Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Theatre and Performance


David Savran

Committee Members

Annette Saddik

James Wilson

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Other Theatre and Performance Studies | Theatre and Performance Studies | Theatre History


Theatre, Film, Musicals, U.S. Cultural History, Maternalism


Reframing the Family Portrait: The Surrogate Mother in U.S. Theatre and Film, 1939–1963 investigates the U.S. plays, films, and musicals of this period that abound with heroines who mother children to whom they are not genetically tied. This dissertation asks why such a figure was so resonant in this era between the beginning of World War II and the emergence of more radical 1960s politics. Newly in the spotlight as a romantic protagonist, the “surrogate mother,” as I have chosen to call her, re-envisions the archetypal mother through a contemporizing lens, distinctive in her mother/not-mother status. Critical analysis of Penny Serenade (1941), Blossoms in the Dust (1941), The Sound of Music (1959), South Pacific (1949), Auntie Mame (1955/1956/1958), Mame (1966), Tomorrow, the World (1943/44), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), and The King and I (1951) reveals a deeply intertwined relationship between this character and larger historic forces. Her appearance coincides with a dramatic rise and reimagining of adoption, an intense cultural and political valorization of domesticity and conventional gender roles, and the mobilization of adoption metaphors by charitable organizations and in international relations. This metaphor is literalized in the adoption of foreign and/or mixed-race children by white U.S. Americans, facilitated through foundations such as Pearl Buck’s Welcome House. The same metaphor is put to use too to frame U.S. international intervention during the Cold War as maternal rescue and protection. Amidst international and national tensions, the surrogate mother embodies and ambivalently resolves three central anxieties of her era: modernity (as colloquially intended), domesticity, and U.S. imperialism.