The Power of Albee's Dialogue

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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.

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...

(This entire section contains 1931 words.)

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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 implying it was somehow cowardly to smoke a pipe rather than cigarettes, and now, with his remarks about the legs and the voice, he seems to imply effeminacy or perhaps even suppressed homosexuality (a line of thought to which he will return later). In any case, he ends the line with a different kind of attack on Peter's manhood, implying that the dominant voice in the no-children decision, and the household, is that of Peter's wife, whose name is never given. When Peter tacitly admits this, Jerry actually shows a moment of compassion before briskly moving on: "Well, now; what else?"

During this second section of the play, in which the men exchange information about their lives, Albee avoids the dullness which often attends exposition by two means: frequent allusions to the Zoo and tantalizing hints about what may have happened there (we learn that Jerry was depressed by the way the bars separated the animals from each other and from the people but not if he actually did anything about it), and a combination of startling information and aggressive behavior that keeps Jerry firmly in our minds (and Peter's) as a figure of instability and menace.

Jerry tells Peter about his hellish rooming house, the serio-comic loss of his parents, his first real sexual experience (while admitting it was homosexual, he gets in another dig at Peter's masculinity: "But that was the jazz of a very special hotel, wasn't it?"), and his landlady, "a fat, ugly, mean, stupid, unwashed, misanthropic, cheap, drunken bag of garbage." But the landlady, despite being one of the most arresting offstage presences in American drama, is only the prelude to what might be called the third movement of the play.

It is called "The Story of Jerry and the Dog," and it must be seen or read in its entirety, as no description could come within miles of doing it justice. It tells of Jerry's attempt to "get through to" the disgusting landlady's even more disgusting dog, which attacked him whenever it caught him leaving or entering the building. Albee makes sure that we understand that Jerry's past attempt to reach the dog is parallel to his present attempt to reach Peter: he has Jerry try several ways to get through to the dog, from killing him with kindness to just plain killing him, just as he tried several different ways to get through to Peter.

The playwright has Jerry, who has so far disgusted Peter but not aroused his sympathy, say, "it's just that if you can't deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS! Don't you see?" Of his final truce with the dog, a sad indifference, Jerry says, "I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty, by themselves...create any effect beyond themselves; and I have learned that the two combined, together...are the teaching emotion." This lesson Jerry learned from his experience is of great thematic importance in the play, where every step forward in communication, large or small, is accomplished with a combination of kindness and cruelty.

Next comes the final section of the play. Of Jerry's story, Peter says, in fact he yells, "I DON'T UNDERSTAND,'" but Jerry doesn't believe him and neither do most critics. They think he does indeed understand that Jerry is trying to tell him something about the pain, the loneliness, and the hideous suffering of those parts of society not normally encountered or even acknowledged by Peter's middle class; and they think that Peter's real feelings are more clearly seen in a subsequent line: "I DON'T WANT TO HEAR ANYMORE." Peter prepares to leave, they say, because "his" space has been invaded not only by an unwelcome person but by unwelcome information, both of which threaten the comfortable ignorance of his life.

Jerry is at first angered by Peter's refusal to comprehend, then apparently resigned to it. But he is not ready to quit. He taunts Peter, punches him and pushes him to the ground, challenging him to fight for his bench. Peter refuses, fearing he will be harmed. Jerry pulls out an ugly looking knife (a switchblade, wicked-looking and illegal in New York, is used as a prop by most productions) and throws it on the ground between them. Peter cowers back. Jerry tells Peter to pick up the knife but Peter won't. Jerry grabs Peter and says the following, slapping Peter each time he utters the word "fight'': "You fight, you miserable bastard; fight for that bench; fight for your parakeets; fight for your cats, fight for your two daughters; fight for your life; fight for your manhood, you pathetic little vegetable. You couldn't even get your wife with a male child."

Angered at last beyond caution, Peter snatches up the knife, even now holding it defensively. Jerry sighs heavily, says, "So be it,'' and rushes at Peter, impaling himself on the knife and giving himself, deliberately, a mortal wound. The words Jerry says as he is dying are most important: "Thank you, Peter.... Thank you very much. Oh, Peter, I was afraid I'd drive you away Peter... thank you. I came unto you and you have comforted me. Dear Peter." Jerry then sends Peter on his way, making sure he takes his book with him, but asserting that the bench (and, by implication, some part of Peter which will never be the same) belongs to him, to Jerry.

Many critics have pointed out that the Biblical language in this reference to Peter, together with other such language in the play (regarding the dog, Jerry says,"AND IT CAME TO PASS THAT THE BEAST WAS DEATHLY ILL."), and with the number of times God is called on from the stabbing to the end of the play, suggests Christian symbolism: Jesus (Jerry, a distantly similar name) dies for the suffering of mankind but not before he has passed on his gospel to his disciple Peter. This seems a reasonable inference, since playwrights choose their words, Albee more carefully than most. Whether the implication of Christianity expands or narrows the impact of the play is highly debatable, but the language is there—not by accident—and it should not be ignored.

The Zoo Story can best be understood (especially by actors, who are trained to play intentions but not mysteries or ambiguities) by starting off with a single, basic assumption. Jerry, lonely, unstable, and desperate, made a life decision at the Zoo—or perhaps even at home before he went to the Zoo "correctly." He would leave the Zoo and walk "northerly'' in the Park until the first human being he spotted. He would strike up a conversation with that person, by whatever means it took, and then make the best effort of his life to teach that person what Jerry already knew about the sufferings of mankind, especially the sufferings others prefer not to notice. He would force that person to understand, or, to make a cliche literal, die trying. Jerry's suicide is thus the last logical item on the list of "whatever it takes" to take from Peter his ignorance, his indifference, and his complacency. Peter may never wander preaching in the wilderness, but he will never again draw breath without the burden of the knowledge that Jerry has conveyed to him. That much of the torch, at least, has been passed.

Source: Stephen Coy, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Coy is an esteemed authority on drama who has contributed to numerous publications.

In Defense of Albee

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Edward Albee emerges as one of the most controversial and, consequently, one of the most read contemporary playwrights. He does not write of human emotions and relationships in statements of fact that we like to hear. He uses abstract symbols and ideas to portray unidentifiable fears, subtle truths, intangible illusions, and the unattainable standards imposed upon society. Albee is difficult to understand because he does not discuss anything concrete. Facts are sensible. Abstracts are disturbing. To write about the mystical secrets of life without presenting any kind of solution exasperates the reader. But this may be Albee's intent. He once said that if after a play the audience is concerned only about finding their cars, the play failed. Therefore, Albee bares the souls of his characters—his audience. He suggests the idiosyncrasies and failings of man and his sociality. And in doing so he often uses the outcast, the distorted man, the pervert.

This is what is shocking and terrifying. And this is one reason why many English teachers refuse to approach his plays in the classroom. Not only is he frustrating to interpret, but he also unveils some very eccentric exponents in society. They are not the type that provoke comfortable discussion. But in my opinion this is not reason enough to shelve Albee. He remains our most colorful coeval dramatist and as such belongs in a modern, progressive curriculum. He refuses to be ignored by the theater. Likewise, we cannot ignore him. Albee depicts some general human weaknesses that are argumentative and provide stimulating discussion for students....

The Zoo Story might be used for student study, because human contact and communication are lacking among young people. It is about a wandering homosexual who, unable to adjust to his own world and hating the conventional world, latches onto a stranger sitting on a park bench and tricks this typical father of parakeets and cats into killing him. Here again Albee resorts to violence. A closer analysis of this play may bring out some ideas for classroom use.

Three human defects exemplified are lack of communication, alienation from society, and mediocrity. Jerry approaches Peter, sitting on a park bench where he has been coming the last four years, and says, "Do you mind if we talk?" And Peter, "obviously minding," replies that he does not mind. Immediately we see that people really do not communicate. They do not say what they actually mean or are thinking. Peter becomes "bewildered by the seeming lack of communication.'' And Jerry, who feels the need to make contact with someone—anyone—says, "I don't talk to many people—except to say like: give me a beer, or where's the John, or what time does the feature go on, or keep your hands to yourself, buddy...." How trite and nondescript we are! Very seldom does one human being fully and completely talk with someone, talk with him in such a way as to know what really makes him tick. This is true also about young people. Their music is loud so they do not have to converse; they go to movies so they can look rather than talk; they watch TV rather than visit; even their cars make so much noise it is not necessary to think or talk.

Jerry felt the need. "But every once in a while I like to talk to somebody, really talk; like to get to know somebody, know all about him.'" And so Jerry begins asking questions but does not "really carry on a conversation." The experiences he relates about the dog only indicate the distance one will go to satisfy a need, to make contact. "A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING." "People. With an idea; a concept. And where better, where ever better in this humiliating excuse for a jail, where better to communicate one single, simple-minded idea than in an entrance hall?'' The unimportance of the place of communication becomes evident. But what is important is that one must communicate; and the entrance hall, even with a dog in an entrance hall, would be a start.

It is at this point in the play that Albee again makes us aware of his theory of the necessity of violence for contact. Jerry says in talking about his dog, "I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves." The two of them together are the motivating device. And then the beautiful and desperate lines, "We neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach each other." We are so terribly misunderstood. We cannot understand love. How is love to be interpreted? By whom? This aspect of the play right here could trigger a very healthy discussion among students. And again at the end of the short play Jerry cries in desperation, "Don't you have any idea, not even the slightest, what other people need?'' People need to be needed, and they need someone to need. They must have someone whom they make contact, with whom they can talk and be understood. If people do not make contact with someone, they resort to various perversions, trying to find something with which to identify.

This point brings us to another human defect. The reader is made aware of Jerry's alienation and aloneness when he describes his apartment and points out the two picture frames that are empty. "I don't see why they need any explanation at all. Isn't it clear? I don't have pictures of anyone to put in them." And his more complete isolation from the square world is quite obvious when he says, "I was a h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l." Thus, when Jerry relates his experiences with the dog, we have a sense not only of his failure to communicate but also of his reaction to people. "... Animals are indifferent to people." People are trapped in their own little worlds like animals in a zoo, and everyone is "... separated by bars from everyone else." Some do not seem to mind their cage, because they accept this poor excuse for living and find a certain amount of satisfaction in things—parakeets, cats, a park bench.

This, then, brings us to the third human failing, that of mediocrity. Peter is the "ordinary," life-size. He is married and has a family of girls, parakeets, and cats. He has an ordinary job and can talk about ordinary things. When Peter becomes perturbed at the thought of losing his bench, he says, "I've come here for years; I have hours of great pleasure, great satisfaction, right here. And that's important to a man. I'm a responsible person, and I'm a GROWN-UP. This is my bench, and you have no right to take it away from me." He has found comfort and security in the everyday things that do not need explaining, so much so that he cannot bear the thought of losing one. Jerry sees him as he really is: "You are a vegetable." He further taunts him, bringing out more of his simpleness and sameness, "...You've told me about your home, and your family, and your own little zoo. You have everything, and now you want this bench.'' Throughout the play there are indications and prevailing overtones of being trapped. At the very end of the play as Jerry dies, he says, "... Your parakeets are making the dinner...the cats...are setting the table...." How very absurd! To be subjected and tied to these menial, dull, unstimulating tasks and responsibilities that we make for ourselves. The sad truth is that these things might be bearable if at the same time we could communicate.

This is the prevailing theme of The Zoo Story—communication. It is obvious at once, and with a little guidance and prodding students can recognize quite readily the handicaps and limitation of man and his society as seen in this play. The results of a study of this play are encouraging, as is the idea that attacking a contemporary play on contemporary society is contemporary education.

Now, whether or not Albee deserves to enter the classroom depends upon whether or not the educators—the English educators—are willing to admit him. I firmly believe our students must be taught literature written during their time. And Edward Albee should be a part of every American literature course!

Source: Carolyn E. Johnson, "In Defense of Albee" in English Journal, Vol. 57, no. 1, January, 1968, pp. 21-23, 29. Johnson is a critic and educational administrator.


Critical Overview


The Zoo Story