The American Dream

The American Dream Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Edward Albee's The American Dream. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Edward Albee

Born in Virginia and adopted shortly thereafter into the wealthy Albee family, Edward Albee never felt fully at home in his adoptive family. As he bounced from school to school throughout his teens, racking up expulsions from military academies and private schools around the country, he struggled against authority. He ultimately graduated from the prestigious high school Choate Rosemary Hall, but at Trinity College in Connecticut, he was expelled again. Albee moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, a bohemian epicenter of arts and culture, where he began composing plays which criticized American society. Albee, though openly homosexual, never considered himself a gay writer but rather “a writer who happen[ed] to be gay.” Nevertheless, his plays often exposed and lampooned the dark side of traditional heterosexual unions and the simmering unrest just below the surface of the idyllic American family. His best-known works include the 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which has endured as a hallmark of contemporary American theater, as well as The Zoo Story, Three Tall Women, and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Albee was the winner of numerous awards including the 1963 and 2002 Tony Awards for Best Play, the 1967, 1975, and 1994 Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, and a 1996 National Medal of Arts. Albee died in 2016 in his home in Montauk, NY. With lifetime achievement awards from the Lambda Literary Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Drama Desk Awards, and the Tony Awards, Albee remains, indisputably, one of the seminal and foundational voices in modern American theater.
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Historical Context of The American Dream

In the early 1960s, the world was on the verge of great upheaval, poised on the brink of a series of sexual and social revolutions that would reverberate from New York and San Francisco to London and Paris. In the post-World War II landscape, America was more prosperous than ever before—but at the same time, the destruction of the war and the ushering-in of nuclear warfare had left the country shaken by its own power. The American Dream throws into relief the dangers of obsession with youth, conformity, and perfection in the American nuclear family, showing how dangerous the pursuit of an imagined American ideal—one that did not actually exist—would be. The play is a cautionary tale against the romanticizing of constructed “American” values, but it’s also a deeply personal story—the disjointed family; the absent, mutilated child at the heart of the story; and the character of The Young Man buckling under pressure to embody ideals of youth, virility, and patriotism while privately dealing with unspeakable emotional turmoil all point to Albee’s painful childhood and adolescence. His adoptive parents were distant and domineering—by many accounts, even cruel—and their stodgy, stuffy “old American” values, ties to the Revolutionary War, and upper-class lifestyle ultimately pushed Albee to rebel against the traditional path laid out for him. 

Other Books Related to The American Dream

Edward Albee’s The American Dream is part of the post-World War II movement called “Theatre of the Absurd.” Meant to highlight the staggering inequities and absurdities in global society, plays associated with this artistic movement use hyperreal (or surreal) settings, characters, and situations to examine the breakdown of human society. Many of the plays that were developed as part of the movement remain iconic and relevant in world theatre today, and they are frequently revived and reexamined in a contemporary context. These plays include Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Waiting for Godot, Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros, and plays by Jean Genet (The Maids), Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), and Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party). Theater of the Absurd stretches forward and backward in time as well—many identify Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi as the first major “absurdist” play, and many playwrights still working today, including Sarah Ruhl and Caryl Churchill, explore the “absurd” though their experimental dramas. 
Key Facts about The American Dream
  • Full Title: The American Dream
  • When Written: Early 1960s
  • Where Written: New York, NY
  • Literary Period: Postwar/Theatre of the Absurd
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: America
  • Climax: Grandma tells Mrs. Barker a horrifying story which reveals that Mommy and Daddy mutilated their adopted child until it died.
  • Protagonist/Antagonist: Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma are the play’s main characters, and also one another’s foils and antagonists.

Extra Credit for The American Dream

Mommy Dearest. The key to understanding the dreamlike and convoluted play The American Dream may lie in Albee’s own personal history. Albee is rumored to have based the character of Mommy on his own adoptive mother, the “tall and imposing” Frances Cotter Abee, from whom he was estranged for most of his life.

Repetition. Edward Albee’s 1959 play The Sandbox also features four characters named Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, and The Young Man. The setting is different—the characters rotate around a large pit of sand while directly addressing the audience about the rifts in their family—but the characters’ relationships to one another are much the same, and the play’s absurdist setting and themes were further teased out in The American Dream.