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American Dream

Edward Albee

Important Quotations Explained

Part seven

Key Facts

When you get old, you can't talk to people because people snap at you. That's why you become deaf, so you won't be able to hear people talking to you that way That's why old people die, eventually. People talk to them that way.

This passage is one of Grandma's many characteristic epigrams on "old people," epigrams as long-winded and senile as they are insightful. As an old person, Grandma occupies a privileged position in Albee's cast, figuring as a character marginalized by and posed to comment ironically on the violent spectacle before her. The epigram is thematically significant as it points out speech's capacity for violence—that old people die because of the speech of others. Grandma's own absurd conversational behavior, for example, her apparent senility or deafness, is a form of protection against this violence.

I no longer have the capacity to feel anything. 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.

The Young Man recounts his history of losses to Grandma toward the end of the play. His tale, staged in a manner so solemn as to be sacred, opens a hiatus within the play's violent, careening conversational games. Bound indissolubly to his lost twin, the Young Man experiences losses complimentary to those his brother suffers. His brother's blindness ends his ability to see with pity. Recall that this brother assumedly suffers his disfigurement under a tyrannical Mommy, who turns the disciplining of his bodily excesses and infantile desires into a mutilation. The ultimate murder of the Young Man's twin disembowels him, robbing him of feeling and leaving him with his typically beautiful person, body, and face. As he tells Grandma, he is a type. Gutted of his interior life, he cannot relate to anyone but knows others must relate to him. He accepts the syntax of others. Indeed, perhaps his emptiness, and his being a type, allows him to fit into this syntax smoothly. Thus this incomplete Man will provide the Mommy and Daddy with the satisfaction that his unruly double could not.

GRANDMA: Then it turned out it only had eyes for 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.

Here Grandma recounts how Mommy progressively mutilated her "bumble of joy," the child they procured from the Bye-Bye Adoption Service twenty years ago. The epitome of the bad, terrorizing mother, Mommy will disfigure the bumble in the course of disciplining its infantile desires and bodily excesses. It is not for nothing here that an indignant or jealous Mommy blinds the child over its affection for its father. Mommy is partially terrifying because she disrupts the homosocial bonds, son-father, but, more explicitly, the fraternal relation as well, within the American family.

Notably the disfigurement of the child proceeds from a certain disfigurement of language. Mommy makes the figure of speech come true literally ("it only had eyes for Daddy"), turning to the body. The child's eyes are at fault here. Mommy literally exacts a "pound of flesh," so to speak. Her violence strikes both language and the body.

What I'll really have to do is to see if it applies to anything. I mean, after all, I do do volunteer work if an adoption service, but it isn't very much like the Bye-Bye Adoption Service is the Bye-Bye Adoption Service and while I can remember Mommy and Daddy coming to see me, oh, about twenty years ago, about buying a bumble, I can't quite remember anyone very much like Mommy and Daddy coming to see me about buying a bundle.

When Mrs. Barker implores Grandma to reveal the purpose of her visit, Grandma rather sarcastically does so by recounting its history, saying that twenty years ago, there was a couple very much like Mommy and Daddy. Nevertheless, Mrs. Barker fails to grasp the relevance of her hint. Having admitted to not particularly liking similes a few moments earlier, Mrs. Barker denies Grandma's "very much like" and thus obliterates any similarity between the figures of Grandma's story and the players on-stage. The Bye-Bye Adoption Service is the Bye-Bye Adoption Service; anything like it is not it. For Mrs. Barker, the simile fails. Mrs. Barker's absurd failure to understand Grandma's story numbers among the many defenses the players erect against bringing the traumatic origin and purpose of Mrs. Barker's visit forward. Though she clearly remembers her past encounter with Mommy and Daddy, Mrs. Barker cannot bring herself to grasp why it matters today.

WHAT a masculine Daddy! Isn't he a masculine Daddy?

Mommy shares her approbation of Daddy when, having vacillated on whether they should carry through with the visit, he finally moves to open the door and allow Mrs. Barker into the apartment. This ostensible demonstration of Daddy's manliness under Mommy's pointedly exaggerated encouragement of course only serves to make him more into an infant. Notably, Grandma refuses to watch this vicious game. Mommy's exclamation is particularly significant in making apparent an aspect of Albee's drama potentially lost in its textual form: the violence of the actor's delivery. Mommy delivers her lines sadistically, her speech shaped by hyperbole, sarcasm, and the cruelest tone possible.

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