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American Dream

Edward Albee

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

What is the significance of the Young Man describing himself as a "type"?

As Grandma announces soon after his entrance, the Young Man is the personification American Dream. His self-description as an aesthetic "type" is a self-conscious—perhaps even embarrassed—reflection on the allegorical intentions of the play.

Albee's allegory of the American Dream is certainly strange. The American Dream does not appear as that which one lives out or even as ideology, but as a person and possession. A blond, iconic, Midwestern beauty, the Young Man is a type in his physiognomy. His physiognomy stands in clear contrast with his lost twin brother, the "bumble," a spineless, clay-footed, deformity. Under Mommy's discipline, the bumble suffers mutilation because of his bodily excesses as a child. The Young Man is the product of this murder: the death of his double leaves him physically perfect but disemboweled, bereft of feeling and desire. This Dream—reduced to an empty, archetypal beauty—is what Mommy and Daddy think will provide satisfaction.

One possible reading of this allegory involves the all-important theatrical concept of the mask. Linked indissolubly, the twins are in some sense figures for the actor and his mask. The Young Man as American Dream is a mask without a man behind it, a personification without a person. The murder of his double is the murder of the man behind the mask, the elimination of the unruly body—indeed, the "bumble"—that can only mould itself into the perfect form through its mutilation. Thus Albee offers a sinister account of the American Dream, imagining it as a mask disemboweled of man and his excesses.

Discuss the trope of emasculation in The American Dream. How does Mommy emasculate Daddy? How does the play portray Mommy?

As Albee notes in the preface, the play would mount a critique of the "emasculation" that pervades the "American Scene". The perpetrator of such emasculation here is an archetypal bad Mommy, a vicious, sadistic, and deceitful gold-digger who plays the household disciplinarian. Mommy emasculates Daddy, a man stranded in a household of women, by infantilizing him at every turn. At the beginning of the play, for example, she reduces him to her diligent listener, forcing him to echo her phrases. Later, she derides him with her exaggerated encouragement when he moves to open the door, pathetically attempting to demonstrate his masculinity. "You're a woman" Mommy will exclaim when he continues to vacillate.

What is the significance of Grandma's exit from the action at the end of the play?

As an old person, Grandma constantly presents herself as a figure marginalized by social intercourse. As she continually sets herself apart from this intercourse to comment upon it, her flight from the frame of the action is in some sense inevitable. Certainly the play foreshadows this departure at her very entrance, the ubiquitous boxes she drags in with her containing her packed possessions. Even more so does her obscenity (L. ob-scaenus, off-scene), which continually sets her apart as an ironic commentator on the events before her. The exit shows her literally becoming this commentator from the outside. Grandma leaves upon devising a solution to the household's "dilemma". Her ultimate exit removes her from the frame of the action and the violent games of the household. Grandma re-emerges then as a director-figure, revealing the Young Man to Mommy and Daddy and thus providing them with the satisfaction they think they desire. She will then interrupt the celebration of the Young Man's arrival from the footlights and end the play. Her break shows her assuming a critical position vis-à-vis the spectacle before her.

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss the tropes of disfigurement and deformity in the play.

Grandma describes the play as a comedy. What is the function of humor in this play?

What is the significance of Mrs. Barker removing her dress upon her arrival at Mommy and Daddy's apartment?

What is the significance of Grandma's boxes? Their wrapping?

What is the effect of Albee naming three of his principal characters Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma? Close read a passage to generate your argument.

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