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.

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...

(This entire section contains 661 words.)

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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.

Dramatic Devices

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Although naturalistic on the surface, The Zoo Story builds on its single scene by metaphor. The title is itself metaphorical, for the play is about the “cosmic zoo” in which man is caged in his estrangement from fellow beings and God. The park setting is clever, for it suggests a fallen Eden in correlation to Jerry’s “fall from physical grace” and “great weariness.” Moreover, this setting is an easy way for Edward Albee to set up the encounter between his two characters.

Peter’s tweeds, pipe, glasses, and book act in concert with his background (family man and pet owner, textbook publisher) and speech (glib at times but suggesting vague dissatisfaction with his life) to create the image of a modern corporate man who fits into a decreed pattern. His reluctance to be drawn into conversation and his fussing with his pipe, glasses, and book show that he is in retreat from life around him and does not pay real attention to his world.

Jerry suggests a different sort of retreat from life. His careless dress and high-strung shifts of mood and topic reveal a form of psychological disintegration, and the volume of his dialogue—he has a set piece lasting roughly a third of the whole play—suggests the extent of his intense desperation to find respite from his alienation. His self-interrupted thoughts and suspended phrases are further signs of disintegration, but they actually create ironic comedy and dramatic suspense before interlocking in a jagged orchestration of significance. As he hints to Peter (who is uncomprehending), Jerry finds it necessary to go a long distance out of the way, literally and metaphorically, to come back a short distance correctly. There is a deliberate disproportion in the dialogue. Jerry has the most to say, but this imbalance is appropriate: He is the questioning searcher, the angry interrogator, the hypersensitive alienated one.

In terms of action, the play follows a sequence of intrusion and retreat, statement and restatement, verbal attack and physical intimidation. Jerry’s black humor releases both nervous laughter and irony in the course of the action. Every time Peter attempts to retreat within himself, Jerry draws him out again—until the climactic moment when Peter is forced to define himself by absurdly defending his right to a park bench. Ironically, Jerry’s mocking tone (sometimes self-mocking) and his death (which looks like murder when it is really suicide) force the audience to question every assumption they have made about the two characters and their conflicting values. In the end, man is, indeed, an animal, defined not by reason and love but by conditioning and hostility.

Places Discussed

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*Central Park

*Central Park. Large public park in central Manhattan represented in the play only by benches on opposite edges of the stage. The atmosphere initially seems pleasant as a man named Peter, seated at stage right, reads under a canopy of plants and the sky. The repose is broken when Jerry enters and insists on engaging Peter in conversation. Another pair of locations quickly becomes central to the unfolding events. Peter lives in a toney neighborhood east of the park, while Jerry resides in a shabby rooming house on Central Park West. These locations reflect the characters’ vastly different lives and suggest fundamental incompatibilities.

On the surface, Central Park appears to occupy neutral ground, but through Jerry’s monologues and interrogations, it emerges as symbols of New York City itself and the impersonality of modern urban life. People pass one another without comment or occupy benches and barely exchange glances. Jerry is determined to break through Peter’s reserve and establish a human relationship.

Jerry’s rooming house

Jerry’s rooming house. Jerry describes his residence as a battle zone in which he contends with a neighbor’s ill-tempered dog. At first, he had tried to placate the dog with hamburgers; later, he had tried to poison the dog. Eventually he and the dog had achieved an understanding; however, Peter cannot comprehend the implications of Jerry’s tale.


Zoo. Location that remains off-stage yet uppermost in Jerry’s mind. With its cages, the zoo is another symbol of the condition of modern people, constrained by conventionality, etiquette, and repressed emotions. When Peter fails to understand Jerry’s dog story, Jerry surrenders his own life to illustrate the condition of debilitating isolation and to establish a profound human connection.

Historical Context

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Social Climate in the 1950s The 1950s in the U.S. are viewed by many people as a period of prosperity for American society as a whole. Socially, many catch phrases were being used at this time, like "standard of living" and "cost of living," which implied that life in America could be measured based on personal income and material goods. After experiencing the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II a decade later, the U.S. was eager to embrace the notion that it had come into its own and, consequently, consumer confidence soared. Household appliances and automobiles became available to more people than ever before, and the television became a prominent factor in the daily lives of Americans during the late 1950s. In 1947, a mere 14,000 families owned television sets; ten years later that figure grew to 35 million families. In theory, the television brought people closer together and allowed communication to reach new heights. However, many critics maintain that the way Albee mentions television in The Zoo Story and the fact that Peter has difficulty carrying on anything but empty conversation reflect on how disconnected society has become.

Political Climate in the 1950s Politically, the U.S. was dominated by conservative values during the 1950s. One of the most extreme examples of this conservative tide was the effort led by Senator Joseph McCarthy to harass and prosecute individuals suspected to have ties with the Communist Party. This anti-Communist sentiment in America turned into a frenzy because of the ruthless and random nature of the McCarthy's witch hunts. Eventually, Americans began to react against the absurdity of these trials, although many were afraid that they themselves would be targeted. Three other factors also played a major role in worrying conservatives: the emergence of rock music, movies that were becoming more and more explicit, and especially, the publishing of Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953. Alfred Kinsey, a zoologist, traveled all over the U.S. to interview over 16,000 men and women about their sexual histories. The details that were revealed, especially those concerning premarital sex and homosexuality, shocked the nation. Critics objected to the fact that the researchers failed to pass moral judgment on the data that they collected. Jerry, in The Zoo Story, epitomizes the thirty-seven percent of males in the Kinsey Report who reported that they had had a homosexual experience between adolescence and old age. He is also very eager to share the details of his homosexual experiences as a fifteen year old, which clearly makes Peter uncomfortable.

Cultural Climate in the 1950s The cultural climate in the late 1950s included the beginnings of a backlash against conservative social and political views. Artists who lived outside the mainstream or who were dissatisfied within it began to comment boldly on this fact in their work. The Beat Generation were members of an artistic movement that centered in New York City and San Francisco during this time who protested against conservative values. Film audiences also began to idolize the tough guy at odds with "the establishment," such as those played by Marlon Brando and, most famously, James Dean in Rebel without A Cause (1956). The Theatre of the Absurd was a radical movement making an impact on world drama, which dominated the French stage after 1950. Absurdist playwrights sought to violate conservative audiences' expectations of what theatre should be by using incomprehensible plots, stark settings, and unusually long pauses. Playwrights such as Eugene Ionesco believed that life is terrifying because it is fundamentally absurd. Edward Albee used these absurd elements in a realistic mode with The Zoo Story, thus causing some confusion among critics and audiences in terms of how to label the play.

Literary Style

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StructureThe Zoo Story by Edward Albee is rather simple in structure. It is set in New York's Central Park on Sunday afternoon in the summer. The staging for the play, therefore, consists of two park benches with foliage, trees, and sky behind them. The place never changes, and the action of the play unfolds in a linear manner, from beginning to end, in front of the audience. Everything happens in the present, which gives the play its immediacy and makes the events that unfold even more shocking. As an audience member, watching the play makes one feel as if one is witnessing a crime and is directly involved; this sense of involvement is achieved through the structure of the play.

Style What makes The Zoo Story dense and difficult to define is the style in which it is written. It does not fit into the purely realistic nor the totally absurd genres that were both popular in 1958 when Albee wrote the play. The Theatre of the Absurd was a movement that dominated the French stage after World War II, and was characterized by radical theatrical innovations. Playwrights in this genre used practically incomprehensible plots and extremely long pauses in order to violate conservative audiences' expectations of what theatre should be. Albee took this absurd style and combined it with acute realism in order to comment on American society in the 1950s. With The Zoo Story, Albee points to French playwright Eugene Ionesco's idea that human life is both fundamentally absurd and terrifying; therefore, communication through language is equally absurd. Albee is also drawing from existential philosophy in The Zoo Story. Existentialism is concerned with the nature and perception of human existence, and often deals with the idea that the basic human condition is one of suffering and loneliness. Jerry and his position in American society are clearly examples of this point of view. Another literary style which began emerging around the time that The Zoo Story was written is postmodernism. Postmodernists continued to apply the fundamentals of modernism, including alienation and existentialism, but went a step further by rejecting traditional forms. Therefore, they prefer the anti-novel over the novel and, as in The Zoo Story, the anti-hero over the hero. Although Albee does not belong solely in the realistic, absurdist, existential or postmodern literary genres, it is evident that all of these movements had an impact on The Zoo Story and Albee as a playwright.

Literary Devices Albee used various literary devices in The Zoo Story. The first device is the anti-hero. An anti-hero, like a hero, is the central character of the play but lacks heroic qualities such as courage, physical prowess, and integrity. Anti-heroes usually distrust conventional values and, like Jerry, they often accept and celebrate their position as social outcasts. Along with the anti-hero, Albee uses satire and black humor in The Zoo Story. Satire employs humor to comment negatively on human nature and social institutions, while black humor places grotesque elements along side of humorous elements in order to shock the reader and evoke laughter in the face of difficulty and disorder. Albee uses both of these devices in The Zoo Story to comment on the way different social classes choose to view and ignore each other in American society; specifically, he highlights the way in which members of the upper classes deal with members of the lower ones. This is illustrated with the character of Peter, who Albee uses as an example by having Jerry methodically bring him down to an animalistic level in order to show that he is just like everyone else. Another device that Albee uses in The Zoo Story is allegory. Allegory involves the use of characters, representing things or abstract ideas, to convey a message. Jerry's story about his landlady's dog could be seen as an allegory for his own inability to relate to others. In the end, Jerry says that he and the dog harbor "sadness, suspicion and indifference" for each other, which is similar to the relationships that Jerry has with other people. Some critics have argued that The Zoo Story is an allegory for Christian redemption. Jerry, as the Christ-like figure, martyrs himself to demonstrate the need for and meaningfulness of communication. This Christian allegory viewpoint is also evident in some of the dialogue, such as when Jerry sighs and says "So be it!" just before impaling himself on the knife Peter is holding. This can be viewed as a reference to Jesus Christ's words as he dies on the cross: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Although the manner in which Albee employs literary devices in The Zoo Story is subject to critical interpretation, all of the devices are readily apparent and are used to create a compelling drama.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: The television set came into prominence in the American household. By 1957, a total of 35 million U.S. families had a television in their homes.

Today: Almost all American families, rich and poor, have at least one television set, and with the emergence of cable television, the amount of channels available is well over 100. The television is now an integral part of American society.

1950s: Conservative family values dominated American society, with so-called "typical" nuclear families like Peter's in The Zoo Story viewed as ideal. Early television shows, such as Father Knows Best, that depicted such "ideal" families were extremely popular.

Today: Families are depicted in a much more realistic light on television today, on shows like Roseanne. The nuclear family is no longer viewed as the "ideal," and most Americans consider themselves to have moderate values. Nevertheless, a very vocal conservative Christian movement is leading the fight to return to the idealized view of the family that was popular in the 1950s.

1950s: Consumer confidence and general prosperity within middle- and upper-class American society soared. However, this prosperity failed to carry over from white males to the Americans in lower classes, women, and ethnic minorities, who continued to earn less money and endure more job discrimination than white males.

Today: The U.S. economy is steady, but after some economic hard times, consumer confidence is far lower than during the 1950s. White males still continue to make more money than women and minorities, but the gap is slowly closing. Many women and members of minority groups have been able to secure employment in powerful, high ranking professions.

Media Adaptations

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Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was adapted and filmed by Warner Bros., starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis. The film was released in 1966.

Critics have argued that Albee is condemning the wealthy classes for their false sense of security and their lack of knowledge or understanding of how the other half lives. This point of view seems to be very clear by the end of the play when Jerry has succeeded in bringing Peter down to a basic animal-like level of behavior. It is at this point that their classes become irrelevant and their similarities are seen as the truth. Whether wealthy or poor, the desire for contact and love from others is equally strong. The Zoo Story shows what can happen when this need is not fulfilled.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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FURTHER READING Anderson, Mary C , editor. Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, Syracuse University Press, 1983. A good resource for Albee's thoughts on the dramatic process. Also contains a number of essays that discuss the themes present in The Zoo Story.

Bigsby, C. W. E., editor. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1975. A good critical overview of Albee's career up until 1974. Contains a number of perceptive essays on The Zoo Story.

Ditsky, John. "Albee's Parabolic Christ: The Zoo Story" in his The Onstage Christ: Studies in the Persistence of a Theme, [London], 1980. Ditksy's book examines religious imagery in various dramas. He details the parallels to the story of Christ that are evident in Albee's play.

Nilan, Mary M. "Albee's The Zoo Story: Alienated Man and the Nature of Love" in Modem Drama, Vol. 16, 1973. An essay that details Jerry's isolation from mainstream society and his failures at forming meaningful relationships.

Woods, Linda L. "Isolation and the Barrier of Language in The Zoo Story in Research Studies, Vol. 36, 1968. A good examination of Jerry's alienation from middle-class society and problems that he faces communicating with members of that group—Peter in particular.

SOURCES Anderson, Mary C. "Ritual and Initiation in The Zoo Story," in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, pp. 93-108, Syracuse University Press, 1983.

Brustem, Robert. "Krapp and a Little Claptrap," in New Republic, February 22, 1960, pp 21-2.

Ditsky, John. The Onstage Christ Studies in the Persistence of a Theme, Vision Press, 1980, p. 188.

Driver, Tom. "Drama Bucketful of Dregs," in Christian Century, February 17, 1960, pp. 193-94.

Hewes, Henry "Benchmanship,'' in Saturday Review, February 16, 1960, p 32.

Luft, Friedrich. Review in Critical Essays on Edward Albee, edited by Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison Davis, p. 41, Hall, 1986.

Roudane, Matthew C. Understanding Edward Albee, p. 27, University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Wellwarth, George The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Development in the Avant-Garde Drama, New York University Press, 1964.

Zimbardo, Rose A. "Symbolism and Naturalism m Edward Albee's The Zoo Story," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 8, 1962, pp. 10-17


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Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. In chapter 3 of this book, “Ancient Tragedy and Modern Absurdity,” the author analyzes the classical plot of The Zoo Story and discusses the problems of biblical language, the face of the television screen, and the existential position found in the play. He concludes with an interesting and informative discussion of the play as a classical Greek tragedy.

Hayman, Ronald. Edward Albee. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Contains a relatively brief and easy-to-follow analysis of the plot and themes in the play. Hayman concludes that The Zoo Story is not a homosexual play, an absurd play, or a religious play as other critics contend; it is an outstanding moral play.

Rutenberg, Michael E. Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest. New York: DBS, 1969. A discussion of Albee as an astute social critic, deeply moral and committed to the cause of human dignity in an ethically moribund age. Chapter 1, on The Zoo Story, analyzes the play as a defense of society’s outcasts who have been victimized by the stupidity and bias of the successful elite.

Way, Brian. “Albee and the Absurd: The American Dream and The Zoo Story.” In Edward Albee, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A perceptive and well-articulated analysis of the tension between the realist and absurd dimensions in the play and of Albee’s brilliance, inventiveness, intelligence, and moral courage in writing it. This book has a useful Albee bibliography along with a number of other excellent essays.

Zimbardo, Rose A. “Symbolism and Naturalism in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.” In Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. An interesting analysis of The Zoo Story as a modern morality play whose theme is human isolation and salvation through sacrifice. Albee uses traditional Christian symbols because the sacrifice of Christ is perhaps the most effective way that the story has been told in the past.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide