Monday, 24 September 2012

Edward Albee: The Zoo Story

Spoilers for Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story

Loneliness and the madness of loneliness. The meek, enduring reader and the acerbic, pushy suicide. The impossibility of communication between men. The failure of a man to communicate with a dog. The deadly duel for the ownership of a park bench. The story of a man totally unfit for living with human beings. The calculated plan to bring an ordinary man to a state of imbecility. The unfinished story of what happened at the zoo. Of course I’m talking about Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.

Although playwrights Dario Fo and Václav Havel supply me with the political exposés I love, I seek in Edward Albee the insights about those intimate and strange details that constitute our personalities, public and private. Fo and Havel work in the public sphere of denunciation: the evils of capitalism and communism, the way religion and bureaucracy become political instruments to enforce power and status quo, the need to resist, and if resistance is impossible, to ridicule the enemy. Albee prefers to take head on the whole of humanity in his plays. That’s not to say Fo and Havel don’t write great plays, literature of the highest calibre. Perhaps Albee could never write Accidental Death of an Anarchist or The Memorandum. But then again, Fo and Havel never created characters like Peter and Jerry.

Peter is a middle-aged family man working in publishing who sits on the same bench in Central Park every Sunday afternoon to read in peace. On this particular day, Jerry, a man in his thirties, shows up and slowly proceeds to disrupt Peter’s simple life with this ominous sentence, “I’ve been to the zoo. I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” The theme of lack of communication is established in this first line, when Jerry has to shout at Peter to get his attention. Peter either doesn’t listen to him or politely ignores him. The bench is his personal retreat from his life and family. Jerry, however, insists until he gets his attention, that is to say, captures him in his inescapable net of insanity.

Peter, far more passive than the rude and in-your-face Jerry, submits to his talk, or rather intrusive inquiries into his life. He just wants to talk, he explains to Peter, “really talk; like to get to know somebody; know all about him.” But they don’t talk. Jerry harasses him with personal questions. Jerry, we quickly understand, lacks social skills or whatever we call those essential skills to not really say what we want to say all the time. He tests the patience of Peter, who, it must be said, puts up with him. Jerry doesn’t have that inhibition that prevents people from saying the truth all the time. Perhaps that’s inaccurate, since we can’t be sure if half the things he says are true or made up. What he lacks is the ability to be courteous. Having an interlocutor who is full frontal is problematic if he happens to be deeply disturbed. In life we like to say that we appreciate honesty, that we like direct people. In truth we like manners. Usually people who say what goes on in their mind are called rude or inconsiderate. Consider for instance Jerry’s thoughts about Peter smoking a pipe, as soon as the two meet:

Jerry: Well, boy; you’re not going to get lung cancer, are you?
Peter: No, sir. Not from this.
Jerry: No, sir. What you’ll probably get is cancer of the mouth, and then you’ll have to wear one of those things Freud wore after they took one whole side of his jaw away.

His interrogation gets even more personal and abrasive: about Peter’s family, his sexual habits, his income. Tricked by his own politeness and lack of assertiveness to impose his will on Jerry, Peter has no option but to endure his increasingly-personal questions:

Jerry: I bet you’ve got a TV, uh?
Peter: Why yes, we have two; one for the children.
Jerry: You’re married!
Peter: Why, certainly.
Jerry: It isn’t a law, for God’s sake.
Peter: No, no, of course not.
Jerry: And you have a wife.
Peter: Yes!

It’s obvious that they’re talking but not really communicating. His inquiries continue:

Jerry: And you have children.
Peter: Yes; two.
Jerry: Boys?
Peter: No, girls… both girls.
Jerry: But you wanted boys.
Peter: Well… naturally, every man wants a son, but…

Peter manages to lamely reply to Jerry that his personal life is “none of your business” but Jerry’s too calm and too much in control to let Peter upset him. He’s like a predator in search of a prey and Peter is it. And although Jerry repeats to Peter that he’s free to walk away if he doesn’t want to talk to him, Peter stays seated. After dissecting Peter’s home life he proceeds to tell him about himself, of his life in a seedy apartment in a building full of wretched characters. The details are too many to post here but Peter concisely defines them like this: “It’s so… unthinkable. I find it hard to believe that people such as that really are.” “It’s for reading about, isn’t it?” Jerry sarcastically quips.

Peter is a book person, an innocent. I won’t say he leads a sheltered life because I always find that insulting to ordinary people, of which I’m one after all. It’s a simple fact that people have a right, and a need, to live sheltered lives, if that means not liking to be bothered by lunatics like Jerry. A sheltered life always presupposes the arrogant view that people benefit from being exposed to evil, violence, sordidness and madness. It’s like saying people should feel bad about wanting to lead orderly, peaceful lives. So let’s say Peter is innocent, he’s polite, he seems contended, and that’s very good. Those traits make him vulnerable to Jerry, who wants a spectator to listen to his story, the THE STORY OF JERRY AND THE DOG! Jerry has a habit of shouting his lines.

In this long monologue Jerry describes his attempts at first befriending and then killing a dog that lives in his apartment building and that chases him every time it seems him come in, a “black monster of a beast.” According to Jerry, the dog is an anomaly because “animals are indifferent to me… like people.” But this dog can’t leave him alone and chases him every time he enters the building but never when he goes out. “That’s funny,” he says. “Or, it was funny. I could pack up and live in the street for all the dog cared.” First Jerry tries to suborn the dog with hamburgers. When that fails, he tries to poison him. Although he also fails at this, he achieves a small success. After the dog recovered, every time they met, they always “made contact.”

Jerry: Now, here is what I wanted to happen: I loved the dog now; and I wanted him to love me. I had tried to love, and I had tried to kill, and both had been unsuccessful by themselves. I hoped… and I don’t really know why I expected the dog to understand anything, much less my motivations… I hoped that the dog would understand.

We never know if the dog understands him. Probably not. The whole monologue is worth reading not just for the way is depicts a sad and pathetic mind in the process of peering into itself but also because of the dark humour it contains. Most of the humour is of a special nature, arising from Jerry’s inability to realise what a ridiculous person he is. Although he speaks very outrageous things, there’s no hint of irony in his words. Jerry is too earnest and literal-minded to realise the absurdity in his words. Consider for instance this simple exchange:

Peter: Now you listen to me. I’ve put up with you all afternoon.
Jerry: Not really.

The humour here comes from the fact that Jerry doesn’t read ‘all afternoon’ as one normally would, meaning “an extended amount of time,” but literally as the whole period from the first to the last minute of an afternoon, if that can even be quantified.

Jerry is a master at reprogramming Peter. One of his methods is talking to Peter calmly, as if to a child, seldom losing his patience, but showing strength when he needs to reprimand him. Another method is the silly sequence when he starts tickling Peter after he threatens to go home. The tickling is silly enough, causing Peter to become afflicted with a laughing fit. But more interesting is Peter’s threat itself; that’s just the type of experience we remember from our childhood, isn’t it? The boy who packs up his toys and leaves because he doesn’t want to play anymore. This must be the most primitive of desires when a person faces a danger, to run back to the safety of home. In a way, Jerry has already managed to turn Peter into a child.

But Jerry’s triumph is when he manages to bring Peter down to his own savage, aggressive level. After tickling Peter and leaving him receptive to another story, about “what happened at the zoo,” Peter again misses a chance to assert his will. As Jerry starts telling it, he also starts shoving Peter off his bench until Peter is on the far end of it. “I want this bench,” Jerry says. “You go sit on the bench over there, and if you’re good I’ll tell you the rest of the story.” Just as if addressing a child. Peter, finally fed up, stubbornly decides to fight for the bench, leading into the play’s tragic ending. “Defend yourself,” Jerry urges him; “defend your bench.” It’s not just a bench, it has become Peter’s life, his sense of normalcy, his self-respect. Albee does a great job showing how people imbue the most insignificant things with significance, and also how they share territorialism with animals.

The Zoo Story, as I see it in my latest reading, is about the destruction of two men: Jerry, physically, since he dies at the end, impaled on a knife he gives to Peter; and Peter, mentally, who becomes involved in the dangerous life of Jerry. Or as Jerry puts it in his hour of success, “Do you know how ridiculous you look now?” This italicised now isn’t innocent; it implies that this was Jerry’s plan all along and that he’s won, he’s succeeded in turning Peter, an ordinary man, into an idiot.

It wasn’t until my third reading of the play that I realised that Jerry’s monologue foreshadows their final confrontation. In the same way that Jerry battled with the dog over the apartment building, he now fights Peter for control of a park bench. Like with the dog, Jerry tried to establish contact with Peter. And in both cases he failed. Why he throws himself against the knife is never explained. Does he want to die because he has nothing to live for? Or is his death necessary to educate Peter, to “open up his eyes?” Is it a sacrifice? Jerry’s last words are “Oh… my… God,” uttered in scorn (according to the stage directions, not my interpretation), perhaps in mockery of Christ, who died on the cross for all men. Or was Jerry just a lunatic who caused needless mental anguish to a victim?

Written in 1958 in three weeks, rejected by New York producers, and originally staged in Berlin in 1959, The Zoo Story is Edward Albee’s first play. Readers who know Albee only from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can’t appreciate how this first play already contains so many of his themes, preoccupations and situations: the conflict between a domineering and a submissive personality; the use of animal metaphors for the human condition; the impossibility of communication, the intrusion of the absurd in the quotidian; and my personal favourite, the reduction of adults to hysterical infantile states. Albee’s won three Pulitzer Prizes, making him the most awarded American playwright after Eugene O’Neill. He was again nominated for the Pulitzer in 2001 and 2003. And his last play, Me, Myself and I (2007), is another surprising work about twins, sexuality and identity. Although after having read his entire work I can say that he has a few weak plays here and there, he’s a master playwright who’s only gotten better with time. Plays like Seascape, The Lady from Dubuque and The Play about the Baby are delightful fantasies on stage, more nightmare than dream though. Those who only know Edward Albee from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? don’t know what they’re missing.


  1. I'll say! (to your, uh, last line). Thanks for this - what a surprise to find Albee here on a Portuguese literature blog, but also a great prompt to read more of him. I read this play when I was 16 and actually tried to organize and direct a student-only production of it at my high school, which was not having any of that, thank you very much. He's just great - I saw him speak once, and he used to routinely put out these op-eds and interviews that limned American culture and politics about as well as they've ever been limned. I've not read him since The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (it's 10 years old already?!?), which I thought was funny and daring and just a barrel of discomfiting fun.

  2. I never read or seen this play.

    Your commentary make it sound extraordinary!

    It also sounds disturbing. Not just based on the description of Jerry but but the way that you describe the passiveness of Peter.

    I will need to give this a try!

  3. - seraillon, thanks for the kind words. Of course my blog isn't just about Portuguese literature, so there's nothing strange about it :)

    I didn't read Albee until I was in college, as part of my American literature studies. Obviously we read the Woolf play. A few years later I decided to check Overlook's three-volume collected plays, and that's when I really got into Albee.

    I've read some interviews; he speaks the way I always imagined him: with humor, wit, sensibility, intelligence. I'm also planning on reading his collection of essays, Stretching my Mind.

    - Brian, yes, it is an extraordinary play. And indeed it's very dark and disturbing. Albee can be very dark. In particular The Play About the Baby reads almost like a nightmare.