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Unnatural narratives in Sam Shepard’s Mad Dog Blues

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The main focus of this article is the term “unnatural” in a narratological analysis of Sam Shepard’s Mad Dog Blues (1971) in the light of ‘possible worlds’ theory. The term is recently coined and, in Jan Alber’s definition, designates those physically, logically, and even humanly impossible scenarios and events—according to the cognitive model of possible worlds—that challenge our real world knowledge. Mad Dog Blues is deemed to be one of the most complicated, fast-moving, and vividly imaginative but also obscure and puzzling of Shepard’s plays. The play in postmodernist fashion teems with a simultaneous collage-like collection of different types of unnatural narratives and storyworlds. It starts with a self-reflexive postmodern list; confronts us with unnatural characters; deconstructs our real-world knowledge about time and temporal progress; and presents us with impossible spaces. The analysis of the play in this essay is based on Jan Alber’s reading strategies which are meant to naturalize the play’s unnatural narratives.

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  1. This does not mean that the factual or historical figure really appear on stage. Marie-Laure Ryan (1991) in her groundbreaking book entitled Possible worlds, artificial intelligence and narrative theory elaborated on this issue. One of her examples is the following: “the Napoleon of TAW [Textual Actual World (Fictional text)] is regarded as a counterpart of the Napoleon of AW [Actual World (where we live)], linked to him through what David Lewis calls a line of transworld identity” (52). Thus, Napoleon appearing in any fictional world is deemed to be the counterpart of the real one..

  2. Alber attempts to demonstrate that although unnatural narratology is a very recent field in literary studies, unnaturalness itself is neither an innovation nor a phenomenon limited to 20th or twenty-first century texts. He explains that unnatural literature has always been popular due to its distinctive aptitude to “widen our cognitive horizon […], challenge our limited perspective on the world,” assisting us to experience scenarios which are otherwise impossible to see in our reality (“Diachronic Development”61–62). In fact, each literary period had its own form of unnaturalness.

  3. Alber’s model “integrates and supersedes Doležel’s distinction between physical and logical impossibilities” and further adds human impossibilities as well (Alber 2016b, 25).

  4. The play was first staged at Theatre Genesis at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, New York on March 4, 1971 by Robert Glaudini. It was also performed in UC Irvine (December 1987), Chicago's Theatre of the Reconstruction (April 1988), and One Theatre Company, Austin, TX (August 2000).


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Correspondence to Omid Amani.

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Pirnajmuddin, H., Amani, O. Unnatural narratives in Sam Shepard’s Mad Dog Blues. Neohelicon 46, 739–752 (2019).

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