Written in the Summer of 2010 for a lecture on Edward Albee’s The Goat (or, Who is Sylvia?) before a production at Rep Stage in Maryland. I was invited by my colleague Lisa Wilde, who had admired my work on a production of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Baltimore Centerstage. This one was fun, as it gave me an excuse to pull out Nietzsche, Derrida, and Aristotelian etymologies on Greek Tragedy. -DL
I’ve always been drawn to Edward Albee. He’s one of the last American playwrights to be both popular and avant-garde in his own lifetime, and this play is obviously both. His work has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts over the last 10 years, both in terms of award-winning revivals and brand new productions.
– First, Three Tall Women won the Pulitzer in 1994 and ran on Broadway in 1997
– the 1996 production of A Delicate Balance at Lincoln Center won the Tony that year for Best Revival
– memorably, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner starred in a 2005 revival of Woolf that toured around the country for two years, and which we definitely had in the back of our minds when working on our own production.
– Finally, this play marked his successful return to Broadway after 20 years off it in 2002; it’s perhaps his crowning achievement, on par with his best work, and it swept all of the major awards that year, so it’s a feted and respected play.
However, it’s also an interesting text to discuss from a dramaturg’s perspective because people don’t seem to know what do with it, or how to characterize it. It’s just starting to be written about now in scholarly journals, that is, in long-form pieces that aren’t just reviews of productions. These critics seem split on the genre of the play, much as critics have always struggled to label Albee’s plays. Are they comedies? Is he an American absurdist? Our Samuel Beckett? Does he write tragedies? How should we understand this playwright and this play?
Without giving away too much of the story, I’m going to try to talk about the ideas animating this play (I may have to do a little bit of plot summary), and the contexts in which it’s operating. The first thing to note about this play is that it has three titles, which is unusual for Albee. It’s the only one of his plays to have multiple titles, in fact:
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (Notes on the Definition of Tragedy)
Three statements that add up to a big riddle. Who is Sylvia? Is Sylvia the Goat? And what do either of those things have to do with tragedy?
Let’s start by talking about that last title, “Notes on the Definition of Tragedy,” which was Albee’s final revision to the play, which perhaps indicates some authorial intention about how he wants the play to be received. He added it late in the process as a subtitle, in the published version of the script, after it ran on Broadway. It’s both the longest and most obscure of the three titles.
Tragedy is one of those words that has become a tautology; it has come to signify itself. Its etymology is obscure. We find ourselves describing all sorts of generically sad things in daily life as tragic, but the word actually doesn’t have anything to do with sadness per se. It’s actually a compound of two ancient Greek words: tragos and oidia (which is the root of the modern term “ode”), or tragiodoia, which roughly translated means “goat song.”
The earliest plays in the Western tradition are believed to have evolved out of ritualistic performances that occurred every year in Athens at the City Dionysia, the festival of Dionysus, the God of wine, inebriation, sex, theater, ecstatic violence, and wild, overruling nature. These performances, called dithyrambs, were odes of worship, narratives of the god’s life, performed by a singing and dancing chorus. Since Dionysus was in his youth disguised as a goat, and was the first half-human, half-divine figure, some believe that the chorus was dressed as satyrs: Half-goats and half-men.
Why “goat” song, though? Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in 1879, which is around the time of the Franco-Prussian War, wondered about the same thing. Before he was writing about the death of God, Nietzsche was what they called a Wagnerite: he was a passionate fan of opera and Wagner and he wanted to know where music and theater came from. His first book was actually called The Birth of Tragedy: And I quote:
What is the significance, physiologically speaking, of that Dionysiac frenzy which gave rise to tragedy and comedy alike? . . . Where does that synthesis of god and billy goat in the satyr point? What experience of himself, what urge compelled the Greek to conceive the Dionysian enthusiast and primeval man as a satyr?
According to Nietzsche, still perhaps the best modern theorist concerning tragedy in my book, the Dionysian impulse at the root of the Western dramatic tradition is that of reckless and amoral man, goatlike, bestial, who craves aesthetic activity rather than moral activity. That is, he wants only to experience, whether that experience be destructive or creative, good or bad. He is beyond good and evil. It’s an understanding of life that is essentially amoral, which is to say, artistic, and thus opposed to the Christian notion of moral truth, which relegates all art to the status of lies. (Everyone with me?) According to Nietzsche, art is life.
Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man. . . . In the Dionysian dithyramb, man is incited to the greatest exaltation of all his symbolic faculties; something never before experienced struggles for utterance—oneness as the soul of the race and of nature itself.…it is only consciousness which, like a veil, hides the Dionysian world from our vision…. [In the presence of the satyric chorus] the gulfs between man and man give way to an overwhelming feeling of unity leading back to the very heart of nature… life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable.
Nietzsche was writing at the end of the 19th Century, in response to specifically German artistic movements. He talked a lot about Dionysus and Apollo in this book, but he was really reacting to the Romantics and Schopenhauer, to Wagner and Schiller. That is, he was rethinking tragedy for the modern age.
And I think that Albee is up to something similar with this play. It is part of his ongoing attempt to redefine tragedy on the modern American stage. Nietzsche set about trying to reevaluate what tragedy meant for the 1870s in book form, Albee is doing it in the form of a play.
This rediscovery of tragedy is actually a large part of the modernist impulse in art. In fact, since the late 19th century, basically ever since the publication of Nietzsche’s book, there have been a number of playwrights who have adopted self-consciously tragic structures in their plays. If we look at a few examples, we can identify canonical plays that use tragic plots to discuss the social issues of their contemporary era.
Ibsen’s Ghosts is a tragedy that uses scientific notions of venereal disease (syphilis, to be precise) as a symbol for moral decay. Frank Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening and Lulu plays stage homosexual and adolescent sexuality for the first time in the Western tradition. Strindberg’s Miss Julie portrays sex among the upper and lower classes, and its catastrophic effect.
We ought to be recognizing a pattern here: all of these plays belong to a subgenre I like to call the Sex Tragedy. Plays that are about the tragic outcomes of natural human desire violating some sort of social taboo. The most famous Sex Tragedy is a familiar one: Romeo and Juliet, which deals with children rebelling against the wishes of their parents. Now this isn’t necessarily such a stigma these days, so it’s lost some of its capacity to shock, but the Sex Tragedy is rooted in rebellion against social mores. It digs into our deepest desires. It is a step ahead of the modern day, suggesting a world in which long-held moral values are wiped away by the ineffable desires of humankind to exist as it does in nature. Like Nietzschean man, the heroes of Sex Tragedy seek aesthetic, pleasurable and powerful experience, outside of morality.
The Goat is the latest and perhaps most radical updating of the Sex Tragedy. It raises the question of zoophilia, or bestiality. It asks a series of profound questions about the nature of human beings acting naturally. What makes us different from the animals? What makes us different from each other? What are the limits of human power? of human desire? of human empathy?
More troubling than the questions this play raises are the possible answers it seems to suggest. Human attraction to animals can mean love; the spectrum of human sexuality is terrifyingly limitless; human desire has no conscience.
Since I can’t continue to generalize without doing a little bit of plot summary, I’ll set the basic scene. Martin is the main character, celebrating his 50th Birthday. He is a renowned and successful architect, happily married, who has just won the prestigious Pritzker Prize (the Pulitzer of Architecture awards) to build the “dream city of the future.” He is reminiscent of Ibsen’s Master Builder, who is similarly poised at the apex of his career before his attraction to a young “troll girl” named Hilde brings all his plans crashing down. Except Martin, instead of falling for a troll, has fallen in love with a goat, whom he’s named Sylvia.
Not only is this a classic tragic setup (for instance, Oedipus is a happily married and powerful king, at the apex of his career, except he’s killed his father and married his mother), but it is also a quintessentially Albee-esque situation, incorporating familiar elements from his other plays. In fact, it is littered with so many of his playwriting tendencies, that despite its short duration (one act of three scenes), it functions almost like an Albee’s Greatest Hits. Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, and 1987’s Marriage Play, it features marital relationships gone awry; like 1975’s Seascape, a dreamlike play in which a wealthy Connecticut couple has a conversation with fishlike aliens on a beach, it portrays an interspecies encounter; like his first great success, 1959’s one-act The Zoo Story, it displays a virtuosic and explosive command of the short structure, and it packs visceral excitement and violence into a brainy and talky play; like all of his plays, it is characterized by razor-sharp, cutting wordplay and highly theatrical games of dialogue that tip over into painful confessions.
This last characteristic of Albee’s poetics is perhaps his most distinctive, and it places the genre of all his plays in question. We can never be sure if he’s writing upper-class comedies of manners with tragic overtones or tragedies littered end-to-end with well-turned jokes. To paraphrase Albee’s own description of Seascape, he is a writer of “serious plays which happen to be very funny.” His presiding theme, as I see it, is the dysfunctional American family, in all of its twisted glory and humorous sadness. In all of his plays, the examination of individual figures moves beyond the limited scope of the domestic drama and into a symbolic and philosophical exploration of mankind in the modern era.
Albee himself seems to be aware of his own propensity toward this double-nature in his writing. Of the problematic warring titles of The Goat, he has said: “I chose the title . . . because I wanted the double goat. There’s a real goat and also a person who becomes a scapegoat. It is a play that seems to be one thing at the beginning, but the chasm opens as we go further into it.”
Albee’s comments point to the experience of Nietzschean mystery that I began with, the dissolution of the individual in the choral dithyramb and his reunion with nature. This is what links the play to yet another form: the pastoral. As some critics have noted, the play’s 2nd title, “Who is Sylvia?”, is a reference to a song in Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Tragedy, comedy, and the pastoral all began as seasonal rituals, performed by men in goatskins during a time of communion with nature. It’s possible to look at The Goat, and the playwriting conceit of Martin’s earnest and deeply felt love for a barnyard animal, as the expression of a very funny yet sadly perverse lament for humanity’s loss of this intrinsic connection to its natural surroundings. We live in a world where 99% of the animals we see in our lives are bred either for our domestic use as pets or for edible use as consumption. We drive on paved roads from developed suburbs to decaying cities, moving within an ecology that is entirely man-made and free from nature. It’s not insignificant that the prize Martin has won is a largescale urban-planning project, a “27 billion World City . . . financed by U.S. electronics technology and set to rise in the wheatfields of our middle west.” It’s a dream city, rather like Athens, but one that has nothing to do with man’s connection to his natural surroundings.
It’s important for us to locate and take seriously, within this very funny and acerbic play, the almost wistful and mournful quality it has, especially regarding Martin’s attitude toward Sylvia. I remember seeing a production of this play in London, and a gentlemen next to me laughed at every single line, even the ones that were heartbreaking and serious. I think that’s probably a measure of Albee’s talent at crafting ambiguous and pregnant passages of dialogue, but it’s also something to keep in the back of your mind: is this situation laughable and pitiable, or does it also strike fear? Does laughter shed light on the situation, or does it distance us from our own recognition?
This may seem random, but I’ve been working on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’ve been startled by the echoes and similarities shared by these two plays while preparing this lecture.
- Both plays feature a primal scene of love and desire and bestiality: Martin with Sylvia, and Titania with Bottom, the human transformed and wearing an ass’s head
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in and around Athens, the original “dream city” of the whole Western project, and the birthplace of tragedy and comedy
- Theseus, the king in the play, won his fame by killing the Minotaur, a mythical animal that is the product of the Queen Pasiphae having sexual intercourse with a bull
Most importantly, just as there is something profoundly mysterious about Titania’s experience with Bottom, there is something inchoate and aching in Martin’s description of falling in love when he stares in the face of Sylvia. Describing the encounter to his best friend Ross, Martin describes driving to the top of a hill, its apex. What he describes is a dense and poetic nature scene, one that could have been celebrated around the Maypole hundreds of years ago:
“and the view was . . . well, not spectacular, but . . . wonderful. Fall, you know?, with leaves turning and the town below me and great scudding clouds and those country smells. . . . The roadside stands, with corn and other stuff piled high, and baskets full of other things – beans and tomatoes and those great white peaches you only get late summer . . .”
When he sees Sylvia, he can barely form complete sentences. “I went up to her, to where she was, and I spoke to her, and she came toward me and . . . and those eyes, and I touched her face, and . . .” As Bottom says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.”
There is something about the uniting of man and beast that has appalled and appealed to humankind throughout the centuries. Graffiti from the third century on the wall of the Palace of Caesars on the Palatine in Rome represents Jesus on the cross with an ass’s head, the ultimate symbol of animalistic debasement. In the oldest mystic tradition an ass is a musician who has the knowledge of the divine rhythm and revelation. In the iconography of goats and donkeys, the spiritual has always fused with the bodily.
But Albee is not just interested in the ancient and the allegorical. In another interview about this play, he expressed his desire to cause social outrage with it. “With any luck,” he said, “there will be people standing up, shaking their fists during the performance and throwing things at the stage.”
If this is a modern sex tragedy, what is its hidden crusade? One of many answers is the manner in which the play deals with homosexuality. In one of its most teasing details, Martin and his wife Stevie have a gay adolescent son who is named Billy and described as a “kid,” both of them joking puns that place him on a continuum with young goats. Over the last ten to twenty years, it’s become commonplace for politicians arguing against gay marriage to suggest that bestiality lies just around the corner. “Next thing you know, they’ll be marrying goats and dogs.” As students of American theater history know, this subplot has special meaning considering Albee’s own biography. It’s a dramatic and crazy story, and it’s easy to see why he’s written so many plays about dysfunctional families. The adopted son of wealthy but emotionally withholding vaudeville barons, Albee was estranged from his parents for much of his adult life; his mother (the subject of Three Tall Women) never openly acknowledged his own homosexuality, and eventually decided to revoke the family will that left him the bulk of her estate.
By placing homosexuality on a spectrum with bestiality and other taboos, and by taking all of these aesthetic or sexual desires seriously, even the most perverse ones (and I haven’t even mentioned all the permutations of kink in this play), Albee is at once challenging us to normalize heretofore “extreme” sexualities and also to inspect the hidden recesses of our own sexual unconsciousness. The uneasiness that this strategy creates is part of the play’s incredible power, as well as its not inconsiderable wit.
I’d like to close with a quote from Jacques Derrida, who, as well as a deconstructionist philosopher, happened to be an animal lover. One of his final works, written in 2000, was on the subject of animals. This was written after an episode in which he sat in his bathroom, naked, watched by his cat. It is a short and epigrammatic passage that suggests how little we still know about the animals in our lives, and also how easy it is to forget that we are among the animals:
The animal [can] be looked at, no doubt, but also—something that philosophy perhaps forgets—it can look at me. It has its point of view regarding me. The point of view of the absolute other. And nothing will have ever done more to make me think through this absolute alterity of the neighbor than these moments when I see myself seen naked under the gaze of my cat.