The Zoo Story
The Zoo Story
See also Edward Albee Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 9, 13, 25, 86, 113.
Albee's first play, The Zoo Story, is a one-act satire set in New York City. It was first staged on 28 September 1959, in a production directed by Walter Henn at the Schiller Theatre Werkstatt in Berlin. It received its first American performance on 14 January the following year, in a production at New York's Provincetown Playhouse, directed by Milton Katselas. The play centers on Jerry, a young drifter, who encounters Peter, a conservative publishing executive, on a bench in Central Park. Jerry attempts to force conversation on Peter, becoming increasingly more personal and direct in his questioning as the reticent Peter fails to respond. Ultimately, Jerry instigates a physical confrontation with Peter, who defends himself with a knife that the drifter has thrust into his hand. During the scuffle, Jerry purposely impales himself on the blade.
While many critics have regarded The Zoo Story as an absurdist condemnation of the artificiality of American values and the failure of communication, others have described the work as an allegory of Christian redemption in which Jerry martyrs himself to demonstrate the value of meaningful communication. Martin Esslin has cited the play's attack on "the very foundations of American optimism" as evidence for placing Albee in the context of the Theater of the Absurd. On the other hand, Rose Zimabardo has viewed The Zoo Story as operating not within an absurd Godless universe, but rather a distinctly Christian one. She has termed the work a "modern Morality play" that employs traditional Christian symbolism to present the theme of "human isolation and salvation through sacrifice." Robert S. Wallace and Mary M. Nilan, among others, have also explored the play's themes of alienation and social polarization, and Robert B. Bennett has examined its religious and spiritual content in support of his contention that The Zoo Story is a tragedy and not merely a melodrama.
Brooks Atkinson (review date 15 January 1960)
SOURCE: "Theatre: A Double Bill Off Broadway," in The New York Times, 15 January 1960, p. 37.
[The following review of The Zoo Story praises it, calling it "consistently interesting and illuminating—odd and pithy" but flawed by a melodramatic ending.]
After the banalities of Broadway it tones the muscles and freshens the system to examine the squalor of Off Broadway.
Three actors suffice for the two short plays put on at the Provincetown Playhouse last evening. Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape makes do with one actor—Donald Davis from the Crest Theatre in Toronto. Edward Albee's The Zoo Story needs two—George Maharis and William Daniels.
Both plays are dialogues. Both plays are interesting, and both of them are well acted by intelligent professionals. Nothing of enduring value is said in either play. But each of them captures some part of the dismal mood that infects many writers today.
Krapp's Last Tape takes a wistful look back into the memories of an aging, creaking curmudgeon. All that happens really is that Krapp listens to a tape record of an idyllic day in his youth. But that is all Mr. Beckett needs. For he has a highly original sense of the grotesque comedy of life. Although Krapp looks like a Skid Row veteran he is the...
(The entire section is 3261 words.)
Rose A. Zimbardo (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "Symbolism and Naturalism in Edward Albee's The Zoo Story," in Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal, Vol. 8. No. 1, April, 1962, pp. 10-17.
[The essay below presents the view that The Zoo Story is a "modern morality play" that places Christian symbolism in a context of "naturalistic dialogue, situation and setting. "]
The acclaim, both popular and critical, which has greeted Albee's The Zoo Story leads one to speculate upon the direction American drama is likely to take in the future. Concern with idea, rather than character or plot, is not new in the American theatre, nor is the use of symbolism for the realization of idea. There is, however, about American plays which employ symbolism—from O'Neill to Williams—a strong suggestion of the gimmick. Because American playwrights have been self-conscious in employing symbols, their symbolism is almost always embarrassingly obvious. It calls attention to itself and exists as a kind of scaffolding which the audience feels the playwright should either have built over or removed. For example, O'Neill's symbolistic drama, which has, of course, shaped all later American drama, directs attention toward the symbol as symbol rather than upon a whole dramatic structure within which symbolism operates. The audience must identify the symbols and...
(The entire section is 36611 words.)
Atkinson, Brooks. "Village Vagrants."The New York Times (31 January 1960): III. 1.
Review of The Zoo Story that finds the play "original and engrossing" but considers the ending "conventional melodrama."
Matthews, Honor. "The Disappearance of the Image in England and America." In The Primal Curse: The Myth of Cain and Abel in the Theatre, pp. 187-205. London: Chatto and Windus, 1967.
Includes a discussion of The Zoo Story. Matthews views the story of Jerry and Peter a "twisted" version of the Cain and Abel tale, for in Albee's play "the agressor throws down the knife at his victim's feet, and himself … achieves before death a transient fulfillment and peace."
Way, Brian. "Albee and the Absurd: The 'American Dream' and 'The Zoo Story'." In American Theatre, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 189-207. London: Edward Arnold, 1967.
Examines the conflict between realism and the Theatre of the Absurd in two of Albee's early works. Way argues that while Albee adopts elements of the Theatre of the Absurd, he fails to achieve that drama's power.
(The entire section is 171 words.)