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American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The American Dream, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1961, is a one-act absurdist play by American playwright Edward Albee. Satirizing American family life, the play focuses on three characters—domineering Mommy, emasculated Daddy, and witty Grandma. One day, they are visited by two guests who turn their world upside down. It is revealed that Mommy and Daddy once had an adopted son who was very much unwanted. As an adopted son himself, Albee drew on his own family background to write The American Dream.

In The American Dream Albee explores the falsity of the American dream and of American family values. Though it didn't receive the widespread critical acclaim and fame that some of his other works did, the play was generally well regarded. Some critics, however, found it offensive and attacked it for immorality—a charge that Albee responded to by stating that he meant it to be offensive. Albee directed an Off-Broadway revival of the play himself in 2008, a testament to The American Dream's enduring relevance.

1. Albee wrote The American Dream to criticize American family values.

Albee's goal in writing The American Dream was to point out the problems he saw in American society. He explained that the play is "an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity." As part of this examination, Albee wanted his writing to take "a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."

2. The American Dream is partly autobiographical.

Albee drew inspiration from his own family life to write The American Dream. Like the unseen child in The American Dream, Albee was adopted by a rich couple when he was a baby. Critics have noted that the child in The American Dream may represent how Albee saw himself—as an adopted son who wasn't what his parents wanted. Albee had a strained relationship with his parents. He discovered early on that he was passionate about the arts, but his parents wanted him to pursue a more conventional career. When he was 20, he cut ties with his parents and moved to Manhattan.

3. Mommy is based on Albee's mother and appears—in varying forms—in several of his works.

Albee's relationship with his mother was particularly strained. Like Mommy, she was cold and domineering. Albee didn't see her for almost 20 years after he left home, but he eventually attempted a reconciliation. He explained: "She went to see The American Dream and pretended she had no idea it was about the way she treated my grandmother." Albee said that his mother cut him out of his will and "could never come to terms with my nature, my sexuality." The two never reconciled.

Following The American Dream, Albee continued to place "Mommy" (or variations thereof) in many of his works, culminating with a complex portrait of her as a hardened, "vulgar, sharp-tongued" person in Three Tall Women (1994).

4. Grandma, the only sympathetic character in The American Dream, is based on Albee's grandmother.

Albee's grandmother was the one relative with whom he had a close relationship. In the play, Grandma is presented as spirited, witty, and intelligent. One critic notes that his portrait of his grandmother is "totally sympathetic and is marked by deep affection and respect for her resilient spirit." Albee dedicated his play The Sandbox—which follows the same characters from The American Dream—to her.

5. Some critics were so offended by The American Dream that they refused to review it.

Some critics would not even review The American Dream because of its content, and some who did criticized the play as nihilist, immoral, and defeatist. Most reviews, however, have been positive. The New York Sun said the play "provides a richer theatrical experience, and has more to say, than most plays that run twice its length."

6. Critics point to The American Dream as the first example of American absurdist drama.

Martin Esslin, a critic and dramatist best known for coining the term "Theater of the Absurd," called The American Dream a "brilliant first example of an American contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd." The term refers to a dramatic movement that emerged in Europe during the mid-20th century. Absurdist plays explore the absurdity of the human condition and eschew traditional theatrical conventions, instead experimenting with new methods.

7. Albee directed a production of The American Dream nearly 50 years after it first opened.

In 2008 Albee celebrated his 80th birthday by directing The American Dream in the same theater in which it was performed almost 50 years earlier. The revival was well received, with critics calling it "a formidable revival" and gushing that it was "surprisingly fresh—and alarmingly relevant."

8. Albee responded to critics of The American Dream in a preface to the play.

Reacting to charges that The American Dream has too many negative aspects, Albee explained that he intended his play to be offensive. He did not deny that The American Dream is unpleasant, simply stating that it is "a picture of our time." He continued:

Every honest work is a personal, private yowl, a statement of one individual's pleasure or pain; but I hope that The American Dream is something more than that.

Albee wanted the work to transcend "the personal and the private" and reflect "the anguish of us all."

9. Albee received three Pulitzer Prizes.

Albee's writing earned him many prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer. His Pulitzer Prizes for Drama were for A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1994). Albee did not win any awards for The American Dream.

10. Albee's play The Sandbox follows The American Dream's characters further into the future.

While Albee was working on The American Dream, he won a commission from a festival in Italy to write a short play. Albee took four characters from The American Dream and placed them in a different setting and circumstance. The resulting one-act play, The Sandbox, runs for only 15 minutes and is often performed directly after The American Dream.

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