“Why on earth would I want to end my week by going to see a play about a man having sex with a goat?” This was the question asked by a very dear friend as we set off to the theatre last week.
The play in question was Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? with Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo. Avid theatre goers, we have all enjoyed many a memorable night together, but none quite like last week.
It divided and united us in equal measure which to me at least is an indication of a good play. Theatre is not about pure entertainment it is about provoking a reaction, encouraging the audience to ask questions of themselves and society and The Goat Play as it is fondly known did just that.
I would be lying if I said the actors weren’t largely responsible for getting me through the door, but so too was my natural curiosity. I was not familiar with the play before attending last week so went albeit with some doubts simmering beneath the surface, a relatively open mind.
Enjoying drinks in the Oscar Wilde bar before the performance, we listened as the waitress regaled everyone with stories on audience reactions since opening, including those about some finding it all too much and leaving mid-performance. In all honesty as we settled into our seats we were expecting our dear friend to join them.
The play is a quasi Greek tragedy. It is the story of Martin, a married, middle-aged man and successful architect and his tragic fall from grace and the consequences upon his family, when he falls in love spiritually and physically with a goat. Not only is this an unquestionably absurd story line it is evidently repugnant.
Bestiality is not an easy subject matter. Shock is the predominant reaction of both the other characters in the play and the audience, as simultaneously you find yourselves experiencing the full emotional gamut of disgust, horror and anger, recoiling with every moral fibre in your body.
However, the play is not about bestiality, it is merely a means to an end. By using a subject matter so unnatural and divisive, what the play does brilliantly is highlight how intolerant as a society we are and question how far we have really come in our seemingly progressive thinking.
The play is not asking us to accept bestiality but it forces us to hold up a mirror and look at our own prejudicial weaknesses. Who is to say what is tolerable and what is not? This is accentuated superbly by Martin’s own incongruous response to his gay teenage son’s sexual preferences, which he finds difficult to comprehend.
Albee said in an interview at the play’s New York premiere “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.”
By shining the spotlight on those living outside the conventional, it is a play about the limits of our tolerance and who we really are.
Our tweens and teenagers are growing up in an increasingly more tolerant and progressive society than the one we inhabited at their age, yet still Albee’s message is pertinent.
No-one likes to think of themselves as being prejudiced but we all have our own individual views on what is acceptable and what is not and and thereby unless we all share the same views, prejudice in some shape or form will exist and nowhere is this more prevalent than in relation to our sexual preferences.
“How would you feel if one of your friends came out as a Lesbian?” “Who knows what it means to be Gender Neutral?” “How accepting do you think you would be of a transgender woman at school?” were among the many questions asked of my daughter’s class during lessons and debates marking LGBT History Month.
Homophobia in our schools is described as being at epidemic levels and it is commendable that there is a concerted effort at breaking down these barriers early, educating out prejudice and encouraging a more open-minded society, yet how easy is it to influence a change in opinion later in life? Only last week Caitlyn Jenner was subject to transphobic abuse whilst leaving the British LGBT awards, demonstrating that even in an environment where tolerance should be high, there is still a way to go in our seemingly liberal society to being more inclusive.
There is no doubt though that there is a commitment to challenging the limits of our tolerance and even the big consumer brands are getting in on the act. Heineken’s new Worlds Apart campaign partners groups of strangers with a variety of opposing views including a transgender woman and a right-wing guy who thinks it’s “wrong,” and in doing so attempts to overcome barriers in our polarized world.
In the meantime, plays like The Goat, will continue to entertain and shock in equal measure and force us to question our own moral judgment of a variety of social taboos, not just sexual ones. As for us, well we left the play agreeing to disagree on whether that is possible, but the mere fact we debated it went some way to achieving Albee’s purpose of forcing us to stand back and consider a different stance to the black and white version.
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