The Goat, Or, Who Is Sylvia, by Edward Albee
This play won the Tony Award for best play in 2002 and the author views it as notes towards a definition of tragedy. I want you to keep that in mind, if you are unaware of what this play is about and what its larger symbolic meaning and importance are. In reading this play, I saw an effort by a playwright to stay out ahead of social trends by examining the irrationality of love in one of the few ways that could possibly shock a left-leaning “tolerant” audience, by examining a man who finds himself caught up in an affair with a goat named Sylvia. Not playing bestiality for laughs, as is commonly done, the author portrays a man caught in the grips of passion for a goat while his marriage and life fall apart around him, and does so elegantly with a cast of only four characters, with no wasted dialogue and a tight control over the play’s action. With only four characters, the author is able to stage this play in a spare way that might typically only be found in Greek tragedy, which suggests the seriousness of the author’s aim despite the nature of the materials at hand.
This play has three scenes and four characters. We have Martin, a man who has been faithful and loyal to his wife until he finds himself in love with a goat named Sylvia. We have Stevie, his wife, who quickly becomes very violent when hearing about Martin’s affair. We have Billy, their gay son, because a play like this needs to add more cringe than it already has, and Ross, Martin’s friend who betrays the affair in a letter that sparks the play’s tragic denouement. In the first scene, we have the initial discussion of what is going on, which sets up Martin and Stevie as a generally conventional married couple and Martin confessing his love for a goat to his best friend. The second scene then has Martin having an argument with his son and then his wife. Then the third scene brings all of the characters together for Billy’s awkward admission that he is in love with his father, Ross coming in and arguing with Martin over the letter, and then Stevie returning home with a surprise that she thinks will destroy her estranged and unfaithful (!?) husband, executing biblical law on a suitable azazel goat.
It is pretty easy to understand what Albee is trying to do with this play. For one, the author realizes that homosexuality itself is passe in his community and that in order to shock the sensibilities of his audience he needs to up the ante. So he does, with discussions about incest and bestiality taboos that still exist, making the play as uncomfortable as possible while keeping the cast small and the play’s events tightly controlled as well. The result won a lot of awards, but one wonders how many of the viewers or readers of this play are really aware of the seriousness of the author’s point or the way that it undercuts complaints that those opposed to moral disorder are merely arguing about slippery slopes when they point to the next level after acceptance of one sort of sexual sin. This play is not only an exploration into the meaning of tragedy, at least domestic tragedy, but it is also an exploration at the lengths someone must go to in order to write a play that shocks as well, in its attempt to deal with bestiality and various excuses for it in a serious manner that refuses to go for easy laughs.