Edward Albee

By Toby Zinman


Copyright © 2008University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09919-1

Chapter One

Peter and Jerry: "Homelife" and The Zoo Story

The Zoo Story, written in 1958, launched Albee's career. And in 2004, nearly half a century later, he would premiere its first act, called "Homelife," adding an umbrella title, Peter and Jerry, to the whole work. Albee has indicated that in the future he wants The Zoo Story to be performed with this new first act-an immense requirement, considering the frequency with which this classic of the American canon is performed, not to mention the number of anthologies that include The Zoo Story as a free-standing play. In this revisiting process, Albee has trimmed the famous script slightly and has updated a few details (i.e., Peter's salary has gone up from eighteen thousand dollars in the original to two hundred thousand dollars, and microwave ovens have been added to the inventory of bourgeois equipment in Peter's apartment).

The Zoo Story opens with Peter, a textbook editor, reading on a bench in Central Park. He is soon joined by Jerry, who tells him bizarre stories about himself, his lewd landlady, and her ferocious dog, whom he tries first to befriend and then to kill. The meeting of the two men will, unlike the meeting of man and dog, have fatal consequences.

The script describes Peter as "a man in his early forties, neither fat nor gaunt, neither handsome nor homely." The description in "Homelife" calls for a Peter who is "bland; not heavy; pleasant, if uninteresting looking. Tidy; circumspect." It is odd that the descriptions are not identical, since, after all it is the same character and the same day; it is also odd that "circumspect" is not a physical description. But the point is, of course, that Peter is a type, not a person: nondescript, tweedy, and timid. This makes it all the more surprising that Albee told the New York Times, "I always thought that there was more to the character of Peter. He was seen by many audiences through the eyes of Jerry. I think people will find him now more sympathetic and understandable" (Zinoman, E2). As testimony to Albee's ongoing interest in his first play, he wrote a variation on it called Another Part of the Zoo for a private showing at a benefit function in 1981.

In retroactively developing Peter's character, "Homelife" gives us an opening scene in his conventionally tasteful Upper East Side apartment (in the Hartford Stage premiere production this included a blooming orchid plant on a glass-topped coffee table, an oriental carpet, discreet pictures on the walls). When his wife, Ann, walks in, dish towel in hand, saying, "We should talk," he doesn't reply; he doesn't even look up. She exits with dish towel. A few beats later, he suddenly registers what he has heard and says, "What? We should what?"

As anybody who has ever been in a relationship knows-or as anybody who has ever watched an Albee play about marriage recognizes-this is one of those "uh-oh" moments, which is the perfect place to start a play. It is also a funny line, metatheatrically, since Albee's plays are almost all talk, and "We should talk" is an amusingly self-reflexive announcement of the play's beginning.

Much of what transpires in "Homelife" could have been imagined by readers or spectators of The Zoo Story: we see the civility, the orderly domesticity, the feminized quality (wife, two daughters, two cats) of Peter's life. What we find out is the question most American plays seek to answer: How did this character get that way? It is all backstory, although the modest triumph of this first-act addition is that "Homelife" transcends the merely expository function.

In the Hartford Stage premiere production, the acts were tied together in interesting ways: Peter's wife slaps him-to her and his surprise-and in act 2, Jerry slaps him on the same cheek. He sits on the sofa in the apartment exactly where he will sit in act 2 on the park bench, both times absorbed in his book. Ann will do most of the talking in act 1, just as Jerry does most of the talking in act 2. Similar blocking and the pacing is another of the ways a director may stitch the two acts together.

One of the questions always hovering over The Zoo Story is why Peter, who is, after all, a New Yorker and therefore presumably used to defending himself against peculiar and talkative strangers, stays and listens to Jerry, and what makes him receptive to this disagreeable man who mocks his lack of sons, his bourgeois lifestyle, and his deficiency of "animal" manhood. "Homelife" answers by showing us why Peter is so vulnerable on this Sunday afternoon. Thus, the new first act shows us not only his bourgeois, materialistic life (which might make any bookish, liberal New Yorker feel slightly defensive), but, far more important, shows us his wife's sexual frustration. Albee's plays have grown increasingly preoccupied with sexuality, as both crucial to a person's life and an accurate gauge of vitality. Anne reveals her longing for a life more adventurous and passionate than the "calm seas and prosperous voyage" that defines her marriage. The dangers of safety have been a strong, recurrent Albee theme, and we see now why Peter, indicted both by his wife and by himself, psychologically undefended as he leaves his house to go to the park, is susceptible to and gives credence to Jerry's accusations.

Specifically, we learn two important things: first, that Peter is worried about his penis "retreating," and, second, that Peter had an experience when he was in college that altered his sex life permanently. He was pledging a fraternity and at a "sex party" was encouraged to have anal sex with a girl pledging a sorority. His own sexual power and arousal carried him away, and he hurt her badly, creating a bloody scene. Since then he has practiced restraint, the very restraint that has made him a tender but unexciting lover, as he learns (and we learn) from his wife's wistful complaints.

Ann is described as "38 ... Tall, a bit angular; pleasant-looking, unexceptional." Her bland appearance suggests that Ann and Peter are a well-matched couple. Jerry says that Peter is "a richly comic person," but we feel this is sarcasm or irony; Ann, on the other hand, is genuinely funny:

ANN. Before I married you my mother said to me, "Why ever would you want to marry a man publishes textbooks?"

PETER. (Smiles) She did not.

ANN. Well, she could have, and maybe she did. "Why ever would you want to marry a man publishes textbooks?" "Gee, Ma, I don't know-seems like fun."

PETER. I thought your family liked me.

ANN. They do. "He's a good solid man," Dad said. I've told you this. "None of this ... fly by night fiction stuff."

PETER. (Laughs) "Fly by night." What does that mean? Bats? And how does it relate to fiction?

ANN. I made it up. He never said it. Look it up. (7)

His literal turn of mind shows in his responses over and over; for example, when Ann pretends to be an obstetrician delivering the son they never had (another phantom Albee baby), saying ,"Well, Sir, that's a fine bouncing baby boy you've got there!" Peter replies, "I've never understood 'bouncing'. They don't ... bounce it, do they? To see if ..." (32).

During their conversation about Ann's insomnia, we register her dismay when she discovers he has always known about her sleeplessness but has never worried about her state of mind or inquired as to why she gets out of bed. Her taunting but specifically "not accusatory" suggestions-that she could go out into the street and scream, or strip and lie down and "spread [her] legs to the night" are met with a deprecatory smile and a "No; you wouldn't." His error comes from his complacent explanation as to why he has never followed her in her predawn wanderings: "Enough to know it doesn't matter, that there's nothing wrong." But of course there is something wrong.

After a bizarre conversation about her breasts and his circumcision, she remarks, "It's not your subject."

PETER. What?

ANN. Sex stuff.

PETER. No; I guess not.

ANN. (An assessment, but not unkind) Mr. Circumspection. (28)

This last wry appraisal picks up the word "circumspect" from Albee's original description of Peter in The Zoo Story.

When they return to the opening gambit-Ann's feeling they "should talk," Peter assumes she had nothing "important," or "threatening" or "terrible" in mind. Ann says, "And we don't have that, do we?" Peter replies with a sigh, "No. But-as you say-we're probably going to, one day." This is clearly the moment that foreshadows The Zoo Story, in which the "threatening" and the "terrible" do indeed occur. And rather too explicitly, she will later say, "But where's the ... the rage, the ... animal? [...] Why don't we behave like that ... like beasts?! [...] we're too ... civilized?" (48). And after she hears his story of the fraternity party, the easy cause-and-effect of his sexual restraint, she tells him, "That must be what I wanted-a little ... disorder around here, a little ... chaos" (57).

Exit Peter to read in Central Park. Enter Jerry and chaos when, after intermission, The Zoo Story begins.

Chapter Two

The Zoo Story

As a way of explaining his circuitous route to Central Park, Jerry tells Peter, "Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly" (1:21). This cryptic line seems a perfect explanation for the odd fact that The Zoo Story premiered in Berlin in 1959.

In The Zoo Story, Jerry starts a conversation with Peter that becomes more and more intense and unnerving as he describes his repulsive landlady, her belligerent dog (which he tries first to befriend and then to murder), and the other marginalized denizens of the zoolike tenement he lives in as a "permanent transient," a phrase more descriptive of an existential condition than an address. The zoo is the play's central symbol, the place where wild creatures are confined, where bars separate the animals from each other and from the people watching, "But, if it's a zoo, that's the way it is" (1:34). By extension, the thin walls of the tenement building function in much the same way, and the invisible bars that separate people from people extend the metaphor to the world as we live in it, the cages we all inhabit, whether the bars are socioeconomic or political, emotional or psychological. Consider, too, the self-reflexive notion that theater itself is zoolike: audiences are separated from the actors on stage, and we watch the creatures who perform for our entertainment, passively observing the lives they enact, often with a sense of superiority and the security of distance.

It is curious to note that the same image of the zoo occurs in Arthur Miller's All My Sons, written a dozen years earlier; near the end of that play, Chris, desperately arguing with his fianc��e about his father's immoral decision to ship damaged goods during the war, a decision that saved his business and killed many young pilots, tells her of his horror at what postwar society has become: "This is the land of the great big dogs, you don't love a man here, you eat him! That's the principle; the only one we live by-it just happened to kill a few people this time, that's all. The world's that way, how can I take it out on him? What sense does that make? This is a zoo, a zoo!" (66). Miller's morality is more stridently expressed than Albee's, but the same protest informs both plays, expressed in the same zoo image: the collapse of a vital American community under the weight of materialism, the betrayal of the social contract, and the consequent damage to the human spirit.

The fundamental characteristic of bourgeois society is ownership, and Jerry's challenge of Peter's claim to the bench is the catalystic event. Jerry finally shoves Peter off the bench, challenging him to fight for it, tossing him a knife. When Peter, stunned and terrified, holds the knife out to ward Jerry off, Jerry impales himself on it and Peter runs away saying, "Oh my God."

The great question of the play remains: what happens when Peter goes home? Of course, if Albee had written a sequel instead of a prequel, our interpretive pleasures would be ruined. It is the very multivalence of the play's meaning, the suggestive provocations of the script, that keep this play freshly shocking. Audience members may still walk out in self-protective disgust or confusion.

Following are some interpretations of The Zoo Story a reader or theatergoer might entertain:

If we read the play as a sociopolitical critique, it is an indictment of corrupt American society where materialism instead of humanism has become the prevailing value, preferring the acquisition of stuff to expressions of love. The bench thus becomes emblematic of territory, as well as property, which, if read sociologically, suggests the "have-nots" violently displacing the "haves." Peter discovers through Jerry's guidance that bourgeois civilization is the zoo we all live in, some cages being better furnished than others; Peter discovers his own animal nature-violent and shocking-the very animal nature "Homelife" shows us he has been repressing all these years. The threatened failure of the American Dream and the consequent lethal definition of success in capitalist terms is a familiar theme in twentieth-century American drama, obvious from a consideration of the classics: Long Day's Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Fences, and True West. Since Peter is the play's neutral Everyman, he is the character the middle-class audience is most likely to identify with (in The Zoo Story, moreso than in "Homelife"-and this may be a problem in the addition of a first act, where we tend to identify and sympathize with Ann); it is thus our values that are assaulted by Jerry, and The Zoo Story becomes a cautionary tale.

If we read the play as a Christian allegory, Jerry is a Jesus figure (this can be emphasized by the director or the actor's choosing a crucified posture in death on the bench) who dies to "save" Peter. Thus Peter's exit line, "OH MY GOD!" heard offstage as a "pitiful howl" becomes resonant with meaning. This is intensified by Jerry's final line, delivered, the stage directions tell us, with "scornful mimicry and supplication" as he ends the play with "Oh ... my ... God." The biblical implications here are immense. After Jerry impales himself, Peter whispers, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God" and Jerry, in his death throes, says, "I came unto you," adding, in reversal of expectation, "and you have comforted me. Dear Peter." Peter's name now seems more significant.

If we read the play as an existential allegory, Jerry gives life meaning by choosing death, and, consequentially forces choice and thereby meaning in Peter's life; the loss of the bench suggests that Peter has been forcibly wrenched out of his comfortable, insulated life to become engag��.

If we read the play's conclusion as pessimistic, we discover that The Zoo Story demonstrates that meaningful contact between people is impossible, and that Jerry's longing is hopeless as well as preposterous. The only outcome is the "assisted suicide," and thus the entire play is a setup: Jerry was looking for someone to help him prove the impossibility of communicating with another person and the further impossibility of living a fulfilling life. This interpretation is also a way of making sense of his isolated existence, despite being surrounded by people.


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