The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?

Martin—a hugely successful architect who has just turned fifty—leads an ostensibly ideal life with his loving wife and gay teenage son. But when he confides to his best friend that he is also in love with a goat (named Sylvia), he sets in motion events that will destroy his family and leave his life in tatters.

Type: Full Length Play

Acts: Two

First Performance: March 10, 2002

Awards: Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, 2002. Tony Award for Best Play, 2002.

Nominations: Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 2003.

Plot Summary and Critical Analysis by Ashley Gallagher

Plot Summary

Edward Albee’s The Goat, alternately titled Who Is Sylvia? (Notes toward a definition of tragedy), opens with Martin and Stevie, a long married couple, preparing for the arrival of their best friend, Ross, who will be interviewing Martin about his fiftieth birthday and his winning of the Pritzker Prize, the highest honor in the world of architecture.  While preparing for the interview, Stevie and Martin banter in a greatly exaggerated Noel Coward manner” during which Martin admits that he is actually in love with Sylvia who he then confesses is a goat.[1]  Stevie laughs at what she perceives as a joke by Martin and exits to greet Ross at the door.  In her absence, Martin remarks, “You try to tell them; you try to be honest.  What do they do?  They laugh at you,” suggesting that there is more to his seemingly offhand comment.[2]

When Ross enters, his and Martin’s longtime friendship is evident when they reminisce and then discuss their children, specifically Martin’s teenage son, Billy, who recently revealed he is gay.  Ross readies his camera to interview Martin, but, to Ross’s dismay, Martin seems distant and distracted during the taping.  Bringing the interview to a halt, Ross inquires as to what is bothering Martin.  Although reticent, Martin confesses that his distance might be due to “love or something.”[3]  When Ross suggests that Martin is having an extramarital affair, Martin bristles at the thought.  Then, as he begins to describe how satisfying his marriage to Stevie has been—so much so that he has never had a desire to have an affair—Martin begins providing details of his encounter with Sylvia.  Martin confides to Ross that while searching for a place in the country for Stevie and himself, he saw her: “I didn’t know what it was—what I was feeling.  It was…it wasn’t like anything I’d felt before; it was…so…amazing, so…extraordinary!  There she was, just looking at me, with those eyes of hers….”[4]  With this declaration of love, Martin produces a photograph of Sylvia from his wallet.  Once Ross sees the photograph and the seriousness on Martin’s face, his emotions go from jocular to somber to incredulous as he realizes that his best friend is having a sexual relationship with a goat.  Before the conclusion of the act, Ross issues a stern warning: either Martin tells Stevie the truth about his affair or he will.

In Act II, the audience is instantaneously aware of Ross’s betrayal when Martin and Stevie’s son, Billy, exclaims, “You’re fucking a goat?!”[5]  Billy is then forced by his parents to leave Stevie and Martin alone to discuss Ross’s letter detailing the specifics of Martin’s affair with Sylvia.  Stevie reads aloud from the letter out of disbelief as much as a need to absorb the facts of the situation in which she now finds herself.  As Stevie labors over the details of Ross’s letter, Martin continues to insist that he loves Stevie.  To which Stevie replies, “How can you love me when you love so much less?”[6]  Stevie then demands the full story from Martin.  Reluctantly, Martin describes how he met and fell in love with Sylvia and, later, joined a help group for others suffering from addictions to bestiality.  With the mention of one of the group participant’s sexual relationship with a pig, Stevie stands, picks up a plate, and smashes it on the floor before calmly continuing her conversation with Martin.  Martin resumes his story with Stevie punctuating each detail with the smashing of various items adorning their home.  Finally, Stevie leaves the house threatening, “You have brought me down, and, Christ!, I’ll bring you down with me!”[7]

The third and final act begins with Martin and Billy standing amongst the ruins of what was once their home.  Neither Martin nor Billy know where Stevie has gone, but they use their alone time to try and repair their damaged relationship.  While Billy still cannot accept his father’s affair, he admits that he has always felt that his parents are “as good as they come…smart, and fair, and…a sense of humor.”[8]  Overwhelmed with a sense of loss and love for his father, Billy embraces Martin and kisses him sexually on the mouth.  Martin pushes Billy away just as Ross enters to witness the scene.  Martin angrily defends both his son and himself to Ross by stating: “He loves his father, and if it…clicks over and becomes—what?—sexual for…just a moment…so what?!  So fucking what?!  He’s hurt and he’s lonely and mind your own fucking business!”[9]  Ross, unmoved by Martin’s speech, claims to have received a call from Stevie saying Martin needed him.  Ross and Martin spar over Ross’s letter and how Martin’s public image can be saved from this incident.  Then, with a sound at the door, Stevie reappears, dragging Sylvia’s carcass with her.  Martin cries out, Billy calls for help, and Ross stares as Stevie offers her reason for slaying the goat: “She loved you….you say.  As much as I do.”[10]  Billy calls out again in confusion, ending the play.

Critical Analysis

In Stretching My Mind, Edward Albee comments on The Goat: “You may, of course, have received the misleading information that the play is about bestiality—more con than pro.  Well, bestiality is discussed during the play (as is flower arranging) but it is a generative matter rather than the ‘subject.’  The play is about love, and loss, the limits of our tolerance and who, indeed, we really are.”[11]  Indeed, while bestiality is one of the many topics addressed in Albee’s play, the playwright’s main objective is more aligned with imagining ourselves “subject to circumstances outside our own comfort zones.”[12]  In an interview with Charlie Rose focused on The Goat’s 2002 New York premiere, Albee stated, “Imagine what you can’t imagine.  Imagine that, all of a sudden, you found yourself in love with a Martian, in love with something you can’t conceive of.  I want everybody to be able to think about what they can’t imagine and what they have buried deep as being intolerable and insufferable.  I want them to just think freshly and newly about it.”[13]  In this play, as in all of Albee’s plays, there is a larger message beyond just the literal interpretation of the plot.

The Goat’s major characters, Martin and Stevie, are meant to represent affluent suburbanites.  In an interview, David Esbjornson, director of the play’s New York run, commented, “there is a kind of normalcy that we are trying to achieve, and a feeling that these people are surrounded by good taste and good art.  So when Stevie starts breaking these things, we know she is willing to destroy some precious things.”[14]  It is Stevie’s realization of and reaction to her husband’s inconceivable affair that contributes to the play’s tragic mood despite its moments of humor.  “In some ways the laughter is seductive; it opens you up, and then the more serious issues can flow in,” says Esbjornson.[15]  Even the play’s title echoes this sense of multiplicity in terms of its meaning.  Albee said in his interview with Charlie Rose, “A goat is two things.  A goat is the animal, and, also, I believe a person can be a goat, the butt of a situation.”[16]  Florescu offers a more symbolic definition of the word goat: “Sylvia is everybody’s goat, ready to unleash our wildest desires, potentially dissolving, or, at least, diminishing the ravaging effects of our gregarious, unhealthy regimented selves.”[17]   Zinman suggests that the use of the term “goat” could also refer to “scapegoat”: “The goat is wholly innocent, victimized by Martin’s obsessive love and Stevie’s murderous revenge.”[18]  Yet, in an advertisement created by The Philadelphia Theatre Company for their production, a picture of a goat “with a snapshot of the play’s characters hanging out of its mouth, suggesting that a goat, who will, notoriously, eat anything, has devoured this family alive,” suggests the personification of the goat and, thus, Sylvia’s own responsibility for the events that take place.[19]  In addition, the name Sylvia, Zinman argues, references Shakespeare’s pastoral vision in Two Gentlemen of Verona.[20]

As stated by Esbjornson, The Goat is ultimately meant to be a tragedy.  Even the set he and John Arnone collaborated on had columns to provide a “classical quality to it, a Greek-tragedy quality.”[21]  Zinman states, “In ancient Greek tragedy, the hero, at the height of his happiness, often complacent in his smooth fortunate life, undergoes a sudden reversal of fortunes.”[22]  Indeed, once Martin confesses his affair to Ross, his fate is no longer his own.  According to Aristotle, he must then “‘fall from a great height,’” which Martin does; he is reduced from an award-winning architect to a mere sexual deviant.[23]  Whereas Martin acts more as a tragic hero, Ross, on the other hand, takes the place of the chorus “representing the vox populi and of setting the wheels of tragedy in motion.”[24]

Albee thinks a play can be called political only if “…it makes people think differently enough about things so that their life alters including their politics.”[25]  In order to make a difference in a contemporary society so accustomed to debunking generally accepted restrictions, Albee had to “…go even further afield than Nabokov[’s Lolita] to find a taboo still standing.”[26]  In Zinman’s opinion, Albee’s view is that sexuality is “…more complex, far wider, deeper, and less governable than we generally think.”[27]  Albee’s use of bestiality is meant to parallel society’s view of homosexuality which “appear[s] normal by comparison.”[28]  Gainor furthers her argument by stating that it is through bestiality that Martin “literalizes his extremity of alienation and longing.”[29]  By experiencing prejudice for his own sexual proclivities, Martin must “accept his son’s desires with equanimity, applying his newly gained insights on dominant and marginal practices.”[30]  In this way, Martin and Billy can seek to rebuild their relationship.  Robinson writes of The Goat: “Albee’s play insists that it is about something beyond a domestic crisis that can be cordoned off and concealed from the world – though it is about that too.  We see that the personal is political, yes, but also something more: that what is private about our lives only comes to have meaning as we enter the public sphere and this public sphere enters us.”[31]  Ultimately, as Robinson states, The Goat is meant to affect both the micro and macro levels of society in a way that encourages progressive thinking even in uncertain times. 


[1] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 16.
[2] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 17.
[3] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 30.
[4] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 43.
[5] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 47.
[6] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 52.
[7] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 89.
[8] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 100.
[9] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 103.
[10] Albee, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? 110.
[11] Albee, Stretching My Mind 262.
[12] Albee, Stretching My Mind 259.
[13] Albee, Charlie Rose Interview.
[14] Solomon 260.
[15] Solomon 264.
[16] Albee, Charlie Rose Interview.
[17] Florescu 136.
[18] Zinman 141.
[19] Zinman 144.
[20] Zinman 144.
[21] Solomon 259.
[22] Zinman 148.
[23] Zinman 149.
[24] Gainor 211.
[25] Albee, Charlie Rose Interview.
[26] Zinman 140.
[27] Zinman 149.
[28] Gainor 200.
[29] Gainor 209-210.
[30] Gainor 212-213.
[31] Robinson 65.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. The Goat or Who is Sylvia? New York: Overlook, 2000. Print.

—, Bill Pullman, and Mercedes Ruehl. “Episode 20.” Interview by Charlie Rose. Dir. Mike Jay.

Thirteen WNET. New York: 31 May 2002.

—. Stretching My Mind. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005. Print.

Florescu, Catalina Florina. “Who Is Not Sylvia?” The Anachronist. 16 (Winter 2011): 135-151. Web. 1 August 2013.

Gainor, J. Ellen. “Albee’s The Goat: Rethinking tragedy for the 21st century.” Ed. Stephen Bottoms. The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2006. Web. 15 July 2013.

Robinson, Michelle. “Impossible Representation: Edward Albee and the End of Liberal Tragedy.” Modern Drama 54.1 (Spring 2011): 62-77. Web. 1 August 2013.

Solomon, Rakesh H. Albee in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. Print.

Zinman, Toby. Edward Albee. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.

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