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Edward Albee wrote his first staged one-act play The Zoo Story in 1958, two months before his thirtieth birthday. Over forty years later, he added a prequel to that play and the combined acts became what is now known as At Home and at the Zoo.
Samuel Beckett once said that the best play would be a play without any actors (to distort his lines). Albee is very much a playwright in the Samuel Beckett mould, exerting full control over the way his plays are performed, at least in America. He now forbids theatre companies to perform the original one-act play on its own. Albee chooses his own actors and directs many of his own productions. He is notorious on Broadway for reducing the commercialism of his ventures as much as he can. Like his Swedish counterpart Lars Norén, he speaks adamantly in interviews about the soul-deadening pressures of commerce, bemoaning the fact that nowadays successful playwrights not only end up writing for rich people who can afford to go to the theatre, they also have to compromise before their plays are even produced. Albee has also declined to write film scripts because television audiences “are trained to want junk”. When asked if he was satisfied with the film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he quoted Beckett, conceding that the film was “better than a kick in the teeth”.
Rejected by theatres in America for being too experimental, Zoo Story had its first staging in German in West Berlin in a double bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Albee decided to write the prequel act when he was commissioned by the Hartford Stage Company to write a play that would go well with Zoo Story. He realized that he wanted to know more about Peter, the resigned, somewhat hidebound, housebound husband with two daughters and two parakeets. Albee felt that Peter was ultimately more of a “reactive backboard” to Jerry, the footloose, screw-loose adventurer, than a fully-rounded character so he imagined a first act in which we see Peter and his wife Ann in full-blooded Albee-esque home-truths conversation.
The two-act At Home and at the Zoo opens showing Peter, an editor who proofreads school manuals. He is correcting the proofs of what is to be, he says, “the most important boring book” his imprint has ever published. Totally immersed in the deafening drudgery of his work, Peter barely listens to his wife who, judging from the tone of her voice, has already been imbibing a glass or two of freshly-squeezed bitterness.
The play opens with a little tragicomic dialogue of the dead but veers away quickly from being a play about incommunicability or even miscommunication. Albee has argued that even Beckett’s plays are not about incommunicability. Although the couple in At Home and at the Zoo is showing signs of wear and tear, it is still a serviceable affair and the argument they engage in leads to couple-deepening disclosures that I’m sure many marriages never reach. As Ann points out, Peter is actually a rather good husband. Even his sexual performances are more than adequate. But therein lies the rub. After much hinting about wishing to spread her legs in public, Ann admits that the problem with Peter’s penis is that it is too gentle and tame.
If fact much of the humour and pathos of this first act centres rather penetratingly, poignantly and pathetically on poor Peter’s penis. It’s worth seeing the play just for that. The audience finally finds with some surprise why Peter has trouble saying the word “penis” to his wife, and it’s not because of coyness or propriety.
The second act (the original Zoo Story act) brings out the potential “homosocial” content subtending Peter’s encounter with a half-crazed, semi-housed vagrant obsessed with his trip to the zoo and a number of human and half-human animals. Albee has expressed considerable distaste with critics or directors who wish to emphasize or fabricate homosexual content where it hasn’t been intended. He has for instance banned a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that intended to cast all four characters as two gay couples. He is famous for giving women lengthy, front-stage roles and that’s the way he wants to keep it, and it clearly is not just to aim for greater universality. He has written plays with homosexual characters but the topic is not that central to his work. It’s interesting to wonder if his plays would have been as successful if he had turned most of his couples gay.
In any case, it’s probable that Albee would have disapproved of Gilbert Désveaux’s (subdued) attempt to make the encounter between Jerry and Peter near-homosexual. Apart from a few moments of strong ambiguity, however, their interaction remains rather straight, if delightfully animalistic (the acting is superb from start to finish). It’s tempting of course to bring the gay potential of this act to the fore as it’s all about bringing out the polymorphously desirous animal in all of us. By going to the park, Peter has come a step closer to the zoo of our origins. When Jerry deliberately impales himself on the (phallic?) knife he has forced Peter to hold, we see the masterfully double-edged nature of Albee’s symbolism at work. The tragic act is perfect as a symbol because it works as both one thing and its opposite. On one level, it enacts Ann’s desire for greater bestiality in her husband since he ends up fighting. Paradoxically, it also symbolizes the need to kill off the animal within in order to function viably (or smoothly) in both society and married life.
Jerry’s suicidal gesture is also problematic as it implies that his promiscuity and edge-living is ultimately unsatisfying. Of course it could be that it is mostly the squalor in which he lives that awakens his death drive, a perspective which emphasizes the social conscience of the play. In the end, however, the suggestion still abides that man is a creature that thrives neither on too much comfort nor on too much freedom from convention. Albee has stated that he writes to make people participate more fully in their lives. The ending of his play intimates a more pessimistic, or at least complex, take on the possibility of doing just that.
At Home and at the Zoo continues at the Théâtre du Rond-Point in Paris until 28 June.