Should High Schoolers Perform The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?

“So long as it’s got a cunt it’s all right with you!” Stevie barks in Edward Albee’s 2002 Tony-award winning play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? while interrogating her husband about the affair he is having with the title character (a goat named Sylvia). The play’s action centers around the aftermath of bestiality and infidelity within an upper-class family. Given the nature of the text, such an aforementioned line is to be expected. Ditto all terms like “goat-fucker” etc. It is Albee after all. But now imagine those lines coming from a sixteen-year-old girl’s mouth. Cringe-worthy?

Patrick Clear and Barbara Robertson in the Goodman Theatre's production
of The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Staged by Robert Falls part of
the Goodman's 2003/04 season. Photo courtesy of the Goodman Theater. 

Last October Andrew Cupo, the drama teacher at Cactus Shadows High School in Cave Creek, Arizona, assigned The Goat to his advanced drama class for scene study and performance. A group of parents took objection and filed a complaint to the Scottsdale police. Cupo was sent on forced leave while the school board and police investigated. In the end, charges were dropped and Cupo returned to his post and a new rule in place that all plays must be approved by the principal before they are taught. It’s a sticky situation that asks all the pertinent questions surrounding high school theater. What is “too mature” or “inappropriate” for students in the Internet age when everything risqué is a mouse click away? Do teachers have a greater right to teach curriculum they find pertinent than parents have a right to censor said curriculum? Is it ridiculous to censor a critically acclaimed work of art, or can certain theater be justifiably deemed inappropriate for high school students? In cases like Cupo’s, debating the issue remains important long after the matter has been “settled.” These questions are relevant for school theater programs everywhere. In Phoenix, the discussion happened officially as part of a monthly series of banned play readings.

 

What is “too mature” or “inappropriate” for students in the Internet age when everything risqué is a mouse click away?

 

Mary Stephens, a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University, noticed that the Phoenix arts scene seemed dead on Tuesdays. Play readings seemed an appropriate cultural activity to fill the space—interesting but not commitment-heavy for those putting up the piece. Stephens wanted a theme to tie the readings together, so she decided on “banned plays” to gain focus and create intrigue.

The Goat was read on a small, dimly-lit stage in the basement of the Phoenix Center for the Arts. The banned reading series started in January 2013 as a segment of Performance in the Borderlands—a community initiative meant to promote diverse cultural performances. The reading was spare and no frills. The four-person cast was a collection of ASU student and faculty volunteers. One visiting faculty member gave a brief introduction to the piece, framing what we were about to see with questions about what we think normal sexuality is and what is fit to be discussed with others (adults or teens). It’s hard to believe anyone would watch the play without feeling ill at ease at least once. If you’re not bothered by the animal/human physical relationship, perhaps the main character, Martin’s, flippant use of the word “faggot” while describing his homosexual son makes you squirm. Or maybe you find Stevie’s eventual murder of her husband’s “lover” unsettling. Each of these moments stung me during the reading because I couldn’t stop wondering which parts I would or wouldn’t share with teenagers.

Following the performance, the crowd was rather split on whether or not Albee’s play is appropriate for high schoolers. No one in the group of around forty people said the Pulitzer nominated play had no merit. I am sure some parents did not bother to read The Goat but, regardless, managed to decide it was completely pornographic. Actually, there is no sex in the play, just a discussion of it. Furthermore, the play is certainly not “intended to stimulate erotically” which is the raison d'être of pornography. The Goat ends with a broken home as a result of the sexual “deviance.” The drama could actually be considered moralistic.

Despite its lauded artistic merits, people questioned if the story was of value to teens. Why choose this “vulgar” play over many other award-winning works? One reason could be the play has its moments of connection with teenagers. Martin and Stevie’s teenage son Billy is disturbed greatly by his father’s actions and his parent’s arguments. However, he seems to get most upset by his parents’ condescension in telling him to “go outside and play.” His opinions are dismissed because of his age: a moment like this would resonate with most high school students in a way “high school appropriate” plays might not.

If you read a general summary, The Goat is about sexual perversity. If you read the play, you find a bed of commentary about the strengths and weaknesses of families. I find it interesting that the audience, so wrapped up in what kind of sex high schoolers can be exposed to, never discussed how the play is about so much more than bestiality. It could, for example, be read as an absurd play—a kind of fable about families with secrets.

The truth is that sexual fetishism is more common than we think and people are naturally curious about sex. If not most, at least some of any given class of students have been embarrassed, concerned, or confused about what sex means to them. Parents against Cupo argued such personal topics were a family conversation, but I have a hard time believing most students are willing to talk to their parents about sexual issues. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the school should take on the teen’s needs.

Then again, it would take no longer than two minutes to find a video of cross-species breeding online, to hear a story from another student at the lunch table. Therefore, it seems pointless to shield students from a famous contemporary play on the basis of its ribald content. Some teens are begging for their artistic education to be more complex. One could argue to offer intelligent students the same sugar-coated musicals year after year is a detriment to their intellectual development.

When it comes to discomfort about sexuality, a key aspect is consent. In the case of Cupo’s assignment, he needed consent even though the class was an elective and no student was required take it. In the talkback, a former high school teacher also offered the play should have been one option of several plays students could choose from. Offer students the opportunity to explore what might disturb them, but let them approach it themselves. Cupo did send students home with a notice saying mature content was in the current assignment and an alternate activity was available. Whether children gave their parents that notice is anybody’s guess. Parents who protested the play defended their children’s initial silence about feeling uncomfortable by equating the experience with sexual abuse. As abuse victims often feel unable to discuss what happened to them, some parents believed their children were too embarrassed to complain. Perhaps offering a controversial play as a possible assignment is different than assigning the play and saying whoever is uncomfortable has to step forward and claim so in order to be pardoned. That’s an escape clause—not consent.

On the other hand, some people at the reading commented that whether or not the play was ultimately valuable to students, Cupo had to have known that his curriculum choices would be troublesome. The phrase “he was asking for it” came to the surface. Cupo couldn’t be at the reading because it was rumored he was under gag order. Technically, I don’t know what his true intentions were, but it seems unlikely he was trying to harm his students who spoke of him with love and respect in all the press coverage. I find it mildly offensive to assume this educator was intentionally trying to court controversy with his choice of text. Edward Albee himself recently said, “All art is an act of aggression against the status quo.” Albee isn’t asking for trouble—he is, rather, asking audiences to interrogate a complicated world.

Of course, the audience for the reading did not reach a consensus, but it seemed everyone at some point in the night considered a new viewpoint. The evening’s lineup allowed everyone to have concrete examples from the play to discuss the issues instead of basing opinions on vague assumptions about the play. No rights need to be obtained for a reading, there is little (if any) rehearsal, and all you need for success is an attentive audience. I recommend the concept to any community. As Jenny Strickland, the assistant producer of performance in the Borderlands told me, “It’s just really great on a Tuesday night in Phoenix to see people talk about a play.”

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I got called in to the Superintendent's office for doing a production of then 18 year old Jonathan Marc Sherman's WOMEN & WALLACE...the joke is the objection was the mom removing her blouse and revealing her bra when she was going to commit suicide and not the necrophilia scene. LOL. So, who draws the line when it comes to studying literature? I'm glad not to be in the classroom today; I would definitely feel constrained by the fear barriers compelled to be tightened as each instructional year unfolds.

I think it's a bit funny that there is a conversation here about the merits of the Pulitzer and the award committee. I guess we assume the author did her research and wrote honestly from that. Despite what the author writes, "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" didn't win a Pulitzer. "Anna in the Tropics" won that year. Please do your research. It undermines all of your points when there is such an obviously easy mistake to check.

Hi Michael--

Thanks for catching the mistake. It was an editing error. But, this gives me a good opportunity to note something else that was discussed in the reading. The professor who opened the reading mentioned the play had won a Pulitzer, and later a Pulitzer scholar in the audience noted it didn't. That opened the conversation up to everyone pondering whether if the play had won the more "prestigious" award (versus a Tony) if that would make a difference in the debate.

Should they read it? Sure. Perform it? Probably not......but not because of the subject matter, per se.

Personally, I think it's better to have young actors play characters that are reasonably close to their ages...or if they're playing older characters, have them play characters that are emotionally accessible to a younger person.

Older characters (such as the two parents in The Goat), are intense characters that also require having a certain amount of life experience to play effectively.

To ask young actors play roles that are fairly far outside of their own life experiences (with regard to age) only encourages bad acting habits, in my opinion.

This is not to say that teenagers do not have complex experiences of their own or are not smart enough....but I don't think a pair of teens can do justice portraying the relationship of a long-married couple as depicted in this play.

Let's be honest, in professional theatre, it would seem ludicrous to see a 30 year old cast as a 60 year old.

"...in professional theatre, it would seem ludicrous to see a 30 year old cast as a 60 year old."

Not always. For the premiere of Samuel Beckett´s one-man play, KRAPP´S LAST TAPE, Irish actor Patrick Magee was only 37 when he played the 69-year-old character. Also, theatrical pioneers such as Constantin Stanislavski frequently played roles during his lifetime that were significantly older than him, and Laurence Olivier was in his 40s when he played the tragic prince of Denmark, Hamlet.

i realize that there are some plays that have artistic reasons for casting someone that is not a similar age to the character, such as when a character ages over the course of the play.....or for other directorial/artistic reasons.

Also, it depends on the play. In some cases, the age/life experience of the character may not be a fundamental element of the story.

But there are some plays in which age is a critical aspect of the story. I don't think it makes sense, for example, to cast a 19 year old as Martha in Virginia Woolf, as the age of the characters (and the generational differences) are very central to telling the story.

I'm just pointing out that, in general, that is not practiced in professional theatre except for the reasons mentioned above.

I agree with you, that many American dramatic roles--from Martha in "Virginia Woolf" to Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman"--would be better served by having actors with approximately the same age & life-experience playing them, as so much of the narrative of those characters and stories are about aging, the passage of time, the bitterness or despair reached when one approaches the twilight of one´s life.

However, I do not agree that this is somehow a standard in professional theatre, or that professional theatre has universal codes. What is taken as a "given" in theater is highly contextual.

For example, when Shakespeare´s plays were originally performed, all of the female characters were played by men. 400+ years when this is done, it is considered "experimental".

I do think there is a value in high-school students performing roles that are beyond their age. Or trying to. 14-18 year students read fictional characters all the time that are beyond their age-group, whether it be Julius Caesar,Atticus Finch, or Jay Gatsby. While they may not have the life-experience of all of these characters, they can use analysis, imagination, creativity, and more to interpret, understand, empathize, sympathize, or at least intelligently discuss these characters and their stories. If they can do this with a novel such as "The Grapes of Wrath", why couldn´t they do it with a play?

Am I advocating that high school theater should now ONLY do plays with characters older than the actors performing them? No, of course not. But does this mean that high school productions should shy away from this material? Absolutely not. Bellarmine College Preparatory (San Jose, CA), for example, has done a number of so-called "mature" theatrical productions over the past 40+ years--from Ibsen´s "An Enemy of the People" and Tom Stoppard´s "Arcadia", to "The Grapes of Wrath" (twice) and "Nicholas Nickleby" (also twice). True, they have done more "traditional" fare, from "Grease" and "The Wiz"; but I would argue that it is by encouraging their students to tackle these challenging plays, that it is one of the reasons why their extra-curricular theater program is so strong.

I would also argue that tackling such "serious plays" can cause important social change. For example with Bellarmine; they were the 1st group--professional, high school, anything--west of the Mississippi to do "The Laramie Project". Pretty significant for a Jesuit school which is just one year younger than the state of California itself. How would a Catholic educational institution handle such "adult" material?

The show was sold out. The Archbishop was the first person to purchase a ticket, for opening night. And this theatrical production by high-schoolers was key in creating the campus´ first gay/straight student-faculty alliance.

My response is not intended to be argumentative, not in the least. I am just stating that I think the issue is complex and nuanced, and that I am cautious about creating hard and fast "rules" about what high schoolers can or cannot do, in terms of theater.

We generally agree. I'm not proposing any kind of rigid rules or standards around it.

I think it's certainly appropriate/valuable to have young students study plays with older characters...and even to perform them in a scene study. After all, acting often requires that we play people who are not ourselves.

I also think that in a HS theatre program (or even college), it's simply not possible to only do plays with young characters. So I'm a realist on this topic.

The numerical age of the character is less important to me. My main preference is toward giving student actors roles that are challenging, but manageable. If we're doing a performance for a paying public audience, I want the students to perform plays that they can perform successfully and that they have the maturity to approach in a dignified, thoughtful way.

I'm an odd person to bring this up-- because I publish my plays and monologues on my web site as "free for auditions and classroom use"--- but all commercially published plays assert copyright on a page following the cover that reserves '" all rights, including... recitation, lecturing, public reading..". Mr. Albee is known for enforcing those rights: no one may perform his plays without specific permission. He has closed down productions that he judged to have violated his authorial intent. I don't think his intent would rule out a reading followed by a discussion: he is a defender of free speech. But to read aloud in public the speeches he has written, you must indeed obtain the rights.

I first read THE GOAT when I was in highschool (03-07) I watched my classmates (16-18 years old) perform scenes and monologues from it. So many of them worked on this script that to this day I can quote parts of the play from memory though I myself never worked the text. Our teacher didn't assign the play to anyone. At the start of every school year, he would order hundreds of new plays from Dramatists, Samuel French, etc. he set them out in the classroom and WE were supposed to find new material for ourselves. Monologues, scenes, whathaveyou. I attended in public high school in San Antonio, Texas. I know I'm not really commenting on the article above. I am sharing that the play was allowed to us by our teacher because of its literary merit and the merit of the playwright. At that time the play was still pretty new, and I loved that our teacher encouraged interest in newer work. I'll be the first to admit that the administration probably had no clue what was going on, and some, but not all, of our parents were clueless. But the character of Billy has a great monologue in the play. The girls I knew who played Stevie loved her because she is demanding and hurt and in love. Whether or not high school students SHOULD do it or not? Well, we did. No one has done any psychological testing on me to assertion THE GOAT's effects, but I think any "damage" found in my adolescence would most likely come from my real life. Not a play in which a man has sex with a goat that I was exposed to in high school.

Richard - your "Challenging the way we think about things, and what we think we know" pretty much hits the nail on the head for me. It seems to me from my experience of seeing and reading his plays that Albee does have that over-riding intention, but that he does have a possible delight in doing it in such a way that is experienced as an assault by the audience. “All art is an act of aggression against the status quo.” - And of course it's his right as a creative artist to do that. I prefer my own take on his statement - “All high art, art that is especially noteworthy, art that endures the test of time, is ultimately an act of love and necessity that reveals what we individually as well as collectively are afraid to see, acknowledge, and do. It is art that liberates a greater and deeper truth, and that sometimes can feel aggressive with the impact of its liberation."

Anyway, thank you Alice for writing the article because of course it is ultimately a bout censorship. Always a potent conversation piece. Thought it wonderful that the group was established to explore 'borderland' plays. A rich community service that definitely promotes the 'challenging the way we think' dynamic that Richard brought up.

One thing I find ironic is that if the teacher had selected Euripides 'Medea' there probably would have been no outrage. Killing your children is fine but don't fuck a goat. Actually the husbands 'sin' is worse, he loves the goat. He talks about the inexplicable soul connection between them. On one level it could be seen as the delusion of a warped and disturbed mind carried out through action that can be easily judged with disgust. On another level it could be an analogy or metaphor for the mysterious, archaic human relationship to our own animal nature and the aspect of purity within it, as well as our lost bond with the animal kingdom itself. And of course the whole general topic of exploring cultural taboos.

I think any good play, as well as book, has levels of meaning and exploration. I imagine what most people become disturbed by about THE GOAT is it's surface level. But the play, in my opinion has interesting explorations for the complexities of human experience. I've given some thought to the end of the play, the killing of the goat, and her bringing it in to show him. One possibility of interpretation that I rather like, [whether it was Albee's intent or not] is that she does so as a sacrificial offering. The killing of the goat is not just out of revenge, but as the only act that could possibly redeem the shattering of this impasse in their relationship, to appease some activated archaic God [Dionysus?] and release her husband from the undertow grip of the unconscious.

Certainly dialogue about such themes, especially when they are borderland themes, can be beneficial to expand and clarify how and why we think about things, things that we may not be consciously aware of on the surface level of our daily lives, but nonetheless make up part of the rich fabric of the human condition, its shadow lands, mythic residues, and the process of how we develop our own meanings.

Just a few thoughts.

Thank you for your comments, Michael, on this stimulating article. In addition to "Medea", I thought back to some of the other literary high school curriculum that we accept--"Oedipus" (incest), "Romeo and Juliet" (teenage suicide). Seems like the censorship at high schools (like anywhere) can be very selective. I wonder how many people at the HS in AZ read Albee´s play before putting the teacher on leave?

What I particularly enjoyed about The Goat is that I found myself asking questions like, how do you know if a goat consents to sex? Is there any situation in which the goat can express a preference? Is there something I'm not seeing? Then, extrapolated, how do humans give meaningful consent? What do I need in relationship to others to feel connected? And if the goat and bestiality is a stand-in for how people view homosexuality or bisexuality--as a deviance--can I put myself in the shoes of each of the people in this family and can I find empathy for their response to man-goat love? In recent history, homosexuality has been treated as akin to bestiality and pedophelia, so in what ways does a story about a man who loves a goat humanize our understanding of what it is to be marginalized? Read the play out loud and talk about what resonates and what makes you uncomfortable and why? This is how students (and the rest of us) learn. It's complex, but the "I know it when I see it" argument about pornography or good art is nothing more than subjective. Art asks hard questions and to my mind, great art keeps them unanswered. I write plays hoping dialogue begets dialogue. I go to see them for the same reason: I'm curious.

We should remember that *Unknown Critic's* claim that THE GOAT doesn't "deserve" to be seen is - in fact - not criticism. We should, perhaps, also reflect on this, instead of Critic's dislike of the play.

There are certain types of art, or specific pieces that don't DESERVE to be seen?

Please go on...

I wonder if Huckleberry Finn is on your list. Long before we banned it for its use of the word "nigger," we banned it for its description of Huckleberry "itching and scratching," because what impressionable, young mind should have to read about such low-class behavior. Hemingway called Twain's book the birth of Modern American Literature, claiming, "There was Nothing before, there has been nothing as good sense." But then again, I never met Hemingway, so perhaps that viewpoint is meaningless.

Perhaps you agree with the Boston Police Department, who threatened Igor Stravinsky with a fine for adding a major-minor seventh chord in his arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Sure, it added focus and intrigue to that piece of music, but you and I probably agree that the song is best left as a British Drinking Song.

Certainly you agree with Hitler that ALL modern art is degenerate and tied to Jewish Bolshevism.

Yes... I just compared you to Hitler. Forgive me, but I have a penchant for over-the-top devices, and I'm very eager for people to read my posts.

Art is awesome.

All of it.

It should be celebrated.

But more importantly, access to the arts should extend to all people and cover even the pieces of art that scare us, or threaten us, or anger us. We should assume that children can be led to a deeper understanding of art and the universe thru nuance, context and education.

Aunt Sally asks Huckleberry:

AUNT SALLY: Good Gracious! Anybody hurt?HUCKLEBERRY: No'm. Killed a nigger.AUNT SALLY: Well it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.

And we see the world more clearly, even if the fog we have to stare thru is acrid.

As an aside, my grandmother took me to see THE GOAT when I was eighteen. It was the first professional piece of theater I ever saw. It is the play that has had the single deepest impression on me as a playwright, and I'm very grateful that there was no "Notice" posted outside the theater to bar my way.

And I'm sorry... you're probably not as bad as Hitler. There, I said it.

"Stephens... decided on 'banned plays' to gain focus and create intrigue."

And there you have it, ladies and gentleman. Why plays such as "Goat" (which deserve to be performed neither by adults or children) are written.

That is, because writing a play that has not only the positive benefits described above but far more as well will lose out almost every time to one (such as "Goat") that has salacious elements (no matter how superficial) that causes some to want to ban it.

Albee seems to have a penchant for over-the-top devices such as imaginary children and bestiality. The former worked, but the latter was merely an over-the-top attempt to grasp the success that eluded him for so many years after his great success with "Wolf."

As for the awards it received, quick -- can you name a single member of the Pulitzer committee or what their credentials are? If not (and most can't) then the award is meaningless.

As for being a Tony-award winner, well any play that gets produced on Broadway has a pretty good chance of that, as there are only a handful of "straight" (non-musical) plays produced each year. That doesn't mean that hundreds of better new plays weren't produced in the same year off-Broadway and in regional theaters across the country. Being a Tony-award-winning play is almost meaningless in terms of an endorsement of quality; it is little more than an endorsement of its commerciality and primarily useful as a marketing tool.

It's one of my favorite plays, certainly my favorite Albee, and I wish it were written when I was teenager, as it would helped me out of me a lot of self-doubt, self-hatred, and fear. Art is an aggression against the status quo and if you feel attacked by this play, you might ask yourself, how are you part of the status quo and how does your membership then create a bias you against an in-depth consideration of the play's ideas.

This is a question-begging response that does not address the substance of the criticism above, but rather simply attacks the person making the criticism. Your subjective benefit from the play does not translate into the play's cultural merit. What is Albee providing besides a contrarian argument? Why is challenging the status quo a properly basic aesthetic or epistemic or moral virtue? The play reads like it was crafted by an author who observes humanity as inevitably selfish and self-serving, and makes an implicit argument that to pursue one's self-serving impulse is the best possible choice one can make.

I dunno, Chuck - Mr. Critic is basically saying it is a bad play, and we shouldn't trust the Pulitzer committee because we don't know them. (Never mind that we don't know his real name either). Mr. Mac _does_ know himself, so his response does address that substance of the criticism. The only 'substance' of Mr. Critic's criticism (that I could read in it) was that it was salacious and he doesn't think that has value to anyone, while Mr. Mac said it had value _to_him_. It even responds to your question: what is it providing? It is providing perspective on self-doubt, self-hatred and fear... what _else_ do you want a work of art to do?

If I had to distill these two comments down, I would say Mr. Critic's response was "I don't like it,", and Mr. Mac's was "well I do." Which is a valid response, if not particularly interesting.

Now, your criticism of the play is much more sophisticated, and I will have to think for a while - I too have a problem with plays that make dismal claims about humanity and say 'too bad -that is how it is' (my problem with Mamet's plays, for example). But that is me - a lot of people seem to value that, and because I don't doesn't mean they are wrong to.

But challenging the way we think about things, and what we think we know has enormous moral value. In many ways, I think that is the primary value that art has: helping us to understand the way other people think, and to put ourselves in other people's shoes and try to evaluate how we would react.

Thanks Richard, well writ. I was, yes Chuck in a reactive, easy, and polarizing way, simply trying to say, you said the play has no merit but it has merit to someone, which means merit is in the play. Chuck, I read the play differently than you. There is a great deal of generosity in catharsis, which the play drives to. It's a treatise pontificating on the tragedy of prudery. Perhaps one day I'll write an in-depth criticism of the play, it certainly deserves a much more thoughtful championing and dissection than I have the time for right now. I'm off to work on my new play in hopes that it too will be as well crafted and full of unpacked ideas as "The Goat". In the meantime, I hope it's naysayers will give it a second, third, and even fourth chance and that more teenagers will grow up in a school system that allows and teaches them how to engage with an alternative and intellectual questioning.