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...
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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....
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Social Climate in the 1950s
The 1950s in the U.S. are viewed by many people as a period of prosperity for American society as a whole. Socially, many catch phrases were being used at this time, like "standard of living" and "cost of living," which implied that life in America could be measured based on personal income and material goods. After experiencing the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II a decade later, the U.S. was eager to embrace the notion that it had come into its own and, consequently, consumer confidence soared. Household appliances and automobiles became available to more people than ever before, and the television became a prominent factor in the daily lives of Americans during the late 1950s. In 1947, a mere 14,000 families owned television sets; ten years later that figure grew to 35 million families. In theory, the television brought people closer together and allowed communication to reach new heights. However, many critics maintain that the way Albee mentions television in The Zoo Story and the fact that Peter has difficulty carrying on anything but empty conversation reflect on how disconnected society has become.
Political Climate in the 1950s
Politically, the U.S. was dominated by conservative values during the 1950s. One of the most extreme examples of this conservative tide was the effort led by Senator Joseph McCarthy to harass and prosecute individuals suspected to have ties with the...
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The Zoo Story by Edward Albee is rather simple in structure. It is set in New York's Central Park on Sunday afternoon in the summer. The staging for the play, therefore, consists of two park benches with foliage, trees, and sky behind them. The place never changes, and the action of the play unfolds in a linear manner, from beginning to end, in front of the audience. Everything happens in the present, which gives the play its immediacy and makes the events that unfold even more shocking. As an audience member, watching the play makes one feel as if one is witnessing a crime and is directly involved; this sense of involvement is achieved through the structure of the play.
What makes The Zoo Story dense and difficult to define is the style in which it is written. It does not fit into the purely realistic nor the totally absurd genres that were both popular in 1958 when Albee wrote the play. The Theatre of the Absurd was a movement that dominated the French stage after World War II, and was characterized by radical theatrical innovations. Playwrights in this genre used practically incomprehensible plots and extremely long pauses in order to violate conservative audiences' expectations of what theatre should be. Albee took this absurd style and combined it with acute realism in order to comment on American society in the 1950s. With The Zoo Story, Albee points to French playwright Eugene Ionesco's...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: The television set came into prominence in the American household. By 1957, a total of 35 million U.S. families had a television in their homes.
Today: Almost all American families, rich and poor, have at least one television set, and with the emergence of cable television, the amount of channels available is well over 100. The television is now an integral part of American society.
1950s: Conservative family values dominated American society, with so-called "typical" nuclear families like Peter's in The Zoo Story viewed as ideal. Early television shows, such as Father Knows Best, that depicted such "ideal" families were extremely popular.
Today: Families are depicted in a much more realistic light on television today, on shows like Roseanne. The nuclear family is no longer viewed as the "ideal," and most Americans consider themselves to have moderate values. Nevertheless, a very vocal conservative Christian movement is leading the fight to return to the idealized view of the family that was popular in the 1950s.
1950s: Consumer confidence and general prosperity within middle- and upper-class American society soared. However, this prosperity failed to carry over from white males to the Americans in lower classes, women, and ethnic minorities, who continued to earn less money and endure more job discrimination than white males.
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Topics for Further Study
Edward Albee was a child adopted by rich parents. Describe his attitude towards his upbringing from reading or seeing his one-act play The American Dream. In what ways does his upbringing evidence itself in The Zoo Story?
Research the concept of Theatre of the Absurd. Does The Zoo Story belong under that heading? Why or why not?
Compare The American Dream point-by-point with Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play The Bald Soprano. How are the two plays alike? How are they different?
Why do you think it was important to Jerry to make Peter realize the misery that exists beneath everyday life? What was Jerry trying to achieve?
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Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was adapted and filmed by Warner Bros., starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis. The film was released in 1966.
Critics have argued that Albee is condemning the wealthy classes for their false sense of security and their lack of knowledge or understanding of how the other half lives. This point of view seems to be very clear by the end of the play when Jerry has succeeded in bringing Peter down to a basic animal-like level of behavior. It is at this point that their classes become irrelevant and their similarities are seen as the truth. Whether wealthy or poor, the desire for contact and love from others is equally strong. The Zoo Story shows what can happen when this need is not fulfilled.
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What Do I Read Next?
It is essential that anyone wanting to understand Edward Albee read his 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Whether as relevant to Albee or not, everyone interested in modern drama should read Martin Esslin's 1961 text The Theatre of the Absurd.
Those interested in Albee as an adapter of other people's work (and what might draw him to that work) would enjoy The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, which he adapted from Carson McCullers's novel and Malcolm, adapted from the work by James Purdy.
After years of obscurity and what some took to be decline, Albee suddenly returned to prominence (and major awards) with the play Three Tall Women, produced on Broadway in 1994.
What was it about America in the 1960's that made Albee call it "this slipping land of ours''? Two places to look for answers are in books and articles about President Dwight D Eisenhower's administration and in a book called On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Anderson, Mary C , editor. Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, Syracuse University Press, 1983.
A good resource for Albee's thoughts on the dramatic process. Also contains a number of essays that discuss the themes present in The Zoo Story.
Bigsby, C. W. E., editor. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1975.
A good critical overview of Albee's career up until 1974. Contains a number of perceptive essays on The Zoo Story.
Ditsky, John. "Albee's Parabolic Christ: The Zoo Story" in his The Onstage Christ: Studies in the Persistence of a Theme, [London], 1980.
Ditksy's book examines religious imagery in various dramas. He details the parallels to the story of Christ that are evident in Albee's play.
Nilan, Mary M. "Albee's The Zoo Story: Alienated Man and the Nature of Love" in Modem Drama, Vol. 16, 1973.
An essay that details Jerry's isolation from mainstream society and his failures at forming meaningful relationships.
Woods, Linda L. "Isolation and the Barrier of Language in The Zoo Story in Research Studies, Vol. 36, 1968.
A good examination of Jerry's alienation from middle-class society and problems that he faces communicating with members of that group—Peter in particular.
Anderson, Mary C. "Ritual and Initiation in The Zoo...
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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 not a homosexual play, an absurd play, or a religious play as other critics contend; it is an outstanding moral play.
Rutenberg, Michael E. Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest. New York: DBS, 1969. A discussion of Albee as an astute social critic, deeply moral and committed to the cause of human dignity in an ethically moribund age. Chapter 1, on The Zoo Story, analyzes the play as a defense of society’s outcasts who have been victimized by the stupidity and bias of the successful elite.
Way, Brian. “Albee and the Absurd: The American Dream and The Zoo Story.” In Edward Albee, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A perceptive...
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