Albee, Edward 1928–
A prize-winning American playwright, Albee has most recently written All Over. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The Zoo Story is both an extremely simple and an extremely mystifying play. It is mystifying because it is so simple. Like Ionesco, who is clearly his literary progenitor, Albee is not saying anything with his play, which is nothing but an excessively fantastic slice-of-life pastiche: he is exemplifying or demonstrating a theme. That theme is the enormous and usually insuperable difficulty that human beings find in communicating with each other. More precisely, it is about the maddening effect that the enforced loneliness of the human condition has on the person who is cursed (for in our society it undoubtedly is a curse) with an infinite capacity for love….
The Zoo Story is not only remarkable as a young writer's first play: it is remarkable by any standards for the spareness of its construction and the daring of its conception. It takes a man who has in him at least the germs of a master writer to bring off as fantastic a situation as the one in which the schizoid Jerry suddenly switches personalities, picks a fight with his companion, and then impales himself on his own knife. Albee manages to make this entirely believable and—what is even more important—entirely understandable once the initial shock has worn off.
George Wellwarth, "Edward Albee," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press from The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama by George Wellwarth; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 275-84.
[Edward] Albee is progressing. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was about the emptiness that surrounds and threatens to swallow our relationships; Tiny Alice was about the void lurking behind our deepest beliefs; now, A Delicate Balance is about the nothingness, the bare nothingness of it all—it is a play about nothing. Nothing will come of nothing was not spoken of the theatre: there nothing has been known to yield glittering and even golden returns. Heartbreak House, for example, is a play more or less about nothing, and so are most of Beckett's plays. But Shaw fills his nothingness with incisive speculation, so that the mind, though working in a near-vacuum, begets its own thrilling parabolas; Beckett raises nothingness to fierce tragicomic, almost epic, heights. But the nothingness—perhaps more accurately nothinginess—of Albee's play is petty, self-indulgent, stationary. Albee's nothing is as dull as anything….
What, one wonders, was the real motive behind A Delicate Balance? I, for one, still believe in Albee's perceptiveness and even in his talent (he did, after all, write The Zoo Story and Virginia Woolf); why would he hurtle into such utter pointlessness? It occurs to me that at least since Virginia Woolf, Albee's plays and adaptations have been viewed by many as dealing overtly or covertly with homosexual matters; Albee may have resolved here to write a play reeking with heterosexuality. To be sure, the edges are fuzzy.
John Simon, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1966–67, pp. 627-29.
If [Edward] Albee were not so arrogant, one would view his desperate stratagems with pity. When you have failed with every kind of play, including adaptations of novels and other people's plays, the last remaining maneuver is the nonplay. Finding himself in a box, Albee has contrived two interlocking nonplays, based, apparently, on a mathematical error: it is by multiplying, not by adding, minuses that you get a plus. Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, when run together like two ink blots of different colors, raise the Rorschach test to new dramatic heights….
[In these plays we] get the same ambitious, artificial, circumlocutory prose Albee keeps elaborating in his later, sterile works. It consists of false starts, emendations, indirections, apologies, and general syntactic deviousness. One guesses that Albee imagines this to be some wonderful cross between Beckett and Joyce; in fact, it is a barren, puerile mannerism.
John Simon, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 703-05.
Albee's idea in "All Over" has its interest and possibilities, but they are annihilated by the deadness of every element of the play. This deadness is focused in the language, a stilted, priggish, pedantic, self-conscious neo-Victorian lingo never heard on land or sea. "Do not deflect me," says Mother imperiously to Daughter. "Non grata has its compensations," says Daughter. "He locused in on his killer," says Nurse….
[Perhaps] … Albee (who has half swallowed the influence of T. S. Eliot like a python developing lockjaw in the middle of a meal) seems to have bypassed J. Alfred Prufrock to become a premature Polonius. His biting bitchiness has evaporated, leaving only a null refinement, a donnish travesty of religious resignation and metaphysical insight, speaking in stiff, waxy aspidistras of language.
Jack Kroll, "The Disconnection," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1971; reprinted by permission), April 5, 1971, p. 52.
Edward Albee almost seems to have lived through two careers, one very exciting, the other increasingly depressing. From The Zoo Story through The American Dream to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he displayed great gusto, waspish humor and feral power. In the succeeding nine years, he has foundered in murky metaphysics (Tiny Alice), dabbled in adaptations (The Ballad of the Sad Café) and gone down experimental blind alleys (Box-Mao-Box). Instead of lunging for the jugular, as he once did, Albee has cultivated a Jamesian languor in his prose, a fastidious dandyism of manner, a dusty, librarefied reserve. Portentousness of delivery is used to mask vacuity of thought. In his latest play, All Over, we instantly recognize him for what he now is—the club bore.
It is not that the play lacks grand themes. Its underlying concerns are death, love and the mutilation of love in the microcosm of the family. Some of the greatest plays of the Western world revolve around these subjects. But Albee has simply not given them any dramatic urgency or compelling emotional life. When All Over is not dead, it is dull, and mostly it is deadly dull.
T. E. Kalem, "Club Bore," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1971 by Time Inc.), April 5, 1971, p. 69.
Because Edward Albee's latest play, All Over …, is one which many people may have trouble appreciating, I feel constrained to begin by saying that it is the best American play of several seasons—a manner of speaking of which I disapprove!…
To quote one of the characters in All Over, Albee is shocked by the "sad and shabby times we live in." Though wholly immersed in the present, he appears to be withdrawn from it, to set himself apart. He "alienates" himself. All Over seems written from a tomb, a world on the other side of existence. Its people, though recognizably contemporary, produce the effect of wraiths recalled from a bygone life. The play conveys an existential shudder which has its origins in the soul's dark solitude.
The theme is man's relation to death. Americans tend to shy away from the very thought. When death is dealt with on our stage it is nearly always in a sentimental, pseudo-religious or sensational vein, any of which betrays evasion. This indicates a spiritual error. Death is a definition of life, and life is made precious by an acknowledgment of its containment within the bounds of death….
Listening attentively, as one must to understand this largely verbal play, one comes to recognize that it contains not only feeling but pathos all the more poignant for its severe repression. Albee is saying that, despite all the hasty bickering, the fierce hostility and the mutual misunderstandings which separate us, we need one another. We cry out in agony when we are cut off.
On close examination, the bitterest dramatists today prove to be the most moral. Albee condemns the vulgarity of an age that refuses to perceive the sanctity of the human conditions and the responsibility for mutual respect. Instead of struggling for balance amid the conflicting drives within us, we retreat to hypocritical subterfuges. Albee decries the younger generation not for its well advertised "sins" but because it refuses to comprehend the validity of tradition which the past has so valiantly fashioned to convert chaos to order. He also accuses the older generation of having depleted tradition of its content by neglecting to persevere in the arduous task of maintaining it. Tradition has been reduced to the mouthing of its nomenclature: loyalty, honor, home, country, etc….
It is a stylized play; its characters do not speak "naturally." The language is that of an artist who sees things through the peculiar spectrum of his brooding spirit. His is a frozen fire. No one else in our theatre writes in this particular way. That makes Albee truly original.
Harold Clurman, in Nation, April 12, 1971, pp. 476-77.
Because of the … characters [in Albee's All Over, the] literary dialogue, and [the] subject matter, one is immediately reminded of the late T. S. Eliot. But the differences between Eliot and Albee soon become apparent. It is not just that Eliot wrote verse that sounded like prose and that Albee writes prose that sounds like verse. It is the almost complete lack in All Over of the sense of nemesis that in Eliot's plays acted as a driving force against which the characters could struggle. Eliot believed in God and fate, and Albee, in this play at least, chooses not to. This choice is certainly appropriate to our times, and it makes All Over a realistic and honest effort to reflect contemporaneity. Yet, it leaves Albee with the difficult task of finding some other conflict that will be equally dramatic.
The obvious way to create such drama would be to find deeply revealing points of dispute between the characters. This would have been easy to do for none of them like one another very much…. Yet, again Albee has resisted. Why? One can only guess that he prefers to show us the overriding despair that reduces these people's lives to dispassion and makes their decisions unimportant.
Thus, All Over becomes a play of carefully orchestrated conversations in which recalled random thoughts and petty unresolved bickerings fill in a mosaic of waste.
Henry Hewes, "Death Prattle," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 17, 1971; used with permission), April 17, 1971, p. 54.
We're still expected to take Edward Albee seriously. Broadway has one comedy writer, Neil Simon, and one serious writer…. Albee is the high-art jewel of the Big Time. If we had a healthy and fruitful theater, Albee might be tolerable as one among many, a formerly vital, now-attenuated mediocrity. As it is, the news that Albee has written a play makes Broadway throb, makes the Ph.D. candidates slaver, and makes the general audience—or what's left of it—gather round like the crowd outside a palace waiting for word that a son has been born to keep the royal line alive.
But ever since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—Albee's last good play—all we've been getting from the royal bedchamber are abortions: two plays and three adaptations that are all varyingly bad and two one-act plays that are Absurdist imitations. In fact, those two imitations, Box and Mao, were the best of this poor lot because at least they showed that Albee was listening to something besides his own purr.
With his new play, All Over, the purr begins again with the very first lines….
The trumped-up revelations, the unproductive confrontations, retroactively reveal Albee's real bankruptcy, that he knew he had nothing to say before he started. There is no hint in this play that Albee was genuinely on fire to say something and that he misconstrued his own depth. Rather, the impression is that he thought of the mechanism—the death-chamber symbolism—and simply began, assuming that the magic of the mechanism and the weight of his reputation would supply Art.
Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), April 17, 1971, pp. 24, 38-9.
About Edward Albee's All Over, someone should have said "Come off it!" long before it reached the production stage, and in fact we will shortly be without one of our good playwrights if someone does not say something at least as blunt to him in the near future. The play is not only self-indulgent in itself, but it is also another step for Albee into a thicket of verbiage which began to sprout ominously in A Delicate Balance and became thoroughly overgrown in Box-Mao-Box….
In the security of his enormous prestige, Mr. Albee is evolving from a writer into a "writer." Dialogue, and specifically the long spoken set piece (like the story of Jerry and the Dog in The Zoo Story), was this play-wright's specialty, and much of his initial dazzle came from his rhetorical surprises and his good ear for the weird rhythms of human speech, which he recorded honestly and which were made to serve his dramatic purposes.
All Over is a collection of such speeches, but the rhythms are by now so self-conscious, the rhetoric so elaborately precious, that for one thing it does not sound like human speech at all. In phrases that seem to derive from Ivy Compton-Burnett or Henry James, endless parenthetical refinements fog every thought…. One result is that the characters all speak with the same voice….
Perhaps we could be encouraged that Mr. Albee seems just slightly at war with himself. He wants to maintain a Beckett-size metaphysical view of death, in a quasimusical structure of theme and variations, but at the same time his instincts hunger for the sort of character conflict which gave life to The Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In this play confrontations do erupt briefly and enigmatically from time to time, but subside quickly…. And ironically, the final confrontation, such as it is, between wife and mistress seems only a gratuitous taste of what that complex relationship might have been, yet at the same time it is so prosaic as to diminish any metaphysical overtones the writer has set up….
[It] is the playwright himself who is center stage throughout the play, rambling along, searching for profound things to say. He has not found them, and we would all be better off the next time if he would get out of the way and turn his characters loose.
Michael Murray, "Albee's End Game," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 23, 1971, pp. 166-67.
It will be a while yet before we know whether Edward Albee is a major playwright. But as a major playwright of our times (which may or may not be different from being a major playwright per se) Albee continues to be a problem, a focal point for contention, abused and abusing. His central virtue and his central fault, hypersensitivity, carry on a narcissistic war inside him that taints and embellishes everything he does. Hypersensitivity makes All Over … a beautiful and exciting piece of theater.
Albee's whole career has been a series of responses to other people's thrusts. His plays are derivative or imitative, much more so than the work of many other important playwrights, and his tendency to react to some fleeting theatrical mode has led to the creation of both his best and his worst work. All Over shares with A Delicate Balance the distinction of being Albee's most satisfying achievement….
[With All Over] Albee's hypersensitivity has created an epitome of the mid-twentieth-century play. As in Pinter's The Homecoming or Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the main character is never onstage, only talked about. The dominant force in the play is some great other, never there, but a master, in his non-presence, of the people who inhabit the play. The plot is non-dynamic. That nothing happens is the basis of the action, and theater with Albee, in this play, comes as close to touching the life chords as it does in Beckett and Pinter and the other great non-dynamic playwrights of our time.
Richmond Crinkley, "The Development of Edward Albee," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June 1, 1971, pp. 602-04.
Life, of course, is full of disappointments. Increasingly, Edward Albee seems to be one of them. His path from the early promise of The Zoo Story to the generally negative response evoked by All Over has had moments of exhilaration—Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The American Dream and the underrated A Delicate Balance—and moments of pretension and tedium, notably in the absurdly portentous Tiny Alice. All Over falls somewhere in between.
Hardly for the first time, American critics eager for a "successor to O'Neill" have from the beginning set Albee up as candidate either for the kingship or the killing. With All Over most have decided on the latter. They have, I think, jumped the gun. Although it is certainly neither altogether successful nor altogether satisfying, it is often absorbing.
Catherine Hughes, "Albee's Death-watch," in America (© America Press, 1971; all rights reserved), June 5, 1971, pp. 593-95.
Albee-playwright was born at the age of thirty, with perfect command of contemporary colloquial stylized dialogue…. Edward Albee is the most skillful composer of dialogue that America has produced. His very first play showed thorough mastery of colloquial idiom—syntax, vocabulary, and above all rhythm. With adroit combinations of monologue and witty repartee, Albee dramatizes human situations. He never permits his characters to lapse into discussion, and he rarely inflates them with abstraction. Almost always, he mirrors the meaning of events in the rhythm of his dialogue: Jerry's indirection, George's surgery, Julian's fragmentation, the Long-Winded Lady's long wind. Difficult as marriage is within his plays, they contain unusually harmonious marriages of sound to sense.
But suspicion is born of Albee's very brilliance. His plays are too well crafted, his characters too modishly ambiguous, his dialogue too carefully cadenced. This is not to say that he writes perfect plays—whatever that may be—but his surface polish seems to deny subsurface search, much less risk. Again and again, O'Neill stumbled and fell in the darkness of his dramas; even the final achievements lack grace, but their solidity endures. Miller has probed into his own limited experience and into his own limited view of the experience of his time, but his plays sometimes give evidence of reaching to his limits. Williams expresses his guiltiest urges, and though the very naiveté of his guilt restricts the resonance of his plays, he does agonize toward religious resolution. Albee's plays are not devoid of suffering, and in any case one cannot measure the quality of a play by some putative pain of the playwright. Nevertheless, Albee's craftsmanship recalls the meditation of the disembodied voice of Box: "arts which have gone down to craft." And it is particularly ungrateful to turn his own finely modulated words against Albee. But just because his verbal craft is so fine, one longs for the clumsy upward groping toward art.
Ruby Cohn, "The Verbal Murders of Edward Albee," in her Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 130-69.
Edward Albee, it is said, is determined never to rest on the laurels of previous successes and therefore careful to avoid ever writing two plays in exactly the same style. That is why he has followed the early absurdist-style American Dream with the bold frankness of The Death of Bessie Smith, the lacerating Strindbergian tirades of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the symbolism and poetic imagery of Tiny Alice, the gentle eeriness of A Delicate Balance with the far-out experimentalism of Mao-Box-Mao. With All Over Albee seems to have entered the stylistic realm of highly formalised and abstract ritual theatre, somewhere between the classicism of Racine, who portrayed life as a series of lofty emotional climaxes between characters of the utmost abstractness, and German Expressionism which so disdained the vulgarity of individualism that it labelled its characters simply The Man, The Woman, The Seducer and so on….
It is all beautifully—to my taste far too beautifully—written but, being a ritual, which means the re-enactment of a primal scene which always takes exactly the same course, utterly predictable. And the abstractness of the characters is such that no suspense and very little emotion seem possible.
Martin Esslin, in Plays and Players, March, 1972, pp. 38-40.
In mood [Albee's All Over is] an extension of A Delicate Balance, owing something, I should say, to Eliot's Family Reunion. Its theme is well-heeled spiritual emptiness relieved by spite (Western civilization?); there's no denying that Mr. Albee is uncommonly good at spite, but then he gave us a basinful of that in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In All Over he does, I take it, set out to move beyond this element; but bitchy backchat remains the only vital spark in an exercise moribund in more ways than one.
J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Spring, 1972, p. 21.