January 25, 2004: Retrospective: Albee, The Goat and Other Plays

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The experience of three plays to record. What comes into my head first, having calmed down after Albee’s The Goat, is that he is still the accomplished writer of good — better than good — dialogue that he always has been. My first experience of it was in the fall of 1962, when the matinee cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf came to Princeton, where I was a first-semester graduate student, for a couple of performances. The first words out of Martha’s mouth — “Jesus H. Christ!” — had a real shocking effect on us. We should have known what we were in for then, but we didn’t. In near-retrospect, Albee seemed to be a fearless iconoclast, but also a disturbingly frank teller of uncomfortable truths. It was not merely the profanity on stage that was disconcerting. It was the revelation of unsatisfactory, stunted lives and the link between them and the society that fostered conformity and frustrated freedom and originality that was so striking. And Albee’s dialogue, free and frank, seemingly natural and unforced, at once clear, idiomatic, and serving the larger ends of the play, served that broader general end as well.

So it was with another early play, The Zoo Story, which like Virginia Woolf also specialized in long narratives, stories that reveal the heart of the matter, the center of the malaise. And so it is with The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? This is the story, from start to finish in about ninety minutes, of a successful man, a fine husband and caring father, who reveals to his best friend of decades that he is in love not only with his wife (to whom he has been faithful for the length of their married life) but with a goat. He and the goat, whose name, yes, is Sylvia, have had an ongoing physical relationship for six months. The friend decides that out of friendship he must tell the wife about this liaison. He does so, in a letter to her. The wife confronts her husband, while the teenage son looks on in horror and dismay. The husband admits the truth and begs his wife, as he did his friend, for understanding — in vain, because he believes, correctly, that she no more than the friend will be able to accept what has happened to her. In the long scene of the confrontation, during which, I should add, Martin tells the (frequently interrupted) story of Martin and the Goat, the wife fairly trashes the living room and then leaves, beside herself with rage. She telephones the friend, telling him that her husband needs him. He arrives at the house but can do no good, steadfastly maintaining that he had no choice but to write the letter. The husband, complaining that his friend violated his confidentiality, says the letter has destroyed his marriage and insists that, if it hadn’t been written, he could have “worked it out,” could have “worked something out.” The son, who reappears, is greatly distressed by the mother’s absence and asks the father what she said as she departed. “She said,” he replies, “that she is going to bring me” — the husband — “down, just as you have brought me down.” This is the cue for the mother’s return. She enters, dragging with her the corpse of the goat, which she has killed.

And that is the action of this interval-less play, which ends with the husband overcome with his loss and the other three appalled or devastated by this catastrophic sequence of events. Much of the audience appeared to have fallen into a similar frame of mind. My own, very strong reaction was, Edward, you can’t leave it there, so unfinished, while simultaneously agreeing, oddly enough, with the husband’s accusation of his friend for having grossly and unforgivably violated the confidence entrusted to him.

Because I have read Albee’s commentary on the play printed in the Almeida program, it was clear (it would have been clear anyway) that the central subject of the play was not bestiality; nor was it the issue (a very old and not very interesting one, this) of whether a man can love two — I had better say “creatures” — at the same time. Bestiality is only the occasion for the play, not the true subject. (In that respect it is a Strindbergian kind of drama, as Richard Gilman has it, in which the action, no matter how specific, is meant to raise and point to issues that existentially and philosophically transcend the specific occasion, of fatherhood, for example.)

What is the true subject? A pair of subjects, as Albee identifies them, that stand in a kind of mirror-image relationship to one another. The obverse: the limits of tolerance people have for the behavior of others that exceeds the boundaries that well-established conventions have laid down for our guidance (I’m sounding a little like Lady Bracknell, and not inappropriately). The reverse of this rhetorical Janus: the inability of ourselves to imagine ourselves capable of behaving in the same fashion.

There is a third quantum, though Albee doesn’t identify it: the lack of imagination of transgressors themselves in predicting the lack of imagination of those confronted with the behavior of the transgressors. Albee’s central character, Martin, exceedingly well played by Jonathan Pryce, is such a man. Albee would have us believe that Martin’s love and affection for the goat that Martin has come upon on a country jaunt and unaccountably fallen deeply in love with is utterly authentic and genuine. And Pryce makes it as believable as any actor can. No other character in the play is able to make a leap of imagination of this kind — not the wife, Stevie, not the friend, Ross, not the son, Billie, though Billie, who has recently uncloseted himself and acknowledged his homosexuality to his parents, begins to turn a corner on this by the end of the play. Where does that leave us, the audience? Fact is, the rhetoric of this play is no different from The Zoo Story in its insistence that we make some kind of imaginative leap and begin to try to understand the world from Martin’s point of view — or else just stay outraged, sitting rigidly catatonic in our seats, unregenerate philistines that we are, and condemn Albee’s seeming glorification of what Ross calls “screwing a goat.”

There are in fact some rhetorical and structural problems with this play, and Ross is one of them. He is of course the pivotal character, both structurally — he sends the catastrophic letter — and rhetorically — he has a glimmer of sympathetic understanding for the plight of his old college classmate and friend of thirty-plus years. In order to make his play work, Albee has to cheat and make the Ross character simultaneously a friend close enough for Martin to entrust his secret to and yet uncomprehending and philistine enough to just abandon that friendship by way of his plea that he is just as good a friend to Stevie as to Martin and that he owes her, no less than Martin, the truth. That seems to me the veriest bullshit, and Albee, given his own sexual orientation, ought to know the bond and the claims of real male friendship better than this play encodes them. Perhaps it’s better to be charitable here and suggest that the actor playing Ross, Matthew Marsh, was miscast.

You can see what Albee is doing here. His dramaturgy is almost invariably clear (the exception, for me, is the nearly impenetrable Tiny Alice; maybe I’ve missed some intricate gay-sexual code of some kind). And the Almeida audience, broad-minded, well-educated, and certainly not wishing to appear other than cool, would surely not overtly admit to the kind of shock that Albee, perversely, wants to have registering in his audience. Well, maybe we’re supposed to be imaginative enough ourselves to be able to conceive of less imaginative responses. Bestiality is certainly a viable test case. An audience could be pardoned for thinking that Albee’s subject was, after all, bestiality. His next play might be “about” cannibalism. Not genocide, I think; too impersonal, and too outdistanced, in this age, by real life. For all that I admire Albee — and I do; I think Three Tall Women is one of his best and deepest plays — I sensed a return here to the almost stereotypical avant-garde dramatist who, like Jerry, doesn’t live in the Village but ought to and who conceives of his dramatist’s task as that of scandalizing the bourgeoisie. The trouble is that this isn’t the ‘Sixties anymore, and plays like this have the aura of preaching to the choir.

Ah, well. Maybe I failed the audition for the choir, anyway, since my immediate reaction to the play was of an action profoundly unfinished. What, we’re going to end here, with the bloody corpse of the goat at stage center and a marriage and a friendship in ruins? Is this another, latter-day door-slammer like A Doll’s House? Where do we go with this? What do we do with it? Albee’s double-barreled idea for a play about boundaries transgressed draws from him, in his program essay, so calmly cerebral, so abstract a statement of his subject that we wonder, for all his adeptness at realizing character, whether he has abandoned human plight in favor of a critical “goes to show you” indictment of conventional society. Ya gotta do something, Edward, to get us outta this jam we’re in! And it does not help to build into the play, by way of a sardonic take, a “litt’ry” reference; we have to have been English majors, all of us, to get the echo: “Who is Sylvia? What is she, that all her swains command her?” (Have I got that right? It’s been a long time since sophomore Intro. to Lit.) Finally, Albee seems more distant from his materials than I’ve ever seen him before. The Joycean, paring-his-fingernails stance does not become him.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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