American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


Why was Grandma so successful in her ruse to win the baking contest in Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed) of The American Dream?

Grandma's success in the baking contest is partially due to cheating—she submitted a store-bought cake—and partially because she's old. Throughout the play she has said nobody pays attention to old people, and it turns out she's right. Grandma didn't want Mommy and Daddy to know she entered the contest, so she used a fake name: Uncle Henry. "I look just as much like an old man as I do like an old woman," she tells the Young Man. Grandma can slip through the cracks virtually unnoticed because of her age, and she ends up winning $25,000. The American Dream focuses heavily on the undesirability of growing old, but Grandma manages to use it to her advantage.

What does Grandma's baking contest victory mentioned in Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed) reveal about her character in The American Dream?

Grandma tells the Young Man she won $25,000 in a baking contest by submitting an old store-bought cake, to which the Young Man says, "You're a very resourceful person." He's right. Grandma has been planning her escape from Mommy and Daddy's apartment for a while, but she needed money to be able to strike out on her own. She knew she couldn't bake a contest-winning cake, so she decided to cheat. Grandma isn't a saint. Though she lies and cheats to get what she wants, she is still actively working to get away from such an unsatisfactory life. In an interesting twist she uses trickery, one of the hallmarks of those pursuing the new American dream, to get away from that world. Mommy and Daddy, on the other hand, can barely be bothered to pick up the phone to call someone to come over and fix their dissatisfaction.

Why does Albee have Grandma speak directly to the audience in Section 4 (Finale) of The American Dream?

Grandma leaves Mommy and Daddy's apartment at the end of Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed) and then immediately returns to the stage outside the confines of the living room set. She stands toward the front of the stage and speaks directly to the audience. No longer a participant in the main activity on stage, she instead takes on the role of narrator. Grandma doesn't explicitly say what is going on in the living room—the audience members can see that for themselves—but instead serves as a conduit through which the other characters' actions are interpreted. The audience is in effect looking through Grandma's eyes and seeing things from her point of view. Allowing the audience to directly connect with Grandma makes her a more sympathetic character, so in a way this strategy attacks the negative treatment of the elderly in the "new" America. Seeing the other characters' behavior from her point of view makes their absurd actions and statements even more unreliable than before.

In what ways is dramatic irony evident in Mommy and Daddy's introduction to the Young Man in Section 4 (Finale) of The American Dream?

Dramatic irony is the audience of a play or story knowing something the characters don't. Dramatic irony is sometimes used to humorous effect, but in The American Dream it is used to create an undercurrent of tension and a type of very dark humor. When Mrs. Barker introduces Mommy and Daddy to the Young Man, they are unaware of the Young Man's past. They don't know he is the twin of their deceased "bumble," but the audience does thanks to the story Grandma told about the bumble and the story the Young Man told about himself in Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed). As the Young Man and Mommy and Daddy talk to one another, the audience is on the edge of their metaphorical seats while waiting for someone on stage to make the connection.

Why is Mommy so upset by Grandma's departure in Section 4 (Finale) of The American Dream?

The reasons behind Mommy's distress are twofold. She first notices Grandma isn't in the room, nor are the boxes. This leads her to conclude that Grandma has "stolen something." Always focused on material things, Mommy is initially more worried about the loss of her belongings than about Grandma. When Mommy hears "the van man" came to take Grandma away, she forgets about the missing boxes and finally understands Grandma isn't coming back. She nearly cries, which is the only display of real human emotion she has shown throughout the entire play. Though she and her mother don't get along, there is still some dark familial love between them, and Mommy is sad to lose this. Her sadness, however genuine, is only fleeting. She pulls herself together when she sees the Young Man and immediately rebuilds the walls guarding her emotional core.

What does Albee imply about the future relationship between Mommy and the Young Man in Section 4 (Finale) of The American Dream?

Mommy is very taken with the Young Man upon their introduction, and her feelings aren't entirely maternal. She prowls around him, prodding his muscles and taking in his perfect physique. Even Daddy can see the attraction. When Mommy asks him to take a closer look at the Young Man, Daddy demurs, saying, "I ... I can see from here, Mommy." Feeling insecure, Daddy doesn't want to get any closer while Mommy plays with her new toy. At the end of the play Mommy promises to tell the Young Man about the trouble they had "with the other one" (meaning the bumble), and then gets closer to him and adds, "Maybe ... maybe later tonight." Stories aren't the only thing on Mommy's dark and scheming mind.

Why can the Young Man see Grandma when everyone else can't in The American Dream?

Mommy sends the Young Man to the kitchen to get celebratory drinks for everyone at the end of the play, and he gets five glasses. He has counted Grandma, who has left the apartment and is now part of the audience (though still on stage). Albee doesn't explicitly state why the Young Man can see Grandma when the other characters can't, but there are a few possibilities worthy of exploration. The Young Man's self-awareness of his role—that of satisfier while never being satisfied—sets him apart from Mommy, Daddy, and Mrs. Barker. Unlike them he is not looking for contentment from material things or social status. He sees beyond the superficial, so he is able to see Grandma. The Young Man and Grandma appear to have similar philosophies about what's important in life. He confides his tragic story to her, and she allows him to help her make her final escape. Their connection is deeper than that of the relationships between Grandma and the other characters, so the Young Man remembers Grandma even after she is gone. Mommy, on the other hand, forgets Grandma once she lays her eyes on the young specimen standing in front of her.

What are the hallmarks of the cruelty Mommy uses to establish power over the other characters in The American Dream?

Mommy makes herself feel powerful by putting down everyone around her. Her modus operandi is usually subtle: carefully placing barbs about Daddy here, indirectly insulting Mrs. Barker there. She treats Grandma as if she were a feeble-minded nuisance lucky to have anyone to care about her. Mommy grows stronger when she reminds people of their own inadequacies (Daddy's impotence, Grandma's age, and Mrs. Barker's disabled husband), and her passive-aggressive tactics befuddle them so much they can no longer control the conversation. Mommy scolds Grandma as if she were a small child right after Mrs. Barker arrives, and Grandma spends the next few minutes lost in thought, trying to remember something about the boxes. She doesn't seem to know where she is or why she's there. This phenomenon happens every time Mommy talks down to someone. She then fills the void in the conversation herself and grasps a firmer hold of the proceedings. Mommy's special brand of polite cruelty is sneaky but highly effective.

What effect do Mommy's blatant threats have on Grandma in The American Dream?

Mommy doesn't just try to control Grandma with subtle digs and insults—she also directly threatens her. "I'll fix you, Grandma. I'll take care of you later," she says when Grandma finally refuses to do her bidding. She's trying to scare Grandma into submission, but her threats actually produce the opposite effect by making Grandma appear stronger and more self-assured. "Oh, go soak your head," Grandma says in response. Grandma isn't afraid of Mommy anymore because fights like these are familiar territory. Remember, Grandma is "rural." She speaks bluntly and doesn't put on sophisticated airs like Mommy. Mommy's pleasant delivery of poison-laced words is unfamiliar and confusing to Grandma, which puts her at a loss. When Mommy drops her social-climbing facade and reverts to her natural, tough-talking self, Grandma is more than prepared to fight back.

What are the consequences of satisfaction as depicted in The American Dream?

Mommy and Daddy are both obsessed with getting "satisfaction." To them being satisfied means knowing they have the best of everything—the best toilet, the best hat, the best adopted son. They can maintain their image of perfection only if everything in their lives is in proper and pristine condition. As depicted in the play, a continued focus on satisfaction leads to an internal emptiness. Mommy and Daddy worry so much about what people outside the house think about them that they don't stop to consider what they think of each other. Their conversations are devoid of importance and meaning because they talk only about things and why they aren't satisfied. They do not have emotional connections with each other or anyone else, nor do they appear to feel empathy. Even their home is empty. The stage directions at the beginning of the play specify only two chairs and a couch on stage. There is no mention of knickknacks or personal memorabilia. Albee indicates that chasing the elusive comfort of satisfaction leads to a stark emptiness in every other aspect of life.

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