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American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the importance of the names of the three main characters in The American Dream?

The play's three main characters are referred to only as Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma. This is characteristic of Edward Albee's work, as he is known for using descriptive titles as a means of establishing his characters' goals, the way they view themselves, and their relationships with other people. The common thread among the names of the main characters in The American Dream is that they all indicate the presence of a child. Yet there isn't actually a child in the play. During the action of the play Mommy and Daddy are childless, yet they still refer to their offspring-related monikers. Using such babyish, absurd names adds to the feeling that these characters are worthy only of mocking. However, in Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed) it is disclosed that they once adopted a son but killed him after finding him to be unsatisfactory. So although they lack a physical child, Mommy and Daddy still view themselves as parents. The characters' names also have a personal meaning for Albee, who drew much of The American Dream from his own upper-class upbringing. Like the never-seen son in the play, Albee was adopted. He was raised by a domineering mother and a distant father, and his only familial connection was with his grandmother. The names and roles in The American Dream are as much a mirror of Albee's childhood as they are of American society in general.

What is the meaning of Mommy's story about the hat in Section 1 (Meet the Family) of The American Dream?

Mommy buys a hat she is told is beige, but Mrs. Barker, the chair of her women's club, insists the hat is actually wheat-colored. Mommy returns the hat only to buy it again after the salespeople insist it really is beige. Mommy tells Daddy this story to commiserate about the lack of satisfaction these days while also proving she is more capable than he of actually achieving it. This seemingly trivial story also reveals a lot about Mommy's character. Mommy doesn't cultivate her own opinions until she knows how everyone else feels. She first follows the lead of the "experts" in the subject—the salespeople, then dismisses what they say once someone with higher social status—in this case Mrs. Barker—comes along. Mommy wants people to think well of her, which means she always goes along with the opinions of the person who is of the highest rank. Yet she also wants to be in the right at all times. That's why she changes her opinion of the hat's color when she goes back to the store without Mrs. Barker. Mommy is heavily influenced by what other people say, especially when she thinks it will make her look good. The absurdity comes in the fact that there really is no discernible difference between wheat and beige, yet this meaningless debate has taken up lots of time and conversation. The emptiness of this attitude is the basis of the culture of materialism Albee discredits in the play.

What is the significance of the color of the hat Mommy buys in Section 1 (Meet the Family) of The American Dream?

Nobody can settle on the precise color of the hat Mommy bought yesterday, but one thing is for certain: it is drab. Be it beige or wheat-colored, Albee selected this particular hat because there is nothing remotely remarkable or unique about it. Neither are the two colors under debate here discernible from each other. So naming the color one way or the other is meaningless. Spending time worrying over it is ridiculous, but this is exactly the point Albee is emphasizing. Perhaps if the hat had been shocking in any way, in color or shape or embellishments, spending so much time on the topic would have made a little more sense in a world less absurd than that of The American Dream.

How does Albee use the actors' physicality to portray the characters' attitudes about the American dream in Section 1 (Meet the Family) of The American Dream?

The American Dream is set in an apartment living room. Mommy and Daddy stay in their respective armchairs during Section 1 (Meet the Family), but Grandma never sits. She bustles between rooms and drops heaps of boxes at Daddy's feet. Her action and Mommy and Daddy's inaction illustrate the differences in attitude about how to achieve the American dream and personal satisfaction. Grandma doesn't wait around for anyone to help her, nor does she ask for help. Mommy and Daddy, on the other hand, sit back in their comfortable chairs and complain while waiting for others to fulfill their desires. They feel entitled to satisfaction, while Grandma knows she is responsible for finding it for herself.

What is notable about the use of the word they in The American Dream?

Mommy and Daddy use the word they in The American Dream to describe the collective outside forces that stand in the way of their personal satisfaction. In Section 1 (Meet the Family) Daddy talks about the anonymous "they" who took his money for the apartment and checked his references yet won't fix problems in the apartment. Then there is Mrs. Barker, who is also referred to as "they" before her arrival. Mommy and Daddy know very well whom they are expecting, as they've had her in their home before, but they speak about her as if she were nothing more than another handyman coming to fix a problem. Mommy and Daddy's habit of referring to people outside the family as "they" alludes to their sense of superiority over the rest of the world. It also lumps together everyone and everything that makes them dissatisfied. It's Mommy and Daddy against the world, and using the word they as a catchall emphasizes their feeling of being victimized even more.

What is the meaning behind Grandma's way of speaking in The American Dream?

Most of the characters in The American Dream speak in overly polite and stilted tones, even when they are saying terrible things to one another. Grandma is the exception. She is loud and brash and prone to vulgarity. She also speaks much more plainly than the other characters, speaking in sentence fragments and dropping the beginnings and endings of words. "You got to have a sense of dignity ... 'cause, if you don't have that," she warns Mommy and Daddy in Section 1 (Meet the Family). As Mommy says in Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives), Grandma is "rural," and her speech patterns reflect that. Grandma raised Mommy, so it would be natural for Mommy to speak the same way, but Mommy has cultivated a more refined manner of speech. She's trying to move beyond her station in life so she can climb the social ladder, while Grandma talks the same way she always has. She isn't pretending to be someone she's not.

What role does Daddy's "sickness" play in The American Dream?

In Section 1 (Meet the Family) Grandma tells Mommy, "Daddy doesn't want to get fresh with you any more," and Mommy and Daddy both insist it's because of his unnamed "sickness," which is brought up again in Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) in front of Mrs. Barker when Mommy says, "Daddy has tubes now, where he used to have tracts." The specifics of Daddy's illness are never detailed, but implied is that the illness and surgery have something to do with his genitalia. This is why he is unable to "get fresh" with Mommy or any other woman, and perhaps also why he ejaculates in his pants when Mrs. Barker takes off her dress. Daddy is humiliated even further every time his condition is mentioned, which serves only to emasculate him further. Mommy knows this and uses it as a weapon against him as a means of making herself feel more powerful. At a higher level, Daddy's "sickness" represents the nonfunctioning masculine identity extending beyond the family. It can be seen as the general decay of all of society.

How does Mommy control Daddy in The American Dream?

Mommy controls Daddy by stripping away his power through belittlement and humiliation. In Section 1 (Meet the Family) she emphasizes she can get satisfaction better than he can, as if he weren't worth satisfaction in the first place. She also emasculates him, or makes him feel like less of a man. "You're turning into jelly; you're indecisive; you're a woman," she snaps at Daddy as he hesitates to open the door. Daddy fears Mommy's cruel words so much that he now looks for her approval in everything. He even needs assurance of how manly he is before he approaches the door. Mommy has conditioned Daddy to think he is less than a man and therefore less powerful in the relationship than she is. Her cruelty keeps him in line so she can remain in control.

What is the significance of the story about Mommy's lunch in Section 1 (Meet the Family) of The American Dream?

The absurd story told by Mommy about her childhood lunch experience is typical of Albee's use of the ridiculous to evoke humor. According to Mommy, Grandma and Mommy were poor when Mommy was little. Grandma sent Mommy to school with a beautifully wrapped box of leftovers every day, and every day Mommy tricked the other children into thinking there was nothing in the box. They would then share their lunches with her, and Mommy would bring her own lunch home for Grandma's dinner. The toxic nature of the story, which paints Grandma as conniving and Mommy as a victim, is entirely inverted from reality. Readers must see it as impossible to believe. Mommy tells it only as a source of pride, as if she should be admired.

What is the root of the animosity between Grandma and Mommy in The American Dream?

It appears as if Grandma and Mommy have never really gotten along. This is most likely due to their differing opinions about what is truly important in life. Mommy and Grandma were poor when Mommy was young, which Mommy deeply resents even to this day. When she was eight she told Grandma, "When I gwo up, I'm going to mahwy a wich old man." Mommy has always had her sights set on the things money can buy. She didn't care who she married, as long as he had money and as long as it would also be hers. Grandma, on the other hand, doesn't put much value on material things. When she prepares to leave the apartment, her boxes are filled mostly with memories. These are more important to her than impressing upper-class women with the right hat. This fundamental difference in values is what prevents Mommy and Grandma from having a close relationship.

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