In the living room of a quintessential American home, Mommy and Daddy—a married couple in their middle age—sit together in their armchairs. They wonder what can be keeping “them”—they are expecting guests who are late. Daddy doesn’t seem surprised by their guests’ lateness, and neither does Mommy. Daddy says “that’s the way things are today,” and Mommy agrees. Daddy complains that long ago, when the two of them signed the lease on this apartment, “they” were “quick enough” to collect his money, but now that Mommy and Daddy are tenants, they can’t get help fixing the icebox or the doorbell or the toilet. Mommy laments that “people think they can get away with anything these days… and, of course they can.”
Mommy and Daddy have several complaints about the way society is run lately. They seem to remove themselves from these complaints—their family isn’t the problem, only other people. The hypocrisy at the heart of a sentiment like this is one of the major driving forces behind Mommy and Daddy’s characters, and the play as a whole.
Mommy begins telling Daddy a story about going out to buy a new hat the previous day, but Daddy is clearly not paying attention. Mommy orders him to pay attention to her and listen to her story, and he swears he’s “all ears.” Mommy restarts her story and talks about going to buy a new hat, but rejecting all the colorful hats the saleswomen at the shop showed her. She pauses her story to check and make sure Daddy is listening by quizzing him on what she’s just said. Once she’s satisfied that he’s been paying attention, she continues, and urges him to keep listening.
Mommy’s narcissistic obsession with the importance and value of her own stories stands in stark contrast against her husband’s near-total indifference to what she has to say. What’s more, it’s obvious that he’s not really paying attention, but Mommy doesn’t care—she only cares that he puts on a show of listening, which hints at the play’s argument about the superficial nature of “perfect” families.
Mommy says that the salespeople finally showed her a “lovely little hat” she did like. When she asked what color it was called, the salespeople replied that the hat was beige, and Mommy bought it. Mommy then walked out of the store wearing the hat on her head, and ran into the chairman of the woman’s club on the street—the woman whose husband is in a wheelchair. The chairman complimented Mommy’s “wheat-colored hat.” Mommy insisted that the hat was beige, but the chairman laughed and insisted it was wheat before suggesting that the salespeople at the store “put one over” on Mommy. Mommy states what a “dreadful woman” the chairman is.
The strange story Mommy tells about her hat shopping introduces the play’s absurdist bent—and also shows just how shallow and self-obsessed Mommy is. There’s hardly a difference between “beige” and “wheat,” but the idea that she’s been slighted or shortchanged somehow angers Mommy tremendously and triggers her cruel remarks towards the chairman.
Mommy says that she returned to the hat shop to complain that they’d sold her a “beige” hat when really it was wheat-colored. Mommy blamed the “artificial light” in the shop, made a “terrible scene,” and demanded the salespeople bring her a truly beige hat. After the salespeople retrieved one from the back of the store, Mommy went outside to check the new hat in the natural light, determined it was beige, and bought it. Daddy clears his throat and suggests that the salespeople simply sold Mommy the same hat they’d sold her originally, and Mommy laughs and says that “of course” they did just that. Daddy laments that “that’s the way things are today,” and says that one can never get any real “satisfaction.” Mommy protests that she did get satisfaction at the hat shop, and Daddy agrees that she did.
Even as Mommy tells her story, Daddy points out how absurd the entire structure of it is. The miniscule difference between “beige” and “wheat” and the idea that in the end, Mommy willingly allowed the salespeople to not once but twice pull the wool over her eyes shows that it’s not about correctness for Mommy—it’s about power. Her victory here is clearly an empty one, which suggests how impossible the “satisfaction” of the American dream more broadly really is.
Mommy asks why “they” are so late, and Daddy complains that he’s been trying to get the leak in the toilet fixed for two weeks. Mommy says it’s a shame that while she can get satisfaction, Daddy cannot. Daddy says he doesn’t want the toilet fixed for his sake, but for Grandma’s. Mommy sadly states that Grandma cries lately every time she goes to the bathroom, because the worsening leak makes her “think she’s getting feeble-headed.” Daddy reiterates that they must have the leak fixed soon. Mommy, exasperated, wonders aloud why “they” are so late—Daddy retorts that when they “first” came to the apartment, they were actually early.
The idea of “satisfaction” figures hugely in Mommy and Daddy’s strange, fractured relationship. Both of them struggle to feel satisfied in their lives, in their marriage, and in their home—and yet they maintain that the satisfaction they desire is just within reach. Albee’s making a comment on the self-delusion that goes into maintaining an American family and pursuing “the American dream.”
Grandma enters the living room from the hallway, carrying many “neatly wrapped and tied” boxes of various sizes. Mommy asks Grandma what she’s carrying, and Grandma replies that they’re exactly what they look like—they’re boxes. Grandma asks where she should put them. Mommy asks what they’re for, but Grandma replies that “that’s nobody’s damn business.” Mommy suggests Grandma put the boxes down next to Daddy, and Grandma promptly dumps them on and at Daddy’s feet. One they’ve all fallen, she tells Daddy she wishes he’d get the toilet fixed. Daddy says he wishes “they” would come to fix it—he and Mommy, he says, often hear Grandma “whimpering” when she uses it.
This passage introduces both the character of Grandma and the play’s central symbol—her boxes. Grandma and the boxes both represent the ways in which American society tries to erase its own past, or willfully forget its history. No one pays attention to Grandma’s wisdom, symbolized in physical form by the boxes she has carefully wrapped (perhaps to make the hard truths contained within them more palatable) and is now trying to literally dump on Mommy and Daddy.
Mommy chides Daddy for saying such a “terrible” thing to Grandma, and Daddy apologizes. Grandma says she’s going to get the rest of the boxes. Before leaving the room, she states that she probably “deserve[s]” to be talked to in such a way—everyone talks to old people “that way.” Daddy apologizes again. Grandma says it’s important for people to be sorry—when people apologize, those they’re apologizing to have their “sense of dignity” restored. Without a sense of dignity, Grandma believes, civilization is doomed.
Grandma is fully aware of how Mommy and Daddy are always trying to hush her up, disregard her, and strip away both her dignity and autonomy. She tries to warn them of what they’re doing, and what effect their actions might have—but they do not listen to her. By referring to civilization more broadly, Albee hints that this kind of cruel, complacent behavior isn't just an interpersonal problem; it’s one that affects the fate of the entire world.
The elderly, Grandma says, are subject to horrible mistreatment. People snap at elderly people, she says, and so the old become deaf so they don’t have to hear other people talking to them so cruelly, or otherwise they take to their beds in order to retreat from the world. Grandma shuffles off to get the rest of the boxes.
Grandma is angry about the way she’s treated, but she nonetheless resigns herself to being spoken to and handled in such a cruel way by her own family members. She even attempts to joke about how bad the elderly have it—this will become important later, when Grandma is revealed to have been attempting to preserve the comedic aspects of the play in spite of mounting misery and doom.
Daddy once again says he feels sorry for Grandma, and is sad to have hurt her. Mommy brushes Grandma’s speech off, insisting the woman is senile and “doesn’t know what she means.”
Daddy has some qualms about how he’s treating Grandma, revealing that there’s some kind of moral conscience within him—but Mommy steamrolls right over him.
Daddy points out how nicely Grandma has wrapped the boxes. Mommy says that Grandma has always wrapped boxes nicely—when Mommy was a little girl, the two of them were left very poor after Grandma’s husband died. Grandma used to wrap a box of lunch for Mommy every day; Mommy took the box to school, but never opened it when the other children opened theirs. The box was full of leftovers from dinner the night before, but Mommy wanted to forgo eating them herself and bring them back home to Grandma. Grandma used to love eating “day-old cake.”
Mommy is aware of her roots, and she remembers just how poor she and Grandma once were. She even speaks nostalgically about the many sacrifices Grandma made for her, and the things they did for each other so that the other could survive. This passage is a bit out-of-character for the self-absorbed Mommy—but its purpose is to show that for all her willful amnesia about certain parts of her past, Mommy is aware of who she is, where she comes from, and what she’s doing. She’s also experienced something of the positive aspects of family life, but in the present, she’s so fixated on maintaining a “perfect” life that she completely disregards Grandma’s genuine love for her. Through Mommy’s attitude here, Albee makes the point that fixating on having an ideal nuclear family will only destroy the bonds that do exist.
Mommy remembers that all the other children at school always thought she wouldn’t open her lunchbox because it was empty, and she was embarrassed—the other children believed she “suffered from the sin of pride.” They believed themselves better than Mommy, and so always generously shared their own lunches with her. Mommy expresses gratitude that though she used to be very poor, ever since she married Daddy she’s been “very rich”—and even Grandma gets to “feel rich.”
After a brief moment of almost benevolent nostalgia, Mommy slides once again into open greed and self-interest. She sees Daddy not as a partner, but as a host she can leech off of in order to sate her superficial dreams of being wealthy and powerful.
Mommy says she wishes she could put Grandma in a nursing home—she “can’t stand” watching the old woman do all of the cooking and cleaning around the house. Daddy points out that Grandma likes to do these things, since they keep her moving and make her feel like she’s “earn[ing] her keep.” Mommy points out how selfless she was in only bringing along Grandma to live off Daddy after their marriage—most women, she says, would have brought along her their whole families. Daddy says he feels “very fortunate.”
Mommy brought Grandma to live with her and Daddy so that Grandma could “feel rich”—Mommy wanted to feel good about doing someone a favor. Now, though, Mommy hates being reminded of her past. Albee is commenting on the tug-of-war between nostalgia and amnesia when it comes to American history, and the failures of American society.
Mommy keeps talking, describing how she has a “right” to live off of Daddy’s money, considering she often used let him “get on top of [her] and bump [his] uglies.” Mommy seems to be looking forward to the day Daddy dies, so she and Grandma can inherit all of his money and live by themselves—unless someone puts Grandma in a nursing home before that. Daddy says he has no plans to put Grandma in a nursing home, and Mommy exclaims that she wishes “somebody would do something” with the woman. Daddy tells Mommy to be grateful that she’s “well provided for.” Mommy calls Daddy her “sweet Daddy,” and Daddy says he “love[s his] Mommy.”
Albee is lampooning the destructive but codependent relationship between Mommy and Daddy—and, by extension, the flaws in the foundations of all American families. Mommy and Daddy’s behavior with one another is odious—they infantilize one another, debase one another, and openly air their cruelties and flaws while purporting to love one another. It’s also telling that they fixate on using the familial names “Mommy” and “Daddy,” even though at this point in the play, there’s no sign that they have any children; the names are themselves another form of artifice.
Grandma comes back into the living room carrying more boxes. Again, she dumps them all at Daddy’s feet, and then she says that’s all of them. Daddy remarks how nicely they’re wrapped, but Grandma replies that after his comment about her “whimper[ing,]” he’s going to have a hard time getting back on her good side. Mommy chides Grandma for talking that way, but Grandma yells at Mommy to “shut up.” Grandma accuses Daddy of having no feelings or empathy. She explains that old people make “all sorts of noises,” and often can’t help them.
Grandma, Mommy, and Daddy are trapped in a circular spiral of resentment. Grandma hates Mommy and Daddy for ignoring and undermining her, and does things to try to get them to notice her, while Daddy sheepishly tries to keep the peace and Mommy continues stoking discord. In a way, they present a twisted version of idealized family bonds; they’re very closely connected to one another, but these family ties bring only pain.
Daddy says he’s sorry again, and Grandma accepts his apology—she says she knows Mommy is the one who “makes all the trouble.” She tells Daddy he never should have married Mommy, who used to be “a tramp and a trollop” and hasn’t improved with age. She tells Daddy that even when Mommy was a little girl of eight, she used to talk about her dreams of marrying “a [r]ich old man.” Grandma says she warned Daddy about Mommy and “her type.” Mommy, hysterical, begs Grandma to stop, reminding her that she’s her mother, not Daddy’s—Grandma asks how someone as old as her could be expected to remember such a thing.
Grandma is not on her daughter’s side, not in the least—she openly hates not just who her daughter has become, but seemingly who she’s been all along. Grandma seems to have much more sympathy for her son-in-law than she does her own daughter, showing that Grandma’s moral center isn’t easily swayed. She’s willing to stand up to anyone to expose the cracks in the foundation, even her own flesh and blood—and even if those cracks extend back to Mommy’s own childhood being raised by Grandma.
Mommy tells Grandma that she’s ashamed of her. Grandma retorts that Mommy should’ve “gotten rid” of her “a long time ago” if that’s how she feels, and had Daddy put her in a home or set her up with a business somewhere far away. Grandma says that Mommy always wanted her around so that she could sleep in Grandma’s room “when Daddy got fresh.” Grandma says she thinks that now, Daddy’s the one who’d like to sleep with her. Mommy insists that Daddy, who’s been “sick,” doesn’t want to sleep with anyone. Daddy confirms Mommy’s statement, and says that he doesn’t even want to sleep in the apartment—he just wants to “get everything over with.”
The constant tension between Mommy’s and Daddy’s desire to send Grandma away and Grandma’s insistence upon staying is about to come to a head. Grandma’s preparation of the boxes suggests she’s packing up to leave—and as the play progresses, Albee will explore what has brought Grandma to the point where she actively wants to get out of the apartment rather than stay in her daughter’s den of lies any longer.
Mommy, as if reminded that they’re expecting people, asks where “they” could be and why “they” are so late. Grandma asks “who” is coming, but Mommy replies that she already knows. Grandma protests that she genuinely doesn’t, but Mommy retorts that it “doesn’t really matter.” She redirects the conversation, pointing out again “how pretty” the boxes Grandma wrapped are. Grandma says that she hated wrapping the boxes—doing so hurt her fingers and “frightened” her, but nevertheless “it had to be done.” Mommy asks why it had to be done, but Grandma says it’s none of Mommy’s business.
Mommy cycles rapidly between open contempt for her mother and fawning, infantilizing kindness meant to distract Grandma. Grandma and Mommy are keeping things from one another, further destabilizing the foundation of their family as they attempt to play power games with each other.
Mommy tells Grandma to go to bed, and Grandma protests, saying she wants to stay in the sitting room and “watch.” Mommy again insists Grandma go to bed. Daddy interjects and urges Mommy to “let” Grandma stay up and “watch,” since it’s barely noon. Mommy softens and acquiesces, agreeing that Grandma can watch as long as she doesn’t say a word. Grandma says it won’t be a problem for her—“old people are very good at listening.”
Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma are momentarily distracted from their own drama by the reminder that something else is about to come into their space. The desire to “watch” something new unfold is Albee’s way of calling out the voyeuristic desires of his own audiences.
The doorbell rings, and Mommy joyously announces that “they” have arrived. Grandma asks if “the van people” are at the door to “take [her] away.” Daddy tells Grandma not to worry about such things, but Grandma replies that Daddy shouldn’t feel too comfortable—Mommy would have him “carted off too” and feel no remorse. Mommy tells Daddy to ignore Grandma and accuses Grandma of being ungrateful. The doorbell rings again. Mommy warns Grandma dangerously that she’ll “fix [her] wagon” and then orders Daddy to answer the door. Daddy is hesitant—he says that perhaps they should “talk about it some more.” The doorbell rings a third time, and yet Daddy doesn’t move to answer the door.
Daddy and Mommy know what’s on the other side of the door, but Grandma does not. This is one of the rare instances in the play where Grandma—the arbiter of history and the past—is more in the dark than her daughter and son-in-law. Whatever’s happening soon, Daddy is hesitant about it, but Mommy is excited.
Daddy says, once again, that he’d “like to talk […] some more” with Mommy about what’s going to happen. Mommy, though, tells him there’s no need—he has already been “masculine and decisive” and made up his mind. Mommy reassures Daddy that he was right—whatever is about to happen “has to be done.” Daddy asks Mommy to reassure him several more times that he was “firm” and “decisive” in making this decision, and begs her to confirm that his behavior in doing so was “really masculine.” Mommy fawningly says she “shivered and fainted” because of how masculine Daddy was.
Daddy doesn’t remember the process of making the decision about whatever’s going to happen in their home today—and he doesn’t really seem to care about remembering it. He only wants to be reassured that he was “masculine and decisive” when he made the decision. Albee is using Mommy and Daddy’s dysfunctional, shallow relationship in order to lampoon the ways in which many people of his time feared subversions of gender roles might play out.
The doorbell rings once more, and Daddy announces that he is going to answer the door. Mommy remarks “WHAT a masculine Daddy” he is. As Daddy approaches the door, though, he slows down, and wonders if they can send whoever’s at the door away. Mommy chides Daddy for “turning into jelly” and behaving like a “woman.” At this remark, Daddy bucks up and implores Mommy and Grandma both to watch him open the door. Mommy insists they’re watching, but Grandma says she isn’t, and looks away. Daddy opens the door, and Mrs. Barker walks into the living room. “Here they are,” Daddy announces triumphantly.
Daddy’s hesitation to allow outside forces into their home seems to symbolize his fear of letting other people see what his marriage, home, and family are truly like beneath the surface. Mommy, however, does what she always does: alternatingly compliments and berates Daddy, confusing him to the point at which he bends to her will.
Daddy urges Mrs. Barker to come in and make herself comfortable—though she’s late, he says, they were expecting her to be. Mommy urges Daddy not to be rude, and tells Mrs. Barker that they’ve been sitting around talking about how hard it is to “get satisfaction these days.” Mommy tells Mrs. Barker how happy they all are that she’s here, and asks if she remembers them—she was here once before.
The confusion in the atmosphere deepens with the arrival of Mrs. Barker. Mommy and Daddy seemed to be waiting on handymen coming to fix some things in their apartment, but the arrival of a friend and neighbor doesn’t seem to disorient or surprise Mommy and Daddy. This odd turn is perhaps the strongest hint yet that the idea of “the American dream” is full of dark twists.
Daddy asks Mrs. Barker if she could perhaps go away and “come back some other time,” but Mrs. Barker replies that “we’re much too efficient for that.” Mommy urges Grandma to say hello to “them.” Grandma insists she can’t see anyone. Mrs. Barker approaches Grandma and says “we’re here,” but Grandma again says she doesn’t recall having ever met Mrs. Barker.
Mrs. Barker’s strange referral to herself in the first-person plural shows that she’s part of an organization, though its origins and purpose remain mysterious. Grandma’s confusion—out of place, as she’s so often the only one with a clue about anything—deepens the mystery.
Daddy asks Mrs. Barker to sit down, and she does. Mommy offers her a cigarette and a drink, and asks if she’d like to “cross [her] legs.” Mrs. Barker refuses the drink and the cigarette, but crosses her legs. As she does so, she remarks upon what an “unattractive” apartment Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma live in. Daddy tells Mrs. Barker that he was just complaining to Mommy about all the things wrong with the place, and Mrs. Barker says she already knows—she was listening outside the whole time. She says she’s “very efficient,” and has to “know everything” in her line of work.
Mrs. Barker, Mommy, and Daddy trade snide aggressions, slights, and insults as they sit down together in the living room. Mrs. Barker seems to acknowledge that she is an actress in a play who has been waiting in the wings to make her entrance the entire time, but then she further deepens the mystery about who she is and what she does by making veiled references to her efficiency and line of work.
Mommy and Daddy ask Mrs. Barker what she does, and she replies that she is, obviously, the chairman of Mommy’s woman’s club. Mommy seems confused at first, but then agrees that Mrs. Barker is, indeed, the chairman. Mommy apologizes for not recognizing Mrs. Barker in the “artificial light” of the apartment. Mommy remarks that Mrs. Barker has a hat just like the one she herself bought the other day—Mrs. Barker laughs and says her hat is different, because it’s cream. Mommy tries to argue, but Mrs. Barker accuses Mommy of forgetting who she is. Mommy apologizes with great deference, and asks if Mrs. Barker is comfortable. She suggests she remove her dress. Mrs. Barker takes her dress off and remarks that she does indeed feel more comfortable in just her slip.
The trope of confusion and disorientation followed by obsequious agreement to avoid making a scene or rocking the boat will repeat itself throughout the play, forming an ongoing indictment of people’s tendency to gloss over things that are complex or difficult to understand. Mommy doesn’t want to seem like she’s not in the know, so she pretends to have realized who Mrs. Barker was all along—when clearly something is off.
Daddy says that he’s blushing and going “sticky wet.” Mrs. Barker says she wants to light up a cigarette, but Mommy says firmly that there’s no smoking in the house. She asks Mrs. Barker to tell her why she’s come over. As Mommy paces back and forth around the room she steps on several of Grandma’s neatly-wrapped boxes, agitating Grandma, who begins muttering about the boxes. Daddy asks Grandma if Mrs. Barker is here because of the boxes, but Grandma says that’s not what she meant.
Though Mommy just offered Mrs. Barker a cigarette a few moments ago, after Daddy expresses—with vulgarity and a lack of restraint—his sexual interest in Mrs. Barker, Mommy tells Mrs. Barker there’s no smoking allowed. This turn reveals their ostentatious hospitality to have been only an act—like much of their other interactions.
Mrs. Barker asks if she can assume that the family “had us come here for the boxes.” Mommy asks if Mrs. Barker often receives boxes. Mrs. Barker says that sometimes she receives baskets, but only receives boxes “under very special circumstances.” She apologizes for not being able to give the family a better answer. Daddy says it’s a very interesting answer, but Mommy laments that it doesn’t help them at all.
Mrs. Barker seems uncertain of why she—or the unseen, perhaps still-to-arrive members of her organization—have been called to Mommy and Daddy’s. The fact that everyone gathered is confused about what their purpose is points to the existential directionlessness in American society that Albee wants to call out.
Daddy says he’s feeling some “qualms.” Mommy asks where he’s feeling them, and he says he’s feeling them around where the stitches from a recent operation were. Mrs. Barker apologizes for not having been more sensitive towards Daddy. Grandma mutters that Mrs. Barker could have asked how Daddy was feeling. When Mommy tells her to “dry up,” Grandma remarks that “old people” are “dry enough.” She says no one listens to old people’s complaints “because people think that’s all old people do.”
The language of the play begins to devolve into a sort of free-association pattern. Daddy is feeling qualms not in his mind but in his body—and Mommy and Mrs. Barker begin discussing the surgery he recently had which might be contributing to his strange feeling. Grandma continues talking about the injustices the elderly face, but no one is, at this point, listening to her—her asides seem to be just for the audience.
Mrs. Barker asks Daddy what was wrong, but Daddy insists he just had a regular operation. Mrs. Barker tells Daddy he’s lucky. Mommy says that though Daddy has long been dreaming of being a Senator, he now wants to be a Governor, so that he can be closer to the apartment. Daddy says that things are okay now, except that he “get[s] these qualms now and then.”
Mrs. Barker says she has a younger brother who’s ambitious, just like Daddy. He runs a newspaper called The Village Idiot and has a wonderful sense of humor. Mrs. Barker says that her brother has a “dear little wife,” and often tells anyone who will listen all about her—he can hardly greet someone without mentioning that he’s married. Mommy and Daddy remark how lovely that is to hear, and Mrs. Barker says she thinks there’s “too much woman hatred” in America these days.
Through Mommy and Daddy’s relationship—and now through Mrs. Barker—Albee is making fun of society’s focus on preserving and raising up heterosexuality and unions between men and women. Even though couples like Mommy and Daddy clearly hate each other, and are in fact perhaps destabilizing society through that unfettered hatred, society nonetheless denigrates and demonizes other sexualities and other kinds of relationships.
Grandma tries to speak up and say something, but Mommy urges her to be quiet, and tells Mrs. Barker to ignore Grandma because she is “rural.” Daddy suggests Mommy let Grandma speak up, but Mommy says that “old people have nothing to say,” and even if they did, no one would listen. Grandma retorts that middle-aged people like Mommy and Daddy think they can do anything—but in reality, they can’t do anything as well as they used to.
Mommy continually aims to silence Grandma—but Grandma insists on speaking out and retaliating. Albee is personifying America’s past through Grandma and its present through Mommy and Daddy, and he uses the three of them to demonstrate the antagonism and self-hatred at the heart of both American society and the strict ideals of American families.
Daddy says he wishes he weren’t surrounded by women. Mrs. Barker seconds his opinion. Grandma speaks up and asks if, since she “hardly count[s] as a woman” anymore, she can say her piece. Mommy decides to let her. Grandma says that the boxes have nothing to do with why Mrs. Barker has come to call. Daddy seems to have trouble remembering Mrs. Barker’s name, and he asks her repeatedly to reiterate what she’s called. He asks why she’s here, and Mommy says, “because we asked them.” Grandma offers again to explain why the boxes are here, but Mommy snaps at her and tells her no one is interested in the boxes.
Things are devolving further and further. Even as Grandma tries to elucidate some of the mysteries within the home, Daddy and Mommy remain almost willfully confused or in the dark about what’s happening right under their noses as a result of actions they themselves have taken in the past. This complacency only makes their confusion more complete, and Albee uses them as an example of how such behavior will have absurd and destructive consequences.
Daddy yells for Grandma and Mommy to stop fighting. Mommy suggests Daddy call a van and have Grandma taken away—it’s too crowded in the apartment, and Grandma is taking up space with her many boxes. Grandma calls Mommy dull, and Mommy accuses Grandma of being ungrateful for all the things she and Daddy have done for her. Mommy tells Mrs. Barker that just the other night, Grandma called Daddy a “hedgehog.” Daddy urges Mommy to leave Grandma alone.
The family descends into sniping and chaos in front of their guest. Albee is showing how even though Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma may appear like a strong, united family unit, there are so many fissures within that they’ll lob any insult at each other and bring up any old grievance just to hurt one another.
Grandma says she knows why Mrs. Barker has come. Mrs. Barker says she wishes Grandma would tell her. Daddy says Mrs. Barker is here because he and Mommy “called them.” Mrs. Barker says she’s still “puzzled” by why she’s here, and needs some “help” figuring out what they need from her. Mommy says that they can’t give Mrs. Barker any help—not with “the way you can’t get satisfaction” these days.
A hallmark of absurdist theatre is, of course, confusion and absurdism. In bringing a group of characters together on stage and allowing them to admit they have no idea what they’re doing there, Albee is exposing theater and entertainment as artifice—and also symbolically pointing to the confusion and absurdism that mark American society.
Mrs. Barker calls Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma a “jolly” family. She says she’s been “knee-deep” in work lately with all her committees. Grandma asks if anyone has heard about the new figures which show that “ninety per cent of the adult population of the country is over eighty years old.” Mommy calls Grandma a liar and accuses her of getting bad information from television. Mommy tells Daddy to go upstairs and break Grandma’s television, and Daddy wearily goes out of the living room and heads upstairs. Grandma warns him he’ll never find the television.
Even though Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma are doing nothing but sniping, arguing, and bossing one another around, Mrs. Barker’s politeness and agreeability are so ingrained that she cheerfully comments on their “jolliness.” The obvious absurdity here suggests that all superficially “jolly” families might be just as broken beneath the surface.
Mommy remarks what a great husband she has—Daddy isn’t poor or argumentative or in a wheelchair. Mommy is instantly mortified by what she’s said and apologizes profusely, but Mrs. Barker forces a smile and tells Mommy not to worry about what she’s said. Mommy asks Mrs. Barker if she wants to have some “girl talk.” Mrs. Barker asks for a glass of water, and Mommy tells Grandma to get it, but Grandma refuses. Mommy threatens Grandma, telling her she’ll have her “taken away in a van,” but Grandma says she’s too old to be frightened. Mrs. Barker says she’s going to faint if she doesn’t have some water soon, and Mommy reluctantly gets up and exits the living room to go get her some.
Mommy’s cruelty and self-obsession are so profound and ingrained that she’s unable to be polite even in the presence of a guest. Mommy and Mrs. Barker are in many ways polar opposites—Mrs. Barker can’t seem to turn her politeness off, while Mommy can’t muster any at all. They are alike, however, in that they can’t figure out what their purpose is. Through these two, Albee suggests that neither selflessness nor self-interest is helpful in solving problems; only genuine engagement with real-world issues will make a difference.
Mrs. Barker and Grandma are alone in the living room. Mrs. Barker says she feels “lost” and has no clue why she’s here now—or why Mommy and Daddy insist that she’s been here before. Grandma says that she was here before—not this apartment exactly, but in Mommy and Daddy’s home. Mrs. Barker tells Grandma she believes she can trust her, and begs her to tell her why Mommy and Daddy “called and asked us to come.” Grandma remarks how good it feels to be begged for something, and tells Mrs. Barker to beg some more. Mrs. Barker begs.
Grandma is the only character in the play who seems to have any consciousness that stretches back into the past. As such, she’s tasked with reminding Mrs. Barker of why she’s here—and of the fact that she’s been here before. Grandma is so unused to anyone actually paying attention to the information she tries to share that she somewhat cruelly demands Mrs. Barker beg her for more, so that she can feel useful for the first time in a long time.
Grandma tells Mrs. Barker that the most she can do for her is give her a “hint.” She begins telling a story, and says that about twenty years ago, a man and woman “very much like” Mommy and Daddy lived in an apartment “very much like” this one with an old woman “very much like” Grandma herself. There was a local woman “very much like” Mrs. Barker who did lots of “Good Works,” including working as a volunteer at the Bye-Bye Adoption Service. One afternoon, Mommy and Daddy went to the agency asking to buy a “bumble of joy,” as they couldn’t have one on their own.
The terrible story Grandma begins to tell can, in the absurdist world, be taken literally. But on a symbolic level, Grandma is telling the story of three people whose greed, selfishness, and need for control has bound them together in a kind of purgatory. Mommy, Daddy, and Mrs. Barker once shared blame in the destruction of an innocent “bumble” in the name of making a perfect family—a crime which Albee, himself adopted by parents who he felt were always disappointed in him, cannot forgive.
The woman who was “very much like” Mrs. Barker, Grandma says, sold the married couple a “bumble” of their own—but things didn’t work out well for them, or the baby. Grandma glances out into the hall, and says she needs to speed up her story, because she’s going to be “leaving soon.” The bumble, Grandma continues, didn’t look like either of its parents, and it “cried its heart out” day and night. When the baby “only had eyes for its Daddy,” the baby’s mother gouged its eyes out. When the baby discovered its “you-know-what,” they cut off its genitals and then its hands. As Grandma tells the story, Mrs. Barker isn’t horrified or upset—rather she congratulates the parents in the story for how they handled their troublesome “bumble.”
Albee uses the story about the bumble to show how people like Mommy and Daddy—narcissistic, morally bankrupt individuals who think only of themselves and their present moment—can ruin the lives of others and destabilize the very foundation of America. Just as Mommy and Daddy have no regard for Grandma, who represents the past, they had no regard for their bumble, who represented the future. People like Mommy and Daddy don’t care about their country or their society, about human good or human suffering—they only care about themselves and maintaining their ideas of how things should be.
As the child grew older, it offended its parents more and more, and they continued to mutilate and neglect it. Eventually, the child “up and died,” and the parents resented the child for having gone and died after they’d paid for it. So, Grandma says, the parents called up the woman who “sold them” the bumble, demanding their money back, since they’d never gotten “satisfaction.”
Mommy and Daddy saw adopting as a child as a way to get “satisfaction,” just like Mommy saw buying a hat as a way to get satisfaction. They didn’t care about the child’s life—they only cared about their own pursuit of some invisible, impossible dream of happiness, a happiness that doesn’t actually exist.
As Grandma concludes her story, Daddy calls from upstairs and says that he can’t find the television. Mommy shouts back that she can’t find any water. Grandma laughs, muttering that she’d tried to warn them that everything was hidden. Daddy shouts that he can’t even find Grandma’s room. Mrs. Barker admires Grandma’s ability to hide things. Mommy comes back into the room and chides Grandma for being a “troublemaker,” but Grandma assuages her by telling Mommy that she’ll soon be “out of here.” Mommy says that she’s “sick and tired” of Grandma, and just might send her away in a van.
Mommy and Daddy want to stick their heads in the sand and hide from the mistakes of their past—so Grandma hides some things from them as a way of retaliating. It’s telling that she’s able to hide even something as obvious as an entire room; through these details Albee shows that ignoring some parts of reality will eventually make it impossible to perceive anything real at all.
Mommy tells Mrs. Barker to follow her into the kitchen to find a glass of water and get away from Grandma. Mrs. Barker tells Mommy she’s not being very polite to Grandma, but Mommy reminds Mrs. Barker that she’s a guest, and stalks off into the kitchen. After a moment alone with Grandma, Mrs. Barker tells Grandma it’s been nice talking with her, and stands up to go into the kitchen. Grandma asks Mrs. Barker not to tell Mommy about the “hint”—the grotesque story—Grandma has told her. Mrs. Barker replies that she won’t say anything—she’s still processing the story and thinking about whether it “applies to anything.” Mrs. Barker admits to being stunned by the parallels between the characters in the story and herself, Mommy, and Daddy, and says she’ll have to “mull” things for a while. She goes into the kitchen, leaving Grandma alone.
Mrs. Barker seems deeply affected by the story Grandma has told her—but so unwilling to believe it’s really true that she insists on “mull[ing]” it over for a while to see if it rings true to her, even though she already has her answer. People don’t like to be reminded of the past, and the mistakes they’ve made in their lives—but Grandma is determined to make the others reckon with history and its consequences, no matter what.
Grandma remarks on how “awful” the way younger people talk to older people is—but then says she supposes there’s not much one can say to an old person “that doesn’t sound just terrible.” The doorbell rings, and Grandma shouts for whoever’s on the other side to “come on in.” A handsome young man enters, and Grandma tells him he looks like a “breath of fresh air.” She asks if he’s “the van man,” and if he’s come to take her away to a home. The Young Man says he doesn’t know what Grandma’s talking about.
Even when Grandma is sort of able to get through to someone—Mrs. Barker—she still feels she’s receiving “terrible” treatment from everyone around her, especially her own family. Grandma’s so low that when she believes “the van man” has come for her, she’s almost excited.
Grandma admires The Young Man’s good looks, and he tells her he’s “used to” such comments. Grandma says that if she were “a hundred and fifty years younger,” she might try to flirt with him. She openly ogles his muscles and tells him he ought to be in movies—The Young Man says he knows how good-looking he is, but he isn’t in any hurry to try to get work in Hollywood despite living on the West coast. When Grandma admires The Young Man’s face, he exasperatedly admits that he has “insultingly good-looking” features and a “typical American” look complete with “honest eyes” and a “wonderful smile.” Grandma tells the Young Man that he’s “the American Dream.”
As Grandma appraises The Young Man and declares him “the American Dream,” Albee’s critique of the shiny but flat American ideal emerges. As Grandma and The Young Man continue talking, it will become clear that he’s not what he seems to be—and neither is “the American dream” as society understands it. Nonetheless, it’s appealing enough that just about everyone buys into it—just as The Young Man is appealing enough to draw even crotchety old Grandma in.
Mommy shouts into the living room from the kitchen, asking who has rung the doorbell. Grandma tells her that “The American Dream” is here. Daddy’s voice can be heard, asking what everyone’s shouting about—Mommy calls to him and tells him to pay Grandma no mind. Daddy shouts that he still can’t find Grandma’s room, or Mrs. Barker.
While the other characters run blindly through the house, disconnected and disoriented, Grandma (who may or may not have purposefully distracted them all) gets to learn the secrets of the American dream. Tellingly, it’s only apart from her nuclear family that she’s able to find out these truths; again, the rigid family unit turns out to be hollow and useless.
The Young Man asks who else is home, but Grandma tells him not to worry about it. She asks The Young Man what he’s doing here and he replies that he’s looking for work—he will do “anything that pays” to get some money. Grandma wonders if there’s anything The Young Man could do to help out around the house. She says that Mommy and Daddy have been in a “quandary” lately, and The Young Man might be able to help. The Young Man asks if Grandma has any money to pay him; she says she has more money than The Young Man would know what to do with.
The Young Man looks, to Grandma, like the American dream personified. She’s excited to see him—but is quickly realizing that he’s not what he seems to be. He’s desperate, hollow, and disaffected—something is very wrong, and it already seems that even the living embodiment of the American dream may not be able to help this fractured family.
Grandma beckons The Young Man close to her and tells him a secret: though Mommy and Daddy think she hasn’t left the house in eight years, she recently snuck out to enter a local baking contest under the false name “Uncle Henry.” Grandma won the competition with her recipe—Uncle Henry’s Day-Old Cake—and was rewarded twenty-five thouseand dollars. The Young Man is visibly impressed.
Grandma’s story shows that she’s used the traumas of her past—for example, having to eat the day-old leftovers from Mommy’s lunchbox—as a way of securing her own autonomy. Albee is showing that the past has instructive value, if only we agree to put our pride aside and let it.
Grandma tells The Young Man that he looks familiar, and he agrees that he is “a type.” Grandma asks The Young Man why he said he’d do anything for money, and he declares that he has “no talents at all” aside from his wholesome, handsome appearance. He is “incomplete,” and must “compensate.” Grandma asks The Young Man to elaborate, and The Young Man agrees to confide in her, because “very old people have perceptions they keep to themselves.”
The Young Man is the only character in the play who truly sees, understands, and appreciates Grandma. Even through his own brokenness, he’s able to give her the time of day—something none of the other characters do, in spite of the fact that whatever “incomplete[ness]” they feel is entirely a product of their own self-obsession and greed.
The Young Man explains that he was born alongside an identical twin brother. The two had an almost symbiotic relationship, and The Young Man recalls feeling his twin’s “heartbeats […] in [his own] temples.” The two were “torn apart” when they were very young. Though The Young Man never learned what became of his brother, as the years passed, he himself began to “suffer losses.” His heart has grown numb, his eyes have dulled and stopped allowing him to see with pity or affection—he doesn’t feel anything at all but “cool disinterest.” His groin suffered “one specific agony” and ever since he has been unable to physically love another person. All he has left are his good looks and lithe body. Now, he lets people touch him and draw pleasure from him—all the while resigning himself to the fact that he is incomplete and feels “nothing.”
The Young Man’s long monologue about his tragic past symbolizes how the American dream has been hollowed out, “torn apart,” and stripped of its former glory. It still looks shiny enough—but in reality, there’s nothing behind its alluring façade. The cruelty, selfishness, greed, and narcissism of American society has rendered the American dream empty and useless; it’s been thoughtlessly dismembered just like Mommy and Daddy dismembered their “bumble.”
Grandma compassionately tells The Young Man that she once knew someone very much like him. Grandma tells The Young Man that he has found himself a job. He asks her what his duties will be, but before she can answer, Mrs. Barker comes back into the living room. Grandma tells The Young Man that he'll have to play things by ear—Grandma has to “go into [her] act” again now.
Grandma seems to drop her “act” when she’s alone, or with just The Young Man—around everyone else, though, she feels she needs to play a part.
Mrs. Barker walks into the living room, lamenting that she can’t find Mommy or Daddy anywhere. She asks who The Young Man is, and Grandma introduces him as “the van man.” Mrs. Barker indignantly asks The Young Man how dare he cart “poor old” Grandma away. The Young Man looks at Grandma and she nods at him. He turns back to Mrs. Barker and tells her that he only does what he’s paid to do. Mrs. Barker apologizes for meddling.
The Young Man is disaffected and disconnected to the point of unresponsiveness—he’s only able to take his cues from others. He can’t—or doesn’t—lie, and in this moment, his honesty seems to shock Mrs. Barker into submission. At this point, it’s almost as though Grandma is directing the play itself, coaxing The Young Man to act out his part.
Grandma points to all the boxes scattered on the floor and asks The Young Man to take her things out to the van. The Young Man agrees and begins scooping them up. He takes them out the front door, and as he does, Mrs. Barker remarks that the van man who took her own mother away years ago “wasn’t anything near as nice as this one.” Grandma expresses surprise that Mrs. Barker had her mother taken away, but Mrs. Barker asks if Grandma had her own mother taken to a home. Grandma admits she can’t remember whether she did or not.
The Young Man is the only one who has any interest in helping Grandma with her boxes. Meanwhile, the absurdist cycle of coincidences, repetitions, and bouts of amnesia continues as Grandma tries to recall a part of her own past—and fails.
Grandma tells Mrs. Barker she needs to talk to her about the “dilemma” with Mommy and Daddy—Grandma believes she has found “the way out” for Mrs. Barker. The Young Man reenters to get the rest of the boxes and take them out. Grandma pulls Mrs. Barker in close and whispers in her ear. It’s not clear what Grandma says to Mrs. Barker, but whatever it is, Mrs. Barker remarks that it is a “wonderful idea”—she is surprised Grandma came up with it, considering how old she is. Mrs. Barker says she’s going to find Mommy and Daddy right away. She heads out through the hall, calling for Mommy and Daddy. Grandma urges her to say goodbye, as the two won’t see each other again. Mrs. Barker bids Grandma goodbye.
Grandma seems to be the only one who is able to figure out what everyone’s purpose in the play is. She gives Mrs. Barker a way to get out of the prison of Mommy and Daddy’s apartment—a place that seems to be literally shapeshifting to box them all in. Mrs. Barker is the only character other than The Young Man to really listen to Grandma and follow her advice, showing that there’s still a glimmer of hope for the past’s ability to remain relevant and unforgotten, if only people will listen to its warnings.
Grandma is alone for a moment, but soon The Young Man comes back in to tell her that all of the boxes are outside. Grandma says she doesn’t even know why she’s bothering to take them with her—they only have some old things in them, like letters, her television, and “eighty-six years of living.” The Young Man asks if he can call Grandma a cab, but she insists she can “take it from here.” The Young Man asks Grandma what he should do now—she tells him that he should stay here, and things will soon “become clear.” Grandma looks around the room one last time, and then The Young Man takes her by the arm and shows her out to the elevator.
Mrs. Barker, Mommy, and Daddy reenter the living room. Mrs. Barker tells them that “the whole thing’s settled.” Mommy and Daddy express their relief. Mommy looks around and asks where Grandma and her boxes have gone. Mrs. Barker tells Mommy that “the van man” came for her. Mommy seems startled and says that’s impossible—“there is no van man.” Mommy hysterically begins calling for Grandma. Daddy tries to comfort her, but she grows more and more upset. Grandma peeks her head into the living room from offstage, whispering to the audience that she wants to “watch” Mommy cry.
Though Mommy has spent the entire play threatening to have Grandma carted away, when she realizes that her mother is gone, she breaks down. Grandma somewhat cruelly relishes the chance to watch her daughter miss and mourn her—another dig at the kind of voyeurism that Albee argues the audience exhibits. Albee is trying to show that when it comes to the past, history, and collective memory, people don’t know what they’ve got until it’s gone.
The Young Man enters the room, and Mrs. Barker welcomes him in, declaring him a “surprise” for Mommy and Daddy. Mommy is confused, but Daddy reminds her that they wanted a “bumble” and some “satisfaction.” Mommy’s sadness transforms into delight. Mrs. Barker introduces The Young Man to Mommy and Daddy, and Mommy circles The Young Man, appraising and poking at him. She tells Daddy that The Young Man is “a great deal more like it.”
Mommy and Daddy are excited about The Young Man as their new “bumble”—even though he’s not a bumble at all, but rather a grown-up, hollowed-out shell of a man. People don’t want to work for the American dream, raise it up, and tend to it—they want it without working for it, and without thinking too hard about what they must sacrifice and endure for it.
Mommy thanks Mrs. Barker profusely, and Mrs. Barker says she’ll send a bill in the mail. Mommy suggests they all toast The Young Man and celebrate his arrival. The Young Man says he’ll go to the kitchen and get some drinks. Mommy points him in the direction of the kitchen, and as he exits through the hall, she remarks to Mrs. Barker that The Young Man is “much better than the other one.” Mrs. Barker says she’s happy that everything’s been “straightened out.” Mommy expresses her gratitude that they’ve at last figured out why they sent for Mrs. Barker in the first place.
Mommy and Daddy purport to be grateful for The Young Man’s arrival, but they already treat him like a servant and dehumanize him through the callous way they talk about him in comparison to his dead twin. The American dream itself, Albee is saying, is a commodity people take for granted, rather than an actual set of values they work towards. The same goes for perfect family units; people only want the appearance of having the ideal family, rather than the true experience of forming and maintaining one.
Mommy asks what The Young Man’s name is, but Mrs. Barker tells her to call him whatever she likes—maybe even “what [she] called the other one.” Mommy asks Daddy to remind her what they did call the other one, but Daddy can’t remember.
Mrs. Barker, Mommy, and Daddy all see The Young Man as a commodity with no agency—a quick and dirty replacement for the “bumble” they rejected years ago, whose name they’ve already forgotten.
The Young Man reenters with a bottle of wine and five glasses. As Mommy counts the glasses, she’s confused—there are only four of them there. The Young Man looks offstage at Grandma—who is still watching from the wings—and apologizes for counting incorrectly. Mommy urges everyone to take a glass, and then raises her glass “to satisfaction.” Mommy drinks, and then tells The Young Man that some time she’ll tell him about all the trouble they had with “the other one,” once Mrs. Barker—who’s responsible for the trouble—has left. Mommy sidles up to The Young Man and tells him suggestively that she can share the story “later tonight.” The Young Man tells her that would be “very nice.” Mommy tells The Young Man that there’s something familiar about him—something she can’t quite place.
The confused, amnesiac quality that has marked so much of the play has now affected Mommy and Daddy’s memories of Grandma. Just moments ago, Mommy was hysterical over her disappearance—but now seems to forget that she ever existed at all. This shows how willing Americans are, Albee believes, to forget the past (and even their own deep family connections) when it’s convenient. Mommy, Daddy, and Mrs. Barker continue to spiral into debauchery and moral failure as they begin drinking and Mommy tries to seduce The Young Man she’s just adopted.
Grandma steps out into the open and addresses the audience, telling them that “about wraps it up.” The play is a comedy—and to keep it that way, things had better not go any further. Grandma says she’d like to leave things as they are now, “while everybody’s got what he thinks he wants.” She bids the audience goodnight, and the curtain falls.