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American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


To what extent does the Young Man represent the American dream in The American Dream?

In Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed) Grandma refers to The Young Man as "the American Dream" based entirely on his outward appearance. But it is actually his dark backstory that best connects to Albee's interpretation of the modern version of the American dream, which he presents as having been corrupted by materialism and the desire for a perfect outward-facing appearance. The Young Man's separation from his twin and his twin's subsequent torture have caused the Young Man to become empty inside. He is incapable of experiencing emotions or feelings, so much so that he doesn't even feel sexual pleasure. "I am incomplete," he tells Grandma, further explaining he will always be this way. People desire him because he looks really good on the outside, but he gets no fulfillment from being attractive. Through the Young Man, Albee suggests the modern version of the American dream brings temporary satisfaction without the promise of long-term happiness. Those who focus on the exterior self instead of cultivating the things that feed the spirit, such as relationships, are doomed to misery.

In what ways is The American Dream autobiographical?

Like much of Edward Albee's work, The American Dream is partially inspired by his relationship with his family. Albee was adopted when he was only 18 days old, but he never felt a close connection with either of his adoptive parents. His mother, Frances (Cotter) Albee, was a cold and domineering woman whom Albee said cowed his father, Reed Albee, at every opportunity. They served as the template for Mommy and Daddy, who show no love to their adopted son, as Albee felt his parents demonstrated very little love for him. He did have one ally in the family, however: his grandmother, Loretta (Smith) Cotter, who came to live with the Albees when Albee was young. His love and admiration for her is reflected in his sympathetic portrayal of Grandma in The American Dream and its companion piece, The Sandbox.

How does Albee convey his thoughts about the American culture of materialism in The American Dream?

Edward Albee was opposed to the materialistic culture that emerged even more strongly after World War II. Though he doesn't explicitly say as much in The American Dream, he also doesn't hide it. He expresses his views through the construction of his characters. Mommy, who is the least sympathetic character in the play, is portrayed as being wholly focused on social status and feeling satisfaction through the purchase of material goods. When she first tells Daddy about Mrs. Barker in Section 1 (Meet the Family), she calls her "a dreadful woman" with "dreadful taste, two dreadful children" and a "dreadful house." But since she's the chairman of the women's club, Mommy is "naturally ... terribly fond of her." In the span of just a few words, Mommy puts down Mrs. Barker to make herself look better and then says glowing things about her because she wants to be like her. This attitude, in conjunction with the way she treats other characters in the play, makes it very hard for the audience to like Mommy and what she stands for. Grandma is on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to modern culture. She doesn't understand why people are so interested in things, and she looks down on Mommy for being so concerned with wealth. Grandma's plain-speaking logic and inclination to stand up for herself while others treat her like dirt makes her the only sympathetic character in the play. The audience is naturally drawn to her way of thinking (which mirrors Albee's) because they like her and her spunk.

According to The American Dream what role do the elderly play in society?

There is no place for the elderly in Albee's interpretation of society. They are something to be dealt with—as Mrs. Barker says, they're either "taken places, or put places"—and then forgotten about. Age is no longer correlated with wisdom but rather with senility. Grandma's family assumes she is a "feeble-headed" old woman who "whimper[s] away" for hours about the broken toilet. Because of her exterior appearance, they ignore her resourcefulness and tenacity and treat her more like a child than a fully functioning adult. Grandma isn't surprised by this treatment—she's come to expect it. She thinks it's just a fact of life that younger people speak to older people as if they were stupid or an annoyance. "That's why you become deaf, so you won't ... hear people talk to you that way," she tells Mommy and Daddy. She believes old people act a certain way because of the way others treat them, not vice versa. She stuns the family by leaving on her own terms and taking all of her "things" with her. She'd rather take control of her life than wait for "the van man" to take her away.

Despite the fact that The American Dream addresses real social issues, why should the play never be lumped in with other dramas of the time known as "kitchen sink realism"?

Kitchen sink realism, also known as kitchen sink drama, is a genre of performance-based art associated with plays, television, and movies. Originating in the United Kingdom in the 1950s, it was popular through the 1960s and then popped up again in the 1980s and 1990s. Kitchen sink dramas are known for addressing social and political issues. In The American Dream Albee directs attention to materialism's corruption of American society and values. However, that is where the playwright's nod to realism ends. The play misses matching kitchen sink dramas in several ways. Class: As a rule kitchen sink dramas focus on working-class people in their natural habitats, namely home and work. The American Dream is about an upper-middle-class family. Realism: Kitchen sink dramas are about real life. Albee's depiction of an unhappy family in The American Dream is filled with so much absurdity that it definitely causes readers to think, "Can this be real?" Even though the play takes place in a regular living room in a regular apartment, the element of realism is missing. Angst: Kitchen sink dramas aren't known for being happy, but viewers can often picture themselves as part of the drama. Filled with conflicts and tension, they expose the uglier side of humanity. Although The American Dream was written in part to show the ugly side of modern society, there is nothing real that readers can relate to in the play. Everything is absurd; everything is meaningless.

In what ways can The American Dream be considered a comedy?

People usually think of comedies as being humorous, but this is not always necessarily the case. In Shakespeare's time the word comedy was used to describe any play with a happy ending. The American Dream actually fits both of these definitions. There are moments of humor in the play, such as when Grandma tells everyone Mommy had a head shaped like a banana when she was born and when Daddy wants to know whether he was "masculine" or not. Those types of situations are played for laughs, which eases the tenseness characterizing of the play. In addition, nearly every absurd statement, every dark inference, can be viewed as a type of humor. In a way the play is the darkest of comedies, nearly toxic in its ruthlessness. It also appears that all the characters in the play are happy upon the play's resolution. Mommy and Daddy are satisfied, the Young Man has a job, Mrs. Barker is pleased with her inadvertent success, and Grandma has escaped the miserable atmosphere of the apartment. Everyone has gotten what he or she wants, at least for now.

In what ways does The American Dream fit the prototype of absurdist theater?

Absurdism became popular in Europe in the 1950s and then spread to the United States over the next decade. Characterized by minimalist sets, a mixture of the somber and the comedic, and a pessimistic viewpoint, its purpose is to show the meaningless and illogical nature of life. The American Dream meets these criteria and more. Set: The set decorations specified for The American Dream are sparse, just two armchairs and a couch, plus an archway and a doorway. Comedy highlighting the darkness: There are moments of hilarity to be found throughout the play. A good example is in Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed) when Grandma tells Mrs. Barker about the bumble. The story itself is terribly grim, but it's lightened by Grandma's digression about the lady "very much like" Mrs. Barker who seemed to have "a penchant for pornography." Irrational dialogue: Grandma makes freewheeling speeches about growing old, which are ignored by the rest of the characters, while Mrs. Barker insults the apartment to Mommy's face and Mommy takes it as a compliment. Actions devoid of reason: Mommy and Daddy's punishment of the bumble results in his death, but they believe they are the ones who have been wronged. Pessimistic viewpoint: There's not a lot to be happy about in The American Dream. As a whole it's a commentary on a society crippled by mistaken beliefs and a lack of social connection. No direct hope is given for repairing the damage beyond the escape of Grandma from the apartment.

Why is The American Dream considered a satirical play?

Satire uses humor and exaggeration to expose or make fun of something, often a person or a group's stupidity. It's used a lot in reference to politics, and examples of it can be seen in late-night sketch comedy shows, high-brow cartoons, and even popular movies. The American Dream can be considered a satire because of the way it draws the audience's attention to the emptiness of modern life. Mommy and Daddy sit in their living room waiting for something to happen. Their stilted and banal conversation is meant to make fun of the upper middle class, which is the target of Albee's ire. So is the portrayal of Mrs. Barker, a society woman who does so many "good works" that she can't remember them all. Albee exaggerates his characters and their actions as a way to show the faults of the real people after whom they are modeled.

How do the warnings of The American Dream hold up in the 21st century?

The American Dream warns against abject consumerism and a desire for increased social status, and Albee's fears appear to have come true today. The availability of goods at the click of a button has only increased the demands of a consumer culture expecting instant gratification, and the desire to show one's "best self" is magnified more than ever thanks to constantly evolving social media platforms. It can be argued that external appearances are even more important now than when The American Dream was first performed in 1961. Yet an argument can also be made in favor of these changes. Social media and advances in technology have the ability to bring people closer together, and the ease of acquiring material items could leave more time for exploring avenues of personal fulfillment, such as hobbies, sports, and interpersonal relationships. It all depends on one's perspective. In all likelihood Albee would have been horrified by selfies and McMansions, but he may have found value in the ease with which people might after all connect to one another.

What is the meaning of Grandma's last address to the audience in Section 4 (Finale) of The American Dream?

At the end of the play Grandma tells the audience the play is over because "for better or worse, this is a comedy" so it shouldn't "go any further." She's insinuating that were the play to continue, it would no longer have the happy ending that is the hallmark of comedies. She says it's better to leave the story where "everybody's got what he thinks he wants." This implies Mommy and Daddy's satisfaction about their new son isn't going to make them happy in the long run, and the Young Man's new job isn't going to give him the fulfillment he craves. Grandma's final speech sums up some of the play's overarching point—happiness comes from within. Those who focus on only the exterior will find their stories end differently.

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