The American Dream


Edward Albee

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Mommy and Daddy sit opposite one another in large armchairs in the living room of their apartment. They are awaiting the arrival of handymen and remark upon their lateness. Mommy laments how “people think they can get away with anything these days.” Mommy tells a story about going out to buy a beige hat the previous day, and Daddy listens without interest. When she ran into the chairman of the woman’s club on the street, the chairman complimented Mommy’s wheat-colored hat. Mommy returned to the store, livid that the salespeople had lied to her about the color of the hat, and demanded they give her one that was actually beige—but now she acknowledges that they probably just took the hat into the back room and returned with the same one, pulling the wool over her eyes twice. Daddy says, “That’s the way things are today,” and both he and Mommy resignedly admit that no one can ever get any real satisfaction.

Grandma, Mommy’s mother, enters the living room with her arms piled high with finely-wrapped boxes. Mommy and Daddy ask what the boxes contain and whom they’re for, but Grandma insists it’s none of their business. Grandma dumps the boxes at Daddy’s feet and complains that no one is coming to fix the toilet. Daddy apologizes, and says he knows Grandma is in discomfort—he can hear her “whimpering” in the bathroom at night. Grandma and Mommy chide Daddy for speaking so callously, and Grandma begins talking about how horribly people treat the elderly these days. She leaves the room to get more boxes. Mommy reminisces about how poor she and Grandma used to be and expresses how grateful she is that she married Daddy, who has allowed her and Grandma to finally feel rich. Grandma returns with more boxes, again dumping them at Daddy’s feet before continuing her diatribe about how mistreated the elderly are. Grandma also accuses Mommy of being a “tramp and a trollop” who only married Daddy for his money. Mommy says she wishes she could “get rid” of Grandma by putting her in a nursing home. Her frustration mounting, Mommy wonders aloud where the people they’re expecting could be. Grandma asks who’s coming, but Mommy refuses to answer her. To distract Grandma, she compliments how nicely wrapped the boxes are. Grandma sighs and says that though wrapping the boxes hurt her fingers, it had to be done. When Mommy asks why, Grandma echoes Mommy’s earlier refusal to answer her own question, and says it’s none of her business.

The doorbell rings, and Mommy excitedly urges Daddy to answer the door. Daddy, though, seems hesitant and even fearful about letting whoever is on the other side of the door in. Mommy urges him to be “masculine and decisive” and open the door; Daddy, spurred on by the compliment, gets up and answers the door. Mrs. Barker breezes into the living room. Daddy asks her to come back another time, but Mrs. Barker refuses to leave. Mrs. Barker comments on how “unattractive” the apartment is. It’s clear that Mrs. Barker is there to perform some kind of service for Mommy and Daddy, but she won’t reveal what it is. Mommy and Daddy seem confused by her presence, and Mrs. Barker clarifies that she’s the chairman of the woman’s club. Mrs. Barker too, though, seems unable to deduce why she’s come to the apartment, and she asks if Mommy and Daddy would like her to clear away Grandma’s boxes. Grandma tries to speak up, but Mommy hushes her. She offers to explain the purpose of the boxes—and Mrs. Barker’s visit—but Mommy won’t let her speak. Grandma urges Mommy to let her speak, as the elderly are wiser than she thinks—and make up “ninety per cent of the adult population of the world.” Mommy, convinced Grandma is getting bad information from the television in her room, sends Daddy upstairs to break Grandma’s television. Mommy steps into the kitchen to get Mrs. Barker a glass of water, leaving Mrs. Barker and Grandma alone in the living room.

Mrs. Barker tells Grandma how lost and confused she feels, but Grandma tells Mrs. Barker she’s been “here” before—not in this exact apartment, but in the presence of Mommy and Daddy. Mrs. Barker asks Grandma to tell her about the last time they all met, and Grandma demands Mrs. Barker beg her. Mrs. Barker begs, and Grandma begins telling a story. Long ago, a man and a woman “very much like” Mommy and Daddy lived in an apartment “very much like” this one and befriended a local woman “very much like” Mrs. Barker, who worked at the Bye-Bye Adoption Service. Mommy and Daddy bought a “bumble of joy” from the agency and brought it home—but as the baby grew and developed, it did things they didn’t like. When the baby cried all night, they cut its tongue out. When the baby only had eyes for its Daddy, its Mommy gouged its eyes out. When the baby got older and began touching its “you-know-what,” Mommy and Daddy severed the baby’s hands and genitals. One day, the baby died, and Mommy and Daddy demanded their funds back from the adoption agency, as the baby hadn’t helped them feel “satisfaction.” Mommy and Daddy shout from the other room—they can’t find the things they went into the other rooms to get. Mommy returns to the living room and asks Mrs. Barker to accompany her into the kitchen. Mrs. Barker, disturbed by Grandma’s story, follows Mommy.

The doorbell rings again, and Grandma shouts that the door is open. A handsome Young Man walks into the apartment—Grandma asks if he’s “the van man” who has come to take her away to a nursing home, but The Young Man admits he doesn’t know why he’s come. Grandma admires The Young Man’s classic, “midwestern” good looks, and dubs him “the American Dream.” The Young Man says he’s looking for work—he’ll do anything that pays, but he admits that he has no discernible talents. The Young Man says he is incomplete, and has been most of his life. He tells Grandma a horrible story: he was separated from his identical twin brother at birth, and though the two never saw one another again, The Young Man suffered periodic “agon[ies]” and eventually lost all physical and emotional feeling. Now, he is capable of only “cool disinterest”—he feels nothing, loves no one, and can’t perform sexually, though he lets people use him for his body in exchange for cash. Grandma says she’ll hire The Young Man, but doesn’t tell him what his duties will be.

Mrs. Barker returns to the living room, saying she’s unable to find Mommy or Daddy anywhere. Mrs. Barker asks who The Young Man is, but Grandma doesn’t answer her—instead, she orders The Young Man to begin taking her boxes outside. The Young Man scoops up an armful and carries them out the front door. Grandma tells Mrs. Barker to come closer—she knows how she can find a “way out.” Grandma whispers a secret in Mrs. Barker’s ear, and Mrs. Barker applauds Grandma’s wonderful idea. Mrs. Barker goes out of the room, calling for Mommy and Daddy. The Young Man finishes putting Grandma’s boxes outside and asks what he should do next. Grandma tells him to help her outside and to then return to the living room and stay put. The Young Man helps Grandma outside.

Mrs. Barker, Mommy, and Daddy return to the living room. Mommy wonders where all of Grandma’s boxes are, and Mrs. Barker tells her that “the van man” came to take Grandma away. Mommy grows hysterical and begins calling for Grandma. Grandma, from offstage, peeks her head into the living room and tells the audience how much she’s enjoying watching Mommy cry. The Young Man reenters the living room, and Mrs. Barker presents him as a “surprise” for Mommy and Daddy. She reminds them that they’ve always wanted a “bumble” to bring them “satisfaction.” Mommy and Daddy appraise The Young Man and tell Mrs. Barker how impressed they are with him—he’s “much better than the other one.” The Young Man fetches glasses and wine from the living room so that they can all toast his arrival, but when he returns, he has an extra glass for Grandma. Mommy, seemingly having forgotten Grandma, asks why there’s an extra glass. The Young Man apologizes for miscounting. Mommy raises a toast “to satisfaction,” and seductively volunteers to tell The Young Man all about the other “bumble” later on that evening. She says there’s something familiar about him—something she can’t place. Grandma steps out into the middle of the stage and, directly addressing she audience, says it’s important for the play to end now—while it’s still a “comedy,” and “while everybody’s got what he thinks he wants.”