Albee’s version of the emotional ties within a family and the behavior of Ross, Martin’s “best” friend, suggest a bleak outlook for a society that reverts to primal instincts when threatened. Could any marriage withstand the test to which Martin puts his? The Goat returns to the theme of the problems within a marriage that were brutally explored in Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr., pb. 1962), but it makes the gender warfare between the warring couples in the earlier play seem like a mere game.
Martin, the epitome of a good man, successful in every sense of the word, has ventured somehow into a place where the morals he has lived by do not matter, and he does not seem to understand why he should care. His “things happen” philosophy bespeaks a moral indifference, and, in his view, he just cannot be held accountable for his feelings or his actions in regard to Sylvia, the goat. This passion beyond reason that Martin feels for Sylvia calls into question many aspects of the life that he has been living, undermining its authenticity and creating the never-answered question of what propelled him into this carnal compensation in the first place. Acceptance of this paradox is beyond the purview of any wife, the play suggests, and, despite Martin’s previously good track record as a husband and provider, the marriage is irrevocably destroyed.
Elsewhere in this provocative play, Albee touches on familiar themes, such as the myth of the American Dream and the hypocrisy of the striving American establishment, and on issues such as homophobia and disillusionment with people in power. The fact that Martin’s gay son Billy is able to empathize with his father’s misplaced passion suggests a certain commonality in their like-father, like-son rejection of a traditional heterosexual relationship. In addition, the duplicity of Martin’s personality suggests that identity is a fluid, rather than fixed, entity, one that can shift inexplicably, without discernible cause. The Goat is a puzzle not meant to be solved, but to provoke, challenge, and shock audiences into confronting social norms that constrain human behavior and define family relationships. At the same time, open-minded viewers might also find the absurdity of the situation quite amusing.