The Zoo Story Essay
The Zoo Story
Analyse the dramatic effect of a passage, paying close attention to the language and stage directions whilst relating your observations to your understanding of post-1945 Drama. (PASSAGE- from pg. 27- ‘GET AWAY FROM MY BENCH! A’ to the end of the play) During the passage I have selected here, the dramatic tension that has been simmering for much of the play reaches boiling point as the quarrels, ‘territorial struggles’ and one-upmanship reach a climax. In this essay I will be looking at how this is conveyed in the language, imagery, and tone that Albee uses and how these can be related to other texts of the time.
The comparisons to other plays that Albee has written could not be more clear and references to private games and battles over territory that we see here are written about in both ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? ‘ and ‘The Homecoming’. The passage starts with Peter screaming at Jerry “GET AWAY FROM MY BENCH! ” The anger and passion that we see here from Peter makes the scene quite unnerving for the audience due to the way that Peter is getting so worked up about an object that seems completely frivolous to outsiders.
Albee actually states here in the stage directions that Peter’s ‘self-consciousness has been possessed’ by his all-consuming anger due to this inanimate object. In this way, the audience would feel even more uneasy at the fact that a grown man seems to be acting in a way that a child might over a toy. I would have to argue though that it is the way that Jerry antagonizes Peter more even though he can see that he is howling like a fatally wounded animal that is the most horrific part of this scene. “You have everything in the world you want… and now you want this bench?
” The dramatic irony here is plain for everybody to see; Peter doesn’t have everything in the world that he wants. In fact, his life is perhaps as much incomplete as the broken life that Jerry leads. As the audience urges Jerry to stop gnawing away at the parts of Peter’s life that he does not want to share, the viewers becomes emotionally attached to Peter and want his sufferings to stop. Much like in the private battles that are played out in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ‘, George’s life is torn apart by Martha at the beginning of the play as she tries to mock him in every possible way that she can.
The only difference in the other Albee play is the fact that George can defend himself from the verbal attacks thrown at him from Martha. Here, Peter is said to be ‘quivering’, ‘horrified, ‘struggling’ and ‘whispering’ after the abuse that he receives. In stark contrast, in the other of the plays, Albee states that George is ‘containing the anger within himself’, ‘laughing ruefully to himself’ and showing ‘mocking appreciation’. Indeed, this play, much like the other two synoptic plays, is driven by conflict and how people react to situations placed unwillingly upon them.
The origins of the tension here are evidently more profound than the bench for Peter. The bench just serves as a metaphor for all of the other troubles that Peter and Jerry have in their lives. The relationship that these two strangers share with one another serves the same purpose as well. The roots of conflict and strife are embedded much deeper in Peter especially than one may have first thought and it is only through the anger that Jerry provokes in him that causes all of his bottled up emotions to come rushing out.
One could argue here that this climax to the play where Peter ‘kills’ Jerry acts as a kind of release for both of them and there is a sense of new beginnings for the pair underneath the shock that the audience experiences. Throughout this passage Jerry holds the upper hand in the private games and struggle for status and power that the pair have which is at times subliminal. Jerry’s speech at the beginning of the scene about the irrationality of the fact that they are fighting over a bench shows this well.
He turns the situation on its head when he says to Peter “Is this the thing in the world you’d fight for? Can you think of anything more absurd? ” Unlike in ‘The Homecoming’ when Max has a lot to say about every possible subject that is brought up and yet he is the weakest of all of the characters, Jerry seems to have turned his techniques for domination over other characters into a finely honed routine and manages to dominate and govern not only the power struggle that is shown here but also the way in which Peter would usually think and act.
Slowly, Jerry urges Peter into truly letting himself go at the end of the scene. Indeed, throughout the play, Jerry carefully and mathematically makes conversation with Peter by talking about subjects that he thinks he would be interested in. Such topics as family, animals, houses and work seem like normal things to ask somebody that you have only just met. In fact, Jerry’s ‘normal’ approach to talking with a stranger is also very calculating. He talks about the standard experiences of life and puts in throwaway remarks about subjects that Peter seems to feel strongly about.
For example, at the start of the play, Jerry asks him whether he is married to which Peter replies “Why, certainly. ” Jerry then instantly retorts back at Peter “It isn’t a law for God’s sake”. By arguing passionately back at Peter like this during their conversation, he feels that he constantly has the upper hand in the heated discussion that they are having with one another and manages to stay one step ahead of his newly found acquaintance much like what we see in both ‘The Homecoming’ and ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?
‘ Indeed, during the passage I have chosen Jerry says “You don’t even know what you’re saying, do you? ” This quote is an echo of Pinter’s play when Teddy utters, “I can see you what you do. It’s the same as I do. But you’re lost in it” Jerry and Teddy both accuse their rivals of being lost in the games and private battles that they are indulging in when in fact, they are as much to blame as the people that they target. The build up of dramatic tension is a big part of Albee’s play here and it becomes especially important as it reaches its climax.
For example, when Jerry gets the knife that he has out of his pocket, the play seems to have reached its peak and end. In fact though, Albee is being very clever here in the way that he makes us think that this is going to be the finish to the play when it is in fact the start to a crescendo of emotion that we are going to experience over the next three pages. This therefore makes the real ending even more shocking when it actually arrives. The ways in which Albee builds up and releases the dramatic tension in this scene especially is very skilful. Much like in the scene in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
When George comes into the room with a double barrelled shotgun, aims it at Martha’s head and pulls the trigger, we see the same sort of quick crests and troughs in tension in ‘The Zoo Story’. When George pulls the trigger in Albee’s other play, the suspense of the scene is released due to the dark humour that is shown when a flag comes out of the end of the gun instead of a bullet. Here, we think that Jerry is going to kill Peter when in fact he simply throws the weapon onto the floor in order to give him the instrument with which he wants to be killed at the end of the play.
Certainly, Albee often defies expectation and does things to surprise the audience in order to provoke a bigger reaction and keep them on the edge of their seats as the story unfolds. As shown in the previous paragraph, actions and non-verbal communication in this play often speak much louder than the words that the pair say to each other. At the start of the drama, Peter is said to be ‘bewildered by the seeming lack of communication’ in the stage directions from Albee and then at the end we see this lack of communication transform as Peter resolves to show his feelings in actions and not words.
Indeed, Albee’s stage directions at the end of the play mirror this conscious attempt from Peter to act on his resentment towards Jerry. As Peter unwillingly puts the knife into Jerry’s chest at the end of the passage, Albee says just a few words that give a much greater resonance onto the audience than any sort of music or sound effects ever could; ‘Tableau: For just a moment, complete silence.
This moment of silence after all of this dramatic tension and suspense acts as a quick release for the audience and allows us, Peter and Jerry to stop and observe the absurdity of the situation that has arisen. The tableau is a way of giving the audience an image with which they can take away with them, resembling the play. Albee wanted to provoke and shock the audience into some form of reaction and this moment here in the stage directions epitomises this fact. We are given a moment to calm down our emotions as the tempo and the intensity of the passage falls to a lower velocity.
Moreover, in the second half the scene, Albee describes Jerry and Peter in the stage directions as ‘motionless’, ‘almost fainting’, talking ‘most faintly’ and ‘transfixed’ as opposed to the descriptions of the pair ‘struggling’, ‘horrified’, ‘still angry’ and acting ‘contemptuously’ at the start of the passage. Indeed, the atmosphere of the play constantly changes during the course of this scene and the entire play with Jerry always seeming to dictate and direct what is going to happen next.
Although there is a certain aggression shown from both of the characters here in their actions and non-verbal communication, the ‘verbal violence’ that we encounter during the play and especially in the passage that I have chosen is particularly resonant and would have had a big impact on the audience at the time. Jerry especially tries to provoke Peter into killing him throughout the play until he realises that his words only aggravate his newly found ‘friend’ and do not provoke him into a blind rage in which he would be prepared to do Jerry’s bidding.
As Jerry goads Peter into action, he uses verbal violence alongside physical violence in his speech on page. 29. ‘Fight for you daughters’, ‘fight for your cats’, ‘fight for your wife’. At the same time as verbally attacking Peter, he slaps him in the face on every ‘fight’ that he utters here to emphasize and underline the fact that he is waiting for a reaction and response that he so desperately craves. At the end of the lecture he gives Peter he spits in his face; the lowest form of insult that a man could inflict upon somebody else.
It is not surprising then that Peter reacts to this insult more than any other that has been imposed upon him. Much like in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ‘ where George manages to control the characters of Nick, Honey and Martha due to his quick wit and sharp intelligence, Peter is dominated here by Jerry’s astute use of language and is provoked and manipulated quite easily by Jerry. Indeed, Nick and Peter are probably the most impressionable characters in both of the plays by Albee here but Peter emerges with a much more sympathetic view from the audience than the pretentious and pompous mannered Nick.
Interestingly, more often than not, the clever and manipulative language that both Jerry and George use in both of the plays mean that although that they cause much grief for other characters, they come out with a respect and sympathy that often shrouds the less dominant characters and masks the fact that they are sometimes quite immoral and merciless at heart. In this passage and the whole play we are often attracted to the direct manner with which Jerry addresses his new found acquaintance.
Peter’s comportment is very different. Throughout the play we see a certain reserved attitude; even at the end of the play, he holds his knife in a defensive way and never wants to make the bold, more aggressive move. He is said to ‘back off a little’, ‘hesitate’ and ‘retreat’ during the passage, which are made to seem like quite unattractive traits, compared to the brash, lovable-rogue and sometimes outrageous personality that Jerry boasts.
In this passage and the rest of the play, the main thing that Albee tries to do is explore the dramatic tension of the arrival of an ‘outsider’ as seen in the other synoptic plays with Teddy, Ruth, Nick and Honey. Albee explores the social and cultural boundaries of the 1950’s in ‘The Zoo Story’ and makes some very intuitive remarks about preconceptions that some people have towards other.
In capturing a very normal and quotidian scene, the audience can really relate to some of the messages that Albee gives in regards to human beings’ failure to connect and communicate with each other. However, Albee also deliberately tries to shock and provoke the audience in some of the ideas that he gives us during the play. Whilst some of the social boundaries may have changed since the time of publication, the issue of murder, suicide and euthanasia still rages today and in its own way the play confronts a very taboo topic whose dramatic impact will never be lessened over time.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 July 2017
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