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American Dream

Edward Albee

Part four

Part three

Part five

Summary

Mommy appeals to Daddy to have Grandma taken away. The apartment has become over-crowded with her enema bottles, Pekinese, the boxes, and everything else. Mrs. Barker remarks that she never heard of enema bottles. Grandma replies that Mommy means enema bags. She cannot help her ignorance; she comes from bad stock. Indeed, when she was born, she had a head shaped like a banana.

Mommy accuses Grandma of a capacity to just say anything. The other night she called Daddy a hedgehog—she probably picked up the word from television. She commands Daddy to shake her television's tubes loose. Daddy asks that she not mention tubes to him. Daddy has tubes now where he once had tracts. Grandma announces that she knows why Mrs. Barker has come to visit. Mrs. Barker begs her to give up the secret, but Mommy declares that a revelation would not be fair.

Mrs. Barker remains puzzled: she is such a busy girl with many committees and commitments. Mommy and Daddy mock her: they have not invited her to offer her help. If she need help, she could apply for a number of fellowships. Speaking as a representative of the Ladies' Auxiliary Air Raid Committee, Mrs. Barker asks how the family feels about air raids. Mommy and Daddy reply that they are hostile.

When Mrs. Barker comments on the surfeit of hostility in the world, Grandma rejoins that a Department of Agriculture study reveals an excess of old people as well. Mommy calls her a liar, commanding Daddy to break her television. He rises; Mommy cautions him against stepping on Grandma's blind Pekinese. Once he leaves, she sarcastically muses on her good fortune in marriage: she could have had a husband who was poor, argumentative, or consigned to a wheel chair.

Apparently recalling Mrs. Barker's invalid husband, Mommy recoils in horror, Mrs. Barker forces a smile and tells her to not think about it. Mommy pauses and announces that she has forgotten her faux pas. As she invites her guest to some girl talk, Mrs. Barker replies that she is not sure that she would not care for some water. Mommy orders Grandma to the kitchen; having quit, Grandma refuses. Moreover, she has hidden everything. Mrs. Barker declares herself in a near-faint, and Mommy goes for water herself.

Mrs. Barker relates her disorientation to Grandma and implores her to give up the secret of her visit. Grandma relishes in being implored and asks her to beg again. After some resistance, Mrs. Barker beseeches her anew.

Analysis

"Yes, definitely; we're hostile" Daddy echoes when Mommy responds to Mrs. Barker's query about air raids, and here Mrs. Barker appears as the object of their joint hostility. In this sequence it seems most clear that Mommy is toying with Mrs. Barker. She forbids Grandma from revealing the visit's purpose; for whatever reason, she and Daddy sneer at Mrs. Barker's volunteer activities, activities that make her the caricature of the socially responsible American housewife. Note also the many double entendres: for example, when Mommy invites Mrs. Barker to fetch her own water, she notes that she should be able to put two and two together if clever enough.

In this light, Mommy's slip—in which she methodically lists husbands worst than her own—appears premeditated. Her panic upon realizing her "mistake"—peppered with her characteristic emphases, shrill exclamations, and violent imagery ("I could cut my tongue out!")—similarly seems aggressive in intent. At the same time, her willful forgetting of this faux pas also points out the other logic behind this bizarre visit—that of defense. Mommy will not think about it, forget she ever said it, and thus make everything all right. Thus she exiles a potentially traumatic idea from consciousness.

As we will see in the subsequent sequence, a traumatic memory shared by the party has similarly been defended against. Though remembered, it remains, for example, unspoken, temporarily forgotten, or, even worse, raised but without the characters' understanding its relevance to their situation. These defenses make up many of the play's dizzying, "absurdist" turns.

In this sense, Mommy and, to a lesser extent, Daddy's ignorance of Mrs. Barker's purpose here is less an intentionally devious game but an indication of their ambivalent struggle with a traumatic memory. This memory impels them to demand compensation, the "satisfaction" denied them: thus the invitation and violent treatment of Mrs. Barker. At the same time, this demand necessarily brings the memory against which they have defended themselves against to mind requiring further defenses, whether amnesiac, sophistical, or otherwise. Thus Mrs. Barker's visit can only occur on uncertain terms. Similarly do Mommy's attacks take place through, for example, the slip or the apparently unmotivated assault on Mrs. Barker's volunteer work, attacks that do not directly bring their trauma to consciousness.

As the audience increasingly senses the possibility that Mommy and Daddy have sprung a trap, Mrs. Barker comes to functions in a role perhaps analogous to Honey's in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf—that of the ingenuous outsider who cannot stay abreast of the household's games. Indeed, like Honey, she almost faints as a result. Note in this respect her telling confession to Grandma that she does not particularly like similes. This confession prefigures her ultimate failure to apprehend the purpose of her visit, a failure that will also number among the neurotic defenses the party erects against their shared traumatic memory.

Also of note in this sequence is Mommy's accusation that Grandma is a liar. The lie is a particularly important trope in Albee's theater. Lying is a matter of course here. Characters viciously stage fictions against each other in the course of their conversational battles—thus Grandma warns Mrs. Barker against trusting anyone in this household. Often they speak borrowed language—whether from television or book of the month club selections. The lie also refers to the theater: the actor and director figure as professional liars. As we will see, their fictions woven by these figures will ultimately intrude into the action with decidedly traumatic results.

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