Edward Albee drew on his own childhood traumas (as the adoptive son of parents he could never seem to impress) in composing The American Dream—a play which takes a less-than-generous look at the darkness and unrest simmering just below the surface of a typical American family. Given the societal and sexual revolutions looming on the horizon during the time Albee was composing the play, it stands to reason that his absurdist drama would skewer the American nuclear family and examine the impending breakdown of that unit. Through The American Dream, Albee argues that the institution of the American family as it exists is not just a failure, but a danger—one that threatens individuality, autonomy, and true freedom.
The individual members of the family at the heart of The American Dream are mired in hatred of, cruelty towards, and contempt for one another. Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma loathe one another, and yet they seem stuck together in the apartment they share—an apartment which is a kind of prison for each of them. This family is clearly broken, and yet they cling to one another out of a futile and hypocritical attempt to preserve the façade of happiness and togetherness. Albee, whose own painful childhood and abusive family no doubt inspired the emotionally fraught funhouse-mirror world of The American Dream, dissects how gripping tightly to a false ideal for the sake of appearances actually harms members of families who do so—togetherness, he’s suggesting, is not synonymous with happiness at all.
As the play begins, Mommy and Daddy are positioned as mirror images of one another, sitting across from each other in large armchairs in the living room of their apartment. They gripe together about the state of their home, which is in need of repairs, and discuss the problems facing modern society—namely, the moral bankruptcy and inability to ever “get satisfaction” plaguing people nowadays. They seem to look at the world in the same way and share a set of values—but when Mommy’s mother Grandma enters the scene, the cracks in their family’s foundation begin to show. Daddy and Mommy both patronize Grandma, making fun of her for her old age and verbalizing how much they wish they could put her away in a nursing home. Mommy is most vocal about her dislike of her mother, which seems to stem from a desire to look away from the legacy, history, and older values Grandma represents. As Mommy reminisces aloud about how she and Grandma used to live in poverty, she reveals that she married Daddy for his money, and now feels that she has a “right” to live off of him—though she doesn’t think Grandma does. As the family bickers and argues over Grandma’s obsession with the armfuls of mysterious, neatly-wrapped boxes she’s ferrying from her bedroom to the living room, it becomes clear that these three people really hate each other. Mommy’s constantly threatening Grandma with having her taken away by “the van man” and shipped off to a nursing home, while Daddy ignores Mommy’s stories and feelings, expressing blatant disinterest in her inner world.
The resentments, small and large, that Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma feel towards one another are never fully explained—but they’re at least given some context when Grandma tells a visiting friend of Mommy’s, Mrs. Barker, a harrowing story from the past. Grandma couches the story in language that turns its events into a kind of fable, as she tells the tale of a family “very much like” their own—a family which adopted a “bumble of joy” that they later mutilated, piece by piece, until it died. This cruelty occurred because Mommy and Daddy didn’t like the growing child’s burgeoning autonomy and personality. Albee brings all of the cracks in the foundation of Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma’s family to the surface through this story. By showing how Mommy and Daddy picked apart their own child—while Grandma looked on passively, aware of what they were doing every step of the way—Albee suggests that the desire to preserve an idyllic, perfect American family unit actually destroys families from the inside out. Mommy and Daddy killed their child because it wouldn’t do what they wanted or behave how they thought it should—and yet they continue to prop themselves up as a viable and even happy family unit, ignoring the trauma, abuse, and violence they’ve inflicted on one another in the past as well as in the present.
Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma emotionally, verbally, and physically abuse one another—and the horrific story at the center of the play, the story of Mommy and Daddy’s ill-fated “bumble,” shows that Mommy and Daddy have literally killed in pursuit of establishing for themselves the perfect, ideal American family. Albee shows how destructive this pursuit is—and draws on his own experiences of abuse and feelings of displacement and not-belonging in order to craft a metaphorical story about the lingering effects of what happens when family members try to squeeze one another into boxes, all for the sake of appearances. Just as the larger fallacy of “the American dream” threatens society, Albee argues, so too does the concept of a tight-knit nuclear all-American family cause destruction. Both models are unattainable, he’s suggesting, and trying to reach them will only bring pain and dissatisfaction to those who try to do so.
The Breakdown of the Family ThemeTracker
The Breakdown of the Family Quotes in The American Dream
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.
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.
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.
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.
YOUNG MAN: All the boxes are outside.
GRANDMA (a little sadly): I don’t know why I bother to take them with me. They don’t have much in them… some old letters, a couple of regrets… Pekinese… blind at that… the television… my Sunday teeth… eighty-six years of living… some sounds… a few images, a little garbled by now… and, well… (she shrugs) …you know… the things one accumulates.
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.