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Edward Albee: The Zoo Story & Theatre of the Absurd

Edward Albee: The Zoo Story & Theatre of the Absurd
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  • 0:05 The Zoo Story
  • 0:33 Theatre of the Absurd
  • 1:18 Plot Summary
  • 8:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

Edward Albee's 'The Zoo Story' may not have a zoo, but there's definitely a story, at least a story of sorts. In this lesson, we'll explore this example of the Theatre of the Absurd.

The Zoo Story

The Zoo Story - it sounds so normal and innocent from the title, right? Maybe it's about a family's trip to their local zoo. Maybe they see some monkeys or tigers. Maybe they have popcorn.

Alas, no. The Zoo Story is an absurdist one-act play written by Edward Albee. And there are no monkeys or popcorn.

The Zoo Story premiered in 1959, making it Albee's first performed play.

Theatre of the Absurd

This play is a great example of The Theatre of the Absurd. This genre was popular in the 1950s and '60s, when religion lost prominence and the threat of nuclear annihilation was new.

Unlike non-absurd plays, these plays usually lack things like plot and character development. They highlight humanity's pointlessness and isolation. There's a lot of standing around, doing very little, often in bizarre situations.

If things happen, they happen for no reason. The message is basically that life has no purpose or meaning. We're just here for a while, we try to communicate, often failing, but we're mostly alone. Then we die.

Okay, keep these ideas in mind as we go through the plot of The Zoo Story.

Plot Summary

There are two characters in the play: Jerry and Peter.

The play begins with Peter sitting, reading, on a bench in New York's Central Park. Jerry approaches him and starts talking:

I've been to the zoo. I said, I've been to the zoo. MISTER, I'VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!

Peter realizes this guy is trying to talk to him. Jerry starts asking questions:

I went to the zoo, and then I walked until I came here. Have I been walking north?

And it goes on from there:

Jerry: Do you mind if we talk?

Peter: Why ... no, no.

Jerry: Yes you do; you do.

Peter: No, I really; I don't mind.

Jerry: Yes you do.

Peter: No; I don't mind at all, really.

Jerry: It's... it's a nice day.

Peter: Yes. Yes, it is; lovely.

Jerry: I've been to the zoo.

Peter: Yes, I think you said so... didn't you?

Jerry: You'll read about it in the papers tomorrow, if you don't see it on your TV tonight.

Then Jerry starts asking Peter about his life. We find out Peter works for a publishing house. He has a wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets. Jerry suggests Peter is disappointed not to have a son, which is one of many antagonizing things Jerry says. And each time Peter inquires about the zoo story, it goes like this:

Peter: Is this something about the zoo?

Jerry: The what?

Peter: The zoo; the zoo. Something about the zoo.

Jerry: The zoo?

Peter: You've mentioned it several times.

Jerry: The zoo? Oh, yes; the zoo. I was there before I came here.

Eventually, Jerry launches into a story about his own life. He lives in a small room in a not very nice building. He talks about his neighbors and his few possessions. Among other things, he has two empty picture frames. Peter asks about those, but Jerry says he has no one to put in them - his parents are dead, and weren't very great when they were live. As for a picture of a girlfriend, he says:

What's the point of having a girl's picture, especially in two frames? I have two picture frames, you remember. I never see the pretty little ladies more than once, and most of them wouldn't be caught in the same room with a camera. It's odd, and I wonder if it's sad.

Jerry also has a pack of pornographic playing cards, which leads to this exchange:

Jerry: I would have thought that you would have asked me about the pornographic playing cards.

Peter: Oh, I've seen those cards.

Jerry: That's not the point. I suppose when you were a kid you and your pals passed them around, or you had a pack of your own.

Peter: Well, I guess a lot of us did.

Jerry: And you threw them away just before you got married.

Peter: Oh, now; look here. I didn't need anything like that when I got older.

Jerry: No?

Peter: I'd rather not talk about these things.

Jerry: So? Don't. Besides, I wasn't trying to pull your post-adolescent sexual life and hard times; what I wanted to get at is the value difference between pornographic playing cards when you're a kid, and pornographic playing cards when you're older. It's that when you're a kid you use the cards as a substitute for a real experience, and when you're older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy.

And then Jerry tells a very long story about his landlady's dog, which attacks him when he goes by. Jerry first tries to bribe the dog with hamburgers. When that doesn't work, he tries to kill the dog by putting rat poison in a burger. The dog gets very sick, but somehow recovers. When Jerry first sees the dog again, he says:

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