The Power of Albee's Dialogue

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931

There is very little action in Edward Albee's The Zoo Story: two men meet, they exchange information, and one dies at the hand of the other. But to a framework of action which any writer might have imagined, Albee brings a master's sense of the ways in which, psychologically, some people are able to dominate and manipulate others, and a frankness and grotesqueness of language which are startling even now, almost forty years after the play's premiere.

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Albee opens with an impressive display. Peter, the quiet, insular, middle-class publisher, is reading a book on "his" bench in New York's Central Park. Along comes Jerry, who (as we will see) is not out for a stroll but urgently looking for someone with whom to talk. He spies Peter, approaches him, and begins the elaborate process of getting Peter (who wants only to be left alone) to put down his book and surrender to Jerry's desire to talk. This opening section of the play is too long to quote here, and in any case should be read through or better still seen onstage, but it is a marvel of resourcefulness.

Jerry announces that he has been to the Zoo, and when that produces no response he yells it. Peter barely responds even to this, so Jerry changes tactics and begins to ask Peter questions about where they are in the Park and in what direction he has (therefore) been walking. Peter fills his pipe as a way of trying to ignore Jerry, who, seeing this, uses it as a way of accusing Peter of a kind of cowardice: "Well, boy; you're not going to get lung cancer, are you?" Peter does not rise to the bait, so Jerry becomes more aggressive and more graphic: "No, sir. What you'll probably get is cancer of the mouth, and then you'll have to wear one of those things Freud wore after they took one whole side of his jaw away. What do they call those things?"

Poor dim Peter, college-educated but not street-smart, can't stop himself from showing that he knows the word: prosthesis—Jerry seizes on this in a way that shows that he himself knows the word, and sarcastically asks Peter if he is a doctor. When Peter says no, he read about prosthetics in Time magazine, Jerry responds that "Time< magazine is not for blockheads." This line is generally delivered sarcastically, so that it both patronizes Peter and shows the audience that Jerry thinks himself superior to most of middle-class America. Finally, Jerry bullies Peter into giving him his full attention by inflicting what is sometimes called "liberal guilt":

JERRY: Do you mind if we talk?

PETER: (Obviously minding) Why... no, no.

JERRY: Yes you do; you do.

PETER: (Puts his book down, smiling) No, really; I don't mind.

JERRY: Yes you do.

PETER: (Finally decided) No; I don't mind at all, really.

At this point the first section, or movement, of the play comes to an end. Many critics have pointed out that The Zoo Story is a play about the difficulty of communication. But that is a common problem offstage or on and only rises to dramatic urgency when there is something urgent to be communicated. Now that Jerry has finally succeeded in capturing Peter's full attention, the question is: what message has Jerry brought with him from the Zoo that he is so avid to communicate, even (or particularly) to a total stranger?

Avid or not, Jerry suddenly seems in no hurry. He returns to the subject of the Zoo, hinting that "it" (what "it" might be is not explained) will be on TV tonight or in the newspapers tomorrow. He begins to ask Peter about himself and his family, eliciting pieces of personal information. When Jerry guesses that Peter and his wife are not going to have any more children, Peter asks how he could possibly know that. Jerry responds: "The way you cross your legs, perhaps; something in the voice.... Is it your wife?" A subtle game is afoot here: Jerry earlier attacked Peter's manhood by...

(The entire section contains 3351 words.)

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The Zoo Story