Murder, Incest and the Pritzker Prize
Edward Albee's latest play and the Oscar-winning in the the Bedroom play on the perceived respectability of architecture.
Martin, the architect played by Bill Pullman in Edward Albee’s new Broadway play, has made it in life. How can we be so sure? He’s just won the Pritzker Prize. And on top of that, he’s only 50, an age which the play uses as a major milestone, but which, for an architect, is still an absurdly young age to have established so monumental a career as Martin’s. Here he is, winning the Pritzker and being commissioned to create a "City of the Future" on the plains of the Midwest, and poor Rem was already 56 when he won his Pritzker, and his latest big project is an interior renovation of a store in New York. Martin’s City of the Future smells strongly of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, and that acknowledged master of American architecture never won a commission for Broadacre City. It was just his dream.
In the world that Albee has created, architecture is in a pretty good state. Fairly young architects are winning huge commissions and lifetime achievement prizes. Is it a sign that the continually seesawing reputation of the profession is at a high? Albee, after all, does use the profession and Martin’s accomplishment within it to establish his character’s public respectability. And take a look at the movie In the Bedroom, where a central character, played by Nick Stahl, is a student home for the summer before heading off to architecture school. He is supposed to be a likable guy so that we as the audience feel an appropriate amount of horror when his girlfriend’s husband shoots him in the head. His bedroom walls are papered with his architectural sketches, and in an early scene, just before this same husband administers a savage beating, he is playing with blocks, showing his girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) his plan for a revolutionary new house, where everything centers on the living area. It’s a good idea, kid, but that same Frank Lloyd Wright fellow came up with something pretty similar a few years ago. One hundred, give or take. I don’t mean to be cynical about that. His naivete makes it worse to see him go, and for In the Bedroom, that’s the key, pure and simple. It may be a morally ambiguous movie, but its points are made pretty clearly, and even though the architecture is incidental, it does add to the sense that his death is the waste of a promising future.
Things are a lot more complicated in The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? which is the title of the Albee play. It can be hard to pin down what, exactly, an Albee play is about, but in The Goat, there is at least a surface plot that can be followed. The entire play takes place in Martin’s living room, which is pretty uninspiring for a place owned by so prominent an architect. Let’s hope Martin didn’t design it himself. There are no architect-cliché Barcelona chairs, but there are two Eames lounge chairs, and some pretty gaudy African art. The room itself has a sort of streamlined Arts & Crafts look, as seen through the lens of the ’70s. Anyway, Martin has won the Pritzker, and gotten this improbably huge commission, and he’s being interviewed by his best friend for a television show that this friend happens to host. Eventually, Martin discloses that he’s sleeping with a goat. A goat named Sylvia—which would seem to answer the subtitle’s question in the first scene. The rest of the play involves reaction from Martin’s wife, Stevie (Mercedes Ruehl), and his gay 17-year-old son, Billy (Jeffrey Carlson).
I won’t be the first to point out that the son’s name is, as the Village Voice put it, "goatish." But no review I’ve read has taken the next step of saying that Martin isn’t sleeping with a goat, but with his son. Now, it may not be true, but Albee isn’t a sloppy playwright, so the billy goat reference can’t be completely unintentional, and there is a scene towards the end where Billy and Martin kiss, full on the lips. The New York Times mentions this moment obliquely as one of the genuinely shocking moments in the play (while wishing that there were more like them), but I think that it might be even more shocking than the Times makes it out to be.
There is evidence that this play is not one big metaphor. Martin very openly disapproves of his son’s sexual orientation. Billy says that he doesn’t like older men (and he probably isn’t aware that for a big name architect, 50 isn’t old). Plus, the play does take the goat extremely literally. There is no end to the stable humor, and in the very last tableau, Stevie comes back into the living room with a slaughtered goat carcass. Which, believe me, is pretty literal looking.
So maybe it is actually a play about bestiality. A mostly good-hearted, funny play about an architect who is in love with a barnyard animal. But at the very least, Martin’s intolerance of his son’s gayness opens up questions of tolerance and what a human being is allowed to love. I won’t go quite so far as to say that the real answer to the subtitle’s question is: Billy, Billy is Sylvia—though I think that concluding that Sylvia the goat is the only Sylvia is overly simplistic. One possible reading is that Albee is just demonstrating that Billy could be a Sylvia too—a sort of slippery slope reading of the play. With the current uproar over priestly pedophilia, the play could be read as reactionary; the three big sexual taboos are bestiality, incest, and pedophilia. The Goat takes on at least two of them on some level, and for a conservative reader, the play could be condemning Billy’s homosexuality. But I think that’s reading things backwards. On the other hand, Albee can’t be suggesting that goat sex is a viable sexual orientation, either.
Like any good play, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? asks more questions than it answers. Not least of all, the titular question.
And how does the architect fare in all of this? Well, there’s no reason to believe that the message of the play is that architects like animals too much. That’s like saying that Albee has set up the play to rail against homosexuality—it’s arguable, but ultimately silly. Frankly, the role of architecture ends up being about as small a part of what the play is about as it is a part of what In the Bedroom is about. But it does give Martin a plateau from which to fall, a respectable life to be destroyed, even if a 50-year-old winning the Pritzker is as likely as Bill Pullman falling in love with a goat.