Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The American Dream
As noted in its preface, The American Dream is an allegory of the "American Scene" gone awry, a Scene typified here by a sadistic Mommy, emasculated Daddy, and embittered Grandma. The play imagines what is left of the American Dream in their shared household.
The American Dream is personified by the Young Man, a clean-cut, Midwestern beauty, a self-described "type". Though physically perfect, he remains incomplete, having lost all feeling and desire in the murder of an identical twin from which he was separated as a child. This twin—Mommy and Daddy's first adopted son—stands against his brother as a consummate deformity. He lacks a head, spine, guts, feet of flesh, and onward. Moreover, he suffers a progressive disfigurement under Mommy's sadistic tortures, punishments specifically directed at each of his bodily excesses and infantile desires. Thus: an eye for only having eyes for Daddy, his "you-know-what" for masturbation, and onward.
In his unruliness, this child—the so-called "bumble of joy"—fails to provide Mommy and Daddy what the demand above all: "satisfaction". The result of these tortures is the Young Man, a man disemboweled, voided of interiority but perfect in form, a figure who cannot relate to others but accepts the "syntax" around him in knowing that others must relate to him. Thus he becomes the son who provides Mommy and Daddy the satisfaction they believe that they have long desired. Doing anything for money, he is in some sense their perfect commodity, the merchandise they wanted all along.
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. 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. As he tells Grandma, he is a type. 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. The product of this mutilation is the Young Man. Thus Albee offers a sinister account of the American Dream, imagining it as a mask disemboweled of man and his excesses.
Language and Violence
As the above discussion of the mask might suggest, The American Dream concerns itself intimately with the relationship between language and violence. This exploration involves both language's violent uses in social intercourse as well as violence performed on language itself—violence that more precisely describes many of what critics celebrate as the play's most "absurdist" moments. As for the former, Grandma certainly underlines the violence in social intercourse staged against old people; emasculation is another primary example of this violence as well. Language's capacity for violent effects often lies in its "performative" qualities. The concept of the "performative"—that is, language that does something—is crucial to the play.
One of the primary violence's the play stages is Mommy's assault on Daddy. As with many of Albee's female characters—Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf perhaps being the most memorable—Mommy is the consummate "bad mother": sadistic, jealous, greedy, and onward. At some level, the play leaves the spectator enthralled with Mommy's sadism: the effect it generates is one of a masochistic submission to her violence. The victim of her violence above all is Daddy, whom she infantilizes at every turn. Thus, for example, she forces him to echo her story of the beige hat. She derides with her exaggerated encouragement when he moves to open the door, pathetically attempting to demonstrate his masculinity. As noted above, she mutilates the "bumble of joy" for his bodily excesses and infantile desires: the Young Man, a negative entity of sorts, is the result.
Disfiguration and Deformity
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. Most notably, the "bumble of joy"—Mommy and Daddy's first adopted son—progressively loses body parts under Mommy's inhuman discipline and is discovered to lack a head, spine, guts, and feet of flesh. The accumulation of these monstrous births assumes almost prophetic dimensions, becoming omens in what Albee describes as the "slipping land" of America.
Often these corporeal disfigurements involve a disfigurement of language as well. Thus Mommy blinds the bumble, for example, upon discovering that it "only had eyes for Daddy". 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. Note that this violence Mommy performs on the figure of speech itself involves a violent linguistic mechanism—that of literalization. Such disfigurements are further examples of how the play explores the relationship between language and violence.
Old People and Grandma's epigrams
Throughout the play, Grandma offers a number of sardonic epigrams on the condition of the elderly. For example: old people cannot talk to anyone because people only snap at them; the speech of others causes their deaths. Deafness is their defense. Old people are reduced to whimpers, cries, belches, and the rumblings of their stomach. Old people are obscene, and onward. For Grandma, old people are decidedly marginalized within the American Scene, the victims of its violent social intercourse. In the social theater, they are truly "obscene" (L. ob-scaenus, off-scene). As an old person, Grandma will defend herself against social intercourse through the very "obscenity" of her deafness, crudity, senility, and, of course, biting epigrams. Her decidedly anti-social obscenity, often involving ironic commentary on the events before, prefigures her ultimate exit from the action and transformation into the action's director.
Psychically, the logic of much of The American Dream's touted "absurdity" is that of defense. Defense is clearest with regard to the characters' attitude toward purpose of Mrs. Barker's visit. Daddy, for example, hesitates before answering her ring at the door. For most of the play, Mommy and Daddy appear to have forgotten their relation to Mrs. Barker while simultaneously seeming to torture her with their knowledge of their shared history. They demand satisfaction from Mrs. Barker even when apparently ignorant of why she has come. When Grandma gives Mrs. Barker a "hint" and recounts that history, the flighty, titillated Mrs. Barker takes it under advisement but fails to apprehend its relevance to her immediate visit. These supposedly absurd dodges are due to the traumatic nature of the party's shared past, the memory of the "bumble of joy". Though no one has forgotten this past that provides the occasion, the characters keep it from immediate consciousness nevertheless.
Cluttering the stage, Grandma's boxes number among its more enigmatic objects. For much of the play, Albee toys with the spectator's desire to discover the box's contents and function. Mommy and Daddy continually compliment the boxes' wrapping but do not consider its interior. When Grandma almost reveals the boxes' purpose, however, Mommy silences her. Ultimately the audience learns that the boxes contain the haphazard list of objects—the enema bottles, the blind Pekinese, and so on—that Grandma has accumulated over the course of her life. In a play where an outwardly perfect Young Man becomes the son who provides satisfaction, it is perhaps easiest to consider Mommy and Daddy's patronizing emphasis on the boxes' wrapping as indicative of their satisfaction with surfaces.
The boxes of course also serve as a diversion when the household attempts to ascertain the purpose of Mrs. Barker's visit. They perhaps then also allegorize the composition of the play, which largely consists of apparent and perpetually surprising diversions that keep the audience from the heart of the matter.
The American Dream does not particularly make use of symbols.
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