Trying to solve the puzzle of „The Zoo Story” written by Edward Albee

May 6, 2021 | Journal

„The Zoo Story” written by Edward Albee for William Flanagan…

Why is the title „The Zoo Story” when in fact we are clearly not in the zoo, and while it is mentioned, the story is not about the zoo at all… or is it? What is a zoo? Who is William Flanagan?

Before I go into details, I have to emphasise that I have read Rose A. Zimbardo’s approach to the drama and tried to challenge my ideas through hers. She puts heavy emphasis on Christian values and symbols within the story, mostly associated with Peter, which I do as well, when I associate his values with the conservative nuclear family model and American values. I took it as evident that Christian values play a great lore in American society and culture.

Before answering those questions, let me start my journal from the very beginning, like Jerry did with his tale, because without knowing what led us here we might only categorise this story as something that drives people mad.

The story of the drama is a black mirror to civilisation. Albee collides multiple worlds in his play through dialogue and appearance. He uses language to play with the characters and to represent different social statuses. To be able to understand what the drama aims to tell us and to observe which worlds collide we first of all have to look at the historical background of the play and of Albee.

First, story takes place around the 1950s within the United States of America.  The social norms of today did not fully exist back then. Also, a lot of things were very different. Albee wrote his drama in 1958. Therefore, he uses language and words in a way that might infuriate a lot of people. However, he gets his point through with them even better. It gives the story more weight.

Second, we can identify the time of the story by looking at little fragments of the conversation. For example, Peter had two televisions. Televisions started to spread among the middle class during the ‘50s. In addition, this further helps us identify the social tensions of that time. Middle class males earned a reasonable good pay, which helped the development of the consumer focused capitalism. However, poorer lower classes, women and ethnic minorities struggled with money and faced discrimination within the working field.

Third, we are before the sexual revolution in the USA. It can be felt by the background Jerry gives of his neighbours. Homosexuality was pursued and there was even a zoologist who studied homosexuality among humans. The sexual tension is within the air and Albee might have felt it right, because a few years later during the 1960s, sexual revolution erupts.

In addition I have to point out that the drama was written for William Flanagan, who was the lover of Edward Albee. So, this gives an answer to the question of why is there a great tension concerning sexuality and values associated with it within the drama and why it plays a vital role.

As a conclusion, Edward Albee constructed his black mirror to his own USA he lived in. Now we are ready to take a look at the worlds that collide within the drama.

The first two worlds to collide are the social status of the near-upper-middle class and the lower class. Jerry represents someone from the lower class while Peter appears to be of more modest origin. This setup is a great foundation for the second two worlds, which represent from Peter’s side the now so called conservative, but back then called nuclear family model. (Wife and husband with two children and some animals.) This was viewed as the ideal family model at the time. Opposing this is Jerry and the world he represents. Jerry through his tale tells us about his neighbours which include a pair that are not married and without children, a person who is called the coloured queen, who is a homosexual man bearing feminine features, a depressed lonely woman, and also himself, who had a troubled childhood, tried homosexuality himself and now he is single, only having sexual relationship with women offering their charms for money.

There is a gap between Peter and Jerry regarding social status, cultural background, family and motivation. Jerry in the beginning appears with haste, lacking social skills. Moreover, in his own aggressive and non-polite way, he initiates the conversation. Peter is more calm, appears to be confident and acts as polite as he can in this situation. However, as the story progresses they seemingly switch roles. Jerry is acting with complete confidence and Peter loses his polite manners.

The conservative American (also Christian) symbols and values are collided with the natural bestial instincts, when Jerry recites his encounter with the dog of the landlady. Peter is horrified by the tale and refuses to hear any more of it. In his own bubble it was too much.

Jerry composed his plan in a careful manner despite appearing out of nowhere. Here I would like to take a more personal route in the process of understanding him and his motives. While Peter is motivated by simple manners, Jerry is a more complex figure.

Therefore, Jerry’s character resembles to me a soldier or a warrior who fought his battles, but instead of victory or death, he lived to witness the results of his failures. His battles at the time resulted in meaningless existence. His life is filled with void. Nevertheless, a warrior dreams of an honourable death. Therefore, he tricks Peter into a fight, a fight that he willingly loses. Which results in his death. Can we call it suicide? Or can we give him the honourable death he wanted? All of this came to my mind because of my own past as well. Sometime ago, I felt the same urge, the same emptiness that came with my meaningless existence. This state of the human psyche is not easily overcome…

Jerry’s appearance fools the audience in the beginning, but he is smart and through his twisted psychology he managed to keep Peter there. He used the thirst for stories in Peter to lure him into taking the knife and providing an escape in death for Jerry. We only get to know what Jerry intends Peter to know. However, before the end we get to know enough. In the end, he helps Peter to escape, even warns him about his book that he left on the bench that once was Peter’s, but now it is Jerry’s. And this is what they are going to talk about, this is what happened at the zoo… But they were in the park you might say…  

Furthermore, Jerry proved that we are only animals within our own self-built zoo. He was the antagonist of the story, but he was not a bad man at heart. He was lost in a world that had cast him to the rim. (After reading Mary M. Nilan’s approach, I can support my above statement with it, because she too arrives at the same conclusion. However, she assigns this state of being an outcast mainly with the lack of love.) The story also proves that just like in a zoo where animals are separated within their own cages or areas, we humans are separated within our own bubbles. These bubbles could also be called little self-built realities.

Before I conclude my journal, I would like to summon the idea that Rose A. Zimbardo presents, in correlation with my own interpretation of the drama. She concludes that Jerry’s death is in fact symbolising Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This symbol I can interpret in a different way, because Jerry through his self-sacrifice gives a new meaning to Peter’s life. We could assume that he punctured Peter’s bubble.

So, this world is the zoo and we are the animals in it… But… When did we cease to be humans?