Establishes Albee as the Voice of Pessimism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An American play in the absurdist tradition, The American Dream was a caustic and hilarious examination of U.S. society. It marked playwright Edward Albee as one of the strongest voices of the disillusionment and pessimism gripping the nation as the 1950’s came to an end.

Summary of Event

Born on March 12, 1928, Edward Albee was abandoned by his birth parents. He was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee. His adoptive grandfather was Edward F. Albee, who made a fortune on the vaudeville stage. At the age of nineteen, the younger Edward moved to Greenwich Village. As a result of his unsettled beginnings, Albee was an unstable and undisciplined youth. His life was filled with rebellion; his time was spent dropping in and out of schools. During the early period of his life, he held many odd jobs. American Dream, The (Albee) Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater of the Absurd [kw]American Dream Establishes Albee as the Voice of Pessimism, The (Jan. 24, 1961) [kw]TAlbee as the Voice of Pessimism, he American Dream Establishes (Jan. 24, 1961) [kw]Pessimism, The American Dream Establishes Albee as the Voice of (Jan. 24, 1961) American Dream, The (Albee) Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater of the Absurd [g]North America;Jan. 24, 1961: The American Dream Establishes Albee as the Voice of Pessimism[06820] [g]United States;Jan. 24, 1961: The American Dream Establishes Albee as the Voice of Pessimism[06820] [c]Theater;Jan. 24, 1961: The American Dream Establishes Albee as the Voice of Pessimism[06820] Albee, Edward Beckett, Samuel Ionesco, Eugène

Martin Esslin’s book The Theatre of the Absurd Theatre of the Absurd, The (Esslin) (1961) identified an antirealist movement that it labeled absurdism. The movement’s major international writers included Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter. These writers told of the absurdity of life. It was their central belief that the world was full of evil, a malevolent condition that could not be explained by traditional standards of morality. Without a supreme being in control of the universe, people are confronted with lives filled with pain and despair. Since there can be no certainty that God exists, individuals find themselves forced to live without hope in a chaotic world filled with irrationality and certain death. Albee wrote his plays in this context.

Albee had four absurdist plays produced Off-Broadway in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s: The Zoo Story Zoo Story, The (Albee) (1959), The Sandbox Sandbox, The (Albee) (1960), The Death of Bessie Smith Death of Bessie Smith, The (Albee) (1960), and The American Dream (1961). Each of these plays followed in the absurdist tradition that had developed during the 1950’s in Europe. These Off-Broadway productions established Albee as the leading American playwright of the period. The Zoo Story, his first published play, was written shortly before he turned thirty. The play shows Albee’s rebellion against a world filled with conformity. It reflects a protest of disillusioned cynicism. The play comments directly on material comfort, hypocrisy, relational inadequacies, and the optimism that pervaded culture in the United States during the 1950’s.

The playwright had begun work on The American Dream prior to receiving a commission to write The Sandbox. The plays reflect similar themes and characters: American family life is portrayed as complacent and cruel. Both plays look at and attack the lack of true family values.

The American Dream begins with Mommy and Daddy angrily waiting for a visitor. Their small talk is filled with clichés. When Grandma enters, she talks about being old and useless. It is Mommy’s and Daddy’s intention to send her to an extended care facility. Grandma reproaches her daughter for the daughter’s scheming plans to do away with her. Grandma reminds Daddy of her warning not to marry “this monster” (Mommy). Suddenly, Mrs. Barker arrives. She is confused, and no one seems to know why she has come to the apartment.

When Mommy and Daddy have left the room, Mrs. Barker learns the reason for her visit, as perceived by Grandma. Apparently, twenty years earlier Mrs. Barker had helped Mommy and Daddy adopt a baby boy. It seems the boy was punished for misbehaving. Its eyes were poked out, its hands were cut off, its tongue was cut out, and finally it was castrated. The baby died. Mommy and Daddy want satisfaction for their loss. When the doorbell rings again, a Young Man, the American Dream, is standing there, asking for work. The Young Man reveals to Grandma information about his long-lost twin. The Young Man also tells Grandma about his “infirmity”—his progressive deterioration of spirit and body. His physical mutilations are like those suffered by the boy adopted by Mommy and Daddy. The Young Man finds himself unable to express or experience feelings and love. Grandma and Mrs. Barker arrange to have Mommy and Daddy adopt the Young Man. The play ends abruptly, with Grandma telling the audience that this is a good place to end the show, with everyone happy and thinking they got what they desired. The play serves as an absurd comment on the sanctity of the American family and its values.

This and other early plays made Albee the leading absurdist in the United States. The plays focused on existential issues. His characters struggled with moral issues and had to learn the lesson that truth is what a person thinks it is. The tension between morality and “truth” creates his characters’ struggles.

By 1962, Albee had moved into the theatrical mainstream. His play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Albee)[Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf] (1962) offered an examination of a bitter, alienated, and bored society. The play links him with realist playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and August Strindberg. Albee attacks the vulgarity of a society that will not accept the value and importance of life. This play depicts an older generation that has struggled to order and structure the chaos of human existence. A younger generation is unwilling to recognize the need to order the chaos and will not accept the validity of traditions. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, in part, an examination of generational conflict set in a world of confusion and chaos. The conflict leaves neither group untouched.

Albee’s later works primarily deal with values. The dramatic action seems to center on the characters’ attempts to give rational explanations of why it is they have been “picked on” in life. The characters seem to have martyr complexes. They do not see themselves as responsible for their situations and instead blame others.


The philosophical foundation of The American Dream can be found in the work of existentialists Existentialism;theater Theater;existentialism Albert Camus Camus, Albert and Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul . Their works presented a worldview filled with absurdity. They saw sociopolitical structures of the world as facades constructed by those with power and money. Camus and Sartre questioned the established moral standards and the existence of universal or absolute moral truths. They claimed that morality was an individual matter.

The American Dream combines the French avant-garde and the American theater tradition. It is a nightmarish comedy. The action and dialogue of the play reveal characters overcome with their life situations in a nihilistic and immoral world. The family is an empty facade. Albee condemns the complacency and cruelty found in American family relationships. The relational dimension is without content and form. Words pass mechanically among the characters without any real meaning. They are caught living lives filled with worry about trivial and mundane issues, such as whether the color of the hat purchased by Mommy is beige, wheat, or cream. Albee shows the family as it really is when confronted with empty relationships, old age, and death.

The American Dream’s theme springs from the burden of Albee’s personal rejection by his natural parents as an infant. His attack on maternal instinct and the stereotypical view of the American family reveals his resentment. This one-act satirical farce unveils the anguish of a man whose ideal has been destroyed. The American Dream is Albee’s voice of pain. In the style of Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet, the playwright assimilates the techniques of French absurdism in order to produce a play of American absurdism.

Albee was convinced that a playwright’s drama should create awareness while challenging an audience to examine societal diversity and complexity. He has said, “Creative artists are encouraged to put people into a sleep of the mind—when the true function of the arts, of course, is to make us more aware.” A world of chaos is what surrounds people. The daily existence of people is hopeless and worthless. The absurdity of it all is heightened by the reality that, with the weapons of mass destruction that exist, the world could come to an end at any given moment in time.

In Albee’s The American Dream, however, there is a sense of ordered absurdity. The dramatic structure follows the realistic form. This serves to highlight the actual absurdity of the relationships in the play. Unlike the work of many of the European absurdist playwrights, The American Dream makes use of realistic scenery, lighting, costumes, and makeup.

The recognition gained by the Off-Broadway production of The American Dream propelled Albee to worldwide acclaim as one of the best absurdist playwrights. In fact, the play was his first to gain immediate acclaim in the United States. The hostile publicity surrounding the play helped focus attention on the playwright and on The American Dream. This particular play has been identified as one of the best dealing with familial relationships.

The language contained in The American Dream accentuates the relational absurdity in the characters’ lives. Mommy attempts to attribute the desire to put Grandma into a nursing home to Daddy, when in fact the plan is hers. Her rationale is that she cannot stand to see Grandma cooking, doing housework, and moving furniture—all seemingly actions of someone fully prepared and able to continue to lead a non-institutionalized life. It is clear that Albee is expressing the absurdity of the good life in the United States. The contradictions of relationships, the feelings of frustration, and the futility of life are evident in what the characters say to each other. Realistic dialogue is structured in elliptical events revealing a certain absurd logic of social confusion.

Styled in the absurdist theater tradition, The American Dream brought a European flavor to the American stage. The play makes a caustic attack on American values and morals. Participants find the play to be hilariously funny. Albee uses wild exaggeration, not to imitate but to mock the prevailing societal values of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. A domineering wife and henpecked husband make a statement about the facade of American values. The play rattles the observer, who must pause to examine and to consider the true meanings of values and relationships.

Albee’s ability to capture the absurdity in American culture was not limited to The American Dream. The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, and The Sandbox consolidated the strength of his position as the leading absurdist playwright in the United States. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, some have seen a move away from his absurdist writings. If, however, one considers the bitter language, the sense of alienation, and the boredom of the characters, it is easy to recognize continued absurdist tendencies.

The effect of The American Dream on Albee’s writing can be seen throughout his work in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. Such works as Tiny Alice Tiny Alice (Albee) (1964), A Delicate Balance Delicate Balance, A (Albee) (1966), and All Over All Over (Albee) (1971) extended Albee’s influence as a writer focusing on people’s alienation. Seascape Seascape (Albee) (1975) continued to reflect absurdist influences. Along with the short plays produced Off-Broadway in the 1960-1961 season, Albee’s later plays strongly influenced the work of many other dramatists. Albee’s success Off-Broadway opened the door of opportunity for other American playwrights.

American culture and society felt the impact of Albee’s message. Thoughtful individuals raised questions about the validity of the moral standards of society. Questions concerning how to function as members of a family, obligations to other family members, and the plight of the elderly challenged audiences to examine the prevailing sense of optimism in the United States. American Dream, The (Albee) Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater of the Absurd

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Archer, Stephen M. How Theatre Happens. New York: Macmillan, 1978. Covers topics including architecture, directing, acting, designing, and playwriting. Includes a theoretical discussion of what theater is.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bottoms, Stephen, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Compilation of critical essays on Albee’s life and work. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyce, Sandra N. Welcome to the Theatre. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1987. A good introduction providing information on theater conventions, play production, and major movements throughout theater history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre. 6th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1991. This comprehensive study of the theater is recommended reading for serious students of the theater. Brockett provides a thorough look at trends and movements affecting the evolution of the American theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Theatre: An Introduction. 4th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979. In chapters 11 through 13, Brockett offers an excellent overview of historical trends in modern theater from 1915 through 1975.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Debusscher, Gilbert. Edward Albee: Tradition and Renewal. Translated by Anne D. Williams. Brussels, Belgium: Center for American Studies, 1969. Provides invaluable information about The American Dream and its influence on 1960’s theater in the United States in one short section.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hartnoll, Phyllis. The Concise History of Theatre. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968. Gives a synoptic view of major movements in the theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mann, Bruce J., ed. Edward Albee: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 2003. Anthology of Albee criticism, including a consideration of the specifically American nature of the playwright’s absurdism. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Edwin. The Theater Experience. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. Examines numerous aspects of the theater in a discussion that highlights various developments in staging, acting, directing, and playwriting. The book contains an excellent set of five appendixes, including “Major Theatrical Forms and Movements” and “Historical Outline.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woods, Porter. Experiencing Theatre. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1984. Along with a brief history of the theater, Woods provides information about various aspects of the theater, including actors, playwrights, designers, and directors.

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Ionesco’s Rhinoceros Receives a Resounding Worldwide Reception

Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London

Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd

Al-Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the Arab Stage

Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced

Categories: History