Theater is unique from books or film because it’s necessarily a communal experience. Actors are in the same space as the audience. The story is fleshed out “live”, with no possibility of rewinding or re-reading. We see their breath, we can nearly see their hearts beating up there on stage and they can hear us too, our laughter, our gasps, and, eventually, hopefully, our applause. All of this combines to make theater an experience like no other.
Like our consumption of most art forms, our venture into the theater is, for the most part, about finding some escape, some entertainment, and, at its most sublime, some window into the human condition. Lots of folks really don’t want art to do more than that, don’t demand any more from it or from themselves when consuming it. Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, alas, does do more. It’s a window into the human condition alright, but not necessarily one that is very pleasant to see or comfortable to have to think about. It’s a tough play, mostly because you feel pulled, in directions you never would’ve imagined being pulled. The central conceit is a marriage falling apart due to an affair. Not your run-of-the-mill infidelity story, though, as the “other woman” happens to be a goat.
Yes, The Goat is difficult. Damian doesn’t do NOT difficult. I’d argue the easiest thing he’s ever done is Band of Brothers (and even that put him through boot camp :)) The ease of that role came from the fact that he was playing an unequivocal hero, a hero that any and all audiences would and did love. Since the role of Dick Winters, Damian has yet to do anything that easy to read, that black and white, that summarily popular and loved. Instead, he’s chosen difficult roles, each subsequent role more difficult than the last. He’s played a man who rapes his wife, a quirky cop with a fetish for revenge, a man who plans and nearly executes a terrorist attack, a tyrant king, serial executioner of women he purports to love and bends the world’s faith to possess, and, most recently a maniacal capitalist bent on winning at all costs. And here he is playing a goat fucker. Nothing easy about it.
So why would we watch a story whose lead character is a goat fucker?
We know Damian’s expertise in playing moral ambiguity. No wonder at all that he chose this story for his return to the West End. The Goat is a story that turns morality on its head and questions the very idea of why humans must be compelled by morality. Humans hurt each other in countless ways, why are some ways of hurting each other worse than others? In a post-God world, who really decides what is moral or not? And why? Are we moral because of the actual good of it and for the good of each other, or are we moral because it’s just what is expected in polite society? The philosophy featured here is nihilism, but unlike a lot of artistic depictions of nihilism it doesn’t end with the asked and answered question of “What is the point of it all? Nothing.” The Goat is decidedly not a story about nothing.
The story draws us in by traversing the canvas of emotions emanating from friendship, marriage, parenthood. The love in the story is palpable and so is the loss.
We know we’re in for dark times by the set decor. We’re in a living room with brick walls all around and ceiling length windows in the back. Through one of the windows we can see a trim little patio and shadows of tree branches. From one of the windows, we can see something that looks like a prehistoric animal carcass. Clearly, it’s meant to be some sort of hipster patio decor, regardless, the sinister nature of the story starts from there. The inside of the room is nice enough, a cheery painting on one wall, a somewhat darker painting on the other. And a smallish grand piano towards the back, which alludes immediately to the homeowners’ financial status as urban upper middle class.
We first meet Stevie, played by Sophie Okonedo, in a light and airy dress, adding some bit of cheeriness to the room with a bouquet of ranunculus. Martin, Stevie’s husband, is being interviewed by his best friend, Ross, about an architectural prize he’s received. Stevie is focused on wanting the room to look right.
Martin, played by Damian, enters with his voice first, shouting a loud distracted “What?” in answer to Stevie asking him a question. He enters the scene continuing this state of distraction, confusion, and forgetfulness. He takes his large slightly crooked horn-rimmed glasses mindlessly on and off his face repeatedly.
You can tell by the way Stevie and Martin dance around and chatter happily that they are very happily married. Their love for each other is unmistakable.
Martin has found two mysterious cards in his jacket and is flummoxed over what they mean. He seems to have lost his mind a bit. He even forgets his best friend’s son’s name. In a moment of closeness, Stevie smells something funny on Martin’s jacket. Then, they start kidding around that the mysterious cards and mysterious smells could mean only one thing: Martin is having an affair. It’s all a joke through the very strong love in the room in these first few moments of the play.
Martin eventually vaguely mentions the name Sylvia. Continuing the joke, he says that Sylvia is a goat. This elicits raucous laughter from Stevie. Then, we get the first big laugh of the play when Stevie leaves the room and Martin says to no one in particular:
You try to tell them; you try to be honest. What do they do? Laugh at you!
Ross, played by Jason Hughes, enters and they exchange history-establishing pleasantries about their merry old time as college room-mates. There’s love here too. We learn that the two men have known each other most of their lives and have shared a lot with each other.
Ross sets up to shoot the interview with Martin. When he’s attaching a microphone to Martin’s shirt, he hears a whooshing sound. Martin quips it must be the Eumenides, which, as it happens, are Greek gods of vengeance. Albee must have put this in there to some end, but with all the other much bigger themes in this play, it’s hard to discern what exactly. Possibly a connection to the element of Greek tragedy in this play. Is Martin getting vengeance on his loved ones? Or is his sin and subsequent confession a way of getting vengeance on himself, a way of punishing himself for what he’s done? Not sure. Anyway, the whooshing sound is actually the dishwasher. 🙂
They proceed to the interview. Martin has won a few prizes and Ross is trying to get him to talk about them. Martin’s mind is still very much elsewhere. It’s fun to see the frustration in both characters, while still sensing their mutual affection. At one point, as Martin is trying to work out an answer for something Ross has asked, he takes off his glasses and absentmindedly tries to get them into his front pocket, missing it repeatedly. This is a little bit of direction that isn’t written in the play, so you can well imagine that either the director or Damian (or both in collaboration) made it up. Whatever the case, it gets a laugh from the audience.
Finally Ross stops the interview and demands to know where Martin’s head is.
Maybe it’s…love or something.
This revelation from Martin sets off the question of an affair. Martin wants to confess, despite himself. He tells Ross that he and Stevie had been looking for a country house, and one day he was out in the country scouting some properties and on the way home he was at a farm stand and turned and:
It was then that I saw her. Just…just looking at me.
Ross imagines a buxom blond farm girl. Martin shuts him up with “oh, you don’t understand” and then repeated with different inflection each time:
Ross wants more detail. Is it love, is it lust, did you talk to her, are you seeing her, are you fucking her. All questions that Martin considers carefully before answering a sort of “why, yes, it is and I am”. Martin knows that Ross thinks he’s talking about a human woman, and he knows that what he’s describing is not a human woman, but he also knows that the answers he’s giving could very well also apply to what he’s describing. Damian shows the confusion of it all brilliantly. And it’s funny too. Ross finally asks:
Who is Sylvia?
Martin pulls out a folded-up picture from his pocket and hands it to Ross.
Ross: This is Sylvia…who you’re fucking.
Martin: Don’t say that!……Whom.
This bit of grammatical nit-picking gets the biggest laugh yet. Damian did a hilarious delivery, just perfectly timed. Doesn’t sound that funny on paper, but, boy, it was perfect.
Ross is incredulous, of course. And disgusted and he wants Martin to tell Stevie.
A night elapses. We see Martin in a fitful sleep as the walls of the room expand. The secret is out. Both this scene and the next transition with Damian is twisted torment.
Ross has written a letter to Stevie telling her what Martin has done. This scene is all about Stevie’s response and the response of their son Billy. It’s a lot of shock and horror and disgust. Sophie Okonedo is an expansive presence in this scene, playing the physicality with all she’s got. As she rails and flays and expands into the room, Damian’s body becomes more and more contorted and fetal. It’s great physical work by them both.
Stevie says that she assumed it was a joke at first, but then:
I stopped; I stopped laughing. I realized – probably in the way if you suddenly fell off a building—oh, shit, I’ve fallen off a building and I’m going to die; I’m going to go splat on the sidewalk; like that – that it wasn’t a joke at all.
Albee uses a lot of repetition to establish mood and emotional states, but then he pulls out fun analogies like this, the shock of Martin’s secret feeling like falling off a building. Stevie gets another great line:
We prepare for…things, for lessenings, even; inevitable…lessenings, and we think we can handle everything, whatever comes along, but we don’t know, do we!
Loved the word “lessening” here. Stevie describes domesticity well, the lowered expectations that come from settling in. And she describes her love for Martin quite well too:
I fell in love with you? No…I rose into love with you and have….cherished?…you, all these years, been proud of all you’ve done, been happy with our…funny son, been…well, happy. I guess that’s the word. No, I don’t guess; I know. I’ve been happy.
Then the artwork, the pleasant domestic curios all over the room come crashed down. With every detail she drags out of Martin, Stevie lets another object fly around the room.
And even in this whirl of destruction, there’s a laugh or two:
Martin: Are you going to do that with all the furniture?
Stevie: I think so. You may have to help me with some of it.
Stevie proceeds to demand all the awful details.
Epiphany! And when it happens there’s no retreating, no holding back. I put my hands through the wires of the fence and she came toward me, slipped her face between my hands, brought her nose to mine at the wires and…and nuzzled.
As Martin says these words, Damian goes through the motions of nuzzling, a direction that’s, again, not in the script.
As all this is happening, as Stevie is destroying all their stuff, Billy comes up to check on his mother.
If I come back and find you’ve hurt her, I’ll…I’ll…
What a wonderful job by newcomer Archie Madekwe in this role. He’s a young man but plays even younger by doing a great cracking thing with his voice as well as the rough clumsy movements of a gawky teenager.
The scene ends with both Stevie and Martin spent by the all the talk and all the destruction around them.
You have brought me down, you goat-fucker; you love of my life! You have brought me down to nothing!
As the scene transitions, we see Damian going through some more contortions, tangling and untangling himself.
The focus of this scene is Billy. He has some of the anger his mother had, but mostly he’s in a state of raw pain as well as a strange feeling of needing to fix up the mess before Stevie comes back from wherever she went. He’s a good boy, from a good home, and he doesn’t quite know how to wrap any sense around how it all went so horribly wrong.
Billy tells Martin about something at school where everyone was asked to talk about their lives and how they felt about things. He talks about what he was planning to say, how Martin and Stevie have been such great parents:
You’re smart, and fair, and you have a sense of humor—both of you—and… you’re Democrats.
He goes on to tell Martin how great he thinks they’ve been about him coming out as gay, and how that was probably not always easy for them. Then, he starts talking about how his little speech for school will need to change now.
Ya see, while great old Mom and great old Dad have been doing the great old parent thing, one of them has been underneath the house, down in the cellar, digging a pit so deep, so wide, so HUGE…we’ll all fall in and never be able to climb out again—no matter how much we want to, how hard we try. And you see, kids, fellow students, you see, I love these people. I love the man who’s been down there digging—when he’s not giving it to the goat! I love this man! I love him!
Billy collapses into tears and reaches out to embrace his father and they do embrace and he cries some more. Then he starts kissing Martin on the hand, on the face, and then, finally, full on the mouth. It’s not the kiss of a child and a parent. Something has turned. The audience is, understandably, shocked. This is where you hear the most gasps.
Ross has entered and watched this happen. Martin pushes Billy away firmly, tells him to stop, and as they come together in another embrace, this time non-sexual, Ross walks into the scene.
Ross: Excuse me…I didn’t mean to interrupt your little..
Martin: What!? See a man and his son kissing? That would go nicely in one of your fucking letters!
I saw the show twice and for whatever reason this line gets more of a laugh one time than the other. It is funny, sure, but Damian’s delivery the second time, in some mysterious way, gets the bigger laugh. Who knows how these things work. Clearly, we, the audience, are playing a role here too. 🙂
Billy apologizes for getting carried away, for momentarily forgetting he was kissing his father.
It clicked over, and you were just another…another man, I get confused… sex and love; loving and…I probably do want to sleep with him. I want to sleep with everyone.
It’s so raw and honest coming from a kid, so believable the way he says it, that your shock just drops away. But, then, there’s more shock.
Martin starts recalling a story someone told him of a man with a baby on his lap, the baby moving around, and the man getting hard from the baby moving around on his lap.
… and then the moment passed, and he knew it had all been an accident, that it meant.. nothing—that nothing was connected to anything else.
Ross is appalled and disgusted and rendered speechless, as are we all. It’s clear that Martin is talking about himself. Billy wonders if the baby was him. Martin hushes him, but doesn’t say no.
Just when you think it couldn’t get any crazier, right? Anyway, what happens next and at the end is the big catharsis. Martin cries over the fact he’s so alone. Damian delivers that bit so beautifully, the entire room goes still for it. It’s one of those magical moments when you can’t even hear your neighbors breathing and you can just tell that everyone watching truly believes it, how very completely alone Martin is.
Finally, Stevie comes back home, dragging a dead goat wrapped in bloody cloth, then unwrapped by Martin. He weeps over her. The script had Martin doing a deeply painful scream. Damian plays it with just as much pain, but more noiselessly.
Stevie: What did you expect me to do?
In one performance Okonedo delivered this line like an affront, an accusation, and in the other performance she delivered it more quietly, resigned. I felt more for Stevie when she delivered it quietly. Then, Martin in sobbing tears:
What did she do? What did she ever do?
Stevie: She loved you…you say. As much as I do.
We all want to think art is driven by love and loss. So is life. That’s the ideal, anyway. But is life really “about” love and loss? Maybe it’s something way more banal? And basic? And is that wrong?
The play ends, ultimately, with a sacrifice at the altar of love and loss.
At every turn, Martin asserts his disconnectedness. It’s both his complaint against the world and his defense for his actions, the idea that absolutely nothing is connected to anything else. It’s an extreme isolation, and he has no idea where it comes from or why he’s the only one to feel it. He’s confused as to why no one else is as alone as he is, no one else is as isolated. His confession is a sort of plea to lessen the severity of the isolation he feels. But, he’s powerless. And because he’s powerless, he’s also not responsible. It’s such a complicated picture of human agency, hard to put into words. It’s almost like describing a negative, describing the disintegration of what it means to have a family and a home, morality and trust. Trust, as big a deal as it usually is, is actually the least of the things at stake here.
Often in literature, because they are morally blank slates with no preconceptions or prejudices to obscure and adulterate their understanding, children are employed as a device to ask the really hard questions. In many ways, Martin is a child here. He’s lived a reasonably straight-laced life as a reasonably responsible adult. Still, something in him has snapped, he doesn’t know why or how. We don’t know either, and it really doesn’t matter for the story. What matters is that, like a child, Martin is asking all the questions, thereby exposing all the themes of the play. Damian plays Martin like he simply cannot wrap his head around the moral question. And, of course, that’s the sure way to be the one who gets to even ask the moral question. At one point, Billy tells his father to grow up. Martin’s response: “Oh, so THAT’S it.” As if to say that growing up means ceasing to ask the big questions, the ones which have no answers.
Stevie, Billy, and Ross are all in reactive mode for most of the play. They’re the Greek chorus, they are US, wondering what the hell is going on, how can any of this be happening. Then again, they are each more than us, in that they each play a role is exposing other, somehow lesser, lapses in morality that we all, to some extent or other, are guilty of.
Ross speaks of his crew as people he’d never have over for dinner. He’s put the people who work for him in a category, in a class, separate from himself. He doesn’t see them as his equals, despite all his posturings of being a “left wing proletariat.” Stevie commits the sin of murder, the murder of her husband’s lover. But because that victim is a goat, and we kill animals all the time, it’s somehow okay. It’s understandable, therefore forgivable. Martin, himself, in addition to his major sin, contributes lesser sin to the picture when he calls his son a faggot and speaks sarcastically to him of public urinals, things that “you people do”. It’s not very nice for him to talk to his son that way, but it’s somehow also okay. Understandable, therefore forgivable.
Martin didn’t go out to that field expecting an animal to communicate with him via her eyes. But it happened and Martin could not help but be receptive. Did Sylvia “intend” such a communication? Does an animal have that level of agency, enough to seduce a human? What we know of biology tells us no. So, as much as Martin was receiving the message Sylvia seemingly communicated with her eyes, it was also, of course, entirely his human imagination seeing something that science tells us couldn’t possibly have been there. Those eyes, and he was done for. Human imagination sees a lot of things that defy all logic.
Throughout the play, Martin is confused. He’s disgusted with himself. Never at peace, and never defensive of the act itself. He’s merely defensive of his right to ask why and wonder why not. Martin defends his need to ask his family and friend why his offense is more heinous and unacceptable than Ross’s xenophobia, his own homophobia, and Stevie’s murderousness. Why are we self-righteously moral about some things and not others? Why is homosexuality okay for our generation when only yesterday (it seems) it was considered a crime? Albee himself was gay, so, having lived thru the long sweeping trajectory of acceptance of homosexuality, the idea of gayness as a moral crime was likely an exploration central in his time.
Just as there is no scientific explanation for why a man would see fit to fall in love with a goat, lest we forget, not long ago, science hadn’t chimed in with an explanation for homosexuality either. Humans, like all animals, are governed by their biology to procreate. Homosexuality put a wrench in that logic. Of course, thanks to science, we now know that it’s highly likely that there is a genetic component to homosexuality. And we also know there are animals that exhibit homosexual behaviors. Remember, not too long ago, those who refused to accept homosexuality as a normal human condition, when the issue of marriage equality came up, were the ones asking: What’s next? Man wanting to marry a dog? The acts were not that different in some ignorant minds.
The play is not about formulating a defense for bestiality and forcing us to hear a defense of the indefensible. It is about getting us to ask questions. It’s also about putting those questions in historical context. As we must put all the stories we ever hear and tell.
In the end, is the message one of nihilism? Nothing matters, anything goes? Not entirely. Not when community is at stake, not as long as we insist on the need for community. Martin is alone. Notwithstanding the bestiality support group he briefly attends, he’s alone is what he did and he’s alone in facing the repercussions of it. Even among others who had done the same thing, Martin was alone in his inability to see what they all saw as an unforgivable sin, something they needed to cure. Whereas the others engaged in bestiality due to childhood trauma or disfiguring ugliness or out of habit, Martin absolutely believed in his love for Sylvia.
Billy, with hope cracking in his voice asks at the end: “Dad? Mom?” In those final words, we hear the plea of a child let loose on the world way before he ought to have been: If you’re gone, if this is done, who am I anymore, where do I fit in the world? Martin’s actions have broken the family irrecoverably. One man stepping over a line, a line drawn by all of us, adhered to by all of us, broke the construct, the contract, of what it means to be a family.
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia is a brilliant play, brilliantly performed.