Slightly before his thirtieth birthday, when it began to look as if he would not be successful as a writer, Edward Albee sat down at a wobbly table in the kitchen of his Greenwich Village apartment and typed out The Zoo Story. The play was first produced in Berlin on September 28, 1959, along with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (pr., pb. 1958). Later, the play appeared in twelve other German cities, and it was finally presented in Greenwich Village at the Off-Broadway Provincetown Playhouse on January 14, 1960. Critics hailed the debut of an extraordinary dramatic talent, and Albee quickly emerged as the leader of the American wing of the Theater of the Absurd. He was singled out by many critics as the crucial American dramatist of his generation. The production of his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 won him several national awards and marked the peak of his popularity and fame.
Albee’s creative masterpieces are both subtle and complex, and they reflect the tension between realism and the Theater of the Absurd. The action and dialogue of The Zoo Story are dislocated, arbitrary, and absurd up to the moment of Jerry’s death. Jerry spends his dying breath telling the audience what the play means. Jerry explains to Peter the farce and the agony of human isolation. It is because human isolation is so great, and because the “contact” that would end it is so painful and difficult to obtain, that Jerry went to the zoo. What he discovered is that the entire human condition is a zoo story of people (and animals) forever separated by bars. From his experience with the dog, which symbolizes the vicious aspects of society, Jerry learned “the teaching emotion,” that combination of kindness and cruelty that forms, for him at least, life itself.
At the same time, Albee engages his audience in harsh social criticism as he attacks the American way of life, the way in which Americans are assumed and expected to live. In the play, Albee explores the relationship between the observed world and its inner reality. He uses the images of nonreason in his attack on the American way of life without accepting the absurdist vision that generated them. Albee is a defender of society’s...
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