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"The Zoo Story": A contemporary hero for American society

Updated on October 3, 2011

The mid-twentieth century was chock-full of events that would change the nature of America, including the American civil rights movement, the rise of feminism and gay rights, and the Vietnam War. Such significant and life-changing times cannot be left to carry on unimpeded by those who are affected; American citizens must not just keep tabs on current issues but also raise their voices if indecencies or crimes come about. Efforts must be made to curb wrongs and cease unfairness or else things can get out of hand; people cannot just isolate themselves from the rest of the world when times are difficult. This applies to today as well as the 1950s and 60's. Thus Jerry in Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story" emerges as a hero for mid-1900s and for present times, for he was one person to act out, to face his loneliness and social differences and to break the conceptual silence of American society.

In the play, Jerry crosses class boundaries and social disparities in order to cure his loneliness. He speaks to a complete stranger, Peter, who is a publishing executive and higher up on the social ladder than Jerry, who lives in a less-than-quality roominghouse, whose dysfunctional family is dead and whose relationships been very abnormal and dissatisfactory ("Mom walked out on good old Pop when I was ten and a half years old," "Pop...slapped into the front of a somewhat moving city omnibus," and "I hang my head in shame that puberty was late... I was a h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l"). Nonetheless Jerry opens a conversation that includes a wealth of topics, from books to the landlord's dog. He is not afraid of speaking his mind, being himself with his outbursts and intense curiosity, or facing the truth, which is that he is miserable and not afraid to die, despite Peter's initial indifference and reluctance to converse; when Peter is embarrassed to talk about pornographic playing cards and tells Jerry, "I'd rather not talk about these things," Jerry responds, "So?" Jerry overcomes Peter's negative reactions and eventually coerces Peter to help him die.

Jerry's authenticity and boldness is something that Americans could have used earlier in the last century. The times called for individuals to be unafraid of their own power and to stand up for what they believed in. Many people did; there were several protests and marches against the Vietnam War as well as for women's rights and desegregation. Certainly the nation was tired from the liberalism and radicalism of the previous decades. However, that is no excuse to keep one's back turned to the issues that matter, when blacks and other minorities are without basic rights and when people's children are being sent to war. Someone is bound to disagree and that disagreement, whether right or wrong, is vital to the foundation of the country and its democratic functions. Even when there is discouragement, such as the government or dissimilarities among citizens, one must be willing to confront difficulties. It is positive to disregard class and social differences, for in doing so one can connect peoples running the gambit of American society. This was important during these times, when classes, races, and genders were so separated.

This mindset and readiness is important today as well. When there is war raging overseas, gas prices rising at home, and political scandals in the government, there is still a need to speak out, be brave, and try something different. If the most unusual or common people do have opinions they are afraid to voice, characters such as Jerry can stimulate the motivation to open their mouths, whether in large-scale political situations or in family conversations or school.

Kevin Tillman, brother of Pat Tillman, the football player who turned in his jersey to fight in Iraq and was killed by "friendly fire," recently condemned the eminent American government for its Iraq policy. "Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes," he said. "Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground. Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated." There was a lot more that was said as well. While the charges were powerful and the words extreme, Tillman was still not afraid to utter them. He was not a politician or a millionaire, just a brother. Like Jerry, he showed how important it is to cross social lines and stand out because one never knows when they really need to be heard.


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      Estela 6 years ago

      It's amazing how Albee portraits the atmosphere of the time: animals trapped in cages, people trapped in their own personal worlds.Very interesting article!!

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 6 years ago from Northern California

      Thank you all for your comments! Jeremy, good point - thanks for reminding me to give credit to Edward Albee :)

    • profile image

      Jeremy 6 years ago

      Good article, but remember to include the playwright's name. A fair majority in theatre will know who wrote "The Zoo Story" but now everyone who comes across this article, and may find it interesting.

    • RKHenry profile image

      RKHenry 7 years ago from Neighborhood museum in Somewhere, USA

      Really excellent.