Zsanett Barna graduated from the University of Szeged and currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Email:
“A picture of our time,” is how Edward Albee characterizes his play, The American Dream. In this paper I would like to investigate what this “picture” of Albee’s America looks like in “our time” with the help of three plays by him: The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Play About the Baby. In this literary analysis, while focusing on the notion of the American Dream, I will use the characters of the three dramas to illustrate how the American Dream shapes them in the dramatic world of Albee.
The term, American Dream has been used ever since the new continent was discovered. At first, the dream was to be fulfilled by those immigrants who arrived there to start a new life in freedom and democracy. Centuries later, the paradigm of the American Dream still lives, but it has developed new meanings, and has multiplied itself. As the critic, David Madden says “there are many American Dreams” (Madden, xvii). It is, however, hardly possible to identify all the Dreams since they exist on various levels. Therefore, I will, exclusively, highlight those Dreams that exist on the social level presented in Albee’s three plays.
One of the most useful definitions of the American Dream and of the American character provided by David Riesman will serve as the theoretical basis for my analysis. In The Lonely Crowd he describes how he divides the American population, and what he means by the terms, “inner-directed,” “other-directed” and “traditional-directed man.” I will transplant the semantic content of the former two terms, relevant in this essay, into what I call: the Old American Dream and the New American Dream. The sample on which I am testing is formed by the characters of the three Albee plays, in which I would like to explain how the paradigms of the Old and the New American Dream clash. My main point, here, is to show that it is always the character of the Old American Dream that acts instead of the New American Dream, and that the New American Dream is crippled in a world filled with aesthetic, emotional and social values.
To reach my final goal, firstly, I will provide a theoretical background on how critics, such as Rob Kroes, David Madden or James Truslow Adams argue about America and the American character. Besides this, I shall introduce Riesman’s terms of the “inner-“ and “other-directed man,” which I will juxtapose with my idea of the Old and New American Dream. Afterwards, in a short chapter I will introduce, what I call, the proto-dramas that predict the strong link between Albee’s plays and their characters upon which idea I establish my thesis. Then the next section will present an overview of the characters that stand for the two American Dreams in the mentioned post-war American dramas, ever so often labelled as absurdist. In spite of the fact that “the absurd was in radical conflict with basic American myths” (Bigsby, 125), therefore also with the myth of the American Dream, I feel more than appropriate to cast these characters as the representatives of the American Dreams. I argue so, on the one hand, since I share C. W. E. Bigsby’s view claiming that Albee “was also as concerned with the structure of myth as he was with the form of social or even political thought” (Bigsby, 127, emphasis mine). On the other hand, I consider that these thirteen characters clearly, I even dare to say, radically personify the two edges of the American character. In accordance with Péter Egri’s statement that Albee’s plays are “grotesquely grim and bitterly playful pieces crossbreeding Realistic relevance with Absurdist insight” (Egri, 34) I think that, in Albee’s case, the absurdist labelling is not against but for the argument that his characters can be used as samples to describe the American Dream.
As for the Old American Dream the discussion will focus on Grandma from The American Dream, on George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and on Man and Woman from The Play About the Baby. The analysis on the opposition, on the New American Dream will include all the other characters of the three plays: Young Man, Mommy, Daddy, Mrs. Barker, Nick, Honey, Boy and Girl. Finally, as a last step, I shall get to the focal point of the essay where the two types of Dreams clash with each other.
This present analysis takes David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd as its theoretical basis. The sociologist Riesman created a survey of the American society and systematically put the American people into one of the three categories: “inner-directed,” “other-directed” and “tradition-directed,” and with his theory he seems to have written “the first of many books raising questions about conformity and individuality in post-war America” (Fulford). Riesman observed a peculiar change in the American character and he assigned this change to the fact that “America is moving from a society governed by the imperative of production to a society governed by the imperative of consumption” (Gitlin). Riesman traces the evolution of society from the traditional-directed who obey rules passed on to them a long time in the past. This type, according to Riesman, is not likely to survive in the modern world since it is not capable of following the ever changing rules and forms in society. Due to these reasons, I do not feel this type appropriate in my analysis of modern dramas. The other two categories, however, clearly correspond to the two groups of characters in Albee’s plays that I will focus on: Firstly, the inner-directed, who followed the traditional-directed and who proved to be more viable than them. Their survival resulted from the fact that they became capable of living and acting not as the established norms prescribed it but they based their lives on new norms which they discovered through their own instincts. Secondly, the other-directed man starting to emerge during the industrial revolution and has come to completion by these days. This group has accomplished a role that works best in the post-war, post-industrial, post-nuclear America of today. Its triumph is its failure at the same time: while the other-directed seem to have created a fitting place in America for themselves, they have lost the greatest advantage of the inner-directed, the knowledge and ability to know themselves. I shall come back to these categories in detail in the part of my essay which deals with the most important theories I apply in relation to my thesis.
For giving European-based definitions and ideas about the American Dream I use Rob Kroes’s If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall. Europeans and American Mass Culture. This intellectually challenging book does not, of course, deal with shopping malls themselves, it is, rather, a harsh critique of recent American consumerism and valueless mass culture. Kroes’s book proves to be highly useful for any European Americanists’ project, therefore for my own thesis as well, in which the scholar is to operate with the multiplicity of meanings that have been creating the picture of America from a European point of view. Kroes’s method of writing mainly lies in introducing “a repertoire of European metaphors of America as a place of standardization, consumerism, and montage” (The Journal of American History). His main point is that he reduces the metaphorical American space into three dimensions. Firstly, he talks about “spatial metaphors,” secondly about “temporal metaphors” and thirdly, he explains those metaphors that highlight the fact that there is no cohesion and integrity in the American culture.
My third main source is Mel Gussow’s Edward Albee. A Singular Journey. A Biography. Gussow, a long time The New York Times cultural writer and acquaintance of the playwright puts together a thorough, well-detailed biography of Edward Albee. In this chronologically structured work readers have a chance to have a glimpse at the personal and the public life of one of the most famous 20th century dramatists. To Gussow, Albee openly talks about his miserable childhood, which missed nothing but love, he freely discusses his homosexual relationships, and lets the author enter his memories of how he became a successful playwright. As the fellow The New York Times critic, William Wright notes, Gussow “provides an insider’s chilling view of the near-rejection and critical pummelings of Albee plays that most critics now see as major works” (Wright), which “chilling view” is a result of the fact that Gussow “for this biography was given access to his [Albee’s] letters, files and scrapbooks” (ibid).
The writer breaks down his book into chapters that carry very suggestive titles indicating the main stages of Albee’s life. The reader of this book gets from Eddie to Lost and Found and through his journey he learns about all the inner and outer effects that have formed Albee’s life. This biography also provides answers to the questions of how and why Albee created his plays and characters, and how his plays first encountered the stage with or sometimes without success. The book also seems to be a great source to help to understand biographical connections between several of Albee’s characters and their real life models. The book also serves as a rare medium which includes historically important criticism that Albee’s plays received in their times. For my own work, I use this biography, on the one hand, for gaining overall information on the man who “helped change the face of the American theater” (ibid), and on the other hand, for getting a reliable insight to the plays and their characters I analyze in this paper. Therefore, I especially focus on chapters like Mommy and Daddy, Blood under the Bridge and A New Baby in which Gussow points out the method of writing and the life of the characters from The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Play About the Baby.
2. An Attempt Towards Defining the American Dream
“America was invented before it was discovered” (Kroes, 1), states Rob Kroes, since the idea of a “lost paradise” had existed before Christopher Columbus took his first steps on the new continent. Years after Columbus, people started to talk about this continent as a new Eden, the American Eden. It was there as an “unspoiled, primitive, youthful” (Kroes, 38) place, totally unaware of itself, personifying “the last great hope for mankind” (Cambell and Kean, 25). There was a vision of chosen people who build up a New Jerusalem in America. These people were the first settlers, the Puritans of New England. As the early Puritan, John Cotton writes in God’s Promise to His Plantations, “this placing of people in this or that country is from God’s sovereignty over all the earth” (Cotton, 77) Cotton is among the first to say that “God’s people take this land by promise: and therefore the land of Canaan is called a land of promise” (ibid). “God’s people” began to establish a New Garden of Eden, in which there was a place for a new Adam, the American Adam. He was the one who transformed “the Great American Desert into the Garden of the World” (Madden, xvii) The American Adam was a true agrarian hero, the farmer, who “reinstated pastoral innocence” and who cultivated the Virgin Land.
It was this image of the Edenic promises in America which started to shape the American character and which helped to produce the American Dream. According to Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean “the Columbus myths enabled white Americans to find a beginning, to declare a courageous opening to their ‘story.’ It was part of the influential dream myth of origin so prevalent in America” (Cambell and Kean, 23.) Ever since the Puritans this dream has “become a strong, resilient strand in expressions of ‘Americanness’” (Campbell and Kean, 26).
The term of the American Dream is a relatively recent coinage, even though, as I have already indicated, the phenomenon, the roots of the Dream were always already projected onto the North American continent. It was Henry Adams who first incorporated this term into his book, History of USA but the first attempt to actually define the American Dream is associated with James Truslow Adams’s The Epic of America. He admitted there that the values the term bore in the 1930’s, during the time his book was written, were not stable and well-defined values. He laments that the American Dream had lost its meaning with the introduction of a predatory capitalist system. His complaint is, of course, due to the fact that the Gilded Age of high prosperity was giving its place to a rather dark era of the Great Depression. As Adams claims the “American Dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank … is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world” (Adams, preface). It is, however, no wonder that the American Dream as a common and popular phrase was born in this dark and sorrowful time. What is a better time to dream for a happier life than when people are equally drawn down by a national financial flaw?
Although the American Dream has had strong influence on the development of the American character and vice versa, the notion itself is not an easy one to define. It has always been an impressive ideology, luring people to America (Hochschild, xvii) and thus to various opportunities in the American territory. Generally, the American Dream is connected with the idea that through hard work, courage and determination one can achieve prosperity. In his parody-like observation of the American way of life, Miklós Vámos satirizes this general conception with saying: “As an American I’ll have a credit card. Or two. I’ll use and misuse them and have to pay the fees. I’ll apply for other cards right away. Golden Visa. Golden American. Golden Gate” (Vámos, 9). His little joke is, however, also part of what the American Dream is or can become. The dream in America seems to generate itself, its mere existence is due to the hope that it does exist somewhere, in some form, and as soon as one uses or misuses one Dream, there is a need for another. John Steinbeck also suggests a similar view as he claims that “the fact that we have this dream at all is perhaps an indication of its possibility” (Steinbeck, 12).
What the American Dream has become since its birth is a question under constant discussion. It is agreed, however, that the American Dream is a multi-faceted, colorful notion, whose acceptation and definition always depends on who interprets it. According to John W. Tebbel, the American Dream defies any coherent definition and it does not present any agreed-upon set of collective views (Tebbel, 3-4). His thoughts can easily be argued for since the idea of the American Dream has been coined with everything from religious freedom to racial equality or from the ownership of a suburban home to becoming the ‘milliard dollar baby’ of Hollywood. It has all been a matter of time and space. Throughout American history, the American Dream has always been a central ideology, one that people have followed and wished for, but whose skeleton has always been re-clothed with meaning. In this sense, the dream state of the notion has always remained, what has changed is its form and content.
The light of the American Dream has always shone with different strength and it has lit different ideas. Like Madden, Jim Cullen also believes that there are multiple American Dreams. To support his view, Cullen creates a non-representative list of how differently the American Dream has been perceived ever since the discovery of the continent. According to this listing, what brought the Pilgrims to the “New World” was the religious liberty the dream promised. For the creators of the Declaration of the Independence the dream embedded the political freedom and the belief in the “pursuit of happiness,” for Abraham Lincoln it meant the upward mobility in society, whereas for Martin Luther King Jr. the Dream personified a rather idealistic racial and ethnic equality, which he articulated in his famous and attention grabbing 1963 speech I Have a Dream. King purposefully planted his dream of equality in the national Dream: “[…] I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream” (King). To Cullen himself, the contemporary American Dream is that of a suburban home and the “dream of the coast” (Cullen, 6). Michael Moore expresses a similar but yet again ‘freshly-dressed’ Dream. In his book, Downsize This he puts the emphasis on the cruel almightiness of big corporations in America, and in relation to the disappointing situation of the 1990’s he asks: “Remember the American Dream? For those of you too young to have experienced it, this is what it used to be: If you work hard, and your company prospers, you, too, shall prosper” (Moore, 14). This is, however, the old definition of the American Dream since according to Moore, this dream “has gone up in smoke” and what has remained he calls the “American Bad Dream“ which equals to the following: “You work hard, the company prospers—and you lose your job” (ibid). His is, of course, also a way of looking at and living in (or suffering through) the American Dream.
Vyacheslav P. Shestakov also shares the idea that there is a “mish-mash of definition” (Shestakov, 584) when it comes to the American Dream. He, nevertheless, writes down one definition of this “complicated conglomeration of ideas, hopes, images and values” (ibid). In the light of the Declaration of Independence and it, for him, being one basic source for the Dream he states: “The American Dream is a representation of the national democratic development that includes individual hopes for everybody in achieving success, equal opportunities, and the pursuit of happiness” (ibid). In his next paragraph he admits that this is, indeed, a slippery definition, since what is meant by representation is very much dependent on the various historical periods and later he adds that literary presentations have also been showing “a complicated dynamic panorama of the transformation of the American Dream” (Shestakov, 586).
Lacking one coherent definition, I shall, then, describe and explain my use of the notion which determines my European point of view of the American character, in the light, of course, of Albee’s plays. My view corresponds to that of Egri when he claims that the American tragedy is “brought about by the increased tension between the face and the reverse of the American Dream” (Egri, 34).
The tragedy, in my reading, is the constant clash of the Old/the face and the New/the reverse American Dream. While the former is the symbol of the “new beginning, a clean state…the possibility of renewal,” the latter shows America “in a negative light, as a loss, a void” (Kroes, 13). Throughout the analysis of the Albee characters, who personify either the Old or the New type in his dramas, I will sharply distinct these two Dreams. Nevertheless, I am aware of the fact that in reality these types could hardly been separated with a straight dividing line, they oscillate and merge into each other within one person. At the same time, I am also convinced that Albee created his characters to be “the face and the reverse” in order to represent an ironically strong binary opposition in the American society. As Albee himself admits in the preface to The American Dream he writes “an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial values for real values in our society” (Albee, 1997, 53-54). As for the irony, he asks and answers: “Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so“ (ibid). Similarly to Albee, who uses but, at the same time, criticizes the American Dream, I also attempt to be critical when describing two, instead of one, American Dreams.
The first, the Old American Dream is represented by those who are still able to appreciate what nature has given them. Therefore, one can talk about the American Adam working in this new Garden of Eden only in relation to this type of dream. This kind of “abundant wilderness” puts down the base of the American character, and this is the period when “real” individuals can act out the national experience. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson “the lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other” (Emerson, 1517). These people live in harmony with culture [=inside] and nature [=outside], and they believe that they can establish and govern a world of their own on this Promised Land.
When turning to David Riesman’s sociological point of view, a parallel seems to take shape. The representative of the Old American Dream is labeled as “inner-directed man” in Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. Riesman describes the “inner-directed man” as the type of person who “thrived in the relatively stable social hierarchy in which parents equipped their children with a sense of social bearings that would be their compass for the rest of their lives” (Riesman, 26). The “inner-directed man” is able to build up a very sensitive balance between his goals in life and the affects of the outside world. He manages to remain stable by all means as he is directed by well-tried values. He endeavors to systematize the avalanche of words and to carry conversations where both the partners listen to and care about what the other says.
The second, the New American Dream parallels with Riesman’s concept of the “other-directed man.” The “other-directed man” is alienated from nature and disregards the importance of a rich culture. In The Lonely Crowd this type is described as the one who is not capable of acting alone or without any help. He is the so-called “cosmopolitan,” which means that the difference between known and unknown grows blurred for him.
The “other-directed” is the counterpart of the Old American Dream. Jack P. Greene explains the situation as the following: “the old religious-based corporatism began to give way to the atomistic pursuit of wealth and self-interest” (Greene, 64). Greene sees the base of this change in population growth and “the emergence of many new opportunities for young man outside agriculture” (Greene, 75). Greene’s views correspond to Thorstein Veblen’s idea about the conspicuous consumption coming into existence in the beginning of the 20th century. It is this emerging consumption and the birth of consumerism why the lonely mass man in the “lonely crowd” is born. Moreover, there is a fear that this “excessively atomistic behavior would lead to social chaos and loss of control” (ibid). This social chaos provides a place for the clash, or in other words, a “conflict between the older American agrarian dream” (Ekirch, 16) and the New “atomistic” Dream. This type only manages to live a mirror-life in which fictions mock other fictions, “leaving to individual dignity only a sense of ironic detachment” (Wilkinson, 32). And as Riesman’s research shows, they are “unable to get really close to one another” (Wilkinson, 49), and as a consequence, they constantly feel the “fear of isolation.”
“Isolation,” “loneliness,” “atomistic” are all catch-phrases in the description of contemporary hyper-consumerist America. It is no wonder that the notion of the Dream has split, and it only marginally represents old values of political and religious freedom and that it, now, stretches behind these, and covers the idea of success measured by superficial, but centralized, material wealth. As a result of these changes in America in the second half of the 20th century, I insist upon the diversity of the American Dreams. To back up my views I asked Edward Albee in Toronto in May 2006 whether he sees a new type of American Dream emerging in America. To my question he sarcastically replied that it was not a “Dream” anymore, it is much rather an American Nightmare that has recently developed in his country (Cf. Edward Albee in Edward Albee in Conversation with Fiona Reid at the Jane Mallett Theatre 12 May 2006, Toronto.) With his statement in mind I explore on my idea of how the Old and the New (nightmarish?) American Dream is represented in the playwright’s three dramas.
3. The Proto-dramas
Before I turn to the focus plays of this paper, in this brief chapter I intend to present the origins of the paradigms of the Old and New American Dream, the origins that I call “proto-dramas.” The first proto-drama is a very short play entitled The Sandbox, about which Albee confesses that “with the possible exception of the little play of The Sandbox, which takes thirteen minutes to perform, I don’t think anything I’ve done has worked out to perfection” (Flanagan). Albee makes sure that he expresses his personal bond to this play with giving it the subtitle, A Brief Play, in Memory of my Grandmother (1876-1959). Albee never felt close to any of his adoptive relatives, with the exception of his maternal grandmother, whom he looked at as the only real parent figure in the family, and who “brightened Albee’s childhood” (Gussow, 135). With the appearing figure of Grandma, The Sandbox is certainly of great biographical importance but besides this, it presents, for the first time, the later characters of Mommy, Daddy, Grandma and the Young Man appearing in The American Dream.
The Sandbox is about Mommy and Daddy’s cruel action of taking old Grandma to die in a deserted place with only “a large child’s sandbox with a toy pail and shovel.” The scene oddly resembles “both a playground for children and a cemetery for the old” (Cristian 2006). For childless Mommy and Daddy, Grandma is the only relative, the person who is both in the position of a child and of a soon-to-die old woman. When she is carried to the sandbox, her voice becomes “a cross between a baby’s laugh and cry“ (Albee, 11). As Réka Cristian claims, “the context of the play suggests that the sandbox here symbolizes both the cradle and the coffin while the baby sounds coming from the old body stand for birth and death” (Cristian 2006). The eighty-six-year-old character is, however, the wisest and most amusing one of all, and her behavior suggests that she is the prototype for the other Grandma in the later play and therefore also for the paradigm of the Old American Dream. She utters the central thesis of the play in her talk to the Young Man: “There’s no respect around here!” (Albee,14). Her sentence will be echoed by the other Grandma character when she calls for a sense of dignity. Also a parallel is the fact that Grandma in both plays is closely attached to agriculture, that is nature, which I see as a reason for her to be the Old American Dream. Similarly in the two plays, the two Grandmas are replaced by the Young Man, who in the case of The Sandbox appears as the Angel of Death and performs a symbolical killing on her, while in The American Dream he transforms into the “van man” and takes her place in the family. This is, however, not the only resemblance the two characters named Young Man show in the two plays. Both are, first and foremost described by their way of look, that is “good-looking, well-built” (Albee, 8), which characterization not only connects the figures of Young Man but also points to an even later play and its Young American Dream character, Nick in Who’s Afraid in Virginia Woolf? The Young Man in both The Sandbox and The American Dream are Hollywood type of beauties and they proudly show off their muscles and pretty face. The Young Man seems to lack only one thing, a proper name, since he is not given one yet by the studio. According to Cristian’s discussion of the naming of this character: “an artificial domain… replaces the domestic one.”
As for the characters of Mommy and Daddy The Sandbox also provides the readers with prototypes of the New American Dream. From Grandma’s speech readers learn that Mommy is attached to money so much that she made her attachment legal with marrying “money, money, money” (Albee, 15) Daddy. Mommy is a very commanding person, who has a peremptory tone of voice. This is one reason why there is no and there can be no genuine conversation between the couple. Over Mommy’s orders Daddy does not have a say, all he can mumble is: “Whatever you say, Mommy” (Albee, 10). When later he suggests that they should talk, Mommy utters a little laugh and ridicules him: “Well, you can talk, if you want to…if you can think of anything to say…if you can think of anything new” (Albee, 12). Daddy, of course, cannot think of anything new, and he gives up to Mommy’s will, which results in her “triumphant laugh.” The only person, who can act against this stubborn will that Mommy practices, is Grandma, her mother. At the moment when Grandma starts throwing sand at her, Mommy gets very much offended and in return, she refuses to look at the old lady. I consider this moment of The Sandbox the foreteller of every scenes in the focus plays of this paper where the Old American Dream challenges the world of the New American Dream, and in which the latter fails to even recognize this challenge. These moments I will call the clash of the two Dreams.
The other short play that I include here as a proto-drama is entitled Fam and Yam and it was written in the same period and appeared in the same collection in 1960 as The Sandbox. In Fam and Yam two different worlds meet due to a short visit that Yam, the Young American Playwright pays at Fam’s, the Famous American Playwright’s place. Their interaction is brief and highly one-sided. It shows Yam as a very ambitious character with sharply edged ideas and Fam as almost his opposite, who being in the position where he is, literally carrying fame in his name, barely pays attention to the young playwright’s words and his real reason for the visit. Fam’s “face turns ashen…his mouth drops open” when, after Yam leaves, he realizes that their talk was actually an interview to which he has given his name. His ignorance, which was realized in having drinks one after the other and in his uncontrollable non-stop laugh, results in a situation in which he agrees to Yam’s view on playwrights like himself: “it would be good to say that most of our playwrights are nothing better than our businessmen themselves…you know…out for the loot…just as cynically as anyone else” (Albee, 93).
This little sketch suggests the idea that Fam and Yam are typical prototypes of the early phases of the breakdown in communication between characters in Albee’s plays. As it was true for The Sandbox, it is true for Fam and Yam as well. One might even go back with this argumentation as far as to Jerry and Peter in The Zoo Story but the three plays very much represent the same phase in Albee’s writing since The Zoo Story had not yet been brought to stage by the time he finished The Sandbox and a little later, Fam and Yam. In addition to this, I believe that The Zoo Story involves different issues in its theme than what my paradigms and therefore also their proto-dramas attempt to express. With introducing, what I call, proto-dramas, my intention is to draw up the link among Albee’s plays and characters upon which I build my thesis and which helps to understand what happens during the clash of the Old and New American Dream. Therefore, I take the characters of The Sandbox and Fam and Yam as early but not yet crystallized examples of the Old and the New American Dream characters, first fully materialized in the play The American Dream which I approach in the very next chapter.
4. The Old American Dream
4.1. The American Off-sceneity
In the case of The American Dream Grandma represents the Old American Dream, since her character can be compared to that of the so-called American Adam. As several references suggest, she is a true agrarian hero in The American Dream. First of all, she is said to be “rural” by her daughter, which means that Grandma comes from a rural society where money was not the leading principle of people’s lives. Then, later in the play, Grandma mentions “The Department of Agriculture” which made a survey and found out that the majority of the population is over 80 years old. It is not by chance the Department of Agriculture. I argue if it had been another department, for example the ‘Department of Industry’ it would have found out that the biggest number of population is either middle-aged or under. That is, in Grandma’s statement the word “Agriculture” has the main importance. Referring back to Emerson, only those can lead a harmonious and rich life who love nature and who are able to find the right balance between inside and outside values. They are those who once lived in the American Eden, in an agricultural, ‘close-to-nature’ society.
Talking about Grandma as the American Adam might, however, raise the question of gender. How can Grandma be the American Adam if she is a woman? First of all, if there is such a person/concept as the American Adam, there must be an American Eve, too. In this sense Grandma can be the American Eve, and she can bear all the functions of her partner, Adam; she is simply the female counterpart. Secondly, one can also turn to Grandma’s description of herself, when she refers to herself in the following way: “I look just as much an old man as I do like an old woman” (Albee, 111). She solves the problem of gender-gap with this characterization. She is aware of the fact that old people are not seen as male or female anymore, these gender types somehow merge into one. Thirdly, Grandma talks about the baking contest which she entered with using a male “nom de boulangère.” She calls herself “Uncle Henry.”
If Grandma is the Old American Dream then she is also an “inner-directed” person. She knows that “a sense of dignity” is what is important in today’s life, and she is the character who articulates the worth of the individuals upon which the American democracy is based. She is the only one who is able to find the right balance between the outside and inside values. She calls these values “rhythm and content.” Grandma is the only person who has content, and not only because both Mommy and Daddy are totally empty characters but also because she wraps up all the contents of the house, of the American Dream home. She empties the whole apartment and puts everything, even absurd things like “water,” in her boxes. She knows that she has to leave, only does not know when. Therefore she decides to take the substance of everything with her and to leave the empty shells for Mommy and Daddy. This is her wise but also ironic revenge on empty-headed Mommy and passive Daddy, who only care about superficial things, represented in the play by money and the consumerist society.
Ervin Beck in his essay, “Allegory in Edward Albee’s The American Dream,” goes even further when he says that the whole play seems to be Grandma’s play. Beck argues so because he finds that Grandma is on stage most of the times, her lines are the wisest and these lines tell us the most valuable pieces of information about the character’s lives and about the American Dream. In Beck’s reading, Grandma is a kind of “licensed speaker,” she forms the minds of readers, and her impact on readers is the biggest of all the characters. Similarly to him, Gussow also considers her to be “a constant source of amusement” and wisdom.
In C. W. E. Bigsby’s view, “the only character who seems to stand aside from the general collapse of personal identity and moral purpose is Grandma, who steps outside of the frame of action (though not the theatre)” (Bigsby, 129). Although Grandma leaves the apartment, she leaves the Young Man there as a replacement of herself. Only the Young Man and she know that there is no van man, she is not carted off, nor does she die. She does not stay on the stage, but she stays in the theatre, and talks to the audience. She is off-scene but still present. As Grandma, herself claims once: “Old people are obscene” (Albee, 75). So this is what Grandma is, obscene and off-scene at the same time. She ends up the play with a little speech to the audience. She stops the play, while, she says “everybody’s happy” and while “everybody’s got what he thinks he wants” (Albee, 127). She wants the audience to feel that this happiness is not a ‘rhythm and content happiness,’ therefore it is very delicate and might be broken any time.
4.2. Who’s Afraid of History?
In Albee’s most widely analyzed and criticized work the Old American Dream is presented by George and Martha. They are the “inner-directed” characters of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? since they are equipped with the “sense of social bearings” (Kroes, 26). that help them to find the right way no matter how hard it is. Such “inner-directed” people originate their strength to survive in the world from history.
One of the ways George and Martha are connected to history is the origin of their names. As Ruby Cohn argues, “Albee’s unholy lovers are George and Martha, whose names evoke America’s first and childless White House couple” (Cohn, 25). Albee himself admits that the naming of these characters is a kind of a local and private joke and that he did name these characters George and Martha because the play contains an attempt “to examine the success or failure of American revolutionary principles” (Flanagan). As for the male lead character, George Washington did not only have the same “earthy sense of humor” (Boller) as the play’s George, the history professor, has but he was also “called the Father of His Country” (Crowther, 569). Moreover, according to Cristian’s observation, “the name of George means in Greek ‘earth worker’ (or gardener)” (Cristian 2003, 135). While George is the “Father” and the “earth worker,” Martha in the play names herself “the Earth Mother.” According to Diana Trilling, Martha is “the human tradition or maybe just plain humanity” (Trilling, 82). She is older than her history professor husband, George, so symbolically, she is older than history itself. In the play there are a Father and a Mother living together, but, ironically, they could not have any children, similarly to the historically significant Washington couple. As David Madden states, “in the years before mass communication, Americans lived history” (Madden, xxviii), that is to say: George and Martha, being the Old American Dream couple, are more living beings than anyone coming from the New American Dream.
In the theme of the Old American Dream it is also important to understand the choice of setting since it connects George and Martha to the old America. According to the set direction, the plot happens on a campus in New England. New England is the North-Eastern territory of the United States and it got its name after the European country because English settlers were the first to take possession of this area. It became the first colonized part of America and therefore it still has a certain European flavor in its culture. Due to its relatively old history, in the area of New England there can be found America’s “most ancient and prestigious institutions” (Hudson, 40). This scene seems to be a very appropriate place to live for the play’s George and Martha (Washington). The choice of place has another reason, namely that Albee himself grew up in New England; Reed and Frances Albee, who adopted him, lived in Larchmont, New York. (Gussow, 22).
The name of the town in which the play is set also carries information on history. It is called New Carthage that means New City. This is a fictional town but has a reference to the legendary city, Nouveau Carthago in North Africa. In the legend the city was the biggest “rival power of Rome” (Handley, 14) and it was founded by Dido. She was the lover of Aeneas, who happened to be the founder of the Roman Empire, one of the biggest ancient Western civilizations. In this sense Martha and George (Washington) parallel to Dido and Aeneas since, according to Cohn, George and Martha’s “America is representative of contemporary civilization” (Cohn, 25).
Ironically, George is not only the symbolic founder of the big Western civilization but he is also the one who articulates its decline. He reads Oswald Spengler’s philosophical book, The Decline of the West, in which the main idea is that “the west… must eventually… fall” (Albee, 174). Although this book was written in the early 20th century, it has become more and more applicable as time went by. George, who is an associate professor of history, and who is the representative of the Old American Dream, is made to be the destroyer of this civilization, which becomes less and less his.
As history is the basis of why George can be a representation of the Old American Dream, one cannot overlook the significance of the scene when George remembers his youth and so makes connection with history. He remembers one day “during the Great Experiment, or Prohibition” (Albee, 94). This was a period in the history of the United States from 1919 to 1933 when the Congress adopted an amendment “prohibiting the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcoholic liquors” (Harris, 332). This national law was very unpopular in the States; it produced a lot of crime, so after fourteen years it was repealed by another amendment. In George’s memory it was, however, a grand day: he speaks about a fifteen-year-old boy who ordered “bergin” at a bar. There can be heard a similarity between the words “bergin” and virgin as if his mistake would mean his virginity in ordering and drinking. Later in the play Martha reveals that George was this boy drinking “bergin” that night. In this sense he might be called a virgin, an untouched, innocent person who lived a pure life. George is, therefore, another character by Albee who represents the American Adam in the Virgin Land.
George grew up to become a fitting husband of his wife in the Old American Dream. They are like a Mother and a Father who live together and “supplement each other in telling, in dramatic action or in both” (Cristian 2003, 135-6). This is also an act that makes them “inner-directed,” since only with these little games are they able to survive in a world where words rarely can find their ways to their addressees. The only thing they are not capable of is to produce any children. Therefore they imagine one, which only exists in their dreams, and which is a false American Dream. Albee, in an interview, insists that George and Martha “have at no point deluded themselves about the fact that they are playing a game” (Flanagan) and that they use the child as a symbolic weapon that they use instead of a real weapon in their arguments. The turn of their lives comes at the end of the drama, when George symbolically kills this child. The playwright calls the married couple “much too intelligent” to be deluded and that is why Albee emphasizes that “the loss is doubly poignant” (Flanagan). István Hermann puts the question in his essay: What is left after all the games are played and finished, after they are all destroyed? (Hermann, 519). In my opinion, this ritual killing of the child and also the games help them to embrace the sad and painful truth about America. On the one hand, they have the ability to accept the truth but, on the other hand, they admit that they are still afraid of it.
4.3. The Play About Limits
Written 30 years later, in 1997, The Play About the Baby contains more sarcastic but still very similar notions concerning the Old American Dream as the former two plays. Out of the four characters it is Man and Woman who personify this type of Dream. Readers might recognize that they behave very much like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, despite the fact that only limited information is available about these characters. What is obvious, however, is that they complement each other, sing together several times and have wise observations on the world and on the other characters just like George and Martha do. They come, however, from a different era than the characters of both Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The American Dream. Their world is that of the post-nuclear, where marriage has lost its value. Whereas George and Martha were openly officially married, Man and Woman are just assigned gender but nothing else. Readers do not know their real relationship and as Cristian points out “in this play the institution of marriage and family is represented through either real or fake parenthood. The very concept of family as such is validated here with the existence of the child regardless of its sex.”
What still makes them the representative of the Old American Dream is revealed in Man’s first long speech in which he asks the audience: “… what’s true and what isn’t is a tricky business, no? What’s real and what isn’t? Tricky” (Albee, 15). He wants the audience to pay closer attention to what can be true and what cannot. The Old American Dream is there to draw the audience’s attention and so to make them think and make them understand. It is also what Woman wants to do: “all I wanted to do was…understand […] I want to do it with you, through you—watching you and understanding you” (Albee, 20). Her lines suggest that the attempt to understand the truth and/or people is what is indispensable in the Old American Dream.
The other reason why Man and Woman can also be interpreted as the Old American Dream is that they can also be compared to Grandma from The American Dream. Man and Woman are also aware of the audience and they talk off scene, even obscene, many times. What is more revealing, however, is that Man and Woman are characterized as Gypsies, who not only steal “money” and “babies,” but they are people whose sex one cannot tell. One does not care about the sex of old people, neither does one care about the sex of Gypsies. Boy asks: “Was she really very old? He very old?” (Albee, 30). Then they go on with this debate about the Gypsies, about Man and Woman.
If they are like Grandma or George and Martha, then Man and Woman are also the representatives of the “inner-directed man.” Man introduces a new meaning for the term, “inner-directed,” when he mentions his memories about an exhibition. This exhibition was set up for the blind, so that they could touch and feel everything on the sculptures. When visiting the place, Man had the idea to pretend to be blind and so experience blindness, and he was fascinated by what he experienced: “to see with my hands, to touch, as we sighted do in dark, the way the blind do in their endless dark—in their light” (Albee, 27). He emphasizes the word “their” to emphasize the difference between seeing as the blind do and as the sighted do: blind people are able to light up the dark, they are able to see without their eyes, and they seem to see much more than the sighted do. The blind see “in their light” and so they see in an “inner light.” That is to say, they are directed from the inside. The fact that Man experienced and appreciated this makes him able to see in the “inner light,” as well.
This experience is that leads him to the main question, the central thesis nearing the end of the drama. He says, “the question is not who I think I am, but who I cannot be […] what we cannot do; who we cannot be” (Albee, 78). So in this sense one might have an idea about oneself but the real knowledge is in the understanding of one’s limits, and this knowledge seems to come from the inside and never from the outside. Blind people are always aware of what they cannot do and who they can never become. The “inner light” tells them this, and since Man knows what to be blind means, he also knows his own limits.
I have, so far, only focused on Man, while the case with Woman seems to be even more interesting. I say more interesting because she answers this major question even before it was asked. In the beginning of the play, when she sees Girl and Boy running naked on the stage, she says: “now you know who I am not, what I do not do” (Albee, 21). In her acts and speeches she proves to be as fitting a partner of Man as Martha is that of George.
These examples highlight that Woman and Man are both “inner-directed,” they are the Old American Dream, and so it is their responsibility to tell the truth about the baby to Girl and Boy. They are very sarcastic about this issue, and they make fun of the simple-mindedness of the other two without them recognizing it. They start the ritual of taking the baby by defining it: “A baby…what!? A baby mouse? A baby kangaroo? A baby wolverine? A baby…baby?” (Albee, 63). Then they go abstract and try to relate the baby: “relate that to where we are—to this.” They reach their goal very easy, and make Boy and Girl perplexed and unable to follow their chain of thought.
They give the coup de grace when they call upon Boy and Girl to prove that the baby is theirs. Up to this point readers have the story of Boy and Girl and that of the birth as told by Boy and Girl. Now Man and Woman have their version of the stories as well. The essence of the matter is not whether either of the stories is true but rather the fact that Man and Woman are able to confuse Boy and Girl. Man and Woman are also able to convince them that their story is not true, that is, there is no baby at all. In this drama it is not Man and Woman who have an imagined child, but they are the people who help the others, or the “other-directed” to accept the limits. With their act Man and Woman stabilize their relationship and prove that they are mature, in contrast with them, Boy and Girl’s relationship, if they had one at all, falls into pieces and “they are pushed into a regressive process” (Cristian 2006). Like George and Martha, Man and Woman also know how painful the loss of a baby is, but as “inner-directed” people they know the importance of accepting “what we cannot do” (Albee, 57).
5. The New American Dream
5.1. The American Mutilation
After having discussed the representatives of the Old American Dream, its counterpart, the New American Dream becomes the scene of dissection. Probably the best-describing character of this notion is the Young Man from The American Dream since this type of dream is “mutilated emotionally” (Cohn, 13). The Young Man’s mutilation is materialized in the loss of his identical twin. This loss, the separation from his brother made him emotionally empty. He himself articulates this emptiness in the drama: “my heart… became numb” (Albee, 114) He is not able to love or touch anyone; all he has now is his perfect, beautiful body and face. He is characterized as “almost insultingly good-looking in a typically American way” (Albee, 107). According to Maria Koreneva, the Young Man like the American society “may look healthy and full of life, but in reality its health and power are nothing but sickness and disintegration“ (Koreneva, 48-49). According to Cristian, “the Young Man, who looks like the American icon of beauty, becomes the American Dream boy that will brighten the life of Mommy and Daddy in a parody of the consumerist society” Gerry McCarthy goes as far as stating that with the Young Man Albee is “dramatizing a soulless aspect of the American society” (McCarthy, 25). One sees the Young Man as someone who would do anything for money for he was born into a consumer society. In this society the “spiritual aspirations of the individual” (Koreneva, 49) have been totally neglected, and so the idea of happiness is completely reduced to material success.
This is also true for other characters of the play such as Mommy, Daddy and Mrs. Barker. As readers get to know from Grandma, Mommy always had the dream to “mahwy a wich old man” (Albee, 85), which she did when she married Daddy and his money. From their conversation it turns out quite soon that they do not have a lot in common, except that they both love money. This is why Charles Dickens says that the conversations with Americans “may be summed up in one word—dollars. All their cares, joys, hopes, affections, virtues and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars.” Mommy and Daddy’s conversation is just as superficial and meaningless as their whole lives, since it consists of nothing but “pointless anecdotes,” “meaningless nuances” and “cliché refrains” (Cohn, 12).
They are bound to money to such an extent that they used it to buy their child as well. It seems that in the New American Dream everything can be bought and sold, or destroyed as Mommy and Daddy destroyed their child for they were unsatisfied with it. They treated the baby like any other kind of objects which money can buy. Readers learn from Grandma that they bought “the bumble of joy” from Mrs. Barker who runs “the Bye-Bye Adoption service.” Soon Mommy and Daddy found out that the child was not their “little joy,” indeed, they had ‘huge problems’ with the bumble. First of all it did not take after them, which they found very scandalous. The adopted baby was supposed to take after them, but, of course, it did not, so stupid and simple-minded Mommy and Daddy took revenge. Secondly, they mutilated their child only because it did not behave the way they expected it to do. They understood every action of the baby at its worst. Babies can only act naturally and instinctively but these “inner” actions are unfamiliar to such “other-directed” people as Mommy and Daddy.
Mommy and Daddy can, therefore, never understand Grandma and her actions, either. They do not care about what the boxes, which Grandma “wrapped so nicely,” contain. They are too busy with the outside look; they do not spend any time on asking about the contents. They do not even let Grandma tell it when she is once about to do so. Then, when they go and look for all the contents the apartment used to have, but which are now wrapped in Grandma’s boxes, they are totally perplexed. What Riesman says about the “other-directed” and what Grandma says about Mommy and Daddy, and probably also about Mrs. Barker, correspond with each other. They both say: “they are like everybody else” (Albee, 86). They all act like “puppets who perform various actions according to the scheduled program” (Koreneva, 48) and as they are interested only in surface things, they can see nothing else but “the mere reflections of deeper meanings” (Kroes, 31).
The same lack of comprehension can be observed when Mrs. Barker arrives. Neither Mommy nor Daddy can recognize her at first. In accordance with Riesman, such “other-directed” people are “cosmopolitans” and this has the result that they are not able to distinguish the known from the unknown. Furthermore, in the artificial light they have it is impossible to recognize color or people. One might also feel that these people do not care about each other’s needs and favors. They are all “surrounded by phantom images” (Kroes, 39) which make it impossible to tell the difference between real and unreal.
According to Albee, “the play was also about the breakdown of language” (Gussow, 141). The New American Dream people carry odd conversations full of clichés and without any meaning or content. To every question Mrs. Barker gives the same weird answer: “I don’t mind if I do.” She does not seem to pay attention to the questions since she has always the same answer to each, and she even accepts the idea to remove her dress. Mrs. Barker, the “professional woman,” “the paradigmatic clublady” (Gussow, 141) is on stage without her dress for the rest of the play. This very odd picture is a consequence of the meaningless life of the New American Dream, where one pays attention neither to what one says nor to what others say. Here, as a conclusion, I feel appropriate to quote Albee:
… The American Dream to a large extent was about the rapid breakdown of communication. People just don’t listen. That’s why Mommy was able to say to Mrs. Barker, ‘won’t you take off your dress’ rather than ‘won’t you take of your coat.’ And one doesn’t listen and doesn’t pay attention. (qtd. in Wasserman, 19)
5.2. Who’s Afraid of Biology?
The New American Dream is represented by Nick and his wife, Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Similarly to George and Martha Albee did not give last names to Nick and Honey either. But their first names are as much revealing and expressive, if not more, as the old couple’s. Nick might have gotten his name after Nikita Khrushchev, who was the Premier of the Soviet Union between 1958 and 1962, in the period when the play was written by Albee. The Soviet Union’s political basis was built upon a utopian idea that people can be and should be leveled to be the same culturally and socially. In the eyes of George, Nick, being a biologist, bears this idea: biologists work with “cromozomes” and genes and they want to make “everyone the same” (Albee, 37). This process of biological assimilation leads back to the idea of the cosmopolitan “other-directed man.”
As a representative of conformity, Nick’s wife has a name that makes her the same as everybody else. She is called Honey, which name is more usually used to express one’s affection to another. It is important to note that “Nick’s original name in the play was the impersonal ‘Dear,’” (Cristian, 54) which would be a fitting pair for the name Honey and which “names would have created the illusion of them as fictional products (or projections) of George and Martha” (ibid).
Both of the characters get some nicknames, which I would like to list and shortly explain. Honey is once called “Mousie” by George. This name does not express much more than her normal name. She is a little insignificant person, who is not worth having a proper name. On the other hand, Nick’s names in the play are especially significant. He is called a “Stud,” a “Houseboy” and “Blondie,” referring to his sexual potency, later impotency or according to Martha, his “goddamn performance,” and him being an ultimate prototype of the New American Dream.
The descriptions of Nick are very similar to those of the Young Man in The American Dream: they are both a kind of “Midwest beauties,” strong, healthy looking, but rotten and empty inside. Both the Young Man and Nick resemble “the American Dream both in physique and in lack of feeling” (Cohn, 19). The scene which supports this idea is when Martha sings a melody to humiliate Nick: “Just a gigolo, everywhere I go, people always know….” (Albee, 195). With this short melody Martha wants to refer to Nick as a man who is supported by an older woman for his sexual services. As it turns out, the little “houseboy” is “a flop,” so Martha makes fun of Nick when singing this song. And although George is not present there, a few seconds later he calls Nick a “little all-American something-or-other” (Albee, 196). This expression is a very apt example of the Old American Dream’s opinion about the New American Dream. Nick is not even worth of being somebody, he is only “a something,” and him being “all-American” or as earlier a “Blondie” is said with George’s ironic sense of humor. By putting together George and Martha’s words, Nick is nothing else but an ‘all-American flop.’ He fails to be a successful lover and he characterizes America as a flop. From outside he is the prototype of this “Midwest beauty,” but from inside he is empty, he is a flop.
Nick is not the only flop in the drama, though. Martha also calls George “a great… big… fat… FLOP” (Albee, 84). But are the two flops the same? I certainly argue that they are not. Firstly because George never fails the “Games,” which represent the most significant bond between him and his wife. Martha admits that the only man who has ever made her happy is George, “who keeps learning the games we play as quickly as I can change the rules” (Albee, 191). He might not be that attractive from outside but the richer is he on the inside. Nick, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the new “genetic” generation. As Gerry McCarthy states, “Honey and Nick’s reactions are ultimately expressions of the dehumanized situation in which they, the couple of the American Dream, find themselves” (McCarthy, 70). I would like to highlight two things out of McCarthy’s statement. First and more importantly, Nick and Honey are shown as the couple of the American Dream. The American Dream does not necessarily bear negative characteristics but it certainly does if it is called the New American Dream. Secondly, the American Dream couple comes from a “dehumanized situation.” Ruby Cohn’s explanation of Nick and Honey’s situation parallels to that of McCarthy since Cohn remarks that “they live in a vacuum of surface amenities, a mishmash of syrupy Honey and trivial Nick” (Cohn, 23). Nick represents a flop, who is “impotent in his connection with humanity” (Trilling, 82) that is with Martha. On his side there is his wife, Honey, who is “the daughter of a dead religious faith,” (ibid) and the two of them together form the New American Dream.
As a consequence, if Nick is impotent and a flop, and if Honey is the daughter of a dead faith, the outcome is that they cannot be productive. Opposite to George and Martha, Nick and Honey are not strong enough to admit the truth. It is Honey, however, who mentions their biggest secret, but she does it unconsciously, as an affect of drinking too much: “I don’t… want… any… children. I’m afraid!” (Albee, 176). In other words, the representative of the New American Dream couple is afraid of a life with children, and with what it means responsibility and serious bond to another human being. Diana Trilling’s point of view is that this childlessness in the atomic age must mean a future that is only fantasy. She says that the cause why people suffer in the play is our advanced society, and that it might be “the only possible outcome of a modern life” (Trilling, 84). If the world is desperate, people are desperate in it, too. And if so, I think that the New American Dream world is both very unproductive of human feelings and manners and also very desperate because of this unproductiveness in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
5.3. The Play About unProductiveness
Boy and Girl from The Play About the Baby also symbolize this unproductive and desperate world: that of the New American Dream. There is a parallel between their lives and the lives of Nick and Honey, and also that of the “other-directed” characters in The American Dream. When Man exposes Boy, he reveals what Boy told him about his marriage with Girl: “it was all for show, that her family has money, you can’t stand the smell of her, the things she makes you do” (Albee, 68). The similarity is conspicuous: Boy married Girl because of her money, Nick married Honey because her father was rich and Mommy married Daddy to become wealthy. It seems that if marriages do occur in the New American Dream, they are just as superficial as anything else. Dickens’s view of the money-grabber Americans seems to be proved, since money plays a huge role in the New American Dream.
Boy and Girl’s life is, however, more sarcastic than any of the other New American Dream characters. They are not only tantamount to the term of the “other-directed man” but, as I see it, they even go beyond it. As Kroes says, “people not only no longer aspire to rising above the multitudes; worse than that, they no longer aspire to rising above themselves” (Kroes, 17). He goes on stating that such people “turned into thoroughly socialized animals, meekly following the marching order of the crowd around them” (ibid), the lonely crowd, indeed. Wilkinson sees the problem from a similar aspect since he claims that “the quest for self-fulfillment was flawed” (Wilkinson, 36), moreover there is an instance focus on the self that has become not only selfish but even self-starving “since it cut off the individual from social issues and involvement” (ibid).
The status of socialized animals explains their behavior. Boy and Girl are so busy with being naked and talking about sex that they forget that they should understand each other first. “We don’t even understand each other yet!” (Albee, 38). They repeat this sentence many times but they are not able to act against it. The New American Dream world serves to take its people out of any genuine relationship with each other. They live in “the only truly primitive society” that is like a “utopia become reality” (Kroes, 39).
Although I stated in the beginning that Boy and Girl are unproductive, their case is, however, rather twisted and a little bit contradictory. The play begins with Girl being pregnant and giving birth to her baby. So, they are definitely productive in the beginning. The picture of a baby remains until Man and Woman “come to take the baby” (Albee, 47). They show up the bundle, which is just as empty as the mutilated and vanished “bumble” in The American Dream.
MAN (To BOY and GIRL):…The old baby bundle—treasure of treasures, light of our lives, purpose—they say—of all the fucking, all the…well, all the everything. Now the really good part, the part we’ve all been waiting for! (He takes the bundle, snaps it open, displays both sides; we see there is nothing there.) Shazaam! You see? Nothing! No baby! Nothing! (Albee, 88)
The question every critic asks is: What happens to the baby? As Cristian points out, “what seemed to be real is transformed into an imaginary product, ‘a baby, perhaps.’” (Cristian 2003, 170). Her view corresponds to that of Albee when he states that Boy and Girl “cannot take the pain and loss of having a baby, so it ceases to be real” (Gussow, 398). This obvious fertility and productiveness ceases to be real and is transformed because the New American Dream characters are not strong enough to face the world as it is, and they are not aware of their limits. The scene before the curtain fall, therefore, shows a young couple that is “questionably traumatized while the elder one leaves the stage and the play ends in a denial of Boy and Girl’s baby in an atmosphere of almost tragic sacrifice” (Cristian 2006).
6. The Clash of the American Dreams
6.1. The American Dream
In this last section of my paper I highlight those facts and moments where the Old and the New American Dream clash in their actions and thoughts. In The American Dream the two major representatives of the two dreams can be contrasted. The play comes to its head, namely, when the Young Man arrives. Grandma is the one who opens the door for him, and she finds him very attractive. After a little while she realizes that the Young Man is nothing else but the (New) American Dream, her counterpart. She immediately knows that his arrival requires her departure. As I claimed it earlier, she already had an idea about her necessary departure, but still, after the realization of it, she gets angry for one moment and shouts: “The American Dream! The American Dream! Damn it!” (Albee, 108). Then she calms down and becomes aware of the positive side of the situation. She finds the Young Man perfect to substitute her in the family.
Her “inner-directedness,” or in her words, the “content” makes her able to draw a parallel between herself and the Young Man since both of them are American Dreams. She represents the Old American Dream as she comes from the Eden, the agricultural utopist culture, and she is the American Adam/Eve. She owns the “content,” the substance, partly in her personality and partly in her boxes, which could be understood as her extended body and mind. Her outside body is, however, not attractive any more. According to her description on herself, her sacks are empty and her spine is like sugar candy. She is aware of her own obscenity.
The Young Man, the New American Dream stands as the opposition of Grandma. According to Cohn, “the Young Man claims to accept the syntax around him, but he is remarkably deaf to the tone of a satiric comedy that borders on force” (Cohn, 15). He is characterized as “almost insultingly good-looking,” having a marvelous physique but “every other way…incomplete.” In this sense Grandma and the Young Man are the total opposites of each other. They are like the two poles of a magnet. Grandma is very much affected by the Young Man but when he moves closer to her she says: “…not too close. I might faint.” (Albee, 110). It is obvious for her that only one of them can stay and it is not her. Her time is up in this family, the “van man” is here to take her away. She seems to be happy to leave Mommy and Daddy since such “other-directed” will never understand the actions and communication of the Old American Dream.
6.2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In the case of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the characters clash in various ways. George and Nick definitely come up against each other in their fields of study. History is opposed to biology. While history is indispensable in the Old American Dream, biology defines what being “other-directed” means. On the surface it seems as if the young biology teacher were more successful in his job and with women than George. In reality, however, Nick is considered to be a flop with women, and with his job he only serves the production of a meaningless life in conformity. George, predicting the future world of the New American Dream, defines Nick’s job in a very depreciatory tone of voice. He is certain that as a result of chromosome alteration, scientists like Nick will create “a race of glorious men“ (Albee, 66) that will establish “a civilization of men, smooth, blond, and right at the middleweight limit” (ibid). The price of the birth of this glorious generation is huge. According to George, mankind will have to pay with giving up music and art, liberty and diversity. “Cultures and races will eventually vanish,” which George takes as a personal attack because with the turn of the world from the Old to the New American Dream “the surprise, the multiplexity, the sea-changing rhythm of…history, will be eliminated” (Albee, 67). Reading and knowing history means, however, to know that such utopist expectations will eventually fail. History will always be on the side of the Old American Dream to warn it about threats, and as George suggests: “Read history.”
Martha and Honey might also be contrasted with each other in the way they are or are not capable of accepting the truth. As I have already stated, the couples, especially the two women, have problems with fertility. After her affair with the gardener boy, and her possible pregnancy and “annulment,” Martha could not have children, so to cover up the empty space in her life, she imagined one. When the time comes to finish their biggest game, the fantasy of the child, she is hurt very much, but she agrees to the new conditions and reveals her fear. As Cohn suggests, “George and Martha may rebuild their marriage on the base of Truth” (Cohn 24), which seems to be a sign of a tough but better future. In an interview Albee mentioned that “the exorcism of the nonexistent child suggested a new state of emotional honesty” (Rutenberg, 255). This emotional honesty is what lacks Honey and all the New American Dream characters. The fact that they are “other-directed” prevents them from the ability to act and talk honestly, and allows the Old American Dream to do these instead of its New counterpart. Their clash is, therefore, exhausted in the realization that the New American Dream passes by the Old, without attracting the attention of the possibility that they could learn and get something from history, culture, from the “inner-directed.”
6.3. The Play About the Baby
The clash of Man/Woman and Boy/Girl takes its shape similarly to the earlier two cases; the clash, here, is more gentle, though. The reason why it should be gentle is that the gap between them is almost unbridgeable. The New American Dream characters are so ignorant and animalistic that Man and Woman need a trick to be able to touch them in any way. Any wise observations by Man and Woman fall, of course, on deaf ears. They try to give Boy and Girl a clue about the important questions and actions of life but they do not pay attention to these hints.
Indeed, as “other-directed,” Boy and Girl cannot act by themselves, they need a push from the Old American Dream. This push is when Man and Woman take the baby, and convince the other two that they have never had a child. This is the only thing that urges the New American Dream couple to join the conversation. This conversation is, of course, led by the Old American Dream, and so the clash is won by them, as well.
In my paper I focused on the notion of the American Dream with the help of three plays by Edward Albee: The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Play About the Baby. My intention with this essay was to prove my assumption that there are two types of American Dreams in Albee’s dramaturgy, which on the cultural level accord with Riesman’s terms of the “inner“ and “other-directed man.” One of them I called the Old American Dream and the other the New American Dream.
Firstly, I presented the Old American Dream, and here I found that the representatives of this type of Dream all carried the old values. Grandma from The American Dream turns out to be the American Adam, who stands close to nature and whose inner values, the “contents,” are more important than the outside looks. George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? embody the founding couple of the United States. Their inner strength to sacrifice their child and to face the truth seems to come from their close connection to history. Man and Woman from The Play About the Baby resemble both Grandma and George and Martha in their acts and speeches. They have found the most important question of the human beings: it is to know “what we cannot do; who we cannot be.” Being the Old American Dream means to know the answer to this question.
Secondly, I analyzed the New American Dream characters. In The American Dream all the other four characters seem to stand for this type of Dream since they live a life where only the outside look matters. They are not able to carry a conversation with meaning and they are not able to pay attention to what they say and what others say. Nick and Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also symbolize a life in which the outlook dominates, and while Honey is an insignificant “Mousie,” Nick is a flop. They represent an unproductive and desperate future in the New American Dream. Boy and Girl from The Play About the Baby are very similar to Nick and Honey. What is, however, more sarcastic in their lives is that they live as socialized animals who can never understand each other.
My final point was to clash the Old and the New American Dream. The result of it is a picture of America in which it is always the Old American Dream that is able to realize the failures in life, and it is he or she who has to perform action instead of the New American Dream. Both the Old and the New American Dream are, however, ‘canonized’ and also criticized by Albee, who is “a popular figure, a touchstone in criticism and curricula” (Cristian, 38). My ending thought corresponds with his since with this essay I did not intend to show that the situation of Albee characters is necessarily gloomy but to map the way the American Dreams can form or deform their lives:
What is wrong with the myth of the American Dream is the notion that this is all that there is to existence! The myth is merely a part of other things. Becoming wealthy is O.K. I suppose, but it is not a be all to end all. People who think that the acquisition of wealth or property or material things or power; that these are the things in life; the conspicuous consumption of material things is the answer; this creates a problem. The fact that we set arbitrary and artificial goals for ourselves is a problem, not the hard work ethic per se. (Roudane, 195-196)
With his statement, therefore, Albee legitimizes and, at the same time, exempts his characters of leading a necessarily meaningless life. I agree with his point of view since I believe that the American Dreams cannot be divided as sharply in reality as I divided them in my paper. Old and New Dreams rather oscillate and transfer into each other in the American life. I used this strong binary opposition, the method of clashing and the value judgments on part of both Dreams in order to give a clear picture of the characteristic features of the Dreams that I see create the American character in Albee’s dramatic world.
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