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American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


From the beginning absurd elements are clear in the play. Empty character names, the absurd things the characters say over and over, and conversations and actions that defy reason are abundant. Viewers and readers of the play should remain alert to such irrational components rather than assuming they are meant as normal.

The curtain rises on Mommy and Daddy, who are waiting in their living room for an unnamed "them." Daddy laments the lack of satisfaction in modern society, and Mommy relates a story from the previous day about a hat she bought, returned, and bought again.

Grandma bustles into the living room. Her arms are filled with nicely wrapped boxes, the contents of which she refuses to disclose. Daddy inadvertently insults Grandma, and she continues to reprimand him even after she accepts his apology. When she leaves the room Mommy and Daddy compliment the boxes' wrapping, and Mommy tells an absurd story about growing up poor and bringing her leftovers to school for lunch in a nicely wrapped box. All the other children thought the box was empty, so they would pity Mommy and share their lunches with her. Grandma would eat the contents of the unopened box every day when Mommy got home. Despite this story Mommy insists it isn't right to live off people, which she accuses Grandma of doing with Daddy. It's perfectly fine for Mommy to live off Daddy because she's his wife.

Grandma reenters the room, and she and Mommy get into an argument after Grandma ends a painful diatribe about the many pathetic injustices associated with old age. Grandma needles Mommy by pointing out that Daddy doesn't want to sleep with her anymore, and Daddy says it's because of his illness. Mommy tries to send Grandma to bed like a child, but as it isn't yet noon she is allowed to stay up until the "they" Mommy and Daddy have been waiting on come.

"They" turns out to be Mrs. Barker, who is the clueless chairwoman of Mommy's so-called women's club. She and Mommy exchange barbed pleasantries until Mommy establishes herself as the most powerful person in the room. Mrs. Barker isn't quite sure why she's been called to the apartment, nor is Daddy. Mommy knows, and she shushes Grandma when Grandma tries to tell everyone. Mrs. Barker decides it must have something to do with all the boxes. She isn't sure if the organization she represents accepts boxes because she's a member of so many charity groups she can't keep track of them all. Mommy and Grandma argue again, and Mommy threatens to call the van to take Grandma away to a nursing home. When that doesn't work she sends Daddy to Grandma's room supposedly to confiscate Grandma's television.

Mommy then insults Mrs. Barker for having a husband who is confined to a wheelchair, and Mrs. Barker takes a turn for the worse. She feels faint and very confused, and Mommy tells Grandma to get Mrs. Barker a glass of water. Grandma refuses, so Mommy must get it herself. While they are alone Grandma tells Mrs. Barker the story of the "bumble," another word for the "bundle of joy" Daddy and Mommy adopted 20 years ago. They were very displeased with the baby because he did all the things children do, so they killed him. Now they want "satisfaction" from the representative of the adoption agency, who just so happens to be Mrs. Barker. Mommy then calls Mrs. Barker into the kitchen.

The doorbell rings. Grandma answers, "Come on in!" and in walks a handsome Young Man looking for work. He tells Grandma he has no talent—the only thing worthwhile about him is his looks. He thinks the childhood separation from his lost identical twin is the root of the emptiness he feels inside. Grandma hires the Young Man but doesn't tell him what he'll be doing. She introduces him to Mrs. Barker, whispers a plan into Mrs. Barker's ear, and then has the Young Man carry her boxes out the door. Grandma exits the apartment for good.

Grandma reappears at the far, front end of the stage and breaks the mood of the play by talking directly to the audience as Mommy and Daddy reenter the living room and realize she's no longer there. Mommy is particularly distraught, but she perks up when Mrs. Barker introduces her to the Young Man. He is to be their replacement for the disappointing son they had so long ago. Mommy and Daddy are very satisfied, and Mommy even flirts openly with him. Before the curtain closes, however, Grandma warns the audience that this is only part of the story. If it continued, something would probably happen to spoil the viewers' satisfaction.

American Dream Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Mommy and Daddy wait for an unknown "them."

Rising Action

2 Mrs. Barker arrives for an unspecified reason.

3 Mommy destroys Mrs. Barker's confidence.

4 Grandma tells Mrs. Barker the story about "the bumble."


5 The Young Man implies he is the bumble's twin.

Falling Action

6 The Young Man replaces the bumble.


7 Mommy and Daddy are satisfied.

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