“I almost dare not ask this… but who is Sylvia?” -Ross
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? has opened to rave reviews and BIG thanks go to the audience members, who happen to be our eyes and ears in the theatre, for sharing some wonderful moments online — like this fantastic curtain call on Instagram.
In earlier posts about The Goat here and here, we deliberately avoided from giving any spoilers. But now that the cat (or should I say the goat?) is out of the bag in the play’s reviews, in recent interviews Damian has given as well as in viewers’ posts all over social media, I would love to give my two cents about why I believe The Goat is more about us than about a goat and that it deals with deeper and more universal themes than some might think. Now, if you are planning to go see the play and you are not one for spoilers, STOP HERE. Otherwise, dive in!
Martin Gray is a prominent architect who has just turned 50 and become the youngest person to receive the Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the “Nobel prize in architecture” and is now taking on a two hundred billion dollar project to design a city of the future set to rise in the Midwest. Martin is married to Stevie, in Martin’s own words, a “smart, resourceful, and intrepid” woman, to whom he has been faithful in the 22 years they have been together. They love their son, Billy, who is 17 and has recently come out as gay. It seems everything is going right for The Grays, yet one of the first lines Stevie delivers in the play sets the tone:
“The sense that everything going right is a sure sign that everything’s going wrong, of all the awful to come?”
The couple is waiting for Ross, Martin’s oldest and best friend, who will come to interview him for his TV program. While Stevie makes casual conversation, Martin seems to be having a bad memory day. He forgets what day it is, has difficulty remembering Ross’ son’s name and cannot recognize the two business cards he finds in his coat pocket. When Stevie jokes maybe he is having an affair with the woman whose business card he has, Martin admits he is having an affair with a goat and the couple has a good laugh about it. Ross arrives and Stevie leaves to have her hair done adding she may also stop by at the feed store! 😀
Martin is extremely distracted during the interview that Ross understands there is something wrong and cuts the interview. When Martin finally confides in his friend that he is having an affair with Sylvia, Ross wants to know who she is. Martin shows him a picture.
“THIS IS A GOAT! YOU’RE HAVING AN AFFAIR WITH A GOAT. YOU’RE FUCKING A GOAT!”
This is the end of Scene 1.
Now that Martin has shared his secret with Ross, he is at the point of no return. He loses control over his life and needs to face whatever is to come his way. How will the Grays, who have just fallen from the top of the world to the bottom of the deepest hole, solve a problem like Sylvia?
I understand, since the biggest chunk of The Goat is about this family trying to come to terms with this shocking problem, one may easily take the play at its face value and say the play is about bestiality. Yet, here is what the late Edward Albee says about his late-career masterpiece.
“You may, of course, have received the misleading information that the play is about bestiality — more con than pro. Well, bestiality is discussed during the play (as is flower arranging) but it is a generative matter rather than the ‘subject.’ The play is about love, and loss, the limits of our tolerance and who, indeed, we really are.”
So, why don’t we start with bestiality, the facade of the play, if you will, and go from there to the deeper and more universal themes the play examines?
As soon as I read The Goat, I thought about an article in New York Magazine by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay who, in a series of fascinating interviews, examines human experiences dismissed as “weird” and “abnormal.” She does not try to moralize or normalize but just humanize. The particular article I am referring to is about a man having a relationship, yeah, with horses. And I know bestiality is an uncomfortable topic because when I recommended the article to others, most instantly refused to read it because they found it gross. Tsoulis-Reay points out in her article that even though sexual identity we can attach to bestiality is little understood; studies show it is not that uncommon:
“In 2002 the sex therapist Hani Miletski published Understanding Bestiality and Zoophilia, a book based on her study of almost 100 zoophiles — research that led her to conclude that many form deep, loving, and very nurturing relationships with their animal partners. While it’s certainly not a homogeneous community, many “zoos” (as they are known to self-identify) are monogamous and live with their animals as if they were human partners. As a result of legal restrictions — sex with an animal is illegal in most U.S. states and European countries — the lived experience of being a zoo is rarely heard outside of underground online forums or secret meet-up groups.”
Damian Lewis shares about their own research in an interview with The Telegraph: “A high – I think surprisingly high – percentage of people have had the fantasy of sex with an animal. Ten percent.”
So bestiality is not that uncommon; however, it is a disturbing topic and is likely to stay that way for a long time. Albee explains why he had to go that far away in this play.
“I wanted to find something so out of that which we consider possible that we even think about it as conceivably happening and make us relate it to ourselves. And so I had to go that far away. I mean, there are so many things one can fall in love with, that are tolerable, I suppose, though outlandish, you know. The old theory, you know, “stick to your own kind.” Well, that’s pretty limiting, these days especially. I wanted something that was so inconceivable to force us to think about that which we have such knee-jerk and instant reaction that this cannot be even considered and thought. And that’s what I wanted.”
Albee pushes us to think hard about love, our understanding of love, about social norms and taboos, and the arbitrariness with which we set, at least, some of them. He wants us to question our own limits of tolerance as this absurd family situation folds out in front of our very eyes. And now that I have come to think about it, my husband and I have so much in common with Martin and Stevie. We have been together for exactly 22 years, we are doing well financially and professionally, and I believe, exactly like Stevie does, I have the best marriage in the world. What if my husband came to me and confessed he was in love with a goat? How would I wrestle with that?
This extreme example makes me imagine the unimaginable in MY world and make me think about ways to process it and deal with it rather than judge it outright as “weird” or “abnormal.” Albee uses sexuality as an instrument to explore relationships as well as what we, as a society, find acceptable and unacceptable in them: e.g. a husband’s relationship with his wife, a father’s relationship with his son and a man’s relationship with his best friend. He makes it inevitable, at least for me, to think about deeper and bigger questions.
What defines normal? Who creates social taboos? Why do we believe this is right and that is wrong? How can one defend her own morality? Isn’t it mind-bending that what we find disgusting may be normal in another culture? Isn’t it intriguing that what we think of as unimaginable today may be embraced 50 years later? Remember living out of wedlock was a social taboo for the longest time and still is in many societies. So was interracial marriage. Can you believe only in 1994 more than half of the Americans approved of interracial marriage in general? Go figure! I love it that, deliberately or not, this new production gives us an interracial marriage on stage! Or, imagine, what if the play is from 1950s and the photo Martin shows Ross is not of Sylvia the goat but Michael the man?
Don’t get me wrong; I am neither trying to make a case for bestiality nor making a comparison across social taboos. I am just arguing we need to be careful when we talk about them because while some of the taboos may be good to stay as taboos, some of them may be very good to get rid of. The Goat is there to get us out of our comfort zone and question our own morality.
I cannot agree with Albee more as he talks about “the artifices in the taboos that we’ve set up” on Charlie Rose in an interview back in 2002 when The Goat was first staged in New York with Bill Pullman as Martin and Mercedes Ruehl as Stevie. And, Martin, who faces prejudice for his own sexual experiences, showing distaste for his son’s homosexuality, is a great example of how arbitrary standards people may set for social morality. Albee is a genius that plays to the seemingly liberal society’s limits of tolerance.
And when you come to think about it, don’t you think there is a “Sylvia” at some scale in everyone’s life? What is that one thing about you that you would be afraid to whisper thinking no one will understand? It does not need to be a social taboo: I think it is your “Sylvia” as long as your family and your friends would simply not understand it about you.
I know what mine is. This blog is my “Sylvia”! Because if some of my family, my colleagues and even some good friends found out about it, they would have a very hard time processing and would certainly judge and constantly tease me. Why? Oh it is just because I am a professor and a married woman in her 40s. Writing a blog for an actor that I admire is not what is expected of me. As I have always said, this blog is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life thanks to my wonderful partners and all new friends I have made in the last two and a half years. Yet, it sometimes feels like a lonely experience because I cannot share my happiness and excitement with some of the people I am most close to in real life (Lewisto is a HUGE exception and I am grateful for it). In other words, I cannot be completely myself because a part of my life needs to stay under cover. And I, of course, recognize the fact that my problem is NOTHING when compared to, say, a young man who has difficulty coming out as gay because of the social norms in his community.
I put my thoughts together for this essay before the fantastic Guardian Web Chat Damian did a week ago. And when I found out about the web chat, I wanted to ask Damian about his take on the play. While I was waiting for a short answer — he had to tackle a lot of questions — he gave a long and detailed answer that went beyond my expectations. Thank you, Damian, you are one in a billion!
So, the final word on The Goat goes to the man who brings Martin Gray to life on stage and who has obviously given some serious thought to the play. The way Damian connects The Goat not just to love and tolerance but also to politics — from Brexit to American presidential elections to use of words as weapons — and to the crazy times we are living in, is no less than fascinating and attests to both Albee’s brilliance and The Goat‘s timeliness.
“I think The Goat is a modern American classic. I think it’s a play about love and tolerance, and I think an exploration of different expressions of love, different manifestations of love, and what we’re prepared to tolerate and accept seemed apt for now. We’re surrounded by examples of rejection at the moment, on the macro, and on the micro level. A retrenching; a resurgence of nationalism. I think there’s a degree on unease, of uncertainty around – I think that always makes people feel anxious. I think building bridges with Europe is preferable to taking them down, but we’ll have to see what it means in actual terms over the next couple of years. I resent the amount of political time, space and money it’s going to take up – I think that’s unnecessary. In terms of what’s going on in America, whilst it can be frustrating when we feel politicians don’t say anything of consequence, or seem to obfuscate always, we’ve seen how damaging and dangerous it can be when someone uses language irresponsibly. And we’ve seen it really does matter what you say. Words have power; they are what give meaning to our experience. It’s how we understand, shape and recount our experiences, collectively. Which is another reason this play is so good to do right now, because in it, words are used as weapons. Language is of paramount importance in the play. There’s a pedantry in the play about language and how it should be used. It should be used with precision. The Goat, as a metaphor, represents other. For Albee it was his own homosexuality as a young man in the 1950s, but it can be taken to mean anything that we don’t understand or are ignorant of.
It’s also a brilliant theatrical experience, both to perform and to watch – it’s laceratingly funny, sad, and totally absurd at times.”