Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The American Dream, along with The Zoo Story (pr. 1959) and The Death of Bessie Smith (pr., pb. 1960), marked Edward Albee’s emergence as an important new playwright in the 1960’s. His first plays were considered so savage that they were not immediately performed in New York but in Berlin. While Albee was hailed by many theater critics as a brilliant satirist of the American scene, others were put off by his attacks on the sterility and banality of American life. The critical and commercial acceptance of his works grew and his list of awards—including four Pulitzer Prizes, and several New York Drama Critics Circle and Tony awards—attests his prominence in the American theatrical scene.

The American Dream is characteristic of Albee’s early work, which alternates between highly realistic and profoundly absurdist styles. It should be read in tandem with The Sandbox (pr., pb. 1960), a short play in which Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, and the Young Man all appear. In this short, self-referential work, Grandma comments on her status in the play, on her difficulty in playing the role as assigned to her not only by Mommy and Daddy but also by the playwright. In effect, Albee creates a character who talks back both to him and to the audience, thus raising questions about what is “artificial” and what is “real” in drama. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (pr., pb. 1962), the masterpiece of Albee’s early period, he combines his gifts for absurdist and realistic drama in the same play, making his main characters, George and Martha, stand for aspects of the American Dream in complex ways that his earlier and much shorter play by that name does not reveal.