The Zoo Story Summary

  • Last updated on March 25, 2021
"infobox Book "
name The Zoo Story
image
image caption Black Rat Production cover
author Edward Albee
country United States
language English language
genre(s) Play
publisher Penguin Group
release date 1958
media type Paperback
pages 42
isbn
0698104188
The Zoo Story is a one-act play written by Edward Albee and published in 1958. The play was written in just three weeks.

Character Summaries

Peter

In his early forties, and quite general looking. He dresses like a younger man. He seems to have a regular life, and is quite well-off because of his job as a publishing executive.

Jerry

Younger than Peter. His is described as having a “great weariness” that has taken a toll on his physical appearance.

Plot Summary

The play is set on a Sunday afternoon in summer, in Central Park. The stage is set with two benches that both face the audience, and trees and foliage behind them. The play starts with Peter sitting on one of the benches reading, and Jerry enters the scene.

Jerry initiates a conversation with Peter by telling him he’s just been to the zoo. Peter at first isn’t paying much attention to this stranger, so Jerry repeats himself. He then asks Peter what direction he’s been walking in, and if he’s actually been walking north or not.

Peter assures Jerry he has been walking north. Jerry then points out that if Peter keeps smoking, he’ll get lung cancer, but Peter says that he won’t get lung cancer from smoking a pipe. To this, Jerry replies that Peter will instead get cancer of the mouth, and will have to wear a prosthetic jaw.

Jerry is impressed by Peter’s vocabulary, and asks if he’s a doctor. Peter says he isn’t, and that he only knows what a prosthesis is because he read about it in a magazine at one point.

Jerry continues the conversation by telling Peter he doesn’t like the west side of Central Park, but that he doesn’t know why. He then asks Peter if he minds having a conversation, and Peter, who does in fact mind, says it’s not a problem. Jerry then asks if Peter is sure it isn’t a problem, and Peter replies no.

The conversation drifts to topics such as the pleasant day, and the nice sky. Jerry then repeats his earlier statement about having been to the zoo, and cryptically tells Peter that “you’ll read about it in the papers tomorrow, if you don’t see it on your TV tonight.”

Jerry then asks Peter a bit about his family, and Peter reveals he has a wife and children. Jerry asks him if he wants more, and Peter says no. Jerry replies that he thought Peter would say that, because of “the way you cross your legs, perhaps; something in the voice. Or maybe I’m just guessing.”

Peter then turns the conversation back to the zoo, wondering what it is Jerry did that will make the news. Jerry says he’ll talk about it soon, but first he wants to ask Peter some questions. He tells Peter that he doesn’t often talk to people, but when he finds someone he really likes to talk to, he wants to get to know all about them.

He asks Peter if he has any pets, telling him he “looks like an animal man”. Peter says he doesn’t have any cats or dogs, only some pet birds that his daughters own.

The conversation then turns to Peter’s job, where he reveals he is an executive at a publishing house, making a good amount of money. Jerry then asks where he lives, and Peter seems reluctant at first but then tells Jerry.

He then tells Jerry that this conversation is a bit strange, because it’s just Jerry asking questions. Jerry then says something strange, “wait until you see the expression on his face.” Peter is confused by this, and asks Jerry if it has something to do with the zoo. Jerry doesn’t really answer the question, he just asks Peter what he thinks the dividing line between upper-middle-middle-class and lower-upper-middle-class is. Peter doesn’t answer this, he just apologizes for seemingly being patronizing. Jerry says that he was intentionally being patronizing.

Jerry asks about Peter’s favourite writers, but Peter seems to find the question difficult to answer. Jerry tells him to skip it, and then mentions again that he has been to the zoo that day, and that he “walked all the way up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square; all the way.”

Peter assumes that this means Jerry lives in the Village, but Jerry says he doesn’t. He took a subway to the Village just so he could walk up Fifth Avenue to the zoo, because “it’s one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.” He then says that Peter was just trying to make sense of Jerry. He then tells Peter about his actual living arrangements, which are pretty meagre, and describes all of the things he owns.

Peter asks why Jerry would live in such a bad place, but Jerry seems to have a very lonely life – evinced by the empty picture frames he describes owning. Jerry then tells Peter about how his parents are dead now, along with his aunt.

Jerry then, at this point, formally introduces himself. He continues speaking, now talking about how there’s no point of having a girl’s picture, especially in a frame, because “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.”

Jerry then explains that he’s not able to have sex with someone more than once, and then says that when he was fifteen, for a week and a half he was gay.

Peter says it all seems simple to him, and Jerry suddenly gets angry, asking him if Peter’s going to tell him to settle down and get married. Peter replies that he isn’t, that it’s not his business what Jerry does with his life.

Jerry then resumes the conversation, asking Peter’s opinion about pornographic playing cards. Peter says he had a pack as a teenager, but he didn’t need them when he got older. He also doesn’t really want to talk about sex with Jerry. Jerry replies that he “wasn’t trying to pull your post-adolescent sexual life and hard times”, merely that he was trying to “get at … 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.”

He then tells Peter about what happened at the zoo. However, he then starts describing his landlady, in very negative terms. He says that the landlady is interested in him sexually, but that he finds her repulsive, and has to try each day to fend off her advances. The landlady has a big black dog, and Jerry then launches into a long story about it, promising Peter that he’ll tell him the story of the zoo after the story of the dog.

Jerry says that this story will explain why he thinks it’s sometimes necessary “to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly”, and that this story explains why he went to the zoo. He describes the dog as a big, black monster, which is very old and very disgusting. He then says that animals don’t seem to like him all that much, that they are quite indifferent to him, just like people.

However, this big black dog isn’t indifferent towards him, it would snarl at him and try to attack him. He tells Peter that for a week, the dog would attack him when he went into his house, but not when he went out of it, and that it seemed to be happening only to him. Jerry then says that he made up his mind to either kill the dog with kindness or just straight-up kill it dead.

He tried to give the dog hamburger meat, but it didn’t do anything to soften the dog towards him. He then decides to kill the dog by putting rat poison in a hamburger patty and feeding it to the dog. The dog ate the poisoned patty and became very ill. The dog stopped attacking him, and the landlady stopped accosting him. After the dog became ill, the landlady told Jerry that God had made the dog sick, and asked him to pray for the dog, but then says that Jerry probably wanted the do to die. Jerry says that he now didn’t want the dog to die, because it being ill had changed his relationship with the landlady and he wanted to see what would happen.

Throughout this speech, Peter has become increasingly annoyed.

The dog ends up recovering, and the landlady returns to her former self. Jerry then says that upon the dog becoming better, he looked forward to a confrontation with it. When they do see each other again, Jerry and the dog seem to make some sort of connection, and he comes to love the dog, and he wants the dog to love it.

This speech seems to hypnotize Peter by this point.

Jerry then says that “if you can’t deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS!” He seems to becoming unhinged as he speaks. He continues this thought, saying that “a person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING.” And then he rambles on about this point, becoming increasingly frantic, until he finishes his story and seems exhausted. He finally sits down on the bench next to Peter.

Peter is disturbed by what he has heard. He doesn’t understand what Jerry has told him, nor why. Jerry says it’s a lie that he doesn’t understand, and Peter says he really doesn’t understand it and certainly doesn’t want to hear any more.

Jerry then seems to become annoyed, saying that of course Peter doesn’t understand, their lives are so different. He says “I suppose you don’t quite know what to make of me, eh?” Peter tries to make a joke, but Jerry seems annoyed still. He then asks Peter if he annoys or confuses him, and Peter replies truthfully that he wasn’t expecting an afternoon such as this.

Peter then says he has to leave, but Jerry says he should stay a bit longer. He then starts tickling Peter, who is very ticklish.

Jerry then finally explains why he went to the zoo, that he “went to the zoo to find out more about the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other, and with people too.” At this point, he starts asking Peter to move over on the bench, to the point where Peter is about to fall off of it. This happens as Jerry is telling a story about seeing the lions and all of the other animals at the zoo. He punches Peter’s arm a few times, continuing to tell Peter to move. Peter then asks what’s wrong with him, and Jerry replies “I’m crazy, you bastard.”

Jerry then tells  Peter to go and sit on the other bench, and only then will he continue the rest of the story. Peter once again asks what the matter with Jerry is, and that he won’t give up the bench because he doesn’t see any reason to move.

Jerry then says “get off this bench, Peter; I want it.” Peter refuses, and Jerry continues saying that Peter must move. The two men continue to argue over the bench. The argument escalates, with Jerry calling Peter an imbecile and a vegetable, and Peter still refusing to move, claiming the bench as his. Jerry punches Peter again, and Peter screams at Jerry to go away, that he will get a policeman to make Jerry move.

Jerry says Peter won’t be able to summon a policeman, as they are all on the western side of the park. Peter continues trying to call for the police anyway. Jerry continues to taunt him, to the point where Peter is nearly crying.

Peter screams at Jerry to “GET AWAY FROM MY BENCH!” but Jerry says why should he, when Peter already has everything in the world, why should he get the bench too? Is a bench what men really fight for?

Jerry then says that this confrontation with him is probably the most difficult thing Peter has ever had to face, and that he has no idea what other people need. Peter says that he’s been coming here for years, that he has “hours of great pleasure, great satisfaction” reading on the bench, and Jerry has no right to take it away from him.

Jerry then challenges Peter to a fight, telling him to defend the bench. Peter agrees to the fight, saying that Jerry has goaded him into it. Jerry takes out a knife, and at first Peter is horrified, thinking Jerry means to kill him. However, Jerry then throws the knife at Peter’s feet, telling him they must be evenly matched.

The taunts from Jerry continue. He tells Peter to not only fight for this bench, but to fight for everything in his life. He constantly challenges Peter’s manhood. Peter warns Jerry one more time to leave, and holds the knife out in front of himself defensively.

Jerry then sighs, and impales himself on Peter’s knife. Peter is horrified. As Jerry dies, his expression seems relaxed. He thanks Peter, saying that he’d been afraid that Peter would leave him. He tells Peter he will tell him what happened at the zoo. At the zoo he decided he would walk northerly until he found someone to talk to, and that somehow he was able to plan this. He then says that now Peter knows what he’ll see on TV.

As Jerry dies, he tells Peter to go, and that Peter won’t be coming back here. He tells Peter that even though he’s lost his bench, he’s defended his honour, and that he’s “not really a vegetable”, he’s an “animal”. He tells Peter “take your book … right here … beside me … on your bench … my bench, rather.”

Categories: Plays
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