Edward Albee’s The American Dream is part of a movement called “Theatre of the Absurd”—plays written in the decades following the end of World War II which used heightened reality, absurdism, and breaking of the “fourth wall” between the stage and the audience to highlight the irrationality of society, entertainment, and the intersection of the two. The world, absurdist playwrights knew, was plunged into a strange and dangerous new era in the wake of the war’s violence and its ushering in of the nuclear age; how, they wondered, could entertainment possibly ignore the surreality and absurdism of the present moment? As an answer to this question, Edward Albee—and other artists of the absurd—constructed dramas that deliberately called out their own artifice. Through The American Dream, Albee argues that there is no value in art or entertainment that hides behind itself and refuses to acknowledge the societal and existential problems plaguing the outside world.
Absurdist theatre uses ludicrous situations, larger-than-life characters, and opaque, mysterious plots to create a complicated experience for its audience. In doing so, absurdism shines a light not just on the absurdity of society, but also on how ridiculous it is to turn to entertainment as a source of escapism. Through The American Dream, Albee engages with all the major tenets of absurdist theatre—and, through the use of direct address, particularly in the play’s final moments, makes a biting commentary about audiences’ unwillingness to forgo a night of entertainment in order to think about real social issues. As the play draws to a close, Grandma has seemingly been carted away from the apartment—to Mommy and Daddy’s relief and delight—while The Young Man, the handsome and well-mannered “American Dream,” has come to stay. Mommy and Daddy are rid of Grandma, who acted as their historical awareness and societal consciousness, and have instead someone—or something—that allows them to think only of the bright vision of the future ahead of them. Just when Mommy mentions that The Young Man seems familiar, Grandma, who has been hiding at the front of the stage and watching the last several minutes of the action unfold, steps forward and speaks directly to the audience. She tells them it’s time for the play to “wrap […] up”—it’s supposed to be a comedy, after all, and to push things further might send the play into darker territory that no one wants to see.
Though the play has already confronted the death of the American dream, the collapse of the nuclear family, the effects of cruelty and indifference, and has also featured graphic depictions of poverty, starvation, physical mutilation, and emotional trauma to boot, Grandma insists it’s still a “comedy” that mustn’t be pushed any further into darkness. Trauma and cruelty, Albee’s saying, are so woven into the fabric of everyday American life that most Americans are willing to accept them as part of a “comedy.” Pointing out that the horrors the audience has just witnessed are barely scratching the surface is Albee’s way of condemning Americans for how much misery and horror they’re willing to overlook, and his way of chiding them for trying to seek refuge in entertainment. Grandma tells the audience it’s important to end the play at a moment in which “everybody’s got what he thinks he wants.” The characters may or may not be about to discover the truth of what’s happening to them; Mommy and Daddy seem to have a kind of amnesia about what they did to their adopted “bumble” years ago, but the play suggests that being reunited with that bumble’s twin, The Young Man, may stir them from their complacency. By having Grandma cut the action off before this point is reached, Albee is further condemning his audience: he’s suggesting that they don’t really want to watch these traumatized characters solve their problems. People want to watch a “comedy,” even if it’s a dark one—they don’t want to see arbiters of cruelty be held accountable for their actions, because if audiences did want that, they wouldn’t be trying to escape reality through theatre in the first place.
Albee uses The American Dream, a piece of theatre in the absurdist tradition, to point out the lunacy not just of contemporary American society and the indifference it shows to the major problems, but also the ridiculousness of using entertainment as a way to escape these dark truths. Through the play, Albee argues that entertainment as escapism has no value. Art’s responsibility, he’s saying, can and should be to throw the problems of society into relief and force people to reckon with them, rather than to let them or even encourage them to ignore the truth of the world around them.
Entertainment and Artifice ThemeTracker
Entertainment and Artifice Quotes in The American Dream
MRS. BARKER: Can we assume that the boxes are for us? I mean, can we assume that you had us come here for the boxes?
MOMMY: Are you in the habit of receiving boxes?
DADDY: A very good question.
MRS. BARKER: Well, that would depend on the reason we’re here. I’ve got my fingers in so many little pies, you know.
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…
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.
GRANDMA: Boy, you know what you are, don’t you? You’re the American Dream, that’s what you are. All those other people, they don’t know what they’re talking about. You . . . you are the American Dream.
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.