A play is as good as its writing and acting. This is precisely what makes Albee and Lewis’ “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” a rare jewel. Yes, it is Edward Albee who wrote it, but it is Damian Lewis who owns it on stage.
Albee’s The Goat is one of the finest plays I have ever read or seen. I would be extremely lucky if I read a better one in my life time — minimalist and impeccable writing, full of punches back to back to the reader’s paradigm of morality.
Albee’s canvas is humor, yet he paints a tragedy. I believe it is this humor that makes us lower our moral guards and lets the tragic story of the protagonist, who happens to be a goat fucker, touch our humanity. While laughing at the lines, we the viewers start visualizing a world that resides outside of our balloon of morality and realm, eventually understand and feel the protagonist’s brutal pain. And that is all presented in the most accessible but incredibly artistic form in The Goat.
The Goat tells as much about societal and moral bias for the unfamiliar as it tells about the pain and suffering this bias causes on that unfamiliar. The play is a powerful critique of societal bias to the extent that it makes us feel the pain it causes. That is why, in my humble opinion, The Goat surpasses everything else I have read or seen that tries to dig into social norms and human psychology. All this subtlety comes alive in Damian Lewis’ seamless delivery on stage. Therefore, it is Albee’s as well as Lewis’ genius that makes this production unique.
Damian Lewis, aka Martin the goat fucker, is restless, cannot communicate with his wife. He tells her about the goat early in the play and she has a good laugh about it. He tries to be honest but…
“What do they do? They laugh at you.”
It is here that we face the strange truth for the first time while laughing at it.
Once Martin is out of closet, he is not apologetic. He constantly tries to explain it. He says he has been to a place run by a person “cured” from pig fucking. That place is, in Martin’s wife Stevie’s words, Goat Fuckers Anonymous. We understand this and laugh out loud, because Albee tells us about it in terms we have familiarity with: Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet, with this familiarity, our moral bias for the unfamiliar comes to the surface as well. Alcoholism is bad, and so is goat fucking.
But Martin goes to that meeting not because he thinks what he is doing is wrong. He goes there to understand why people at that place feel bad about what they are doing. Damian’s delivery of these lines is both analytic and humane: He postulates the question of why goat fucking could be wrong; at the same time, he conveys Martin’s feeling that it can be OK, no, actually, it can be a beautiful thing to fall in love with an animal. What a difficult task to assume! And it is certainly these moments that make us get fascinated by Damian’s art.
Albee’s brilliance shines everywhere in the play. But it is after Damian’s delivery that I leave the theater with a fresh understanding of the unfamiliar and the unintended cruelties our moral biases may bring on others: To Stevie (or to society), it is not OK to fuck a goat, but it is OK to kill her. And when Damian says “What did she do? What did she ever do?” after meeting the dead body of his beloved Sylvia, I cannot hold my tears back. It is a very intense and believable delivery. The slain body of Sylvia on the stage is no longer a goat to me, it is a she and Martin’s love for her is genuine in the most real and human way possible.
At the end, another innocent is slain when Damian apologizes first to his son, then to his wife, finally to emptiness. Martin gives up…
This play is not about how one could fall in love with a goat, it is about what if one falls in love with a goat. Nobody has formulated the question better than Albee and nobody could deliver it better than Lewis…
Some bits and pieces:
No, it is not a mistake that I have used “Damian” and “Martin” interchangeably in the review. Damian is Martin and that is his brilliance.
I understand now why there is no intermission in this play: It is a complicated roller-coaster of humor and tragedy. Once the roller-coaster leaves the station, there can be no stop until the end.
The rest of the cast is also incredible. Jason Hughes as Martin’s best friend Ross, Sophie Okonedo as his wife Stevie and Archie Madekwe as his son Billy are simply superb. And when Archie becomes famous, and he will, I will tell people — as Damianista puts it — I was there at his stage debut, and I will be the coolest cucumber in the room!
What do I mean by “The Goat surpasses everything else that I have read”? A couple of things. For example, I enjoyed reading Dostoyevsky a lot in college. He was the first to teach me human psychology. However, as I kept reading him, I felt like he left nothing to imagination. It was like porn, if I may say. Albee’s writing, on the other hand, is subtler, like erotica, if I may say. Second, one of the plays that comes close to The Goat in terms of criticizing social norms is Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Written back in 1879, that play is about women, how male-dominated society suppresses the other “half” of the population. This could apply to similar problems in today’s society such as class struggle, urban dominance, income inequality, etc.
The Goat, on the other hand, speaks for the unspoken few. It could be about one’s love for a goat, about someone who cannot identify as male or female, or about some other human essence that we cannot imagine. That makes the play equally, if not more, timeless in my opinion. Last but not least, think of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. What a delicate character! Many of us must have met a similarly broken person in our lives. Martin, on the other hand, is broken in an unimaginable way. Yet, Albee’s writing and Damian’s delivery of the character makes us imagine the unimaginable and believe it. This may be an impossible wish but I very much hope this production comes to Broadway or goes to some other place as well.
Finally, our own Damian pulling our very own Damianista aside at the stage door to have a long conversation after such a demanding play was cool. That dude is really sweet… and I believe that story is coming tomorrow.