"American Dream" by Edward Albee
The issue of American Dream cannot get out of picture of most Americans and aliens alike. People have come out to criticize or support it; however, Edward Albee gives it a rare look. The satirical style of lamenting the illusions surrounding the American Dream makes Albee's work a masterpiece. According to Popkin, Albee admitted that, this is “an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen" (26). The work is rich in elements of fiction among them, theme, and imagery.
As the title suggest, American Dream is the most outstanding theme in this drama. This play is an apologue of how the American life has turned away under the pretext of the American Dream. Mom is sadistic, Dad weak and Grandma bitter. This play unveils what the American Dream left behind after its ‘timely' death. Albee goes straight to the point and uses the Young Man to represent the American Dream. Though the Young Man is physically perfect, he is incompetent especially after losing his twin brother whom they separated at birth. It is important to note that, Mom and Dad have adopted the Young Man who is the opposite of his brother who is headless, feetless, and spineless among other deformations.
Many Americans thought the American Dream would bring them joy and satisfaction; however, it brought them misery. Mom and Dad see the Young Man as, “bumble of joy” because joy and satisfaction is what they expected from him. Unfortunately, the Young Man fails miserably. As mentioned, the Young Man is physically perfect; however, he cannot do anything perfectly. Finally, he resorts to doing anything and everything that comes his way as long as he gets money. At this point, he becomes a symbol of ‘satisfaction' to Mom and Dad. Americans quickly forgot what the dream was all about; corrupted it with materialism, mutilated and killed it before it ever matured to reality. Albee knows exactly what happened to the dream. He knows that the dream was perfect just like the Young Man; however, those supposed to nurture it became too caught up in material world that they forgot the real meaning of the dream.
Logically, the American dream was and is not an ideology; it is a person and possession; it needs ‘life' for its realization. The Americans got the idea of American Dream wrongly. They thought that the dream was something that lived on its own, forgetting that they were the one to make it alive. The twins in this play symbolize the real American Dream and the ideological one. The Young Man (the American Dream) is like a mask without someone behind it. The murder of the twin brother of the Young Man represents the death of the person behind the mask. After the death of this person, what remains is the ‘lifeless' mask. Albee's theme here is to show how misunderstood Americans were concerning this dream. Americans were the people supposed to drive and realize the American Dream; unfortunately, they withdrew to pursue material things forgetting their responsibilities in realizing the dream. In essence, Albee says that, without the person behind a mask, the mask can never do anything. Unfortunately, the American dream has remained as such, a mask without ‘life' behind it.
Albee brings out the issue of emasculation in this play. Dad is emasculated and probably this gives Mommy a foothold to assault him. “As with many of Albee's female characters—Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf perhaps being the most memorable—Mommy is the consummate "bad mother": sadistic, jealous, greedy, and onward” (Esslin 45). Dad is a victim of Mom's sadism and violence. For example, as Dad wakes up to answer the door call, Mom laughs at him with her exaggeration encouragement for she knows this hurts his masculinity. Elsewhere in the play, Mom hurts the ‘bubble of joy'; that is, the Young Man. This too is emasculation. In most of Albee's works, he continually viewed women as threat to society especially if they gained power.
Disfiguration and deformity stand out clearly in this play. Actually, Grandma declares, “is age is an age of deformity” (Albee 16). Almost everyone is deformed in this play. At birth, Mom had a cone-shaped head, the Young Man's twin brother bears all forms of deformation, Dad is disfigured through emasculation, and Mom continually disfigures the Young Man while Grandma claims that old people are persistently becoming ‘twisted.' These disfigurations and deformities symbolize what Albee calls the ‘slipping land' that America has become. Mayberry says that, “these corporeal disfigurements involve a disfigurement of language as well” (69). Mom tropes the bumble after realizing that it "only had eyes for Daddy” (Albee 26).
According to Esslin, “Psychically, the logic of much of The American Dream's touted ‘absurdity' is that of defense” (69). This comes out clearly in the way Mom, Dad, and Grandma react towards Mrs. Barker's visit. For instance, Daddy is torn on whether to answer Mrs. Barker's door call or not. Throughout the play, Mrs. Barker appears new to Mom and Dad despite the fact that they have known each other for a longtime; actually, they share the same history of the ‘bumble of joy'. On the other hand, even after Grandma ‘hints' Mrs. Barker about their history, she does not seem to understand anything and this is probably a cold defense for she does not want to remember the past. “These supposedly absurd dodges are due to the traumatic nature of the party's shared past, the memory of the ‘bumble of joy'. Though no one has forgotten this past…the characters keep it from immediate consciousness nevertheless” (Hirsh 46). These characters are defensive for they do not want to remember the good old days, which appear ‘traumatic', compared to the present situation.
Grandma's boxes are the only images used in this play. Albee suspends the revelation of the boxes' contents or their role in the play. Dad and Mom are ever helping to wrap the boxes but no one is concerned about knowing its contents. Mom is not even curious of knowing the contents and when Grandma tries to expose the inside of the boxes, Mom stops her. Finally, Grandma reveals the contents; long lists of items that she owned in her life. To this imagery, Mayberry notes that, “In a play where an outwardly perfect Young Man becomes the son who provides satisfaction, it is perhaps easiest to consider Mom and Dad's patronizing emphasis on the boxes' wrapping as indicative of their satisfaction with surfaces” (184). Gussow adds that, “they allegorize the composition of the play, which largely consists of apparent and perpetually surprising diversions that keep the audience from the gist of the matter” (63). Whatever the purpose they play, these boxes are not ordinary boxes; they are images.
A lot has been said about the American Dream, Albee gives this subject a rare look by dramatizing the misconceptions that surround this valuable dream to Americans. Through satire, Albee reflects on the aftermath of the much-publicized American Dream. He uses fictional elements richly and among them is the element of theme and imagery. The most outstanding theme is the theme of the American Dream. Many Americans could not realize that the dream was not an ideology that would survive on its own; it needed some ‘life' from Americans. Unfortunately, many Americans, just like Mom, were busy mutilating this dream. Eventually, the dream became a ‘mask', a ‘lifeless' mask. Emasculation could not miss in Albee's work given his views on women as portrayed by female characters in his works. He portrays women as ‘bad' and Mom emasculating Dad resonates well with this. Almost all characters in this play are defensive for they do not want to remember their past. Finally, Albee employs imagery by using grandma's boxes to signify the contents of the American Dream.
Albee, Edward. “The American Dream and The Zoo Story: Two Plays by Edward Albee.” New York: Plume Books, 1997.
Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Gussow, Mel. “Edward Albee: a Singular Journey.” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Hirsch, Foster. “Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?” Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts Book Co.,1978.
Mayberry, Bob. “Theatre of Discord: Dissonance in Beckett, Albee, and Pinter.”Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.
Popkin, Henry. “Edward Albee.” New York: Thomas Crowell and Co., 1969.