All of the characters within The American Dream are wrestling with small and large acts of cruelty—acts they both endure and perpetrate. From Mommy’s steamrolling, domineering emasculation of Daddy to Daddy’s disregard for and disinterest in Mommy to the constant threats both of them make against Grandma—threats to have her removed from her home by “the van man”—there is no shortage of cruelty in the household depicted in the play. As the action unfolds, and Mrs. Barker and The Young Man join the fray, Albee shows how people become numb to the pain they both suffer and cause—and ultimately uses the drama to make the larger argument that complacency in the face of cruelty and violence is rotting American society from the inside out.
Through Mommy and Daddy—ciphers for all that’s wrong with American society, and the play’s primary arbiters of cruelty—Albee shows how cruelty and complacency, or passive indifference to cruelty, continually fuel one another as they eat away at the moral integrity of human relationships and, more largely, human society. Mommy is the play’s most vocal character—and its most callously cruel individual. From her constant threats against Grandma, which express her desire to be rid of the woman who raised her, to her open admissions to Daddy that she married him solely for his money, Mommy is shameless about her narcissism and self-interest. She pretends to like her friend and neighbor, Mrs. Barker, yet she openly makes fun of Mrs. Barker’s invalid husband. On top of all her seemingly quotidian and petty cruelty, Mommy is also revealed to have adopted a baby that she later mutilated and killed when the “bumble of joy” failed to live up to her expectations for it. Grandma reveals all of this in a secretive speech to Mrs. Barker as a way of demonstrating how obsessed with perfection and “satisfaction” Mommy and Daddy both really are. Mommy’s obsession with perfection and keeping up appearances is revealed, then, to be far more than superficial—Mommy was willing to stoop to the deepest, most evil levels of cruelty in order to get her way. Albee uses the character of Mommy to indict those who are ruthless, cunning, and obsessed only with their own wants—their cruel behavior, he suggests, is dismantling society and destabilizing the foundation of humanity for future generations.
Where Mommy is cruel, Daddy is merely complacent—but as the play progresses, Albee suggests that in some ways, complacency and indifference are even worse than cruelty. Daddy is shown from the opening of the action to be resigned to the fact that Mommy can and will do whatever she wants. He’s uninterested in his predictably cruel wife’s predictably cruel behavior, and he often tunes out her stories about her daily routines as well as her harangues against Grandma. Even when Grandma attempts to hammer home to Daddy just how bad Mommy really is, Daddy doesn’t want to hear it. Daddy is emasculated and powerless, and he relies on validation and compliments from Mommy—his primary tormentor—to feel good about himself. He asks her to tell him that he’s “masculine and decisive” over and over again, but within the framework of the play, he doesn’t take one single action that could be described as demonstrating either quality. When Grandma recounts to Mrs. Barker the story of Mommy and Daddy’s abuse of their “bumble,” she points out that the abuse against the baby began when it “only had eyes for its Daddy.” Grandma suggests that Mommy began torturing the child because it preferred its father—but once the abuse began, she says, Daddy joined Mommy in neglecting, mutilating, and ultimately killing the child. Daddy is passive, suggestible, and spineless—and through his character, Albee suggests that individuals who allow brutality and violence to thrive by either looking the other way, allowing themselves to be coerced into participating, or performing some combination of both are in some ways even more odious than those who are outright cruel.
Mommy’s verbal slights and aggressions combine with Daddy’s simpering passiveness and remote agreeability to create a home environment steeped in cruelty. How closely the apartment at the center of The American Dream mirrors Albee’s childhood home cannot be known—but it’s clear that in drawing on his own experience of cruelty on a small scale, Albee hoped to use the play to render how cruelty plays out on the larger canvas of human society. The death of the American dream and the nuclear family unit, also major themes within the play, are intimately tied to the rise of human cruelty and indifference to it—and considering how much further American society has morphed in the decades since the first performance of The American Dream, it seems that perhaps Albee was right to try and warn audiences about the ways in which malice, meanness, and spinelessness indeed rot societies from within.
Cruelty and Complacency ThemeTracker
Cruelty and Complacency Quotes in The American Dream
MOMMY: I don’t know what can be keeping them.
DADDY: They’re late, naturally.
MOMMY: Of course, they’re late; it never fails.
DADDY: That’s the way things are today, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
MOMMY: You’re quite right.
DADDY: When we took this apartment, they were quick enough to have me sign the lease; they were quick enough to take my check for two months’ rent in advance… […] But now! But now, try to get the icebox fixed, try to get the doorbell fixed, try to get the leak in the johnny fixed! […]
MOMMY: Of course not; it never fails. People think they can get away with anything these days…
GRANDMA: I didn’t really like wrapping them; it hurt my fingers, and it frightened me. But it had to be done.
DADDY: I think we should talk about it some more. Maybe we’ve been hasty… a little hasty, perhaps. (Doorbell rings again) I’d like to talk about it some more.
MOMMY: There’s no need. You made up your mind; you were firm; you were masculine and decisive. […]
DADDY: Was I firm about it?
MOMMY: Oh, so firm; so firm.
DADDY: And I was decisive?
MOMMY: SO decisive! Oh, I shivered.
DADDY: And masculine? Was I really masculine?
MOMMY: Oh, Daddy, you were so masculine; I shivered and fainted. […]
DADDY: (Backing off from the door) Maybe we can send them away.
MOMMY: Oh, look at you! You’re turning into jelly; you’re indecisive; you’re a woman.
MOMMY: All his life, Daddy has wanted to be a United States Senator; but now…why now he’s changed his mind, and for the rest of his life he’s going to want to be Governor…it would be nearer the apartment, you know.
MOMMY: Oh, I’m so fortunate to have such a husband. Just think; I could have a husband who was poor, or argumentative, or a husband who sat in a wheel chair all day… OOOOHHHH! What have I said? What have I said?
GRANDMA: You said you could have a husband who sat in a wheel…
MOMMY: I’m mortified! I could die! I could cut my tongue out! I could…
MRS. BARKER (forcing a smile): Oh, now… now… don’t think about it…
MRS. BARKER: Please tell me why they called and asked us to come. I implore you!
GRANDMA: Oh my; that feels good. It’s been so long since anybody implored me. Do it again. Implore me some more.
MRS. BARKER: You’re your daughter’s mother, all right!
GRANDMA: Oh, I don’t mean to be hard. If you won’t implore me, then beg me, or ask me, or entreat me… just anything like that.
MRS. BARKER: You’re a dreadful old woman!
GRANDMA: You’ll understand some day. Please!
GRANDMA: Weeeeellll . . . in the first place, it turned out the bumble didn’t look like either one of its parents. That was enough of a blow, but things got worse. One night, it cried its heart out, if you can imagine such a thing.
MRS. BARKER: Cried its heart out! Well!
GRANDMA: But that was only the beginning. Then it turned out it only had eyes for its Daddy.
MRS. BARKER: For its Daddy! Why, any self-respecting woman would have gouged those eyes right out of its head.
GRANDMA: Well, she did. That’s exactly what she did. But then, it kept its nose up in the air.
MRS. BARKER: Ufggh! How disgusting!
GRANDMA: That’s what they thought. But then, it began to develop an interest in its you-know-what.
MRS. BARKER: In its you-know-what! Well! I hope they cut its hands off at the wrists!
GRANDMA: Well, yes, they did that eventually. But first, they cut off its you-know-what.
GRANDMA: My, my, aren’t you something!
YOUNG MAN: Hm?
GRANDMA: I said, my, my, aren’t you something.
YOUNG MAN: Oh. Thank you.
GRANDMA: You don’t sound very enthusiastic.
YOUNG MAN: Oh, I’m… I’m used to it.
GRANDMA: Yup . . . yup. You know, if I were about a hundred and fifty years younger I could go for you.
YOUNG MAN: Yes, I imagine so.
YOUNG MAN: I have suffered losses . . . that I can’t explain. A fall from grace . . . a departure of innocence . . . […] Once ... it was as if all at once my heart. . . became numb . . . almost as though I . . . almost as though . . . just like that . . . it had been wrenched from my body . . . and from that time I have been unable to love. Once […] I awoke, and my eyes were burning. And since that time I have been unable to see anything, anything, with pity, with affection . . . with anything but . . . cool disinterest.
YOUNG MAN: I have no emotions. I have been drained, torn asunder… disemboweled. I have, now, only my person… my body, my face. I use what I have... I let people love me…I accept the syntax around me, for while I know I cannot relate... I know I must be related to. I let people love me… I let people touch me… I let them draw pleasure from my groin… from my presence… from the fact of me… but, that is all it comes to.
MOMMY: Why… where’s Grandma? Grandma’s not here! Where’s Grandma? And look! The boxes are gone, too. […]
MRS. BARKER: Why, Mommy, the van man was here. […]
MOMMY (Near tears): No, no, that’s impossible. No. There’s no such thing as the van man. […] We… we made him up. Grandma? Grandma?
DADDY (Moving to MOMMY): There, there, now. […]
(While DADDY is comforting MOMMY, GRANDMA comes out, stage right, near the footlights)
GRANDMA (To the audience): Shhhhhh! I want to watch this.
MOMMY (Herself again, circling THE YOUNG MAN, feeling his arm, poking him): Yes, sir! Yes, sirree! Now this is more like it. Now this is a great deal more like it! Daddy! Come see. Come see if this isn’t a great deal more like it.
MOMMY (Moving to the tray): So, let’s— Five glasses? Why five? There are only four of us. Why five?
YOUNG MAN (Catches GRANDMA’S eye; GRANDMA indicates she is not there): Oh, I’m sorry.
MOMMY: You must learn to count. We’re a wealthy family, and you must learn to count.
YOUNG MAN: I will.
GRANDMA (Interrupting… to audience): Well, I guess that just about wraps it up. I mean, for better or worse, this is a comedy, and I don’t think we’d better go any further. No, definitely not. So, let’s leave things as they are right now . . . while everybody’s happy . . . while everybody’s got what he wants. . . or everybody’s got what he thinks he wants. Good night, dears.