The Zoo Story | Critical Essay by Mickey Pearlman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of The Zoo Story.
This section contains 3,384 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Mickey Pearlman

Critical Essay by Mickey Pearlman

SOURCE: "What's New at the Zoo? Rereading Edward Albee's American Dream(s) and Nightmares," in Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, edited by June Schlueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989, pp. 183-91.

In the following essay, Pearlman studies what she terms Albee's bitter, negative, and harsh treatment of women in The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and The Sandbox.


To reread Edward Albee's one-act play The Zoo Story (1958) is to reexperience the caustic, cryptic vision of an angry playwright thirty years after the play was performed (1959), in German, in Berlin.

The Zoo Story is a two-character dialogue of male strangers, both locked in rigidly defined "male" roles, with the resonately Christian names of Jerry (Jeremiah?) and Peter, whose chance encounter on a bench in Central Park provokes a clash of dichotomous visions of power, space, and society. Jerry is an antagonizing but isolated vagrant, whose life has been, in his opinion, short-circuited, if not exploded, by women. He lives in a West Side rooming house populated by "a colored queen" in a Japanese kimono, "who always keeps his door open … when he's plucking his eyebrows," a Puerto Rican family in "the two front rooms," a "lady … on the third floor [who] … cries all the time," and a landlady who is a "fat, ugly, mean, stupid, unwashed, misanthropic, cheap, drunken bag of garbage." He is a man out of society and out of control. Peter is Albee's archetypal insider, insulated but vacuous, who "wears tweeds, smokes a pipe, carries horn-rimmed glasses," and lives in the East Seventies with "one wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets," a fifties man who predates the culture clashes and role definitions of the sixties.

The women in this play appear only through the twisted memories of Jerry or the innocent reflections of Peter. All stereotypical characterizations of women, however, do appear, and, filtered largely through the mixed-up memories of Jerry, they emerge full force, tumbling into the hostile atmosphere of Albee's anti-female universe. That has been described as the product of a homosexual tirade, an American absurdist tableau, or a fragmented conversation about the inability of humans to communicate, locked as they are in racial, social, economic, and gender no-exit zones. As in Albee's later plays, these women are powerful and pathetic, damaging or deranged, vulgar and vicious, impinging on the spaces of men with damaging regularity.

Jerry speaks first about his now dead "good old Mom" who "embarked on an adulterous turn of our southern states," the anti-earth mother as slut and alcoholic, whose "most constant companion … among others, among many others … was a Mr. Barleycorn." She is the prototypical Albee female—a symbol of betrayal, lust, and debasement—always the victimizer even when she seems helpless. The characterization is made more vicious and inexorable by its implied contrast to the usual explication of mother figure as dependable, sacrificing saint, a role usually created and then derogated by male writers. The strong implication is that she is responsible for Jerry's preoccupation with whores, the "pretty little ladies" whom he never sees "more than once" since he's "never been able to have sex with, or, how is it put?… make love to anybody more than once." And, he adds, "puberty was late … I was a h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l- … queer, queer, queer" for "eleven days … with the park superintendent's son." Mother love, in American fiction and drama frequently the source of emotionally crippled and childish or brutal heroes, is, in its absence, the genesis of a character similarly crippled who deserts his prostitutes as his mother deserted him. American literature is littered with the corpses of men who have been smothered by affection; here we are presented with the unmothered vision. "Good Old Mom" has a sister "who was given neither to sin nor the consolation of the bottle," who "did all things dourly: sleeping, eating, working, praying. She dropped dead on the stairs to her apartment … on the afternoon of my high school graduation. A terribly middle-European joke …" The untainted saint who never strays replaces the tainted sinner who always strays, but she also betrays Jerry by her emotional absence and inconvenient death. She is in attendance, but absent, and proves to be a disappointing mother figure who disappears in a dramatic and arbitrary moment, as did "Good Old Mom." The aunt is Albee's stereotypical version of the enervated, long-suffering woman as silent sufferer whose most lasting legacy is an unloved and empty male victim who feels betrayed, in different ways, by her sacrificial approach to reality. And Jerry is annoyed by her, and hostile to her memory, because her role as sacrificer and saint figure is part of his emotional powerlessness and his sense of social impotence. "Good Old Mom" and her sister are followed by the previously mentioned "lady living on the third floor, in the front." Her crying is "muffled, but … very determined. Very determined indeed," an unnamed Greek chorus of one, ostensibly helpless, because her response to life is unexplained weeping. She evokes in the reader neither pity nor pathos, nor is Jerry interested in finding out the source of her pain. In fact, her helplessness annoys him and reminds him of his own pain. But she serves as direct contrast to Jerry's central antagonist, the landlady (and her dog), "the gatekeeper[s]" of rooming house as Hell, whose trademark is vulgarity and who does not conveniently keep her pain behind closed doors. Jerry tells Peter that after "she's had her mid-afternoon pint of lemon-flavored gin she always stops me in the hall … presses her disgusting body up against me to keep me in a corner … The smell of her body and her breath … you can't imagine it." The landlady is a comic figure who lusts not only after Jerry but also after recognition, contact, and acceptance. In her daily, self-induced stupor, she cannot distinguish between reality and illusion. Jerry says that he has "found a way to keep her off. When … she presses herself to my body and mumbles about her room and how I should come there, I merely say: but, Love; wasn't yesterday enough for you, and the day before?… a simple-minded smile begins to form on her unthinkable face, and she giggles and groans as she thinks about yesterday and the day before; as she believes and relives what never happened. Then, she motions to that black monster of a dog she has, and she goes back to her room. And I am safe until our next meeting." The landlady is one of Albee's most unattractive women (she has plenty of competition for this dubious honor), and it is difficult to sympathize with her in a culture in which we are socialized to detest the licentious, out-of-control female. Actually, her out-of-control behavior is less damaging than Jerry's, but it is perceived as more detestable because it emanates from a woman.

When Jerry mixes rat poison into the hamburgers with which he tries secretly and unsuccessfully to neutralize the dog's power over him and to increase his power over the dog, the landlady turns from obnoxious aggressor to a "sniveling" antagonist who begs Jerry to "pray for the animal." The dog, which Jerry calls "malevolence with an erection," eventually recovers its former malicious state, having learned nothing about power. The landlady "recovered her thirst, in no way altered by the bowwow's deliverance." The dog returns to his previously vicious state, the landlady to her bottle, and Jerry to his nether-nether world where "neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves … the two combined … are the teaching emotion. And what is gained is loss."

The stereotypical woman as materialist and manipulator surfaces in Jerry's allusions to Peter's wife. She is unnamed, but in Jerry's eyes she is both powerful and incomplete. "… you're not going to have any more kids, are you?" says Jerry. "Is it your wife?" "That's none of your business!" Peter replies in fury, but adds: "Well, you're right. We'll have no more children." She is another woman who has failed, having produced two daughters but no sons. Peter points out that this is determined genetically, but he absorbs Jerry's accusatory point of view, although he knows that, scientifically, it is a ridiculous charge. They do have two cats. "But, that can't be your idea. No, sir. Your wife and daughters? (Peter nods his head)."

Peter's wife is in charge of one of the three demarcated spaces, or zoos, that Albee creates. She serves as zookeeper of the East Side apartment, a civilized institution of children, family, and jobs that marks the parameter of Peter's world. The landlady guards the gates of one rooming house-as-zoo that symbolizes the lonely, entrapping spaces of the societally displaced, most of whom are females or male homosexuals. The park becomes a symbolic microcosm of society as zoo, where dissimilarly caged animals, including the human variety, exist guardedly in an antagonistic state. All space delineations are limited and defined—the East Side apartment, the West Side rooming house, and the park bench over which the final, fatal fight occurs. The bench represents both safety and freedom to Peter; it is his space away from space. As he says, "… I see no reason why I should give up this bench. I sit on this bench almost every Sunday afternoon, in good weather. It's secluded here; there's never anyone sitting here, so I have it all to myself." For Jerry, the bench is initially an object of power and control ("Get off this bench, Peter; I want it"), a concrete symbol of his attempt to manipulate and dominate Peter and to become the chief zookeeper of the park as society. He sees the bench as part of his effort to make contact, to communicate, to be acknowledged at any cost. His efforts to jar Peter into acknowledging him and the encounters over the bench are replicated in his encounters with the dog. The setting changes—Jerry in the rooming house, the zoo, the park—but the common denominator of all three encounters is violence and encoded brutality. He is fierce and friendless, but there is something here that feminists who examine the silent loneliness of brutalized women will recognize—the desperate and pathetic need to be heard and to have that pain assuaged. How Jerry forces Peter to listen is part of what Emory Lewis called a "masochistic-sadistic interplay … [which reflects] a murky, homosexual milieu," with Jerry as the male partner and Peter playing the part of diffident, nonaggressive female, moving at Jerry's insistence into a smaller, more limited space (the end of the bench). Then he is trapped, defenseless, furious, and helpless. He says: "… I'm a responsible person, and I'm a GROWNUP. This is my bench, and you have no right to take it away from me." Similarly, the landlady's dog has been appropriating the space of the hallway, making Jerry into a defenseless, furious, and helpless victim.

The play ends as Jerry impales himself on his own knife that Peter is holding "with a firm arm, but far in front of him, not to attack, but to defend," and with Jerry's words: "Peter … Peter?… Peter … thank you. I came unto you (He laughs, so faintly) and you have comforted me. Dear Peter," and his final assurances to Peter that "you're not really a vegetable … you're an animal." These words have evocative New Testament and sexual overtones intertwined. The new designation was won apparently through Peter's inadvertent involvement with violence. What Jerry is saying is that Peter is no longer acting like a woman—at least an Albee woman—who deserts ship (bench), drops dead, silently weeps, or lives in a hermetic or fantasy world.

This play has often been said to be about alienation and the noncommunication that signifies the mechanized, urbanized, supposedly civilized western world. But in a feminist rereading, it is also an American absurdist work that, in its anger, displays all the usual stereotypical visions of women and enlarges the endless canon of plays, stories, and novels that agonize over the predicaments of men by further diminishing the emotional, sexual, and spiritual needs of women.


The American Dream, first performed in 1961, is a showcase for the four characters who also appear in The Sandbox (1960), a fourteen-minute sketch. Both plays are "an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."

Twenty-eight years later, in 1989, American society is still not "peachy-keen," having endured, if not improved, through decades of Vietnam scar tissue, a generation of yuppies, and thirty years of ardent consumerism. America as marketplace has recently been elevated to an art form by eight years of a Washington glitzkrieg defined more by style than substance. Because it is American society in the fifties that Albee marks as "vapid, barren, and sterile … absurd and meaningless," The American Dream is both current and dated. For example, Albee would undoubtedly find plenty of material for act 2 in the hostile takeovers, Love Canals, AIDS epidemic, bridges falling down across America, insider trading scams, and drug-infested streets of the eighties to make the point again that noncommunication, artificiality, and false values are corruptive and destructive. But almost thirty years later, in a feminist rereading, it is doubtful that any audience will so blithely accept Mommy, Mrs. Barker, and Grandma, an odious triumvirate, as the matriarchal Murder, Inc. of the family and its natural legacy, society.

Mommy, who is emasculating, efficient ("I can get satisfaction, but you can't") and cruel, is Albee's bad (American) dream, reducing Daddy, with snarls and sarcasm, to pathetic impotence. She is invested by Albee with tremendous power; Daddy is divested of energy and masculinity. Daddy is vague, respectful, and boring ("I am paying attention, Mommy"), like an over-disciplined child: rich but not powerful, an unlikely specimen in the U.S.A., where money and options are natural soulmates. He has been reduced by Mommy to the role of supplicant and cipher. As Mommy announces blatantly, "I have a right to live off of you because I married you, and because I used to let you get on top of me and bump your uglies; and I have a right to all your money when you die." "And aren't you lucky all I brought with me was Grandma. A lot of women I know would have brought their whole families to live off you. All I brought was Grandma." Daddy's role now is to put up with "it" and to shut up about it.

The problem with Mommy as female victimizer figure for the eighties is that few women in the audience want or expect to earn a gold Bloomingdale's charge card for thirty years of sexual service, and there are happily few, if any, men who would make this unspeakable, if unspoken, contract. In the eighties, Mommy's exaggerated power and manipulative skills would not be wasted on an unattractive wimp like Daddy but would most probably find their natural outlet on the playing fields of Wall Street, in board rooms of America, or in Silicon Valleys coast to coast. Woman as bloodsucking vampire figure is passé, although mothers, wives, and matriarchs are still suspect.

Mrs. Barker, a hermaphroditic screamer, "the chairman [sic] of your woman's club," is presented as an amoral pimpette who delivers "bumbles." ("… I'm such a busy girl, with this committee and that committee, and the Responsible Citizens Activities I indulge in." The "bumbles," i.e., male babies, represent innocence and love and are delivered by her from the "Bye-Bye Adoption Service" to the Mommys and Daddys of America. Mrs. Barker is deeply committed, of course, like Mommy, to the unimportant non-issues—like the color of her hat. She is a veritable chargé d'affaires of the triviality and insensitivity of women à la Albee. ("What an unattractive apartment you have!", etc.) To quote Mommy, "She's a dreadful woman, you don't know her; she has dreadful taste, two dreadful children, a dreadful house, and an absolutely adorable husband who sits in a wheel chair all the time … She's just a dreadful woman, but she is chairman of our woman's club, so naturally I'm terribly fond of her."

Grandma, who is "feeble-headed" and "cries every time she goes to the johnny as it is," has spent the last twenty years of widowhood as an unpaid live-in servant to Mommy and Daddy. She is buried alive in The Sandbox and is immured in a sea of boxes in The American Dream. Grandma is a pitiful figure. ("Old people are very good at listening; old people don't like to talk; old people have colitis and lavender perfume.") She is waiting for the arrival of the imaginary "van people" for a journey to an unnamed oblivion, the natural repository of the aged in Albee's U.S.A. They are expendable, dispensable, and disposable. As she says, "Old people aren't dry enough, I suppose. 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 … old people are gnarled and sagged and twisted into the shape of a complaint." Her life, which consists of "some old letters, a couple of regrets … Pekinese … blind at that … the television … my Sunday teeth … eighty-six years of living …," is packed in boxes in the smaller, confined spaces almost always associated with women in American literature, and the spaces get smaller and more confining as her victimization nears completion.

The three women, therefore, epitomize the worst stereotypes of American females—Mommy is the evil, all-powerful emasculator; Mrs. Barker is the déclassé, intellectually vacant instigator; and Grandma is the pathetic, ill-used, and nameless saint figure—Albee's offering of a treacherous trinity of female fates fatale.

The two men, of course, are victims, and more importantly they are innocents. ("You're the American Dream, that's what you are.") They are not party to the materialism and tawdriness that Albee is trying correctly to deride. Daddy's worst sin is that he has turned into an incompetent vegetable who "has tubes now, where he used to have tracts." This is hardly a surprising turn of events in an Albee Mommy-world dominated by an egregious stereotype, the Rambo of domesticity gone wrong. The Young Man, who represents what Albee believes America most adores—youth, beauty, and a modicum of brainpower—who will "do almost anything for money," recalls the sensory potential lost in the same way that a money-maddened, commercialized society devalues whatever cannot be arbitraged or sold short. The "bumble," we are told, had its eyes gouged metaphorically right out of its head; it cried its heart out, its eyes, heart, tongue, and hands were sacrificed, but "first, they cut off its you-know-what," and "it finally up and died." The Young Man is the twin of his castrated, blind, and adopted brother, the empty American ideal, the "bumble of joy" provided by Mrs. Barker. "I no longer," he says, "have the capacity to feel anything. I have no emotions. I have been drained, torn asunder … disemboweled … I am incomplete … I can feel nothing … And it will always be thus."

The point is that there is no mattress beneath the American dream, and the sleeper is caught in an unending nightmare of vulgarity and crassness. For many theatergoers, that part of Albee's vision may still ring true. His implicit idea, however, is that the malignancies ("I do wish I weren't surrounded by women …") that pervade the American experience stem from the confused, craven, or contemptible influence of women. Women as enemies of the Dream is merely empty bombast, an outdated, outlandish vision of an angry young man of the sixties. In a feminist rereading, Mommy, Grandma, and Mrs. Barker seem to be only overblown cartoon characters who predate what has been learned in the last twenty-eight years about the victimization of women and the pain of men. The American Dream is only a familiar, if painful, artifact of the historically long-lived vision of women as the progenitors and perpetuators of the end of Paradise and the decimators and destroyers of the potentially utopian ideal.

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