Martin is at a loss for words. That's the first thing we learn about him. Witty, articulate, educated, and, suddenly, he's struggling for words. He's forgetful, in a fog. Why did he come into this room? What's that person's name again? What are these cards in his pocket? Is he just middle-aged? Is it early Alzheimer's? No. He's in an experience that can't be put into words, one so far beyond the parameters of 'normal' that he can't find words to adequately express it and he can't share it.
He should be able to share his experience, of course. Martin is a supremely lucky man. His life is an enviable success. He has been married to his beloved wife Stevie for many years. Happily. Faithfully. They are matched intellectually, emotionally, sexually. They "get" each other. His teenaged son loves and respects him. He has at least one friend who goes back 40 years with him. His career as an architect is satisfying and distinguished. This very week he has been honored with the Pritzker Prize, as the youngest recipient ever. He has been selected to design the most prestigious architectural project of the decade. He has fame, wealth, domestic happiness. Ross introduces him as "special...a person more extraordinary than others". Martin is surrounded by lovers, friends, admirers. But Martin is the loneliest man in the universe.
In a moment of happiness, balance, and abundance, Martin is caught unawares by a completely unexpected event. He falls in love with a goat. To Martin this isn't just some twisted lust, although that is the interpretation of those to whom he tries to explain it. Falling in love with Sylvia is a transcendent experience. "I didn't know what I was feeling," he tells Ross, "it wasn't like anything I'd felt before; it was...so amazing, so...extraordinary." So different and incomprehensible is the emotion that he uses cliché words, or simply "can't talk about it."
This, for Stevie, for Billy, for Martin himself, is the horror. Unlike the other sad and sick folks of Martin's therapy group, Martin is in a state of joy, of transport. He finally describes his encounter with Sylvia in ecstatic terms: "an ecstasy, a purity," "an Epiphany." It is alien. It has nothing to do with his love for Stevie, his commitment to his family and his work. "It relates to nothing. It can't have happened! It did, but it can't have!" What to others is the deepest depravity is to Martin like a religious possession. It isolates him completely.
And so, the audience (if you are still in your seats) arrives where the playwright has been dragging us. "The play," Albee says, "is not about bestiality. . . Imagine what you can't imagine. I want everybody to be able to think about what they can't imagine and what they have buried deep, as being intolerable and insufferable, I want them to think freshly and newly about it...How do you deal with that which you cannot conceivably have imagined?...I want the audience to think about what they can't imagine thinking about. "
For Albee himself, the shaky, emotionally fragmented, potentially violent ground of his best plays is biographical terrain. He was born in 1928 in (depending on your source) Virginia or Washington, DC to a father who immediately abandoned him and a mother who put him up for adoption. Like a Dickens hero, he was adopted by a millionaire couple (whose money came from an empire in vaudeville theatres) and brought up in Larchmont, New York, affluent, sheltered, and cosseted. However, Edward didn't fit into their world. Reed Albee, his adoptive father, was withdrawn and absent, a serial adulterer. Frankie, Reed's third wife, was a glamorous former model, "imperious, demanding, and unloving," to quote Albee's biographer. The Albees were politically right-wing and never accepted Edward's homosexuality. The boy (who became a ferocious liberal) was thrown out of the best private schools, endured the same military academy that JD Salinger suffered, and lasted only three terms at Trinity College, Hartford, where he was expelled for cutting classes and refusing to attend chapel. He left home for good in 1949 (aged 21), adopted the bohemian life of Greenwich Village, and has remained there ever since.
Today, at 84, Albee is one of our greatest living playwrights. From Zoo Story, his first play in 1958, Albee has written, among many others, such challenging and controversial plays as The Death of Bessie Smith (1959), The American Dream (1960), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), A Delicate Balance (1966), and Three Tall Women (1990). Among his many awards, including the Tony for The Goat, Albee has won three Pulitzer Prizes and a fourth for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that was withdrawn by a spooked-out advisory committee. He has been honored with lifetime achievement awards, Kennedy Centers Honors, and the National Medal of Arts.
As edgy, as Absurdist impossible, as The Goat is, the work is a tragedy and an exploration of the classical tragic form. Albee himself, who always publically resists all efforts to apply symbolic analysis to his work, actually subtitled the play: "Notes toward a definition of tragedy." The very word 'tragedy,' it must be noted, means "goat song," and some scholars speculate that it refers to tragedy's ancient beginnings as a ritual dance by the tragic chorus preceding the sacrifice of a goat. These rituals were Dionysian in origin, with the sacrifice being performed while in a state of possession and blood-frenzy.
In classic tragedy, according to Aristotle, the protagonist is a person renowned and of superior attainments who experiences an overwhelming reversal of fortune. His disastrous end-which sweeps his innocent family to destruction with him-is the result of a mistaken action arising from an error in judgment that causes him to break a moral law. Because the hero's suffering is greater than his offense, the audience feels terror and, out of a sense of fellowship, pity.
Martin's situation certainly conforms to the classical model. He is a good man of superior achievement who, in a state of possession ("Epiphany," "ecstasy"), has a genuine Dionysian experience that leaves him in a moral no-man's-land. His actions precipitate no only his own downfall, but the destruction of his kingdom (his home and career) and his house (his wife and son).
In choosing his title, Albee was deliberately doubling the meaning. "A goat is two things," he says. "The goat is the animal. And also, I believe, a person can be a goat, the butt of the situation. The goat." That is to say, the victim, the sacrifice. Martin falls in love with a goat ("a real goat," says Albee, "It's not metaphorical, it's a real goat.") but by the end of the play, it is Martin who is the goat. Beneath the careful, secure structure of his civilized life yawns the inexplicable, the darkness of moral chaos into which he has stumbled. As his son Billy will say, he is "digging a pit so deep!, so wide! so...HUGE...we'll all fall in and never be able to climb out again-no matter how much we want to, how hard we try."
Edward Albee: A Singular Journey by Mel Gussow (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.)