Note: The American Dream is a play in one, uninterrupted scene.
Mommy and Daddy sit in armchairs on either side of their living room, facing each other diagonally out toward the audience. They complain that they, that is, the visitors they expect, are late. Certainly they were quick to get them to sign the lease, but now it is impossible to get them to fix anything. People can get away with anything these days.
Mommy recounts her purchase of a hat the day before, chastising Daddy for his inattentive listening. She was quite happy with her new beige hat until meeting the chairwoman of her woman's club, a dreadful woman who insisted her hat was wheat. Mommy returned to the store and made a scene until given a new beige hat, which looked wheat in the store but became beige outside. Daddy remarks that it was probably the same hat and Mommy confirms his guess with a laugh. In any case, she got satisfaction.
Daddy complains that he has been trying to get the toilet fixed for two weeks, primarily for Grandma's sake. Now that it does not work, it makes her feel feeble-headed. They complain about their lateness anew. Grandma enters with a load of neatly wrapped boxes. She dumps them around Daddy's feet and complains that he should get the john fixed.
When Daddy replies that they can hear Grandma whimpering away for hours when she goes to the bathroom, Grandma and Mommy firmly reproach him. Grandma laments that when you age, people start talking to you that way. Daddy apologizes. Grandma observes that people begins sorry gives you a sense of dignity. If you do not have a sense of dignity, civilization is doomed.
Mommy and Daddy rebuke Grandma for reading Mommy's book club selections again. Grandma retorts that the old have to do something. The old cannot talk with anyone because they snap at them. They go deaf to avoid people talking to them in that way; ultimately, the way people talk to them causes their death. Grandma exits to fetch the rest of the boxes.
Daddy feels contrite. Mommy reassures him, saying that Grandma does not know what she means, and if she knows that she says, she will not know that soon either. Mommy recalls that Grandma has always wrapped boxes nicely. When she was a child, left poor with the death of Grandpa, Grandma used to wrap her a lunchbox every day for school. The other children would withdraw their chicken legs and chocolate cakes from their poorly wrapped boxes, and Mommy would not have the heart to rip into hers.
Daddy guesses that it was because her box was empty. Mommy protests, saying that Grandma always filled it the night before with her own un-eaten dinner. After school, Mommy would bring back her lunch for Grandma to eat. "I love day-old cake" she used to say. Mommy eat all the other children's food at school because they though her box was empty. They thought she suffered from the sin of pride. Since that made them superior to her, they were quite generous.
As noted by Albee, The American Dream is a critique of the "American Scene", a scene allegorized here by a childless household. Its players are Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma, defined—as their names suggest—by their place within that household's structure and personifying the members of the American family. Their intercourse will continually ironize what Albee conceives of the bourgeois American lifestyle and its attendant values—thus Mommy's banal and seemingly pointless story about her hat—disconcertingly delivered in earnest—their laments that one just cannot get "satisfaction" these days, that these days people are poised take advantage of you, and so on. In this respect, Albee's debt to Ionesco's The Bald Soprano is clear. Satire aside, The American Dream is especially interesting, however, in its exploration of the relations between violence and language on the American Scene.
One of the play's primary examples of how language is put to violent uses is Mommy's emasculation of Daddy. As in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the the American Scene is dominated by a sadistic and terrorizing mother; as remarked later, only a village idiot on this stage could subscribe to Woman Love. Note here the violence in Mommy and Daddy's intercourse, the ways in which she uses speech to rule him. Throughout the play, Mommy's domination of Daddy appears prominently in the echo. Here in the story of the hat, Mommy reduces Daddy to the toneless repetition of her words to make sure he listens. Daddy voids himself as a listener, serving as an acoustic mirror, a sort of negative entity, to her tale. Later, she will repeat his apologies to Grandma ("Daddy said he was sorry"), as if its "communication" remains contingent on her mediation. This echoing of course recalls the relation of a parent to its child, Mommy infantilizing everyone in the household.
Two other salient motifs also appear in Mommy and Daddy's dialogue. The first conjures the club chairwoman's "absolutely adorable husband who sits in a wheel chair all the time". This image—along with others of crippling and mutilation—will crucially recur later. The second involves a synecdoche—a metonymical figure in which part stands in for whole. When Mommy asks if Daddy is listening, he replies "I'm all ears." Mommy giggles at the thought. Her giggle Daddy's expression collapses the synecdochal relation: Daddy is all ears. In doing so, it also refers the figure to Daddy's body: Daddy is not a good listener but, physically, "all ears". This turn to the body will importantly recur with reference to Mommy and Daddy's missing (and mutilated) child. Here the reader can note that Mommy's violence does not only make use of language but subjects language—and in particular figurative language—to violence as well.
Also marginalized within the American Scene, Grandma—the play's epigrammatic ironist—will comment explicitly on language's capacities for violence. Unlike Daddy, her marginalization lies in her age. For Grandma, what defines age is the way in which people talk to you; later she will remark that one can say little to old people that does not sound terrible. The address of others is terrorizing; it drives its listener under the bed and shakes the household. Ultimately its violence is fatal; old people die as a result of how others address them. Indeed, the old even become deaf to protect themselves.
In her capacity as an ironic commentator—one who in a sense observes the household events from the outside—Grandma readily stands in for the absurdist dramaturge. Indeed, her epigrammatic commentary prefigures her eventual transformation into a director. At the end of the play, Grandma will come to cross between the spaces of the action and theater to stage the play's denouement and comment on the events literally from the outside.
Grandma also doubles the absurdist in that her defenses against the violence of others are absurd in the truest sense (L. absurdus, from ab- + surdus deaf, stupid). Her deafness and stupidity would remove her from the household's fatal intercourse. Tellingly, Mommy notes here Grandma never knows what she means. Though she may know what she says at the moment, she will not for long. Her "absurdity" thus uncouples knowledge or intention and the meaning of her speech and, eventually, intention and her utterance (what she says). As we will see throughout the play, these separations—interrupting the speech's communicative function—are some of Grandma's crucial defenses against violence.
Grandma also introduces the finely wrapped boxes, boxes that appear on-stage for most of the play. Here the boxes evoke the memory of a perverse circuit of exchange between an impoverished and widowed Grandma and young Mommy—note here Mommy's disconcerting regression to childish speech. This circuit involves relations of deprivation, debt, and deceit. Grandma denies herself dinner to provide her daughter with tomorrow's lunch. Mommy cannot bring herself to open Grandma's beautifully wrapped "gift" so to speak, Unspoken here is Mommy's debt to Grandma: her lunch means Grandma's deprivation. Thus she returns it to provide Grandma with a day-old meal. In turn, she plays the deprived child to her classmates, generous out of their sense of superiority.