The Zoo Story
EDWARD ALBEE 1959
When Edward Albee wrote The Zoo Story in 1958, it was the first play that he wrote as an adult and only the second play that he wrote in his lifetime. His only other play was a sex farce that he wrote at the age of twelve. After being passed from friend to friend, The Zoo Story traveled from New York to Florence, Italy, to Zurich, Switzerland, to Frankfurt, Germany and was finally produced for the first time in Berlin, Germany. It opened on September 28, 1959, at the Schiller Theatre Werkstatt. After much critical praise in Germany, it was less than three months before The Zoo Story finally opened in New York. It debuted off-Broadway at the Provincetown Playhouse on January 14, 1960, and instantly had a strong impact on critics and audiences alike. The vast majority of the reviews were positive and many hoped for a revitalized theatre because of it. A few critics, however, dismissed the play because of its absurd content and seemed confused as to what Albee was trying to say with it.
The story, in simplest terms, is about how a man who is consumed with loneliness starts up a conversation with another man on a bench in Central Park and eventually forces him to participate in an act of violence. According to Matthew Roudane, who quoted a 1974 interview with Albee his Understanding Edward Albee, the playwright maintained that he got the idea for The Zoo Story while working for Western Union: “I was always delivering telegrams to people in rooming houses. I met [the models for] all those people in the play in rooming Page 308 | Top of Articlehouses. Jerry, the hero, is still around.” Combining both realistic and absurd elements, Albee has constructed a short but multi-leveled play dealing with issues of human isolation, loneliness, class differences, and the dangers of inaction within American society. He focuses on the need for people to acknowledge and understand each other’s differences. After garnering its initial critical praise, The Zoo Story went on to win the Village Voice Obie Award for best play and ran for a total of 582 performances. The Zoo Story continues to be a favorite with university and small theatre companies and persists in shocking and profoundly affecting its audiences.
Edward Albee was born on March 12, 1928, in Washington, DC, where he was given the name Edward Franklin Albee III by Reed and Francis Albee, who adopted him from his natural birth parents. Reed and Francis Albee were the heirs to the multi-million dollar fortune of American theater manager Edward Franklin Albee I. Albee attended several private and military schools, and during this education he began writing poetry and attending the theatre. Albee was twelve when he attempted to write his first play, a three-act sex farce; he soon turned back to poetry and even attempted to write novels as a teen. He studied at Trinity College in Connecticut from 1946 until 1947 and then decided to take the trust fund his grandmother had left him and move to New York City’s Greenwich Village. Albee was able to live off of this fund by supplementing it with small odd jobs, thus allowing him to focus on his writing career.
While in his twenties, Edward Albee had some limited success as an author of poetry and fiction, but he was still unable to make a living off of his writing and, therefore, continued to work small jobs to supplement his income, including working as a messenger for Western Union from 1955 until 1958. It was while working as a telegram messenger that Albee came up with the idea for The Zoo Story, when he encountered real life counterparts for Jerry and the other residents of the boarding house that he describes in the play.
At the age of thirty, Albee quit his job at Western Union and wrote The Zoo Story (1958), his first significant play. Inspired by the works of Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Genet, and Tennessee Williams, Albee wrote The Zoo Story in three short weeks. After being passed around from colleague to colleague, it was finally produced at the Schiller Theater Werstatt in Berlin, Germany, opening there on September 28, 1959. The Zoo Story won the Berlin Festival Award in 1959 and eventually found its way back to the U.S. where it opened off-Broadway at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York on January 14, 1960. While there, The Zoo Story shared the bill with Krapp’s Last Tape, which was written by Samuel Beckett, one of Albee’s greatest influences.
The Zoo Story went on to win the Village Voice Obie Award for best play in 1960, but it was not until after four more one-act plays that Albee wrote his most controversial and critically acclaimed play. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway a the Billy Rose Theatre on October 13, 1962, and went on to win the Tony Award for best play. Followed by controversy wherever it played, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? forced critics and audiences to react, both positively and negatively, and assured Albee’s place in American theatre history. Admired and detested for its bleakness and negativity, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a critical and financial success and was eventually made into a film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1966.
Edward Albee went on to win the Pulitzer Prize three times, for A Delicate Balance (1966), for Seascape (1975), and for Three Tall Women (1994). Albee continues to be one of the most acclaimed and controversial playwrights in the United States, and he has continued to use the commercial success of his more famous works in order to pursue theatrical experimentation, despite sometimes scathing reviews and commercial failure. Mingling absurdity with acute realism in his early works off-Broadway during the 1960s, Albee has paved the way and inspired such contemporary playwrights as David Mamet and Sam Shepard, while continuing to experiment with and challenge theatrical form.
Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story is a long one act play in which “nothing happens” except conversation—until the violent ending. Shorn of much of the richness of Albee’s utterly arresting language, and his astonishing nuances of psychological attack and retreat, the play can be described as follows:
A man named Peter, a complacent publishing executive of middle age and upper-middle income, is comfortably reading a book on his favorite bench in New York’s Central Park on a sunny afternoon. Along comes Jerry, an aggressive, seedy, erratic loner. Jerry announces that he has been to the (Central Park) Zoo and eventually gets Peter, who clearly would rather be left alone, to put down his book and actually enter into a conversation. With pushy questions, Jerry learns that Peter lives on the fashionable East Side of the Park (they are near Fifth Avenue and 74th Street), that the firm for which he works publishes textbooks, and that his household is female-dominated: one wife, two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets. Jerry easily guesses that Peter would rather have a dog than cats and that he wishes he had a son. More perceptively, Jerry guesses that there will be no more children, and that that decision was made by Peter’s wife. Ruefully, Peter admits the truth of these guesses.
The subjects of the Zoo and Jerry’s visit to it come up several times, at one of which Jerry says mysteriously, “You’ll read about it in the papers tomorrow, if you don’t see it on your TV tonight.” The play never completely clarifies this remark. Some critic think, because of statements Jerry makes about the animals, that he may have released some from their cages, while others think Jerry is talking about a death which has not yet happened, which might be headlined “Murder Near Central Park Zoo.”
The focus now turns to Jerry, who tells Peter that he walked all the way up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to the Zoo, a trip of over fifty blocks. Adding Washington Square to Jerry’s appearance and behavior, Peter assumes that Jerry lives in Greenwich Village, which in 1960, the year the play was first produced, was the principal “bo-hemian” section of Manhattan. Jerry says no, that he lives across the Park on the (then slum-ridden) West Side, and took the subway downtown for the express purpose of walking back up Fifth Avenue. No reason is given for this but Jerry “explains” it in one of the most quoted sentences of the play: “sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.” It is possible that Jerry saw his trip up Fifth Avenue, which gradually improves from the addicts and prostitutes of Washington Square to such bastions of prosperity as the famous Plaza Hotel, as a symbolic journey through the American class system to the source of his problem—not millionaire’s row but the affluent, indifferent upper middle class.
Without any prompting from Peter, Jerry describes his living arrangements: a tiny room in a rooming house, with a very short list of possessions; some clothes, a can-opener and hotplate, eating utensils, empty picture frames, a few books, a deck of pornographic playing cards, an old typewriter, and a box with many unanswered “Please!” letters and “When?” letters. Jerry’s building is like something out of Dante’s Inferno, with several different kinds of suffering on each floor, including a woman Jerry has never seen who cries all the time, a black “queen” who plucks his eyebrows “with Buddhist concentration” and hogs the bathroom, and a disgusting landlady whom Jerry describes vividly. Jerry also reveals the loss of both parents—his mother to whoring and drinking and his father to drinking and an encounter with “a somewhat moving city omnibus”—events that seem to have had little emotional effect on him. Jerry’s love life is also discussed: an early and very intense homosexual infatuation and, at present, one-night stands with nameless women whom he never sees again.
It is clear in this section of the play that Jerry is trying to make Peter understand something about loneliness and suffering—not so much Jerry’s own pain, which he treats cynically, but the pain of the people in his building, the Zoo animals isolated in Page 310 | Top of Articletheir cages, and more generally the societal dregs that Peter is more comfortable not having to think about. Peter is repelled by Jerry’s information but not moved except to exasperation and discomfort. Desperate to communicate with Peter or at least to teach him something about the difficulties of communication, Jerry comes up with “The Story of Jerry and the Dog.” It is a long, disgusting, and eventually pathetic tale of his attempt to find some kind of communication, or at least relationship, with the vile landlady’s vile dog (the hound who guards the entrance to Jerry’s particular hell). Jerry fails to reach the dog, though he goes from trying to kill it with kindness to just plain trying to kill it; the two finally achieve mutual indifference, and Jerry gains free entry to the building without being attacked, “if that much further loss can be said to be gain.”
Jerry also fails to reach Peter, who is bewildered but not moved by this story and who prepares to leave his now-disturbed sanctuary for his comfortable home. Desperately grasping at one last chance, Jerry tickles Peter, then punches him on the arm and pushes him to the ground. He challenges Peter to fight for “his” bench, but Peter will not. Jerry produces a knife, which he throws on the ground between them. He grabs Peter, slapping and taunting him (“fight for your manhood, you pathetic little vegetable”) until Peter, at last enraged, picks up the knife. Even then, as Albee points out, “Peter holds the knife with a firm arm, but far in front of him, not to attack, but to defend.” Jerry says,“So be it,” and “With a rush he charges Peter and impales himself on the knife.”
Peter is paralyzed. Jerry thanks Peter and hurries him away for his own safety, reminding Peter to take his book from “your bench . . . my bench, rather.” Peter runs off, crying “Oh, my God!” Jerry echoes these words with “a combination of scornful mimicry and supplication,” and dies.
Portions of Albee’s dialogue and stage directions have been included in this summary in an attempt to indicate the huge importance of Albee’s incisive use of language and psychology in the play. The play resides, in fact, not in the physical actions of the plot (except the killing at the end) but in the acuteness (not to mention the shocking quality) of the language, in the range of kinds of aggression shown by Jerry—from insult and assault to the subtlest of insinuations—and even in the symbolism which becomes more apparent near the end of the action.
Jerry, the antagonist in The Zoo Story, confronts Peter while he is reading a book in Central Park and coerces him into partaking in an act of violence. Albee gives the following description of Jerry: “A man in his late thirties, not poorly dressed, but carelessly. What was once a trim and lightly muscled body has begun to go to fat; and while he is no longer handsome, it is evident that he once was.” In contrast to Peter, Jerry lives in a four-story brownstone roominghouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. During the 1950s, this was a much poorer neighborhood than the East 70s, where Peter lives. Jerry is single and lives in one small room that is actually half a room separated from the other half by beaverboard.
Throughout the course of the play, Jerry tells Peter only what he wants Peter to know, and does not like to be asked questions or be judged. He makes a point of telling Peter very personal details of his life, like how his parents both died when he was a child and how he was a homosexual for a week and a half when he was fifteen and now only sees prostitutes. Peter finds Jerry’s stories disturbing but fascinating and it is only when they get very strange that Peter begins to question Jerry’s intentions. Jerry uses all of his resources including his storytelling ability, his humor, and finally his violent aggression to make sure that Peter does not leave until he gets what he wants from him. In the end, Jerry resorts to physically attacking Peter so that Peter has to defend himself. Jerry sets it up so that he is able to impale himself on his own knife, while Peter holds it out in self-defense. In the end, Jerry uses Peter to get what he has planned to get from him all along.
Peter is the protagonist in The Zoo Story who after coming to Central Park to spend some time alone on his favorite bench to read a book on a Sunday afternoon, has his life forever changed by Jerry, who confronts him. Albee describes Peter as: “A man in his early forties, neither fat nor gaunt, neither handsome nor homely.” Peter lives on Seventy-fourth Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, which was a rather wealthy neighborhood in Manhattan during the late 1950s. He is married, has two daughters, cats, and two parakeets. He holds an executive position at a small publishing Page 311 | Top of Articlehouse that publishes textbooks. These details about Peter’s life all come out of the dialogue that he has with Jerry, and although at first they seem to be trivial facts, they serve an important function in establishing the two different worlds in which Peter and Jerry live.
When Jerry first confronts Peter at the beginning of the play, Peter is reluctant to have a conversation with Jerry and is obviously annoyed by him. However, Jerry’s manner and the way he talks intrigues Peter and it is this intrigue that allows Jerry to pull him into his world. The beginning of the conversation seems to be controlled more by Peter, because Jerry must use different tactics to keep Peter interested and to recover when he offends him. However, it is Jerry’s vivid descriptions of his life that mesmerize Peter and allow Jerry to gain control over the situation. By the end of the play, Peter has unwillingly allowed Jerry to use him as a pawn in Jerry’s plan to end his own life. In the end, Jerry leaves Peter with an experience that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Although he is more educated and has had more social and economic advantages than Jerry, Peter is the weaker and more naive of the two men.
The Zoo Story by Edward Albee details what happens when one character enters the life of another character and quickly changes it forever. In the play, Jerry confronts Peter while he sits quietly reading on a bench in Central Park; through a quick series of events, Jerry forces Peter into helping him kill himself. Layered throughout this short one-act play are three overriding themes: absurdity versus reality, alienation and loneliness, and wealth and poverty.
Absurdity and Reality
The first theme of The Zoo Story has to do with absurdity and reality. During the beginning of the play, Jerry initiates the conversation with Peter and carefully chooses topics with which Peter will be familiar, such as family and career. However, Jerry soon begins to insert strange comments and questions into what is on the surface a conversation between two strangers trying to get to know each other. This is apparent during the moment when Jerry, assuming that Peter does not like his daughters’ cats, asks if Peter’s birds are diseased. Peter says that he does not believe so and Jerry replies:
“That’s too bad. If they did you could set them loose in the house and the cats could eat them and die, maybe.” These unreasonable and ridiculous, or absurd, moments in the play begin to shake Peter’s sense of reality and place. However, Jerry is quick to counter these moments with genuinely pleasant, benign comments and interesting stories to keep Peter engaged. Throughout the play, as Jerry’s stories continue, he is careful to control the conversation and manipulate Peter. By the end of the play, Jerry has managed to alter Peter’s perception of reality to such an extent that Peter becomes involved in a physical fight over what he believes to be “his” park bench and in an act of self-defense helps Jerry kill himself. The reality of what has transpired then strikes Peter full force, and he runs off howling “Oh my God!”
Alienation and Loneliness
The theme of alienation and loneliness, which in The Zoo Story is presented as being representative of the human condition as a whole, is largely what motivates Jerry to do the things that he does. From the beginning of the play, when Jerry enters Peter’s world, it is obvious that Jerry lacks simple
social skills. Jerry’s first words are not, “Hello, may I sit down,” but rather: “I’ve been to the zoo. I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” Through Jerry’s stories, Peter learns that Jerry lost his parents at the age of ten and then went to live with his aunt, who died on the afternoon of his high school graduation. Jerry also makes very explicit comments about the boarding house he lives in and the other inhabitants there who act as a sort of family to Jerry, even though he does not really even know them. He even includes them in his prayers at night. Albee establishes Jerry’s alienation from the rest of the world rather quickly and then continues to fill in the whole picture of his life for the audience. It is the pain that comes with this loneliness that forces Jerry to kill himself with Peter’s help at the end of the play. Jerry finally finds solace after he has been stabbed and he tells Peter: “I came unto you and you have comforted me. Dear Peter.”
Wealth and Poverty
The final major theme of The Zoo Story is wealth and poverty, and the illusions that are created between the social and economic classes. This theme is closely related to alienation and loneliness because Albee establishes the societal pressures of class as the cause of Jerry’s suffering. The issue of class is brought up early in the play when Jerry is asking Peter about his family and his job, and then asks: “Say, what’s the dividing line between upper-middle-middle class and lower-upper-middle class?” Obviously, Jerry belongs to neither of these classes, and by his own admission is simply being condescending. However, the illusions that Jerry has about Peter’s life are very close to the truth, whereas to Peter Jerry’s life is completely foreign. Critics have argued that Albee is condemning the wealthy classes for their false sense of security and their lack of knowledge or understanding of how the other half lives. This point of view seems to be very clear by the end of the play when Jerry has succeeded in bringing Peter down to a basic animal-like level of behavior. It is at this point that their classes become irrelevant and their similarities are seen as the truth. Whether wealthy or poor, the desire for contact and love from others is equally strong. The Zoo Story shows what can happen when this need is not fulfilled.
The Zoo Story by Edward Albee is rather simple in structure. It is set in New York’s Central Park on Sunday afternoon in the summer. The staging for the play, therefore, consists of two park benches with foliage, trees, and sky behind them. The place never changes and the action of the play unfolds in a linear manner, from beginning to end, in front of the audience. Everything happens in the present, which gives the play its immediacy and makes the events that unfold even more shocking. As an audience member, watching the play makes one feel as if one is witnessing a crime and is directly involved; this sense of involvement is achieved through the structure of the play.
What makes The Zoo Story dense and difficult to define is the style in which it is written. It does not fit into the purely realistic nor the totally absurd genres that were both popular in 1958 when Albee wrote the play. The Theatre of the Absurd was a movement that dominated the French stage after World War II, and was characterized by radical theatrical innovations. Playwrights in this genre used practically incomprehensible plots and extremely long pauses in order to violate conservative audiences’ expectations of what theatre should be. Albee took this absurd style and combined it with acute realism in order to comment on American society in the 1950s. With The Zoo Story, Albee points to French playwright Eugene Ionesco’s idea that human life is both fundamentally absurd and terrifying; therefore, communication through language is equally absurd. Albee is also drawing from existential philosophy in The Zoo Story. Existentialism is concerned with the nature and perception of Page 313 | Top of Articlehuman existence, and often deals with the idea that the basic human condition is one of suffering and loneliness. Jerry and his position in American society are clearly examples of this point of view. Another literary style which began emerging around the time that The Zoo Story was written is postmodernism. Postmodernists continued to apply the fundamentals of modernism, including alienation and existentialism, but went a step further by rejecting traditional forms. Therefore, they prefer the anti-novel over the novel and, as in The Zoo Story, the anti-hero over the hero. Although Albee does not belong solely in the realistic, absurdist, existential or postmodern literary genres, it is evident that all of these movements had an impact on The Zoo Story and Albee as a playwright.
Albee used various literary devices in The Zoo Story. The first device is the anti-hero. An anti-hero, like a hero, is the central character of the play but lacks heroic qualities such as courage, physical prowess, and integrity. Anti-heroes usually distrust conventional values and, like Jerry, they often accept and celebrate their position as social outcasts. Along with the anti-hero, Albee uses satire and black humor in The Zoo Story. Satire employs humor to comment negatively on human nature and social institutions, while black humor places grotesque elements along side of humorous elements in order to shock the reader and evoke laughter in the face of difficulty and disorder. Albee uses both of these devices in The Zoo Story to comment on the way different social classes choose to view and ignore each other in American society; specifically, he highlights the way that in which members of the upper classes deal with members of the lower ones. This is illustrated with the character of Peter, who Albee uses as an example by having Jerry methodically bring him down to an animalistic level in order to show that he is just like everyone else. Another device that Albee uses in The Zoo Story is allegory. Allegory involves the use of characters, representing things or abstract ideas, to convey a message. Jerry’s story about his landlady’s dog could be seen as an allegory for his own inability to relate to others. In the end, Jerry says that he and the dog harbor “sadness, suspicion and indifference” for each other, which is similar to the relationships that Jerry has with other people. Some critics have argued that The Zoo Story is an allegory for Christian redemption. Jerry, as the Christ-like figure, martyrs himself to demonstrate the need for and meaningfulness of communication. This Christian
allegory viewpoint is also evident in some of the dialogue, such as when Jerry sighs and says “So be it!” just before impaling himself on the knife Peter is holding. This can be viewed as a reference to Jesus Christ’s words as he dies on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Although the manner in which Albee employs literary devices in The Zoo Story is subject to critical interpretation, all of the devices are readily apparent and are used to create a compelling drama.
Social Climate in the 1950s
The 1950s in the U.S. are viewed by many people as a period of prosperity for American society as a whole. Socially, many catch phrases were being used at this time, like “standard of living” and “cost of living,” which implied that life in America could be measured based on personal income and material goods. After experiencing the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II a decade later, the U.S. was eager to embrace the
notion that it had come into its own and, consequently, consumer confidence soared. Household appliances and automobiles became available to more people than ever before and the television became a prominent factor in the daily lives of Americans during the late 1950s. In 1947, a mere 14,000 families owned television sets; ten years later that figure grew to 35 million families. In theory, the television brought people closer together and allowed communication to reach new heights. However, many critics maintain that the way Albee mentions television in The Zoo Story and the fact that Peter has difficulty carrying on anything but empty conversation reflect on how disconnected society has become.
Political Climate in the 1950s
Politically, the U.S. was dominated by conservative values during the 1950s. One of the most extreme examples of this conservative tide was the effort led by Senator Joseph McCarthy to harass and prosecute individuals suspected to have ties with the Communist Party. This anti-Communist sentiment in America turned into a frenzy because of the ruthless and random nature of the McCarthy’s witch hunts. Eventually, Americans began to react against the absurdity of these trials, although many were afraid that they themselves would be targeted. Three other factors also played a major role in worrying conservatives: the emergence of rock music, movies that were becoming more and more explicit, and especially, the publishing of Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953. Alfred Kinsey, a zoologist, traveled all over the U.S. to interview over 16,000 men and women about their sexual histories. The details that were revealed, especially those concerning premarital sex and homosexuality, shocked the nation. Critics objected to the fact that the researchers failed to pass moral judgment on the data that they collected. Jerry, in The Zoo Story, epitomizes the thirty-seven percent of males in the Kinsey Report who reported that they had had a homosexual experience Page 315 | Top of Articlebetween adolescence and old age. He is also very eager to share the details of his homosexual experiences as a fifteen year old, which clearly makes Peter uncomfortable.
Cultural Climate in the 1950s
The cultural climate in the late 1950s included the beginnings of a backlash against conservative social and political views. Artists who lived outside the mainstream or who were dissatisfied within it began to comment boldly on this fact in their work. The Beat Generation were members of an artistic movement that centered in New York City and San Francisco during this time who protested against conservative values. Film audiences also began to idolize the tough guy at odds with “the establishment,” such as those played by Marlon Brando and, most famously, James Dean in Rebel without A Cause (1956). The Theatre of the Absurd was a radical movement making an impact on world drama, which dominated the French stage after 1950. Absurdist playwrights sought to violate conservative audiences’ expectations of what theatre should be by using incomprehensible plots, stark settings, and unusually long pauses. Playwrights such as Eugene Ionesco believed that life is terrifying because it is fundamentally absurd. Edward Albee used these absurd elements in a realistic mode with The Zoo Story, thus causing some confusion among critics and audiences in terms of how to label the play.
The Zoo Story, Edward Albee’s first play, premiered on September 28, 1959, at the Schiller Theatre Werkstatt in West Berlin, Germany. While there, it received much praise from critics including Friedrich Luft who, as quoted in Critical Essays on Edward Albee, called it a “shudder-causing drama of superintelligent style.” Riding high on the praise it received in Germany, The Zoo Story finally made its way back to New York where it debuted off-Broadway at the Provincetown Theatre on January 14, 1960. What made this debut even more exciting for Albee was the fact that he was sharing the bill with Krapp’s Last Tape, a one-act play written by Samuel Beckett, one of Albee’s idols.
Most New York critics declared The Zoo Story to be a very exciting play and viewed it as the beginning of a revitalized New York theatre scene. Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review claimed: “[Edward Albee] has written an extraordinary first play.” However, a few critics expressed confusion over The Zoo Story, such as Tom Driver from Christian Century who wrote: “It is more than a little melodramatic, and the only sense I could draw from it is the conviction that one shouldn’t talk to strangers in Central Park.” Others simply dismissed the play, such as Robert Brustein, who in an article in the New Republic labeled the play beat generation “claptrap.” The positive reviews outweighed the negative, however, and The Zoo Story ran for a total of 582 performances, which is remarkable for a first play. It also went on to win the Village Voice Obie Award for best play in 1960.
Whether or not people liked The Zoo Story, they felt compelled to discuss it, largely because of the sensational aspects of the play and the fact that people were confused about whether the play was absurd or realistic. Eventually, most people concluded that it was a mixture of the two styles, but critics remained divided over the play’s message. Many critics have argued that The Zoo Story is a social commentary on the effects that loneliness can have on an individual in American society. George Wellwarth, in The Theater of Protest and Paradox, claimed that The Zoo Story“is about the maddening effect that the enforced loneliness of the human condition has on the person who is cursed (for in our society it undoubtedly is a curse) with the infinite capacity for love.” Other critics viewed the play as a religious allegory, such as Rose A. Zimbardo who asserted in Twentieth Century Literature that the images that Albee uses are “traditional Christian symbols which . . . retain their original significance.” John Ditsky expressed a similar viewpoint in The Onstage Christ: Studies in the Persistence of a Theme, declaring that “The Zoo Story rests upon a foundation of Christ-references, and indeed derives its peculiar structure from Jesus’ favourite teaching device, the parable.” Other critics have described The Zoo Story as a ritual confrontation with death, a morality play, a homosexual play, and an absurd play. However, in an essay in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, Mary C. Anderson maintained that The Zoo Story can be “explained as a sociopolitical tract, a pessimistic analysis of human alienation, a modern Christian allegory of salvation, and an example of absurdist and nihilist theater.” She concluded that the play “has managed to absorb these perspectives without exhausting its many levels of meaning.”
The overall opinion of The Zoo Story from most critics is that it is an exciting and risky first play from a playwright who has gone on to win numerous awards for his works. After much early success, Albee went on to garner both high praise and censure for his work that followed The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. He has continued to explore and experiment with both the form and content of theatre, which is a risky venture, especially in the commercial arena. What continues to make Albee so fascinating for many critics and theatergoers is the fact that, as C.W.E. Bigsby noted in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, “Albee has remained at heart a product of Off-Broadway, claiming the same freedom to experiment and, indeed, fail, which is the special strength of that theatre.” It is his penchant for experimentation that has caused Albee to be, as Bigsby contended, one of those “few playwrights” who continue to be “frequently and mischievously misunderstood, misrepresented, overpraised, denigrated and precipitately dismissed.” Critical opinion has had little effect on albee as a playwright, for he has continued to write and have his plays produced on and off Broadway.
Coy is an esteemed authority on drama who has contributed to numerous publications. His essay praises the power of Albee’s dialogue and the class dischord that it illustrates. Coy also addresses the religious imagery in Albee’s play.
There is very little action in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story: two men meet, they exchange information, and one dies at the hand of the other. But to a framework of action which any writer might have imagined, Albee brings a master’s sense of the ways in which, psychologically, some people are able to dominate and manipulate others, and a frankness and grotesqueness of language which are startling even now, almost forty years after the play’ s premiere.
Albee opens with an impressive display. Peter, the quiet, insular, middle-class publisher, is reading a book on “his” bench in New York’s Central Park. Along comes Jerry, who (as we will see) is not out for a stroll but urgently looking for someone with whom to talk. He spies Peter, approaches him, and begins the elaborate process of getting Peter (who wants only to be left alone) to put down his book and surrender to Jerry’s desire to talk. This opening section of the play is too long to quote here, and in any case should be read through or better still seen onstage, but it is a marvel of resourcefulness.
Jerry announces that he has been to the Zoo, and when that produces no response he yells it. Peter barely responds even to this, so Jerry changes tactics and begins to ask Peter questions about where they are in the Park and in what direction he has (therefore) been walking. Peter fills his pipe as a way of trying to ignore Jerry, who, seeing this, uses it as a way of accusing Peter of a kind of cowardice: “Well, boy; you’re not going to get lung cancer, are you?” Peter does not rise to the bait, so Jerry becomes more aggressive and more graphic: “No, sir. What you’ll probably get is cancer of the mouth, and then you’ll have to wear one of those things Freud wore after they took one whole side of his jaw away. What do they call those things?”
Poor dim Peter, college-educated but not street-smart, can’t stop himself from showing that he knows the word: prosthesis—Jerry seizes on this in a way that shows that he himself knows the word, and sarcastically asks Peter if he is a doctor. When Peter says no, he read about prosthetics in Time magazine, Jerry responds that “Time magazine is not for blockheads.” This line is generally delivered sarcastically, so that it both patronizes Peter and shows the audience that Jerry thinks himself superior to most of middle-class America. Finally, Jerry bullies Peter into giving him his full attention by inflicting what is sometimes called “liberal guilt:”
JERRY: Do you mind if we talk?
PETER: (Obviously minding.) Why . . . no, no.
JERRY: Yes you do; you do.
PETER: (Puts his book down. . . smiling.) No, really; I don’t mind.
JERRY: Yes you do.
PETER: (Finally decided.) No; I don’t mind at all, really.
At this point the first section, or movement, of the play comes to an end. Many critics have pointed out that The Zoo Story is a play about the difficulty of communication. But that is a common problem offstage or on and only rises to dramatic urgency when there is something urgent to be communicated. Now that Jerry has finally succeeded in capturing Peter’s full attention, the question is: what message has Jerry brought with him from the Zoo that he is so avid to communicate, even (or particularly) to a total stranger?
Avid or not, Jerry suddenly seems in no hurry. He returns to the subject of the Zoo, hinting that “it” (what “it” might be is not explained) will be on TV tonight or in the newspapers tomorrow. He begins to ask Peter about himself and his family, eliciting pieces of personal information. When Jerry guesses that Peter and his wife are not going to have any more children, Peter asks how he could possibly know that. Jerry responds: “The way you cross your legs, perhaps; something in the voice. . . . Is it your wife?” A subtle game is afoot here: Jerry earlier attacked Peter’s manhood by implying it was somehow cowardly to smoke a pipe rather than cigarettes, and now, with his remarks about the legs and the voice, he seems to imply effeminacy or perhaps even suppressed homosexuality (a line of thought to which he will return later). In any case, he ends the line with a different kind of attack on Peter’s manhood, implying that the dominant voice in the no-children decision, and the household, is that of Peter’s wife, whose name is never given. When Peter tacitly admits this, Jerry actually shows a moment of compassion before briskly moving on: “Well, now; what else?”
During this second section of the play, in which the men exchange information about their lives, Albee avoids the dullness which often attends exposition by two means: frequent allusions to the Zoo and tantalizing hints about what may have happened there (we learn that Jerry was depressed by the way the bars separated the animals from each other and from the people but not if he actually did anything about it); and a combination of startling information and aggressive behavior that keeps Jerry firmly in our minds (and Peter’s) as a figure of instability and menace.
Jerry tells Peter about his hellish rooming-house, the serio-comic loss of his parents, his first real sexual experience (while admitting it was homosexual, he gets in another dig at Peter’s masculinity: “But that was the jazz of a very special hotel, wasn’t it?”), and his landlady, “a fat, ugly, mean, stupid, unwashed, misanthropic, cheap, drunken bag of garbage.” But the landlady, despite being one of the most arresting offstage presences in American drama, is only the prelude to what might be called the third movement of the play.
It is called “The Story of Jerry and the Dog,” and it must be seen or read in its entirety, as no description could come within miles of doing it justice. It tells of Jerry’s attempt to “get through to” the disgusting landlady’s even more disgusting
dog, which attacked him whenever it caught him leaving or entering the building. Albee makes sure that we understand that Jerry’s past attempt to reach the dog is parallel to his present attempt to reach Peter: he has Jerry try several ways to get through to the dog, from killing him with kindness to just plain killing him, just as he tried several different ways to get through to Peter.
The playwright has Jerry, who has so far disgusted Peter but not aroused his sympathy, say, “it’s just that if you can’t deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS! Don’t you see?” Of his final truce with the dog, a sad indifference, Jerry says, “I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty, by themselves. . . create any effect beyond themselves; and I have learned that the two combined, together . . . are the Page 318 | Top of Articleteaching emotion.” This lesson Jerry learned from his experience is of great thematic importance in the play, where every step forward in communication, large or small, is accomplished with a combination of kindness and cruelty.
Next comes the final section of the play. Of Jerry’s story, Peter says, in fact he yells, “I DON’T UNDERSTAND!”, but Jerry doesn’t believe him and neither do most critics. They think he does indeed understand that Jerry is trying to tell him something about the pain, the loneliness, and the hideous suffering of those parts of society not normally encountered or even acknowledged by Peter’s middle class; and they think that Peter’s real feelings are more clearly seen in a subsequent line: ‘ I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ANY MORE.” Peter prepares to leave, they say, because “his” space has been invaded not only by an unwelcome person but by unwelcome information, both of which threaten the comfortable ignorance of his life.
Jerry is at first angered by Peter’s refusal to comprehend, then apparently resigned to it. But he is not ready to quit. He taunts Peter, punches him and pushes him to the ground, challenging him to fight for his bench. Peter refuses, fearing he will be harmed. Jerry pulls out an ugly looking knife (a switchblade, wicked-looking and illegal in New York, is used as a prop by most productions) and throws it on the ground between them. Peter cowers back. Jerry tells Peter to pick up the knife but Peter won’t. Jerry grabs Peter and says the following, slapping Peter each time he utters the word “fight”: “You fight, you miserable bastard; fight for that bench; fight for your parakeets; fight for your cats, fight for your two daughters; fight for your life; fight for your manhood, you pathetic little vegetable. You couldn’t even get your wife with a male child.”
Angered at last beyond caution, Peter snatches up the knife, even now holding it defensively. Jerry sighs heavily, says, “So be it,” and rushes at Peter, impaling himself on the knife and giving himself, deliberately, a mortal wound. The words Jerry says as he is dying are most important: “Thank you, Peter. . . . Thank you very much. Oh, Peter, I was afraid I’d drive you away. . . . Peter. . . thank you. I came unto you and you have comforted me. Dear Peter.” Jerry then sends Peter on his way, making sure he takes his book with him, but asserting that the bench (and, by implication, some part of Peter which will never be the same) belongs to him, to Jerry.
Many critics have pointed out that the Biblical language in this reference to Peter, together with other such language in the play (regarding the dog, Jerry says,“AND IT CAME TO PASS THAT THE BEAST WAS DEATHLY ILL.”), and with the number of times God is called on from the stabbing to the end of the play, suggests Christian symbolism: Jesus (Jerry, a distantly similar name) dies for the suffering of mankind but not before he has passed on his gospel to his disciple Peter. This seems a reasonable inference, since playwrights choose their words, Albee more carefully than most. Whether the implication of Christianity expands or narrows the impact of the play is highly debatable, but the language is there—not by accident—and it should not be ignored.
The Zoo Story can best be understood (especially by actors, who are trained to play intentions but not mysteries or ambiguities) by starting off with a single, basic assumption. Jerry, lonely, unstable, and desperate, made a life decision at the Zoo—or perhaps even at home before he went to the Zoo “correctly.” He would leave the Zoo and walk “northerly” in the Park until the first human being he spotted. He would strike up a conversation with that person, by whatever means it took, and then make the best effort of his life to teach that person what Jerry already knew about the sufferings of mankind, especially the sufferings others prefer not to notice. He would force that person to understand, or, to make a cliche literal, die trying. Jerry’s suicide is thus the last logical item on the list of “whatever it takes” to take from Peter his ignorance, his indifference, and his complacency. Peter may never wander preaching in the wilderness, but he will never again draw breath without the burden of the knowledge that Jerry has conveyed to him. That much of the torch, at least, has been passed.
Source: Stephen Coy, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
Carolyn E. Johnson
In this essay, Johnson heartily endorses Albee’s play, citing numerous elements that merit extensive study in the classroom.
Johnson is a critic and educational administrator.
Edward Albee emerges as one of the most controversial and, consequently, one of the most read contemporary playwrights. He does not write of human emotions and relationships in statements of Page 319 | Top of Articlefact that we like to hear. He uses abstract symbols and ideas to portray unidentifiable fears, subtle truths, intangible illusions, and the unattainable standards imposed upon society. Albee is difficult to understand because he does not discuss anything concrete. Facts are sensible. Abstracts are disturbing. To write about the mystical secrets of life without presenting any kind of solution exasperates the reader. But this may be Albee’s intent. He once said that if after a play the audience is concerned only about finding their cars, the play failed. Therefore, Albee bares the souls of his characters—his audience. He suggests the idiosyncrasies and failings of man and his sociality. And in doing so he often uses the outcast, the distorted man, the pervert.
This is what is shocking and terrifying. And this is one reason why many English teachers refuse to approach his plays in the classroom. Not only is he frustrating to interpret, but he also unveils some very eccentric exponents in society. They are not the type that provoke comfortable discussion. But in my opinion this is not reason enough to shelve Albee. He remains our most colorful coeval dramatist and as such belongs in a modern, progressive curriculum. He refuses to be ignored by the theater. Likewise, we cannot ignore him. Albee depicts some general human weaknesses that are argumentative and provide stimulating discussion for students. . . .
The Zoo Story might be used for student study, because human contact and communication are lacking among young people. It is about a wandering homosexual who, unable to adjust to his own world and hating the conventional world, latches onto a stranger sitting on a park bench and tricks this typical father of parakeets and cats into killing him. Here again Albee resorts to violence. A closer analysis of this play may bring out some ideas for classroom use.
Three human defects exemplified are lack of communication, alienation from society, and mediocrity. Jerry approaches Peter, sitting on a park bench where he has been coming the last four years, and says, “Do you mind if we talk?” And Peter, “obviously minding,” replies that he does not mind. Immediately we see that people really do not communicate. They do not say what they actually mean or are thinking. Peter becomes “bewildered by the seeming lack of communication.” And Jerry, who feels the need to make contact with someone—anyone—says, “I don’t talk to many people—except to say like: give me a beer, or where’s the
john, or what time does the feature go on, or keep your hands to yourself, buddy. . . .” How trite and nondescript we are! Very seldom does one human being fully and completely talk with someone, talk with him in such a way as to know what really makes him tick. This is true also about young people. Their music is loud so they do not have to converse; they go to movies so they can look rather than talk; they watch TV rather than visit; even their cars make so much noise it is not necessary to think or talk.
Jerry felt the need.“But every once in a while I like to talk to somebody, really talk; like to get to know somebody, know all about him.” And so Jerry begins asking questions but does not “really carry on a conversation.” The experiences he relates about the dog only indicate the distance one will go to satisfy a need, to make contact.“A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING.” “People. With an idea; a concept. And where better, where ever better in this humiliating excuse for a jail, where better to communicate one single, simple-minded idea than in an entrance hall?” The unimportance of the place of communication becomes evident. But what is important is that one must communicate; and the entrance hall, even with a dog in an entrance hall, would be a start.
It is at this point in the play that Albee again makes us aware of his theory of the necessity of violence for contact. Jerry says in talking about his dog, “I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves.” The two of them together are the motivating device. And then the beautiful and desperate lines, “We neither love nor hurt because we not try to reach each other.” We are so terribly misunderstood. We cannot understand love. How is love to be interpreted? By whom? This aspect of the play right here could trigger a very healthy discussion among students. And again at the end of the short play Jerry cries in desperation, “Don’t you have any idea, not even the Page 320 | Top of Articleslightest, what other people need?.’ ‘ People need to be needed, and they need someone to need. They must have someone whom they make contact, with whom they can talk and be understood. If people do not make contact with someone, they resort to various perversions trying to find something with which to identify.
This point brings us to another human defect. The reader is made aware of Jerry’s alienation and aloneness when he describes his apartment and points out the two picture frames that are empty. “I don’t see why they need any explanation at all. Isn’t it clear? I don’t have pictures of anyone to put in them.” And his more complete isolation from the square world is quite obvious when he says,’ I was a h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l.” Thus, when Jerry relates his experiences with the dog, we have a sense not only of his failure to communicate but also of his reaction to people. “. . . Animals are indifferent to me . . . like people.” People are trapped in their own little worlds like animals in a zoo, and everyone is “. . . separated by bars from everyone else.” Some do not seem to mind their cage, because they accept this poor excuse for living and find a certain amount of satisfaction in things—parakeets, cats, a park bench.
This, then, brings us to the third human failing, that of mediocrity. Peter is the “ordinary,” life-size. He is married and has a family of girls, parakeets, and cats. He has an ordinary job and can talk about ordinary things. When Peter becomes perturbed at the thought of losing his bench, he says, “I’ve come here for years; I have hours of great pleasure, great satisfaction, right here. And that’s important to a man. I’m a responsible person, and I’m a GROWN-UP. This is my bench, and you have no right to take it away from me.” He has found comfort and security in the everyday things that do not need explaining, so much so that he cannot bear the thought of losing one. Jerry sees him as he really is: “You are a vegetable. . . .” He further taunts him, bringing out more of his simpleness and sameness, “. . . You’ve told me about your home, and your family, and your own little zoo. You have everything, and now you want this bench.” Throughout the play there are indications and prevailing overtones of being trapped. At the very end of the play as Jerry dies, he says, “. . . Your parakeets are making the dinner . . . the cats . . . are setting the table . . . .” How very absurd! To be subjected and tied to these menial, dull, unstimulating tasks and responsibilities that we make for ourselves. The sad truth is that these things might be bearable if at the same time we could communicate.
This is the prevailing theme of The Zoo Story—communication. It is obvious at once, and with a little guidance and prodding students can recognize quite readily the handicaps and limitation of man and his society as seen in this play. The results of a study of this play are encouraging, as is the idea that attacking a contemporary play on contemporary society is contemporary education.
Now, whether or not Albee deserves to enter the classroom depends upon whether or not the educators—the English educators—are willing to admit him. I firmly believe our students must be taught literature written during their time. And Edward Albee should be a part of every American literature course!
Source: Carolyn E. Johnson, “In Defense of Albee” in English Journal, Vol. 57, no. 1, January, 1968, pp. 21-23, 29.
Anderson, Mary C., editor. Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, Syracuse University Press, 1983.
A good resource for Albee’s thoughts on the dramatic process. Also contains a number of essays that discuss the themes present in The Zoo Story.
Bigsby, C. W. E., editor. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1975.
A good critical overview of Albee’s career up until 1974. Contains a number of perceptive essays on The Zoo Story.
Ditsky, John. “Albee’s Parabolic Christ: The Zoo Story” in his The Onstage Christ: Studies in the Persistence of a Theme, [London], 1980.
Ditksy’s book examines religious imagery in various dramas. He details the parallels to the story of Christ that are evident in Albee’s play.
Nilan, Mary M. “Albee’s The Zoo Story: Alienated Man and the Nature of Love” in Modern Drama, Vol. 16, 1973.
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An essay that details Jerry’s isolation from mainstream society and his failures at forming meaningful relationships.
Woods, Linda L. “Isolation and the Barrier of Language in The Zoo Story in Research Studies, Vol. 36, 1968.
A good examination of Jerry’s alienation from middle class society and problems that he faces communicating with members of that group—Peter in particular.
Anderson, Mary C. “Ritual and Initiation in ‘The Zoo Story,’” in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, pp. 93-108, Syracuse University Press, 1983.
Brustein, Robert. “Krapp and a Little Claptrap,” in New Republic, February 22, 1960, pp. 21-2.
Ditsky, John. The Onstage Christ: Studies in the Persistence of a Theme, Vision Press, 1980, 188 p.
Driver, Tom. “Drama: Bucketful of Dregs,” in Christian Century, February 17, 1960, pp. 193-94.
Hewes, Henry. “Benchmanship,” in Saturday Review, February 16, 1960, p. 32.
Luft, Friedrich. Review in Critical Essays on Edward Albee, edited by Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison Davis, p. 41, Hall, 1986.
Roudane, Matthew C. Understanding Edward Albee, p. 27, University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
Wellwarth, George. The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Development in the Avant-Garde Drama, New York University Press, 1964.
Zimbardo, Rose A. “Symbolism and Naturalism in Edward Albee’s ‘The Zoo Story,’” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol.8, 1962, pp. 10-17.