The Zoo Story by Edward Albee

Published:  01:13 AM, 08 June 2017

Caged existence of the modern man

Caged existence of the modern man Renato Mussolino & Brendan Rock in drama play The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, Directed by Catherine Fitzgerald

Edward Albee's The Zoo Story is a play that is short in length but long in meaning. The Zoo Story is his highly symbolic short play. His plays question broad issues that have to do with the dilemmas of the modern man in general. One of these issues is the caged existence of the modern man.

He portrays characters who are victims to their gruesome loneliness. They live on the margin of their society, and they are estranged almost from their fellow people. This play examines how Jerry seeks redemption through media, which he hopes to give him a name for his nameless existence.  

In the zoo, animals are kept like prisoners after being deprived of the freedom of their natural habitat. The human society is also like a zoo in which the human animals live separated by class, gender, race, status, money and all kinds of brutal discriminations. Man is portrayed in Albee's play as an alienated creature. He lives aloof with no real contacts. Moreover, he is totally neglected and ultimately dehumanized. Albee delineates modern man as a caged animal, who lost his freedom and identity.

The American society has always been considered as multicultural. The term "melting pot of nations" has been used widely. But the American society does not only consist of people from different nations, it also consists of different classes. In this play Albee chose two American citizens of different classes who could not be more different. There is Peter who lives in well-established structures.

He is married and has two little daughters. He is satisfied with his situation and represents the average middle-class wage earner, the typical father of a family. Peter lives in an apartment between Lexington and Third Avenue on Seventy Fourth Street- a prosperous residential area in Manhattan. Peter publishes textbooks in an executive position with a relatively high income.

Even his appearance provides information about his social class. He wears tweeds, smokes a pipe, and carries horn-rimmed glass. Although he is moving into middle age, his dress and his manner would suggest a man younger. Peter belongs to the mainstream of American society.

In contrast to Peter, Jerry is off-beat. He neither has a wife nor a family to live with. As opposed to Peter, Jerry is not satisfied with his situation and he wants to break out of it. This is explained when he describes his living conditions.  He lives in a rooming-house in a small room with a beaverboard partition wall in it which separates him from one of his neighbors.

The fact that Jerry has to share his room with someone else shows that he is very poor and not able to afford an apartment for his own. Jerry does not fit into the mainstream and therefore he is seen as a social outsider. He does not represent the model American. He belongs to those people who exist in American society but whose existence is no subject for conversation neither at home and nor on television. Albee chose these two absolute contradictions to demonstrate the drastic situation. Peter is the representative of the white bourgeoisie and Jerry represents of the disadvantaged mirror the discrepancy between rich and poor.

The Zoo Story by Edward Albee explores the theme of existentialism. It is mainly through Jerry, a "permanent transient", the playwright expounds the central theme of existentialism. Existentialism treats an individual as a conscious being who leads a life of anguish, absurdity and alienation amidst the encircling nothingness and to whom death is as unimportant as the birth. In this case Jerry comes out as a perfect symbol of the existentialist individuals who are conscious and whose consciousness makes them suffer.

Jerry tells Peter about his drab and dreary existence. He lives in a crowed four-storey brown-stone rooming house and has no contact with other dwellers of the building. He tells Peter about two picture frames, both empty. His parents are dead and apparently they had not meant much to him when they were alive. Peter can be considered as a nihilist. He does not believe in God. So, Jerry is shocked and dismayed by the conclusion that he has reached that God has abandoned him, just as his parents did. Jerry has moved from the first stage of existentialism, the recognition of the absence of God, and the ensuring despair, to the level of anguish.

The main characteristic of absurd plays is to show that life is essentially meaningless, hence miserable. There is no hope, because of the inevitable futility of men's efforts. Man is fascinated by death, which permanently replaces dreams and illusions. There is no action or plot. Very little happens, because nothing meaningful can happen. The final situation is absurd or comic.

Albee explores the life situation of the modern man, the pointless and absurdity of human situation. The overall breakdown of values, the other incapacity for creative action and the ennui of routine life are seen as the manifestations of the malaise of the modern man. The absurdist viewpoint and generalized questions relating to existence self have been at the very heart of the play's inspiration. It is also possible to read the plays as a picture of the  problems and conflicts of an existential character.

Modern men reject conventional truths and figures of authority, and they have moved away from religion. In modernist literature, man is assured that his own sense of morality trumps. But individualism results in feelings of isolation and loss. Theme of loss, isolation and exile from society are particularly apparent in Edward Albee's play The Zoo Story.
The play enacts the story of the caged isolation of the modern man, whose real essence is lost in a world where people do not consider human values, but materialistic ones.

Jerry is a caged man. His existence is a similar to that of the caged animals in the zoo. He lives physically but he is dead spiritually. He is treated as an animal. His presence is felt, but no one cares for him. He is cut loose from the flux of the human civilization. He lives on the margins of his society. His apartment serves as his cage. He even does not know the names of his neighbors. He calls them by titles or descriptive words. His death is a protest against the deplorable and unjust circumstances that shade modern man's life and cage him. Thus he wishes that death might add meaning to his meaningless life.

People only commit suicide when they feel desperate, when they have no contact to others who might help them or when they not communicate their despair to the world around them. As Jerry's example shows suicide is the ultimate attempt to attract the attention of society. The fact that  these people are hopeless and lonely does not necessarily mean that they are no valuable members of our society very often they are just different from the mainstream society, they are more sensitive than others and desperately striving to be accepted. The parallel to Jerry's fate is evident. That is the reason why I am convinced that Albee's play is still most important and mirrors the problems of today's society. 

The writer is a freelance columnist

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