Hero or the goat? I could not help remember that formulation of the alternatives as I contemplate two important recent cultural productions. At movie theaters everywhere you can see "The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring," nominated for an Academy Award as best picture. And in New York the more ventursome can take in Edward Albee's new play, "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?"
"One of the most satisfying productions of the Broadway season," the Associated Press called Albee's play, and I have no doubt it is a work of art, probing the nature of desire and love in extremis, ecstatically smashing one of the few, pathetic, pitiful sexual taboos we have left.
For both art and masculinity, these are two extremes: Tolkein or Albee? Let us take them both seriously, as they deserve. In J.R.R. Tolkein's world, men are heroes, tempted and imperfect but persevering in the fight against evil. When Frodo laments that he was ever faced with the burden of the Ring, Gandalf tells him that nobody chooses such times; all we can choose is what we do with the times that are given us.
The distinguished Sherry Turkle, professor of the sociology of science at MIT, complains in print that this "Lord of the Rings" is a masculine world: "The few females are loved and feared as icons or charms." This world, she snorts, owes its "simple clarities to the fact that it is not real. Tolkein's Middle-earth ... leaves little room for ambuguity, ambivalence or contradiction. But the real world," she insists, "demands that we be comfortable with them."
Sometimes, no doubt.
Ambiguity is Albee's specialty. Albee's tortured protaganist, Martin, is a 50-year-old married architect driven by overwhelming sexual desire for a goat. For Albee's theme of obsessive love, the goat is not gratuitous. These days, it takes a goat to produce the kind of tension between moral obligations and sexual gratification the author seeks to exploit. If Martin had merely fallen in love with another woman -- or man -- we in the audience would have yawned and said, Get a divorce, be happy.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.