Albee, Edward 1928–
Albee is an American playwright whose best works rank among the finest in contemporary theater. The problem of human communication in a world of increasing callousness is a recurrent concern in Albee's works, notably The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His drama is characterized by a fine control of rhythm and brilliant use of language. Albee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for Seascape. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee attempted to move beyond the narrowness of his personal interests by having his characters speculate from time to time upon the metaphysical and historical implications of their predicament. In Tiny Alice, the metaphysics, such as they are, appear to be Albee's deepest concern—and no doubt about it, he wants his concerns to seem deep. But this new play isn't about the problems of faith-and-doubt or appearance-and-reality, any more than Virginia Woolf was about "the Decline of the West"; mostly, when the characters in Tiny Alice suffer over epistemology, they are really suffering the consequences of human deceit, subterfuge, and hypocrisy. Albee sees in human nature very much what Maupassant did, only he wants to talk about it like Plato. In this way he not only distorts his observations, but subverts his own powers, for it is not the riddles of philosophy that bring his talent to life, but the ways of cruelty and humiliation. Like Virginia Woolf, Tiny Alice is about the triumph of a strong woman over a weak man.
The disaster of the play, however—its tediousness, its pretentiousness, its galling sophistication, its gratuitous and easy symbolizing, its ghastly pansy rhetoric and repartee—all of this can be traced to his own unwillingness or inability to put its real subject at the center of the action…. Why Tiny Alice is so unconvincing, so remote, so obviously a sham—so much the kind of play that makes you want to rise from your seat and shout, "Baloney"—is that its surface is an attempt to disguise the subject on the one hand, and to falsify its significance on the other. All that talk about illusion and reality may even be the compulsive chattering of a dramatist who at some level senses that he is trapped in a lie. (pp. 105-06)
Albee does not make the invention whole or necessary. The play strings together incidents of no moral or intellectual consequence, and where the inconsistencies, oversights, and lapses occur, the playwright justifies them by chalking them up to the illusory nature of human existence. It is as though Shakespeare, having failed to settle in his own mind whether Desdemona did or did not sleep with Cassio—and consequently leaving the matter unsettled in the play—later explains his own failure of imagination by announcing to the press that we can never penetrate reality to get to the truth. The world of Tiny Alice is mysterious because Albee cannot get it to cohere. (p. 106)
Least convincing of all is what should be the most convincing—Tiny Alice Herself, and the replica, or altar, in which her spirit resides. The implications of a Woman-God, her nature, her character, and her design, are never revealed; but is this because they are beyond human comprehension, or beyond the playwright's imagination? Though his God is mysterious, certainly the Cardinal could discuss Him with some conviction and intelligence (and ought to, of course, instead of appearing as a pompus operator). Why can't Miss Alice or the lawyer discuss theirs? Why don't they answer the questions that are put to them? There is, after all, a difference between the idea that life is a dream and a predilection to being dreamy about life. But withholding information is Albee's favorite means of mystifying the audience; the trouble comes from confusing a technique of dramaturgy, and a primitive one at that, with an insight into the nature of things. (p. 107)
For a lay brother who is, as he so piously says, "deeply" interested in the reality of things, how little persistence there is in Julian's curiosity; how like a child he is in the answers he accepts to the most baffling mysteries that surround him. Indeed when Albee begins to see Julian as a man who walks around acting like a small boy in a huge house full of big bad grownups, he is able to put together two or three minutes of dialogue that is at least emotionally true. To the delights and dangers of the Oedipal triangle (boy in skirts, mother in negligee, father with pistol) Albee's imagination instantly quickens; but unfortunately by presenting Julian as a befuddled boy, he only further befuddles the audience about those metaphysical problems that are supposed to be so anguishing to Julian as a man. For instance, when a fire miraculously breaks out in the chapel of the castle and in the chapel of the replica, one would imagine that Julian, with his deep interest in reality, would see the matter somewhat further along than he does…. (pp. 107-08)
That is the last we hear of the fire. But how did it happen? And why? I know I am asking questions about the kind of magical moment that qualifies a play for the Howard Taubman Repertory Theater for Sheer Theater, but I would like to know who this Alice is that she can and will cause such miracles of nature. Might not Julian, a lay brother, who has the ear of a Cardinal, rush out to tell him of this strange occurrence? But then the Cardinal exists, really, only as another figure to betray and humiliate poor Julian, the baffled little boy. As a Cardinal, he is of no interest to Albee, who seems to have introduced the Catholic Church into the play so that he can have some of the men dressed up in gowns on the one hand, and indulge his cynicism on the other; he does nothing to bring into collision the recognizable world of the Church and its system of beliefs, with the world that is unfamiliar to both Julian and the audience, the world of Tiny Alice. Such a confrontation would, of course, have made it necessary to invent the mysteries of a Woman-God and the way of life that is a consequence of her existence and her power. But Albee is simply not capable of making this play into a work of philosophical or religious originality, and probably not too interested either. The movement of the play is not towards a confrontation of ideas; it is finally concerned with evoking a single emotion—pity for poor Julian. In the end the playwright likens him to Jesus Christ—and all because he has had to suffer the martyrdom of heterosexual love.
Tiny Alice is a homosexual day-dream in which the celibate male is tempted and seduced by the overpowering female, only to be betrayed by the male lover and murdered by the cruel law, or in this instance, cruel lawyer. It has as much to do with Christ's Passion as a little girl's dreaming about being a princess locked in a tower has to do with the fate of Mary Stuart. Unlike Genet, who dramatizes the fact of fantasying in Our Lady of the Flowers, Albee would lead us to believe that his fantasy has significance altogether removed from the dread or the desire which inspired it; consequently, the attitudes he takes towards his material are unfailingly inappropriate. His subject is emasculation—as was Strindberg's in The Father, a play I mention because its themes, treated openly and directly, and necessarily connected in the action, are the very ones that Albee has so vulgarized and sentimentalized in Tiny Alice: male weakness, female strength, and the limits of human knowledge. How long before a play is produced on Broadway in which the homosexual hero is presented as a homosexual, and not disguised as an angst-ridden priest, or an angry Negro, or an aging actress; or worst of all, Everyman? (pp. 108-09)
Philip Roth, "The Play That Dare Not Speak Its Name," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1965 NYREV, Inc.), February 25, 1965 (and reprinted in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 105-09).
[In] Edward Albee's work, we see a tension between realism and the theatre of the absurd. The Death of Bessie Smith is a purely realistic play, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, for all its showiness, no more than a cross between sick drawing-room comedy and naturalistic tragedy. The Zoo Story, The Sandbox and The American Dream are, on the face of it, absurd plays, and yet, if one compares them with the work of Beckett, Ionesco or Pinter, they all retreat from the full implications of the absurd when a certain point is reached. Albee still believes in the validity of reason—that things can be proved, or that events can be shown to have definite meanings—and, unlike Beckett and the others, is scarcely touched by the sense of living in an absurd universe. Interesting and important as his plays are, his compromise seems ultimately a failure of nerve—a concession to those complementary impulses towards cruelty and self-pity which are never far below the surface of his work.
Albee has been attracted to the theatre of the absurd mainly, I think, because of the kind of social criticism he is engaged in. Both The Zoo Story and The American Dream are savage attacks on the American Way of Life. (p. 26)
The American Way of Life, in the sense in which I am using the phrase, is a structure of images; and the images, through commercial and political exploitation, have lost much of their meaning. When the Eisenhower family at prayer becomes a televised political stunt, or the family meal an opportunity for advertising frozen foods, the image of the family is shockingly devalued. The deception practised is more complex than a simple lie: it involves a denial of our normal assumptions about evidence—about the relation between the observed world and its inner reality. This is why the techniques of the theatre of the absurd, which is itself preoccupied with the devaluation of language and of images, and with the deceptive nature of appearances, are so ideally suited to the kind of social criticism Albee intends. It is for this reason, too, that he has felt able to use the techniques of the theatre of the absurd, while stopping short of an acceptance of the metaphysic of the absurd upon which the techniques are based. It is possible, clearly, to see the absurd character of certain social situations without believing that the whole of life is absurd. In Albee's case, however, this has meant a restriction of scope, and his plays do not have the poetic quality or imaginative range of Waiting for Godot, for instance, or The Caretaker, or Rhinoceros. (p. 27)
For the playwright who accepts without reservations that he is living in an absurd universe, the loss of faith in reason which is at the heart of this vision and the conviction that the rational exploration of experience is a form of self-deception, imply a rejection of those theatrical conventions which reflect a belief in reason. Characters with fixed identities; events which have a definite meaning; plots which assume the validity of cause and effect; dénouements which offer themselves as complete resolutions of the questions raised by the play; and language which claims to mean what it says—none of these can be said to be appropriate means for expressing the dislocated nature of experience in an absurd world. In terms of formal experiment, then, the theatre of the absurd represents a search for images of non-reason.
Albee has used these images of non-reason in his attack on the American Way of Life without … accepting the underlying vision which generated them. His work belongs to the second level of the theatre of the absurd: it shows a brilliantly inventive sense of what can be done with the techniques, but stops short of the metaphysic which makes the techniques completely meaningful. Nevertheless, The American Dream and The Zoo Story are the most exciting productions of the American theatre in the last fifteen years….
In The American Dream (1961), Albee is closer to Ionesco than to any other dramatist. Like Ionesco, he sees the absurd localized most sharply in conventions of social behaviour. For both dramatists, the normal currency of social intercourse—of hospitality, or courtesy, or desultory chat—has lost its meaning, and this "devaluation of language," to use Martin Esslin's invaluable phrase, is an index for them of the vacuity of the social life represented…. (p. 31)
[Albee] sees the American Way of Life as one in which normal human feelings and relationships have been deprived of meaning. The gestures of love, sexual attraction, parental affection, family feeling and hospitality remain, but the actual feelings which would give the gestures meaning have gone. To show this in sharp dramatic terms, Albee constructs a situation of gestures which are normally supposed to have meaning but, as transposed by him, are seen to have none. (pp. 33-4)
The characters are isolated from each other in little worlds of selfishness, impotence and lovelessness, and all warmth of human contact is lost. It would be inaccurate to say that the gestures of love and connection ("You're my sweet Daddy"—"I love my Mommy") are deflated; their meaninglessness is exposed by tagging them on as afterthoughts to phases of the action where they are … ludicrously inapplicable. (p. 34)
Albee is disturbed and agonized by the extent of the dislocation of people's relationships and the imprisoning isolation of which these scenes are images. The play's central image of this failure of human feeling and contact is sterility—the inability to beget or bear a child—and as its title suggests, Albee tries to give the image the widest possible social reference. He implies that the sterility which the audience sees in his characters is typical of the society as a whole, and is created and perpetuated by the society. For him, the American Way of Life systematically eliminates, in the name of parental care, and social and moral concern, every trace of natural human feeling and every potentiality for warm human contact from those who have to live by it, and especially from the young. (pp. 34-5)
It is significant that the only character in The American Dream with any vitality or attractiveness is Grandma—and she is "rural," from an older way of life. The way in which she is juxtaposed against the Young Man who is the American Dream seems to symbolize a society in which the natural order of life has been reversed, in which the younger one is the less chance one has of being alive.
These patterns and images occur elsewhere in Albee's work. His sense of human isolation and despair is the central preoccupation of The Death of Bessie Smith (a bad play, it seems to me), and in The Sandbox, which parallels the situation of The American Dream most interestingly, though on too cramped a stage. The image of sterility is very prominent in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but is used there much less effectively than in The American Dream. Apart from its spectacular ability to amuse and shock, Virginia Woolf has a certain emptiness—no incident or image in it has reference to anything wider than the neuroses of its characters.
His first play, The Zoo Story (1959), however, contains some very fine dramatic writing. Again it is an exploration of the farce and the agony of human isolation. (p. 37)
In its finest scene, the long speech in which Jerry describes his attempt to form a relationship with his landlady's dog, The Zoo Story offers a superb example of what I call pseudo-crisis—the second pattern of absurd writing that is central to Albee's work. In classic drama, crisis is one of the most important means by which the action is significantly advanced. In Othello, for instance, when Iago tells Othello that he has seen Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's hands, a whole complex of tensions is brought to a head, and after this crisis, the catastrophe is measurably nearer, and Othello is demonstrably a stage further on his course of violence and madness. In the absurd play, on the other hand, what I call a pseudo-crisis occurs when a similar complex of tensions is brought to a head without resolving anything, without contributing to any development or progression, serving in fact to demonstrate that nothing as meaningful as progression or development can occur, emphasizing that complexity and tension are permanent and unresolvable elements of a world of confusion. (p. 38)
Jerry's long speech in The Zoo Story has all the marks of pseudo-crisis. It is used here to explore Albee's preoccupation with man's failure to make contact with others, and the drying up of those feelings that should provide connection…. The dramatic structure of … part of Jerry's speech reflects very closely the rhythms of pseudo-crisis—the excitement, the tensions, rising to the shouted climax ("WITH GOD WHO IS …"), and then slipping away into the lax despairing tempo of its inconclusive end ("with … some day, with people"). The hopelessness of this is quickly recognized…. In this final downward curve of the pseudo-crisis everything is conditional and hypothetical ("It would be A START! Where better to make a beginning … to understand, and just possibly be understood …").
In this early play, there is an attempt, too, to relate Jerry's agony to the wider social pattern—to see it as a product of the American Way of Life…. [However], it is clear that the impulse of social criticism has only been very partially translated into dramatic terms. [Albee] tells the audience how to react; it is almost … editorializing, and doesn't have the persuasiveness of art, the sense that ideas have become vision and are being enacted.
At such moments in The Zoo Story, and most of all, of course, at the moment of Jerry's melodramatic and sentimental death, we are left with a sense of dissatisfaction whose root causes are to be found in that compromise with the experimental theatre that seems to me so characteristic of American dramatists. The action and the dialogue are dislocated, arbitrary and absurd (pre-eminently in Jerry's story of the dog) up to the moment of Jerry's death, and then all the traditional assumptions of naturalism flood back into the play. It is postulated, quite as firmly as in any Ibsen social drama, that a catastrophe is also a resolution of the situation of the play, and that events, however obscure, ultimately have a definite and unambiguous meaning. Jerry spends his dying breath telling us what the play means as explicitly as does Lona Hessel at the end of Pillars of Society. This sudden reversion to a faith in the validity of rational explanations makes previous events in the play seem arbitrary in a wholly unjustifiable way: they can no longer be seen as appropriate symbols of life in an absurd universe. The slightest hint that events in an absurd play are amenable to everyday explanation is completely destructive of their dramatic effectiveness…. [It] is largely because of this misguided attempt to exploit the advantages both of the theatre of the absurd and of realism, that The Zoo Story misses the greatness which at times seems so nearly within its grasp.
The American Dream does not show so straightforward an evasion of the absurd as The Zoo Story, but it lacks even more completely the metaphysical dimension…. [The American Dream] is too exclusively and merely a satire of American middle-class aspirations and self-deceptions. It is, above all, a play about Other People, not about ourselves: when we laugh at Mommy and Daddy, we are laughing at emotional and sexual failures which we do not recognize as our own and in which we refuse to be implicated…. Since The American Dream doesn't implicate us, it never becomes tragic…. [The] characters—certainly not Mommy and Daddy—[are not] tragic or even terrifying: they enact for us a certain attitude to America in 1960; they do not go beyond it to tell us anything about the human condition.
In one important sense, The American Dream does not belong even to the "satirical, parodistic" category of absurd plays. It is, like The Zoo Story, a play which reaches a definite conclusion and which implicitly claims that its events have an unambiguous meaning. (pp. 39-42)
[Grandma's closing] remark, "Well, I guess that just about wraps it up," is ironical only in the most external sense—in the sense that Mommy and Daddy and the Young Man and Mrs. Barker, who have all just drunk "To satisfaction," are in for some unpleasant surprises. As far as Grandma and the audience are concerned the situation really is wrapped up, and the play has proved its point as self-consciously as any theorem. (p. 42)
It is only when one compares The American Dream with the greatest absurd plays that the real damage done by this compromise between reason and the absurd can be fully reckoned. In the first place, many of the local effects seem to be, in retrospect, merely tricks. The way in which it handles argument will illustrate what I mean. The metaphysic of the absurd, as I have said, involves a loss of faith in reason and in the validity of rational explorations of experience, and one of the most characteristic forms of writing of the absurd theatre, developed to represent this on the stage, is the systematic pursuit of the irrelevant. Absurd plays are full of arguments which lead nowhere, or which parody the processes of logic, or which are conducted from ludicrous premisses. At the beginning of The American Dream Mommy's account of her argument in the department store as to whether her hat was beige or wheat-colored is a clear instance of this. But it does not symbolize anything deeper: far from being an index of a world in which everything is too uncertain to be settled by argument, it takes its place in a play which, from its determination to prove a point, is naïvely confident in the power of argument. It therefore seems, in retrospect, no more than a trick to get the play started. By comparison, the argument in Rhinoceros, as to whether the animals which charged down the street had one horn or two, is funnier and also infinitely more disturbing: it represents the last feeble efforts of ordinary men to cling to their reassuring certitudes as their world founders into chaos, and, as they themselves, through turning into rhinoceroses, are about to lose their very identities. Albee's work lacks this imaginative dimension, to say nothing of the compassion, horror and despair, implicit in the periodic speculations of Vladimir and Estragon on the nature of Godot.
But it is in dénouements, as I have pointed out, that Albee diverges most clearly from the absurd, and it is here that the divergence does him most harm. His plays are tightly "wrapped up," where the best absurd plays leave us with an extended sense of the uncertainties of our condition…. Albee's narrow cocksureness is poetically dead.
When all these limitations of scope have been noted, however, it is only fair that one should return to an assertion of the importance of Albee's good qualities in the American theatre. If it is true that he inhabits a finite world, he does so with brilliance, inventiveness, intelligence and moral courage. (pp. 43-4)
Brian Way, "Albee and the Absurd: 'The American Dream' and 'The Zoo Story'," in American Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, No. 10, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (copyright © 1967 by Edward Arnold Publishers Limited), Edward Arnold, 1967 (and reprinted in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 26-44).
There are such strong surface dissimilarities among the Albee plays that it is easier and in some ways more rewarding to think of The Zoo Story in relation to Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter and A Delicate Balance in terms of T. S. Eliot and Enid Bagnold than it is to compare the two plays, even though both start from the same dramatic situation: the invasion (by Jerry, by Harry and Edna) of private territory (Peter's bench, Tobias's house). Yet, the comparison is obvious once it is made. Each new Albee play seems to be an experiment in form, in style (even if it is someone else's style), and yet there is unity in his work as a whole. This is apparent in the devices and the characters that recur, modified according to context, but it is most obvious in the repetition of theme, in the basic assumptions about the human condition that underlie all his work.
In A Delicate Balance, Tobias and his family live in a mansion in the suburbs of hell, that existential present so dear to contemporary writers, in which life is measured in terms of loss, love by its failure, contact by its absence. In that hell, there are many mansions—one of which is Peter's bench—and all of them are cages in the great zoo story of life. Peter's bench is a kind of sanctuary, both a refuge from and an extension of the stereotypical upper-middle-class existence … with which Albee has provided him—a place where he can safely not-live and have his nonbeing. This is the way Jerry sees Peter, at least, and—since the type is conventional enough in contemporary theater, from avant-garde satire to Broadway revue—it is safe to assume that the play does, too. Although Albee intends a little satirical fun at Peter's expense (the early needling scenes are very successful), it is clear that the stereotyping of Peter is an image of his condition, not a cause of it. Jerry, who plays "the old pigeonhole bit" so well, is another, a contrasting cliché, and it is the play's business to show that he and Peter differ only in that he does not share Peter's complacency. (p. 14)
Separateness is the operative word for Albee characters, for, even though his zoo provides suites for two people (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) or for more (A Delicate Balance), they are furnished with separate cages….
Although failed sex is a convenient metaphor for the failure of love, its opposite will not work so well. Connection is not necessarily contact, and it is contact—or rather its absence, those bars that bother Jerry—that preoccupies Albee. He lets Martha and George make fun of the lack-of-communication cliché in Virginia Woolf, but it is that cultural commonplace on which much of Albee's work is built. (p. 15)
The rush of words (abuse or elegance) and the press of activity (however meaningless) sustain the Albee characters in a tenuous relationship (a delicate balance) among themselves and in the face of the others, the ones outside, and—beyond that—the nameless terror.
Implicit in my discussion of the separateness of the Albee characters and the bogus forms of community they invent to mask the fact that they are alone is the assumption that this is Albee's view of the human condition. The deliberate refusal to locate the action of his most recent plays (Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance) strengthens that assumption. In fact, only two of Albee's settings can be found in atlases—Central Park (The Zoo Story) and Memphis (Bessie Smith). Even these, like the undifferentiated Southern town he borrowed from Carson McCullers for The Ballad of the Sad Café and the fictional New England college town of Virginia Woolf, might easily serve as settings for a universal drama. Yet, in much of his work, particularly in the early plays, there is a suggestion, even an insistence, that the problem is a localized one, that the emptiness and loneliness of the characters are somehow the result of a collapse of values in the Western world in general, in the United States in particular. The American Dream, he says in his Preface to the play, is "an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society." Such an attack is implicit in the depiction of Peter in The Zoo Story.
It is in Virginia Woolf that this side of Albee's "truth" is most evident. He is not content that his characters perform an action which carries implications for an audience that far transcend the action itself. He must distribute labels. George may jokingly identify himself, as history professor, with the humanities, and Nick, as biology professor, with science, and turn their meeting into a historical-inevitability parable about the necessary decline of the West, but Albee presumably means it. Calling the town New Carthage and giving George significant throw-away lines ("When I was sixteen and going to prep school, during the Punic Wars …") are cute ways of underlining a ponderous intention. (pp. 17-18)
The chasm that confronts the Albee characters may, then, be existential chaos or a materialistic society corrupt enough to make a culture hero out of … (whom? to each critic his own horrible example, and there are those would pick Albee himself), or a combination in which the second of these is an image of the first.
There is nothing unusual about this slightly unstable mixture of philosophic assumption and social criticism; it can be found in the work of Tennessee Williams and, from quite a different perspective, that of Eugène Ionesco. The differentiation is useful primarily because it provides us with insight into the shape that Albee gives his material. If the lost and lonely Albee character is an irrevocable fact—philosophically, theologically, psychologically—if all that angst is inescapable, then his plays must necessarily be reflections of that condition; any gestures of defiance are doomed to failure. If, however, the Albee character is a product of his societal context and if that context is changeable (not necessarily politically, but by an alteration of modes of behavior between one man and another), then the plays may be instructive fables. He has dismissed American drama of the 1930's as propaganda rather than art, and he has disavowed solutions to anything. Still, in several statements he has suggested that there are solutions—or, at least, alternatives. (pp. 18-19)
Albee, then, shares with most American playwrights an idea of the utility of art, the supposition not only that art should convey truth, but that it should do so to some purpose. There is a strong strain of didacticism in all his work, but it is balanced by a certain ambiguity about the nature of the instructive fable…. [He apparently recognizes] that there is a conflict between his attitude toward man's situation and his suspicion (or hope: certainly conviction is too strong a word) that something can, or ought, to be done about it; between his assumption that this is hell we live in and his longing to redecorate it…. (p. 19)
According to the conventions of Broadway psychology, as reflected, for instance, in a play like William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, in a moment of crisis two characters come to see themselves clearly. Out of their knowledge a new maturity is born, creating an intimacy that has not existed before and a community that allows them to face their problems (if not solve them) with new courage. This was the prevailing cliché of the serious Broadway play of the 1950's, and it was still viable … in the 1960's…. Virginia Woolf uses, or is used by, this cliché. (p. 21)
The last section [of Virginia Woolf] which is to be played "very softly, very slowly," finds George offering new tenderness to Martha, assuring her that the time had come for the fantasy to die, forcing her—no longer maliciously—to admit that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf. It is "Time for bed," and there is nothing left for them to do but go together to face the dark at the top of the stairs. As though the rejuvenation were not clear enough from the last scene, there is the confirming testimony in Honey's tearful reiteration "I want a child" and Nick's broken attempt to sympathize, "I'd like to…." Then, too, the last act is called "The Exorcism," a name that had been the working title for the play itself.
As neat as Inge, and yet there is something wrong with it. How can a relationship like that of Martha and George, built so consistently on illusion (the playing of games), be expected to have gained something from a sudden admission of truth? What confirmation is there in Nick and Honey when we remember that she is drunk and hysterical and that he is regularly embarrassed by what he is forced to watch? There are two possibilities beyond the conventional reading suggested above. The last scene between Martha and George may be another one of their games; the death of the child may not be the end of illusion but an indication that the players have to go back to GO and start again their painful trip to home. Although there are many indications that George and Martha live a circular existence, going over the same ground again and again, the development of the plot and the tone of the last scene (the use of monosyllables, for instance, instead of their customary rhetoric) seems to deny that the game is still going on. The other possibility is that the truth—as in The Iceman Cometh—brings not freedom but death. To believe otherwise is to accept the truth-maturity cliché as readily as one must buy the violence-life analogy to get the positive ending of The Zoo Story. My own suspicion is that everything that feels wrong about the end of Virginia Woolf arises from the fact that, like the stabbing in Zoo, it is a balance-tipping ending that conventional theater says is positive but the Albee material insists is negative…. (pp. 21-2)
Gerald Weales, "Edward Albee: Don't Make Waves," in his The Jumping Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's (reprinted with permission by Gerald Weales; © 1969), Macmillan, 1969 (and reprinted in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 10-22).
Edward Albee has described … Seascape as the 'life' part of a life/death play that began with All Over in 1971. Regrettably, life is one of the things it most obviously lacks.
A middle-aged couple by the names of Nancy and Charlie have been spending some time by the sea. 'Can't we just stay here forever?' she asks, for she loves the water as Charlie once did. As a boy, he wanted to live under the sea, wanted to be 'fishlike'. He used to go 'way down, and try to stay'. He hasn't, however, done it since he was 17 and it has been 'too long' for him to go back again, as Nancy urges. He would rather 'remember'. He would rather do nothing. And that is precisely what they do for approximately 35 minutes of the first act: nothing but review their lives tediously and acrimoniously, though their acrimony has none of the acerbic bite and bitchy humour of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and certainly none of its interest.
Just when tedium threatens to become numbness, two lizard-like creatures emerge from the sea. They are Sarah and Leslie and they too are apparently middle-aged (though telling a middle-aged lizard from a young lizard is clearly beyond my competence). At first, the two couples are afraid of each other, then gradually begin to develop points of contact, are alternately aggressive, responsive, patronising, curious. What is one to make, for instance, of Nancy having had only three children, and taken care of them for 20 or more years, when Sarah has had 700 and abandoned them?
But Albee is more concerned with similarities than with differences. 'In the course of the play,' he has commented, 'the evolutionary pattern is speeded up billions of revolutions.' Thus it slowly evolves that Sarah and Leslie are, or have the potential to be, every bit as bigoted, every bit as middle-class in their values and behaviour, as Nancy and Charlie. They, however, aren't put off by blacks or 'foreigners', but by fish: 'There's too many of them; they're all over the place … moving in, taking over where you live … and they're stupid!'
Why had they come up from the sea, these two green-scaled creatures? 'We had changed, everything … down there … was terribly … interesting, I suppose; but what did it have to do with us anymore?' Charlie tells them that what has happened is called 'flux. And it's always going on; right now, to all of us.'…
As a course in elementary Darwinism, Seascape just might have some value. As a play, it is pretentious, simplistic, verbose and banal. As in All Over, the writing is presumed (by the author) to be poetic and profound, resonant, when in reality it is devoid of life and artificial, the producer of inertia. Sadly, Seascape would seem only to confirm what has become more and more evident with the passing years: That it is to such plays as Tiny Alice, Malcolm, All Over and Seascape, not the earlier, more vital and vibrant—and, yes, more profound—Zoo Story and Virginia Woolf, that one must look for the 'real' Edward Albee. It is a disappointing discovery to make. (p. 34)
Catharine Hughes, in Plays and Players (© copyright Catharine Hughes 1975; reprinted with permission), May, 1975.
Throughout his career Albee has plotted the graph of man's attempt to relate to his social and metaphysical situation. His central belief is that expressed by Freud in The Future of an Illusion: "man cannot remain a child for ever; he must venture at last into the hostile world. This may be called 'education to reality'." From Peter's refusal to acknowledge the simple inadequacy of his life in The Zoo Story, to George and Martha's illusory child in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Julian's flight to religion in Tiny Alice, he has charted the desperate need for illusion which has afflicted society and lift the individual trapped in permanent adolescence. Where Beckett sees man as irrevocably condemned to live out a metaphysical absurdity, Albee's position is basically existential. He sees the cataclysm as very much man's own creation and, as such, avoidable. (pp. 151-52)
He takes as his subject modern society's apparent determination to conspire in its own demise through a wilful refusal to risk the anguish which inevitably stems from personal commitment and from human relationships forged in an imperfect world…. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he had suggested a political dimension to George and Martha's exorcism of illusion; in Tiny Alice he had detailed the origin and nature of religious delusion and in A Delicate Balance examined the social fictions deemed necessary to the continuance of corporate life. In his two experimental plays [Box and Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung] he attempts to bring together the whole meta-structure of illusions which together create the fabric of the private and public world…. (p. 152)
[Box is] the working out of a dialectic. The play is essentially the self-questioning voice of the artist or of any individual alive to personal and public responsibilities. But the elegaic tone, together with reiterated use of the past tense, makes it clear that this is both a prophecy and a post-apocalyptic elegy for a departed civilization; the play which follows offers an explanation for that cataclysm…. (pp. 153-54)
Box is a protest against the dangerously declining quality of life—a decline marked in one way by the corruption of genuine artistry to suit the demands of a consumer society which has no place for the artist except as a simple manufacturer, and in another by the growth of an amoral technology with a momentum and direction of its own…. The final corruption lies in a fierce and total commitment to defend this system whatever the cost in human terms…. (p. 154)
In these circumstances art is in a dilemma. Either it reflects the dissolution or it counterposes order to entropy. What is the role of art, in other words, in an age of crisis? Should the artist endorse social fictions or fly in the face of demands for a reassuring conformity? From one point of view, the voice admits, "the beauty of art is order—not what is familiar, necessarily, but order on its own terms … a billion birds at once, black net skimming the ocean … going straight … in a direction. Order!" But as we have seen the self-justifying progress of technology has both order and direction. What it lacks is precisely a moral dimension, the capacity for criticism. By this token, art becomes an anodyne: "the release of tension is the return to consonance."… By implication the true artist must reject this comfortable social role. As Albee explained in an interview, the playwright is either "a manufacturer who constructs entertainments for a buyer's market" or he is a social critic, a man whom he describes, significantly, as being "out-of-step with his society." The image is obviously close to that in Box. To Albee, it seems, the true man, like the true artist, opposes himself to the destructive errors of his society. The playwright is forced by his commitment to truth to produce a play which "should not have had to have been written," to oppose the blind movement of the mass and move "fast in the opposite way" … like the solitary bird who opposes his flight to that of the billion. If art has ceased celebrating human potential, if it stresses loss, dissolution, and corruption, to the point at which it seems to be obsessed with despair and the increasing difficulty of communication, it is because this is an accurate reflection of the age. Thus, it is logical enough that in such a period, as the voice laments, "art hurts."… This is not, as some critics have suggested, a comment on the decline of art, but an honest image of a civilization blindly plunging towards extinction, clutching the while at chimeras in the sad misapprehension that order, precision, and competence constitute a valid alternative to simple humanity and honesty. To Albee, metaphysical purpose and order are credible only in the context of a delusory religious conviction, only, in other words, if everything can be regarded as "part of a … predetermination, or something that has already happened—in principle—well, under those conditions any chaos becomes order. Any chaos at all."… Not believing in such an ineluctable destiny, he sees the individual as directly responsible for his own fate. The assertion of a reassuring determinism he finds insupportable. What is needed is a reassertion of humane values. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee had tested the survival of American Revolutionary principles at mid-twentieth century. While he found them suffocated beneath an elaborate pattern of illusion and deception, exorcism was still a possibility. In Box apocalypse is simultaneously only a breath away and a historical fact on which the voice can remark…. (pp. 154-55)
He has always been obsessed with a sense of loss—a theme which runs through his life as clearly as his plays—but he has also consistently refused to retreat into stoicism, which he regards as a cowardly and ultimately lethal retreat from commitment, or into protective illusion. As a writer he has shown a healthy scepticism towards the spurious products of the imagination, whether these take the form of O'Neill's pipe-dreams or the elaborate artifice of art. Yet his central theme—the need to reject the seductive consolation of unreality, the desperate necessity to abandon faith in a specious sense of order, and the urgency of genuine communication between individuals stripped of pretense and defensive posturing—is advanced in plays which are, of course, nothing more themselves than elaborate and carefully structured fictions in which invented characters act out a prepared and balanced scenario. His awareness of this dilemma is perhaps reflected in his ironical reference to the careful construction of the box, which stands as a persuasive analogue of the well-made play…. Clearly these plays are in part an attempt to resolve such a dilemma. There are no characters in Box. Quotations borrows speeches from other writers and then fragments them until Albee's conscious control is to some degree subverted. Such structure as is apparent is supplied partly by chance, by random association, and by an audience for whom the box, which dominates the stage, becomes a tabula rasa to be interpreted variously as the artificial construction of an artist, a visual image of order, a paradigm of the theatre, an image of the restricted world in which the individual exists or the empty shell of the body whose voice lingers on as a warning and an epitaph. (pp. 155-56)
[We] have his assurance that "whatever symbolic content there may be in Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, both plays deal with the unconscious, primarily." Both works represent an experiment in liberating the dramatic event from the conscious and potentially restricting control of the writer…. He insists [,however,] on retaining for himself a tight control over rhythm and tone and establishes with considerable attention to detail the basic structure of the two plays. While he allowed chance to play an important role he also reserved the responsibility of manipulating the text to secure the maximum effect. Albee, moreover, is not retreating from the centrality of language in his work but is intent on discovering the potential of words freed from their immediate context and released from their function of forwarding the details of linear plot, delineating the minutiae of character, and establishing the context and structure of conscious communication. In Box the sibylline utterances of the disembodied voice, together with the enigmatic central image (in contrast to the allegorical directness of the central symbol in Tiny Alice), leave the audience to respond to intimations of personal loss and the suggestive outlines of a visual image on a subconscious and intuitive rather than a conscious and cerebral level. In Quotations coherent monologues are deliberately fragmented in order to release meaning, while private and public fears are juxtaposed according to chance assonance. The play is a collage of words and images; it uses surrealist methods not to reveal the marvellous but to penetrate the bland façade of modern reality—personal, religious, and political. (pp. 156-57)
Albee is intent on bringing together disparate materials and experiences to create an image with the power to bypass intellectual evasion. Mao's quotations and Carleton's poems are to an extent simply "found" material with which he can create a play with the power to disturb not merely conventional notions of theatre—a discrete and highly structured model—but parallel assumptions about the nature of reality. The play is intended to capture not only the simultaneity of life—the complex interplay of public and private worlds—but also the fluid, evanescent, and equivocal quality of any art which sets out to plot the decline of morality and morale in an age bereft of convictions which genuinely touch the quick of life. With religion dead—the minister sits mute throughout the play—there is only political activism, a sentimental longing for lost innocence, the short-lived consolation of sexuality, or a deadly solipsism which hastens that cataclysm which is the inevitable product of such a massive failure of nerve. (pp. 157-58)
The "meaning" of Quotations lies in the interstices of the speeches, in the associations and ideas generated by the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated experiences and interpretations of reality. The power which Albee finds in Mao's thoughts or Carleton's sentimental verses goes far beyond the tendentious banality of which each is equally capable. By placing their work in a totally different context, by allowing a fortuitous consonance of meaning to establish itself by the deliberate juxtaposition of passages which seem to comment on one another, he allows the play to generate its own meaning through association, implicit irony, and the careful modulation of tempo and tone. Albee sets the basic rules which the text must follow, rather as does Beckett in Film and Pinter in Landscape. He defines his characters' range of awareness and their degree of self-absorption. The play's effectiveness depends on the one hand on a minute observance of these rules, "alteration from the patterns I have set may be interesting, but I fear it will destroy the attempt of the experiment,"… and on the other on the range of meaning released by a willing acceptance of fortuitous assonances in the text. On one level at least it is an elaborate Rorschach test—an exercise in unconscious creation by the observer, though playwright and director shape the elaborate disjunctions as implicit meanings, ambiguities and rhythms become apparent…. [This] interweaving of apparently remote realities not only provides a tenuous structure for the play but also indicates Albee's conviction that there is an ineluctable connection between the body and the body politic. The public dimension of private action, or, more usually, inaction, has always played a major role in Albee's work…. Here the connection is forged less obliquely by the deliberate and repeated confrontation of the two levels of experience…. From one point of view the different characters represent past (Old Woman), present (Long-Winded Lady), and future (Mao); external, internal, and social reality. But Albee is less concerned with differences than with similarities. All are united in their insistence on the imperfections of life and their awareness of impending crisis. Despite the fact that the first production allowed Mao to step outside the restricted world of the box which dominates the stage, the play's stage directions seem to indicate that all the characters are in fact trapped within its confines, limited perhaps by their common humanity but more especially by their highly personal and rigid perceptions of reality…. Like the audience, which in part they represent, they are brought together briefly in a constricted environment, where they sit, uncommunicating, and reshape experience into maudlin entertainment, personal reminiscence, or political dogma.
The result is a play which rehearses some of the central fears of an age dominated by the prospect of nuclear annihilation—a play which expresses the fears of the individual trapped in a society which can no longer offer effective consolation for the imperfection of love and the inevitable movement towards personal extinction. Mao's homilies on the decline of imperialism chime surprisingly well with revelations of human cruelty and degeneration on an individual level, and here is a clue to Albee's strategy in a play which deliberately relates the inner world … to the outer…. The drift towards a lonely and meaningless death by the Old Lady, and by the woman in Carleton's poem, together with the literal "sinking" of the Long-Winded Lady as she becomes increasingly aware of her mortality, have a persuasive relevance to the social system in which they function…. It is not, as [has been suggested] a play about death; it is a play about dying—a distinction which the Long-Winded Lady is herself at pains to make. It is a description of the process which leads to the apocalypse implied by Box, which both precedes and follows it. (pp. 158-61)
The play's method forces the audience into an attempt to reconstruct [its] meaning, not by re-assembling the shattered monologues but by relating them to each other in such a way as to become aware of the tenuous but real connections. If this process seems to lack clarity, it is worth recalling Breton's observation that lucidity is "the great enemy of revelation," for it is "only when the latter has come about that the former can be authorised to command respect for its rights." As the Long-Winded Lady remarks, "if we control the unconscious, we're either mad or … dull-witted."… Clarity of expression, linguistic precision, and coherent meaning are not synonymous with insight and genuine comprehension. (p. 161)
In early performances Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung was followed by a complete reprise of Box. By degrees, however, the melancholy voice of Box was allowed to punctuate the painful revelations of the other play, providing both an additional counterpoint and a direct link between the two works. The intimations of corruption, the suggestions of impending apocalypse, which had opened and which now close the diptych stand explained. For this is a civilization which has wilfully blinded itself to the nature of reality and to the urgent need for some kind of spiritual renewal—a renewal which owes nothing to religion or to the secular substitute of political idealism. The play's implicit message is the necessity to re-establish the links between individuals which have been fractured by an instinctive self-interest and a perverse refusal to recognize man's imperfection. Mao's political optimism, his bland assurance (not included in the play but a recurrent theme of his actual speeches) the "the world is progressing, the future is bright and no one can change this general trend of history" is as dangerously self-deluding as the Long-Winded Lady's denial of her introspection…. Albee has consistently argued [that] a denial of actuality,… an unwillingness to confront the sense of cruelty and loss which are an inescapable aspect of existence, is itself the prime cause of the drift towards isolation, despair and, ultimately, destruction. People no longer communicate because they inhabit separate worlds of their own construction and close their eyes to the entropic forces at work in their own lives as in society in general. Wallace Stevens may see the mind as "a violence from within that protects us from a violence without" or "the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality" aiding "our self-preservation" and through "the sound of its words" helping "us to live our lives." But to Albee, such wilful deception merely compounds the "violence without" until the center can no longer hold. We are left at the end with a reprise of part of Box. That is, we are left with a stage completely empty except for the outlines of the box itself—a box which, with the exception of the dying tones of a voice finally settled into silence, is all that remains of the personal fear and public myth of an entire civilization. (pp. 163-64)
C. W. E. Bigsby, "'Box' and 'Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung': Albee's Diptych," in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby (copyright © 1975 by C. W. E. Bisgby; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1975, pp. 151-64.
The tone in [Albee's] recent plays is … no longer that of a confident liberalism rehearsing the great verities of the nineteenth century—personal and public responsibility…. The tone now is elegaic. The rhythm is no longer the vibrant crescendo and diminuendo of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tiny Alice. It is the slow, measured, and finally faltering pulse beat of Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.
Yet, Albee's concern in All Over is essentially that of his earlier work. He remains intent on penetrating the bland urbanities of social life in an attempt to identify the crucial failure of nerve which has brought individual men and whole societies to the point not merely of soulless anomie but even of apocalypse…. In All Over Albee pursues … flight from reality to its source in personal betrayal, to a flaw in human character which must be faced if it is to be understood and remedied. (pp. 168-69)
[In All Over there] is ample evidence that Albee is not an absurdist. The absurdity which he identifies is a wilful product of man, not the casual gift of an indifferent universe. He peoples his plays, not with the cosmic victims of Samuel Beckett, but with the self-created victims of modern society. The irony of Beckett's plays lies in the failure of his characters to recognize that things cannot be other than they are; the irony of Albee's plays lies in the failure of his characters to realize that things can be other than they are. At the same time this does not make him a confident social critic with a political blueprint for a future society. It is simply that he asserts a potential for action and concedes the existence of human values in a way which would be alien to the absurdist. The values that he endorses are essentially liberal ones, but this is a liberalism fully aware of the human and social realities which have made the absurdist vision such a compelling feature of the postwar world. For, of course, a writer whose solution to a contemporary sense of anomie is love, risks a potentially disabling sentimentality. Although he is not guilty of the confusion between Eros and Agape—which distorts and all too often trivializes a similar theme in the work of Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin—in placing the weight of his liberal commitment squarely on man's potential for selfless compassion he is in danger of simplifying human nature and falsifying the history of personal and social relations. It is his considerable achievement that for the most part he successfully avoids the trap. If he calls for a renewal of human contact and a resolute acceptance of the real world, he is prepared to concede the tenuous nature of his solution and the increasingly desperate nature of personal and social reality. The liberal values which he embraces are indeed associated in All Over with a generation approaching death. The point is clear. Modern society has replaced human relationships with pragmatic alliances, and the values which used to sustain the social structure are at risk. The society which he pictures is flirting with its own extinction, as one character suggests that condemned prisoners wish to embrace their executioner.
The difficulty of such an assumption, however, is that it implies a romantic nostalgia for an unexamined past. Throughout his work Albee has made appeals to the values of a former age … without ever questioning the reality of those values or their historical force. The immediate future, on the other hand, is represented by a series of caricatures. The Young Man in The American Dream and The Sandbox, Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Claire in A Delicate Balance, and The Son in All Over are all vacuous, impotent, sterile, or sexually incomplete. It is a terminal generation with no apparent understanding of vital human needs. (pp. 171-72)
That two characters in All Over do continue to insist on the reality of selfless love, despite their own many failures, is a ground for hope. That they are, respectively, sixty-one and seventy-one years old reveals the imminence of that private and public apocalypse which Albee has been prophesying and fighting throughout his work.
The real problem of All Over is that Albee seems here to succumb to a basic conviction of American theatre, namely that seriousness and pretentiousness are in some way necessarily allied. To all intents and purposes All Over is Albee's version of Arthur Miller's After the Fall. There is the same concern with human failure and betrayal, the same anguished fascination with the slow decay of love which mirrors the physical slide towards the grave. His characters speak the same pseudo-poetic prose, creating a ceremony of death which is part expiation and part celebration. There is also, alas, the same sacrifice of language and theatrical truth to a deeply felt personal anguish, so that the result is a play which paradoxically fails to create anything more compelling than imitation baroque—verbal arabesques, and emotional arpeggios rooted in no recognizable human sensibility. The play is not realistic. Albee's drawing rooms, like Pinter's, are charged with metaphysics; they glow with significance. Sometimes, as in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Pinter's The Birthday Party, realism and symbolism blend into powerful metaphor; sometimes, as in All Over or Old Times, the metaphor crushes the characters until one admires tone, tempo, rhythm, register, imagery, everything but human relevance. And that price is especially great in Albee's work where he is intent on urging precisely the need for such relevance. Albee seems to have placed himself in the paradoxical position of stressing the need for a revival of liberal values in a play with no recognizable human beings. An expressionistic satire such as The American Dream can bear such an approach, though even here Grandma's subversive vitality is a crucial element in emphasizing the survival of non-utilitarian standards. In All Over the paradox is potentially destructive. Albee has come more and more to resemble T. S. Eliot in creating didactic ceremonies, cerebral puppet shows manipulated with an impressive economy of energy, but dangerously lacking in the kind of compelling humanity and subtle theatricality which makes Beckett's work, for example, so much more than an intellectual valedictory. (pp. 173-74)
C. W. E. Bigsby, "To the Brink of the Grave: Edward Albee's 'All Over'," in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby (copyright © 1975 by C. W. E. Bigsby; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1975, pp. 168-74.
[Counting the Ways] is a vaudeville and not really a play in the conventional sense. Conceived as a companion piece for another small-scale play (originally written for radio, but with an eye to the feasibility of state performance), Listening, this series of short sketches or 'black-outs' is a chamber piece if ever there was one. Variations on the theme of 'Ways of loving' for two middle-aged characters, He and She, quietly sardonic, wryly ironical, this is chamber music of the theatre….
Counting the Ways, in itself and for itself, is a very brilliant piece of miniature painting. It is daring in looking at Love in its infinite variety through, as it were, the wrong end of the telescope, from the standpoint, that is, of a couple at the end of love and the waning of marriage, when the double bed is finally replaced by twin beds and when they can no longer remember whether they have had three or four children. But Albee has, very cleverly, managed to include even the pangs of adolescent and first love, in the spectrum, by making the middle-aged reminisce on their early experiences. There is no cliché here; even the most often treated themes or episodes, where the danger of being obvious is tremendous, are tackled in novel and original ways, in a splendid, if somewhat mannerist style….
Albee is a fine writer. The text of Counting the Ways is full of beauties. The passage in which the lady reflects on precedence in seating two elderly guests both of whom are known to be mortally ill and due to die soon, but one of whom is aware of his condition, the other not, is brilliant in conception as well as stylistic elegance. (p. 33)
Martin Esslin, in Plays and Players (© copyright Martin Esslin 1977; reprinted with permission), February, 1977.
After Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for reasons that remain mysterious, Edward Albee lost his voice as a playwright. He has continued to write, but that characteristic voice—at once cultivated and slangy, instantly recognizable as an American voice, a voice full of emotion, passionately disgusted, challenging, raging—is heard no more, except when his early plays are revived. Since Virginia Woolf, Mr. Albee has experimented in various directions, has imitated Pinter, Beckett, and T. S. Eliot; lately he has synthesized echoes of their voices, together with other things, into a new voice for himself, but it is only a whisper, or perhaps a genteel murmur.
Mr. Albee, it seems to me,… has actually found a way to put his work at arm's length from his feelings. There is no sign, now, of the raw urgency of The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. His last few plays have been gravely classical, measured, abstract, constrained; they sit politely onstage, carefully groomed, rigidly corsetted, their backs straight, their hands in their laps. The sentences they murmur are exquisitely, if rather self-consciously, shaped; they are very "civilized"; they are not, so far as I can see, very much alive. The Theatre of Abstract Gentility suits some playwrights; it does not appear to suit Mr. Albee—because, I believe, other playwrights manage to use this form to engage their talents, while Mr. Albee uses it to escape his.
The two newest Albee plays are a pair of one-acts called Counting the Ways and Listening….
Counting the Ways is so slight it's hardly there, but it is harmless and graceful enough….
Listening is a dignified, elliptical piece, redolent of James and Eliot, of Beckett (Krapp's Last Tape) and Pinter (Landscape and Silence)….
As will now be apparent, I am not an admirer of Mr. Albee's recent plays. But I am not in sympathy with the rather hysterical critical attacks against him that have appeared in recent years. Some people do seem to like his late plays, and these people are not necessarily non compos mentis—only, I think, a little overrefined; but they could argue with equal cogency, perhaps, that I am underrefined, with no relish for delicate flavors. Mr. Albee is still a gifted, intelligent, scrupulous writer, doing the best he can; if, as I believe, he has fallen out of touch with his own talent, that is scarcely an indictable offense. (p. 99)
Julius Novick, "Albee Is Doing His Best," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), February 21, 1977, pp. 99-100.