The American Dream Background

The American Dream Background

First premiered on January 24, 1961, at the York Playhouse of New York, Edward Albee’s one-act play The American Dream is an Americanized blend of the “Theatre of the Absurd” and the “British Kitchen Sink Realism” to satirize the contemporary family life and outlook in the 1960s United States of America. The play entirely takes place in the apartment of a married couple, a dominant Mommy and her enfeebled husband Daddy, as well as Mommy’s witty mother Grandma. The action anticipates a visitor, Mrs. Barker, right from the start; but eventually they have one more guest, the Young Man, who seems to change their world altogether.

Notably, the married duo has no proper names; one may wonder at the beginning why they are called Daddy and Mommy, and the latter’s mother, Grandma. This provides the recipient with a certain hint from the very beginning that the story is to be unfolded from the point of view of their child, but we see nobody else around. While this may baffle the audience a little at the beginning, the generic names Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma help universalizing Albee’s characters. As the couple starts talking about the bumble they had bought from Mrs. Barker, with occasional interjections from the elderly grandma, we know at once why the nomenclatures involve a child’s perspectives: throughout the play the bumble, alias an adopted an unwanted child who was eventually mutilated and killed, remains in force much like Godot in Samuel Beckett’s play.

The play opens in the nondescript apartment of Mommy and Daddy where they are waiting for someone to come, who doesn’t seem to arrive on time. The doorbell rings, and instead of the visitor they were expecting, Grandma enters. Nevertheless, soon they have their expected visitor Mrs. Barker, the president of the local women’s club and the proprietor of the Bye-Bye Adoption Service from where the couple had ‘purchased’ their adopted son some twenty years ago, not quite sure why Mommy and Daddy have summoned her this time. The couple actually wanted their money back, or a product replacement, accusing Mrs. Barker for ‘shipping’ a defected one. The fact that Albee himself was an adopted child, and had a childhood he would like to forget, adds more layers of possible interpretations to the text. The Young Man enters in due course looking for a job, and from his life-story Grandma quickly realizes that he is the twin brother of the adopted son. He is ready to do any job for money, and Grandma calls him the ‘American Dream’. Having shared a deep and innate fraternal bond, the mutilation and assassination of the adopted child has left the Young Man a heartless shell of a man, deprived of any feeling, emotion, or excitements. He just works and lives for money, a perfect tragicomic satire of the American dream in general! Nevertheless, Grandma realizes that the Young Man is a perfect replacement for the adopted child, and introduces him to the family.

Mommy and Daddy thus receive customer satisfaction for receiving a suitable replacement for the faulty product they had purchased, and probably regain their faith in the capitalist US marketplace that not all products are faulty and cleverly sold off, like Mommy’s hat. Mrs. Barker, being a ‘professional’ woman, fulfills her duties and responsibilities to her customers Mommy and Daddy by replacing the faulty product she had sold twenty years ago. Grandma, an individual from the old world order who has not yet been as mechanized as the rest, quickly understands that her theatrical necessity as a catalyst to everyone’s apparent happiness or satisfaction has been fulfilled, and leaves.

Albee explores the falsities of the ‘American Dream’, the national ethos of the United States of America, and symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. As James Truslow Adams defined the term in 1931, it meant that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone”. Nevertheless, in reality, the American Dream turned out to be a treasure hunt, a rat race of accumulating wealth and running after a constructed notion of financial freedom and satisfaction that people may never actually derive. Mommy and Daddy too, like other Americans of Albee’s time, ran after what may be summarized as "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, a famous phrase from the United State Declaration of Independence. Whether they get them or not is Albee’s problematic for this play.

Albee’s play is set in a nondescript apartment of an equally nondescript American city of his time, and the entire episode takes places within it. This was common with the British theatrical genre of “Kitchen Sink Realism”, where writers like John Osborne and Arnold Wesker took it to peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In The American Dream, Edward Albee has indeed explored the scope of a kitchen sink drama, but it allies more closely with what Martin Esslin popularly called the “Theatre of the Absurd”, with Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter as the canonical playwrights. The American Dream, Esslin thought, marked the beginning of the American absurdist drama. It brings out the deliberate despair and insanity so inherent to the perceived notion 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 talks about irrelevant and petty matters to spend time. The adopted boy is physically absent on the stage, but his presence can be felt all the while, very much like Godot. Even at the end, the audience doubts whether the characters have finally derived satisfaction, leaving a question mark and rendering the play a tragicomedy.

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