The American Dream
First produced in late January 1961 at the York Playhouse in New York City, The American Dream was conceived by Edward Albee as a critique of the culture and social ideals of America in the aftermath of World War II. The world of the play is one of bourgeois (affluent middle class) sensibilities and a seemingly pointless veneer of small talk and dull conversation. On the surface, it is a play about a generation dedicated to getting satisfaction (an important word in Albee's play) without doing any of the hard work necessary to build a satisfying life. More deeply, as Albee himself has stated, The American Dream is a play about "the substitution of artificial for real values in this society of ours."
Lingering barely below the seemingly trivial surface of The American Dream, moreover, is a destructive and often sadistic world. It is a world in which language is used to bludgeon, to manipulate, and to hide rather than illuminate the emotions that come to define a caring and cultured world. As the audience is drawn deeper and deeper into the world of the play, Albee pulls back layers of the veneer as a chef might peel an onion. With each exchange, the Dreams that accumulate during the course of the play (of prosperity, of love, and of family, to name but a few) fall away, revealing a world that is on the cusp of slipping forever into a nightmarish cycle of mutilation and destruction.
Two Plays by Edward Albee: The American Dream and The Zoo Story, Signet, 1961, was released more recently by Plume in 1997.
Edward Albee was born on March 12, 1928 in Washington, DC. He was adopted in infancy by the millionaire Reed Albee, the son of a famous vaudeville producer, who moved the family back to Larchmont, New York. Brought into a family of great affluence, Albee was never comfortable, clashing frequently with his stepmother, who attempted to keep him away from the theater life and to shape him into what she considered a respectable man of elevated social standing. He attended Rye Country Day School before moving to the Lawrenceville School, from which he was expelled. He entered the Valley Forge Military Academy (Wayne, Pennsylvania) in 1943, graduating in 1945. His education continued at Choate Rosemary Hall (Wallingford, Connecticut) and then at Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut). He was expelled from Trinity in 1947 for not attending classes and not attending compulsory chapel.
Moving to New York's Greenwich Village, Albee spent ten years trying to establish himself as a playwright. In a pattern that continues to define the careers of many young writers, he held a variety of odd jobs during this period, including office boy, salesman in a record store, and messenger for Western Union. His break came in September 1959 when his play The Zoo Story was produced for the first time at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt in West Berlin. (Albee jokes often that he got his start as far off Broadway as any writer could.) Part of a double bill with Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, The Zoo Story is often seen as the beginning of a new wave of American theater, the work of a writer who clearly respected, but also moved forward from, the influences of such predecessors as Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), and Arthur Miller (1915-2005). In a sense responsible for marking American drama as part of a more cosmopolitan exercise, Albee is more often seen as part of the family of the Theater of the Absurd that includes the Irishman Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), the Romanian Page 3 | Top of Article Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994), and the Frenchman Jean Genet (1910-1986).
In a writing career that has spanned decades, Albee has written dozens of plays, beginning with The Zoo Story (1958), which was first produced in West Berlin on September 28, 1959. (The first American production of the play was on January 14, 1960 at the Provincetown Playhouse.) The American Dream (1961) was Albee's fifth play, and was followed immediately by what is arguably his most well-known work, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). In 2005, a collection of his non-dramatic writings was published under the title Stretching My Mind: Essays 1960-2005.
Albee has received three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama: for A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1994). He has also been recognized with a Gold Medal in Drama from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980) as well as both the Kennedy Center Honors (1996) and the National Medal of Arts (1996). His plays have won or been nominated for numerous Tony Awards, and Albee himself was honored with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater in 2005.
Edward Albee still lives near Greenwich Village in New York City.
The American Dream is a play that is written and designed to be staged in one, uninterrupted scene. It opens with the characters of Mommy and Daddy sitting in their armchairs, which are facing each other across the stage and are arranged diagonally to the audience. Their first words are complaints about the lateness of some expected visitors. Who these visitors are and the exact nature of their visit remains unclear. Before mentioning that she headed out to buy a new hat that day, Mommy concludes that "people think they can get away with anything these days … and, of course they can."
Before she begins her story about hat shopping, Mommy playfully chides Daddy to pay attention to her. He promises to listen, and the story tests his promise very strongly. Mommy recounts the story about purchasing a hat that she thought was beige but that was actually the color of wheat when she walked out of the store. She is made aware of this difference only when she meets the chairman of her women's club on the street just outside the store. Mommy returns to the store, making what she calls "a terrible scene" in order to get the color that she wants. She laughs, but is satisfied, as she tells Daddy how the clerk talked her into buying the same hat again by promising her that a lovely beige hat will remain beige, and not become a new color like wheat. At this point, the word satisfaction enters the play.
After complaining once again about the tardiness of their expected visitors, Daddy observes that he has not been satisfied in his attempts to get the leak in their toilet fixed. Mommy notes that the fixed toilet is not for her satisfaction but for Grandma's sake, since she cries every time she visits the bathroom anyway. Mommy and Daddy complain once again about the lateness of the visitors, and agree that Grandma is getting feeble-minded.
Grandma enters the scene, loaded down with boxes of all sizes neatly wrapped. Following Mommy's instructions, Grandma dumps the boxes at Daddy's feet, complaining as she does that he has not yet gotten the toilet repaired. As she turns to get the rest of the boxes that she claims to have piled off stage, Grandma laments how being old means that people talk to her disrespectfully, which leaves her without a sense of dignity. "You got to have a sense of dignity," Grandma notes, concluding that if people let attention to dignity slip then "civilization's doomed."
Changing the subject suddenly, Mommy accuses Grandma of reading her book club selections. Grandma replies angrily that she does because she is old and no one will talk to her anymore with dignity and respect. She exits the room, with the promise of returning with more boxes.
Mommy and Daddy are momentarily sorry for their tone when speaking with Grandma, but their talk soon turns to how nicely she wrapped the boxes scattered around Daddy's chair. Mommy begins a story about her Grandma, poor and struggling after Grandpa died, would wrap up lunches on pretty little boxes for Mommy, who was also poor, to take to school. Although Mommy knew that Grandma would sacrifice her own food for those lunches, she Page 4 | Top of Article pretended that the box was actually empty. The other school children, raised with a concern for others, would offer her food every day, never knowing that the pretty little boxes contained wonderful lunches.
Daddy responds to the lunch story by calling Mommy "a very deceitful little girl." She explains that she only did it because she was poor, but since she married Daddy she has been very rich. Mommy then reveals that she wants to put Grandma in a nursing home (Daddy refuses to do so) and that she has no qualms about living off of Daddy's money or having him look after Grandma as part of the marriage contract. Daddy declares his love for Mommy, as Grandma reenters the scene, carrying more boxes.
As though she has heard the conversation that has been unfolding, Grandma continues her treatise on old age by way of expanding her discussion to attack Mommy, calling the younger woman "a tramp and a trollop and a trull." ("Trull" is slang for a woman of very bad reputation, as in a harlot or prostitute.) Grandma continues her attack, pointing out to Mommy that Daddy is no longer interested sexually in his wife.
Daddy responds quietly by saying that he is very sick, and does not even really want to live anymore. Mommy changes the topic abruptly, returning to her complaints over the late visitors. The doorbell rings suddenly, triggering a quick exchange between the three characters that marks Daddy's inability to make decisions recently. Mommy ties this indecisiveness to a decline in what she calls his "masculin[ity]."
Daddy finally moves to open the door, allowing Mrs. Barker to step into the room. After the usual pleasantries, Daddy makes an odd request: "Now that you're here, I don't suppose you could go away and maybe come back some other time." Mrs. Barker takes the odd question in perfect stride, responding "Oh, no; we're much too efficient for that."
After inviting Mrs. Barker to sit down and cross her legs, Daddy asks what exactly she does. She is, in fact, the chairman of Mommy's woman's club, whom Mommy has not recognized. Blaming the artificial light for her confusion, Mommy suddenly asks Mrs. Barker if she would like to take off her dress in order to be more comfortable. Mrs. Barker does, and settles back into her chair wearing only her slip.
Mrs. Barker offers to smoke, an option that Mommy opposes with some force. Mommy then begins to walk through the boxes scattered on the floor, stepping on a number of them despite Grandma's admonitions not to. Mrs. Barker asks if they can assume that that the boxes are for "us," using the plural despite the fact that she had come to the apartment alone. When asked if they are accustomed to receiving boxes, Mrs. Barker replies elliptically that it often depends on why "they" have come to a specific place.
Daddy interrupts, saying that he has "misgivings" and "definite qualms" which, it turns out, are about an operation he had some time earlier during which something was taken out and something else put in. Mommy remarks that Daddy had always wanted to be a Senator, but has recently changed his focus to wanting to be Governor. Mrs. Barker responds with an enthusiastic story about ambition, speaking passionately about her brother who runs a little newspaper called The Village Idiot. He is also, she continues, a man who wants everyone to know that he is married and loves his wife intensely.
When Grandma tries to reenter the conversation, she is silenced rudely and abruptly by Mommy, who mimics the older woman. Grandma responds with a brief commentary on the limitations of middle age (meaning Mommy) before acknowledging that the imitation had a good rhythm but really lacked in content. Grandma then sets out to try to explain the mystery of the boxes, but Mommy silences her once again.
The exchange becomes increasingly mean spirited as Mommy pushes Daddy to have Grandma taken away in the van. The apartment is too crowded, Mommy claims, and Grandma adds too much clutter. The two women bicker back and forth about language and upbringing as Daddy and Mrs. Barker watch with interest.
Returning the discussion to the reason for Mrs. Barker's visit, Daddy admits that he had called for the visit. Mrs. Barker responds with a list of committees and activities that she is part of, including the Ladies' Auxiliary Air Raid Committee. She then moves directly to question the family about their opinions on air raids. Mommy and Daddy respond adamantly that they are hostile, to which Mrs. Barker responds that they would be no help to her since "there's Page 5 | Top of Article too much hostility in the world these days as it is." Grandma leaps in, announcing that according to a recent government study there are too many old people in the world as well. Mommy calls her a liar, orders Daddy to break the older woman's television, and then celebrates her good fortune in finding such a fine man for a husband. She could, she says, have married a poor man or a man confined to a wheelchair.
Mommy feels badly after remembering that Mrs. Barker's husband is physically handicapped. Feeling faint, Mrs. Barker asks for some water, which, after more squabbling, Mommy leaves the room to get. Mrs. Barker immediately begs Grandma to explain to her why she has been invited to the apartment, and what Mommy and Daddy hope to accomplish with this meeting. Grandma, reveling in the power of the moment, toys with Mrs. Barker before offering her a cryptic hint.
The hint takes the form of a story about a couple (very much like Mommy and Daddy) who had lived in an apartment (very similar to the one in which they now stood) some twenty years earlier. The couple, so the story goes, was looking to adopt a baby, and had contacted a woman (very much like Mrs. Barker) to help them satisfy their desire for a child. Problems accumulated once the baby arrived: it did not look like either of its parents, it cried incessantly, and it had eyes only for the adoptive Daddy. Mrs. Barker responds that, given this last item, "any self-respecting woman would have gouged [the baby's] eyes right out of its head." This is exactly what happened, Grandma acknowledges.
When the baby begins to play with its genitals, the couple cuts off its penis and then its hands. Mrs. Barker agrees totally with the decisions. The baby then calls its adoptive Mommy a bad name, which led to the couple cutting out its tongue. Again, Mrs. Barker is in full agreement. Still the baby grew, until one day the couple realized that "it didn't have a head on its shoulders, it had no guts, it was spineless, [and] its feet were made of clay." When the baby finally died, the adoptive parents called the agency and demanded their money back. As Grandma concludes, in an line that echoes those from earlier in the play: "They wanted satisfaction."
Off stage, Mommy and Daddy struggle; he cannot find Grandma's room and she cannot find water in the kitchen. Mommy asks Mrs. Barker to come into the kitchen with her, which the visitor does hesitantly. Before she leaves the living room, though, Grandma makes her promise not to tell her story to anyone.
As Mrs. Barker leaves the stage, the doorbell rings. Grandma yells for the visitor to come in, which he does. Grandma asks if he is the van man come to take her away, but he is not. She compliments his looks and his physique, commenting that he should try for the movies. He agrees with her, then goes on to describe himself: "Clean-cut, midwest farm boy type, almost insultingly good-looking in a typically American way." She congratulates him on knowing what and who he is, then pronounces him the American dream.
The Young Man goes on to explain that he is looking for work, and wonders to himself if there was money enough in the house to hire a handyman. Grandma tells him how she had just won 25,000 dollars in a baking contest, using the pseudonym Uncle Henry. (Her winning recipe was for something called Day-Old Cake.)
Grandma suddenly says that the Young Man looks familiar. He replies that he is incomplete, which he explains by way of telling the story of his birth and his life as an identical twin separated in childhood from his brother. Since that moment, he tries to explain, he has always been incomplete, searching for a connection that will let him feel whole again. Grandma feels deep pity for him, but their conversation is cut short when Mrs. Barker returns from the kitchen.
Shocked by the new arrival, Mrs. Barker wonders aloud what the Young Man is doing there. Grandma explains that he is the van man who has come to haul her things away. She instructs him to begin carrying her boxes off stage, which he does.
Turning her attention to Mrs. Barker, Grandma explains that there is a dilemma with Mommy and Daddy that must be resolved soon. Grandma whispers a possible solution to Mrs. Barker, who appears slightly shocked but agrees to go along with the plan. As the Young Man finishes clearing away all the boxes, Grandma says goodbye and exits the stage.
Mommy and Daddy return to the stage to find Grandma gone. Beginning to panic, Mommy asks Mrs. Barker where she went, only to be told that the van man came to take her away. Mommy Page 6 | Top of Article falls into tears, saying that the van man was an invention that had been used to keep Grandma under control. Grandma, off stage, turns to the audience, admitting that she, too, is interested in watching the events unfold onstage. The Young Man is reintroduced into the scene, with Mrs. Barker making the introductions. He is given over to the family as a kind of replacement for what is referred to only as "the other one."
As the conversation on stage begins, Grandma turns to the audience, suggesting that this is the point at which it is the best time to leave. She bids the audience good night, and the curtain closes.
A simplified exaggeration of the typical American housewife, with her sense of social responsibility, Mrs. Barker is representative of a society that would place a child (known as the bumble) in a home where it could be mutilated and brutalized. Hiding behind her complicity in the decline of American culture (that is, the death of the Dream), Mrs. Barker remains willfully blinded to the game that unfolds around her despite the fact that, at times, she is transparent in marking her history with the family.
As the back story or history of Mommy and Daddy is pieced together during the play, the connection between Mrs. Barker and the family becomes one of increasingly complex speculation. There are various moments early in the play when family members suggest that they know Mrs. Barker, but are not quite sure about the context of their previous connections. At times, these lapses in memory seem innocent enough, but as the layers of language and story accumulate this innocence gives way to much darker suspicions. Mrs. Barker has been a guest in this household many years earlier, and was instrumental in delivering the original child to the sadistic couple and was, therefore, complicit in the abuse that followed.
Just as Grandma comes to represent the role of the creative artist in the play, Mrs. Barker comes to represent the audience watching The American Dream unfold, and disintegrate, on stage before them. An outsider, not always capable of following the verbal barrages that fill the stage, she (like the audience) is responsible for her own role in the drama that is unfolding as well as for the meanness and inhumanity that has taken hold of the world on the stage.
Mrs. Barker's unwillingness to acknowledge the clear parallels between herself and the character in Grandma's story of the Bye Bye Adoption Service is one of the most prominently absurd moments in the play. Her role in the placement of the bumble cannot be denied, despite her attempts to do so, just as the role of the audience in holding on to the American dream despite its obvious limitations in the world of the play and beyond, cannot be ignored.
Daddy is a kind of negative presence in The American Dream. Once a rich man and a model of the masculine world, Daddy has been reduced both physically (through his operations), sexually (he no longer sleeps with Mommy), and even intellectually (he giggles like a child and cannot make a decision) during the course of his life. During the absurdist moment of social theater when Mrs. Barker is invited to undress, for instance, Daddy giggles childishly as a kind of sexualized infant or, conversely, sexually mature adult reduced to an infantile response. More significantly, Daddy has been reduced verbally to a man who simply follows the lead that is set by Mommy. His words echo those spoken by her; she sets the tone and subject of each conversation; and inevitably she closes the conversations down through her attacks on either Daddy or Grandma.
Whereas Mommy emerges as a tyrannical sadist within the family structure of the play, Daddy is infantilized, turned into a child-like figure in need of discipline and punishment for his actions. Uncomfortably for the audience, Daddy almost seems to invite and at times almost enjoy the rituals of public humiliation. In this sense, Daddy is a masochistic figure who takes pleasure from the pain and humiliation that defines his relationship with Mommy.
Stepping outside the scene in the final moments of the play to function as the ironic commentator on the events unfolding, Grandma becomes the director of the play as it moves inexorably to its close. She is also the character in the play most obviously aware of the games that are unfolding Page 7 | Top of Article and her role in them. She defines her role through a series of typically absurdist strategies, from her feigned deafness and memory lapses to her epigrammatic wordplay and occasional obscenity. These strategies of feigned deafness and ignorance effectively disconnect Grandma from the fatal conversations and debilitating word games that have come to define the household in which she lives. It is this distance that allows her the freedom to escape the walls of the play as the introduction of the Young Man sets in motion a cycle of violence that seems determined to repeat itself. Significantly, Grandma's crossing back and forth from the world of the play to the world of the audience underscores Albee's sense that the two worlds do speak to each other in profound and often disturbing ways.
Grandma is also the character who introduces the finely wrapped gift boxes that come to litter the stage for most of the play. Symbolic of the empty, though alluring, promise of the American dream itself, Grandma's boxes prove evocative reminders of the history connecting Grandma and the much younger Mommy. Their history is one defined in youth, as in older age, by deprivation and deceit. Depriving herself of food in order to send her daughter with a gloriously wrapped lunch, Grandma unwittingly provides her daughter with a prop that allows her to present herself in the image of a terribly deprived child.
Seeing herself as a marginalized figure within the household, Grandma speaks often about the plight of old people in the modern world, a feeling that can be related, too, to the role of the innovative artist within a society increasingly driven toward a celebration of the mediocre and the mass produced. Stepping outside the frame of the play as it nears its final scene, Grandma reveals the true power of her vision, directing the play towards a resolution for the various dilemmas facing the remaining characters. She then interrupts the play to conclude its action, offering the staged reunion as an open-ended moment for the audience to reflect upon. Is this the beginning or the ending of the American dream? Has the Dream itself withered in modern culture or is it still a viable source of inspiration and motivation? How do we reconcile the sadism of Mommy with the promise of a Dream future? These and many other questions are left unanswered as Grandma bids the audience good night.
The stereotypical bad mother, Mommy is the most verbally vicious of the characters. She is a woman who hides her attacks on Grandma and her diminishment of Daddy under the guise of family disciplinarian. Her tongue is persistently sharp, her sarcasm dull edged and exaggerated, and her tone defined by scorn and derision. More disturbing still is the pervasiveness of her sadism. She emasculates Daddy at every chance, and, if one believes Grandma's story of the bumble of joy to be truthful, she mutilates the couple's adopted child as a part of his disciplined upbringing. As part of the dynamic of Albee's play, Mommy's sadism controls the stage, expressing itself in a pattern of physical and verbal violence that is almost entirely unchecked and unchallenged. One of the more disturbing aspects for an audience watching this pattern unfold itself is the discomfort that attaches itself to the experience of bearing witness to the violence and to the final recognition that the world of the play remains firmly under control of Mommy as the stage fades to black.
As one of the more lucid commentaries of Grandma makes clear, Mommy is a manipulative, vicious woman who married Daddy for his money and power, and who cares little (if at all) for the people around her. As the story of the bumble underscores, Mommy is representative of the potential brutality and selfishness lingering barely below the surface of modern American society.
A blond with a Midwestern look to him, the Young Man describes himself as a type, a character that is built around a single idea or quality and is presented without a sense of individuality. This self-definition is significant given that Grandma labels him the American dream, the ideal that all other Americans strive to achieve.
But as the Young Man's story underscores, the Dream itself is an illusion, a veneer to cover the hollowness of his own existence. The product of the murder of his lost identical twin (known in Grandma's story as the bumble), he is a Dream that is defined by a progressive loss of all emotion and desire. He carries the emotional scars that parallel the physical mutilations weighed upon Page 8 | Top of Article the bumble by Mommy some twenty years earlier. As the play ends, the Young Man is brought together with a Mommy and Daddy, forming a family that is left at the end of the play in a kind of limbo. As Grandma offers in her final statement, this is a play in which "everybody's got what he wants … or everybody's got what he thinks he wants."
The American Dream
For the generation of characters that populate Albee's The American Dream, the decades following World War II were seen initially as a revitalization of the promise of the American dream. Coined in the early 1930s, the term marked a significant break with the imaginative, political, and economic models of the Old World (Europe). Fueled by the emergence of American big business, the completion of a transcontinental railway, and the promise that came with an energized natural resource industry, the celebration of the "rags to riches" story familiar in American lore led to a pervasive belief that any American citizen who had a modicum of talent and worked extremely hard could accumulate financial wealth and political power. Writers have always been drawn to the promise of this Dream ideal, most notably in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), and more tragically, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949).
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the American dream faced some of its stiffest tests. The Great Depression, the growing pressures of racial discrimination, and the hangover of two World Wars left many Americans feeling disenfranchised, cut off from the promise of the Dream. But with the economic prosperity of the postwar period, and with it the rise of suburban America, the Dream regained its energy. Improvements to home comfort and employment stability, combined with a dramatic rise in personal income levels and an expansion of educational options, became the hallmark of the modern version of the Dream.
Although the counterculture politics of the 1960s and subsequent decades saw a waning of the prominence of the American dream as a wholly positive ideal, it has remained prominent in American culture as both a touchstone of hope and a source of deeply felt frustration. In Albee's The American Dream, this fading ideal is represented most obviously by the Young Man, a clean-cut American beauty who appears physically attractive but who is emotionally empty and deeply scarred from the memories of his tragic detachment from his identical twin brother. Without meaning in his life, the Young Man reduces himself to a man who will do anything Page 9 | Top of Article for money, making him, ironically, the perfect embodiment of the American dream.
In the end, the Young Man as the ideal physical manifestation of the American dream is a mask that hides both the emptiness and the dark undercurrents that have come to redefine the Dream in the modern world.
Language and Violence
As in most of Albee's plays, there is a powerful relationship in The American Dream between language and violence, both as language is directed between individuals in the play and how these same individuals do violence to language itself. Grandma's frequent comments about the way that old people are talked to (dismissively and disrespectfully) illustrate that language has a strong impact on the power that the verbally aggressive characters wield upon those characters who are less articulate. Although Grandma can and does hold her own in the battles with Mommy that flare up during the course of the play, she is adamant in her argument that the elderly are disempowered by the language that is attached to them. Similarly, Mommy emasculates Daddy with her mocking words and tone, depriving him of his masculine spirit and making fun of his effectiveness as both a decision maker and sexual partner. Her frequent references to sex take on a mean-spirited and destructive force in this new context.
In this sense, language becomes an active and aggressive component of the play. The word mutilation, for instance, is acted out physically and violently in the play, most obviously in the murder of the bumble joy but also in the mutilation of the American dream of prosperity and of the ideals of family. Such words as love and truth are pushed to the point of deformity as each successive layer of the sadistic games of Mommy and Daddy are exposed.
At other times, Albee turns language into a literal tool of the sadistic Mommy. When she sees that the bumble joy only has eyes for Daddy, for instance, she removes both the child's eyes and the possibility of that phrase ever appearing in such a sentence ever again. It is impossible, Mommy knows, for the child to have eyes only for Daddy if the child has no eyes at all.
Objects as Symbols
Although The American Dream is not a play that relies heavily on symbols, the boxes that Grandma brings to the stage early in the play do acquire a symbolic presence as the scenes unfold. Enigmatic in that they serve no real function in the play, the colorfully wrapped boxes are complimented by Mommy and Daddy for their beauty without any concern for their content. Ironically, when Grandma gets close to revealing the contents of the boxes (and by extension, their meaning), she is silenced by Mommy. As they do with the other important issues in their lives (including their faith in the power of the American dream), Mommy and Daddy find satisfaction in attending to surface appearances rather than to exploring the more complex depths. The boxes, in this sense, are a diversion, a jumble of pretty distractions that allow Mommy and Daddy to remain emotionally and intellectually distant from the harsh realities of the world that they have created.
But as the audience comes to understand later in the play, the boxes do contain things. More specifically, they contain the seemingly haphazard collection of items that Grandma Page 10 | Top of Article has accumulated during her life, including enema bottles and a blind Pekinese. Seen in this light, the boxes become symbolic of Grandma's version of the American dream, the detritus and clutter that mark the failings of her body and the limitations that have pressed in upon her throughout her life. Fueled by her contest win, Grandma packs up her Dreams and moves on in search of a new play and a new stage.
Satire is a technique that uses irony to undercut misguided behaviors or to censure social and political attitudes. From its origins in the writing and culture of the ancient Greeks, satire has remained a powerful tool of writers, like Albee, determined to engage their art as provocation and social critique. The tone of satiric literature ranges from a kind of detached commentary on proceedings (such as Grandma's comments at the end of the play) to fully expressed anger and vehement contempt for the human conditions (Grandma's brief but pointed comments on the treatment of the elderly). Given that most satire relies heavily on balancing word play with criticism, it is appropriate that irony is one of its chief tools.
The satiric voice in The American Dream is put in place through a series of linguistic and performance-based juxtapositions. Mommy attacks Daddy viciously through her use of sarcasm (the dullest form of irony) when mocking his diminished masculinity, while her celebration of her love for him is undercut even more when the audience realizes that she only married him for his money. These juxtapositions take on a much darker tone when the audience hears the story of Mommy's sadistic treatment of the bumble of joy. An earlier joke about Daddy being all ears loses its humor when recontextualized by the blinding of a child because he only has eyes for Daddy.
At its best, satire reveals a sophisticated versatility of speech, a strong moral center through which one might speak to social and cultural improprieties. Put simply, satire is defined, in large part, by many of the same traits that readers can attribute to The American Dream.
An epigram is a statement, whether in verse or prose, that is concise, carrying an unmistakable message (often criticism), and witty. In The American Dream, Grandma often speaks in epigrams, particularly through her epigrammatic commentaries on the treatment of the elderly. The brevity of her powerful statements underscores neatly the power of language to shape the reality of those to whom it is applied. To Grandma, what defines age is not her biological condition or emotional state, but the way people talk down to her. More specifically, it is the way that Mommy uses language to bludgeon her into submission.
These epigrammatic commentaries position Grandma as an observer of the world at large and, more specifically, of the household in which she lives. Such a position anticipates nicely her transformation at the end of the play from epigrammatic observer to director of the final scene, which allows her, too, to move beyond the world of the play and to relocate herself and her boxes elsewhere. As Nicholas Canaday, Jr. argued most elegantly, it is in this final shift of Grandma from player to director that generates whatever hope the play might have: "In the character of Grandma the play suggests that whatever meaning is possible is achieved through an attitude of courageous realism that can enable man to conduct himself with dignity, through the simple enjoyment of whatever experience can be enjoyed, and through the creative act of the artist."
Theater of the Absurd
Theater of the Absurd is a loose name given to a dramatic movement that originated in France during the 1940s and 1950s. Originally coined by the critic Martin Esslin in a book on European-theater from these decades, the term has been linked most often with the works of four major playwrights who rose to prominence during this period: Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994), Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), Jean Genet (1910-1986), and Arthur Adamov (1908-1970). Albee is often cited as the playwright who brought Absurdist theater to the United States.
Although very distinct in terms of their styles and dramatic philosophies, each of these men used his work to explore the absurdity of the human condition in the contemporary world. Influenced variously by such thinkers as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Jean-Paul Sartre Page 11 | Top of Article (1905-1980), these Absurdist writers believed that life is without meaning or purpose and that it is only through a conscious and willed commitment to a cause that a life gains meaning. Without this commitment, a life remains defined by purposelessness, by apathy, and, as in the case of The American Dream, by an emptiness that turns even the greatest of Dreams into tragedy.
To most of the writers associated with this movement it was important to note that this absurdity could not be explained by logic or any rational structure. In practice, this translated to a break from many longstanding stage conventions. Realistic characters were no longer the focal point of the plays, and consistencies in time and place gave way to openness and fluidity. Meaningless plot shifts, repetitive or even nonsensical dialogue, and dream-like sequences are commonplace in these plays. Not surprisingly, Absurdist plays often focus thematically on such issues as alienation, the haunting inevitability of death, and the pressures to conform in an increasingly mediocre world. At risk, according to many of these plays, were the powers of love to hold the world together, the bracing strength of the humanities, and the politics of human rights and dignity.
The Nuclear Family
The term nuclear family was developed in the late 1940s to distinguish the family group consisting of parents (usually a father and mother) and their children from what is known as the extended family group, which expands in definition to include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the full deployment of cousins. Although the nuclear family structure has been around for decades, it underwent a radical rise in prominence during the post-War boom of the 1950s and 1960s.
But, as Albee explores often in such plays as The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the nuclear family found itself threatened by both external pressures (the sexual revolution, for instance, and the pressures of transition from an extended family structure) as well as a particularly powerful constellation of assumptions and expectations of the ideal family. With a sadistic Mommy and an emasculated and infant-like Daddy, the family of The American Dream becomes a tragic parody of the traditional nuclear family, defined as the play's family is by mutilation, manipulation, and verbal savagery.
From its opening performances in Berlin through its various stagings and restagings across North America, The American Dream has been simultaneously praised and criticized by reviewers. Writing in the New York Times in January of 1961, Howard Taubman is a representative case in point. "It is agreed that Edward Albee has talent," he begins. "The Zoo Story, still running, established that point. The American Dream … reinforces it." And while Albee's "style remains elliptical" and his absurdist Page 13 | Top of Article technique is handled "with a disarmingly childlike and sardonic freshness" there is a brittleness to the play, Taubman argues, that leaves the darkened story burdened by "a kind of bitter comic current of free association." Despite its brilliance, Taubman concludes, The American Dream "grows tiresome" and leaves an audience "glad to be quit of it[s]" darkening spirit.
Not surprisingly, this debate carried on in the years following the play's initial appearance in the United States.Writing in the English Journal in 1966, Herbert R. Adams, for instance, argues about whether Albee is writing in the Absurdist tradition at all. His conclusion is stated openly: despite the obvious similarities in theme and technique, Albee "doesn't belong in the same ballpark with [the absurdist playwrights] [Eugène] Ionesco, [Jean] Genet, [Samuel] Beckett, or [Harold] Pinter." Writing the same year in the South Central Bulletin, Nicholas Canaday, Jr., calls The American Dream "a textbook case of the response of the American drama to this existential vacuum [affecting modern life], and at the same time this play of 1961 is perhaps our best example of what has come to be known as the ‘theater of the absurd.’" Revisiting the debate in 1978, Foster Hirsch, writing in Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?, recognizes The American Dream as Albee's "most purely absurdist piece," while C. W. E. Bigsby, writing in Modern American Drama, 1945-2000, dismisses the play as "derivative" and "slight."
Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In this essay, he discusses Albee's play as a kind of requiem for the death of the ideals and the hopefulness surrounding the American dream.
Edward Albee's The American Dream is specifically about the contours of the American dream as it came to be imagined and reimagined as the United States entered into the second half of the twentieth century. The Dream that Albee alludes to in the title of his fifth play is built on the unquestioned assumption that with the maturation of a post-World War II economy and culture, America would emerge into a new environment of sustainable prosperity, social advancement, and cultural maturity. Paradoxically, and despite the achievement of a higher Page 14 | Top of Article standard of living in the post-war era, the much-anticipated better life remained an ever-elusive goal for a generation driven forward increasingly by the pressures of what the characters of Mommy and Daddy describe as a deeply held belief in their right to have "satisfaction" in all aspects of their lives.
Defining itself increasingly by the ebb and flow of the Dream itself, post-war American culture became a kind of absurdist desert marked by conformity, emptiness of intellect and spirit, and perceptible disfiguring of language. Ironically, however, the residents of this world rarely, if ever, see their lifestyle as spiritually vacant or overtly homogenous and manufactured. As Albee's enquiry into the shifting counters of the Dream underscores, the modern American lifestyle has come to be increasingly defined by the mass-marketed ideas of middle-class family values and carefully packaged nostalgia. Emerging as the iconic symbol of this spiritually and creatively vacant culture is the Young Man, a physically superior man whose family history has left him vacant, scarred, and unable to see the emptiness of the world into which he so deeply desires to enter.
Having gained recognition in his life due to his Dream-like appearance, the Young Man is, he admits openly, an idealized type, the "clean-cut, midwest farm boy type, almost insultingly good-looking in a typically American way." To the residents of the small apartment, however, he is quickly reimagined as an iconic symbol of the youthful hopefulness of an era gone-by. He is a symbol of a time before the Dream was forced to confront the realities of a failed marriage, declining health, open hypocrisy, and brutal savagery. Partially hidden from view and partially an open secret, these conditions leave a bloody stain across both the play and an entire generation. The image of the American dream, youthful and physically perfect, becomes for Mommy and Daddy a redefining moment of their lives, a symbol of the opportunity to try again to build a family in such a way that might allow both parents and the Young Man an opportunity for salvation.
Trapped in a post-war world that is, according to the Dream, supposed to nurture and protect them, Albee's characters find themselves imprisoned by the savagery of their shared past. For Mommy and Daddy, it is a past defined by the mutilation and death of their adopted bumble joy, while for the iconic Young Man, the memories are of the tragic loss of his identical twin. Unable and unwilling to move forward into a world that acknowledges the emptiness of his life and the superficiality of his beauty, the Young Man lives in a perpetual state of incompleteness. "I can feel nothing," he repeats over and over, "I can feel nothing. And so … here I am … as you see me." He is, as he admits openly, only a body and a face without a spirit or a soul.
As the final scene of the play unfolds, guided by Grandma (who has transformed herself from character to director), Albee's characters are offered an opportunity to correct the course of the Dream, allowing the Young Man to become a part of the family he so deeply longs to find and for Mommy and Daddy to undo the memory of the savagery of twenty years earlier. Despite the profundity of this opportunity, however, the characters remain static, unchanging. Mommy turns to Mrs. Barker, for instance, and remarks that this Young Man is "much better than the other one," marking this Young Man not as a new beginning but as a continuation of the previously established (and brutally sadistic) pattern. As Grandma (and the audience) look on with growing awareness of what is actually occurring, Mrs. Barker underscores this continuance with her response to Mommy's enquiry as to the name of the Young Man. "Call him whatever you like," Mrs. Barker begins. "He's yours."
With two words (He's yours) Mrs. Barker marks a transfer of ownership that reimagines the American dream from an autonomous individual to a newly purchased commodity, much like the beige hat that Mommy buys as the play opens. Indeed, when Mommy tells Mrs. Barker that she does not know how to thank the woman for delivering the Young Man to them, the Page 15 | Top of Article response is clear and chilling: "Oh, don't worry about that," Mrs. Barker responds almost casually, "I'll send you a bill in the mail."
Reduced to something that can be bought and sold on the open market, the American dream is neither a marker of individual freedom nor of a hopeful new beginning. He is, as Mrs. Barker further underscores when asked what his name is, simply a continuation of what has come before. "Call him what you called the other one," Mrs. Barker answers. It is an answer that is met, tellingly, with puzzled glances and an admission that neither Mommy nor Daddy can remember what "the other one" was called.
In this moment, Albee's characters turn away from the underlying truths about their shared pasts. In the end, even mutilation and sadism fails to illuminate the layering of horrors that has shaped these lives: savagery, erasure of identity, disfigurement of language, and the end of hope. The culture of Albee's play has devolved into a nightmare, fracturing from the moral and humane ideals of the moment and slipping into a much darker ethos of alienation, anomie, and anger. Sequestering themselves in the private spaces of their apartment, and encountering their world only through their visions and revisions of their own sense of power and status, Mommy and Daddy withdraw themselves from the intricacies and questions of their own time, a withdrawal that leads ultimately to decay and to mutilation. Their lives, to be continued now with the training of yet another Young Man, are defined by their own refusal to understand the world around them, a denial that stems from an inability to accept their complicity in the death of the American dream and to see a new path, or imagine a new way. Raising their glasses in celebration, Mommy and Daddy fall back on the ideals that they have been raised to value more than all others: "we'll drink to celebrate," Mommy says as she begins the toast that will seal the fate of the play and of the American dream. "To satisfaction! Who says you can't get satisfaction these days!"
Unsatisfied, Grandma turns away from the play. Interrupting its obvious and disturbing slide into redundancy, she marks clearly that there is no need to venture any further into this now-familiar future. Moving herself into conversation with the audience, she rejects the celebration of past glories and the resurrection of past dreams that is taking place on the stage. With the integration of the Young Man comes the collapse of the Dream; the play threatens to spiral out of control, losing itself once again in a morass of delusion and pain. In the final moments, it is Grandma who reveals the deepest truth of the play: that being free and clear of this stage, and of the language and the silences that defined her for so long, is her only hope of survival. Ultimately, she reveals to those willing to listen, there are horizons that extend farther than those imagined in the nightmarish world of the American dream.
Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on The American Dream, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
Matthew C. Roudané
In the following interview, given by Roudané, Albee discusses his views on both the artistic and the social role of theatre.
…Albee, like Arthur Miller, is a much-interviewed playwright. And although Lawrence's reminder—that we should never trust the artist but the tale—is important, scholars nonetheless may gain useful insight into a writer's vision by listening to his conversations. Albee's interviews allow scholars to trace parallel developments between his plays and dramatic theories. Albee's once scathing attacks on critics he considered myopic appear less frequently. Albee no longer "defends" his transition from Off-Broadway to the Great White Way; his more experimental pieces; his willingness to take aesthetic risks. This is not to imply, of course, that Albee's rage and anger have diminished. Albee's protests against various crimes of the heart appear as intense as the days when he was labeled the new Angry Young Playwright. But recent interviews reveal a more mature, thoughtful Albee. Now he simply tries to explain, precisely, his convictions …
Q: Why is it so vital for you to break down the actor / audience barrier during the performance? And on what levels do you wish to engage your audience?
A: First of all, you have to discover what audience you're talking about. The ideal audience I'd like to reach is the audience that brings to the theater some of the same attention and work that I do when I write a play. The willingness to experience the play, if the play is successful, on its own terms, without predetermining the nature of the Page 16 | Top of Article theatrical experience. Someone who's seeing a play should be seeing the first play he has ever seen. I am referring to a state of innocence in which our theater is most ideally approached; the key is for one to have no preconceptions, as if it's the first theatrical experience that person has ever had. If people approach the theater that way, viewing the spectacle becomes an experience of wonder for them rather than saying that, "oh, I can't relate to this" or "the play is ‘difficult’ and therefore I can't take it!" If one approaches the theater in a state of innocence, sober, without preconceptions, and willing to participate; if they are willing to have the status quo assaulted; if they're willing to have their consciousness raised, their values questioned—or reaffirmed; if they are willing to understand that the theater is a live and dangerous experience—and therefore a life-giving force—then perhaps they are approaching the theater in an ideal state and that's the audience I wish I were writing for.
However, that is not the way everybody approaches theater. It's not even the way I approach the theater all the time, although I wish I did. But we should all approach the theater in this state of innocence. But the one thing a playwright can't do is write for an "audience" at all successfully. If you're writing for a group of intellectuals, then you're leaving other people out, proving only how smart you are. If you're trying to reach a larger audience than your work would normally reach, you're probably telling half-truths rather than total Truth; you're probably oversimplifying that which by its very nature is incredibly complex! There are some plays I write that are difficult, some that are easy, some that will reach more people than others, even in that ideal audience. But the basic, the essential thing is to let the play happen on its own terms the way it wants to happen. And then assume there will be enough people who are willing to let it happen on its own terms. That's about all one can do.
Many people at the colleges I visit ask me over and over again, "Why do you ask such tough questions and why do your plays seem so difficult or depressing?" Or "Why don't you write happy plays?" About what, happy problems? But I keep reminding them that drama is an attempt to make things better. Drama is a mirror held up to them to show the way they do behave and how they don't behave that way any longer. If people are willing to be aided in the search for total consciousness by not only drama but all of the arts—music and painting and all the other arts give a unique sense of order—then art is life-giving. Art gives shape to life; it increases consciousness.
Q: Death pervades your theater. Why your preoccupation with death?
A: As opposed to the slaughter in Shakespeare, the tuberculosis and consumption in Chekhov, the death-in-life in Beckett? Is that what you mean? There are only a few significant things to write about: life and death. I am very interested in the cleansing consciousness of death; and the fact that people avoid thinking about death—and about living. I think we should always live with the consciousness of death. How else can we possibly participate in living life fully? …
Q: Such playwrights as Arthur Miller or David Mamet explore the myth of the American Dream, the myth embracing the work ethic as a means to material success and so on. Could you comment on this?
A: I'm quite in favor of hard work, something I do a lot of myself! There's nothing wrong with the notion of making your own way. What is wrong with the myth of the American Dream is the notion that this is all that there is to existence! The myth is merely a part of other things. Becoming wealthy is O.K. I suppose, but it is not a be all to end all. People who think that the acquisition of wealth or property or material things or power; that these are the things in life; the conspicuous consumption of material things is the answer; this creates a problem. The fact that we set arbitrary and artificial goals for ourselves is a problem, not the hard work ethic per se …
Q: As a playwright, do you see yourself as a social critic?
A: Directly or indirectly any playwright is a kind of demonic social critic. I am concerned with altering people's perceptions, altering the status quo. All serious art interests itself in this. The self, the society should be altered by a good play. All plays in their essence are indirectly political in that they make people question the values that move them to make various parochial, social, and political decisions. Our political decisions are really a result of how we view consciousness. Plays should be relentless; the playwright shouldn't let people off the hook. He should examine their lives and keep hammering away at the fact that some people are not fully participating in their lives and therefore they're not participating with great intelligence in politics, in social intercourse, in aesthetics. It's something that I dearly hope runs through all of my plays …
Q: Your vision seems to deal with certain profound crimes of the heart: the individual's inability to deal honestly, or what the existentialists would call authentically, with the self and the other. Is this accurate?
A: Yes, I suppose it is. After all, what else is there to deal with? The single journey through consciousness should be participated in as fully as possible by the individual, no matter how dangerous or cruel or terror-filled that experience may be. We only go through it once, unless the agnostics are proved wrong, and so we must do it fully conscious. One of the things that art does is to not let people sleep their way through their lives. If the universe makes no sense, well perhaps we, the individual can make sense of the cosmos. We must go on, we must not add to the chaos but deal honestly with the idea of order, whether it is arbitrary or not. As all of my plays suggest, so many people prefer to go through their lives semiconscious and they end up in a terrible panic because they've wasted so much. But being as self-aware, as awake, as open to various experience will produce a better society and a more intelligent self-government …
Source: Matthew C. Roudaneé, "A Playwright Speaks: An Interview with Edward Albee," in Critical Essays on Edward Albee, edited by Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison Davis, G. K. Hall, 1986, pp. 193-99.
Nicholas Canaday Jr.
In the following essay, Canaday explores Albee's The American Dream as a dramatic catalogue of typical responses to the basic assumption that modern life has no meaning. Unlike traditional interpretations of this play, however, Canaday argues that it offers some positive responses to this anxiety.
The many varieties of probings in and around the center of life in our time—whether sociological, philosophical, religious, or literary—are so well known by now that terms like "anguish" and "estrangement" and "nothingness" have become, if not household words, at least basic to the jargon of the academy. Edward Albee's The American Dream is what might be called a textbook case of the response of the American drama to this existential vacuum, and at the same time this play of 1961 is perhaps our best example of what has come to be known as the "theatre of the absurd." Thus The American Dream is appearing with increasing frequency in the drama anthologies and the American literature survey texts. By means of caricature and the comic irrelevancy of its language the play mirrors the meaninglessness of American life. The Young Man, who appears on stage near the end of the play, is the symbol of the American Dream, beautiful in appearance but without real substance. He embodies Albee's view of the present extension of this familiar myth. The general critical view that "Edward Albee's plays are ferocious attacks on lethargy and complacency in American society" and "a savage denial that everything is just dandy" is supported by Albee's own remarks in his introduction to the Coward-McCann Contemporary Drama Edition of the play. Thus the void at the center of modern life is the basic assumption upon which this play rests; the action is primarily concerned with typical responses to this existential situation. It is the purpose of this essay to categorize these responses and then to offer the suggestion that in this play there are certain positive values that have thus far been overlooked by critics. It seems to me that such values are implied in the absurd world of The American Dream, even though the center has gone out of life, all forms are smashed, and—to coin a cliché—God is dead.
The first type of response is represented in the play by Daddy. His attitude is fatalistic. In his opening speech, as he and Mommy are vaguely awaiting the arrival of "them"—whether Mrs. Barker, the Van Man, or just for something to happen—he answers Mommy's remark that "they" are late: "That's the way things are today, and there's nothing you can do about it." From the very beginning Daddy's tone is resigned, particularly in contrast to the whining, griping qualities in the complaints of Mommy. Even when Daddy goes on to list the needed repairs to icebox, doorbell, and toilet, it is clear that he really does not expect to get anything done about them. "That's the way things are today," he says, "You just can't get satisfaction."
Both ineffectualness and resignation have so reinforced each other in Daddy's character that "Oh dear; oh dear" becomes his typical reaction to whatever happens. The past is meaningless to him; he cannot even recall the name of the son they had adopted some years before. After Mrs. Barker has been present for some time on stage and then leaves, Daddy cannot recall her name; and when Mommy sends him off to break Grandma's television set, he cannot even find her room. His resignation seems to be due to the meaninglessness of his life and to his subjection to the dominating presence of Mommy. His response to this domination, like everything else he does, is characterized by a typical lack of resolution: "I do wish I weren't surrounded by women; I'd like some men around here." His only defense against Mommy is to withdraw into his own empty world, pretending to listen to her and responding just enough to keep her satisfied, which of course is all that she requires. There is nothing in life he wants anymore: "I just want to get it over with."
Mommy represents a second characteristic response to the void of modern life. She is a fanatic, who seeks to manipulate and dominate people in order to get her own "satisfaction." Heedless of the opinions or feelings of others, she is capable of casual cruelty (as when she tells Daddy she has the right to live off him because she married him and is entitled to his money when he dies) or nauseating flattery (as when she praises Daddy's firm masculinity in an attempt to make him get rid of Grandma)—capable of any means to attain her own ends. When she tells of her shopping expedition to purchase a hat, she makes it clear that her method of dealing with people is to create such an unpleasant scene that she finally has her way. By throwing hats around and screaming as loudly as she can she finally manages to get "satisfaction." The rest of the play demonstrates how she practices this method.
Mommy's treatment of everyone is imperious and demanding. Her attacks on Daddy show a ruthless disregard for his personality, and her relationship with Grandma is one long terrible scene of cruel bullying insult. She rages at Grandma, alternately telling her that she has nothing to say or that she is a liar. She threatens to hide Grandma's teeth, break her television, and send her away. This last embarrasses Daddy, who would rather not think about it. But Grandma refuses to be bullied by the woman that Grandma herself had warned Daddy not to marry because she was "a tramp and a trollop and a trull to boot." Grandma regards her as not having improved any with age. Mommy responds angrily that Grandma is her mother, not Daddy's, but Mommy fails to break up whatever relationship there is between Grandma and Daddy.
At the end of the play Mommy is quite pleased to have the Young Man waiting on her as a servant might. She sends him to fetch sauterne to celebrate their new family relationship, and he certainly will provide no resistance to her aggressiveness. She orders everyone to take a glass and drink to "satisfaction," which they all do as the play ends.
Mrs. Barker represents a third response to the existential vacuum. Her thoughts and actions are based not upon any principle or principles she holds within herself, for she has none. Instead she is a sensitive weather vane constantly seeking to align herself with the opinions of others and especially sensitive to the ideas (insofar as she knows what they are) Page 19 | Top of Article of the various groups with which she is associated. Mrs. Barker represents a collectivistic response to absurdity, although not in the political sense. She is rather a kind of caricature of the other-directed person. From the beginning of the play Mrs. Barker is identified as a representative of organizations. She participates in Responsible Citiziens Activities, Good Works, the Ladies Auxiliary Air Raid Committee, the Woman's Club, and of course the Bye-Bye Adoption Service, which explains her presence on stage. She announces when she first appears that she is a "professional woman"—that is to say an organization woman—and then reveals that she has been listening outside the door before coming in. This bit of eavesdropping allows her to blend into the conversation as soon as she enters, because she knows who is in the room and the tone of their remarks. In this way she avoids offending anyone. As it happens, Daddy has had a change of heart about sending Grandma away just before Mrs. Barker enters, and since she may be the person coming to get Grandma, he wishes aloud that Mrs. Barker might now just go away. Mrs. Barker's answer is characteristic: "Oh no; we're much too efficient for that." She represents an efficient organization and carefully chooses to have no view on the matter for herself.
Mrs. Barker is a caricature of amiability, ignoring the inconsistencies that arise when she agrees with everyone in turn. She talks enthusiastically about this "jolly family," as she calls it, finds their stories "engrossing" or "gripping," and exclaims several times about the "good idea" or the "nice idea" that someone had. In the end she remarks how glad she is that they are all pleased with the solution to their problem, a solution which has actually been engineered by Grandma. On three separate occasions in the dialogue Mrs. Barker takes contradictory positions on both sides of an argument. In effect, her method is to agree with the last speaker. When she and Mommy are talking about Woman Love in the country, the chief exponent of the movement seems to be Mrs. Barker's dear brother with his dear little wife, and Mrs. Barker agrees that the national tendency to hate women is deplorable. Just after that Daddy makes his complaint about being surrounded by women and wanting the companionship of men, and Mrs. Barker enthusiastically agrees with him. Later the question arises whether Mommy is being polite enough to Mrs. Barker. She allows Mommy to persuade her of her good will, but as soon as Mommy leaves the room she agrees with Grandma that Mommy is mistreating her as a guest in the house. Finally, when confronted with the Young Man, who may be about to take Grandma away. Mrs. Barker says indignantly: "How dare you cart this poor old woman away!" But when he answers that he is paid to do it, Mrs. Barker says: "Well, you're quite right, of course, and I shouldn't meddle." Such confrontations show Mrs. Barker's shallowness and within her an element of fear that makes her so quick to please.
When she is asked a direct question, even about a simple matter, Mrs. Barker becomes pathetic. After Grandma has arranged for Mrs. Barker to introduce the Young Man into the family, Grandma asks Mrs. Barker if this has helped her accomplish her mission. It has helped, of course, because she has had no idea of what to do or even why she is there. When she accepts the credit for the "happy" ending from Mommy, she does it in the name of "professional women," so in a sense she does not claim to have solved the problem herself. About the usefulness of Grandma's assistance, however, she says: "I can't tell, yet. I'll have to … what is the word I want? … I'll have to relate it … that's it … I'll have to relate it to certain things that I know, and … draw … conclusions." What Mrs. Barker knows, when she knows anything at all, is the opinion of others, the rules of the various organizations, the collective mind of any group, however small, with which she comes in contact. Without such knowledge she is completely unable to respond even on a trivial subject. It is no wonder that at one point in the play she remarks pathetically: "But … I feel so lost … not knowing why I'm here." Is it possible that her name characterizes her? Could she be a barker for a cheap show, an amiable front woman who represents those inside the seductive but shaky tent of consensus?
It is to Grandma—the most appealing character in Albee's play—that we must look for a positive response to the existential vacuum. Although there seems to be no solution in the cosmic sense to the absurdity of our world, there is at least a way to make this world bearable. Among the commentators on the play there is general critical agreement that Grandma stands apart from the other characters. One critic writes: "The characters are dehumanized types, Page 20 | Top of Article played in a mannered, marionette style—except Grandma, who is honest and therefore a real person." Another critic relates her to the American Dream motif: "Grandma is an anachronism: she represents the solid pioneer stock out of which the American Dream might have come had it not been corrupted instead." Having said these things, however, few critics see in Grandma or in the play generally any positive values applicable to the present. According to one writer, Albee "imparts no sense of a cure, the knowledge of paths toward enlargement, not the diminution of life." The observation has also been made that Albee "attempts to satirize a situation which he sees as both painful and irremediable," and thus his work is "largely a negation of the possibility of meaningful human action." Such lack of hope for the future is also reflected in this comment: "Sadly, however, we cannot say that Albee's outlook produces any … hope. As he perceives the future, he can see only annihiliation, performed by a devouring world." One critic demurs by observing that Albee's "harshly satirical stance presupposes positive sense and meaning." This critic does not spell out precisely what the meaning is, but perhaps there are positive values implicit in this play, and, if so, we must turn to an analysis of the character of Grandma to find them.
The first positive value that Grandma represents is one of attitude. She is realistic; she has a sense of her own freedom and especially of her own dignity. Amid all the whining and sighing her most characteristic speech is cheerful: "How do you like them apples?" Her attitude is tinged with cynicism in her present situation, but this is a necessary antidote to the more than slight nausea we feel about the relationship between Mommy and Daddy. Even in her first comic entrance Grandma maintains her dignity. To Mommy's question about the boxes she is carrying Grandma replies: "That's nobody's damn business." One of her early speeches concerns the sense of dignity that is so important: " … that's all that's important … a sense of dignity. You got to have a sense of dignity, even if you don't care, 'cause if you don't have that, civilization's doomed." We see dignity in Grandma when she responds to Mommy's threats. "You don't frighten me," she says, "I'm too old to be frightened."
There is value also in Grandma's realistic attitude. She says that she is a "muddleheaded old woman," but the fact is that she sees more clearly than anyone else in the play. Through her the audience learns why Mommy married Daddy and much about their present relationship. Through Grandma we learn about Daddy's disillusionment with Mommy and with marriage, and of course the whole story of their adoption of a son years before is told by Grandma to Mrs. Barker. In three separate speeches Grandma gives a realistic picture of old age, yet manages at the same time to retain her own dignity. She knows about the threat of the Van Man who may take her away—whether he is the keeper of an old folks' home or Death itself—and when Mommy begins to talk about his arrival, Grandma says contemptuously, "I'm way ahead of you." The fact is that she is far ahead of all the other characters in the play.
Still another value is in Grandma's enjoyment of living. She apparently has lived a full and pleasant life, although we are given few details. But the good is enjoying the experience of life, which she has done. The things she has collected in her boxes, "a few images, a little garbled by now," do provide comedy, but the old letters, the blind Pekinese, the television set—even the Sunday teeth—all of which she thinks of sadly, indicate that she did enjoy life in the past. This cannot be said of any of the others. Some of Grandma's old spirit is revealed as she greets with appreciation the Young Man. She is the only one who knows the essential vacuity of the Young Man, but she can still enjoy his handsome, muscular appearance with an honest pleasure unlike that of the simperingly coy Mommy. "My, my, aren't you something!" Grandma says to the Young Man. And later she adds with a characteristic view of herself: "You know, if I were about a hundred and fifty years younger I could go for you."
Most important, however, Grandma is the only one in the play who shows a creative response to life. It is not merely that she makes plans, sees them carried out, and thus significantly exercises a freedom that the others do not. The baking contest represents Grandma's plan by which she intends to escape her dependence on Mommy and Daddy, and its $25,000 prize enables her to do just that at the end of the play. This in itself is significant enough compared to the aimless activities of Mommy, Daddy, and Mrs. Barker. But Grandma also is a kind of creative artist in her own way. Mommy Page 21 | Top of Article tells how Grandma used to wrap the lunch boxes that Mommy took to school as a little girl, wrap them so nicely, as she puts it, that it would break her heart to open them. Grandma did this in spite of the poverty of the family. There is much comic nonsense in this story as Mommy tells it, but it also points to a creativity only partly suppressed. Certainly Grandma's use of language and her comments about language reveal another creative response to life. In general the comic irrelevance of the language mirrors the meaninglessness of life and demonstrates especially that language as gesture has replaced language as communication. For Grandma, however, language does serve to communicate, and her comments on style are both amusing and significant. Mommy tries to imitate her, but Grandma scornfully points out Mommy's failure to achieve harmony of rhythm and content.
Finally, another kind of creativity is shown in the way Grandma provides the resolution of the play by suggesting to Mrs. Barker what to do about the Young Man and by prompting the Young Man about taking a place in the family. Having arranged all this, Grandma steps outside of the set, addresses herself to the audience, and as a kind of stage manager observes the "happy" ending she has created. It is happy because, as she says, "everybody's got what he thinks he wants." She is satisfied: "Well, I guess that just about wraps it up. I mean, for better or worse, this is a comedy, and I don't think we'd better go any further." Life may have a void at its center, but perhaps how you wrap it up—one recalls the lunch boxes—has in itself a value.
Thus Albee's The American Dream makes the assumption that the dream is hollow and shows the causes and symptoms of a sick society. Through comic caricature it reveals three desperate responses to the existential vacuum, and then it goes on to do one thing more. In the character of Grandma the play suggests that whatever meaning is possible is achieved through an attitude of courageous realism that can enable man to conduct himself with dignity, through the simple enjoyment of whatever experience can be enjoyed, and through the creative act of the artist.
Source: Nicholas Canaday Jr., "Albee's The American Dream and the Existential Vacuum," in South Central Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter 1966, pp. 28-34.
Adams, Herbert R., "Albee, the Absurdists, and High School English?" in the English Journal, Vol. 55, No. 8, November 1966, pp. 1045-48.
Albee, Edward, The American Dream, in Two Plays by Edward Albee: The American Dream and The Zoo Story, Signet, 1961, pp. 57-127.
Bigsby, C. W. E., Modern American Drama, 1945-2000, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 128-29.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Edward Albee, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Canaday, Nicholas, Jr., "Albee's The American Dream and the Existential Vacuum," in the South Central Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter 1966, pp. 28-34.
Edemariam, Aida, "Whistling in the Dark," in the Guardian, January 10, 2004, p. 2.
Gussow, Mel, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Hirsch, Foster, Who's Afraid of Edward Albee? Creative Arts, 1978, p. 18.
Kolin, Philip C., ed., Conversations with Edward Albee, University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
Mayberry, Bob, Theatre of Discord: Dissonance in Beckett, Albee, and Pinter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.
Stenz, Anita Maria, Edward Albee: The Poet of Loss, Mouton, 1978.
Taubman, Howard, "The Theatre: Albee's The American Dream," in the New York Times, January 25, 1961, p. 28.
Bottoms, Stephen, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
An overwhelmingly valuable resource, this volume of scholarly essays and interviews is meticulously researched, comprehensive in its scope, and wide reaching in its grasp of the subtleties and significances of this body of complex work.
Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Vintage, 2004.
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Even four decades after its original publication, Esslin's groundbreaking study still reads as insightfully and provocatively as ever. In many ways this is the book that marked the emergence of a new type of theater whose major figures shattered dramatic conventions and paid little if any attention to psychological realism. In 1961, Esslin coined the phrase "Theatre of the Absurd," giving a name to the phenomenon of plays that dramatize the absurdity at the core of the human condition.
Gottdiener, Mark, The Theming of America: American Dreams, Media Fantasies, and Themed Environments, Westview Press, 2001.
The Theming of America takes Albee's thesis from The American Dream and extends it into a readable and engaging exploration of the nature of social and cultural change in America since the 1960s. Moving from discussions of Graceland and Dollywood to commentaries on Las Vegas and the local mall, Gottdiener shows how modern Americans cannot escape the profusion of recognizable symbols and signs attached to virtually all aspects of their culture.
Mann, Bruce, Edward Albee: A Casebook, Routledge, 2002.
A relatively short collection of scholarly and critical essays, this volume is remarkable for the consistently high level of writing and the determined innovation that it brings to the discussion of Albee's plays.