Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "Getting Martin's Goat" (on Edward Albee's The Goat: or, Who Is Sylvia?)

getting martin’s goat

Edward Albee The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? / the production I saw was at the Davidson/Valentini Theater of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, on Sunday, October 12, 2014

Martin (Paul Witten) and his wife Stevie (Ann Noble), along with their son Billy (Spencer Morrissey) live in an well-appointed apartment in what is clearly a urban (Manhattan or Chicago) setting—in the original Broadway production, their abode was a wealthy suburban retreat, with high vaulted ceilings, an impossible requirement for the tiny stage of Los Angeles’ LGBT Davidson/Valentini Theater—a family one might describe as among the elite. Although they live in casual comfort, the very décor of their cozy living-room bespeaks good taste, as do their clothes and, surely, the bedrooms a level above the public space. Indeed, Martin, a successful architect who has just won the prestigious Pritzker Prize (which his friend, Ross [Matt Kirkwood] describes as the “Nobel” of architectural awards), has also just been chosen to design a multi-billion dollar city of the future somewhere in the “wilds of the Midwest.” Their life, it is gradually revealed throughout this play has been near perfect, the couple very much still in love with one another, being open-minded liberals gifted with witty intelligence and a son, who declares he is gay, and whose sexual decision they readily accept. As Billy himself later reiterates, he has been well educated in one of the best of schools that money can buy, and is blessed by nearly ideal parents. It is, in short, the kind of family one encounters throughout contemporary Manhattan—or in the wealthy suburbias of Massachusetts, Detroit, Chicago, or Los Angeles—self-satisfied, if artfully modest members of the cultural elite, tastefully attired at home in the empire of the gods.

     In the domestic banter of the play’s first few moments, indeed, the audience might almost imagine that they have accidently wandered into a play, as The New York Times Ben Brantley suggested in his 2002 review, written by one of the most beloved playwrights of these ruling class member’s parents, Neil Simon. But we also immediately sense something is amiss, as if the jokes are there but the actors keep missing their lines. In fact, Martin not only seems absent-minded, but is fearful that he is developing Alzheimer’s Disease. About to meet with his old friend, Ross, for an interview celebrating Martin’s 50th birthday and his two recent achievements, he cannot remember, for example, the name of Ross’s grown son. He enters the room but forgets for what he has been searching. Stevie jokingly reassures him, but soon their “banter” gradually is transformed into a kind of comic inspired sketch about sexual infidelity, ending with Martin’s unexpected and somewhat inappropriate quip that he is seeing someone named Sylvia and that she is a goat. If the audience laughs at Stevie’s comeback—I’ll stop at the feed store on the way home—it is an uneasy twitter since by the very title of the play we already know that Martin is telling her the truth: that, as a modern-day Zeus, he has fallen in love with a being outside of his own kind.

     Suddenly we recognize that we have entered Albee territory, and that any laughter the play elicits hereafter will not emanate from punch-lines as much as it does from our ill-ease with the subject and the characters involved. In the very next scene, as his friend Ross attempts to interview him, we observe that Martin is almost purposely subverting any attempt at “real” communication—meaning, in the context of this play, any attempt at a preconceived and canned vision of reality that the media often whips us for its listeners. A man who has never cheated on his wife and, therefore, unlike so many of his male friends, Martin has never had an opportunity to brag about his sexual conquests, and he suddenly seems like an adolescent jock desperate to reveal his newly-discovered sexual prowess.
     Although Martin quickly knows that he about to tread on dangerous ground, he cannot resist revealing the source of his new-found sensations of what he describes as “love.” The tale he tells is similar to all such tales set in bucolic setting in which, along with nature itself, the would-be lover catches the wide-eyed gaze of his soon-to-be lover, with a sudden urge to reach out and touch her, with all the wonder and excitement of knowing what joys might lay ahead. It might well describe the events of mid-life crisis that strike down many an everyday male where it not that Martin, as he and Albee keep hinting, is not an ordinary being, but a contemporary Zeus, and the object of his affection, accordingly, lies outside of everyday “normality,” while very much within the Greek god’s recorded assignations. Self-satisfied to the point of delusion, Martin simply cannot comprehend why it could be wrong to fall in love again, even if, this time, it is with a goat! After all, the goat does not truly contend with his love for his very human wife.
     Surely, we grasp, Martin must know—despite Ross’ reassurances, as his best friend, he is to be trusted—that as a member of the media, whose definition of reality is always the most narrow one, will not keep quiet about Martin’s revelation. But then, the gods of our society are often so used to working hand in hand with members of the media who have helped them to achieve their god-like status, that they are brought down by those very women and men. The shocked Ross rushes out to immediately write a letter to Martin’s wife, outlining, with the expected rhetorical flourishes, his word-for-word encounter with his life-long confidant. If Martin has jokingly thought that he has heard the voice of the Eumenides earlier in that scene, Ross describing it as “a kind of…rushing sound, wings, or something,” it is nothing compared to the fury he is now about to face.
     If there is any question that we are now in an Albee play, the battle now re-enacted between the sexes is far more furious even than George and Martha’s pitchforked duels in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, in the small theater in which I experienced Martin and Stevie’s violent quarrel, the second row, where Howard and I sat, was perhaps too close for the howling and heaving banshee into which the small-statured actress Ann Noble was suddenly transformed. The only temporary ceasefires to the seething, spewing froth of hate she sputters out—along with images of vomit, blood, excrement, and murder—were the tortured interruptions of their utterly tortured son, the couple’s narcissistic congratulations of one another when, in deep verbal battle, one of them achieves a moment of stunning locution (the kind of touchćs that George and Martha also award one another in their “battle-play”), and Martin’s helplessly prosaic descriptions, once again, of his first encounters with Sylvia the goat and his brief introduction to a self-help group of bestial-offenders, such as a man who once but no longer has intercourse with piglets, an multiply abused woman who has sex with a German Shepherd, and a man so ugly that he has found love only with a goose. Martin’s attempts to explain his guiltless emotions of joy appears to his wife appear to be the expressions of an alien from a distant planet. His acts, she makes clear, are beyond “all the rules,” representing a behavior that “shatters the glass” of their existence, and which have inextricably destroyed the near-perfect inter-depency they have both fabricated for themselves. She has been ready for everything, she explains, except for this transgression!
      Exhausted, the audience along with her, Stevie, like Nora, slams the door for what appears to be a forever, despite Billy’s terrorized insistence on knowing where “his mother” has gone. Although a lesser fury, he too rants about having what appeared to be an ideal mother and father, before the latter began digging in the metaphorical basement of their home, hallowing out a hole from which he can never return. But in his youthful angst, we more clearly perceive that Albee is attempting to explore the larger issue of where human beings draw the limits of love. If Billy, who as a now socially-accepted gay, can only realize that in another day his own definition of love would have been damned, he must now, far more than his mother, question, at least, his father’s seemingly absurd search. And that leads them, if nothing else, to admit their own love for one another, expressed painfully in hugs of sorrow and protective embracement, which suddenly for the confused adolescent explodes into a momentary series of full-lipped kisses with his dad—at the very moment when the voice of conventionality, Ross, creeps back to their doorway to observe what he calculatingly perceives as another unforgiveable transgression.
     Billy pulls away in a self-hating pang of senseless shame, with Martin attempting, with fatherly love, to relieve the situation by describing a friend who admitted to being aroused temporarily while cradling his infant child, yet, soon after, realizing it was simply a natural and innocent moment that had no sexual component.
     For Ross, obviously, it is simply another explanation of degradation of the former “god-like, friend” a representation of pedophilic tendencies, yet another taboo to be tied to Martin’s tail/tale. “Where do you people stop?” he cries out. Yet Martin, challenging him, makes it clear that it is not the behavior which matters to Ross, but the possibility of public exposure, of the inability to “get away with it.” In short, for people like Ross, for the media, for example, it is not ever a really moral issue but a matter of defining a nonexistent “public” limit, of creating an invisible line that cannot be crossed. The question, of course, really concerns “when is it a sin to love?” Where the society draws those lines, the playwright suggests, defines the limitations of the society’s abilities to express what is perhaps the most important of all emotional and physiological responses to life.
     Despite any chortles of discomfort that some audience members may still utter, we all now realize that this work is a tragedy without an ending. A moment later, covered in blood, Stevie drags in Sylvia’s corpse. Vowing revenge, she has destroyed Martin’s innocent love for her own values and others’ personal definitions of where love has crossed the boundaries of decency; and, in so doing, she has doomed herself to the conventional limits of the living. And, suddenly, she becomes a being as dead to love and life as the beast she has just sacrificed.  
    As Martin hugs his dead goat-lover to his breast, his pained silence sings out like a “goat song”—the root word of Greek “tragedy”— a knell for any possibilities for a return to his or any other Eden.
    As my companion, Howard, expressed it: “everything is so sad—all of them, so basically innocent and yet so full of hurt.” In limiting its borders, love has been drained from their lives.

Los Angeles, October 13, 2014

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