The Zoo Story Essay Examples

The Zoo Story

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Edward Albee once said, "Every honest work is a personal or private yowl, a statement of one's individual pleasure or pain". The Zoo Story shows the attempt of the character Jerry to make a statement about himself, his life, his pleasure, his pain. It is, in effect, his "yowl." Language is his means. Albee shows that language does indeed have the potential to "facilitate authentic communication" between Jerry and Peter (738).

 

As the play begins, Jerry announces that "every once in awhile I like to talk to somebody, really talk; like to get to know somebody, know all about him." He is eager to identify with someone, anyone really. However, his inquiries have the opposite effect than the one he desires. Instead, Peter is put off by his curiosity. He tells Jerry, "'I don't mean to seem . . . ah . . . it's just that you don't really carry on a conversation; you just ask questions. and I'm . . . I'm normally . . . uh . . . reticent'" (741). Already it is evident that give-and-take is integral in true communication. The use of language works only for two, or more, individuals; one cannot communicate with himself.

 

Albee goes on to demonstrate the role comfort plays in conversing. Jerry, on the one hand, is free with his thoughts and feelings. He tells about "the colored queen," his late mother's problem with alcohol, his sex life, and finally his pack of pornographic playing cards. The latter topic riles Peter. He says, "'I'd rather not talk about these things'" (744). Jerry is more than willing to put forth various issues, but again his bench mate must also be willing to discuss them.

 

Peter does not want to discuss certain things though, perhaps he cannot. His world is too safe, too secure to be disturbed by unpleasantness. He cannot imagine life outside of his sphere. He tells Jerry, "'I find it hard to believe that people such as that really are.'" Jerry agrees sarcastically with him, "'And fact is better left to fiction'" (744). These two men come from hugely different walks of life. One can barely identify with the other, if at all. Yet, only one truly wants to. Only Jerry is anxious to find intimacy. He tries even to connect with a dog; "'It's just that if you can't deal with people you have to make a start somewhere.

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WITH ANIMALS!'" he says (747). Jerry cannot communicate with anyone because no one is willing to communicate with him. Peter, after hearing Jerry's tirade, yells, "'I DON'T UNDERSTAND . . . . I DON'T WANT TO HEAR ANYMORE'" (748). He has only listened to Jerry because Jerry "wanted to talk to somebody" (750), not because he actually desired to know another.

In the end, these two people reach a point where words have lost the potential for communication. However, the problem is not the means, language, it is those trying to use the means to an end. They are not equipped to deal with one another on each other's terms. Jerry asks Peter, "'Don't you have any idea, not even the slightest, what other people need?'" (751). Peter does not and Jerry does not. He had intended to find someone to talk to, someone to tell his story to. He says, "And now [Peter] I've told you what you wanted to know, haven't I?'" (752), but really he hasn't.



Peter, a publishing executive, is reading on his favorite bench in New York City’s Central Park. Suddenly he is approached by a stranger named Jerry, who makes his entrance with the announcement “I’ve been to the zoo!” Jerry is intent on claiming the bench for himself, and proceeds to probe deep into Peter’s life.

In the preface to one publication of The Zoo Story, Albee recounts the origins of the play, including his work before The Zoo Story and why the play premiered in Berlin:

With the exception of a three-act sex farce I completed when I was twelve – the action of which occurred aboard an ocean liner, the characters of which were, for the most part, English gentry, and the title of which was, for some reason that escapes me now, Aliqueen – with the exception of that, The Zoo Story (1958), The Death of Bessie Smith and The Sandbox (both 1959), are my first three plays.

The Zoo Story, written first, received production first – but not in the United States, where one might reasonably expect an American writer to get his first attention. The Zoo Story had its premiere in Berlin, Germany, on September 28, 1959. […]

Shortly after The Zoo Story was completed, while it was being read and politely refused by a number of New York producers […], a young composer friend of mine, William Flanagan by name, looked at the play, liked it, and sent it to several friends of his, among them David Diamond, another American composer, resident of Italy; Diamond liked the play and sent it on to a friend of his a Swiss actor, Pinkas Braun; Braun liked the play, made a tape recording of it, playing both its roles, which he sent on to Mrs. Stefani Hunzinger, who heads the drama department of the S. Fischer Verlag, a large publishing house in Frankfurt; she, in turn . . . well, through her it got to Berlin, and to production. From New York to Florence to Zurich to Frankfurt to Berlin. And finally back to New York where, on January 14, 1960, it received American production, off Broadway, at the Provincetown Playhouse, on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

Albee, Edward. Preface. The American Dream and The Zoo Story. New York: Penguin, 1997. 7-8.

Type: Short Play

Acts: One

First Performance: 28 September 1959, Schiller Theater, Berlin; 14 January 1960, Provincetown Playhouse, New York

Awards: Berlin Festival Award, 1960. Obie Award, 1960. Vernon Rice Memorial Award, 1960. Drama Desk Award, 1960. Argentine Critics Circle Award, 1961.

Additional Act

In 2004 Edward Albee delved deeper into The Zoo Story by adding a first act, Homelife, which precedes Peter’s fateful meeting with Jerry on the Central Park bench. The double bill was collectively titled Peter & Jerry, until 2009 when it was renamed At Home at the Zoo.

According to the publishing firm Samuel French, “The Zoo Story may be performed independently. However, Homelife may only be performed as part of the full length play At Home at the Zoo.”

“At Home at the Zoo (Zoo Story).” Samuel French. 2012. 1 May 2014 <http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/7482/at-home-at-the-zoo-zoo-story/>.

For more information on Homelife and the double bill, view our entry on At Home at the Zoo.

Plot Summary and Critical Analysis by Michelle Dodson

Plot Summary

“I’ve been to the zoo. I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” exclaims Jerry, a man in his late thirties who is “carelessly dressed but not poorly,” to Peter, who is at this particular moment sitting alone on a bench in Central Park in New York City, reading a book. Peter is slightly older than Jerry and is described as wearing “tweeds” and “carries horn-rimmed glasses” along with a pipe.[1] In this opening scene of Albee’s first produced play, Jerry begins what turns out to be a long exchange with Peter, who politely acknowledges this total stranger but hopes soon to return to his book.

Jerry asks Peter personal questions about his home life, learning that along with his wife and two daughters, Peter’s household contains “two cats” and “two parakeets.”[2] Jerry questions Peter about where he lives before beginning his own lengthy description of the condition and the surrounding neighbors of his “four-story brownstone rooming house on the Upper West Side.”[3] From Jerry’s description, Peter concludes that “It doesn’t sound like a very nice place to live.”[4] Peter learns that Jerry has no family and his relationships do not last or mean anything, other than a fling he had at fifteen about which he describes himself as having been a “h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l” for a week and a half.[5] Instead of explaining the “zoo story,” Jerry begins to talk about his rooming house again, specifically about his landlady and her dog. He states that his landlady, whom he describes as “a bag of garbage,” is constantly trying to sleep with him while the dog, a “black monster of a beast,” never lets Jerry past without attempting to attack him.[6]

This begins Jerry’s monologue, which he titles “THE STORY OF JERRY AND THE DOG.”[7] Jerry explains his plan to Peter: “First…kill the dog with kindness, and if that doesn’t work… just kill him.”[8] After a few weeks of buying hamburgers for the dog with no progress, he feeds it poisoned hamburgers. “I’m afraid I must tell you,” Jerry states, “I wanted the dog to live so that I could see what our new relationship might come to.”[9] Jerry interrupts his story to talk about his problem with connecting with people, ultimately stating that “if not [with] people…SOMETHING. Where better to make a beginning…to understand and just possibly be understood…a beginning of an understanding, than with… than with A DOG. Just that; a dog.”[10] The dog does survive the attempted poisoning and Jerry describes their first reencounter as the first moment that he was able to “make contact.” After a moment of silence, Jerry finishes his story, explaining to Peter that now he and the dog “have an understanding” and that he has “learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves”; rather, the “two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion.”[11]

Peter does not understand why Jerry has told him all of this and tries to leave. Jerry responds by tickling Peter’s ribs, causing him to laugh uncontrollably. Jerry explains he went to the zoo to “find out more about the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other….”[12] Jerry then suddenly pokes Peter in the arm and tells him to move over on the bench. Jerry continues to poke Peter again and again, harder each time, demanding that he move over. Finally, Peter exclaims that there is nowhere else to move to, so Jerry starts punching Peter in the arm. Jerry tells Peter that he wants the bench to himself and that he will only tell him “what happened at the zoo” if Peter gives up the bench or fights for it. After Peter agrees to fight Jerry for the bench, Jerry pulls out a knife and throws it at Peter’s feet, to make it a more even fight. Peter picks up the knife in a defensive position and Jerry runs towards him, impaling himself on the knife. Jerry staggers backward, the knife still embedded in him, and falls on the bench which the two men had just been fighting over. Realizing that he is dying, Jerry thanks Peter: “I came unto you and you have comforted me. Dear Peter.”[13] Jerry wipes the knife clean of Peter’s fingerprints and tells him to leave, concluding that Peter is “no longer a vegetable,” rather he is now “an animal, too.”[14] The play ends with Peter grabbing his book and rushing offstage screaming, “Oh my god!” while Jerry dies alone on the bench.

Critical Analysis

Edward Albee wrote The Zoo Story in 1958 and it was first performed in Germany the following year during the Berlin Festival. The Zoo Story then appeared Off-Broadway at the Provincetown Playhouse during the winter of 1960.[15] In The New York Times review, The Zoo Story was said to be “on par” with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, which was playing together with The Zoo Story in a double-bill.[16]

The play’s themes of “fragmentation, alienation, and isolation” have led many critics to classify The Zoo Story as an absurdist drama. However, even in The Theatre of the Absurd, the book which first attached the absurd label to Albee, Martin Esslin concludes that Albee’s play does not fall into this category and “ultimately fails as an absurdist drama.”[17] Siefker Bailey agrees with Esslin, saying that the “play does not end on an absurdist note” and that “the characters and the audience are left with a story full of purpose and meaning.”[18] Albee uses his spokesman character to relay the importance of communication since throughout the play Jerry tries to establish contact with Peter by telling him stories. If Jerry can make his stories “real” to Peter or members of the audience then Jerry can escape his feelings of loneliness and isolation. Albee ultimately uses the shock of the violence at the play’s conclusion in order to “instill in his audience the idealistically American call to action to change the world for the better.”[19]

However, many critics still argue that The Zoo Story does in fact fall into the classification of the Theatre of the Absurd. Philip C. Kolin states that Albee uses “techniques and ideas from the ‘absurdist’ plays of European playwrights such as Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco.” Kolin further states that Albee’s ideas are “distinctively American, pressing for American change and reform.”[20] Brian Way expands on this idea of absurdism by referring to The Zoo Story as “belonging to the second level of the Theatre of the Absurd,” which he then goes on to explain as showing “a brilliantly inventive sense of what can be done with the techniques, but stops short of the metaphysic which makes the techniques completely meaningful.”[21] In other words, The Zoo Story tries to somewhat explain the way the world works. However, it never directly provides us with a concrete solution, which helps to define it as an absurdist play. Way then describes the “pseudo- crisis” of an absurd play as occurring when “a similar complex of tensions is brought to a head without resolving anything…emphasizing that complexity and tension are permanent and unresolvable elements of a world of confusion,” while in a dramatic play the crisis serves as a way to advance the story’s action.[22] In this view, by the end of The Zoo Story nothing has truly been resolved between Jerry and Peter; their inability to establish a human connection is insurmountable. The play ends simply because Jerry dies.

The dynamic between Jerry and Peter is another important factor in critics’ discussion of The Zoo Story, as Gilbert Debusscher defines one of the primary themes to be “the virulent criticism of bourgeois complacency, of the hypocrisy of a good conscience, the emptiness of the false values of American life supported by advertising and pseudo-intellectual magazines.”[23] In this regard, Peter is the representative of the bourgeois class and Jerry can be seen as an outsider who ultimately observes and criticizes the norm. As Debusscher states, the “complacency” that accompanies Peter in the beginning of the play, even through his continued discussion with Jerry, remains at the end. Since Jerry does not share this complacency he is instead given a strong sense of “individualism” that is also “voiced in rebellion.”[24] As Jerry dies at the end of the play, Debusscher believes his death to be an act of “escape from an unbearable world.”[25] Jerry has extreme difficulties when it comes to making connections and is ultimately used by Albee to reveal the “social inadequacies” of Jerry as a character.[26]

Jerry’s personality is further examined by Lucina Gabbard; she uses Dr. Kernberg’s evaluation of Jerry having a “borderline personality” that lies somewhere between neurosis and psychosis.[27] The cause of this particular type of personality is the result of Jerry losing his parents and ultimately himself. This in turn leads Jerry to experience a type of “abandonment depression,” in which he cannot escape and ultimately loses his ability to make connections.[28] However, a less tragic interpretation of the action is that Jerry is seen to represent the “Existential hero” because he makes his own decisions and ultimately choses when and where he is going to die.[29]

When specifically examining the final scene of The Zoo Story, some critics note many similarities to the biblical Peter and the relation between Jerry and Jesus. Jerry, like Jesus, embodies an outcast whose sole purpose is to “establish contact.”[30] When Jerry begins to tell the story about the dog, the dog becomes a representation of “Cerberus,” the guardian of the entrance to hell, through Jerry’s description: “all black with flaming eyes.”[31] Jerry’s journey from the zoo to Central Park can also be an allegory for “Christ’s decent into Hell and Resurrection,” both of which must happen before “Redemption” can occur.[32] The simple way in which Jerry talks to Peter is reminiscent of the Gospels, which are also written in colloquial diction. Jerry’s death resembles the death of Jesus, as he seems to be crucified in order to save Peter from a life of complacency. In other words, Jerry dies “to save Peter’s soul from death by spiritual starvation.”[33] However, this idea is not supported by every critic, as Mary Castiglie Anderson states that there is no biblical allusion; rather, the ending of the play signifies Jerry as the guide or “teacher” to Peter’s maturity and autonomy.”[34] Overall, The Zoo Story operates as a vehicle for various levels of human interaction and communication, ultimately showing humanity’s need for contact, as well as the broader sense of the differences between economic classes and the idea of complacency during this period of American history.

Footnotes

[1] Albee 14.
[2] Albee 19.
[3] Albee 21.
[4] Albee 22.
[5] Albee 24.
[6] Albee 25.
[7] Albee 27.
[8] Albee 27.
[9] Albee 29.
[10] Albee 30.
[11] Albee 31.
[12] Albee 34.
[13] Albee 39.
[14] Albee 40.
[15] Tallmer 1.
[16] Tallmer 1.
[17] Quoted in Lisa Siefker Bailey 31.
[18] Siefker Bailey 32.
[19] Siefker Bailey 34.
[20] Kolin 17.
[21] Way 66.
[22] Way 70.
[23] Debusscher 75.
[24] Amacher 38.
[25] Debusscher 75.
[26] Debusscher 75.
[27] Gabbard 19.
[28] Gabbard 20.
[29] Amacher 39.
[30] Zimbardo 30.
[31] Zimbardo 30.
[32] Zimbardo 31.
[33] Zimbardo 52.
[34] Castiglie 93.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. The Zoo Story, in The Collected Plays of Edward Albee 1958-1965. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2007, 11-40. Print.

Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Print.

Bigsby, C.W.E. Albee. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1969. Print.

Debusscher, Gilbert. “The Playwright in the Making.” Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Ed. Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison Davis. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1986. 74-80. Print.

Gabbard, Lucina P. “Unity in the Albee Vision.” Edward Albee, Planned Wilderness: Interview, Essays, and Bibliography. Ed. Patricia De La Fuente, Donald E. Fritz, Jan Seale, and Dorey Schmidt. Edinburg, TX: School of Humanities, Pan American U, 1980. 18-31. Print.

Gussow, Mel. Edward Albee: A Singular Journey: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.

Kolin, Philip C. “Albee’s Early One Act Plays: A New American Playwright from Whom Much Is to Be Expected.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen J. Bottoms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. 16-37. Print.

Kolin, Philip C., and J. Madison Davis. “Introduction.” Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1986. 8-11. Print.

Siefker Bailey, Lisa M. “Absurdly American: Rediscovering the Representation of Violence in The Zoo Story.” Edward Albee: A Casebook. Ed. Bruce J. Mann. New York: Routledge, 2003. 31-43. Print.

Tallmer, Jerry. “The Voice Reviews Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.” Village Voice The Archives. 8 July 2009. Web. 6 May 2016.

Way, Brian. “Albee and the Absurd: The American Dream and The Zoo Story.” Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Ed. Philip C. Kolin. and J. Madison Davis. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1986. 65-73. Print.

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