The Play About the Baby

A fresh young couple – Boy and Girl – have a new baby, whom an older couple – Man and Woman – have come to steal. Why? Because, as Man says, “If you don’t have the wound of a broken heart, how can you know you’re alive?”

Type: Full Length Play

Acts: Two

First Performance: 1 September 1998, Almeida Theatre, London; 11 April 2000, Alley Theatre, Houston

Nominations: 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama

Plot Summary and Critical Analysis by Jennifer Zuccaro

Plot Summary

Act I of The Play About the Baby begins with Girl announcing, rather nonchalantly, that she is going to have a baby. This is immediately followed by Boy and Girl exiting the stage and the very loud, vivid noises of Girl’s labor. After this, Boy and Girl return to the stage, nonchalance resumed. Girl explains to Boy that giving birth did indeed hurt a lot, which leads Boy to relay the story of the time he had his arm broken by a group of guys trying to sneak into a benefit for which he was taking tickets. He also mentions that one of the boys came up to him afterwards and unzipped his pants, but walked away before forcing himself on Boy sexually. As Boy laments being hurt, Girl comforts him by allowing him to suck on her breast, and then the two exit. Enter Man, who talks freely to the audience, mainly about whether our reality is invented based on our feelings, while Boy and Girl make love offstage. Man exits just as Woman enters, apparently tardy. She then encounters Boy, who enters wearing a towel. The two of them talk, mainly about Boy’s experience of sex, discussing it in a hyperbolic fashion, although who Woman is and what she is doing there remains a mystery. Girl calls Boy to join her offstage and Woman is left alone to talk to the audience in a long-winded way similar to Man, mainly regarding her failures in attempting to acquire a first-hand understanding of a writer’s creative process. While she talks, Boy and Girl run naked together across the stage, to which she pays little mind. Man enters then, and the two of them discuss Boy and Girl briefly, comparing the innocence of their lives to Eden. Boy and Girl re-enter, and Boy recalls when he first saw Girl, how he knew he was going to marry her, describing her as his “destination.”[1] Girl then talks about having her fortune told by a Gypsy, and that when she asked if she would have a baby, the Gypsy told her “I can’t see that.”[2] Their conversation about the deceptive nature of Gypsies is interrupted by Man, who merely pops in for a moment before exiting once again. Boy and Girl contemplate the potential danger of the situation regarding these mysterious strangers, Girl leaves to feed the baby, then Boy speaks to no one directly and almost in prayer, asking those who might do them harm for more time for he and his family to be happy together before they are forced to endure hardships. After this, Girl, followed by Man and Woman, re-enter, with the latter couple arguing in a way that leads to another seemingly unrelated story. After this, when asked what they want, Man explains, “We’ve come to take the baby.”[3] Girl then runs off stage, returning in hysterics after discovering that the baby is missing. When she asks what they have done with the baby, Man and Woman reply nonchalantly, “What baby?”[4]

Act II opens with man talking to the audience about their intermission activities, and then rhetorically asking where they left off. The characters repeat their lines from the end of the previous act until they arrive in the present moment. As Boy and Girl begin to question them again, Man and Woman imply that the baby they are talking about might not be real. As the act proceeds, Boy and Girl try to make sense of what is happening. Man and Woman gradually begin telling Boy and Girl’s own stories back to them in a twisted fashion, altering key details and, in the process, claiming these memories and past experiences as their own. As Man and Woman plunge Boy and Girl further and further into their verbal labyrinth, Boy and Girl begin questioning their own realities, until anger gives way to frustration and desperation. Boy repeats his speech asking for more time to be happy together, to which Man replies, “Time’s up.”[5] Woman brings in the baby bundle and hands it to Man, who says, “Now the really good part, the part we’ve all been waiting for!”[6] As he snaps the blanket open to reveal that there is no baby inside Man says, “Shazaam! You see? Nothing!”[7] After this, Man and Woman repeatedly ask Boy and Girl if they have a baby until Girl relents, admitting she isn’t sure. As Girl becomes less and less insistent on the existence of the baby, Boy becomes desperate to cling to its reality until he too is convinced to deny it. As Boy and Girl cry, Man comments on the importance of pain, an inescapable reality of life, saying, “Wounds, children, wounds. Learn from it. Without wounds, what are you?”[8] Man and Woman exit, and Boy and Girl resign themselves to the fact that they don’t have a baby. Girl suggests that they wait until they are older to have one, when they can better endure hardships. After a pause, Boy comments that he can hear the baby crying, to which Girl says she can hear it too, just before the lights fade.

Critical Analysis

The Play About the Baby premiered in London at the Almeida Theatre in 1998. Upon seeing the play for the first time, Mel Gussow notes that the dialogue of the first act was “sharp, swift, and conversational” and the mocking tone gradually gave way to fear at the end of the first act, following Man’s announcement of their plan to steal the baby.[9] Gussow found that the second act increased in seriousness, and at last culminated in a mysterious conclusion, as the audience was left to ponder what exactly happened to Boy and Girl’s baby. The Play About the Baby made its way to New York three years later, opening Off-Broadway at the Century Theatre for the Performing Arts on February 1, 2001. This production received high praise from Ben Brantley, who reviewed the play for The New York Times. He comments that the play seems to force the acknowledgement of “the abyss.” However, while all tragic theater since Oedipus has focused on the inevitability of the end of innocence and the onset of suffering, Brantley says that Albee “refuses to sob and whine about it. Cursing the darkness is easy; lighting candles of defiant, fiery wit, like those that illuminate The Play About the Baby, is heroic.”

According to Gussow, Albee began writing the play in 1995. In the early stages, Albee had originally written a fifth character, the very baby around which the action of the play is centered. The baby was eventually written out, but while it may not be a physical character in the play, the baby has still received a great deal of scholarly attention. In regard to Albee making the baby the apparent focal point of the play, there is some consensus that it derived from “his lifelong obsession with the meaning of parenting.”[10] The fact that the audience is made to question the reality of the baby might also stem from Albee’s curiosity about his own adoption, as Reka M. Christian asserts, “The figure of the baby is real and fictional at the same time like that of an adopted child with unclear origins.” Christian also describes the overall focus on the baby as Albee’s method of defining the post-nuclear couple, the nuclear family having been a favorite topic of the playwright throughout his career. In plays such as The American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the idea of “family” was validated by the existence of a child, not the marriage. However, in The Play About the Baby, the couples are “Man” and “Woman” and “Boy” and “Girl,” as opposed to “Mommy” and “Daddy” of The American Dream and The Sandbox.

In his essay “Melancholia-Machine: Perversity and Loss in The Play About the Baby,” Robert F. Gross claims that the baby’s questionable existence is meant to support the notion that every child is illusion, as they are merely a projection of the parents’ narcissistic impulses based on their ability to procreate. Gross writes: “The baby bundle functions to establish a ‘purpose’ for ‘all the fucking.’ It is a marker that serves to characterize reproductive, genital sexuality as meaningful and thus stigmatize all other sexuality as meaningless.”[11] Thus, when the baby is taken away, it is representative of a loss of this particular ideological construction of sexuality. Gross also argues that this loss is meant to force Boy and Girl into self-awareness, evidenced by a line that Man repeats at several points throughout the play with slight alterations: “Wounds, children, wounds. If you have no wounds, how can you know you’re alive? How can you know who you are?”[12] Gross argues Albee is implying that hardship “is essential to the construction of self-consciousness.”[13] In losing the baby, Boy and Girl forfeit the validation and self-identification that they were previously granted in their ability to produce a child. This thus forces them to develop an identity that exists outside of their ability to procreate. Interpreting this play as a narrative of loss, the basic plot trajectory is familiar: the naïve characters move from innocence, through experience and loss, and finally arrive at self-awareness. Gross also highlights the fact that the baby itself remains devoid of any distinctive characteristics, serving as further proof that it exists solely so that Boy and Girl may be wounded. When Man reveals that there is no baby in the blanket, rather than showing concern for the well-being of the child, Boy’s immediate response is “You have decided then: you have decided to hurt us beyond salvation,” confirming that he is more troubled by the pain and suffering they are being caused than by the loss of the baby itself.[14] In “‘Playing the Cloud Circuit’: Albee’s Vaudeville Show,” Linda Ben-Zvi argues that the significance of Man’s speech about “wounds” connects to the play’s end. She claims that Boy and Girl’s mutual acknowledgement of hearing their baby crying in the concluding lines of the play, despite having already denied its existence, acts as a confirmation of Man’s speech asserting that suffering is an inevitability of life. Boy and Girl’s ability to hear the crying indicates that, in spite of their attempt to shield themselves from the emotional trauma of losing a child by reducing it to illusion, they still cannot “escape the stigmata that, Man argues, comes with living,” this “stigmata” being the effect of negative experiences, or as Man refers to them, “wounds.”[15]

While the play is frequently compared to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a result of the parallels between characters and the focus on a baby that is eventually revealed to be an illusion, Christopher Bigsby discloses that Albee once told him he considered A Delicate Balance to be most relevant to this work. He explains that the connection “lies in the fact that a young couple suddenly find themselves menaced by another couple who threaten to dispossess them—on this occasion not of their home but of their child.”[16] Bigsby also introduces the possibility that Man and Woman represent the future of the younger couple, older versions of the naïve Boy and Girl who still have so much life ahead of them. This theory then raises the question, “Is it the older couple who bring news of loss and abandonment, or are the young couple conjured up as a memory which taunts, a reminder of what was and is no longer?”[17]

Many scholars tend to focus on Albee’s technique, and the way it aims to make the structure of the play, not necessarily the content, the determinant of one’s experience of The Play About the Baby. In regards to what actually takes place in the action of the play, there isn’t much. A large portion of both acts includes the stories that are told by the characters, such as when Boy recalls how he broke his arm, Girl’s experience with the Gypsy, and Man and Woman’s long-winded stories, as well as their retelling of Boy and Girl’s stories in the second act. As opposed to allowing pure content to shape the story, Albee relies on the structure to move the play towards its conclusion. Gerry McCarthy calls attention to the way that Man and Woman simply alter the material that has been presented by Boy and Girl in the first act in order to lead them astray in the second act. McCarthy explains that “The systematic cruelty of the reduction of the idea of the baby to a hypothetical ‘baby’ is achieved in a set of careful distortions of material that has been used in the first act.”[18] Albee’s writing also refuses the continuity that shapes the majority of other “realistic” modern plays, which gives The Play About the Baby an element of musicality, as music is also much more concerned with form. In this regard, Christopher Bigsby describes Albee as “acutely conscious of the sound of his plays and of their inner architecture. They are as much composed as written.”[19]

In his review, Brantley describes The Play About the Baby as “cosmic vaudeville.” While this is not the first time Albee has incorporated elements of vaudeville into his work, it showcases perhaps his most blatant use of vaudeville. During an interview with Bruce J. Mann, while discussing the way his characters in The Play About The Baby are given liberty to improvise and converse with the audience, Albee comments that he enjoys experimenting and breaking down the fourth wall. Man’s breaking of the fourth wall is the first indicator of vaudeville in the play described by Linda Ben-Zvi as “Albee’s most extended, obvious, and successful vaudeville work.”[20] Characters talking directly to the audience, the stage directions encouraging improvisation, Man and Woman serving as “entertainers,” all are reminiscent of vaudeville sketches. However, the most obvious incorporation of vaudeville is the performance that is built into the central action of the play: the disappearing act. Albee follows this routine almost exactly, as a typical disappearing act features “a male magician and his comely female assistant” who “continue a running dialogue with each other and the audience in order to win the spectators’ confidence, divert their attention away from the preparations for the trick, and build expectation for some spectacular climax. The highpoint of such performances is the disappearance itself, introduced with much flourish and theatricality.”[21]

In terms of thematic elements, many of these are represented in key lines throughout The Play About the Baby, typically hidden somewhere within Man’s speeches of seemingly mindless rambling. One line in particular that is given a great deal of attention is when Man says, “[Is] that which we feel we’ve experienced…the same as we have?”[22] This question introduces the binary of illusion versus reality that Albee has frequently explored in his plays. By making the young couple deny the existence of their baby in the second act, Albee enhances the value of this question. Boy and Girl’s rejection of the reality of their baby thus serves as Albee’s method of “exploring how individuals adjust their memories to suit their needs and how they create illusions to keep themselves from facing truths too painful to endure.”[23] In this way, Albee uses vaudeville as a vehicle through which to demonstrate the way that humans seek refuge in illusion when they cannot endure the pain of reality. To conclude, Ben-Zvi notes: “Vaudeville may be predicated on artifice, pretense, and trickery, but when performed skillfully it has the potential, through its anarchistic comedy, physicality, and immediacy, to explore the far more dangerous subterfuges that pass for everyday life.”[24] During his interview with Mann, while discussing the common belief that audience involvement detracts from a play’s realism, Albee comments that despite not obeying a key convention of the “naturalistic play,” a play in which the fourth wall is broken can still be naturalistic. He says, “I don’t think audiences should be allowed to be disinvolved… Naturalism can involve. It really can.”[25] In spite of the techniques that make The Play About the Baby seem like more of a performance than a realistic sequence of events, the way that Albee utilizes the unrealistic elements to force the acknowledgement of bleak realities inherent to humanity gives The Play About the Baby its own unique sense of realism.


[1] Albee 478.
[2] Albee 483.
[3] Albee 495.
[4] Albee 496.
[5] Albee 529.
[6] Albee 530.
[7] Albee 530.
[8] Albee 534.
[9] Gussow 397.
[10] Gussow 390.
[11] Gross 125.
[12] Albee 530.
[13] Gross 123.
[14] Albee 530.
[15] Ben-Zvi 195.
[16] Bigsby 158.
[17] Bigsby 159.
[18] McCarthy 123.
[19] Bigsby 158.
[20] Ben-Zvi 191-192.
[21] Ben-Zvi 192.
[22] Albee 466.
[23] Ben-Zvi 195.
[24] Ben-Zvi 195.
[25] Mann 136.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. The Play About the Baby. The Collected Plays of Edward Albee, 1978-2003. Vol. 3. New York, NY: Overlook Duckworth, 2008. 459-534. Print.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. “‘Playing the Cloud Circuit’: Albee’s Vaudeville Show.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 178-198. Print.

Bigsby, Christopher. “Better Alert than Numb: Albee Since the Eighties.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 148-163. Print.

Brantley, Ben. “Albee Laughing Dourly Ever After.” New York Times [New York] 2 Feb. 2001, Theatre sec. Web.

Cristian, Réka. “From Delicate Absence to Presence: The Child in Edward Albee’s Alternating Families.” Americana. 2.2 (Fall 2006). Web.

Gross, Robert F. “Melancholia-Machine: Perversity and Loss in The Play About the Baby.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies. 15.1 (Spring 2009): 121-133. Print.

Gussow, Mel. Edward Albee: A Singular Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.

Mann, Bruce J. “Interview with Edward Albee.” Edward Albee: A Casebook. Ed. Bruce Mann. New York: Routledge, 2003. 131-142. Print.

McCarthy, Gerry. “Minding the play: Thought and Feeling in Albee’s ‘Hermetic’ Works.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 108-126. Print.

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