In any given human culture, certain behaviors will
be considered proper and admirable while others will be considered improper
and disgusting. Travel some distance away, however, and the people of
the second area will likely hold very different opinions. Which group
is right, and which is wrong? Are there any absolutes? Or is it as one
of Shakespeare’s characters put it: “There’s nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”?
To describe the plot of The Goat very briefly:
a wife, named Stevie, discovers that her husband, Martin, is having sexual
relations with a goat, whom he calls Sylvia. Stevie is filled with rage
that Martin has irretrievably broken what had seemed a perfect marriage;
and she determines to punish him.
This skeleton of a plot is fleshed out with an exploration
of moral values—an exploration that is in large part quite subtle.
Numerous value judgments are made in the play, with some behaviors being
accepted without question, others considered debatable, and one being
Taking these in reverse order: What is utterly condemned—by
everyone except for the uncertain Martin—is sexual love between
a human and a non-human.
Considered debatable are: the betrayal of an intimate
secret by a close friend; homosexual relations of the “seamy”
sort; adultery, unless it is well-concealed; and sexual arousal between
Considered acceptable are: sexual relations between
married people; sexual relations between unmarried men and women; homosexual
relations of the less distasteful sort; non-sexual love between humans
and non-humans; the execution of criminals; and the consumption by humans
of fish eggs (which I presume are torn from the terrified animals’
Part of what Albee is getting at seems to be the simple
question, “Why?” Why do we believe what we do about what’s
right and what’s wrong? If challenged, can we back up our beliefs
with reasons? Isn’t it disturbing that in our very own culture,
things that only a few decades ago were considered disgusting are now
considered acceptable, and vice-versa? What things do we embrace today
that our grandchildren will find nauseating?
What makes this play the marvel that it is, however,
is Albee’s employment of some of the elements of Greek tragedy.
He didn’t choose a goat as the title character for nothing—he
chose it because the goat is associated with the Greek god Dionysus. It’s
not possible to have any sort of understanding of Albee’s play without
some knowledge of Greek tragedy and the worship of Dionysus, but the following
definitions will provide enough information for anyone to grasp the references
and allusions made in the play.
The word comes from the Greek tragoidia
(tra-GOY-dee-uh), which means “goat song”. Greek tragedy is
believed to have its origin in hymns sung by a chorus in honor of the
god Dionysus, who was associated with wine and fertility. It is believed
that members of the chorus eventually began to act out what was being
related in the hymns, and that plays developed from that.
It is not known why the Greeks called their plays “goat
songs”. Some speculate that the original choruses wore goatskins
so as to appear like satyrs, the half-man/half-goat creatures who in the
mythology of the Greeks were the special attendants of Dionysus. Others
have suggested that the singers were adolescent boys, and that their cracking
voices sounded like the bleating of goats. Another theory is that a goat
might have been offered as the prize for the best song, or that a goat
was sacrificed at the ceremony.
A tragedy, in Greek theatre, is not a play in which
something dreadful happens. All of their serious plays were called tragedies,
even the ones that had happy endings.
Extremely few Greek tragedies have survived, but of
those that have, the most notable is the three-part Oresteia,
by Aeschylus. This trilogy addresses a horrible blood feud in the family
of King Agamemnon, in which father killed daughter, wife killed husband,
and son killed mother. The legend of the family includes other horrific
events, one of the milder of which was an episode of incest between parent
and child. Albee’s play includes numerous unmistakable references
to The Oresteia.
In Scene One of The Goat, one of the characters
says that he hears a rushing sound, like wings, and Martin responds, “It’s
probably the Eumenides.” The word means “Kindly Ones”,
and it is a euphemism for the beings also known as the Furies.
In Greek mythology, the Furies were hideous and terrifying female spirits
who avenged unpunished crimes. There’s no telling how often these
creatures appeared in Greek tragedy, since so many plays have been lost;
but they appear in the third play of The Oresteia, relentlessly
pursuing young Orestes, who killed his mother in the second play. This
third play is titled The Eumenides, and the spirits have a particular
rage against Orestes because he killed a blood relative.
Following the title of The Goat, the mention
of the Eumenides is the first real hint as to what Albee is leading us
The full title of Albee’s play is, The Goat,
or Who is Sylvia? In part the name of Sylvia is a reference to Shakespeare’s
play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In that play, one of the main
characters, a fickle young man, forgets his sweetheart when he sees the
beautiful Silvia (yes, it is spelled differently). Albee’s reference
is particularly appropriate because Shakespeare’s young man sings
Silvia a song of praise, beginning with the words “Who is Silvia”,
while his disguised sweetheart, crushed at this betrayal, stands by and
But the name Sylvia, which Albee’s Martin has
given to the goat, means “wood”—that is, the forest—and
this too seems to be a reference to Dionysus, who was sometimes worshipped
voluntarily and sometimes unwillingly. The tilled and civilized countryside
was associated with the voluntary worshippers, while the dark and dangerous
forest was home to the unwilling worshippers.
In Albee’s play, Martin falls under the spell
of the countryside, which he visits during harvest time, and at the very
moment in which he finds himself overwhelmed by the quiet beauty of the
fertile country, he first sees the goat, whom he decides to call Sylvia—she
of the forest. Martin’s worship of Dionysus is voluntary, glad,
and ecstatic. The wife, Stevie, treats Martin’s rhapsodic description
of the country with utter contempt, and as a result, her embrace of Dionysus
is that of a Maenad.
A description of these women is given in the gripping
and terrifying Greek play Bacchae, by Euripedes. Dionysus, also
called Bacchus, was the youngest god in the Greek pantheon, and stories
were told as to how he made his way across Asia Minor, entered Greece,
and converted the people to his worship. Dionysus personified the states
of frenzy that can come over human beings—the madness of drunkenness,
and of sexual passion. Those who worshipped Dionysus voluntarily were
said to experience a lesser, controlled madness—a blissful madness—while
those who resisted him, as in “Bacchae” (which means “The
Bacchic Women”), were overwhelmed by him, and forced into an extreme
state of violent madness.
Women who are in this state are called Maenads, and
according to the myth they run through the forests in a savage frenzy,
shrieking and tearing apart animals with their bare hands. This is the
madness that grips Stevie, and it’s worth noting that she and Martin
are associated with different types of food. Martin expresses appreciation
of fruits and vegetables, while Stevie is associated with the eating of
animals. In addition to that, Stevie’s reaction to learning of Martin’s
relationship with the goat includes a long bout of utterly wanton smashing
of glassware and art objects and overturning of furniture.
* * *
Obviously, there are a number of features in The
Goat that a lot of people could find quite offensive. Aside from
the subjects of bestiality, homosexuality, and same-sex incest, there
is a fair amount of cursing. And the play’s shocking close could
be upsetting to sensitive people, and to children. But the question Albee
asks—Can you defend your beliefs about morality?—combined
with the masterful way in which he has used the elements of The Oresteia
and of the myth of Dionysus to frame a modern story about intra-family
crime and uncontrollable passions, make this play a major work of theatre.