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American Dream

Edward Albee

Part three

Part two

Part four

Summary

Daddy invites Mrs. Barker to sit; Mommy offers her a cigarette, a drink, and the opportunity to cross her legs. Being a professional woman, Mrs. Barker only opts for the latter. Grandma asks if "they" are still here. Mrs. Barker comments cordially on their unattractive apartment. As she was listening outside—"they" must keep track of everything in their work—she knows of their maintenance problems.

Mommy and Daddy ask what Mrs. Barker does. She responds that she chairs Mommy's woman's club. After some hesitation, Mommy recognizes her, remarking that she wears a hat like the one she purchased yesterday. Mrs. Barker replies that hers is cream. Mommy invites her to remove her dress; she readily follows. "I just blushed and giggled and went sticky wet" chuckles Daddy. Mommy notes that Daddy is a "caution".

Mrs. Barker offers to smoke if that will help the situation, but Mommy violently forbids her. She asks why Mrs. Barker has come. As Mommy walks through the boxes, Grandma warns her against stepping on them: "The boxes…the boxes" she murmurs. Daddy asks if Grandma means Mrs. Barker has come over the boxes; Grandma does not know, though that is not what she thought she meant. Mrs. Barker asks if "they" can assume Mommy and Daddy have invited them over the boxes. Mommy asks she "they" are in the habit of receiving boxes. Mrs. Barker replies that it depends on the reason why "they" have come. One of her activities involves the receipt of baskets, though "more in a literary sense than really". They might receive boxes in special circumstances.

Her answer does not help. Daddy asks if it might help if he shares that he feels misgiving and definite qualms—right around where his stitches were. He had an operation: the doctors removed and inserted something. Mommy remarks that all his life he wanted to be a Senator but will now spend the rest wanting to become Governor—it would be closer to the apartment. Praising ambition, Mrs. Barker tells of her brother who runs The Village Idiot—indeed, he is the Village Idiot. He insists that everyone know he is married; he is the country's chief exponent of Woman Love.

Grandma begins to speak, and Mommy abruptly silences her. Miming Grandma's epigrams, she declares that old people have nothing to say; if they did, nobody would listen to them. Grandma admits that she has the rhythm but lacks the quality. Besides, Mommy is middle-aged. To illustrate, she intones: middle-aged people think they can do anything but cannot as well as they used to. They believe themselves special because they are like everybody else. "We live in an age of deformity". Daddy wishes that he were not surrounded by women.

Finally, Grandma says her piece: the boxes have nothing to do with Mrs. Barker's visit. She offers to explain the boxes' presence, but Daddy asks what that has to do with "what's-her-name"'s visit. Mommy responds that "they" are here because they asked them. Grandma offers to explain the boxes again but Mommy silences her.

Analysis

Albee dedicates much of The American Dream to explicit reflections on language. Note, for example, here how Grandma again remarks that what she intends to say might not accord with what she means. This sequence in particular provides an opportunity to consider the work of the "performative" in Albee's dialogue, work crucial to how Albee conceives of language's capacity for violence.

What is of course most astonishing about this sequence is the characters' seeming ignorance of Mrs. Barker's work and the purpose of her visit. As noted above, Grandma does not recognize her; neither Mommy nor Daddy know what she does; late in the conversation, Daddy finds himself unable to remember Mrs. Barker's name. At other times, it appears just as likely here that Mommy and Daddy feign ignorance, staging these elaborate conversational games to torture their guest, a guest whom they hosted many years ago. Later it will become clear that a trauma in the household's history underpins these defensive and hostile feints, circumlocutions, and memory lapses around Mrs. Barker's visit.

At a linguistic level, these incoherencies serve to emphasize the "speech act" that underpins the visit. A speech act is speech that performs something, such as the phrase "I know pronounce you man and wife" that produces a married couple. In the case of the Mrs. Barker, the performative speech here is the request that she come, the demand for satisfaction. Despite all their possible uncertainties, Mommy and Daddy know that they have asked Mrs. Barker to their home—a request has been filed. The "contents" of this request are a mystery: what remains is the request itself. It establishes a contract that brings the party together. In this sense, Mommy explanation of her visit—that she has come because they asked—is not some "absurd" tautology but a reflection on how a linguistic act determines the action proper.

The performative capacity of speech appears more clearly when Mrs. Barker declares herself the chair of Mommy's women's club. Initially Mommy fails to recognize her. She then exclaims: "Why, so you are." Again, it seems that some repression has poked a hole in Mommy's memory, causing a momentary lapse. At another level, this exchange involves a speech act. Mrs. Barker becomes the chair of the woman's club upon Mommy's performative statement: Mommy confers recognition upon her within speech.

The speech act assumes paramount importance at the moments when Albee's figurative language involves a turn to the body. At these moments, language's performative capacity for violence becomes most obvious. Thus, for example, Daddy, like some hypochondriac, complains that he has misgivings and definite qualms at the site of his operation. Grandma laments that people think old people only complain because old people are "gnarled and sagged and twisted into the shape of a complaint"—that is, the bodies mime their speech. Language manifests itself violently on the body.

Thus this sequence—as well as others in the play—lay bare how performatives structure social intercourse. At the same time, this sequence functions to undermine the social intercourse upon which speech acts are often at the same time dependent. As a number of theorists have noted, the speech act is often radically contingent on its context—for example, the contract depends on the social and cultural context within which it is intelligible. Here the rules of sociability that would determine Mrs. Barker's visit fly off their hinges. Mommy invites Mrs. Barker to remove her dress as she might her coat; she does so, and Daddy childishly ejaculates on himself. Mommy offers her the opportunity to cross her legs as if it was an aperitif; Mrs. Barker likens Daddy to an "old house", and he takes it as a compliment under Mommy's behest. In a particularly disconcerting fashion, the characters carry on as if following some invisible logic of sociability, the rules of some social theater—note how, despite their transgressions of etiquette, Mommy still maniacally insists that Mrs. Barker not smoke.

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