The Zoo Story Critical Essay

Summary

The whole play is set near a bench in New York City's Central Park.

Peter, a clean-cut man in his mid-forties, sits on the bench, reading and smoking a pipe. He is approached by Jerry, a carelessly dressed man characterized by his “great weariness” (1). Without any provocation, Jerry states that he is coming from the zoo, and asks Peter to confirm that he is going north.

Peter complies, clearly uninterested in conversation. Nevertheless, Jerry continues to talk to him, and warns that Peter will probably get cancer from the pipe he is smoking. As Jerry expounds on this prognosis, he cannot find the word he is looking for. Peter suggests ‘prosthesis’, which leads Jerry to the conclusion that Peter is educated.

Jerry asks Peter if they can talk. Peter reluctantly agrees, and has to insist on his willingness when Jerry notices his reluctance. Jerry immediately tells Peter again that he has come from the zoo. Though Jerry converses awkwardly and seems to be ignoring Peter's small-talk, Peter makes his best effort to stay amiable. We learn that Peter has a wife, two daughters, and two parakeets, and that he seems to enjoy a normal upper-middle class life. Jerry asks whether Peter would prefer having sons, and Peter admits that he would. However, he quickly becomes offended when Jerry insinuates that Peter cannot have any more children, without any evidence on which to base that assumption.

Peter soon realizes that he has let Jerry get under his skin, and he forces himself to calm down. Jerry confides that he rarely talks to other people, but that he loves to know everything about people he does talk to. This admission makes Peter distinctly uncomfortable.

The conversation turns to Peter’s pets; Jerry implies that Peter has been emasculated by his wife and daughters' insistence on having cats instead of dogs.

Analysis

The opening minutes of The Zoo Story are mostly focused on characterization. Considering that the play is centered around only two characters, however, this is quite important. Although Albee only gives the audience a small amount of information about Peter and Jerry, the details he chooses to include are carefully chosen. They tell us what we need to know about the play’s characters, and establish the contrasts between them.

Albee’s directions about costumes and acting are quite precise. For a reading experience, they can be useful since they give the audience hints about what to expect from the characters. Peter’s costume — which includes tweeds, a pipe, and horn-rimmed glasses — suggests that he is a stereotypical intellectual, perhaps a professor. Of course, as we later find out, he is actually a businessman. The fact that Peter chooses to dress like a member of a different profession in his free time implies that there might be some truth to Jerry’s later speculation that he is unhappy with his job. Albee’s note that Peter’s “dress and his manner suggest a man younger” is also salient (1). Again, that contrast suggests that Peter is unhappy with himself, and is trying to be someone else. This interpretation certainly helps to understand his quick reaction when Jerry suggests he cannot have children - such an assumption draws attention to his age, and perhaps to the true personality he works to disguise even from himself. And of course, this desire to look "younger" foreshadows Peter’s childish reaction when Jerry invades his personal space at the end of the play.

Albee’s initial description of Jerry also provides valuable insight into the character. In Peter’s description, Albee emphasized the physical details of the costume; in Jerry’s description, the character's actual appearance is emphasized less than is the sense that he has been beaten down in life by “a great weariness” (1). In many ways, he lacks the luxury to redefine himself as Peter has. The dialogue of The Zoo Story will emphasize that Peter and Jerry come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and Albee’s stage directions convey this right away by describing the characters’ attitudes rather than their physical appearances. Indeed, Albee even notes that Jerry should not be dressed poorly; instead, he seems to hope that the differences between Peter and Jerry will be conveyed by acting rather than by costumes.

Although Albee’s stage directions minimize the class and education differences between Peter and Jerry, these differences are a very important component of the characters’ dynamic. Early in the play, Jerry confronts Peter about their differences in background by observing that Peter is probably educated, based on his vocabulary and his reading habits. He further pushes social boundaries by asking Peter about his salary. Indeed, many of Jerry’s breaches in etiquette are directly related to this difference in class. By confronting Peter about his income, Jerry makes him self-conscious and forces him to acknowledge his privilege. One can understand this play's arc as a movement towards awareness; Jerry wants Peter to see himself the way that others (like Jerry) see him, not as the man he dresses himself up to be.

Even in the opening minutes of the play, observant audience members will notice Peter’s evolving attitude toward Jerry. Peter frequently becomes annoyed by Jerry’s overbearing behavior. Each time, he immediately quells his irritation by reminding himself that it is illogical to become upset by Jerry’s conversational jabs. Yet each time Peter becomes upset, his reactions become more extreme. His attitude changes quickly from amusement to fury. Although Jerry’s behavior suggests that he is mentally ill, Peter’s rapid mood changes suggest that he may not entirely stable himself. Further, it is possible to think that Jerry is far more deliberate than he seems. In other words, he might not be asking random questions, but in fact asking questions designed to irritate and anger the man he believes Peter to be. Peter's social etiquette requires him to be compliant and polite. Jerry knows this, and in fact makes Peter insist that he wants to talk. He forces Peter to invite the confrontation, which Peter does not because he wants it, but because he feels required to. So Jerry has engineered a situation by exploiting Peter's gentility, precisely so he can then poke holes in that gentility.

The first pages of The Zoo Story establish the animal motif that will appear throughout the play. Jerry questions Peter extensively about his pets, as Jerry clearly believes that a person’s relationship with animals reveals important information about that person's character. He expounds further on this connection later. However, the play also suggests that humans have animalistic potential within. As the story continues, Jerry and Peter reveal their own animalistic sides, until it becomes clear that the play’s title is a double entendre. It refers not only to Jerry’s visit to the Central Park Zoo, but also to Jerry and Peter’s interaction. People, Albee seems to suggest, are nothing more than animals, and the city, which keeps them in close contact, is another kind of zoo. In a situation like this, different types of animals are sure to cause trouble for one another if they are allowed to interact; this is one way to understand the action of the play. Jerry has been let into a cage with a totally different type of animal, and it is his instinct to then wreak havoc for that more privileged beast.

Early critics frequently compared The Zoo Story with the work of Samuel Beckett. In fact, when The Zoo Story was first performed in Berlin in 1960, it was part of a double bill with a Beckett one-act play — Krapp’s Last Tape. Indeed, there are a number of important similarities between The Zoo Story and Beckett’s best-known work, Waiting for Godot. Both plays chronicle the relationship between two antagonistic characters who are forced to spend time together, and more importantly, both plays are absurdist in style. Absurdism is closely associated with existential philosophy. In a typical absurdist story, characters must grapple with the meaninglessness of their circumstances — and by extension, of life in general. Absurdist plots are often driven by the emotions the characters experience as they recognize and accept that their lives are meaningless.

Beckett’s work lends itself well to an absurdist interpretation. In Waiting for Godot, the characters are cartoonish and exaggerated, and their predicament is contrived to make a philosophical point. The Zoo Story, on the other hand, is much more realistic in its approach — although it should be noted that realism and absurdism are not mutually exclusive. Realism is a style, and absurdism is a philosophical orientation. Peter and Jerry have quotidian nuanced personalities and quotidian back stories, and the play’s plot, which revolves around an awkward conversation between strangers, is drawn from a common situation of urban life. It could be said, then, that Albee’s work is innovative because it imports an absurdist outlook to the realist dramatic tradition. That it does this with such seeming ease and naturalness is a testament to its greatness.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

TOPIC: Social Criticism in Edward Albee’s Radical Plays The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith and The American Dream

1. Introduction

2. Social Criticism in Edward Albee’s Radical Plays
2.1. Establishment vs. Outcasts of the Society
2.2. Lack of Communication and Violence in the Modern Society
2.3. Hypocrisy and the Pursuit of Artificial Values

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

TOPIC: Social Criticism in Edward Albee’s Radical Plays The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith and The American Dream

1. Introduction

All three plays The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith and The American Dream are Edward Albee’s early plays in which he points out the deplorable state of the American society.

Albee’s way of writing is provocative because his ultimate goal is to shock his audience. At the same time he wants to amuse the viewers with dialogues that are governed by sarcasm and irony. He writes in the preface of the play The American Dream: “Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so; it was my intention to offend- as well as amuse and entertain.” (p.14)[1]

Thus his plays manages to confront the audience with the harsh reality of life and the problems of modern society.

In The Zoo Story a clash of two different representatives of the modern American society takes place and ends up in an accidental manslaughter. In The Death of Bessie Smith the audience faces a society ruled by hatred, racism and frustration. The third play which is going to be examined closely in this paper is The American Dream, a sad portrait of an American family craving for something to replace the emptiness they find themselves in.

This paper will examine the social criticism in these three plays which were written between 1958 and 1960 in order to find common topics and critical issues which were present at that particular time, and are still relevant today. The topics that are going to be analyzed are the outcasts of the society and their treatment by the members of the establishment, the lack of communication and growing violence as a result of it and finally the artificial values of the modern society and the constantly present hypocrisy and double standard.

As Edward Albee sums it up:

The play [ The American Dream ] is an examination of the American scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen. (p. 13-14)

2. Social Criticism in Edward Albee’s Radical Plays

2.1. Establishment vs. Outcasts of the Society

In all three plays the reader is faced with representatives of different groups of society. In The Zoo Story it is Jerry who is a perfect type of a man struggling for understanding and acceptance. He wants to be respected and loved by others. Jerry is looking for compassion and for somebody who can understand and relate to his problems and thoughts. When he meets Peter who is a representative of the establishment Jerry believes that it is his last chance to find somebody who can understand his point of view.

Peter is married with two daughters. His represents the average middle-class American citizen who has a not too challenging job, a family, and hobbies, for example reading in the Central Park every Sunday. He follows a certain order and never gets out of line. Peter is happy and satisfied with his way of life, at least before he meets Jerry. A. Lewis observes the clash of these two characters as “the meeting between two separate worlds in the heart of a modern city“.[2]

Jerry is not the only one who seems to be cast out of the society. The whole building where he lives is full with people living on the very edge of the society. There, one can find a homosexual black man who never gets visitors, just like Jerry. He does not have anybody who is interested in him. As Jerry states ”He never bothers me, and never brings anyone up to his room.” (p.119)

Then, there is a Puerto-Rican family who represents the miserable life of immigrants who initially came to the USA in order to find a better life. Instead of finding the ultimate satisfaction they have to suffer from social isolation and poverty in the middle of New York. Another person living in Jerry’s building is a woman who stays faceless and nameless because she can only be heard and is never seen by Jerry. He only hears her desperate crying. He never approaches her in order to offer her assistance.

This episode, describing Jerry’s building and people who live next to him, is just one more proof of the alienation and social isolation of the people. A feeling of anonymity and indifference dominates here. Nobody cares about other people. What is really surprizing is the fact that even the people from the same building who are experiencing more or less similar fates do not care and are not interested in their neighbors. Apparently there is no need nor desire for personal contacts. Just like Jerry who on the one hand acknowledges the cries of the mysterious woman next door but on the other hand is not willing to find out more about her. He does not want to get involved. Indifference and apathy are predominant in this building where different types of social outcasts are brought together. These people are presented as the second-class citizens who are forced to live in a zoo-like building separated by thin walls.

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[1] ALBEE, Edward, The Zoo Story and Other Plays. Cardiff:William Lewis (Printers) LTD. 1962. All quotations from the three plays analyzed in this paper come from this edition.

[2] LEWIS, Alan, “The Fun and Games of Edward Albee”. American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theater, p.83.

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