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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 14. 1966.

American dream: an allegory of death

page 15

American dream: an allegory of death

The characters in Edward Albee's one-act The American Dream, presented as a reading by the Drama Club, do not develop; they are allegorical.

Mommy is a hypocritical, domineering housewife who regards her family with nothing but sarcasm, suspicion and hostility. Daddy is brow-beaten and impotent. literally as well as metaphorically: he has had an operation in which all his organic "tubes" have been replaced by artificial "tracts."

Mrs. Barker, a visitor, is a modern volunteer committeewoman, who serves so many organisations that she cannot remember which one sent her to help Mommy and Daddy. For that matter, neither Mommy or Daddy can recall why they asked her to come, or what function she is to serve.

The character with the answer to this little mystery is Granny. The butt of family Jibes (Mommy and Daddy constantly threaten to send her away to an old people's home). Granny is also a type — the tormented oldster in a society which has lost all respect for age.

But Granny is also a seer; since her feet stand in the former epoch her eyes, evidently, can see through the paradoxes of the new. Granny's possessions are reduced to a television and a blind Pekinese dog. which in preparing to leave the family, she wraps, solipsistically, into dozens of little brown boxes. To Mommy and Daddy, the boxes seem terribly important, even though they do not know what they contain. While the couple believe in packaged deities. Granny knows that they are idols and can manipulate them. She wins $25,000 in a baking contest by entering a store-bought cake.

Granny gives Mrs. Barker a clue to the mystery of why she is there. Twenty years ago, she explains, a woman like Mrs. Barker paid a similar visit as agent for an adoption agency, which arranged for the adoption of a son by Mommy and Daddy.

The young boy manifested sexual passions, Granny relates, and so the scandalized parents desexed him. Then he threw curses at his foster parents, and so they cut out his tongue. Without passion and without a voice, the boy died, and claiming that they did not get "satisfaction," Mommy and Daddy demanded their money back.

At this point enters a young manbeautiful, bland and as he admits, incapable of love. Granny calls him "the American Dream." In a long speech about his own unhappiness, the Young Man reveals that he once had a twin, originating in the same "ovum" as he, who has since disappeared.

Mommy and Daddy adopt the Young Man, repeating "this is much more like it," and Granny turns to the audience and says that, if it is to remain a comedy, the play had better end right there.

It is just as well that it did. The American Dream is more of a parable than a play. The characters are crude parodies and the philosophical kernel is rather corny.

While the dramatisation is slight, the moral is very grand. The play is a family comedy which tells us that love is dead. A masculine woman with her emasculated husband, having literally murdered all hope for, a creative, regenerative tomorrow embrace instead a lifeless, Hollywoodface "twin." Lacking any respect for youth or ace, they do not comprehend the past or the future. They live in an absurd present, as blind to their predicament as the Pekinese is to his owner's sharp eyes. This is the world, then, which embodies the American dream.

The protagonist in the Zoo Story explains at one point why he travels from the north end of Manhattan to the south end then back uptown just to visit a zoo which is situated in the centre of the island. "Sometimes." he says, "you have to go a long way out of your way to come a short distance correctly."

The first time I saw the Zoo Story, I came away thinking this line a profound little gem, and I used to quote it offhandedly to girls to show them how deep I was.

But it did not have the effect I had counted on; in fact, the response was usually a quizzical or a critical glance. So I thought it over, and now I don't quote it anymore.

The moral to be gleaned from this personal digression is: it sometimes takes a long period of reflection to realize that a meatysounding line of Edward Albee is actually as trite as can be.