A Step Backwards

Eward Albee's provocative play asks troubling questions about taboos.

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I wish I could say that Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? is a play about taboos, about how we internalize society's rules and feel a personal, visceral objection when we find those rules violated. I wish I could say that the particular instance Albee shows us - of a man who falls in love with and has sex with a goat - is used as a provocation more than anything else, as a spur to make us feel appropriately scandalized, and then to make us reflect on the sources, religious and social, of that feeling. Any play that can force us to confront our unspoken principles is worthwhile in my book, provided, of course, that the author doesn't take seriously the wild example he uses to shock us into self-recognition. Which is another way of saying, I'm prepared for The Goat to be all sorts of things, with the exception of an argument for the love-match, man and goat.

But I can't say these things I want to say. I can't say that The Goat is merely an exercise. I'd like to but I can't.

One of the reasons occurs just a few minutes before the play ends. For more than an hour we've been hearing Martin Gray, the protagonist of the piece, explain with deep emotion to his stunned wife, son and best friend, how entranced he was and is by the goat he calls Sylvia, how her eyes shone with innocence the first time they met, how he knew almost immediately that he would have to make love to her. We witness these explanations in a kind of suspense: after all, Martin's interlocutors are appropriately censorious, even violently so, and it's not clear that author Albee is on one side or the other. Whose voice will prevail as this "tragedy" (literally "goat-song" in classic Greek) plays out? Will Albee only provide us both terms of the argument, or will he eventually show his hand?

Then the writer reveals his cards: in a moment of great emotion witnessed by Martin's friend Ross, Martin's 17-year-old son runs into his father's arms and kisses him passionately, hungrily on the lips. Ross is aghast and tries to tell Martin that this incestuous kiss is all wrong, but Martin stands up for the sexual nature of the encounter and says that no one has the right to declare it unnatural. Why shouldn't a father and son share a romantic moment? What harm does it do? And what about a man Martin knew, who, holding his infant child in his lap, found himself getting an erection? Should we deny that such things happen? Don't different people have the right to be aroused by different objects: a goat, a son, a baby?

At this moment, it's nearly impossible to assume that anyone other than the playwright is speaking. This isn't just shock material here; this is an argument being built, first slowly, then with added emphasis and further examples. All the limits on our sexuality, says this argument, are artificial; if a man finds satisfaction - an "epiphany" is what Martin calls it - with, say, a four-legged animal, then society has no right to interfere with that pleasure. And the same must be true for, say, incestuous relations, at least those entered into willingly on both sides. As Albee says in a published statement about his play, "Every civilization sets quite arbitrary limits to its tolerances." Bestiality, incest - what gives society the authority to say yea or nay? Aren't we granting enormous powers to a "civilization" which after all is only a collection of human beings?

Now, the main thing that strikes me about this argument is its Nitzschean nihilism: it assumes that there's no God to command on the matter, no natural law, no "essential" right and wrong - only societies and their prejudices masquerading as The Way. Further, it ignores the remarkable prevalence of laws against bestiality and incest throughout world societies, as if these were no clue to some deep human truth. This may be why Albee paints Martin's son Billy as gay: just as prejudices against gays were once prevalent and now are yielding to liberal tolerance, Albee wants us to think of all taboos - against bestiality, incest, polygamy, pederasty - as passing social fashions. I think this argument is flawed - becoming more accepting doesn't necessarily mean becoming all-accepting - but Albee, it seems, finds all stop signs suspicious, unreasonably constraining the only truth that matters, the human will to go, go, go. So maybe Albee's muse isn't Nietzsche after all, it's Sartre: there is no essence preceding existence, and goats are fair game. So are slabs of beef, cuckoo clocks, ostriches and the Yellow Pages.

Anyway, if The Goat stimulates all these thoughts, it's because the production at Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre is first class in every particular. As Martin, the 50-year-old who finds himself fancying furry Sylvia, John Wojda is pained at the impermissibility of his amour, devoted to her nonetheless, and even relieved when he's finally - under the worst conditions - allowed to confess. As wife Stevie, Kate Alexander is smart, tough and furious; hell hath no fury like a female homo sapien scorned. Jason O'Connell as Martin's best friend Ross manages, in a relatively small part, to convince us that he has a complicated life outside the theater; and Drew Foster as son Billy alternates spite and vulnerability with notable skill. Steve Umberger's direction underlines the strong emotions of all four characters, and Marcella Beckwith's set, of a modern, upscale living room, couldn't be more felicitous. This is a play with little action besides Martin's admissions and the reactions they ignite, but Albee's dialogue and FST's production keep us riveted all the way.

Still, I think Western civilization will withstand this latest assault. For many spectators, the Bible's prohibitions against bestiality will be the last word. But I suspect the play won't convince even the irreligious. There is, I think, a part of the mind that senses, however vaguely, that we once emerged from rude beasts and that we don't want to go back that way. For all his lyricism on the subject of Sylvia's eyes, Martin's choice is distinctly regressive.

And Edward Albee's play, for all its modernist daring, is ultimately about a movement … backwards.

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