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We Are All Animals Living in the Zoo We Call “Society”

The conflicted nature of humans and society, presented in ‘The Zoo Story’ by Edward Albee.

Photo by Alexandra Mirgheș on Unsplash

Society is like a zoo. It’s an environment where diverse communities of people coexist—people with different personal backgrounds and perspectives on the world around them.

The nature of this is explored in a play that I read in high school (which I also wrote an entire analysis about, maybe I can share the original essay someday)—Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.

Two People, Two Lifestyles, and One “Zoo”

Published in 1959, this “theater of the absurd” (theatrical works that ignored conventional structures and speech patterns of traditional theater), one-act play explores the nature of society through a conversation between two men with drastically different lives.

Onstage where Peter sits on the bench watching Jerry, who has his arms open and looking afar.
Edward Albee’s ‘The Zoo Story’, with Tim Neil (left) as Peter and Charles Gearhart (right) as Jerry (Source: freyphotographic.com)

The scene is set in 1950s New York City. Peter is a white-collar, middle-aged man, with a stable job and a seemingly perfect family; and Jerry is a social outcast, living in impoverished conditions while struggling with his own identity.

The play starts with Jerry—finding his way to the zoo—approaching Peter, who is reading on a bench in Central Park. Jerry announces, “I’ve been to the zoo” (Albee 1). From there, the two men engage in a disorderly conversation about topics ranging from Jerry’s isolated life to the various animals Peter’s daughters have at home.

However, these two represent more than just people with opposite lifestyles. Jerry exhibits his eagerness to have a conversation with a complete stranger—even though he lacks any adherence to social conventions—and displays the human’s natural desire to connect with others. While Peter, who maintains his composure and tidy self-image by acting in a way that most would consider “normal”, shows that the social customs that have been established can create a barrier between different people. This contradicts with our innate desire for communication.

The differences between social groups has an effect on the formation of personal connections. There is a misunderstanding between Jerry and Peter as a result from belonging to different social classes and backgrounds. Obviously, this creates a tense atmosphere between the two, which conveys the strain that exists between social groups. Jerry and Peter signify the interpersonal conflict that can arise in society due to the dissimilarities in people’s lives.

Despite the title of the play, Jerry doesn’t go into much detail about his visit to the zoo. Nevertheless, the idea of the “zoo” is embodied throughout The Zoo Story.

The “zoo” symbolizes the division among different groups of people in society. As mentioned earlier, people seek interaction, yet there is a tendency to avoid genuine connections. Towards the end of the play, you come to realize how the systems of our society—the “bars” of the animals’ cages that have been constructed in a zoo—confine us within our own social circles.

The Cages of Society

The Zoo Story demonstrates that, although there is a desire for communication, more tension is created as people put up their own barriers to attaining these connections—revealing how society and human nature is inherently conflicted.

We are all animals living in the zoo we call “society.” Should we continue to stay within the comfort of our own cages and block out others who are different from us, or should we learn to overcome the obstacles that come between us and potentially meaningful relationships?

Well, I guess that’s another discussion on its own.

Works Cited:

  • Albee, Edward. The Zoo Story. 1959. Samuel French Ltd, 1998.

Hello there! I’m A.X. — a theatre student who has set a goal of reading at least one play per week. I welcome you to follow and join me as I share my thoughts on plays I’m reading & other theatre stuff, too! You can learn more about why I started theatre stuff here:

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