America & Amerika

January 24: Edward Albee's The American Dream opened on this day in 1961. Martin Esslin says that the play recast the Theater of the Absurd, thereto a European style, "into a genuine American idiom." In his preface, Albee says that he just wanted to blow the lid off middle-class America as he knew it:

The play is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; . . . a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen. Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so....

The exchange below comes early on, before people are relaxed enough—"Are you sure you're comfortable? Won't you take off your dress?"—to discuss child mutilation and other memories. At this moment, Daddy has just apologized to Grandma for having complained of her endless whimpering:

MOMMY: Daddy said he was sorry.

GRANDMA: Well, that's all that counts. People being sorry. Makes you feel better; gives you a sense of dignity, and that's all that's important ... a sense of dignity. And it doesn't matter if you don't care or not either. You got to have a sense of dignity, even if you don't care, 'cause, if you don't have that, civilization's doomed.

MOMMY: You've been reading my book club selections again!

The American Dream is also connected to this day through Franz Kafka, who broke off writing his first novel, Amerika, on this day in 1913. Though one of the most famous stay-at-homes in literature, Kafka liked to read travel books. Amerika begins with young Karl viewing the Statue of Liberty in "a sudden burst of sunshine," and feeling "the free winds of heaven" on his face. Much of what follows is darker and more disturbing, but by the end—first editor Max Brod says Kafka quit while on his intended last chapter—Karl has reached the wide open West, where he seems reborn as a bit actor in "The Nature Theater of Oklahoma."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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