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If Edward Albee’s goal as a playwright is to expose the lies that organize our everyday lives, then he succeeds brilliantly with The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?, currently at Arena Stage. Having already dispatched with such unmentionables as aging, homosexuality and mental illness in previous works, Albee seeks to blow apart our conventional views of sex, especially those kinds most people consider suspect, in poor taste or even illegal.
The play focuses on Martin, a 50-year-old architect, who’s having an affair with a goat. When his secret is revealed, the news shatters his idyllic home life, devastating his wife, Stevie, and teenaged son, Billy.
As fascinating as it is disturbing, The Goat works to explode the audience’s assumptions about love and sexuality. While explicitly dealing with bestiality, the play really operates on many levels, calling into question sex outside of marriage, sex with minors and even sex with your own children.
Breaking taboos: Schnetzer, with Anderson.
(Photo by Scott Suchman)
Nominated for a Pulitzer and winner of a Tony for Best New Play, The Goat is a difficult play to watch. Audiences will laugh nervously, cringe and even gasp as Albee descends into ever more troubling levels of weirdness.
Masterfully staged by Wendy C. Goldberg, The Goat‘s serene setting could be any living room in an affluent Upper West Side neighborhood: the furniture is modern yet inviting, the art bold but happy, the perfect picture of bourgeoisie tranquility.
Appearances, of course, are often misleading, and in Albee’s absurdist view of the world, almost always so. Martin, for example, played with exquisite agony by Stephen Schnetzer, is on top of the world. The winner of architecture’s Pritzker Prize, he’s married to the great love of his life, the fashionable, witty Stevie, portrayed with energetic flair by Kate Levy. That bliss unravels, however, as the couple battles over Martin’s relationship with the goat, which he calls Sylvia. As the confrontation between husband and wife grows more heated, Stevie lashes out, “You rape this animal and tell yourself it’s love?” In a pitched rage, she begins smashing the vases and dishware in their apartment, literally destroying the artifacts of their life together. “How much do you hate me?” she screams. How could he do this to her?
Complicating matters is their gay teenaged son, Billy (Bradford William Anderson). Albee, gay himself, clearly delights in the irony of Billy coming down on the side of sexual Puritanism. It was that same impulse that wrecked the lives of so many gays and lesbians in the pre-Stonewall era. “Is this a joke?” Billy asks. “You’re fucking a goat?”
Martin counters the obvious outrage with quiet desperation, repeating several times, “You don’t understand.” When he encounters a support group for people who have sex with animals, he cannot comprehend their shame and turmoil. “Why were they there?” he asks. “What’s wrong with being in love like that?”
And therein lies the crux of the play: what are the accepted expressions of human love? What (or who) is going too far? Loving an animal? A child? It’s difficult to contemplate, disturbing and upsetting. Yet Albee is undaunted, challenging his audience to question every norm and examine every social convention.
In real terms, The Goat is very much a tale of sexual shock and awe. Ultimately, it ends in destruction because it has to. By admitting his love for Sylvia, Martin’s broken the veil of silence, which allows society to lull itself into believing what it wants to.
We never have to confront the hard truths about human sexuality so long as we never name it. When Stevie tells Martin, “You have brought me down, and I will bring you down,” it’s a warning for us all.
Despite Martin’s pleas that Stevie try to understand the purity of his love for Sylvia, it’s to no avail. In the end, she blames him for ruining everything, and that’s precisely what she’ll do to him. The Goat reminds us that there’s still a love that dares not speak its name, and for those who do, you do it at your own peril.