Edward Albee’s short play The American Dream, part of the post-World War II “Theatre of the Absurd” movement, is a convoluted and occasionally dreamlike piece that satirically skewers the idea of “the American dream.” A deeply personal play which draws on Albee’s own dissatisfaction with his strained, painful childhood, The American Dream expresses Albee’s desire to expose American idealism as a fallacy. Through the play, Albee argues that “the American dream”—opportunity, equality, success through hard work, and clean-cut familial bliss—doesn’t exist, and never has.
The play’s very title announces its primary concern: the American dream. In the 1960s, when Albee was writing this play, the idea of the American dream signified something very different than it does today. America in the postwar landscape was synonymous with freedom and opportunity; resistance against fascism and oppression; and an upward trajectory in terms of industry and innovation. Cars and homes and educations were affordable; social values were wholesome and family-focused. Societal unrest and revolution, however, were on the horizon all across the globe—and artists like Albee were determined to hold the issues, inequities, and injustices simmering just below the surface up to the light. There are many ways in which Albee skewers the idea of the American dream throughout the play, from the nuclear family who appear happy at first glance but secretly loathe one another, to Mrs. Barker, a robotic, Stepford-wife-esque neighborhood friend. Mommy talks repeatedly and rapturously about the social and economic advancement she experienced when she married Daddy solely for his riches, and though Grandma chides her daughter for such shallowness, Mommy has no qualms about her desire to advance up the socioeconomic ladder without looking back. By skewering Mommy’s open selfishness—and by showing the tradeoff she made between literal financial poverty and moral bankruptcy—Albee suggests that those who pursue “the American dream” as hollowly and recklessly as Mommy does will never be satisfied. The “pursuit of happiness” is revealed to be a cruel, Sisyphean inversion of itself; happiness can never truly be reached in America, a society that only encourages its members to consume more and more.
Albee further indicts the American dream when he introduces the character of The Young Man in the play’s final third. The ruggedly handsome, “midwestern”-looking Young Man shows up at Mommy and Daddy’s apartment without knowing what he’s doing there—but when he starts talking to Grandma, who praises his good looks and dubs him “The American Dream,” the reason for his appearance becomes slightly more clear. The Young Man describes the painful life he’s had so far; separated from an identical twin brother at birth, The Young Man has felt pieces of his emotional self die off slowly over the years. He feels unable to love anyone or feel anything other than “cool disinterest.” The Young Man is, in his own estimation, incomplete, and he feels “nothing”—no emotions, good or bad. The Young Man’s story parallels the story of the “bumble” Mommy and Daddy brought home from an adoption agency run by Mrs. Barker many years ago. When they were dissatisfied with how the baby they’d adopted was growing up, they began mutilating and torturing it in an attempt to make it conform to their ideas of how a young man should be. The Young Man’s monologue to Grandma reveals that while Mommy and Daddy’s “bumble”—The Young Man’s twin brother—was suffering physically, The Young Man was experiencing a simultaneous emotional deterioration that he could not explain. Albee is using the disaffected, emotionally stunted Young Man to show that the American dream does not—and never has—existed. While impoverished and marginalized people have suffered in the shadows of America for years and years, those who seem to embody the American dream are impoverished in a different way. Aware that something is deeply wrong but unable to name what plagues them, they carry outwardly the hallmarks of success, health, and happiness, but when cornered are forced to admit to an underlying “agony” which renders them traumatized and disaffected.
Though “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are literally written into the core documents and doctrines of American society, these things are, in Albee’s estimation, a “dream” only in the sense that they are fleeting, unattainable, and fictitious. Albee shows, through this play, how even those who seem to embody the American dream are actually far from achieving it, for reasons that are not just personal but also structural and societal.
The Fallacy of The American Dream ThemeTracker
The Fallacy of The American Dream 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.