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American Dream

Edward Albee

Part five

Part four

Part six

Summary

Grandma offers Mrs. Barker a hint. About twenty years ago, a man very much like Daddy and a woman very much like Mommy lived in an apartment very much like theirs with an old woman very much like Grandma. They contacted an organization very much like the nearby Bye-Bye Adoption Service, requesting a blessing very much like the "bumble of joy" they could never have on their own. The couple very much like Mommy and Daddy revealed their intimate lives to the adoption agent who was very much like Mrs. Barker and had something very much like a penchant for pornography.

Ultimately they bought their bumble but quickly came upon trouble. Grandma hastens her tale as she is preparing to leave soon. First the bumble cried its heart out. Then, it only had eyes for Daddy. The woman like Mommy gouged its eyes out, but then it kept its nose up in the air. Next, it developed an interest in its "you-know-what"—its parents promptly cut it off. When the bumble continued to look for its you-know-what with its hands, they chopped those off as well. Its tongue went as well when it called its Mommy a dirty name. Then, as it aged, its parents discovered it had no head, guts, or spine and had feet of clay. Finally it died. Throughout the anecdote, Mrs. Barker coos in delight and titillation, cheering on the child's mutilation enthusiastically.

Wanting satisfaction, its parents called the adoption agent back to the apartment to demand their money back. Suddenly Daddy cries from off-stage that he cannot find television, Pekinese, or Grandma's room; Mommy cannot find the water. Grandma has hidden things well indeed. Mommy sticks her head into the room and threatens Grandma with the van man. How can she be so old and smug at once? She has no sense of proportion. Grandma is unmoved. Mommy insists that the resistant Mrs. Barker join her in the kitchen.

Grandma asks that Mrs. Barker not divulge the hint she has provided. Of course, Mrs. Barker has already forgotten it. Moreover, she cannot understand its relevance. Though she volunteers for the Bye-Bye Adoption Service and remembers Mommy and Daddy visiting her twenty years ago, she cannot recall anything like the Bye-Bye Adoption Service or a couple like Mommy and Daddy. Mulling the matter over, she leaves to fetch her glass of water.

Analysis

Finally Grandma reveals the traumatic cause of Mrs. Barker's visit: the purchase of a botched child—indeed, a "bumble". Here the discipline and prohibition of the child—assumedly for the most part at the hands of Mommy—becomes its mutilation. The child acts out on its desires and suffers a progressive disfigurement as its punishment.

Such images of disfigurement occur throughout the play; indeed, Grandma declares the age as one of deformity. Mommy had a banana-shaped head at birth. Grandma imagines old people as twisted into the shape of a complaint. The accumulation of these monstrous births assumes almost prophetic dimensions, becoming omens in what Albee describes as the "slipping land" of America.

In this case, however, corporeal disfigurements involve a disfigurement of language as well. Indeed, the violence perpetrated on the child follows a set of figures of speech. The child cries its heart out; it only has eyes for Daddy, and so Mommy gouges them. The child's dismemberment recalls Freud's notion of the hypochondriac's "organ speech", in which certain particularly vexing ideas are translated into bodily effects. However, Mommy does not only violate the bumble's body. She disfigures language as well, violently literalizing a figure of speech and collapsing it onto the body. Importantly, the violence on the body follows this first disfigurement. Disfigurement in the rhetorical sense becomes the occasion for disfigurement corporeally. The play disfigures language and the body in the same gesture. Such disfigurements are further examples of how the play explores the relationship between language and violence.

Though more a revelation than a hint, Grandma's story fails to produce any effect on its listener. Mrs. Barker provides the play's most explicit example of defense in her failure to apprehend Grandma's thinly veiled and brutally sarcastic chronicle. This defense involves another failed trope, one which Mrs. Barker confessed not particularly liking earlier: the simile. Here Mrs. Barker in a sense takes the trope too literally, emphasizing the difference established by the "very much like"—a modifier that in large part only refers to the fact that the characters have aged. She 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. She cannot relate Grandma's hint to her visit; for her, the simile fails. Nevertheless, she clearly knows the traumatic occasion for her visit: her attempt at defense is decidedly absurd.

As we will see, the story of the dismembered child sets up the central allegory of the play. In the sequence to come, the bumble's lost twin, the Young Man, will appear to replace him as the new son of the household. He will rehearse the trajectory of Grandma's tale, recounting how he suffers losses parallel to the punishments meted out to his brother. His brother's disfigurement will leave him a perfect "type", a clean-cut and handsome icon who has been disemboweled, robbed of emotion and feeling, incomplete in spite of its beauty, its ideal form. As such a type, voided of interiority, the Young Man becomes the commodity that the "bumble of joy" could not in its unruliness, finally giving Mommy and Daddy the "satisfaction" that they paid for.

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