Edward Albee's Domestic Animals

After a Flurry of Productions, a Critical Look at an American Master

Edward Albee has made a career of getting people's goats. This season he notoriously took the task more literally than usual. Not content to merely indulge his inexhaustible talent for invective, his current Broadway drama, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, brings bestiality contentiously into the drawing room. As always with Albee, the reviewers have been sharply divided, issuing everything from gushing encomiums to ballistic attacks. Few, however, have fallen into the moralizing trap set for them. The Goat's naysayers have complained that the playwright was, if anything, too chary with his taboo subject. More animal eroticism, not less, was the surprising cry. Welcome as such broadmindedness is, it doesn't make the task of evaluating his work any less tricky. Though the past two years have seen two major new plays (The Play About the Baby being the other), one minor piece (Occupant), and two major revivals (Tiny Alice and All Over), the critical dissension has only grown more beastly.

As much a social provocateur as an aesthete, Albee's split personality complicates matters for those reckoning with the conspicuous assets and liabilities of his dramatic imagination. Nowhere is this more true than with The Goat."Testing the tolerance of the audience" is how the author himself has described the play. Yet his proposed subtitle for publication, Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy, suggests a less crusading mission. Given that Western theater was founded on plays dealing with cannibalism, reproductive incest, and parricide, let's leave aside for a moment the shock value of interspecies sex, daring though it undeniably is for Broadway. The more contested issue—and the one that reaffirms Albee's ability to shake a theater season out of its doldrums—is whether this latest zoo story rises to the occasion of genuine tragedy.

The Goat focuses on a 50-year-old architect whose seemingly perfect domestic life is shattered by the revelation that he's having an extramarital affair with a shameless livestock hussy named Sylvia. Martin, played with unyielding dignity by Bill Pullman, is a character whose lofty attributes put him squarely into the tragic-hero club. Smarter and better-looking than most, he's the epitome of the American success story, a Pritzker Prize-winning architect who's been recently commissioned to design a $27 billion "World City" in Kansas. Not much in the way of action, however, is required of him. Unlike, say, Oedipus or Orestes, Martin neither has to investigate the root cause of a plague nor revenge his father's murder. Instead, he has only to explain to his best friend, wife, and son the nature of his barnyard dalliance. On second thought, perhaps Oedipus and Orestes get off easy.

Despite the gravity of Martin's crisis, The Goat has a decidedly boulevard ring, with laugh lines carrying the burden of the author's Euripidean ambition. The tension between form and content isn't always tonic. Divided into the three living-room scenes, the play begins in the manner of a sophisticated domestic comedy—one in which husband and wife parody Noël Coward characters in romantic crisis, and everyone tries to top each other in an increasingly annoying game of semantic hairsplitting. Albee clearly wants to begin with a recognizable (albeit idealized) domestic setting—the perfect bull's-eye for life's wrecking ball. The comfortably familiar atmosphere, however, leads to a comfortably familiar dramaturgy. Reality rarely visibly intrudes onto this realistic world. We are treated merely to one-liner reports of the unspeakable from the safety of a well-heeled suburban bunker.

In this respect The Goat shares similarities with A Delicate Balance, Albee's 1966 Pulitzer-winning drama exploring tragic intimations among characters huddled around a living-room bar. The setup here involves a husband and wife who seek cover in the bedroom of their closest friends' adult daughter, who unexpectedly returns home after another failed marriage to find that her place has been usurped. Scant reason is offered for the older couple's fugitive freeloading: "There was nothing . . . but we were very scared." Dread as a cozy abstraction, in other words—a situation as paradigmatic in Albee as cocktail sniper chat.

Even more prototypical, however, is the figure of a lost or mutilated child, which recurs in Albee's writing as a half-remembered memory of life's inevitable harsh truth. Even Tobias and Agnes, the besieged middle-aged hosts in A Delicate Balance, are mourning the death of their young son, though their grief is dimly experienced through the screen of years. Leave it to the psychoanalysts to connect the autobiographical dots with Albee's own adoption as an infant. Suffice it to say that the loss is often parodied (The American Dream, 1961) or revealed as a sham (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1962) or turned into a vaudevillian hat trick (The Play About the Baby, 2001). A Delicate Balance transmutes the old anguish over the dead boy into the vague worry that "the delicate balance" of a plush if emotionally uncommitted existence will be upset.

It can be argued that Albee isn't dramatizing the inescapable facts of our human condition, but rather the way we sidestep them with booze, bickering, and blinkered illusions. But if this is the case, then the playwright is guilty of a kind of imitative fallacy, as his dramas skirt the existential abyss as agilely as his characters. Even The Goat—which takes up the ancient theme of Eros's capricious power to wreak havoc—ultimately flinches from the primal screams that pour out of destroyed wife Stevie (played by the formidable Mercedes Ruehl) in the crockery-busting middle scene. Albee turns away, in effect, from what is most poignant about his drama: Martin really had found his perfect human mate, and their years together had been a mutual blessing. But rather than pursuing the tragic costs and meanings, the final deflective movement involves gay son Billy making a distraught pass at his reviled daddy. This daring act necessitates a progressive critique of the way society overreacts to wayward sexual impulses, which is aimed at the buttinsky best friend and punctuated by a slain goat in a body bag. Tragedy, like history, seems to repeat as farce.

Albee's impressive comic instinct (no American playwright writes domestic combat with the same linguistic vigor) has always been at odds with his shaky philosophical ambition. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is memorable not for the phony symbolic significance larded onto Martha and George (as the archetypal American couple or harbingers of Western civilization's decay), but for the robust wit and ferocity with which they tear into each other. Second Stage's recent revival of Tiny Alice(1964), Albee's ponderous foray into metaphysics, only confirmed the long-held critical verdict of "metafuzzical." Andy Warhol's opinion of the play, "I liked it because it was so empty," captures the central Albee paradox: His plays command attention not because of their profound depths but because of the extraordinary vitality of their surfaces.

This is not to accuse Albee of superficiality. (If only that were the case sometimes!) It's just that his work registers more on the theatrical than intellectual level. The Play About the Baby mattered less for its diagrammatically played-out moral ("If you have no wounds, how can you know you're alive?") than for the vamping, vampire-like monologues Albee composed for his brilliant co-stars, Marian Seldes and Brian Murray. Veteran actors like Rosemary Harris (appearing in June in the Roundabout's revival of All Over, Albee's neglected 1971 chamber play) understand better than any critic the priceless frisson of his lancing dialogue, not to mention the way he raises quotidian conflicts to household earthquakes.

What distinguishes the best of the so-called Absurdist playwrights (Beckett, Pinter, Genet) is their ability to create dramatic images whose dense metaphorical power resists conclusive interpretation. This isn't Albee's strength. His most fully realized work, Three Tall Women(1991), suggests that the secret of his theatrical effectiveness (and hence wisdom) lies in the battering of cruelty and kindness—or what Jerry in The Zoo Story (1959) calls "the teaching emotions." Writing in the grinding teeth of loss, Albee ingeniously constructs a fictionalized portrait of his adoptive mother—arrogant, bitter, irreparably wounded by life, yet unrelenting in her futile struggle not to succumb to weakness. In short, a woman whose zestful, at times even repugnant, contradictions augment awareness of the proximity of our most intense and seemingly disparate feelings.

Unlike The Goat, we are not detoured from the human aftermath by editorializing and grand gestures. Instead we coddle and cringe with the old woman's two female assistants (who later become her alter egos), while we witness her bereaved son silently expend his grief over her stricken body. Here Albee, who like the Young Man in The American Dream has had difficulty in seeing others "with pity, with affection . . . with anything but . . . a cool disinterest," uses his own conflicted suffering to traverse the autistic boundary that separates us—human or otherwise—from not only each other but ourselves. The hidden depths are transposed to the surface, and finally we're given a glimpse of the real heartbreaking terror we've been fighting all along.

Albee's recent work may have reverted to more detached manipulations, but The Goathas within its sitcom numbness a few patches of tenderness that could only emerge from a heart ripened by the sense of loss permeating Three Tall Women. Fortunately, this elder statesman of the American theater is in prolific form—an auspicious sign that the future might contain more than just the old annihilating gusto.

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