The American Dream

The American Dream Study Guide

Edward Albee's The American Dream is a one-act play that premiered at the York Playhouse in 1961. It satirizes American family dynamics in the 1960s, blending elements of the absurd with "kitchen sink" realism. Kitchen sink realism was developed in England in the 1960s in theater, art, film, and novels and is defined by its adherence to the strictures of realism and its examination of challenging subjects in everyday life. The "Theatre of the Absurd" is a genre that developed in Europe after World War II by writers like Samuel Beckett, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco. Albee is credited with Americanizing the tradition of "Theatre of the Absurd" and for boldly blending it with realist tropes.

The play stays in one location for its entirety: the apartment of a married couple. The wife is very dominant and the husband rather sheepish and submissive. Even though they are waiting for someone named Mrs. Barker, Mommy and Daddy—as they are so called in the play—are first visited by Mommy's Grandma, then by an even more unexpected visitor, Young Man. As the play unfolds, Albee explores the ways in which the traditionally accepted notion of the "American Dream" is a falsehood. Through this play, he explores the ways that the search for the American dream is often a futile one, an interminable treasure hunt. Mommy and Daddy too, like other Americans of Albee’s time, run after what may be summarized as "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Whether they ever get it or not is Albee’s problematic for this play.

According to critic and theatre practitioner Martin Esslin, The American Dream marked the beginning of the American absurdist drama. It explores despair and insanity of modernity, and employs several components of the absurdist drama. Albee’s language is satirical, and his humor is dark. A functional pair of protagonists like Mommy and Daddy can be seen in many absurdist plays, including Didi and Gogo or Lucky and Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, Hamm and Clov or Nagg and Nell in Engdame, and Jean and Berenger in Rhinoceros. Like Didi and Gogo, Mommy and Daddy await their visitor, and talk about irrelevant and petty matters to pass the time. Even at the end, the audience doubts whether the characters have finally derived satisfaction.