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American Dream

Edward Albee

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Grandma

The ironic commentator of the play, Grandma stands in for the figure of the "absurdist" dramaturge, ultimately exiting the frame of the action to become its director. This surprising exit and her immediate crossing between the space of the action and the space of the theater is prefigured by her marginal position in the household, what Albee offers as an allegory for the "American Scene".

In her many sardonic epigrams, Grandma will position herself—as an "old person—at the margins of human intercourse, a figure considered "obscene" in the social theater. For example, social intercourse is violently fatal: old people die as a result of the way people talk to them. Grandma's marginality necessarily sets her apart from the spectacle before her. Notably, she is the only character to underline the fact that she is staging a masquerade, what she describes as her "act".

Grandma's defenses against the violence of social intercourse more precisely define many of what critics have vaguely touted as The American Dream's most "absurdist" moments. These defenses are nevertheless "absurd" in the truest sense, involving her apparent deafness, senility, memory lapses, epigrammatic wit, and general obscenity. This decidedly anti-social obscenity (L. ob- scaenus, off-scene) prefigures her departure from the household and "American Scene", Grandma literally becoming a commentator on the action from the outside. Crossing the frame of the action, she directs the resolution of Mommy and Daddy's dilemma and interrupts them to conclude the play, offering the audience a farewell that pointedly delivers the party up to its judgment.

Mommy

An archetypal "bad mother", Mommy is the household's sadistic disciplinarian, dismissing Grandma and infantilizing Daddy at every turn. She recalls a number of other of Albee's female characters, most notably Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Like Martha, Mommy's speech distinguishes itself as the most violent in the household in its strident tone, its exaggerated sarcasm, its shrillness, its scorn and derision. As Grandma makes clear, Mommy is a deceitful gold-digger who has married Daddy for his money. Her sadism runs almost entirely unchecked—certainly one of the most disturbing aspects of Albee's theater is its characters' violently infantile behavior. At some level, the play leaves the spectator enthralled with Mommy's violence; the effect is generates is a masochistic submission to her rage.

As household disciplinarian, Mommy emasculates Daddy relentlessly, mocking his aspirations, ridiculing his manliness with her encouragement, prompting and repeating his speech in a patronizing fashion, terrorizing him into obedience, and onward. She also of course mutilates the couple's first child—the so- called "bumble of joy"—in the course of disciplining him.

In his preface, Albee poses The American Dream as a critique of emasculation on the "American Scene". With this critique in mind, the potential misogyny in the figure of Mommy and Albee's theater in general becomes clear. As Mrs. Barker unwittingly notes, the "village idiot" is the proponent of Woman Love. Neither Mommy nor Grandma appear to think highly of Woman Love either; notably Mommy's own relationship with Grandma is defined by bitter debts, rivalries, and resentment.

Daddy

Under Mommy's reign of terror, Daddy is a negative entity—indeed, early in the play Mommy reduces his speech to the echo of hers. Bent to Mommy's will, he relies on her entirely for the confirmation of his masculinity: thus the protracted scene at the door when Mrs. Barker rings, which Mommy poses as a test of his manliness. Like Mommy, Daddy also displays a disturbing propensity for infantile behavior. Thus when Mrs. Barker removes her dress, Daddy mumbles: "I just blushed and giggled and went sticky wet". Whereas Mommy becomes the tyrannical sadist in her regression, Daddy characteristically becomes the child needing punishment. Daddy's masochism also appears clearly in the opening of the door, in which he submits to the demonstration of manliness that Mommy demands. As a number of critics have noted, such rituals of demonstration, and the public humiliation that ensues, are typical of masochistic fantasy.

The Young Man

A blond, Midwestern beauty, the Young Man describes himself as a "type"; upon their introduction, Grandma dubs him the "American Dream". He is the product of the murder of his lost identical twin who stands against him in his physical deformity—as Grandma notes, the party knows him as the "bumble". Appearing toward the end of the play as the solution to Mommy and Daddy's dilemma, he introduces a hiatus into the household's violent intercourse with the story of his losses. This story recounts his progressive loss of feeling and desire, losses that, unbeknownst to him, correspond to the mutilations Mommy inflicted on his brother to punish his bodily excesses. These losses have left the Young Man a shell, physically perfect but a void within. Ironically, he ultimately becomes the child that Mommy believes will provide her with satisfaction, replacing the murdered bumble.

One possible reading of this admittedly strange allegory of the American Dream might focus on the notion of the mask. In some sense, the two twins stand in for the man and his mask: the perfect form of the American Dream requires the murder of the unruly body, the human bumble.

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