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The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee

by Iris J. Arnesen, reprinted from the November, 2007 The Opera Glass 

To be produced by The Rogue Theatre January 3–20, 2008 at the Cabaret Theatre
Click here for full information on the production

   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 utterly condemned.
   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 blood relatives.
   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’ living bodies).
   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.

The Eumenides
   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 into.

   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 listens.
   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.

Reprinted from The Opera Glass with permission of Iris J. Arnesen


Published since 1999, The Opera Glass is an independent periodical, unaffiliated with any opera company or organization, featuring reviews of Tucson opera and theater. No computer equipment is ever used in its production, and it is not available online.

Subscription is free, but donations to offset expenses are welcomed. Mail subscription requests and donations to:

The Opera Glass
Iris J. Arnesen, Editor and Publisher
219 N Euclid Ave
Tucson, AZ  85719

Checks must be made payable to Iris Arnesen.



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