When Edward Albee wrote The Zoo Story in 1958, it was the first play that he wrote as an adult and only the second play that he wrote in his lifetime. His only other play was a sex farce that he wrote at the age of twelve. After being passed from friend to friend, The Zoo Story traveled from New York to Florence, Italy, to Zurich, Switzerland, to Frankfurt, Germany and was finally produced for the first time in Berlin, Germany. It opened on September 28, 1959, at the Schiller Theatre Werkstatt. After much critical praise in Germany, it was less than three months before The Zoo Story finally opened in New York. It debuted off-Broadway at the Provincetown Playhouse on January 14, 1960, and instantly had a strong impact on critics and audiences alike. The vast majority of the reviews were positive and many hoped for a revitalized theatre because of it. A few critics, however, dismissed the play because of its absurd content and seemed confused as to what Albee was trying to say with it.
The story, in simplest terms, is about how a man who is consumed with loneliness starts up a conversation with another man on a bench in Central Park and eventually forces him to participate in an act of violence. According to Matthew Roudane, who quoted a 1974 interview with Albee in his Understanding Edward Albee, the playwright maintained that he got the idea for The Zoo Story while working for Western Union: "I was always delivering telegrams to people in rooming houses. I met [the models for] all those people in the play in rooming houses. Jerry, the hero, is still around." Combining both realistic and absurd elements, Albee has constructed a short but multi-leveled play dealing with issues of human isolation, loneliness, class differences, and the dangers of inaction within American society. He focuses on the need for people to acknowledge and understand each other's differences. After garnering its initial critical praise, The Zoo Story went on to win the Village Voice Obie Award for best play and ran for a total of 582 performances. The Zoo Story continues to be a favorite with university and small theatre companies and persists in shocking and profoundly affecting its audiences.