The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661

While Peter is reading a book on a bench in Central Park, he is interrupted by Jerry, a total stranger, who announces that he has just been to the zoo. Anxious to return to his reading, Peter reacts with merely vague interest and lights his pipe, but he is immediately made uncomfortable by Jerry’s queries about his marital status, children, work, and menage of cats and parakeets. After repeating that he has been to the zoo and that Peter will read about it in the papers the next day if he does not see it on television that very night, Jerry follows several digressions about sociological class distinctions, literary tastes, and his daylong wanderings. He also gives a detailed description of his rooming house and its characters on the Upper West Side. Peter is embarrassed to hear these sordid details.

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Jerry says that, unlike Peter, he owns little except for toilet articles, pornographic playing cards, eight or nine books, cutlery, empty picture frames, an old Western Union typewriter that prints nothing but capital letters, and a small box containing letters and some sea-rounded rocks that he picked up on a beach when he was a boy. Then he tells of his mother’s desertion of his father and him, as well as her promiscuity, alcoholism, and death at Christmas. He continues with his father’s accidental death and the demise, on Jerry’s high school graduation day, of his guardian, a dour aunt. Jerry confides that his relationships with women are limited to solitary encounters with prostitutes and that his only love affair was a brief one, at age fifteen, with a Greek boy.

Then he launches into a long monologue about his disgusting, lusty, alcoholic landlady and her ugly, savage black dog that attacked Jerry daily whenever he tried to enter the rooming house, although he attempted to pacify it by feeding it hamburger for six days. On the seventh day, he poisoned the meat, and the dog fell extremely ill. Strangely, Jerry no longer wanted the dog to die; he had come to believe that if he could somehow make contact with the dog, he could then make contact with people. The moment of contact passed, however, and was lost. From then on, Jerry and the dog lapsed into mutual indifference. Jerry claims to have learned from this misadventure that kindness and cruelty, like other conflicting emotions, are the reality of being.

This story has a hypnotic effect on Peter, who makes no comment during its lengthy recitation. Grotesquely exhausted at the end of the story, Jerry sits down on the bench beside Peter and sees that he has annoyed and confused Peter instead of making a breakthrough in communication. Suddenly playful, he tickles Peter’s ribs, driving Peter into almost hysterical laughter. He pokes Peter, then punches him in the arm and forces him to move down the bench. Easily goaded by Jerry’s insults to his manhood, Peter decides to fight for the bench, but when Jerry clicks open a knife and tosses it at him, Peter refuses to pick it up. Jerry rushes over, grabs him by the collar, slaps him, spits on his face, and forces Peter to dart for the knife. Then, sighing heavily, Jerry charges Peter and impales himself on the knife.

As Jerry crumbles back onto the bench, with his eyes and mouth wide in agony, his voice acquires an eerie remoteness. Peter is transfixed as Jerry, with faint laughter, tries to summarize in broken, disjointed sentences his knowledge of his own actions. The world, he has found, is a zoo, and he thanks Peter for ending his anguished life. Slowly wiping clean the knife handle with his own handkerchief, Jerry urges Peter to hurry away. As Peter retreats with a pitiable howl, Jerry ends the play with a combination of scornful mockery and a desperate supplication to the God who failed to give him a cure for his desperate alienation.

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