June 2006

Arts & Letters

For the Love of Goat

By Edward Scheer
Edward Albee’s ‘The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia?’

Australian theatre can be predictable: middle-class melodramas with the inevitable living-room setting, neurotic characters vaguely redolent of relatives from childhood Christmas dinners, and talk about an ever-diminishing number of topics (faith, fidelity, schooling, blah, blah). A play that takes on the delicate topic of bestiality is, in this context, a pleasant surprise. The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia? focuses on Martin, a Pritzker-award-winning architect who, despite living in a suitably well-appointed apartment, likes hanging around in sheds and barns. So far, so Glenn Murcutt. But when Martin takes his best friend into his confidence and confesses his passion for Sylvia, he becomes, for a moment, someone we can’t recognise. That’s because Sylvia is a goat …

The Goat is one of the most widely seen and controversial plays in Australia in many years. It deserves its notoriety. Written by the great American playwright Edward Albee, the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it is at times genuinely surprising and provocative. But why the goat? Perhaps because it takes us back to the very root of theatre and its place in society. Theatre began with goat-song; at least, the ancient art of tragedy did. Five centuries before Christ arrived and forbade such aberrant practices, the hills of Athens were alive with music. The Dionysiac festivals included song contests held in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine, rebirth, fertility and luxury goods. The prize was a live goat that was then sacrificed. Having slaughtered the animal, the winners sang more songs of lamentation and guilt. In a strange way, theatre was born of the love of goats.

It’s not a theme one encounters too often on the contemporary stage, yet most mainstream theatre companies in Australia have produced The Goat in recent years. Looking at the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s production of the play, which has just completed a season at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, it’s easy to see why. The play is unashamedly theatrical in the classical sense. Tragedy is generated by an act of transgression – a violation of nature’s laws – which is followed by the vengeance of the gods, unleashed upon frail and vulnerable humanity. But there are no gods in Albee‘s Theatre of the Absurd, just frail humanity, and they don’t come much frailer than Martin the architect (William Zappa). The play is also unashamedly theatrical in its histrionics. The performances are directed with a degree of deliberate hysteria by Marion Potts. The extreme emotional states of the characters – Stevie (the wife), Billy (the kid), Ross (the best friend) and Sylvia (the eponym) – reflect the sudden and catastrophic loss of control in their lives when Martin confesses to a profound sense of intimacy with a goat.

In a way, Sylvia is what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin: the trivial detail, such as the microfilm in North by Northwest, around which the entire plot centres, but which is merely the trigger for the thematic sweep of the whole work. Albee is not interested in goats or perverts or bestiality; he’s interested in what lies beneath social patterning, under everyday behaviour and language. The characters in The Goat constantly correct each other’s grammar, with a particular fondness for the tangled metaphor “the blanket pulled out from under one’s feet”. This habit seems odd at first, as does the staccato rhythm of the dialogue in the opening scenes, in which Martin interrupts himself and his interlocutors in equal measure, unable to locate himself in the exchanges with his wife (played by Victoria Longley) and his old friend Ross. Then, as Martin finally speaks his mind, you realise that the pressure of the unspeakable has been exerting its force on him and distorting his language, his identity and his world:

... don’t you see the ‘thing’ that happened to me? What nobody understands? Why I can’t feel what I’m supposed to? Because it relates to nothing? It can’t have happened! It did, but it can’t have!

It’s a distortion that often makes for hilarity as the members of the white-bread, middle-class family scream obscenities at each other, in order to find a common language with which to deal with these unspeakable events. One such scene has Martin’s son, Billy, telling his father how different his show-and-tell at school is going to be, now that he knows his dad is a “goat-fucker”. (This kind of language explains why audience members have been walking out in droves.)

The play’s main action is in the dialogue. Stevie has the best lines: “You have brought me down to nothing … and, Christ, I’ll bring you down with me!” Her climactic conversation with Martin is punctuated by the demolition of designer glassware; with every revelation another trinket explodes on the floor. The fragility of relationships is rendered materially, the actors treading warily on a stage strewn with domestic debris. The audience never glimpses the “big dark pit” that Martin has been digging beneath the foundations of his beautiful architect’s house, but his unconscious is laid bare; his darkest desires and craziest predilections are out from under the rug and are walking around, frightening the neighbours.

It’s the goat that ultimately separates this piece from Albee’s other works: not because it’s an animal, but because it is the figure of what cannot be said and cannot be admitted into the frame of meaningful reference. Martin’s declaration of love for Sylvia is absurdism par excellence, not only because it appears incomprehensible, but also because his love gradually overrides all other perspectives, allowing no other possible point of view. In the end, there is no doubt that Martin is genuinely in love with the goat. The inadmissible isn’t just let in; it takes over.

The other characters, especially Stevie, accede to Martin’s point of view, with some devastating yet predictable consequences for the goat. The sacrifice has been made and the gods of Greek tragedy should be appeased, but here the genie has bolted, the horse is out of the bottle and metaphors are permanently mixed.

Albee’s opus sits alongside the works of Beckett, Havel, Ionesco and Pinter, rather than those of Sartre, and it reminds us that, in an age of compulsory comedy, tragi-comedy is the proper form of tragedy. The time of the Theatre of the Absurd has come around again, and The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia? makes a compelling case for trying to understand it. In the midst of all the hilarity this production provokes, there is an urgently repeated refrain that Martin incants like a prayer: “Listen to me. Listen to what I am saying.”

From the front page

Image of the Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales

The edge of their seats

Lessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Image of Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley

The future of the Liberal Party

Peter Dutton doesn’t just have a talent problem on his hands

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.


Folded brains, squashed ambitions

Peter Carey’s ‘Theft: A Love Story’

Consider the lily

The greater glory

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Fonofono o le nuanua: Patches of the rainbow (After Gauguin), 2020. Image courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand

The dream machine: The 59th Venice Biennale

Curator Cecilia Alemani’s long overdue Biennale overwhelmingly features female artists and champions indigenous voices and other minorities

Image of Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled (TBOMB)’, 2020

Mission statement: Daniel Boyd’s ‘Treasure Island’

An AGNSW exhibition traces the development of the Indigenous artist’s idiosyncratic technique, which questions ideas of perception

Image of Bundanon

Shades of grey: Kerstin Thompson Architects

The lauded Melbourne-based architectural firm showcase a rare ability to sensitively mediate between the old and the new

Still from ‘Men’

Fear as folk: ‘Men’

Writer/director Alex Garland’s latest film is an unsubtle but ambitious pastoral horror, mixing the Christian with the classical

More in Theatre

Patricia Cornelius

Patricia Cornelius: No going gently

‘Anthem’ marks the return of the Australian playwright’s working-class theatre

Image of Eddie Perfect

Eddie Perfect goes to Broadway

The Australian composer has two musicals – ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘King Kong’ – opening in New York

Ivo van Hove: It’s only theatre

The prolific director is bringing jumbotron Shakespeare to the Adelaide Festival

Image of Taylor Mac

Break it down

Taylor Mac takes on ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’

Online exclusives

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime