by Ervin Beck, Professor of English
Our understanding of Edward Albee’s achievement in The American Dream (1960) has come a long way since 1961 when Martin Esslin hailed it as a “brilliant first example of an American contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd”1 and 1966 when Nicholas Canaday, Jr. labeled it America’s “best example of what has come to be known as `the theatre of the absurd.'”2
The shrewdest assessment of absurdism in Albee is by Brian Way, who shows convincingly that, although Albee has successfully mastered the techniques of theatrical absurdism, he has nevertheless shied away from embracing the metaphysics that the style implies.3 That is, Albee knows that Theatre of the Absurd is “an absorption-in-art of certain existentialist and post-existentialist philosophical concepts having to do, in the main, with man’s attempts to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense.”4 But Albee nevertheless “believes in the validity of reason–that things can be proved, or that events can be shown to have definite meanings.”5 Structurally, the chief evidence for this claim is that Albee’s plays, including The American Dream, move toward resolution, denouement and completion rather than the circularity or open-endedness typical of Theatre of the Absurd.6
In regard to content, Way’s point may be extended by contrasting the implications of the titles of The American Dream and Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, an absurdist drawing room comedy to which Albee’s play seems indebted in many ways. Ionesco’s title derives from the Fireman’s passing reference to the woman who “always wears her hair in the same style.”7 She is not a character in the play, nor is she ever referred to again. She is a non-sequitur, as is everything else in that circular play, since nothing follows logically from what precedes it.
Albee’s title, on the other hand, is rich in intellectual and moral substance, since it refers to a host of ideas and feelings associated with the fondest hopes of participants in the American experience, both historic and contemporary. The title is also a fitting thematic label for the play since the dialogue explicitly refers to the American Dream after the Young Man appears on stage. Ionesco’s title–like all titles, an authorial comment on the text–rightly says that the play lacks meaning; Albee’s says that it refers to a lot of meaning.
That meaning is most obviously associated with the Young Man, since he is specifically identified as the American Dream by the dialogue of the play. The less obvious–but more important–meaning is embodied in Grandma. The goal of this essay will be to clarify how Grandma’s character and experience bear most of the meaning of the American Dream that Albee wants to communicate in this play. As we shall see, that meaning fits squarely within the mainstream American humanist tradition stretching back to the early, idealistic years of the American republic.
Even though she is a physical disaster, many critics have noticed various kinds of attractive qualities in Grandma. Don D. Moore finds her “the most appealing, the most refreshing and the wisest figure in the play.”8 Canaday, who has written the most about Grandma, praises her for her realism, clear vision, enjoyment of living, and creative response to life, especially the way she resolves the knot of the plot.9 Daniel R. Brown rightly, in my opinion, finds in Grandma a “licensed speaker,” someone who tells us what to think and therefore becomes a kind of mouthpiece for the author.10 A few critics have also associated Grandma with the American Dream, among them being A. Robert Lee,11 George E. Wellworth12 and Ronald Hayman. For instance, Hayman says, “There are hints that Albee intends her to be . . . an incarnation of the American nineteenth-century liberal values which were still alive earlier in the twentieth [century].”13 However, all such comments have been incidental, made in passing. They do not do justice to the major role that Grandma plays in the drama. After all, she is the main character in the play, appearing on stage more of the time and having more speeches than any other character. It is, in effect, her play, and she deserves detailed examination as the main bearer of traditional values in the play.
Indeed, she fits squarely within the archetype of “The American Adam” sketched persuasively by R.W.B. Lewis in his seminal book by the same name on American intellectual history.14 The American Adam is, of course, the archetype of a new kind of human being, freed from the corrupt institutions of the Old World and facing an unspoiled garden utopia, armed with power derived from youthful vigor and spiritual innocence. On a rather superficial level, Grandma is Lewis’s agrarian hero subduing the American Eden of a wilderness with industry and ingenuity. Mommy verifies Grandma’s association with the American countryside by saying, “Oh, Mrs. Barker, you must forgive Grandma. She’s rural.”15 Mommy also acknowledges Grandma’s continued industry, despite her old age: “I can’t stand it, watching her do the cooking and the housework, polishing the silver, moving the furniture” (p. 67). And Grandma herself claims the role by saying, “Pioneer stock” (p. 112), when the Young Man admires her resourcefulness in the bakeoff contest, where she has indeed shown a kind of Yankee ingenuity.
Of course, Grandma represents this ideal in its declining, hence less attractive and potent, years. “My sacks are empty, the fluid in my eyeballs is all caked on the inside edges, my spine is made of sugar candy; I breathe ice” (p. 82), she says. But for an otherwise absurdist play, she embodies and speaks the truths associated with America’s earliest and best impulses.
Her explicit identification with the American Adam is depicted by Albee in two rather subtle, cryptic ways. First, when Grandma examines the Young Man for the first time, she exclaims: “Yup . . . yup. You know, if I were about a hundred and fifty years younger I could go for you” (p. 106). Here literary criticism must become mathematical: The play was written in 1960, which means that Grandma literally has in mind the year 1810, when the United States (with its new constitution) was 21 years old–newly come of age, full of idealism and on the verge of its incredible expansion. At that time in history, the Young Man would have made a perfect mate for Grandma.
Second, although Grandma is literally a woman–the American Eve?–Albee has worked into his characterization and text elements that help bridge the gender gap, making his American Dream androgynous if not wholly masculine. “I look just as much like an old man as I do like an old woman,” “Grandma declares (p. 111). And in the bake-off contest, of course, her nom de boulangere is “Uncle Henry” (p. 111). The “Henry” gives Grandma a masculine dimension. The “Uncle” even associates her with “Uncle Sam,” that ubiquitous image in popular culture that approximates the American Adam in Lewis’s literary culture.
In fact, Albee may have designed his play fully conscious of the early American theatrical convention of depicting a true blue American hero on the stage in the form of an Uncle Sam stage type. Walter Meserve points out that, in early American theater, the Yankee character, the Negro character and the Indian character were the three stage types that American playwrights added to the caricatures that they had inherited from Europe.16 This Yankee character, first called “Jonathan,” appears in over 100 American plays from 1800 to 1850–early (1787) as Master Jonathan in Tyler’s The Contrast and late (1845) as Adam Trueman in Mowatt’s Fashion. The type even developed a stylized red, white and blue costume, “much after the present caricature of Uncle Sam, minus the stars but glorifying in the stripes.”17
Theater historians and directors of the play will be struck by the many similarities indeed between Grandma and Adam Trueman, namely their blunt, outspoken natures; their support of the traditional American values that they see being undermined by newfangledness; and, most important, their prescience and practical ability that enable them to resolve by their own contrivings the very complicated knots in their respective plays. To communicate this role to twentieth-century audiences who may not be familiar with the convention, a director might want to make Grandma look something like the Jonathans, Uncle Sams and Adam Truemans in her stage ancestry.
Of course, Grandma also has the inner qualities that link her with the best that has been thought about America. First of all, in the dehumanized, alienated society of Mommy and Daddy’s apartment in which she lives, she alone bears the standard of benevolent humanism for which America has always stood. True, she has learned to insult, to give as well as take from Mommy. But she alone has a sense of human dignity, of the worth of the individual upon which American democracy is based.
In one of her first speeches Grandma states her philosophy of life: “Well, that’s all that counts. People being sorry. Makes you feel better; gives you a sense of dignity, and that’s all that’s important . . . a sense of dignity. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t care, or not, either. You got to have a sense of dignity, even if you don’t care, `cause, if you don’t have that, civilization’s doomed” (p. 64).
To Grandma’s keynote statement, Mommy responds accusatorially: “You’ve been reading my book club selections again!” (p. 65). Of course! While Mommy has been glued to the television, Grandma has probably been reading Heritage Book Club selections by Plato, Moses, Shakespeare, Jefferson and other sources of America’s enduring values. Grandma’s eloquent view of history helps make her the only genuinely human, empathetic character in the play, as is seen particularly in her intimate scenes with Mrs. Barker and the Young Man, both of whom are moved by her ability to understand and sympathize with them.
This understanding of Grandma helps make sense out of the main stage property associated with her–her boxes. On a literal level, the boxes are simply the belongings that Grandma takes with her as she moves from the apartment. As Mommy finds out when she looks for the bathroom, however, Grandma is really emptying the apartment of all of its contents–even the water. These “contents” are, in effect, the “content” of the American dream.18 Grandma possesses the substance of it all, and leaves only the shell behind, in the form of empty-headed, vicious Mommy and passive, disemboweled Daddy.
The dispute between Mommy and Grandma over rhythm and content also alludes to the symbolic associations of Grandma’s boxes. “You got the rhythm, but you don’t really have the quality, “Grandma claims (p. 85). Then, following a tirade against middle-aged people, she repeats: “You see? Rhythm and content. You’ll learn” (p. 86). The integration of form and content that Grandma claims (as opposed to the perversion of mere form in Mommy) is also embodied in Grandma’s boxes, which are not only full of items but are also impressively wrapped. The taking out of the apartment of these neatly wrapped boxes is one of the most important image sequences in the logical structure of Albee’s seemingly illogical play.
The function and meaning of Grandma as the American Dream emerges most precisely in the juxtaposition of her with her main foil, the Young Man. Although critics always identify the Young Man with Albee’s stated theme, they almost never point out that the Young Man assumes that identify for us only because Grandma gives him that symbolic interpretation. Soon after she sees him she exclaims: “Yup. Boy, you know what you are, don’t you? You’re the American Dream, that’s what you are. All those other people, they don’t know what they’re talking about. You . . . you are the American Dream” (p. 108).
My point is that it takes one (American Dream, old style) to know one (American Dream, new style).
The Young Man has often been explicated as the Hollywood-style American Dream of Success–sexy, materialistic, lacking values, superficially dazzling. There is no need to go further into that here. But it is important to consider how the young Man as American Dream relates to Grandma as American Dream.
In one respect, again it is the difference between form and content–the Young Man with the marvelous physique but “in every other way . . . incomplete” (p. 113) and Grandma with all of the substance of the play but a decrepit body. This complementary set of needs draws the two together like a magnet. Grandma is especially affected by the Young Man, almost swooning, in fact, whenever he moves close to her. “Not too close,” she says. “I might faint” (p. 110).
“Yet, although Grandma empathizes deeply with the Young Man in his painful “fall from grace” and “departure of innocence” (p. 114) –“Oh, my child; my child,” she exclaims (p. 115) –she is savvy enough to know that his fortuitous arrival requires her own immediate departure. After all, the apartment is too small to hold all four people, and crass, shallow Mommy has definitely rejected Grandma (and her humanistic American Dream) and chosen the Young Man (and his materialistic American Dream). This realization fills Grandma with anger and inspires her greatest emotional outburst in the play. In reply to Mommy’s query, “Who rang the doorbell?” Grandma responds, “The American Dream! . . . (Shouting) The American Dream! The American Dream! Damn it!” (p. 108). On the surface level Grandma’s “Damn it!” merely reflects annoyance at Mommy’s deafness. On the other hand, her three–fold repetition of “The American Dream!” constitutes a rhetorical excess that suggests Grandma’s deeper emotional and intellectual response. Her “Damn it!” may constitute Grandma’s great recognition that she has been displaced. In effect, she also means, “Damn it! This is the American Dream that has come to displace me.”
Mommy’s choice of the Young Man and her rejection of Grandma are at the heart of the plot of the play. Albee’s own comments on the play make this clear. In describing The American Dream Albee renders Mommy’s exchange of characters abstract, even allegorical: “The play is an . . . attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society.”19 Read “Young Man” for “artificial values” and “Grandma” for “real values” and the heart of the play becomes clear.
Is The American Dream “nihilist, immoral, defeatist?” Albee asks rhetorically.20 If it had been written fully in the absurdist mode, it might suggest nihilism. If it lacked value-laden Grandma, it might be amoral. And if it showed Grandma killed, it might be defeatist. But it is none of these. For Grandma’s manipulation of the plot, moving it as she does to resolution and “satisfaction” (p. 126), shows that life does have meaning and order and that human experience is to some degree within our rational control. And the fact that Grandma does not die suggests that the old American Dream lives on somehow, somewhere.
Indeed, Albee’s final disposition of Grandma is optimistic in a rather extreme way, for this play. For although Grandma leaves the stage with her boxes,21 she does not leave the theater. In fact, she moves front stage, close to the audience, from which position she is able to communicate directly with both the Young Man, who remains inside the staged action, and the audience watching the play. At one point she signals to the Young Man that “she is not there” (p. 126) and at the very end she speaks directly to the audience: “Well, I guess that just about wraps it up. I mean, for better or worse, this is a comedy, and I don’t think we’d better go any further. No, definitely not. So, let’s leave things as they are right now. . . . while everybody’s happy . . . while everybody’s got what he wants . . . or everybody’s got what he thinks he wants. Good night, dears” (p. 127).
Although her final lines are rather innocuous, the stance from which she speaks them is laden with significance. Grandma–the old American Dream, as this essay has claimed–is not dead. Albee has not been able to bring himself to have her carted off by the “van man.” She may have been expelled from Mommy and Daddy’s apartment, but she has found a new home–and a new set of friends–in the audience of the play. Albee has passed the dream on to us. Properly perceiving the norm upon which his satire is based, we are now responsible for nurturing it in our lives in real life.
The play has moved through three theatrical modes. In the opening dispute over the beige-cream-wheat colored hat, Albee establishes an absurd-seeming style and metaphysic, in which everything is relative and nothing can be known for certain. As soon as Grandma enters the scene, Albee tempers his absurdism with expressionism, the dominant mode of the play, as Grandma and the Young Man interact and their meanings are clarified. And when Grandma finally leaves the stage Albee even moves into theatricalism, creating the alienation effect of Brechtian drama to help us see and accept what his didactic drama has been aiming at.22
Seen in these terms, The American Dream fits squarely within the American tradition of thought and theater. And Albee shows that his inspiration is less the Theatre of the Absurd of the Old World cynic Eugene Ionesco and more the theatrical expressionism of the New World optimist Thornton Wilder–who, we might recall, told Albee in 1953, “Why don’t you try writing plays?”23
Of course, the allegorical interpretation offered here errs in straight jacketing and rendering abstract a play that is delightfully baffling in its wacky rendering of daily life in America. But the allegorical perception is important not only because it gets at the heart of Albee’s intentions in the play but also because it enables us to relate The American Dream to his other work and to understand his larger corpus better.
With its allegorical dimension, The American Dream (1960) anticipates the heavily allegorical Tiny Alice (1964) of a few years later. More important, The American Dream constitutes an early miniature of Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962). By Albee’s own admission, of course, the main characters in Virginia Woolf were named after George and Martha Washington and Nikita Khruschev,24 which allows the allegorical affirmation that the American Dream of democratic humanism (George = George Washington) will prevail over its recent threat, scientific materialism (Nick = Nikita Khruschev).
The plays, of course, are more than allegories of the American Dream. But they are at least that, and we might look at Albee’s corpus again, expecting to find these essentials–allegorical core and obsession with the American Dream–throughout his work.
1. The Theatre of the Absurd (Garden City), p. 227.
2. “Albee’s The American Dream and the Existential Vacuum,” South Central Bulletin, 26 (1966), p. 28.
3. “Albee and the Absurd: The American Dream and The Zoo Story” in American Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 10, ed. John R. Brown and Bernard Harris (London, 1967), p. 190.
4. Edward Albee, “Which Theatre is the Absurd One?” in American Playwrights on Drama, ed. Horst Frenz (New York, 1965), p. 170.
5. Way, p. 189.
6. Ibid., p. 207.
7. Four Plays (New York, 1958), p. 37.
8. “Albee’s The American Dream,” Explicator, 30 (1972), Item 44.
9. Canaday, pp. 31-33.
10. “Albee’s Targets,” Satire Newsletter, 6:2 (1969), p. 48.
11. “Illusion and Betrayal; Edward Albee’s Theatre,” Studies, 59 (1971), pp. 53-67.
12. “Hope Deferred–The New American Drama,” Literary Review, 8 (1963), p. 13.
13. Edward Albee (New York, 1973), pp. 35-36.
14. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, 1955).
15. Edward Albee, The American Dream and The Zoo Story (New York, 1963), p. 85. All quotations from the play come from this edition.
16. An Outline History of American Drama (Totowa, N.J., 1965), pp. 66-75.
17. Meserve, p. 73, quoting Joe Jefferson’s Autobiography.
18. Grandma’s boxes have received little helpful comment. They represent a coffin in Ruby Cohn, Edward Albee (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1969), p. 11; they are “the emptiness around which we wrap our illusions” in Anne Paolucci, From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1972), p. 35; and they store “a sense of reality and acceptance” in Matthew C. Roudane, Understanding Edward Albee (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1987), n. 28, p. 63.
19. “Preface,” The American Dream and the Zoo Story, pp. 53-54.
20. Ibid., p. 54.
21. In fleeing a bad situation to save herself, Grandma resembles the American Dream heroes of other classic texts such as Huckleberry Finn, Rabbit, Run and Catch 22.
22. To refine the analysis of dramaturgy in the play, one might observe that the play is most Aristotelian at the point where the Young Man tells his life story to Grandma. That scene is psychologically realistic and shows both characters approaching tragic recognition. I am indebted to my colleague, Prof. Wilbur Birky, for this insight.
23. Gilbert A. Harrison, The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder (New Haven, 1983), p. 316. This exchange occurred at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Wilder was a mentor and Albee was an aspiring poet. Richard E. Amacher implies that this comment was important in Albee’s turning to playwriting. (Edward Albee (New York: Twayne, 1969), p. 19) Although Wilder is referred to negatively in Albee’s Fam and Yam (along with Miller, Williams and Inge), that may be because he represents the dramatic establishment that a new playwright like Albee must challenge, rather than because Albee dislikes him or his drama. The intellectual and dramaturgical relationships between Albee and Wilder would make an interesting study.
24. Michael E. Rutenberg, Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1969), pp. 230, 232. Albee adds, “There might be an allegory to be drawn, and have the fantasy child the revolutionary principles of this country that we haven’t lived up to yet.” Ibid., p. 230.
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Original web publication, 7/1997