Edward Albee’s new play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? , starring Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl, is about a happily married man who falls helplessly in love with a goat. So what else is new?
A lifetime ago, a talented lady by the name of Rochelle Owens wrote Futz! , an Off Broadway hit about a guy who falls helplessly in love with a pig. It was named Amanda. Sylvia is the goat. Ms. Owens was working at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York City when she wrote Futz! , and her play for pig lovers did for the pig what Mr. Albee tries to do for the goat. It put zoophilia on the map.
The innovative 1968 Futz! also included various acts of bestiality, sadism, transvestitism and what the most erudite John Simon called in The Times “troilism” (man, woman and pig). I’m not sure whether Amanda the pig was bisexual or just going with the program. Anyway, the cult-movie version of Futz! –not to be confused, of course, with Das Fröhliche Dorf (1955), the hilarious German comedy concerning a sow named Jolanta–which was directed by Tom O’Horgan, of Hair fame, is principally remembered today for Sally Kirkland riding naked on Amanda.
Lucky Amanda. Like Futz! ‘s heroine, however, Mr. Albee’s Sylvia could be, just might be … A Symbol . Try not to tell anyone. Very Important Dramatists want you to figure these things out for yourself. I wouldn’t say, though, that Mr. Albee’s goat is Ishmael’s whale. Sylvia is no Moby Dick. No sirree. Sylvia is sweet, if a little predatory with her come-hither eyes.
“And it was then that I saw her,” confesses Martin, Mr. Albee’s tragic hero, explaining to his understandably stunned wife his first eye-lock with the goat. “And she was looking at me … with those eyes.”
Even so, Sylvia symbolizes Innocence. The goat possesses an Edenesque purity of soul, whilst also seeming to be a most charming spokesperson for fundamentalist vegetarianism. “I’ve never seen such an expression,” Martin, the cross-species lover, says of his epiphany. “It was pure … and trusting … and innocent; so … so guileless.”
We don’t actually see Sylvia, and perhaps it’s as well. It would spoil the illusion. But in their different, so … guileless ways, Mr. Albee’s goat and Ms. Owens’ pig amount to the same morality tale. Sylvia and Amanda are inevitably killed in acts of blind retribution–making them heavily symbolic martyrs to society’s censorious conformism and its judgmental spoilsports. Mr. Albee’s hero, Martin, is another martyr to the cause, and the dramatist seems to see himself as one, too. He’s even thrown in references to Christ and Saint Sebastian, for Heaven’s sake.
Edward Albee–or St. Ed, as he’s sometimes known–intends to shock us, obviously. The renowned dramatist, anxious to condition us in what to expect, announced before The Goat opened at the Golden on Broadway: “There’s one thing I’m doing in this play: testing the tolerance of the audience. Testing the limits of tolerance.”
He must be joking. He’s written a play that’s about as shocking as blueberry pie. Far from pushing the limits of theater, he’s doing nothing new–least of all avant-garde or revolutionary. The message that married couples kill each other was first told by Mr. Albee a generation ago with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He’s actually pulled his punches about the boundaries of love and sex. In The Goat , we’re given the hero’s vague, stammering romanticism of illicit love, but no sense whatsoever of its reality. He and the goat nuzzle, but how do they actually get the show on the road? “I won’t go into the specifics of our sex with you,” Martin announces primly about his new love. Why not? A detail or two would have surely tested the limits, and the audience would have been in welcome uproar.
For all Mr. Albee’s posturing, at best he’s written a conventional drawing-room comedy with Serious Undertones. The piece is self-consciously, flippantly Cowardesque. One of Mr. Albee’s dubious messages is that some things in life are too serious to be taken seriously. (Is a stiff upper lip masking superficially brittle emotion the same as Greek tragedy? Kindly discuss among yourselves.) But it’s why Mr. Albee’s married couple likes to impersonate Noël Coward. (Is this what married couples do?)
Mr. Albee, and Sylvia, get their laughs, but there are more bad jokes than there ought to be. After all, the life and marriage of Stevie, the betrayed wife, have been ruined and tragically diminished. Yet she still has time for jokes about their teenage “kid.” Geddit? At another side-splitting moment, she teases her husband, “Oh, you kid.” She means “You’re kidding.” The audience laughs just the same, and, frankly, it gets your goat. Not to ram the point home, but while we’re meant to sense tragedy about to explode beneath the trivializing surface, this is just silly.
The wife’s anger, when it arrives, amounts to campy melodrama. She smashes symbolically primitive art works as she learns of her husband’s primitive new love. “I’ve laid it all out for you,” she cries. “I’m naked on the table; take all your knives! Cut me! Scar me forever!”
Meanwhile, 50-year-old Martin, the placid goat lover and architect who’s just won the Pritzker Prize, is a pedantic semantician who’s meant to be a cool ironist. He corrects people for saying “who” when they mean “whom,” and “ranunculi” for the plural of “ranunculus.” He’s a dope. He’s far more concerned about the betrayal of his lifelong best friend Ross, the Judas and liberal-minded hypocrite who ratted to his wife about the goat, than he is about his wife. “I’ll tell you what’s sick! Writing that fucking letter …. ” Martin says.
Be that as it may, The Goat is little more than a shrill domestic drama about infidelity ending with a crime of a passion. “What did she do?” the broken Martin cries to the betrayed wife over the corpse of the lover. “What did she ever do? I ask you: What did she ever do?”
Well, she stole the husband. She ruined a blissfully happy 22-year marriage. And she’s a goat ! I’m not sure what the wife, or Sylvia, ever saw in Martin. But what Martin sees in a coarse 1950′s fink in a blazer like Ross is more of a mystery. It’s a pity, or an easy mark, that Ross is the voice of “reason” in the play. If we happen to think that liberty (on balance) has borders, we therefore find ourselves agreeing with a contemptible informer.
The Goat is a smug play that way. There’s a brief moment–not too unexpected–when Martin’s adolescent son, who’s gay and confused, kisses his father sexually while they comfort each other. There’s also one fleeting story that Martin tells about a man who held his baby in his lap and became aroused. “Things happen” is his casual conclusion–the moral equivalent of a shrug.
Hey-ho. Anything goes, according to Edward Albee. “Is there anything anyone doesn’t get off on, whether we admit it or not–whether we know it or not?” Martin asks as the evening comes to its close. The answer is yes, plain and simple. Ask the baby. But for Mr. Albee to suggest that everything is right is as mindless as saying everything is wrong. He wouldn’t claim, I assume, there’s no such thing as bad art or a bad play. But in the end The Goat offers us nothing fresh, and bad plays are all around us.