By Edward Albee
Martin is a 50-year old architect at the peak of fame (the recent winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize), married to Stevie for twenty-two years and empathetic towards his gay son Billy. But Martin worries about memory loss and acts detached during a television interview with his oldest friend, Ross, who is really the smug embodiment of liberal hypocrisy, especially when Martin’s confession about his love relationship with a goat (the Sylvia of the title) is brought into the open early in the plot. Ross can abide adultery only so long as it does not involve bestiality. In other words, he doesn’t mind the idea of cheating on a wife, but doing it with a goat is another thing—an attitude that in itself sounds reasonable enough. But Albee isn’t writing about bestiality per se. His play seems to be about the uncontrollable nature of human sexuality and the complications that ensue from what is regarded as taboo sex by conventional society. Despite the black humour (an amalgam of savagery and anguish), the play is filled with grief and rage as it boldly investigates the confrontation between “unspeakable” desires and social norms and laws. It zeroes in on love, loss, betrayal, and its violent ending brings most of the characters down, while offering what is supposed to be a catharsis of fear and pity.
I have now seen three productions of Albee’s controversial play, starting with the Broadway original starring Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman (the best version I have ever experienced), but each time the play grows more dissatisfying to me. Part of the reason is that each successive production seems to lack the power and finesse of the first, but an equally strong reason is Albee’s own muddled text that creates an unresolved problem of emotional incredibility and arch didactic self-consciousness. In an essay in 2004, Albee revealed he had set out to write a play about “intertwined matters—the limits of our tolerance of the behavior of others than ourselves, especially when such behavior ran counter to what we believed to be acceptable social and moral boundaries, and our unwillingness to imagine ourselves behaving in such an unacceptable fashion—in other words our refusal to imagine ourselves subject to circumstances outside our own comfort zones.” His play would construct itself “as an idea, informing me that that’s what I intended to write about” in a kind of “unconscious didacticism.” Well, nothing was really “unconscious” because what eventually resulted, after an aborted first attempt with a totally different plot, context, and set of characters, is what we now have as The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? that (as its title implies) mixes a bit of Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, black humour, and Albee’s own idiosyncratic epistemological inquiry that mixes absurdist farce with dark pain. There is much word-play about bestiality (allusions to a feed store, a stall with bedding, cruising livestock, and a possible joke about Billy the kid) as if Albee had suddenly turned into a raunchy stand-up comedian, but such humour seems calculated as if the playwright is anticipating cynical audience jokes and is intent on beating the audience to the punch.
In ancient Greek, tragos meant “goat song,” and there was inevitably a scapegoat. Albee works in every allusion to classical Greek tragedy he can think of—from references to the Eumenides and sacrifice—as well as forced and unconvincing phrases (“tragic mouth,” for example) and an apocalyptic finale of destruction and self-destruction. Then there is the Shakespearean reference to the pastoral song from Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which beautiful Silvia is silent—just as the goat in Albee’s play, with Martin’s representing her swain (urban rather than rural in this case). But this creates a fundamental, unresolved problem. Albee is writing provocatively, pushing a text as far as he can go deliberately, but more from the head than from the heart, and actors have to find a way to reconcile both head and heart without appearing to be theatrical abstractions or allegorical figures.
It is a difficult proposition that Alan Dilworth’s production fails to present in an emotionally credible way. He and designer Lorenzo Savoini impose a large scale with the set: clean but rigid straight lines, high walls and roof, austere chairs and white table. But classical tragedy isn’t achieved by this type of scale: characters themselves have to be enlarged as if some invisible force were lifting them out of a mere human scale and propelling them towards a destructive climax. Savoini’s design satirizes white suburbia (as in his costumes that seem to suggest the 50s or 60s) but is largely an empty space that the cast does not always populate with believable or affecting characters. Instead of becoming a dark, painful void, the space remains just a space, with the white living room table remaining just that rather than an altar of sacrifice, even when Stevie dumps the slaughtered goat on it. Dilworth also stresses literalism more than he does the figurative for the murdered goat is shown almost fully rather than concealed in a bloody body bag the way it was in the original Broadway production.
But, ultimately, a lot depends on the acting. The figure of Ross is created to score didactic points about hypocrisy and betrayal rather than to be a fully fleshed friend, and Derek Boyes’s performance is, as usual, life-sized but is not allowed much intrinsic weight. As the gay, angst-ridden son, Paolo Santaluccia is almost creepily rigid and weepy, his tight fists usually closed, his voice and acting unable to grow beyond their first rudimentary levels of signification. Raquel Duffy has her best dramatic role to date as Stevie, the betrayed wife, but though she looks beautiful in high heels and elegant dress, and runs the gamut from mocking humour to rage, disillusionment, and grief, she does not have enough scale and gives away too much at the beginning, thereby failing to grow in vulnerability and terrifying revenge. When she smashes art objects in a venting of rage, she merely tears her passion to tatters, rather than incarnating deep victimhood. Her wails of grief and rage are howls that don’t seem to issue viscerally. They are enactments of loud fury. Albert Schultz is physically large in height and weight, but he enacts Martin externally, his defensive bent-over posture repeated too often. His final explosion is far less moving than is his warm understanding of his anguished son. In other words, I didn’t feel viscerally moved much at the end of the production, so it seemed as if the poor goat had died for little.
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