The American Dream was the fourth play written by Albee. It received its American premiere at the York Playhouse on January 24, 1961, and ran for 370 performances. Four of the five characters in the play—Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, and Young Man—also appeared in an earlier Albee work, The Sandbox. Unlike The Zoo Story, The American Dream is an absurdist play.
The long one-act is structured into three major sections and eleven groupings of the five characters. The first part deals with the family unit itself—Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma—and the decision of whether Grandma should be put into a nursing home. The second section involves the introduction of Mrs. Barker, a social chum of Mommy, who once worked for the Bye-Bye Adoption Service. The final part begins with the arrival of the Young Man and Grandma’s attempt to keep from being institutionalized.
In The American Dream, Albee attempts to show that the much-vaunted American Way of Life is absurd. The playwright seeks to show how deprived of meaning Americans’ normal human feelings and relationships have become. He points out that people go through the ritualistic motions of loving and caring for one another, and respond to sexual attractiveness or neighborly concerns, but no feelings are engaged. All five characters may speak to each other, but they live in their own worlds, isolated from one another. Their repetitive language of endearments to each other is deflated and hollow.
The play opens with Mommy and Daddy waiting for someone to come and fix the toilet. Mommy tells a story about buying a beige-colored hat, but she exchanges it when her club chairwoman, Mrs. Barker, tells her that it is wheat-colored. Grandma enters carrying many neatly wrapped boxes; it appears that she spends her time wrapping these mysterious boxes. Soon, Mommy reveals her plan to send Grandma to a nursing home and convinces Daddy to agree. Grandma will not go quietly, however, and proves to be a stubborn match for her daughter. She tells Daddy that Mommy stated at age eight that she would marry a rich old man and even implies that their marriage is a disaster.
Albee pokes merciless fun at what he perceives to be a matriarchal society and at the impotence of the American family head. Sterility is an important theme: Mommy and Daddy cannot conceive a child. Daddy’s character is vague, ineffectual, and without determination compared to the nightmarishly efficient Mommy. Mommy is the driving force in the family unit. Only Grandma can stand up to her daughter’s wiles and match her. Into this feminine beehive of activity comes Mrs. Barker, the club chairwoman. She makes herself very comfortable and even removes her dress when asked. Through Mrs. Barker’s arrival, it is revealed that Mommy and Daddy adopted a little child from her years ago. They systematically dismembered their “bumble of joy,” however, because it behaved in a normal and natural manner instead of adapting to their artificial values.
Following that revelation, the Young Man enters and converses with Grandma. He is a handsome, vital, and completely empty-headed dolt whom Grandma calls “The American Dream.” He wants to be a film actor and will do anything for money. He tells of an identical twin and of their separation at childhood; he feels as though he lost part of himself. In short order, Mommy and Daddy adopt him, with Mrs. Barker’s blessing. The new adoptee will move into Grandma’s old room, and Mommy will use him as a lover. Grandma closes the play with a short address: “So, let’s leave things as they are right now . . . while everybody’s happy . . . while everybody’s got what he wants . . . or everybody’s got what he thinks he wants. Good night, dears.”
The American Dream is a less successfully realized and integrated work than The Zoo Story. Unlike the concise structure of The Sandbox, which it superficially resembles, the play is overly long, and some of the speeches appear padded. Yet Albee has neatly skewered the American way of life, taking the false images promulgated by television, films, advertising, and political exploitation and revealing them to be totally empty and devoid of any meaning.