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 outcasts who are forced to live in a savage society and who have been victimized by the stupidity and bias of the privileged elite.
Albee’s multiple and complex themes deal with deeply philosophical subjects also handled by notable European playwrights Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet: the breakdown of language, the attempt to live by illusion, the alienation of the individual from others, and the terrible loneliness of every living human being. Critics have pointed out that Albee is working, at least partly, from an existentialist position. Jerry’s life can be seen as a struggle for existence in the jungle of the city against the forces that threaten his highly individualistic, nonconformist character, as well as his protest against the consequent isolation with which a conformist society punishes him for daring to assert such individualism. The confrontation with Peter as a representative of that society becomes a kind of crisis or climax to his entire life. The park bench is the arena for the conflict of values and the attack on the conformist, middle-class emptiness and complacency of Peter’s life. Jerry feels compelled and challenged to combat the isolation in his life and to make contact with Peter in the only way possible. Jerry qualifies as an existentialist hero because he makes his choice freely. His decision at the end of the play to...
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