The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The American Dream is a play in one scene, set in a living room with two armchairs, a sofa, and a door leading to the outside. Mommy and Daddy are seated, awaiting the arrival of visitors. Daddy complains about the apartment, about how hard it is to get anything fixed, and he remembers how easy it was to move in, when all that was required was his money for the rent and a security deposit. He feels taken advantage of and somehow fooled. Similarly, Mommy is vexed about a hat she has bought. It seemed like a perfectly lovely beige hat until she ran into the chairman of her women’s club, who praised her wheat-colored hat. Irritated to think she had been duped into buying the wrong-colored hat, Mommy returned to the store (excusing her mistake by blaming its artificial light) and complained until they gave her what she takes to be a beige-colored hat. “I would imagine it was the same hat they tried to sell you before,” Daddy observes. Mommy agrees, but somehow she still feels she has gotten satisfaction from the incident.

The expected arrival of visitors has something to do with Mommy’s and Daddy’s feelings about Grandma. She is getting old and feeble. However, when Grandma enters she seems sharp-minded, if somewhat mysterious about the boxes she has packed and dropped around Daddy’s armchair. She has a rather sarcastic tongue and a down-to-earth quality that appears to be missing in Mommy’s and Daddy’s speeches. Grandma is aware that she is aging and that Mommy and Daddy want to get rid of her.

What Mommy and Daddy seem most interested in is preserving their sense of comfort and convenience. They turn querulous and impatient when the visitors do not arrive on time. Grandma assumes they are waiting for the “van people” who will take her away. When the doorbell rings, Mommy and Daddy go through a hurried dialogue, with Daddy doubting whether or not he has done the right thing. Mommy assures him he has and puts particular emphasis on how “masculine and decisive” his behavior has been.

Making a big point about opening the door, Daddy welcomes Mrs. Barker into the room. Neither he nor Mommy seems to know her name, although they assume she represents the visitors who were supposed to arrive. As in previous discussions, much of what Mommy and Daddy have to say contradicts their earlier statements—in this case Daddy mentions that he knew the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As Albee’s title suggests, his play is about an idea, a way of conceiving the United States that is also an American illusion—an American way of evading reality. Realistic drama depends on several devices: detailed stage sets, carefully chosen names for characters who have credible psychological histories and who are well placed within their society. Albee eschews all these devices. Only one character, Mrs. Barker, is actually given a name, and it is telling that Daddy has trouble remembering it even when she repeats it several times. The society Albee creates onstage has no distinctiveness, no identity; it is literally a society without a name or a single character of its own. Everyone in the play is a type: a Mommy, a Daddy, a Grandma, a Young Man, and so on.

Another device of realistic drama is logic. Characters are expected to make sense, and what they say is taken up and developed by other characters. In Albee’s play, the opposite is true. Mommy is not even sure Daddy can follow what she is saying, and she insists that he repeat her remarks to see whether he has understood her. In The American Dream characters are illogical and irrational, contradictory and fractious because they do not know their own minds. In fact, it is doubtful whether they have minds, for they seem incapable of following a train of thought, of coming to any conclusion about the things they talk about. However, given the triviality and discontinuity of their world, their behavior is understandable: It is the only way they are capable of responding to stimuli.

Another characteristic of the realistic play that is usually taken for granted is spatial relationships. The characters know where they are in relation to their surroundings. Here, when Daddy leaves the living room to go into Grandma’s room, he is heard complaining that he cannot find it. How can a character not find a room? In an absurdist drama, this unlikely event is a function of the character’s own sense of displacement. He cannot even locate himself; he cannot find a self to express or a society in which he can function as an individual.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Blum, David. “What’s It All About, Albee?” New York Magazine, November, 1993, 70-78.

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Cohn, Ruby. Edward Albee. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.

Hayman, Ronald. Edward Albee. New York: Ungar, 1973.

Kolin, Philip C., and J. Madison Davis, eds. Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

McCarthy, Gerry. Edward Albee. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Paolucci, Anne. From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee. 1972. Rev. ed. Wilmington, Del.: Griffon House Press, 2000.

Wasserman, Julian N., ed. Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays. Houston: University of St. Thomas Press, 1983.