Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

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, etc. 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 they 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 for whom others can relate to but who cannot relate to others himself. Thus he becomes the promise for satisfication that Mommy and Daddy 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 an ideology, but as a person and a 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 standing in for the 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. Therfore Albee offers a sinister account of the American Dream, imagining it as a mask detached 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 the violence performed on language itself—violence, more precisely, that describes what critics celebrate as the play's most "absurdist" moments. As for the former, Grandma 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's masculinity. 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 so forth. At some level, the play leaves the spectator enthralled with Mommy's sadism: the effect it generates is one of masochistic submission to her violence. The victim of her violence above all is Daddy, whom she constantly infantilizes. For example, she forces him to echo her story of the beige hat. She derides him 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.


Psychically, the logic of The American Dream's touted "absurdity" is that of defense. Defense is clearest with regard to the characters' attitude toward the 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.