The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia

By Edward Albee. Every so often I get it into my head that family dramas are boring apolitical bourgeoise conceits that don’t really get me excited about The Theatre, but then I read something by Albee and realize how effectively and intelligently he cuts through our ridiculous facades in way that says something profound while remaining thoroughly theatrical. Martin, a 50 year old architect who has just won the Pritzker Prize and a huge new commission, has a dreadful secret.

In Scene One he is getting ready to be interviewed for TV by his childhood friend Ross, and bustles about the house with his wife Stevie. They love each other very much, and they love their gay son Billy. All is well. Martin is too distracted for the interview and Ross cancels it. They quarrel and make up, and in the process Martin confesses to Ross that he has been having an affair with a goat named Sylvia. Ross is incredulous and threatens to tell Stevie.

And in Scene Two, Stevie has the letter from Ross and she and Billy are letting Martin have it. Billy is sent to his room — Stevie and Martin continue to have it out. She trashes the apartment in her rage and threatens to hurt him as much as he hurt her. She storms out.

In Scene Three, Billy comes back down to find Martin in the ruins. They make up, sort of. Ross enters at an inopportune moment — Ross and Martin have it out, and at the end Stevie returns with Sylvia, the latter’s throat slit. A powerful stage moment if ever there was one.

It’s an amazing little piece of work, for the simplicity of the writing and the way in which the little beats in the dialogue build the characters for us but also further the action. There’s an economy in Albee’s writing, but it’s not an economy of text. It’s more that he doesn’t waste time in exposition, in having the characters have long reminiscences about events in the pre-story or speak of the present as an analogy to the past. It’s all in the present more or less, and the backstory is made part of the frontstory. I think the biggest lesson to take away as writer is that small things can be built into big things, and to let your dialogue scurry about — eventually it will find its way up.

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