Allegory in Edward Albee's The American Dream
Our understanding of Edward Albee's achievement in The American Dream (1960) has come a long way since 1961 when Martin Esslin hailed it as a "brilliant first example of an American contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd"1 and 1966 when Nicholas Canaday, Jr. labeled it America's "best example of what has come to be known as 'the theatre of the absurd.'"2
The shrewdest assessment of absurdism in Albee is by Brian Way, who shows convincingly that, although Albee has successfully mastered the techniques of theatrical absurdism, he has nevertheless shied away from embracing the metaphysics that the style implies.3 That is, Albee knows that Theatre of the Absurd is "an absorption-in-art of certain existentialist and post-existentialist philosophical concepts having to do, in the main, with man's attempts to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense."4 But Albee nevertheless "believes in the validity of reason--that things can be proved, or that events can be shown to have definite meanings."5 Structurally, the chief evidence for this claim is that Albee's plays, including The American Dream, move toward resolution, denouement and completion rather than the circularity or open-endedness typical of Theatre of the Absurd.6
In regard to content, Way's point may be extended by contrasting the implications of the titles of The American Dream and Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, an absurdist drawing room comedy to which Albee's play seems indebted in many ways. Ionesco's title derives from the Fireman's passing reference to the woman who "always wears her hair in the same style."7 She is not a character in the play, nor is she ever referred to again. She is a non-sequitur, as is everything else in that circular play, since nothing follows logically from what precedes it.
Albee's title, on the other hand, is rich in intellectual and moral substance, since it refers to a host of ideas and feelings associated with the fondest hopes of participants in the American experience, both historic and contemporary. The title is also a fitting thematic label for the play since the dialogue explicitly refers to the American Dream after the Young Man appears on stage. Ionesco's title--like all titles, an authorial comment on the text--rightly says that the play lacks meaning; Albee's says that it refers to a lot of meaning.
That meaning is most obviously associated with the Young Man, since he is specifically identified as the American Dream by the dialogue of the play. The less obvious--but more important--meaning is embodied in Grandma. The goal of this essay will be to clarify how Grandma's character and experience bear most of the meaning of the American Dream that Albee wants to communicate in this play. As we shall see, that meaning fits squarely within the mainstream American humanist tradition stretching back to the early, idealistic years of the American...