Coming Late to “The Goat”

Written by Edward Albee in 2000, “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” received the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play in 2002 and was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While clearly a widely known and well-regarded play, I had never seen it until last Saturday night when I attended a preview performance of Interrobang Theatre Project’s production currently running at the Rivendell Theatre in Chicago.

The intent of preview performances is to allow the actors and director determine what works and doesn’t in front of an audience before the final crystallizing for the show’s opening. Given this production had not reached its final form, critiquing the production would be unfair. But even in this early form, the show works. James Yost’s direction guides the performers through this emotional rollercoaster of a show with energy, intelligence, and purpose. The cast – Elana Elyce as wife Stevie, Tom Jansson as husband Martin, Ryan Liddell as their gay teenage son Billy, and Armando Reyes as Martin’s lifelong friend Ross – inhabit their roles with great intensity while speaking lines larded with clever repartee. The set design by Kerry Lee Chipman settles the audience into the upscale and elegantly tasteful home of a starchitect.

The play deals with the discovery of and the fallout from Martin’s love affair with the goat he’s named Sylvia. While initial public reaction focused on the bestiality aspect, Edward Albee stated this was not the ultimate theme of the play. In an interview with Charlie Rose focused on The Goat’s 2002 New York premiere, Albee stated, “Imagine what you can’t imagine.  Imagine that, all of a sudden, you found yourself in love with a Martian, in love with something you can’t conceive of.  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 just think freshly and newly about it.”

The intolerable and insufferable has a different resonance in the age of #MeToo. Today The Goat can be viewed as just another tale of a powerful man taking sexual advantage of a being who lacks the ability to consent. This story has become so commonplace it even swept up Edward Albee’s aforementioned interviewer. But today the Eumenides, mentioned in an exchange between Martin and Ross in Scene One, are the outraged public eager to banish the formerly powerful from public life, be it comic Louis C.K., CBS executive Les Moonves, or news anchor Matt Lauer. Ross and Stevie clearly see this consequence looming for the clueless Martin.

In Scene Two, Stevie, challenging Martin about his “love” affair, asks the questions many in the audience have been pondering, “You take advantage of this creature? You…rape this … animal and convince yourself it has to do with love!? Martin, like many of today’s apologists, responds, “I love her … and she loves me, and …” The scene concludes with Stevie stating, “You brought me down to nothing! You have brought me down, and, Christ, I will bring you down with me!” before she exits, slamming the door. End scene.

Confronting Martin about the affair and what is being destroyed, son Billy vacillates wildly between concern for his mother, anger at his father, and a deep love for both of them. Their exchange rises in heat and intensity, reaching a crescendo where Billy erotically kisses his father. Ross interrupts them, warning of Stevie’s impending return. Stevie returns dragging in the bloodied carcass of Sylvia. With a cry from Billy of “Dad? Mom?”, the play ends.

The subtitle of the play, Notes toward a definition of tragedy, echoes the origin of the word tragedy, tragidia, which, in Greek, means “goat song”. Festivals in ancient Greece included play competitions where a goat was awarded to the best play, followed by the goat being slaughtered. In Albee’s play, Sylvia is clearly a scapegoat. As René Girard explained, the scapegoat appears in myths and rituals around the world. Through acts of collective violence, an innocent victim was sacrificed to restore order to the community. Stevie’s slaughter of Sylvia, driven by rage or to the preservation of her family, leaves the audience stunned as they witness innocence being slaughtered.

Was Edward Albee prescient, envisioning a time when victimizers would be publicly held to account for their actions against the innocent, or seeking to confront society with “circumstances outside our comfort zones”? (Albee, Stretching My Mind 259.) Perhaps his understanding of the rivalrous nature of human desire and its escalation to violence allowed him to construct a play that invites us to examine where we have sacrificed innocence.

Image: Taken from the promotion materials for booking a production of “The Goat or, Who is Sylvia,” in Australia.

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