Anyway, here is my capstone paper. This is a shortened version, and I'm not including the works cited. Ya, I'm pretty sure you are over it already.
Fact Through Fiction: The performative act of Albee’s Zoo Story
“A paradox is fundamentally an idea or concept involving two opposing thoughts, which, however contradictory, are equally necessary to convey a more insightful illumination into truth than either can secure alone”. - Krasner
Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (1959) begins with two men, Jerry and Peter, talking in a park and ends in a violent murder/suicide. Critics have attributed different symbolic meaning to both Jerry and Peter and give them credit for successfully communicating. Jerry has been compared to Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner” by Spielberg, and has most famously been seen as a metaphorical Christ figure whose “sacrifice is perhaps the most effective way that the story has been told’(Zimbardo 17). Lewis asserts that “Jerry tries to establish contact with a person other than himself, and succeeds in the moment of death”(Lewis 29). What is most agreed upon is that Jerry’s violence is why Jerry is successful, that communication “is accomplished through Jerry‘s violent death“(Baily 33). While I do think that Jerry and Peter have their own roles that have been explained before, they do not fully achieve what the critics have claimed, and certainly not by the means they have ascribed to them. Jerry does not achieve communication through violence. Peter is not merely the character devised to represent a mankind that needs saving. Peter and Jerry are set up against each other as equal opposites. Jerry’s violent performance actually makes it impossible for himself to communicate with Peter. Peter’s complacency makes it impossible for himself to communicate with Jerry. Jerry does not “save” Peter. But the play itself does communicate to the audience. The play is more than “fundamentally a piece of social criticism” that looks at the state of mankind (Samuels 188). It is also a critic of Performativity. The play contains both Peter and Jerry who together create something performative, though neither Peter nor Jerry are performative themselves. Their interaction on stage successfully communicates to the audience why communication is so seemingly impossible at times. Among all the debate about Performativity, Albee’s play illustrates that neither Peter or Jerry are capable of being performative because they each lack what the other has.
A performative act is one that “does something”, which means that it is one that communicates successfully. There is the commonality that a performance must have a context or intent in order to “do things”. Austin explains that in order for words to not be etiolated they must have an agreed upon context. Even though Derrida argues against Austin in many ways, he still explains that every performance is a citation. J.L. Austin claims that speech can be and act that “does something“, but that this happens under certain circumstances. Though Derrida differs with Austin’s claim that speech on stage is not performative, Derrida agrees that in order for speech to “do” something, there are certain qualifications, or precedents that must be met. Derrida counters Austin’s claim by saying that if language is parasitic when it is a citation, then everything is parasitic because every utterance, especially a performative utterance, is citational and therefore a performance. In both of these theories there is the common thread of intent, or citation, being necessary for speech - and I would claim, any act or performance - to “do” something, for it to be performative. Judith Butler further complicates this concept when talking about identity being constructed through performance. In order to create something, it must have a construct or context. Citation is needed for something to be performative. This can be seen as the act having the right intent. Other performative theorists such as Grassner, Brander Matthews, Eve Sedgwick, and Johnson Barbara have given their own views on what Performativity is and where it comes from( Jackson 93, 110-128, 180-191). They all have a commonality that says speech and physical acts need to be in the correct context, or follow the right social conventions, to have their intended effect. The participants and the audience need to understand the citation in order for a performance to have its intended, purposed, effect. I conclude from this that a performative act is made up of two parts: the act or performance and the context or intent. Jerry and Peter are each representative of the two parts that make up a performative act. The frustration comes to each of them from the very half that they ascribe to. They each try to communicate to the other by using more and more extreme versions of performance or context, respectively. This push to the extreme ends of the halves that make up a performative act ultimately makes communication unlikely to the point of impossibility. One without the other renders itself ineffective, and ultimately pointless. It is like Jerry says to Peter twice, “sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly”(Albee 25). It may seem contradictory to need two opposite parts to make a whole, but in the end a Performative act does need them.
Jerry is only performance. From the very beginning, he flouts social conventions. Jerry enters the stage and says “I’ve been to the zoo. I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” (ZS 12). This is an abrupt, violent way to begin a conversation. There is no greeting given to Peter and no introduction offered. How was Peter supposed to understand that Jerry was speaking to him? How was Peter to know that Jerry wanted him to care without any indication? Social conventions can be perfunctory, but they are also needed in order to communicate. Peter’s response of “I’m sorry, were you talking to me?” shows that he was not ignoring Jerry’s entrance, but that he did not know of it. You cannot ignore something you are not aware of. Yes, maybe then a point could be to “always be aware”, but this point ignores the fact that it would be near impossible to function that way, and that mankind just does not function that way.
The combative way Jerry talks to Peter also shows Jerry’s rejection of context and his failure at communication. He claims that “every once in a while I like to talk to somebody, really talk; like get to know somebody” but really he just wants to “ask [Peter] questions”( SZ 19). Jerry asks questions that generally shock Peter, questions about his salary, about his family life, about where he lives, and about deeper desires like having a son. Jerry was attempting to shock Peter into awareness, but only managed to annoy him. Peter says to Jerry “you don’t really carry on a conversation; you just ask questions” (ZS 22). This self alienation is Jerry’s way of refusing to contextualize his performance to his intended audience. Jerry continues to approach Peter with “slowly increasing determination and authority” as the conversation goes on( Albee 24). This determination does not come from confidence, but more from desperation. In the end we see that the whole time Jerry “ was so afraid I’d drive you away. You don’t know how afraid I was you’d go away and leave me”(Albee 60). Behind the determination was always fear, a fear that was created in him early on in his life.
Much of Jerry’s frustration and ultimate rejection of context and social conventions are caused by his past experiences with people close to him whose contexts did not result in Performativity. He has “two empty picture frames” that he explains away by saying he does not “have pictures of anyone to put in them” (ZS 27). The parents that are supposed to be close to him are at best no longer anything to him, and at worst bad examples. His “Mom walked out on good old Pop” and then died soon after. Jerry’s father then commits suicide. Jerry is then left to his aunt who dies the day of his high school graduation. These people were in context with Jerry, but do nothing performative. Jerry refuses to give them a context by framing them. He continues to keep the frames empty, from putting any other people in context, including himself. No family, no friends, not even “the little ladies”( ZS 30). Jerry saw that these people were in context and did nothing performative, so he attributes this failure to the context and leaves it completely behind. Jerry correctly recognizes that context alone cannot create anything performative, but misrecognizes that context is to blame. The reality of context not being enough by itself alludes to the illusion that it is not even a part of Performativity (Althusser). This is a state that Jerry becomes stuck in, “Jerry has been reenacting this same conflict all his life, continuously locked into the role of outcast, locked out of love and belonging”(Gabbard 15). Jerry swings to performance from context, instead of with context.
On the other side of Performativity is Peter. Peter has only context and does not act. Peter asserts his successful inclusion in convention through his position as a married man, who “has a wife”, two children who are “both girls”, two TV’s, two parakeets, cats, and has “an executive position with a small publishing house” (ZS 21). Peter is everything that disappoints Jerry. He is a man who has context and does nothing with it. He is, as Jerry says, “a vegetable”. His state of being is also caused by an illusion that alludes to reality. The reality is that context is necessary for Performativity. The illusion is that performance will take you out of context, and that misrecognition is what frightens Peter into his vegetable state. Peter sees people like Jerry and their performances and is scared of not having influence like them. Peter wants to assume that Jerry “lived in the Village” like most actors and is disappointed to hear otherwise because it would have made “sense out of things” for him, shown to himself that his fears were justified (ZS 25). As hard as Jerry tries to take himself out of context, Peter tries to put him into in, to make sense of him and his situation, but continues to be rather confused. Jerry tells him “You don’t have to listen. Nobody is holding you here; remember that. Keep that in your mind”, to which Peter responds with “I know that” (Albee 35). But he does not really know this. Peter is confused and does not have control over the possibility of performing because of this confusion.
In spite of his efforts to stifle his awareness, Peter does feel the desperation of not being performative. He is in the park alone and does divulge information to a total stranger, even if that stranger seems quite forceful. Peter “ruefully” admits to having cats, and gives long pauses before admitting to having parakeets. His job fulfills financial obligations, but he is not excitedly engaged in any of his endeavors. Peter acts offended at Jerry’s jabs at him not having any sons, but shows his true disappointment when he says “naturally, every man wants a son”. Peter’s impotency, or inability to be performative, is insinuated when Jerry asks “you’re not going to have any more kids, are you?”. At first Peter reacts with anger at the question, but he is more disappointed in the truth than the accusation, the truth that he will “have no more children”(ZS 18). As the talking and questioning continues “Peter becomes more and more aware of inadequacies not really faced before”(Hewes 43). With all the disappointment, Peter attempts to be performative in the way he believes should work, by placing himself even further in context with society, to more solidly plant himself into the safety of his current situation.
Albee has set the two characters up as clear representations of the halves of Performativity. They are stuck because they do not see that both parts are needed even though they seem to be contradictory to each other. The problem is like the situation that Jerry explains to Peter about the pornographic playing cards. He says, “it’s that when you’re a kid you use the cards as a substitute for a real experience, and when you’re older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy”(ZS 32). Though this quote has been used to illustrate that Jerry is in a childlike state, while Peter is in the adult role, this statement makes it clear that either way, one state is being used as a substitute for the other, and niether is complete on its own. Jerry sees his own performances as real experiences and Peter as living in a fantasy world where nothing happens. Peter sees his conventional life as real and acceptable, while seeing Jerry as stuck in a realm that is fanciful and unreachable. Each man is incomplete and sees the other half that could complete them as antagonistic instead of complementary. This inability to see the necessity of both is why they will always be substituting things in for the other half, never actually reaching Performativity. So they circle each other, each getting deeper into disliking the other man’s state of being. What is most tragic to Jerry about Peter being a vegetable is that Peter’s life gives him a built in ability to connect with people in a way Jerry failed at. Peter’s respectable life does not guarantee connection, but certainly makes his job easier. The more you are contextualized, the more power you have to use violence and performance to create a performative thing. With all that inherent possibility, he does nothing with it.
As Peter continues to more fully contextualize himself, Jerry’s attempts at Performativity become more and more extreme, with violence being the most extreme and shocking form of performance. He tries to explain how he believes he successfully communicated with the dog that lives in his hallway in “The story of Jerry and the Dog!”(ZS 36). The experiment Jerry acts out with the dog is to connect with the dog in the hallway of the where he lives. First Jerry is nice to the dog by bringing it food. The dog reacts as an animal does, eating the food and remaining the same. This frustrates Jerry. He says “to be truthful, I was offended, and I was damn mad, too”(ZS 38). This deepens his desperation to connect with the dog. Jerry tries for days in a row the same experiment, just as he does with Peter. Jerry pushes Peter with questions that all rub him in the same way, each time hoping that Peter will respond in the way Jerry wants him too. When the dog’s response does not change, as Peter’s does not, Jerry moves on to more extreme and violent acts. He does this because he becomes “less offended than disgusted” by this point. This disgust drives his violence. Jerry attempts to poison the dog to death, though only accomplishes making the dog “deathly ill”(Albee 40). After this experiment with the dog, he calls the dog “my friend” because “That’s the only word for it”(Albee 41). Jerry supposes that his experiment in violence was successful, but is shaken to see his mistake when he realizes he did not really connect. He argues with Peter saying “Her dog! I thought it was my…No. No, you’re right. It is her dog” (Albee 45). This same misrecognition of success happens to Jerry in the end when he believes that he has shaken Peter out of his vegetable state, but the violence is so extreme that it masks this realization to Jerry.
Jerry tries to explain that “neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves; and I have learned that the two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion”(ZS 44). But Jerry is misunderstands the outcome of his experience with the dog. Kindness and cruelty, or love and violence, are both performances without context. They are merely on opposite ends of the spectrum of performance. Jerry calls himself a “permanent transient”. He is constantly vacillating between different types and levels of performance. They are not capable of being performative without context, so he goes from one type to another in constant search and in constant failure. He manifests his desperation when he says “I’ll kill the dog with kindness, and if that doesn’t work…I’ll just kill him”(SZ 37). The violence that the dog and Jerry experience do not create anything performative. The change in the situation is that they “no longer try to reach each other”. The change in their circumstances is not the same as communication. If it truly was, then Jerry would not have to continue on to even more extreme measures to communicate, his desperation would be appeased. But it is not, so he continues his search.
This violence of the dog story is what causes Peter to shout out “I don’t understand!”. It does not bring Peter closer, it does not communicate with him. It really just scares him. The extremeness of Jerry’s performance comes from Jerry’s desperation to communicate, but in the end it really just pushes Peter further away. The ultimate violent performance is the murder-suicide that Jerry orchestrates. It is Jerry’s final attempt at communication, and is attempt is the most violent act he can come up with. Jerry pokes and provokes Peter into fighting for the bench that they have been having their chat on. Peter talks big and says he will fight until Jerry tosses the knife to him. Jerry wants so badly Peter to “fight for that bench…fight for your manhood, you pathetic little vegetable” (ZS 59). Peter picks up the knife and holds it out “not to attack, but to defend”. Peter is passive throughout the entire act, including when Jerry shouts “So be it!” and them impales himself. The violence shocks Peter and the audience. But Peter does not get shaken to any kind of active performance. This act, as Lewis claims, is not one that “connects” the two characters to save Jerry from his “self imposed isolation”, but is ultimately one that further estranges them (Lewis 3). Jerry misrecognizes, again, what the result of his violence truly does. He says to Peter “you’re not really a vegetable; it’s all right, you’re an animal”(ZS 61). But all Peter really does is flee the scene.
The violence is not what teaches anything, as Baily would argue. Jerry’s extreme performance was his attempt at Performativity, but that violence is ultimately itself what prevents Performativity. Jerry is dead, he has cut off his ability to perform at all, let alone be performative. Peter remains passive. He runs away. There is never an indication that Peter leaves his vegetable state later on in life, and any speculation that he does is just that. Peter’s understanding of the importance and safety of context is what makes him pull further into himself when Jerry performs his violent act. Jerry understands that “we have to know the effect of our actions”, but he misattributes the cause with the effect in his experiments (sz 40). The very violence that critics claim as what creates connection is the act that drives each character farther from any possibility of communication, and ultimately cuts both of them off from performing, themselves, anything performative ever again. Violence without context is the ultimate de contextualizing act that Jerry could ever come up with. Jerry claims that Peter “won’t be coming back here any more, you’ve been dispossessed. You’ve lost your bench, but you’ve defended your honor”( Albee 61). Just like with Jerry and the dog, Jerry and Peter’s circumstances have changed, but that does not mean that they have communicated. The ease of getting stuck in one half of Performativity is where so much frustration comes from.
Albee’s play is itself an experiment to see the “effects of [its] actions”. Peter and Jerry are set up as equal opposites. The audience identifies with both characters, sees that the play is “a shiningly sickly and, at the same time, painfully interesting, one-acter”(Luft). We understand and sympathize with Jerry’s frustrations as a “stranger that has a desperate need to make contact with someone”(Hewes). And we know and fear what Peter fears. We want the same securities that Peter wants, and we feel the need to perform that Jerry feels. And we want to connect and communicate with people like they both want to do. The audience does still feel that “no real relationship between the characters is attempted and we were left with a rather literary dialogue” (Special to the New York Times). We feel the disappointment that they characters do, but the play does successfully communicate this disappointment to us. The play itself has them both in equal parts, just as a performative act needs them both. This makes the play performative to the audience. The play was received as “an extraordinary first play”(Hewes).
The question of whether or not communication is possible is one of the main themes of the Theater of the Absurd. Amacher explains that the play is about Absurdism, but is not itself absurd, but in fact is “hopeful”(Amacher 42). The paradox of Performativity, that the two seemingly contradictory parts of Performativity are needed together, mirror the Absurdist concerns about the seeming impossibility of communication. Sometimes is seems like the “only sense we can draw from it is the conviction that one shouldn’t talk to strangers in Central Park”(Driver 44). There is definitely a sense Jerry and Peter are individually living this out. The play itself, however, being communicative, is not Absurd. Albee’s work is his proposed answer to the Absurdist problem. In real life they “find it hard to believe that people such as that really are”. Jerry says that “It‘s for reading about, isn‘t it?…And fact is better left to fiction.”(ZS 35). Albee does not necessarily answer the question of whether or not an individual is able to be in possession of both context and performance at the same time, but he does claim that fiction can. This is why fiction can and should be used to communicate. This is why we have it. This is why Albee can claim that his play “is neither nihilistic or pessimistic…the play is obviously not a denial of life”(Gelb). Performativity is paradoxical, which makes it difficult to achieve. “The Zoo Story” illustrates to us the anxiety of it being so difficult, and most often failed. But Albee’s play does successfully communicate and proves that it is not impossible.
There you have it.