idea of American agency. Indeed, by ignoring the promise that initially defined the American West and its loss, and focusing instead on a simplified mantra, the initial loss of agency taken from America in the original formulation of the Dream is rectified. As such, one is able to grant oneself the authority to allow, to ‘let’ another to live—essentially becoming the agent of another’s destiny. In doing so, however, the loss of agency must be transferred to someone—in this structure onto the queer body, hence, the understanding of the ‘live and let live’ motif as a reduction. The Dream is dead, promise is gone, and now Americans must save themselves even at the expense of their fellow countrymen. Existence in America, therefore, becomes not something unquestionably given to all, but a privilege granted by some unto others. This reclamation of agency and transference of passivity on the part of America is played out upon the queer bodies of the American West time and time again. Marge Murray’s declaration displays this perfectly:

As far as the gay issue, I don’t give a damn one way or the other as long as they don’t bother me. And even if they did, I’d just say no thank you. And that’s the attitude of most of the Laramie population. They might poke one, if they were in a bar situation, you know, they had been drinking, they might actually smack one in the mouth, but then they’d just walk away. Most of ’em, they would just say, “I don’t swing that way,” and whistle on about their business. Laramie is live and let live.[11]

A troubling irony exists in Marge’s statement. Laramie, the West, and America are all governed by the rule of ‘live and let live’ but her description of the handling of queer bodies suggests that the queer body is granted no freedom to exist; its humanity is never even recognised. The use of the term queer bodies in this argument now becomes clear; no persons are present in the reduction, they have been reduced to mere bodies.

The final element, the response of the queer body to the reduction of the American Dream, is essentially a question of answering the challenge posed by the ‘live and let live’ motif. If the queer body takes ‘live and let live’ as truth and acknowledges an innate queerness—believing that the agency now claimed by the protectorate of the American Dream will grant them agency as well—it is destroyed. This is made perfectly clear in the moment featuring murderer Aaron McKinney’s explanation of what Matthew did to elicit the beating that led to his death.

Rob Debree: What was the first thing that he said or that he did in the truck that made you hit him?

Aaron McKinney: Well, he put his hand on my leg, slid his hand like as if he was going to grab my balls…

Rob Debree: So obviously you don’t like gay people?

Aaron McKinney: No, I don’t.[12]

The threat of the queer body is so great that it must be destroyed. Aaron, who has been constructed throughout as from the ‘other side of the tracks’ and associated with characters whose speech and demeanour suggests a lower class and inferior level of education, has become the representative of the failed promise of the American Dream. He embodies passive failure in a promise-less land and must protect his own agency, thus casting someone else in the passive role. This is not the only option however: should the queer body understand the implicit mistruth in ‘live and let live’—the reformulated ‘live and let lie’—it is permitted to exist, but only by accepting a passive role not of its own choosing, hence, becoming a mere recipient of society’s allowance to exist. In both cases the queer body is robbed of agency, validating the argument that perhaps destruction of the queer body occurs regardless of its response to the rugged individualist rhetoric that has become the reduced American Dream.

Understanding the reduction of the American Dream as a result of the closed Frontier and the loss of promise as an unavoidable facet of the American West allows for a more clearly decipherable understanding of the American Dream’s impact on queer bodies. While this argument does not suggest that the individuals, fictional or otherwise, are non-essential in this process, it is the acknowledgement of the standardised structure which is of greatest importance as it speaks to a collective identity and approach. In the moment called ‘The Gem of the Plains’, Tiffany Edwards, a local reporter, mentions the resounding sentiment of many people in Laramie and in other Western towns horrified by the murder of Matthew Shepard. She says that, ‘people were sitting in their homes, like watching TV…and going, “Jesus Christ, well that’s not how it is here”‘.[13] The truth revealed by the reductive structure of ‘live and let live’ is that, yes, indeed, that is how it is here. The faces may change, the situations themselves may be peppered with variations, but in the end, the paranoid American West puts queer bodies at the mercy of their ‘live and let live’ motif in an attempt to regain agency that was lost at the inception of the American Dream. In an opening moment, company member Barbara Pitts mentions the local inn’s roadside sign emblazoned with the statement, ‘HATE IS NOT A LARAMIE VALUE’.[14] Such a statement seems morbidly incorrect at the outset of the play and remains so until the structure that determines the queer body’s destiny in the American West is defined. After this structure has been acknowledged, the truth of that motel sign rings loudly. Hate is not a Laramie value; hate of the kind seen in Matthew Shepard’s murder, and in the destruction of countless other queer bodies, is a value that belongs to the whole of the American West.

University of Freiburg


[1] David Madden, American Dreams, American Nightmares (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1970), p. xvii.

[2] Madden, p. xvii.

[3] Moisés Kaufman, The Laramie Project (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), p. 6.

[4] Kaufman, p. 15.

[5] Norman Mailer, Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 723.

[6] Kaufman, p. 25.

[7] Ibid. p. 23, 25.

[8] Ibid. p. 64.

[9] Ibid. pp. 64-5.

[10] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943), pp. 608-609.

[11] Kaufman, p. 17.

[12] Ibid. pp. 91-3.

[13] Ibid. p. 49.

[14] Ibid. p. 14.