The Goat or Who is Sylvia?
Is it possible to still be the “Bad Boy” of the American theater at age 75? Sure, if you’re Edward Albee. In his latest effort, the story of a man who ruins his life by falling in love with a goat, Albee seems intent on proving that his return to success in the 1990s (a Pulitzer for Three Tall Women, general hosannas for The Play about the Baby) only sharpened his appetite for provocation.
But he goes beyond merely poking us in the eye with a sharp stick. This master can take the subject of bestiality–and Albee’s not completely kidding–and make it into an object of both gut-busting comedy and touching despair.
So what is this thing he’s created? At 90 minutes, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? is too sketchy to be great play (though Albee was no doubt wise in not extending his tale of goats and men into a full evening of theater, such as his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which ran concurrently at the Alley in a very strong production). Is the play then a monstrous joke, as a pair of disgruntled audience members sitting behind me seemed to think? Or is it in fact a very new-fangled kind of Greek tragedy, as the program notes indicate?
I didn’t know that the Greek word for tragedy, tragoidia, literally meant “goat song.” (It seems that goats often got sacrificed to the gods after dramatic performances.) Other elements of classic Greek “goat song” are certainly present here. Albee’s tragic character, Martin, begins the play on top of the world. A 50-year-old architect, he’s just won the Pritzker Award. And he and his family are brought down by his tragic flaw. But he’s not guilty of the hubris that traditionally laid Greek heroes low. Martin in fact has to be reminded constantly that he’s one of the world’s most honored architects. No, his tragic flaw is that he can’t understand why he–and everyone else–isn’t allowed to act out primal but private desires, such as his fully sexual love for Sylvia. He doesn’t understand the deal that we make with the gods–that in exchange for ignoring, or at least not acting on, our weirder passions, we are granted family, order, domesticity. Happiness, in short.
In other words, the play is both a sick joke and a neo-Greek tragedy, which, at the very least, is a compelling combination. Albee does not answer many questions here, but once you get his drift, the questions jump out on their own. For example, when is Martin’s life actually ruined? When he falls in love with the goat, or when his family learns his secret?
Conventional wisdom would say that it was the goat love itself–and not the disclosure of same–that brought Martin down. If that’s the case, then he’s already ruined when the play begins, as it’s been six months since he lost his heart to Sylvia. He’s lost his memory as well. As played by Todd Waite of the Alley’s resident company, Martin is a lanky, befuddled man who walks into rooms and then forgets what he’s looking for. Or maybe he’s trying to forget that he’s in love with a goat.
His wife of 20-something years, Stevie (Elizabeth Heflin) razzes him about his absent-mindedness, then helps Martin get ready for a television interview he’s about to do with his best friend, Ross (James Belcher), a newsman who’s going to talk to him on camera about Martin’s recent run of good luck–the Pritzker, and a commission to design a frankly monstrous sounding “city of the future.” But Ross finds Martin to be as forgetful and distracted as Stevie had, and finally has to give up on the interview. When Ross presses Martin as to what’s troubling him, Martin confesses to his oldest friend that, for the first time since he married his beloved Stevie, he’s fallen in love with–well, you know.
So, no, Albee doesn’t beat around the bush. The story of Martin and Sylvia’s meeting is pretty funny, as is much of the dialogue. Compared to the aria-filled Virginia Woolf, there aren’t many speeches here, though wife Stevie has a long set piece in scene two, after Ross has told her Martin’s secret. Characters cut in on each others’ lines, interrupting each other to ask for clarifications, or to correct word usages, or even to applaud each others well-turned phrases. These back-and-forths almost always provoke a laugh from someone in the audience, though they’re so complexly crafted that different people laugh at different points, especially when the sometimes absurdly lofty rhetoric gets punctured by a throwaway line of common sense.
But even the entertaining first scene reveals the plays weaknesses. That the literal-minded, task-oriented, and generally crude Ross is the lifelong friend of the all-too-sensitive Martin is frankly preposterous. As is the fact that Ross takes Martin at his word when the architect describes his fervor for the goat. Ross reacts as if Martin had done something merely embarrassing, like falling in love with someone of the wrong class or race, rather than that he’d jumped the species fence.
Wife Stevie’s reaction to the revelation raises similar questions. Heflin puts her character into a rather magnificent, furniture-tossing rage, but she too responds as if her husband were having an affair with her best friend, or maybe with a friend of their 17-year-old son. It seems more likely that she would respond, initially at least, with total incomprehension, and then ship him off for some very serious therapy.
Or try to ship him off, at any rate. Getting him to the doctor wouldn’t be easy, because Martin himself doesn’t think he has a problem. Martin’s stance is essentially that of the misunderstood lover. Of the Montague in love with the Capulet, or the Palestinian in love with the Israeli. Why can’t the world just leave us alone?
It’s not clear if Albee sees him as being deranged, depraved, or simply unlucky in love. Who’s being hurt? the writer seems to ask. (Other writers have pointed out a possible similarity between Ross the busybody and Ken Starr.) Albee’s poker face vis a vis his character’s weaknesses is exactly what makes the play unsettling. He refuses to point out the difference between right and wrong for us, or even to acknowledge that such differences exist. At least when it comes to love, sex, and passion. Ross’ betrayal of his friend’s confidence is portrayed as the most immoral act in the play.
Albee’s stance seems to be that our high-minded, Pritzker-granting civilization is only a veneer covering our darker, perhaps even bestial natures. In other words, that there was never any need to idealize this highly educated, highly liberal family in the first place, because when you put its members under enough pressure, they’ll show their teeth. Their true nature, that is. This is hardly a novel observation, but Albee makes those teeth bite when Martin is confronted by his son, Billy (Matt Hune, a local high school student), who has just come out of the closet to his parents. They’d said all the right things when he told them he was gay, but as soon as Billy passes judgment on his father’s own sexual preferences, Martin snaps “fucking faggot,” at his son.
It’s actually in the interaction between Martin and Billy that Albee begins hitting the audience where we really live. It’s hard to take the goat business altogether seriously, after all. But nobody laughed when, in the middle of an acceptable father-son embrace, Billy and Martin suddenly exchange a passionate kiss. Or later, when Martin tells the story of a father who became aroused while holding his infant son in his lap. “Was I that baby, Dad?” Billy (goat?) asks.
By the end of the play, Martin, the architect, has lost his sense of boundaries. He couldn’t remember trivial matters when the play began, now he can’t remember why we’re not supposed to have sex with goats or our children.
Because Martin doesn’t agree that he has a problem, the tensions in the play seem almost beyond the power of drama to resolve. Bestiality is, after all, only wrong if we say that it is. But with a single brilliant stroke–offstage, Stevie takes her revenge on her rival–Albee does in fact conclude his story in stunningly and classically tragic fashion. That Albee is able to infuse the death of a (scape)goat with such pathos is the surest sign that he has reached far beyond his darkly comic premise, and delivered one of the strangest “goat songs” in the history of drama, but a tragedy nonetheless.
David Theis is a writer in Houston. The Goat or Who is Sylvia? will be published by Overlook Press this spring.