The Zoo Story: An Analysis
Albee is a gifted writer. The Zoo Story is a beautiful and popular absurd play him. This one-act play was composed in 1958. It is considered author’s masterpiece. Here Albee explores the themes of isolation, loneliness, existentialism, dehumanization, and meaninglessness of life in the fragmented society of America. Characterization, symbolism and language serve author’s purposes. Here two major characters named Peter and Jerry represent man’s interior alienation, detachment, fragmentation, and surrender.
The Zoo Story is an absurd play. It takes place in the Central Park in New York. There are two characters named Peter and Jerry in it. Peter is a middle-aged man. He is slightly older than Jerry.
The play starts in Sunday afternoon. In New York City’s Central Park Peter is reading a book on his favorite bench peacefully. He is a publishing executive. He wears tweeds and glasses. He smokes. Suddenly a stranger named Jerry arrives there and tries to engage him into conversation. Without any context he makes an announcement that he had been to the zoo. Peter does not notice. Jerry repeats the same thing. Then Peter responds him politely but Jerry is not satisfied with his response.
Jerry then proceeds to probe deep into Peter’s life. He asks Peter personal questions about his home life. By questioning he teases him. He comes to know that Peter has a wife and two daughters. His household contains two cats and two parakeets. After that Jerry starts telling the story of his own life. Instead of explaining the zoo story Jerry begins to talk about his place of living. He describes his landlady and her dog. He states that his landlady is constantly trying to sleep with him. He then mentions the story of the dog. He reveals his alienation. Peter does not understand why Jerry has told him all of this and tries to leave.
Jerry is unable to communicate. He forces Peter to react. He is intent on claiming the bench for himself. He pokes Peter and tells him to leave the bench. He pushes Peter. He drops him from the bench and insults him. He becomes very aggressive and continues to poke him. He starts punching. He tells him to give up the bench or to fight for it.
Finally Peter agrees to fight against Jerry for the bench. Jerry pulls out a knife and throws it before Peter. He tells him to pick it up. Peter does so. He picks up the knife in a defensive position. Jerry eventually impales himself on the blade. He becomes seriously injured and falls on the bench. Before dying he thanks Peter. He wipes the knife clean of Peter’s fingerprints and tells him to leave the place. Peter does so. He grabs his book and leaves the stage. Jerry dies on the bench. The play ends.
The major themes of the play are fragmentation, alienation, and isolation. On this basis critics classify The Zoo Story as an absurdist drama. Here Albee has launched fierce attacks on middle-class complacency and hypocrisy and the moral failure of American society. In this play Peter and Jerry experience alienation. It is a consequence of modernism and social differences in the society. This shows that alienation is an unavoidable phenomenon in modern society. These harsh truths reflect mental, behavioural and social condition of the characters. Therefore, the characters of the play appear as fragmented and distorted. Peter, for example, is a stereotypical intellectual young man who seems to be unhappy with his work. Jerry’s action is quite difficult to understand.
Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story belongs to the Theatre of Absurdity. It portrays the alienation, detachment, and fragmentation of modern American man especially in mid-twentieth century. It reflects how the world is meaningless. That is why it is an absurd play. It shows how human life lacks coherence, how the world is meaningless, and how the contemporary American society is chaotic. Albee is successful in conveying the message of the meaninglessness of life with the help of his characterisation, symbolism, and language.
Symbolism is an essential part of The Zoo Story. Here Albee blends symbolism with naturalism to realize his theme. Albee fills the play with symbolic meanings. The zoo constitutes the central symbol of the play. It is an image of human isolation and absence of contact and communication. It is an apt and poignant symbol. The world is a zoo. Here everyone has been separated by some bars. These bars separate Peter from his own nature and from other people. Jerry is an animal who fights against other animals. Jerry and Peter appear as traditional Christian symbols. Jerry seems Jesus. His chief purpose is to establish contact with God. Jerry dies for Peter. Jerry’s tragedy is not just an individual case. He is a universal symbol of the alienated modern man.
In Albee’s The Zoo Story neither dialogue nor monologue is consistent or significant. Some meaningless sentences are repeated. The characters hardly make any real communication. Sometimes the characters keep silent for a long time. Applying such kind of dramatic language, Albee reveals the emptiness and meaninglessness of modern life.