Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762

The Zoo Story, Edward Albee's first play, premiered on September 28, 1959, at the Schiller Theatre Werkstatt in West Berlin, Germany. While there, it received much praise from critics, including Friedrich Luft who, as quoted in Critical Essays on Edward Albee , called it a "shudder-causing drama of superintelligent...

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The Zoo Story, Edward Albee's first play, premiered on September 28, 1959, at the Schiller Theatre Werkstatt in West Berlin, Germany. While there, it received much praise from critics, including Friedrich Luft who, as quoted in Critical Essays on Edward Albee, called it a "shudder-causing drama of superintelligent style.'' Riding high on the praise it received in Germany, The Zoo Story finally made its way back to New York, where it debuted off-Broadway at the Provincetown Theatre on January 14, 1960. What made this debut even more exciting for Albee was the fact that he was sharing the bill with Krapp's Last Tape, a one-act play written by Samuel Beckett, one of Albee's idols.

Most New York critics declared The Zoo Story to be a very exciting play and viewed it as the beginning of a revitalized New York theatre scene. Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review claimed: "[Edward Albee] has written an extraordinary first play." However, a few critics expressed confusion over The Zoo Story, such as Tom Driver from Christian Century who wrote: "It is more than a little melodramatic, and the only sense I could draw from it is the conviction that one shouldn't talk to strangers in Central Park." Others simply dismissed the play, such as Robert Brustein, who in an article in the New Republic labeled the play beat generation "claptrap." The positive reviews outweighed the negative, however, and The Zoo Story ran for a total of 582 performances, which is remarkable for a first play. It also went on to win the Village Voice Obie Award for best play in 1960.

Whether or not people liked The Zoo Story, they felt compelled to discuss it, largely because of the sensational aspects of the play and the fact that people were confused about whether the play was absurd or realistic. Eventually, most people concluded that it was a mixture of the two styles, but critics remained divided over the play's message. Many critics have argued that The Zoo Story is a social commentary on the effects that loneliness can have on an individual in American society. George Wellwarth, in The Theater of Protest and Paradox, claimed that The Zoo Story "is about the maddening effect that the enforced loneliness of the human condition has on the person who is cursed (for in our society it undoubtedly is a curse) with the infinite capacity for love." Other critics viewed the play as a religious allegory, such as Rose A. Zimbardo who asserted in Twentieth Century Literature that the images that Albee uses are "traditional Christian symbols which...retain their original significance." John Ditsky expressed a similar viewpoint in The Onstage Christ: Studies in the Persistence of a Theme, declaring that "The Zoo Story rests upon a foundation of Christ-references, and indeed derives its peculiar structure from Jesus' favourite teaching device, the parable." Other critics have described The Zoo Story as a ritual confrontation with death, a morality play, a homosexual play, and an absurd play. However, in an essay in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, Mary C. Anderson maintained that The Zoo Story can be "explained as a sociopolitical tract, a pessimistic analysis of human alienation, a modern Christian allegory of salvation, and an example of absurdist and nihilist theater." She concluded that the play "has managed to absorb these perspectives without exhausting its many levels of meaning.''

The overall opinion of The Zoo Story from most critics is that it is an exciting and risky first play from a playwright who has gone on to win numerous awards for his works. After much early success, Albee went on to garner both high praise and censure for his work that followed The Zoo Story and Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. He has continued to explore and experiment with both the form and content of theatre, which is a risky venture, especially in the commercial arena. What continues to make Albee so fascinating for many critics and theatergoers is the fact that, as C.W.E. Bigsby noted in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, "Albee has remained at heart a product of Off-Broadway, claiming the same freedom to experiment and, indeed, fail, which is the special strength of that theatre." It is his penchant for experimentation that has caused Albee to be, as Bigsby contended, one of those "few playwrights'' who continue to be "frequently and mischievously misunderstood, misrepresented, overpraised, denigrated and precipitately dismissed." Critical opinion has had little effect on Albee as a playwright, for he has continued to write and have his plays produced on and off Broadway.

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