(Drama Criticism)

The Zoo Story

See also Edward Albee Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 9, 13, 25, 86, 113.

Albee's first play, The Zoo Story, is a one-act satire set in New York City. It was first staged on 28 September 1959, in a production directed by Walter Henn at the Schiller Theatre Werkstatt in Berlin. It received its first American performance on 14 January the following year, in a production at New York's Provincetown Playhouse, directed by Milton Katselas. The play centers on Jerry, a young drifter, who encounters Peter, a conservative publishing executive, on a bench in Central Park. Jerry attempts to force conversation on Peter, becoming increasingly more personal and direct in his questioning as the reticent Peter fails to respond. Ultimately, Jerry instigates a physical confrontation with Peter, who defends himself with a knife that the drifter has thrust into his hand. During the scuffle, Jerry purposely impales himself on the blade.


While many critics have regarded The Zoo Story as an absurdist condemnation of the artificiality of American values and the failure of communication, others have described the work as an allegory of Christian redemption in which Jerry martyrs himself to demonstrate the value of meaningful communication. Martin Esslin has cited the play's attack on "the very foundations of American optimism" as evidence for placing Albee in the context of the Theater of the Absurd. On the other hand, Rose Zimabardo has viewed The Zoo Story as operating not within an absurd Godless universe, but rather a distinctly Christian one. She has termed the work a "modern Morality play" that employs traditional Christian symbolism to present the theme of "human isolation and salvation through sacrifice." Robert S. Wallace and Mary M. Nilan, among others, have also explored the play's themes of alienation and social polarization, and Robert B. Bennett has examined its religious and spiritual content in support of his contention that The Zoo Story is a tragedy and not merely a melodrama.

Production Reviews

(Drama Criticism)

Brooks Atkinson (review date 15 January 1960)

SOURCE: "Theatre: A Double Bill Off Broadway," in The New York Times, 15 January 1960, p. 37.

[The following review of The Zoo Story praises it, calling it "consistently interesting and illuminatingodd and pithy" but flawed by a melodramatic ending.]

After the banalities of Broadway it tones the muscles and freshens the system to examine the squalor of Off Broadway.

Three actors suffice for the two short plays put on at the Provincetown Playhouse last evening. Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape makes do with one actor—Donald Davis from the Crest Theatre in Toronto. Edward Albee's The Zoo Story needs two—George Maharis and William Daniels.

Both plays are dialogues. Both plays are interesting, and both of them are well acted by intelligent professionals. Nothing of enduring value is said in either play. But each of them captures some part of the dismal mood that infects many writers today.

Krapp's Last Tape takes a wistful look back into the memories of an aging, creaking curmudgeon. All that happens really is that Krapp listens to a tape record of an idyllic day in his youth. But that is all Mr. Beckett needs. For he has a highly original sense of the grotesque comedy of life. Although Krapp looks like a Skid Row veteran he is the relic of an exultant writer; and everything Mr. Beckett says is a grim criticism of life.

Having once studied the sullen method of Endgame, Alan Schneider is the perfect director for Krapp's Last Tape. The scenery consists of a morose library table and chair, an ugly lamp and a messy array of cartons—disorder incarnate. As Krapp, Mr. Davis has very little to say and do. But he makes every movement significant and every line caustic. The whole portrait is wonderfully alive. If Krapp's Last Tape is a joke, the joke is not on Mr. Beckett.

Mr. Albee's The Zoo Story does not have so much literary distinction. Mr. Beckett has a terrifying sense of the mystery of life. Mr. Albee is more the reporter. There are two characters and two benches in his play set in Central Park. A cultivated, complacent publisher is reading a book. An intense, aggressive young man in shabby dress strikes up a conversation with him.

Or, to be exact, a monologue. For the intruder wants to unburden his mind of his private miseries and resentments, and they pour out of him in a flow of wild, scabrous, psychotic details. Since Mr. Albee is an excellent writer and designer of dialogue and since he apparently knows the city, The Zoo Story is consistently interesting and illuminating—odd and pithy. It ends melodramatically as if Mr. Albee had lost control of his material. Although the conclusion is theatrical, it lacks the sense of improvisation that characterizes the main body of the play.

Milton Katselas has staged The Zoo Story admirably; and Mr. Maharis' overwrought yet searching intruder, and Mr. Daniels' perplexed publisher are first-rate pieces of acting.

Although the Provincetown bill is hardly glamorous, it has a point of view. Both Mr. Beckett and Mr. Albee write on the assumption that the human condition is stupid and ludicrous.

Donald Malcolm (review date 23 January 1960)

SOURCE: "And Moreover …" in New Yorker, Vol. XXXV, No. 49,23 January 1960, p. 72-76.

[The following review praises The Zoo Story's "acute observation of two authentic and interesting types."]

The cheerful news of this week comes from the Province-town Playhouse, which is presenting an excellent double feature. The first item on the bill is Krapp 's Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett. It reveals that author in an unwontedly unambiguous and almost chatty frame of mind. His playlet concerns a solitary and unsuccessful old writer named Krapp, whose singular habit it is to make a yearly tape recording of his reflections on the events of the preceding twelve months. This eccentric figure shuffles around his dismal room, eats a banana or two with senile relish, and then plays back a tape he made many years earlier, when he was young. As the playback proceeds, the old man listens with unseemly avidity to his younger self describing a romantic interlude, and then interrupts, with sulphurous comments, his own youthful rhapsodies on the meaning of life and art. Krapp then attempts to record his impressions of the current year, only to find that there is "nothing to say. Not a squeak." That, substantially, is all there is to the production, but its effectiveness is startling. The tape recorder permits Mr. Beckett to present his hero, simultaneously, at two different stages of his career, and so to suggest, with great compression, the whole course of his life, while the interplay of actor and recording produces a remarkable blend of irony and sentiment. The sketch is much indebted for its success to a brilliant cast, which consists of Donald Davis. It would have been accomplishment enough, I should think, merely to keep from looking foolish while spending all that time in listening attitudes, but Mr. Davis manages to make every ripple of expression speak, either comically or touchingly, of the terrible attrition of the years.

The second play is The Zoo Story, and it was written by a hitherto unknown young playwright named Edward Albee. It deals with the chance encounter of two men at a bench in Central Park. The seated member of the pair, called Peter, is a thoroughly respectable young executive. His accoster, Jerry, seems at first to be just another of those talkative cranks with which this city abounds. His efforts to strike up a conversation are awkward in the extreme; he fidgets around Peter's bench and asks startlingly direct questions: "You married? How many children you got? Any pets?"

The information he volunteers about himself is no less personal. He itemizes his few possessions, scrupulously including his deck of pornographic playing cards. He describes his appalling room in a West Side tenement. He relates his attempt to make friends with the landlady's mangy dog, which has persistently tried to bite him. He describes his attempt to poison the dog, which failed but which led to a mutually wary coexistence of man and beast. All this is presented with a keen sense of natural, spoken comedy that does not, I'm afraid, translate readily to paper. But as the lopsided and somewhat menacing conversation proceeds, one also senses the desperate loneliness of Jerry's life in his effort to make friends by sheer enforced intimacy. When Peter, who is sympathetic but understandably nervous, fails to respond to these overtures, Jerry forces that stolid citizen to do battle with him, and so contrives matters that he runs upon his own knife and kills himself, while Peter looks on aghast, murmuring repeatedly, "Oh, my God!" There is a disturbing suggestion, in the final moments of the play, that the author would not be disappointed if one were to relate Jerry and Peter to a pair of celebrated figures from the New Testament, but the hint is sufficiently oblique to be safely ignored by those who like to think that there is more to godhead than a warm heart, an addled brain, and an urgent need to communicate, like. The merit of the piece lies in its acute observation of two authentic and interesting types, and one is encouraged to expect many more good things from Mr. Albee. Like its predecessor on the bill, this play owes much to its performers. As Jerry, George Maharis is at once sinister and appealing, and William Daniels, who is obliged to do nearly as much listening as Donald Davis, acquits himself with nearly equal art. Mr. Daniels' expression on being told that "Time magazine isn't written for...

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Critical Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Rose A. Zimbardo (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Symbolism and Naturalism in Edward Albee's The Zoo Story," in Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal, Vol. 8. No. 1, April, 1962, pp. 10-17.

[The essay below presents the view that The Zoo Story is a "modern morality play" that places Christian symbolism in a context of "naturalistic dialogue, situation and setting. "]

The acclaim, both popular and critical, which has greeted Albee's The Zoo Story leads one to speculate upon the direction American drama is likely to take in the future. Concern with idea, rather than character or plot, is not new in...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)

Atkinson, Brooks. "Village Vagrants."The New York Times (31 January 1960): III. 1.

Review of The Zoo Story that finds the play "original and engrossing" but considers the ending "conventional melodrama."

Matthews, Honor. "The Disappearance of the Image in England and America." In The Primal Curse: The Myth of Cain and Abel in the Theatre, pp. 187-205. London: Chatto and Windus, 1967.

Includes a discussion of The Zoo Story. Matthews views the story of Jerry and Peter a "twisted" version of the Cain and Abel tale, for in Albee's play "the agressor throws down the knife at his victim's feet, and himself … achieves before death a transient fulfillment and peace."

Way, Brian. "Albee and the Absurd: The 'American Dream' and 'The Zoo Story'." In American Theatre, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 189-207. London: Edward Arnold, 1967.

Examines the conflict between realism and the Theatre of the Absurd in two of Albee's early works. Way argues that while Albee adopts elements of the Theatre of the Absurd, he fails to achieve that drama's power.