MASTERPIECE: “THE ZOO STORY”

On September 28, 1959, sixty-one years ago today, Edward Albee’s one-act play The Zoo Story had its world premiere in Berlin. Not only was it the first production of an Albee play; it was the first writing the thirty-year-old Albee had done for the stage. But why did the All-American Albee have to go all the way to Germany in order for his play to see the light of day? Read all about it in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Parks in a 2018 off-Broadway production of “The Zoo Story” (photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times).

“I’ve been to the zoo.”

This first line of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story is one of the most famous opening sentences in all of American drama. I’m not sure there’s one that’s better.

Of the play, which had its world premiere on September 28, 1959, in a preface to one of its editions, Albee wrote:

“Shortly after The Zoo Story was completed, while it was being read and politely refused by a number of New York producers […], a young composer friend of mine, William Flanagan by name, looked at the play, liked it, and sent it to several friends of his, among them David Diamond, another American composer, resident of Italy; Diamond liked the play and sent it on to a friend of his a Swiss actor, Pinkas Braun; Braun liked the play, made a tape recording of it, playing both its roles, which he sent on to Mrs. Stefani Hunzinger, who heads the drama department of the S. Fischer Verlag, a large publishing house in Frankfurt; she, in turn . . . well, through her it got to Berlin, and to production. From New York to Florence to Zurich to Frankfurt to Berlin.”

What Albee doesn’t add here is that Pinkas Braun took the time before recording his reading of both roles in the play to translate it from English to German! I mean, that is commitment. And by Braun sending it to Mrs. Hunzinger, he wasn’t just sending it to some agent: her company was the premiere literary agency for American playwrights, handling such heroes to Albee’s as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder. In the biography Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, its author Mel Gussow writes how “Mrs. Hunzinger was so fascinated by the play that she blocked all her telephone calls at her office for ninety minutes while she listened to Braun’s enactment of The Zoo Story.”

Edward Albee (circa 1960)

For those unfamiliar with the play, it only has two characters, Peter and Jerry. It begins with Peter seated on a park bench in New York City reading a newspaper. Jerry, a stranger, walks on stage and casually drops the opening line of what is going to be a life-changing conversation: “I’ve been to the zoo.” From then on it’s a taut cat and mouse confrontation with Peter the unwilling participant in Jerry’s game. What that game is, revealed only in the final minutes, sufficiently rocked audiences around the world.

For its initial production in Berlin, The Zoo Story’s length of less than an hour prevented it from being a full evening in the theatre. It was Hunzinger’s suggestion that it needed a companion piece and that the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s latest one-act, Krapp’s Last Tape, might make for a bold and captivating choice. She wound up being absolutely right, as the sensibilities of Albee and Beckett matched well. When the double-bill opened, Beckett — already known for Waiting for Godot and Endgame — was somewhat eclipsed in the critical hosannas by the young upstart. It was Albee who the critics were interested in. “A geologist of our souls,” wrote one German critic. “A thrilling drama of the very clever kind … twilight of the Gods in the gutter,” wrote another. Not exactly a naysayer, but one critic despaired at what Albee had wrought by writing: “What an inexorable play full of despair. Incredible that this comes from the new world, the bright continent of the unlimited possibilities.”

Think for a moment though what it must have been like for Albee to go to Germany and see a play of his for the very first time performed by actors in front of an audience — and for it to be spoken in, what was to Albee — total gibberish. As Gussow describes it, “Albee, seated in a box stage left… spent most of the time looking at the audience rather than at the stage.” That description raised for me the possibility that this peculiar night may have colored the way Albee felt about subsequent openings for the rest of his life, for as he later wrote: “They happen, but they take place as if in a dream: One concentrates, but one cannot see the stage action clearly; one can hear but barely; one tries to follow the play, but one can make no sense of it.”

In January 1960, four months after its Berlin premiere, New York saw both plays in an off-Broadway production with new actors and a new director. Alan Schneider, who had directed the first production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in America (only to be fired prior to its Broadway premiere), was already Beckett’s personal choice to direct Krapp’s Last Tape, so he got the assignment to direct The Zoo Story as well. Little would he and Albee know that it would begin a prolific collaboration of playwright and director; one that would eventually include Albee’s one-acts The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith, as well as seven of Albee’s later full-length plays in their original productions, with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Tiny Alice and A Delicate Balance among them. Indeed, a major collaboration.

George Maharis (Jerry) and William Daniels (Peter) in the American premiere of “The Zoo Story” (1960).

In a great story, prior to what would be The Zoo Story’s official first time played in front of American audiences, a reading was done at the venerable Actors Studio for an invited audience. In attendance for this one-performance-only event was many of its illustrious members, including specially invited guests, one of whom was the novelist Norman Mailer. When the play finished, as is the custom at the Studio, the invitees were encouraged to offer their comments in a colloquy. After a mixed bag of comments and criticisms, the always colorful Mailer jumped up and shouted, “That’s the best fucking one-act play I’ve ever seen!”

Opening January 14, 1960 at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, The Zoo Story and Krapp’s Last Tape cost $9,000 to produce and ran a year-and-a-half. It put Albee on the map beginning a career that concluded only at his death in 2016 at age eighty-eight. It was a life filled with its own sense of drama, showered with awards, among them two Tony Awards for Best Play and three Pulitzer Prizes for drama. Edward Albee’s lasting impact on the theatre will continue to be felt for generations to come.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Follow me here and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.