The Zoo Story as an Absurd Play

The Zoo Story written by Adward Albee is an absurd play and hence deviates from the conventional drama. Absurd play is a form of drama that emphasizes the existentialist philosophy of the absurdity and meaninglessness of human existence.

The main characteristic of absurd plays is to show that life is essentially meaningless, hence miserable. There is no hope, because of the inevitable futility of men’s efforts. Man is fascinated by death, which permanently replaces dreams and illusions. There is no action or plot. Very little happens, because nothing meaningful can happen. The final situation is absurd or comic.

The Zoo Story is a seminal work in that it introduces themes which recur in almost all of Albee’s plays. The principal is the lack of contact between human beings and the reluctant apathy, indifference, self-destructiveness and cruelty. The point is brought home by a meeting between two characters, Jerry and Peter. The whole action is in the form of a conversation between them until it culminates in death of Jerrry.

Traditionally audiences expect the "well-made" play-life-like, psychologically realistic characters, witty dialogue, and well-crafted, causal plots with neatly tied up beginnings, middles, and ends. But the theater of the absurd subverts these expectations at every turn.  The term "theater of the absurd" was coined by the critic Martin Esslin, who in his book “The Theatre of the Absurd” asserts that these dramatists write from a “sense of metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of human condition”.

Though the Absurdists’ deal with differing styles, they do have some common stylistic precursors. Following are some of the features that are common in an Absurd play.

1. Essential traits

a)Actually the Absurd play departs from realistic characters, situations and all of the associated theatrical conventions. b) Time, place and identity are ambiguous and fluid, and even basic causality frequently breaks down. c) Meaningless plots, repetitive or nonsensical dialogue and dramatic non-sequiturs are often used to create dream-like or even nightmare-like moods.

Though all these happen in an Absurd play, there is a fine line between the careful and artful use of chaos and non-realistic elements and true, meaningless chaos. While the title seems to be quite random and meaningless on the surface, an underlying structure and meaning is usually found in the midst of the chaos

2. Characters

The characters in Absurdist drama are lost and floating in an incomprehensible universe and they abandon rational devices and discursive thought because these approaches are inadequate. Many characters appear as automatons stuck in routines speaking only in cliché. Characters are frequently stereotypical, archetypal, or flat character types as in Commedia dell'arte. In the play there are two characters Peter and Jerry. Both of these characters are almost same from the beginning to the end. There is no character development in the play. The dramatists give hardly any effort to portray their psychological development

3. Language

Despite its apparent nonsense language, much of the dialogue in Absurdist plays is naturalistic. The moments when characters resort to nonsense language or clichés– to Esslin, when words appear to have lost their denotative function, thus creating misunderstanding among the characters –make Theatre of the Absurd distinctive. Language frequently gains a certain phonetic, rhythmical, almost musical quality, opening up a wide range of often comedic playfulness.

4. Plot

Traditional plot structures are rarely a consideration in Absurdist plays. Plots can consist of the absurd repetition of cliché and routine. Often there is a menacing outside force that never reveals why. Absence, emptiness, nothingness, and unresolved mysteries are central features in Absurdist plots.

Thus, the play “The Zoo Story” contains almost all the elements of an absurd play. The play depicts the irrationalism of life in a grotesquely comic and non-consequential fashion with the element of "metaphysical alienation and tragic anguish."  At the time of production, there were two distinct opinions about the play; some called it a hoax and others called it a masterpiece. Nevertheless, “The Zoo Story”  has claimed its place in literary history as a masterpiece that changed the face of twentieth century American drama.

The Zoo Story is an absurd play. It explores the life situation of the modern man, the pointless and absurdity of human situation. The overall breakdown of values, the other incapacity for creative action and the ennui of routine life are seen as the manifestations of the malaise of the modern man. The absurdist viewpoint and generalized questions relating to existence self have been at the very heart of the play’s inspiration. It is also possible to read the play as a picture of the problems and conflicts of an existential character.