The tone of The Zoo Story is blank. Weird stuff happens, odd things transpire, unusual words are spoken, and the play just goes on, without really telling you how you're supposed to feel about it or what you're supposed to think. "I DON'T UNDERSTAND!" Peter shouts (171), and that seems to more or less be the reaction throughout. "What were you trying to do? Make sense out of things? Bring order?" Jerry taunts Peter (108), but he seems to be taunting the audience, too. There isn't any sense or any order. Things just happen, and there isn't a particular way to judge them or arrange them.
The blankness, though, at times also seems to slide into contempt—for Jerry, for Peter, for the audience, and for the author himself. Trying to figure out things is ridiculous and pitiful. "You don't know quite what to make of me, eh?" (179), Jerry asks, and it's a question with an edge.
At the end, when Jerry tells Peter "You've lost your bench" (278), it seems like Albee would like his play to do that to you, too. He wants you cut adrift because he finds your certainty (and Peter's certainty… and Jerry's certainty, too) to be ridiculous and absurd. "That's disgusting…that's horrible" (143), Peter says of Jerry's landlady—but it seems like it's also meant to apply to the play as a whole, and to all the people who think the play is disgusting and horrible. Albee is not a kind playwright. The world can be a cruel, cruel place.
Edward Albee worked in a style often called Theater of the Absurd, which sees humanity as… well, absurd. Folks go to the zoo, they sit on a bench, they get stabbed to death. And why? In order to find some meaning that isn't there and/or to look at some zoo animals.
A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING. If not with people…if not with people…SOMETHING. With a bed, with a cockroach, with a mirror…not, that's too hard, that's one of the last steps. With a cockroach, with a a...with a…with a carpet, a roll of toilet paper…no, not that, either… (163)
If The Zoo Story seems to go nowhere for no reason, that's because Albee is telling you there's nowhere to go and no reason to go there.
What we're saying is basically that Theater of the Absurd is not a very cheery theater. This is no Annie or The Sound of Music. It's a theater of bottomless despair and angst up the wazoo, which is a painful place to put your angst. It's also a theater of benches. (For more on absurdity and the uses thereof, see "Themes.")
Jerry keeps telling Peter that he's going to go into detail about what happened to him (Jerry) at the zoo before he came to the park. He never manages to get it out, though. So The Zoo Story is a story we never hear. The title is a kind of joke or tease; another way in which the play refuses to quite make sense; it's about frustrating you, rather than making you happy with action or adventure or a love story or even a pleasant trip to the zoo.
The Zoo Story also refers to the play itself, though; it's a story about a zoo. Jerry and Peter are animals on display for your enjoyment ("You're an animal too," Jerry tells Peter at the end of the play (278)). And as with animals in the zoo, it's not always easy to tell why they're snuffling over there, or what they're thinking. The story at the zoo is a story you can't quite understand—not the least because, like you, the animals you're watching are animals, too.
The very end of The Zoo Story has Peter screaming "OH MY GOD!" and then Jerry says, "Oh…my…God," and then he dies.
So what's with everyone shouting out to God right at the end there? Part of it is ironic; this is not a religious kind of play. The Zoo Story is a story about animals wandering about confusedly and bumping into each other, often painfully. A fight over a bench is not a great deed in the divine sense. So the play ends with "oh my God" to emphasize that this not a play with a holy, divine plan behind it.
The "oh my god" might also be important not because of what it says, but just because it's repeated. Peter says it—in fact, he says it a bunch of times as the play lumbers toward its end. Then Jerry says it. You could see this as Jerry mocking Peter—making fun of his meaningless references to a religion he probably doesn't really believe (imagine Jerry saying, "Oh…my…god" with a valley girl accent), or you could see it as Jerry trying to be Peter; imitating him because Jerry sort of, secretly, wishes he were Peter. Or it could be both—in fact, the stage directions say it is spoken with "a combination of scornful mimicry and supplication" (285). Jerry thinks Peter is ridiculous and wants to be Peter at the same time. Which is somewhat confusing—no wonder he calls on God to help him sort it out.
This is a one-scene play, so it's all set in one place: a quiet part of Central Park on a Sunday afternoon. The day is nice, the sun is warm, the birds are trilling, all is well with the world, except for the weird guy who babbles about lusty landladies and poisoning dogs and then attacks a dude and kills himself. Bet you weren't expecting that, huh?
The setting, in other words, is meant to be all nice and quiet and comfortable to contrast with the dirty, messy unpleasantness and absurdity of existence. Everything looks neat and ordered, with each animal in its cage, but it isn't. Be careful of the park—it's out to get you.
The Zoo Story is short. Its language isn't difficult and it only has a couple of characters. On the other hand, the action is jarring and you have to do a lot of reading between the lines (and/or benches) to figure out what Peter thinks he's doing, or why Jerry hates that dog. So we decided to put this play up at the Tree Line; not too hard to get to, but with a couple of surprising bumps along the way.
The Zoo Story is not a smooth reading (or watching) experience. There are lots and lots of pauses; Peter's first lines are "Hm?...What?...I'm sorry, were you talking to me?" (2). A lot of the play limps along like that, with stutters and spaces and gaps.
The writing style is also staggering in that some parts are short, back-and-forth dialogues… but then there are other bits that are big monologue blocks of text. When Jerry talks about the dog, for example, he goes on and on and on—with lots of ellipses of course:
I think…I think we stayed a long time that way…still, stone-statue… (162)
And when he's done, it's back to the staggering ping-pong: Jerry says, Peter says, and then back again to Jerry talking at length. The style and pacing is broken up and uncomfortable, like the play itself. In fact, if the play were a bench, it would have big holes and splinters sticking up, and would definitely prod Peter in the butt. And he'd surely say, "Hm?...What?..."
There's not a whole lot of scenery specified in The Zoo Story. But the one specific thing Albee calls for, the one thing you absolutely have to have if you're going to stage The Zoo Story, is "two park benches, one on either side of the stage," as the stage directions tell you.
The bench is all the scenery—and symbolically in the play, the bench is all the everything, too. Peter has a good job, a loving family, a nice home, and some pets. The bench symbolizes his comfort, his stability, all the things he has and enjoys happily:
I sit on this bench almost every Sunday afternoon, in good weather. It's secluded here; there's never anyone sitting here, so I have it all to myself. (217)
Peter's got a routine, he's got good weather, he's got privacy. He's happy and on the bench. So when Jerry sneers at Peter and tells him:
You have everything, and now you want this bench. Are these the things men fight for? (247)
Well, it's a little deceptive. Yes, Peter has everything, and doesn't need the bench. At the same time, the bench stands in for everything. If they can take your bench, what will they take next? Your parakeets, your spectacles? Your home, your spouse, your job?
Peter is willing to fight for the bench because the bench represents all that stuff. And when at the end he loses the bench, when he's "dispossessed" (278) by Jerry's death, that means his whole life has been upended too. Nothing is as safe as it should be. When Peter runs offstage at the end, he rushes into a less happy, less secure world, where you can't count on money or family—or even benches—to protect you.
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. (157)
That's the landlady's dog Jerry is talking about; a giant, evil beast with a red "erection" (157) and a foul temper. The dog attacks Jerry, Jerry tries to poison him. It's an epic struggle, smack dab in the middle of the play. It's the longest speech in the book. So what's the deal with the dog?
You're probably thinking the dog symbolizes some sort of existential whatsit about the horror of humanity and the cruelty of life.
And that's more or less right. Wow, good guess.
The title of The Zoo Story (see "What's Up With the Title?") indicates that humans are animals—"You're an animal too," Jerry tells Peter at the end of the play (278). So Jerry's struggle with the dog is in a lot of ways his struggle with other people. It's not just the dog that is mean, confusing, and bitter—it's other people. And Jerry's efforts to communicate with the dog, first by gentleness and then by violence, might as well be Jerry's efforts to communicate with Peter:
If you can't deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS! (163)
It's significant too that Jerry ends up coming to a kind of "understanding" (165) with the dog through violence. The dog tries to bite him, he tries to poison the dog, and then they both avoid each other like two people after a bad break-up:
It's very sad, but you'll have to admit that it is an understanding. We had made many attempts at contact and we had failed. (165)
And this seems like what Jerry tries to reach with Peter, too. He talks to him, tries to reach out, and when Peter doesn't understand, Jerry resorts to violence as a form of connection. At the end he seems to think he's succeeded—"you have comforted me. Dear Peter" (274). Comfort that leaves you bleeding to death on a bench, though, seems like comfort you could do without.
When your play mentions Sigmund Freud right at the beginning (17), you can probably expect a phallic symbol to appear somewhere along the way. You've got to wait a while for it, but the phallic does show up at the end. That's right ladies and gentlemen: the knife that Peter wields and Jerry falls upon can be seen as a symbol of a penis.
Peter is goaded into grabbing the knife when Jerry makes fun of his manhood: "You couldn't even get your wife with a male child" (267). And when Peter uses the knife, Jerry tells him he's regained his masculine verve and oomph: "And Peter, I'll tell you something now; you're not really a vegetable; it's all right, you're an animal. You're an animal, too" (278).
The use of the knife isn't just about potency, though. It's also about sex. Jerry tells Peter he's a homosexual (124), and his nattering at Peter, and tickling Peter, can be seen as a kind of courtship. In some ways, the last scene makes more sense as sex than as murder. Jerry is, after all, happy after he's stabbed, and feels that he's connected with Peter in a new and wonderful way. Peter is horrified and panic-stricken. But he might well be panic-stricken after sex too, since he's married and thinks of himself as heterosexual. If the knife is a phallic symbol, The Zoo Story can be read as a love story—though not one with a happy ending.
It's worth pointing out that The Zoo Story as a title is important because it's not what the play is about. Jerry keeps saying he'll talk about the zoo, but he never does. The play is about what does not happen at the zoo. The title is a head-fake if we've ever seen one, and we talk about it more in our "What's Up With the Title?" section—shocking, right?
Albee is the kind of writer who uses even a head-fake as a symbol, though. In this case, the fact that you never see the zoo is a tip-off that the play isn't about what it says it's about; it's allegorical or symbolic instead. This is not about two guys who have a fight over a bench. It's bigger and more mysterious than that. The zoo symbolizes the fact that the zoo is not the zoo. That's how the Theater of the Absurd rolls. (See "Genre.")
Theater of the Absurd intentionally messes with traditional storytelling. Plot, motivation, suspense, resolution—The Zoo Story either dispenses with them or scrambles them so much that they're almost unrecognizable. People like Booker divide stories up into seven different types, and Edward Albee comes along to say, hey, I spit upon your seven different types, and I refuse to tell you about the zoo as well, so there.
Still, if you have to force The Zoo Story into one of Booker's boxes, the box to box it in would probably be Tragedy. Albee wouldn't be happy about it, though.
Jerry sees Peter and wants to talk to him about the zoo. That's what passes for our hero finding a focus. He was sad and lonely, and now there's a guy on the bench to irritate and bore. It's not Hamlet, but it's what Albee's got.
It's hard to find a dream stage when the whole play reads like a disturbing, unsettling dream. Still, Jerry seems more or less happy with how things are trundling along through his speech about the dog. He gets to babble, Peter seems at least mildly sympathetic. Happiness reigns supreme. Sort of.
After the dog speech, Jerry realizes that Peter doesn't understand him after all. They are too separated by class, by circumstance, and by the fact that the play doesn't make much sense (so anyone inside it isn't going to make much sense either).
Things start to go wrong, or, in this case, wronger. Jerry doesn't lose control, exactly, so much as he seizes the wheel of the bench and drives it toward bench destruction. Also, knives. Watch where you point that thing, Peter.
This is the one bit that fits perfectly. As Jerry dies, he keeps speechifying, just as if he's in a real tragedy. Admittedly, one dead body up on the stage isn't very impressive by the standards of a real Shakespearian tragedy where the bodies are piled up like Taylor Swift's ex-boyfriends. But on the other hand, Jerry is half of all the people on stage. That's a 50% mortality rate. Did you ever manage that, Shakespeare, even with all your tragic tragedy? Half the people dead? Huh? Did you? Didn't think so.
Jerry finds Peter on the bench; they get to know each other. Jerry promises to tell Peter about his trip to the zoo. Waiting to find out about the zoo is what passes for building suspense in the play. Hey, we'll take it.
Part of the absurdity of Theater of the Absurd is that the action doesn't really rise; the initial situation doesn't lead logically to conflict and complications. Instead, the plot staggers and stumbles from point to point, like your old Uncle Harry after Thanksgiving dinner. In this case, the rising action is just more talk—and particularly the long, bizarre story about the dog that Jerry tells Peter, much to the latter's confusion.
The big, climactic, exciting moment of no return occurs late in the play, when Jerry tries to put Peter off the bench. Worse leads to worse, and Jerry ends up killing himself. That's really the only point where you could say anything actually happens, action-wise. It is sudden and final, though.
After being stabbed, Jerry keeps talking for a bit; Peter runs away. The play winds down, and ends.
The play does not have much in the way of resolution. You never learn what happened at the zoo, for example; you don't know what happens to Peter. Jerry just dies, and the play ends. Pfft. Theater of the Absurd doesn't feel like it needs to tie up loose ends for you, and it certainly makes no effort to here.
The Zoo Story is just one act, so splitting it into a three-act analysis seems a little beside the point; Albee might speak to Shmoop sternly. But Shmoop does not fear Albee. If Shmoop were going to turn this one-act play into three, Shmoop would do it thusly:
Jerry comes upon Peter, they talk and talk until they get to the dog speech. At the end of Act I, the characters are at least committed to talking to each other; Peter is listening whether he wants to or not.
The dog speech through the point where Jerry gives Peter the knife—a cliff-hanger that ends on Peter and Jerry confronting each other.
And Jerry kills himself. The end. Curtain. Everything is resolved, sort of, as much as Albee is willing to resolve anything.