The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia? 
Greek Tragedy and Edward Albee’s “Tragi—” Comedy

Thomas Falkner

Edward Albee’s The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia?, winner of the 2002 Tony Award for Best Play, was perhaps the season’s most controversial play for its bizarre and outrageous narrative.  Martin Gray, successful architect, loving husband and father, and respected professional, is found to be in a sexual relationship (as Martin insists, in love) with a goat named Sylvia. This is a play that leaves audience and critics with much to think about.  Why has Martin done this, and what is the meaning of this bestiality?  Why does Martin not feel guilt for what he has done and seem unable to understand why others are shocked and disgusted?  How should his family and friends have reacted and, more important, how are we, the audience, to react?

Less appreciated is the extent to which Albee uses the play to raise questions about tragedy and the tragic, as he himself invites in the play’s published subtitle: Notes toward a definition of tragedy (Overlook Press, 2003).   In this paper I will suggest that The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia? offers a reflection on tragedy that refers the audience to Greek tragedy and its origins, anchoring the inquiry in the play’s title, with trag- (goat) linking the play to Dionysus and the mythical origins of the genre. I will examine the play’s thematic links with a number of tragedies. As critics have suggested, Martin is presented as a contemporary version of Oedipus, whose sexual secret is exposed and who brings his household from prosperity to destruction.  Albee finds in his bestiality a monstrosity that is the cultural equivalent of incest, and the play recalls Aristotle’s statements in Poetics on the OT on the characteristics that make for the best kind of tragedy. The play recalls Ajax in the protagonist’s categorical confounding of man and beast; the end of the drama, in which the bloody carcass of “the goat” is brought on stage, reprises both the ekkyklêma scene in that play as well as Clytemnestra’s gory triumph over husband and rival in Agamemnon.  Most important, the profound otherness of Martin’s experience, and the dissolution of moral, cultural, and physical boundaries it involves, hearkens to the ecstatic Dionysiac encounters of the Bacchae.   

In taking us back, as it were, to basics, Albee asks what it means to write tragedy today.  This paper will also examine how Albee identifies those features of the modern and the post-modern that require us to reconfigure our definitions of tragedy and the tragic.  I will emphasize three dimensions: (1) the moral confusion of the protagonist, who—though in other respects normal and socially responsible—is unable to reject his behavior and his experience; (2) the absence of a civic perspective or “choral” voice able to offer a larger wisdom or speak from outside familial roles and perspectives; and (c) the play’s relentless comic dimension (e.g., sarcastic abuse, word play, semantic confusion) that repeatedly undercuts the gravity of the situation.  In offering this “tragi—” comedy, Albee both reaffirms the viability of classical tragedy and broadens its cultural and temporal boundaries. 

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