Sep 20, 2019 in Literature

Literary and Theatrical Criticism on The Zoo by Edward Albee

Introduction

When the one-act play The Zoo Story by Edward Albee debuted in 1957, the author emerged as one of the exciting dramatists in America. A disturbing and a riveting work of two characters, the play involves a battle fought by a park bench. The battle was between Peter, who was a mild mannered publisher, and Jerry who, on the other hand, was a volatile passerby. Despite the fact that The Zoo Story has been among the most liked and produced plays of one-act in the theatres in America, Albee considered it not complete. As a result, in 2003, Albee penned Homelife, which is a prequel to the play The Zoo Story. It takes place at a home that belongs to Peter and his wife Ann. The two complete one-act apparently form the whole work “At Home at the Zoo”. The new version is making it to be a local premier through the theatre company of Philadelphia, which is the new production area. The current paper seeks to explain that the play has become part of the literary and theater canon, it is taught in schools, and show how different literature and theoretical scholars have interpreted and criticize it in various ways.

The Play as Part of Literary and Theatre Canon

The Zoo Story, which was first performed in 1959, was not very expressionistic compared to some of the author’s earlier plays. Since then the play has become part of literary and theater canon with many theatres in New York performing the play often. Indeed, small theatre companies are always full with audiences such as students from different schools wanting to watch the play. However, it had some criticisms regarding the way of life in America. The plot of the play carries the audience’s sympathy for the aggressive Jerry and deflects it from the mild-mannered Peter. The zoo used in the play is automatically America, where half of the population lives the life of human being while other lives the life of animals. According to Kittredge, the play has been the most impressive debut to have been written by dramatist from America. Although many people believe that individuals have lost their faith in everything, Albee brings hope in individual’s capability to face their actual situations and thus their salvation.

Edward Albee had been adopted by a millionaire when he was two years old. The millionaire was powerful and rich and was among the early producers of Vaudeville in America. Therefore, Edward Albee had grown up as a privileged child because he was the only child in the family. His adoptive parents were however, cold and uncommunicative, and his actual mother was very controlling. The mother wanted Edward to attend the right learning institutions and get allied to the right people. However, Albee was estranged from the bourgeois family and he shifted to Greenwich Village in New York. This is where he proceeded with his work of writing as well as doing odd jobs. That is when he wrote the play The Zoo Story.

Nonetheless, the writing appeared to have flown from conviction and inner need. Indeed, it was somehow an explosion. Upon being completed, the book was rejected by the publishers of the New York City. As a result, Albee took it to Europe where it was premiered in 1959. The premier took place in Schiller Theatre in Germany. In Germany, the play got much critical praise. This success prompted Albee to return the play to the city of New York at Provincetown Play house, which is located in Greenwich Village. Within short time, the play had great impact and influence on both audiences and critics. The latter began the career of Albee as a playwright.

Teaching of the Play in Schools

The play was recently expanded to form a two-act play. Apparently, Albee still writes plays and proceeds with his teaching, although he is now 77 years old. When the play garnered the first critical praise, it proceeded to winning Voice Obie Award of the village for being the best play. In fact, it ran for 582 performances. Since then, the play has continued to be used by universities as their favorite play. The play is also taught in universities to teach the various themes in the book such as human loneliness, isolation, difference in classes, and the dangers that result from failure of Americans to act appropriately. The book also offers several insights to students regarding different literal stylistic devices such as repetition, which has been used throughout the book.

Literally and Theoretical Scholars Interpretation

Most critics of the book consider it as a severe satire that was against society in America. For instance, Abrams postulated that the play was written to show individuals how exactly they were and how their time was, hoping that they would possibly change it. The people in America had lost faith in virtually everything and it was believed that probably, they would change. The latter was to be a way of salvation.

In addition, most critics do not categorize Edward Albee among the absurdities. The author is only hailed as a leader in America in the theatre of absurd. The critics assert that The Zoo Story should not be categorized as an absurd play, although other critics assert that the author was an absurdist dramatist. For instance, Abrams argues that the death Jerry at the end of the play, just like tragic heroes’ death, depicts the impossibility of living based on modern time values. For Jerry to be in a position to communicate with a human being, Jerry should dispatch himself. Indeed, Abrams associates Jerry with Columbus who decided to go to a voyage where he would not come back if he had found what he had gone to get. The only difference between the two is the fact that Columbus had the opportunity to be a hero but as it appears, in the modern world individuals become heroes if they commit suicide.

According to Kittredge, the play has no rejection of life. The play fails to show the audience that Peter cannot actualize his role in death as life any further. Peter was living the role before he met Jerry while in the park. However, the experience with Jerry brings new ways of perceiving things. There is no surety of the redemption of Peter at the end of the story. Furthermore, Albee has left the audience with a lot of uncertainty on the reason for the play since Edward Albee wants the audience to contemplate about what they have perceived while watching the play.

Kittredge argues that a theatre of Absurd rarely reflects return or despair the forces that are dark and irrational. However, it expresses endeavors of the modern man to accept the world where they live. Indeed, it tries to make people face their human condition the way they are and free themselves from the illusions bound to lead to constant disappointment and maladjustment because the dignity of people is established in the ability and capacity to face reality if when it appears senseless. Such individuals are supposed to accept reality freely, with no illusions or fears.

All the plays of Edward Albee tend to criticize the way of life in America, which is probably not the actual life of Americans but a pattern through which many Americans conform. More so, most of his plays, to some degree, make people leave their comfort zones, abandon their complacency, and face up to reality of life as it is. That is probably why most critics label him as a leader of America’s theatre of the absurd, which is normally an outgrowth allied to postmodernism.

 

Additionally, in many instances, the early critics compared the play The Zoo Story to Samuel Beckett’s work. Indeed, when the play was performed for its first time in 1960 in Berlin, it was actually portion of double bill with Krapp’s Last Tape, which is a one-act play of Beckett. In fact, many similarities between the works of Albee on The Zoo Story and Waiting for Godot, the best-known work by Beckett are known to work. The two plays chronicle the association between two characters that are antagonistic and are compelled to have time together. Most significantly, the two plays have absurdist story whereby the characters grapple with meaningless surrounding their situation, notably, of their general life. Plots are absurdist and they are driven through emotions experienced by the characters. Additionally, the characters in an absurdist story accept and recognize that the life they live is meaningless.

Abrams argues that the work of Beckett is perfect example of absurdist. In the work Waiting for Godot, Beckett uses characters that are exaggerated and cartoonish. Indeed, the predicament of the characters is contrived towards making a philosophical point. On the other hand, The Zoo Story has a realistic approach, although it is incredibly significant to note that absurdist and realism are never mutually exclusive. Absurdist is normally a philosophical orientation, while realism is just a style. The personalities of Jerry and Peter are quotidian nuanced. In addition, the two characters have quotidian back-stories. Conversely, the plot of the play, which involves a conversation between strangers, has the characteristics of urban life and the common situations experienced in town. The work is, therefore, innovative. Albee has imported an outlook, which is absurdist to a tradition that seems to be realistic and dramatic.

The opening part of the play mostly focuses on characterization. The fact that the play is centered on two characters is incredibly imperative. Even though the author provides the audience with limited information about Jerry and Peter, the integrated details are chosen carefully. The details tell the audience what they require to comprehend in the whole play.

The direction given by Albee about the acting and costume are precise and terse to the point. For audience that requires reading experience, the latter can be incredibly imperative because they the audience gets hint about what is anticipated from the characters. For instance, Peter’s costumes, which include a pipe, tweeds, and horn-rimmed glasses, depict that he is perhaps stereotypical intellectual, probably a professor. Indeed, as the play continues, it is clear that Peter is a businessman. Due to his dressing as someone belonging to a different profession, there could be truth the later speculations of Jerry that Peter was not happy with his job. According to Albee, the dress of code depicted a salient young man. Additionally, the contrast indicates that Peter tried to be someone else because he was not happy with himself. The latter interpretation assists in understanding his quick reactions once told that he was not able to have children by Jerry. The assumptions also draw attention to Peter’s age, and his true personality he has been working to disguise from himself. More so, the desire to look young foreshadowed the childish behavior of Peter when his personal space was invaded by Jerry towards the end of the story.

The description of Jerry also offers valuable and important insights concerning the character. While describing Peter, the author emphasized his physical details such as the costume. However, while describing Jerry, Albee puts emphasis on the actual appearance less. Instead, the author dwells much on the fact that life has beaten him down and he has great weariness. In many aspects, Jerry is not redefined by luxury compared to peter. Through the dialogue in the play, it is clear that the two characters come from social-economic background that are very much different and this is conveyed in the stage as Albee describes the attitudes of the characters and not their physical appearances. The author even notes that Jerry is not supposed to be dressed poorly; rather, the author believes that the difference between the characters should be depicted through acting but not through costumes.

Nonetheless, the stage directions minimize the education and class differences between Jerry and Peter. Such differences, according to Kittredge, are significant component in the dynamism of characters. In the initial stages of the play, Peter is confronted by Jerry regarding their background differences. The latter is achieved as Jerry observes that Peter is, perhaps, educated referenced from his habit of reading and vocabulary. More, Jerry pushes social boundary when he asks Peter to comment on his salary. In fact, the many breaches in Jerry’s etiquette are allied to their class difference. Jerry’s consciousness is clearly depicted when he pushes Peter about the income and compels him to accept the fact that he is privileged. According to Kittredge, the play can be understood as a movement or change towards awareness. Indeed, throughout the play, Jerry compels Peter to perceive him the way other people view him and not the man he portends himself to be.

Conclusion

Throughout the play, Albee has tried to enlighten the audience through his absurdist style on what lays behind the masked lives that individuals lead. He also wants people to understand some of the bad traits people cannot establish in themselves, apparently, such as human isolation, limitation in communication and the people’s unwillingness. People have illusions that normally block their minds and blind them from perceiving the truth of life and their condition in it. Albee attempts to move people to a better society in ways they cannot reject. The ways that the author wants people to follow are not harsh but it is difficult to understand what people can do about it

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