The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
While Peter is reading a book on a bench in Central Park, he is interrupted by Jerry, a total stranger, who announces that he has just been to the zoo. Anxious to return to his reading, Peter reacts with merely vague interest and lights his pipe, but he is immediately made uncomfortable by Jerry’s queries about his marital status, children, work, and menage of cats and parakeets. After repeating that he has been to the zoo and that Peter will read about it in the papers the next day if he does not see it on television that very night, Jerry follows several digressions about sociological class distinctions, literary tastes, and his daylong wanderings. He also gives a detailed description of his rooming house and its characters on the Upper West Side. Peter is embarrassed to hear these sordid details.
Jerry says that, unlike Peter, he owns little except for toilet articles, pornographic playing cards, eight or nine books, cutlery, empty picture frames, an old Western Union typewriter that prints nothing but capital letters, and a small box containing letters and some sea-rounded rocks that he picked up on a beach when he was a boy. Then he tells of his mother’s desertion of his father and him, as well as her promiscuity, alcoholism, and death at Christmas. He continues with his father’s accidental death and the demise, on Jerry’s high school graduation day, of his guardian, a dour aunt. Jerry confides that his relationships with women are limited to solitary encounters with prostitutes and that his only love affair was a brief one, at age fifteen, with a Greek boy.
Then he launches into a...
(The entire section is 661 words.)
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Although naturalistic on the surface, The Zoo Story builds on its single scene by metaphor. The title is itself metaphorical, for the play is about the “cosmic zoo” in which man is caged in his estrangement from fellow beings and God. The park setting is clever, for it suggests a fallen Eden in correlation to Jerry’s “fall from physical grace” and “great weariness.” Moreover, this setting is an easy way for Edward Albee to set up the encounter between his two characters.
Peter’s tweeds, pipe, glasses, and book act in concert with his background (family man and pet owner, textbook publisher) and speech (glib at times but suggesting vague dissatisfaction with his life) to create the image of a modern corporate man who fits into a decreed pattern. His reluctance to be drawn into conversation and his fussing with his pipe, glasses, and book show that he is in retreat from life around him and does not pay real attention to his world.
Jerry suggests a different sort of retreat from life. His careless dress and high-strung shifts of mood and topic reveal a form of psychological disintegration, and the volume of his dialogue—he has a set piece lasting roughly a third of the whole play—suggests the extent of his intense desperation to find respite from his alienation. His self-interrupted thoughts and suspended phrases are further signs of disintegration, but they actually create ironic comedy and dramatic suspense before...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Central Park. Large public park in central Manhattan represented in the play only by benches on opposite edges of the stage. The atmosphere initially seems pleasant as a man named Peter, seated at stage right, reads under a canopy of plants and the sky. The repose is broken when Jerry enters and insists on engaging Peter in conversation. Another pair of locations quickly becomes central to the unfolding events. Peter lives in a toney neighborhood east of the park, while Jerry resides in a shabby rooming house on Central Park West. These locations reflect the characters’ vastly different lives and suggest fundamental incompatibilities.
On the surface, Central Park appears to occupy neutral ground, but through Jerry’s monologues and interrogations, it emerges as symbols of New York City itself and the impersonality of modern urban life. People pass one another without comment or occupy benches and barely exchange glances. Jerry is determined to break through Peter’s reserve and establish a human relationship.
Jerry’s rooming house
Jerry’s rooming house. Jerry describes his residence as a battle zone in which he contends with a neighbor’s ill-tempered dog. At first, he had tried to placate the dog with hamburgers; later, he had tried to poison the dog. Eventually he and the dog had achieved an understanding; however, Peter cannot comprehend the implications of Jerry’s tale.
Zoo. Location that remains off-stage yet uppermost in Jerry’s mind. With its cages, the zoo is another symbol of the condition of modern people, constrained by conventionality, etiquette, and repressed emotions. When Peter fails to understand Jerry’s dog story, Jerry surrenders his own life to illustrate the condition of debilitating isolation and to establish a profound human connection.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. In chapter 3 of this book, “Ancient Tragedy and Modern Absurdity,” the author analyzes the classical plot of The Zoo Story and discusses the problems of biblical language, the face of the television screen, and the existential position found in the play. He concludes with an interesting and informative discussion of the play as a classical Greek tragedy.
Hayman, Ronald. Edward Albee. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Contains a relatively brief and easy-to-follow analysis of the plot and themes in the play. Hayman concludes that The Zoo Story is...
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