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Edward Albee, The American Dream
Edward Albee’s, “The American Dream”
Edward Albee is considered by many to be one of the most influential playwrights of the seventeenth century. Albee wrote his plays around the typical themes associated with the American drama. They were not just plays about family life; instead, they frequently focused on family dysfunctions and the underlying motives of family structure. In his works, Albee portrays many of the concepts of the absurdism movement that had begun in Europe after World War II. This movement was a reaction to the many injustices brought along with the war itself. One of the major motifs present is the idea that the playwright possessed little or no concern for traditional play structure and form. A second prominent trait of the absurdism movement is the lack of effective communication between the play’s major characters. Albee’s play, “The American Dream,” is an accurate depiction of the popular trends associated with the movement’s establishment in America. As Albee quotes, “The play is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in out society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity.”
The first conclusion that Albee makes in reference to “The American Dream” is that it is a portrayal of how artificial values have replaced real values in the American society. This theme is apparent in the study of how the family replaces Grandma with the Young Man. To Albee, Grandma represents the way life used to be, a time when real values and self-worth mattered. Grandma is an overall depiction of how American’s have not learned from their past. Instead, they “talk past it” and ignore its existence. Albee teaches that the past holds the truth to our future when he gives Grandma the ability to reveal the truth for Mrs. Baker’s visit, and the knowledge that the Young Man is the identical twin of the family’s first son. The family’s ignorance of Grandma is obvious in analyzing her comment to Mrs. Baker; “Oh my; that feels good. It’s been so long since anybody had implored me. Do it again. Implore me some more.” Mommy and Daddy have become accustomed to ignoring the old ways and looking for a new set of values.
Throughout the course of the play, Mommy and Daddy are looking for satisfaction. Daddy says to Mommy, “That’s the way things are today; you just can’t get satisfaction; you just try.” They are not happy with the way things are, representing the real values, and are trying to find satisfaction, or an artificial set of values. Mommy constantly threatens Grandma with being sent away to a nursing home, however, she explains to Mrs. Baker, “There’s no such thing as the van man. There is no van man. We…we made him up.” However, when Grandma leaves, Mommy is deeply upset until she is surprised with the presence of the Young Man. The sole purpose for the parents keeping Grandma around is found in the fact that she represented the old set of values. They could not send her away until she had been replaced, replaced with a new, artificial set of values. Albee’s ideas toward the new set of values is present when the Young Man replies to Grandma, “I have no talents at all, except what you see…my person; my body, my face. In every other way I am incomplete, and I must therefore…compensate.” This new set of standards revolves around the artificial qualities of looks, money, and power.
Albee also extends to comment that the American citizens have become complacent and self-satisfied. In the opening French scene, Mommy and Daddy are perfectly content sitting around waiting on the guest to arrive. To Albee this is not seen as a sign of laziness, but as a warning of the smugness to come. Also, throughout the play, Albee allows his characters the ability to relay such harsh realities, with no fervent emotion. As seen when Grandma explains the murder of the first son to Mrs. Baker, “What did they do? Well, for the last straw, it finally up and died; and you can imagine how that made them feel, their having paid for it and all.” Mommy also goes on to ask Grandma, “How can you be so old and smug at the same time? You have no sense of proportion.” Grandma is complacent in the sense that she knows her time has come. She understands that she has “ran her course” in the family and accepts this to the point of ridding herself from the family. Mommy and Daddy are most content in the fact that they want satisfaction for the death of their child. Once they have been repaid, the tone of the play changes and the parents are now satisfied with their “form” of satisfaction.
One of the minor themes Albee also touches on is the portrayal that Americans are cruel. Albee depicts Mommy and Daddy as both physically and mentally cruel. The entire story of the first son is the most obvious account of the cruelty of Americans. The parents have an idea of how they want their son to act; when he defies them or acts “abnormally” they resort to extreme measures to halt his behaviors. The cruelty is evident in the fact they want to be repaid for their son’s death, for which they were the direct cause. They believe that they received a faulty “son” from the adoption agency and inevitably are asking for a refund. Grandma describes their actions to Mrs. Baker, whose comments seem just as cruel, “But first, they cut off his you-know-what.” The parents also proceeded to gouge out his eyes, cut off his wrists, and severe his tongue, all because he did not meet their expectations. The cruelty of the parents is transposed to the cruelty of Americans because they are willing to resort to extreme measure to get or alter things to fit their ideals.
In “The American Dream,” Albee also comments on the fact that American men have become emasculated and powerless in today’s society. Daddy is fighting a losing battle with Mommy in the argument of who makes the decisions in the household. He finds himself asking Mommy, “And masculine. Was I really masculine?” Throughout the beginning scene, Daddy is merely an underlying voice, he accepts what Mommy has to say and will not disagree with her. The weakening of men is also apparent when Mommy tells Daddy, “I have the right to live off you because I married you, and because I used to let you get on top of me and bump your uglies; and I have the right to all of your money when you die.” Albee states that American men have lost their identities in marriage and sex. In the play, Daddy is a portrayal of men’s need for woman’s reassurance and acceptance. A second example of the weakening of men’s power in society is illustrated in the portrayal of Mrs. Baker’s brother. Initially he is described as ambitious but then it is realized that he has fallen to “the chief exponent of woman love.”
Word Count: 1186
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