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The Zoo Story by Edward Albee - a cross-section of today's society?

Pre-University Paper 2005 16 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works

Excerpt

1.Introduction

Although we live in the 21st century and might suppose that we have learnt our lessons about tolerance, war, peace and social conflicts big social differences between human beings still exist. The world we live in is called a multi-cultural society with enough living space for everyone but to me it seems that there are humans who do not have a place in this living space - humans who do not fit in our society. Be it the leper in the battered rooming-house who does not feel like working and who lives at the tax payers’ costs or the terrible Puerto-Rican family who is so noisy all the time with all its children playing in the street.

It is pretty easy to shift the blame to others but have we ever asked ourselves if the leper has been looking for a job for years but that there is nobody who wants to employ him or if the Puerto-Rican children are playing in the street just because they do not have enough room to play in their small low cost housing?

People who are talking about these themes seem to forget that normally big-typed catchwords like brotherliness and charity lose their important meaning. Catchwords like injustice and prejudice come to the fore. The question comes up if people who see themselves as a part of the mainstream prejudge unconsciously or if they are aware of what they do.

It is clear that attitudes like these affirm the still existent social differences in today’s society and aggravate the isolation of the human beings from each other.

From my point of view there is no sense in suppressing this problem. I am convinced that it is utmost important to go up to someone and make contact to get out of the isolation and to work against injustice and prejudice.

In reference to Edward Albee’s one-act play “The Zoo Story” I will try to answer the question whether the story could be seen as a cross-section of today’s society.

At the beginning of my research paper I will interpret the story and analyse that this play is not so absurd as it was always considered. Further I want to demonstrate that this play is not only old-fashioned but mirrors the problems and behaviour of many people in today’s society. In this essay I will explain the relevance of Central Park in the play and in today.

Furthermore I want to describe which social class the two characters emanate from and if they could be seen as representatives of American society. Facing the economic progress in today’s society I will deal with the question whether this progress has an impact on the developing of new cages in society.

In the end of my research paper I will try to find a solution how we can fight against class distinction and make people think about their indifference towards people who are different.

2. Analysis and interpretation of “The Zoo Story”

2.1 Short summary of “The Zoo Story”

This one-act play tells the story of two New York citizens named Jerry and Peter who meet each other in Central Park for the first time.

Jerry is a person who is looking for conversation partner and Peter a man in his forties who sits on a bench and enjoys his idle period while reading a book.

Suddenly Jerry starts to ask Peter questions and although it is obvious that Peter is not interested in communicating with a man like Jerry, Peter answers because of his politeness.

While they are talking Jerry gets to know a lot about Peter and his family atmosphere and Jerry begins to tell Peter about his living conditions and his family background.

In the course of the play it becomes clear that Peter is not able to understand the messages of Jerry’s stories and Jerry behaves more and more aggressively. An argument begins. Jerry provokes Peter to fight for his bench and threatens Peter with a knife. The knife is taken by Peter and somehow Jerry manages to wound himself deadly with it. While Jerry is dying he constrains Peter to flee because he does not want Peter to be caught by the Police. Peter carries out Jerry’s instructions and runs away. Jerry dies alone in Central Park.

2.2 Interpretation of “The Zoo Story“

Edward Albee’s play was written in 1959. The action takes place in Central Park in Manhattan. The protagonist Jerry addresses the antagonist Peter who is sitting on a bench with an exceptional opening: “Mister, I’ve been to the zoo.”[1] This sentence surprises Peter but he answers because of his politeness although it is obvious that Peter is not really interested in communicating. Peter tries to block the beginning conversation by giving short polite replies but Jerry does not give up and manages to keep the conversation. Every time Peter wants to block the dialogue Jerry turns to a new subject and gives him the feeling of being intolerant or arrogant if he does not answer so Jerry gets to know a lot of private things about Peter.

While they are talking, Jerry is the active one because he asks questions all the time. Peter is the passive one. From my point of view, Jerry could be seen as the director of the conversation.

It becomes clear very soon that Jerry has a strong desire for communication. This becomes obvious when he says: “But every once in a while I like to talk to somebody, really talk; like to get to know somebody, know all about him.”[2] The audience gets to know that Jerry has recognized his isolation and that he wants to escape it.

During the play Jerry questions Peter where the dividing-line between upper-middle class and lower-upper-middle class is.[3] Peter is not able to answer this question because he does not understand the context of the question.

For the first time Peter and also the audience are confronted with class distinction. At this point the conversation could be broken up but again Jerry gives Peter the feeling of being impolite and finally succeeds in continuing the conversation. Jerry dominates about Peter and starts to tell him about his situation and his living conditions.

While Jerry is talking about the rooming-house and the people who live there, the hesitant question: “Why…why do you live there?”[4] makes clear that Peter has never been confronted with themes like that because he has not seen anything comparable – everything in his life seems to be safe and secured.

When Jerry talks about his private property it becomes clear that he is very poor because he is able to list it off. Especially the two empty picture frames have a particular meaning. They stand for the emptiness and loneliness in Jerry’s life. Jerry’s parents are death and he has no relationship to anybody so there is no photo which could be put into the frames.

Jerry also talks about taboo themes that were normally not discussed in the 50’s. He tells Peter about his homosexual experience he had when he was 15. Peter is ashamed because in his environment they usually do not speak about homosexuality. The conversation could be broken up for the second time but Jerry succeeds again in maintaining the conversation. Somehow Jerry manages to tell Peter his story of “Jerry and the dog”[5]. He tells Peter that in his rooming-house there is an old landlady who has an aggressive dog. Every time when Jerry wants to enter his room he is attacked by the dog. This attack shows that Jerry’s home is not secure although a house should offer security. Even at home he is exposed to cold aggressions.

Jerry tries to get the dog’s attention or even affection by feeding him with hamburgers but his attempt fails because the interest from Jerry’s side is not responded to. The dog eats the hamburgers, smiles and attacks Jerry again. That proves that friendliness does not work in making contact, so Jerry decides to kill the dog. He gives the dog hamburgers filled with rat poison and wants the dog to die. But after a while he regrets his act; he feels sorry for the dog and hopes he will survive. In deed the dog survives and there is some kind of contact between the two, they are able to look into each others eyes without being attacked. It seems that they have made a compromise – they neither hate each other nor do they love each other. There is some respect for each other’s danger potential and so they tolerate each other.

From my point of view this parable was chosen by Albee to teach the audience his main lesson because it includes the same theme as the whole story. It describes the situation which exists in society and the inability to really communicate because Jerry and the dog could also be two strangers who meet each other in the street. In the broader sense the parable could be seen as a concentrate of Jerry’s life because it shows Jerry’s desire to build up a relationship to someone once again.

Jerry finishes his story and as Peter says: “I…I don’t understand what…I don’t think I…”[6] it becomes obvious very soon that Peter is not able to understand the message. A reason for this lack of understanding could be that Peter does not want to get involved into Jerry’s story. Peter has enough of Jerry and wants to go home but Jerry manages to make Peter stay by tickling his ribs and in telling him, what happened at the zoo.

Jerry tells Peter about the way animals live at the zoo. “I went to the zoo to find out more about the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other, and with people, too.” It becomes clear that Jerry sees New York as a zoo in which people live like animals, in their cages and isolated from each other. They know about each others existence, but they are not able to get in contact because they are locked up in their own isolated existence. To get out of the cage, a key is needed. In my opinion this key can only be social contact.

Peter lives isolated in his social class and has made himself a second cage on the bench, Jerry’s cage is the rooming-house he lives in.

The climax is reached when Jerry announces that it is feeding time in the lion cage. Jerry wants Peter to move over but Peter refuses to do so because he does not want to give up his bench. A battle for the bench starts. Jerry provokes Peter into fighting for his bench or for everything he is proud of.

Jerry takes out a knife and Peter becomes aware of the danger potential of the situation, he feels threatened. Somehow Jerry succeeds in pushing Peter into the possession of the knife. The catastrophe begins because Jerry throws himself into the knife and is deadly injured.

Soon it becomes obvious that Jerry has planned his death. He has planned to commit suicide and misuses Peter. Now his sentence in the beginning of the story “You’ll read about it in the newspapers tomorrow, if you don’t see it on your TV tonight.”[7] makes sense.

Jerry does not want Peter to be blamed for a crime; he only wants him to be a player in his own “zoo story”. The fact that Jerry commits suicide is tragic because suicide is always the last solution. For Jerry it is the only way to escape from the isolation because his desire for communication and building up a relationship to someone has never been satisfied.

Peter is now a part of Jerry’s story and has to live with his bad conscience until he will die. He will never forget the Sunday afternoon in Central Park. In my opinion Jerry has achieved his aim: he has established the close contact he has been searching for all his life. The price he pays is high because he pays with his life but to me it seems that this does not matter to Jerry because he has succeeded in deeply involving Peter into the story of his life although his attempts to enlighten him have failed.

In “The Zoo Story” Albee shows that building up a relationship in this cold society is only possible in using violence, be it verbal or physical violence. Jerry’s attempts to win the world for himself with friendliness have been in vain. Jerry demonstrates that violence seems to be the only opportunity. The attempt to poison the dog and his suicide prove that.

Albee also shows the human misunderstandings and the failure of communication between Peter and Jerry who stand for different social classes in America.

The conversation mirrors the discrepancy between lower class and upper class in the American society.

What looks like a dialogue in this one-act play is more or less Jerry’s monologue as Peter’s answers are just passive, defensive or empty politeness.

He is not really interested in listening to Jerry’s problems or in contributing to the conversation.

2.3 How absurd is “The Zoo Story”?

“The Zoo Story” has always and everywhere been considered as being a play of the theatre of absurd. While I studied the text I had a critical look on this thesis. From my point of view the play does not only consist of absurd elements also naturalistic elements can be found.

In my opinion the naturalistic theatre is the absolute opposite of the absurd theatre. Edward Albee unites these two contradictions in his story.

The absurd theatre demonstrates the inability to communicate – the language as an instrument of communication fails. Jerry’s attempts to talk to Peter end in senseless dialogues. Peter and Jerry talk at cross-purpose. The absurdism lies in the dialogue because it is more or less Jerry’s monologue.

The theatre of absurd is timeless, the reference to time does not exist. Also Albee’s play has a timeless meaning, the play could have taken place in former time or even at present; his play is not bound to time. Even the parallelism plays a big role. The story of the dog and Jerry could be seen as a parallel to the whole story. The absurd lies also in the title because “The Zoo Story” is a story which is not told; the title refers to the theme of the play.

The theatre of absurd sets value on a fictive location and the characters do not have any personality and are often nameless. In Albee’s play the characters do not only have a name, they are described exactly at the beginning of the story. Even the location is described detailed: “It is Central Park; a Sunday afternoon in summer; the present. There are two park benches, one toward either side of the stage; they both face the audience. Behind them: foliage, trees, sky.”[8]

From my point of view the description of the stage and the characters make the story so naturalistic because the recipient is able to imagine the scenery. It seems that Albee chose a matter of real life.

For playwrights of the naturalistic theatre it is utmost important to represent the human captured in social and moral structures and not able to act free.[9] Peter is captured in his clichés, his thinking and action is controlled by external factors therefore he is not able to understand Jerry because he cannot disengage from his clichés. Naturalistic trails of the play become evident.

A central condition for the theatre of absurd is to consider the world itself as absurd without a way out of this absurdity.

From my point of view Albee is still concerned that a way out exists. In his plays he pursues the aim to change the society. This aim is embodied in Jerry and due to that fact the play could not only be considered as being absurd but also naturalistic.

3.”The Zoo Story” – is it still relevant today?

3.1 Is the criticism portrayed in Albee’s one-act play transferable?

Edward Albee wrote “The Zoo Story” in 1959 – 46 years ago, a time where the economy went through a boom phase because the Second World War was over. New technologies and products contributed to the prosperity of the society. The Americans were optimistic. There was a baby boom and everybody believed in a bright future. The American Dream was still alive for a vast majority of the population.

In Albee’s play Peter is a representative of this boom. He is a well-established average American who has made his private little dreams come true. Jerry belongs to the minority of those who have been excluded from that boom.

Although the play was written long time ago and also the economy changed a lot, the story has still a meaning in today’s society. Albee’s treated themes like the failure of communication, the isolation of the human beings from each other and social distinction are themes which are still relevant and often discussed.

The people portrayed in Albee’s play feel imprisoned and ignored. As well today there are people who are considered as social outsiders. They are ignored and not accepted by society.

Social distinction and its consequences involved is a phenomenon which already existed in the middle age, 46 years ago, still exists in today’s society and will even subsist in the future.

Concerning the question whether the criticism is transferable I come to the conclusion that Albee’s one act play has a timeless meaning which can be transferred into our millennium.

3.2 The importance of Central Park in “The Zoo Story” then and today

The Central Park is of great importance in Albee’s play. While studying the text I asked myself why Albee chose the Central Park and not any fictitious room.

The answer seems to be simple. Central Park lies in the heart of Manhattan, surrounded by the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, north of Broadway and the show district. To the north of Central Park there is Harlem a district where a lot of black and poor people live. Especially black and Puerto Rican families represent the population of Harlem. Thus, Central Park is surrounded by diverse residential areas with people who have different living conditions but who can meet each other in Central Park.

Be it the banker who eats his sandwich in his lunchtime or the wino who is in search for a sleeping berth for the night – they meet each other randomly because Central Park is open to the public and free for everyone. It is the most important meeting point for the citizens of Manhattan.

Peter and Jerry, two representatives of different social classes, happen to meet each other in Central Park. Peter wants to enjoy his leisure time and Jerry is in search of conversation.

If the play took place today, Central Park would not have lost his great importance. Today it is still open for everyone and many events are organised in Central Park.

As well Christo and Jeanne Claude chose the Central Park as the scene for their exhibition “The Gates” which were put up and dismantled after 16 days in February this year.

As you can see on the picture below “The Gates” ran through Central Park with a length of 37 kilometres and all visitors were able to go trough. Christo and Jeanne Claude demanded that their work of art was free for everyone.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten[10]

A statement written by the artists to all visitors of “The Gates” proves this: “There are no official opening events. There are no invitations. There are no tickets. This work of art is FREE for all to enjoy, the same as all our previous projects. If anyone tries to sell you a ticket, do not buy it. This will be an act of fraud because no tickets are needed. Central Park is public space open and free to all people.”[11] Christo and Jeanne Claude want their art to be visited by all kinds of people therefore no tickets have to be bought and no invitations are needed. Even people who can not afford to buy tickets should have the chance to visit “The Gates”. The two artists underline that Central Park is public. Everyone, no matter which social class he or she emanates from, can visit it.

3.3 Social classes as portrayed in “The Zoo Story”

The American society has always been considered as being multicultural. The term “melting pot of nations” has been used widely. But the American society does not only consist of people from different nations it also consist of different social classes.

In his play Edward Albee chose two American citizens of different classes who could not be more different.

There is Peter who lives in well-established structures. He is married and has to little daughters. He is satisfied with his situation and represents the average middle-class wage earner; the typical father of a family.

Peter lives in an apartment between Lexington and Third Avenue on Seventy-Fourth Street – a prosperous residential area in Manhattan. Peter publishes textbooks in an executive position with a relatively high income. Even his appearance provides information about his social class: “He wears tweeds, smokes a pipe, carries horn-rimmed glass. Although he is moving into middle age, his dress and his manner would suggest a man younger.”[12] Peter reflects the typical middle-class American with his anchor in traditional American values. He has adapted himself to his environment.

From my point of view Peter is content with his social status. There will be no advancement from upper-middle class to upper class but there will also be no relegation into lower-middle class. He fits into the picture of the model American and as he tells Jerry about his family conditions the recipient could believe that he and his family are broken out of a picture book. Peter belongs to the mainstream of American society.

In contrast to Peter, Jerry is off-beat. He neither has a wife nor a family to live with. He is totally lonely. As opposed to Peter Jerry is not satisfied with his situation, he wants to break out of it. This is explained when he describes his living conditions. He lives in a rooming-house in a small room with a beaverboard partition wall in it which separates him from one of his neighbours. The fact that Jerry has to share his room with someone else shows that he is very poor and not able to afford an apartment for his own. Even his appearance leaves nothing to be questioned. “A man in his late thirties, not poorly dressed, but carelessly. What was once a trim a trim and lightly muscled body has begun to go to fat; and while he is no longer handsome, it is evident that he once was.”[13] Jerry does not fit into the mainstream and therefore he is seen as a social outsider. He does not represent the model American. He belongs to those people who exist in American society but whose existence is no subject for conversation – neither at home and nor on television.

In my opinion Albee chose these two absolute contradictions to demonstrate the drastic situation. Peter representative of the white bourgeoisie and Jerry a representative of the disadvantaged mirror the discrepancy between rich and poor.

3.4 New cages and their consequences in today’s society

Today’s society is profoundly formed by technological progress, high efficiency in our enterprises and modern communication technologies. All this progress has made it possible to communicate and act on global markets. Unfortunately this industrial progress has not resulted in high employment rates.

The active population is divided in two groups. Those who have a job, who have to work harder to earn their living and those who are left behind due to a lack of qualification or because they simply are victims of automation and globalisation.

A lot of people are afraid that the so-called middle class might disappear and the result in a two class society might be divided by a deep gap between the rich and the poor. I think that this will increase the risk of social conflicts, rising crime rates and violence. In an utmost competitive society there is no place for outsiders. I believe that this divide may even be deeper than in the 50’s so there will be more people in Jerry’s situation. There is not only no communication between the classes but also those who are excluded from economic progress often do not communicate with each other because they are ashamed of their miserable condition. They try to hide their poverty as long as possible.

From my point of view there are new types of cages, the poor hide away and the rich try to protect their prosperity in a ghetto-like situation, they immure themselves. A good example for these murals is mentioned in Boyle’s novel “Tortilla Curtain” where the rich people live in walled in their residential area Arroyo Blanco because they are afraid of being robbed.

In addition to that I see the almost absurd situation that in spite of modern communication tools mainly young people feel more and more isolated. In theory they can communicate with the whole wide world but in reality there are often locked up in their rooms and absorbed by their computers. An increasing number of young people has a lack of social contacts and as a result depression has become a wide spread illness among young people. In Germany the suicide rate is higher than the number of mortal victims in traffic accidents.[14] From my point of view this figure is shocking. It gives evidence that an enormous number of people must be in the same situation as Jerry.

People only commit suicide when they feel desperate, when they have no contact to others who might help them or when they not communicate their despair to the world around them.

As Jerry’s example shows suicide is the ultimate attempt to attract the attention of society. The fact that these people are hopeless and lonely does not necessarily mean that they are no valuable members of our society very often they are just different from the mainstream society, they are more sensitive than others and desperately striving to be accepted.

The parallel to Jerry’s fate is evident. That is the reason why I am convinced that Albee’s play is still utmost important and mirrors the problems of today’s society.

4. The final statements

4.1 How can we escape our self-made cage and fight against class distinction?

In “The Zoo Story” Jerry says that: “We have to know the effect of our actions”.[15]

What he wants to say is that whatever we do has an impact on others, on our society and on ourselves. It is very important to become aware of this fact. Problem awareness is always the first step towards a solution. I see the big risk that the isolation described above bears a high danger potential and may lead to conflicts. In Jerry’s case his frustration turned into auto-aggression but it might as well turn into violence against the society which is unable to integrate and tolerate different ways of life.

If we want to maintain social peace we will have to overcome the isolation and also the class divide. I am convinced that the only possible way is to try to communicate across different groups of our society. Communication provides information and is essential to enable us to understand each other. Being well-informed is the enemy of prejudice and thus can avoid discrimination and non-acceptance and create tolerance. We must learn to accept different lifestyles and hopefully we are also able to show solidarity with the weaker members of our society.

I believe that this is the key to open the cages we live in.

We have to be successful otherwise we will not be able to offer everybody the chance to pursue their happiness as it is stated in the American Declaration of Independence. We must see the fact that people although they may be different or even do not fit in our society are human beings who were born innocent and equal and should have equal rights to share a peaceful and happy life.

We should not forget that all humans no matter which race or religion and which social status they belong to are created and wanted by God.

4.2 Conclusion

When I started reading “The Zoo Story” I found it difficult to understand. At first sight the story was a bit boring and strange but during my work on this essay I began to see what the author wants to tell the audience.

I hope that I have been able to present the essentials of the play and have succeeded in answering the question whether “The Zoo Story” could be seen as a cross-section of today’s society.

At least I have become aware of the fact that playwrights make an important contribution to help make the world a better place to live in as they make us aware of our problems.

Reading the play has also made me think about my own attitude towards others. I have always seen myself as being tolerant but now I feel that this tolerance is sometimes just like Peter’s indifference and a way not getting involved into other people’s stories.

[...]


[1] Great American One-act Plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p.54, l. 23)

[2] Great American One-act plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p. 56, l. 33-34)

[3] (cf.) Great American One-act plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story (p. 57, l. 39-40)

[4] Great American One-act plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p. 59, l. 12)

[5] Great American One-act Plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p. 63, l. 9)

[6] Great American One-act plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p. 67,l. 40)

[7] Great American One-act Plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p. 55, l. 37-38)

[8] Great American One-act Plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p. 54, l. 14-16)

[9] (cf.) www.uni-essen.de/literaturwissenschaft-aktiv/Vorlesungen/dramatik/natdrama.htm

[10] http://www.christojeanneclaude.net/tg.html

[11] http://www.cd1019.com/pop/christosgates.aspx

[12] Great American One-act Plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p.54, l. 4-6)

[13] Great American One-act Plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p.54, l. 8-10)

[14] (cf.) http://www.altenpflege-tod-und-sterben.de/statistik.htm

[15] Great American One-act Plays, Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, (p. 65, l. 32-33)

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2005
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