Mr. Albee’s perceptive biographer, Mel Gussow, pointed out that the novice playwright found his own voice with the exhilarating Zoo Story. It’s a play that would influence an entire generation of young, emerging American playwrights in the 1960’s (and inaugurated the genre of “the park bench play”). To see it today is to realize that it’s still a shattering experience. I’ll burn my bridges and claim that in all of modern U.S. drama, I can think of no more ferocious statement about relationships than Jerry’s staggering monologue about a killer dog he describes as “malevolence with an erection.”
Dallas Roberts is riveting as Jerry, the lost, directionless soul who’s just been to the zoo and lives in a one-room dump on the Upper West Side. He wants to talk, wants a conversation. He’s like an animal who keeps flinging itself at the bars of his cage.
“The Story of Jerry and the Dog!”—as he calls it, as if announcing a grotesque sideshow for Peter’s instruction—is the long and winding story of to how he came to tame his loathed landlady’s vile dog with poisoned hamburgers, medium rare. “All right. The dog, I think I told you, is a black monster of a beast: an oversized head, tiny, tiny ears and eyes … bloodshot, infected, maybe; and a body you can see the ribs through the skin.”
It attacked him, going to bite his leg off, from the first day he moved in. “Now animals don’t take to me like St. Francis had birds hanging off him all the time. What I mean is: Animals are indifferent to me … like people,” he adds, smiling lightly. “But this dog wasn’t indifferent.” So Jerry decided: “First, I’ll kill the dog with kindness, and if that doesn’t work … I’ll kill him.”
Peter is listening wincingly to all this—anxious to oblige the talkative stranger who’s joined him uninvited at the bench. Jerry then tells how he poisoned the dog: “AND IT CAME TO PASS THAT THE BEAST WAS DEATHLY ILL.” He said to the stricken landlady that he’d pray for the dog, but she didn’t believe him. “I told her, and there is so much truth here, that I didn’t want the dog to die. I didn’t, and not just because I’ve poisoned him. I’m afraid that I must tell you I wanted the dog to live so that I could see what our new relationship might come to.”
The dog recovered, and they reached a compromise, a truce between them. He even got to love the
dog. “Don’t you see?” Jerry pleads with Peter. “A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING.” And in the howling and wreckage of life, he has learned that “the teaching emotion” is a combination of kindness and cruelty, and that the dog and he “neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach each other.”
Perhaps Jerry is a crazed martyr; perhaps in the last primal moments, he’s simply content to be out of it like a wounded animal who has to be put down. “I’ll tell you something now,” he tells the horrified Peter with his dying breath. “You’re not really a vegetable, you’re an animal. You’re an animal, too. But you’d better hurry now, Peter. Hurry, you’d better go. …”
Zoo Story left me feeling shocked and elated, and yet I’m uncertain whether we truly need its prequel—glad though I was to see it. Having visited Zoo Story again, it seems to me that we’ve always known who Mr. Albee’s Peter is, more or less.