Study Guide

The Zoo Story

By Edward Albee

The Zoo Story Introduction

The Zoo Story is about the universal experience of sitting in the park and having some weirdo come up to you, talk about the zoo, try to steal your bench, then kill himself. Happens all the time, right?

Wait—that's not a universal experience?

Okay, so the whole premise of this story is probably not something that'll happen on the regular. But it isa weird, non-universal experience, and, in a roundabout way, that's something we can all relate to. Heck, we'd even argue that life as a whole is a weird, unique experience for each and every one of us.

Edward Albee worked in a style known as Theater of the Absurd, which basically means the people in his play (and in a park near you) are nuts—they don't act right. So The Zoo Story is in part about goofy people acting goofily and the odd things they do.

But the play is also about how we judge about other people—our habit of making conclusions about others, like whether or not someone is an odd goof who isn't behaving right.

But who are we to judge? Absurdity is in the eye of the beholder, and the biggest absurdity is maybe separating folks into absurd and less absurd, or assuming that there's a universal "normal" against which you can compare the non-normal weirdo. Is Peter less absurd than Jerry? Are you less absurd than the folks up on the stage? Are we human, or are we dancer?

The Zoo Story launched Albee's career as a playwright when it was presented in Germany in 1960. It's quite famous, and is probably his best known work outside of his 1962 smash success Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That got made into a movie, but The Zoo Story is too short and too weird to have ever been adapted. And that's exactly why we love it.

What is The Zoo Story About and Why Should I Care?

There are two kinds of people in the world—people who think there are two kinds of people in the world and people who don't. The Zoo Story is awesome because it shows us why we probably don't want to be in that first group.

In the play, Peter and Jerry represent the two different types of people. Peter is the bourgeois, self-satisfied, not-much-happening-here-on-this bench sort. Jerry's the outcast, outsider, disreputable bad-boy sort. The kind of guy you probably don't want to take home to mom.

They don't seem to like each other. But they need each other.

Peter wouldn't feel all comfortable and settled on his bench if there weren't other people out there who were less comfortable. Meanwhile, Jerry enjoys being the aggressive, odd outsider. If Peter wasn't around, who would Jerry scare?

But at the same time, Jerry kind of, sort of envies Peter and his bench (which of course he tries to steal.). And for his part, Peter enjoys the unsettling conversation, the whiff of danger, and the chance to change up his monotony a little.

So both Jerry and Peter benefit from dividing the world into Jerrys and Peters. Specifically, they get to hate each other and (secretively) love each other; they get to define themselves as what the other is not. But all that loving and hating and defining—where does it take them? To fighting and blood on the bench, that's where. Charming.

So don't be that guy, or that other guy. You should care about The Zoo Story because it shows you what happens when you put everyone on a separate bench—or in a separate cage.

The Zoo Story Resources

Websites

The Edward Albee Society
All things Albee: bibliography, biography, news, and more. The society meets alternate Tuesdays on a bench in Central Park. (Just kidding.)

Movie or TV Productions

Absurdity on TV, 1964
The Zoo Story had a television production some five years after it was staged. There's not much more information available. It does not seem to have set Nielsen records.

Articles and Interviews

The Edward Albee Story
Who's Edward Albee? Did he ever go to the zoo? This biographical article will tell you.

The Zoo Story, Plus
Forty years after finishing The Zoo Story, Albee decided to write a preface. That's a long time to finish a one- (now two-) act play.

Jerry in a Cage
A paper about themes of entrapment in The Zoo Story.

"People Don't Know Anything About Themselves. They Shouldn't Write About Themselves."
A lengthy interview with Albee.

Video

I've Been to the Zoo
Bucknell University's 2011 production of The Zoo Story.

"I Saw My First…Albee Play in a Language I Don't Understand"
An interview with Edward Albee about his career, his interactions with Samuel Beckett, The Zoo Story prequel, and other matters.

"Yes is Better Than No"
A brief interview and profile of Edward Albee, focusing on Albee's famous play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Audio

"So Many Writers Who are Gay are Expected to Behave Like Gay Writers"
NPR interviews Edward Albee about his controversial 2011 comments that he did not want to be pigeonholed as a gay writer.

"Pretend You're at the First Play You've Ever Seen"
An NPR interview on Albee's 80th anniversary in 2008.

Images

"Ever See a Play Called Zoo Story"
An ominous cartoon referencing the Albee play.

There They are on the Bench
A scene from a 2009 Tucson production of The Zoo Story.

Young Edward Albee
Albee in 1961 at the age of 33 by the famous photographer Carl Van Vechten.