Several weeks ago I assigned my class to read THE ZOO STORY, one-act play written by Edward Albee. This was written in 1958 in New York but its premiere performance was occurred at the Theater Werkstatt in Berlin on September28, 1959. It was performed on Broadway on January 14, 1960. The story is about two characters, Peter and Jerry, who meet accidentally in one bench in The Central Park. The main conflict is built while the two are talking to each other. What happens at the end of the play oftentimes startles the audience.
To dissect the play together in my class, I gave four questions to lead the discussion.
1.What is the main conflict of the story?
2.What kind of personality traits do the two characters have?
3.How do their family backgrounds differ from each other?
4.What is your reaction when coming to the end of the play?
At first one student complained to me, “If you categorize this play into comedy, I don’t think I find funny aspects in it. Or is it due to my low capability in English?”
When I asked her how she perceived the story of the play, she simply said, “The story is very weird.”
The play is indeed weird; that’s why literary critics categorized it into ‘absurd play’. The word ‘absurd’ itself means “plainly not true, logical, or sensible; so contrary to reason that it is laughable; foolish; ridiculous.” The story to some extent is also pathetic.
Another student then said that probably this kind of story was very much impossible to happen in Indonesia but it was absolutely possible to happen in America.
“Why is that? Which part of the story do you think is impossible to happen here?” I asked her.
I suspected that she didn’t finish reading the whole story so that she answered my question just by mentioning the fact that Peter’s family had two cats and two parakeets. “It is indeed a common thing for Indonesian people to have pets. But you know, pets in Indonesia are just pets. Animals. They don’t really mean a lot. In America, as far as I know there is always a very strong emotional relationship between people and their pets.” Meanwhile I expected that she would answer my question by appointing the weird conversation between Jerry and Peter.
Let’s take one example. After a little bit ‘small talk’ about going north, Jerry asked Peter, “Do you mind if we talk?”
In Indonesia, especially in small towns, when two people meet accidentally in a park, or anywhere else, they will just talk, without asking, “Do you mind if we talk?” They will just talk casual things though, to show hospitality. However, as some critics have said, at the very beginning of the time when Albee had this play published, they did not understand what Albee actually wanted to convey to public.
In the following discussion, we talked about different family backgrounds Peter and Jerry had. Peter was married, had two daughters, and had an established job in a publishing company. On the contrary, Jerry was single, no steady job, living in an indecent tenement with an abusive landlady who had a crazy dog that liked attacking Jerry playfully. Jerry also came from a broken unhappy family.
This contradictory family background absolutely made them have different personality traits. Peter was an established man, educated, able to control his emotion quite well. Jerry seemed somewhat insane with his almost unbelievable story about his landlady and the crazy dog. Therefore I understood when my students said that Jerry seemed to envy Peter’s seemingly happy life.
No one expected to find someone dying at the end of the story because from the very beginning, the play just showed two men talking about unimportant things in their life. My students said that Jerry was too much to provoke Peter so that Peter lost his common sense in facing him although he seemed careful.
The first question—about the main conflict of the story—was not answered in the discussion. I opined that in fact Jerry was already desperate about his unhappy life. He needed someone to “help” him commit suicide. Peter was just the right person on the wrong place. Jerry succeeded in provoking Peter so that he did what Jerry ‘planned’: to hold the knife on his hand, enabling Jerry to impale on it.
Why did Jerry need someone else’s help to commit suicide? He wanted to share his unhappiness to someone else he assumed to have a happy life—in that decade, to be married, have kids and a good job were ‘requirements’ to be lead a happy life.
Peter’s life would never be the same again as before he encountered a crazy, desperate man who involved him in his death.
What did Albee want to convey to the audience? I assume that he wanted to criticize American values that started to worship wealth and did not care of the neighborhood.
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