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.”

Edward Scheer

Cover: June 2006

June 2006

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