Albee, Edward 1928–
Albee, an American dramatist, poet, and novelist, has also adapted several novels for the stage. An innovative stylist, he emerged in the 1960s as one of the most important figures in contemporary drama. His plays are noted for their powerful and brilliant language and reveal a fine sense of dramatic tension. Thematically, Albee is concerned with the sense of alienation and loneliness inherent in modern life. He was twice the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Albee gratifies an adolescent culture which likes to think of itself as decadent.
We want to believe that we are living in the last days, that the world is falling in on our heads, that only our sickest illusions are able to offer us any reason for living. Everyone wants to be Nero watching Rome burn. To attend the last orgy, to be part of it, this is a comfortable and exciting escape from reality—the child's way out. Albee's characters, like the playwright himself, suffer from arrested development. They play the game of decadence, just as he plays the game of creativity. There is no real, hard bedrock of suffering in Virginia Woolf—it is all illusory, depending upon a "child" who never was born: a gimmick, a trick, a trap. And there is no solid creative suffering in the writer who meanders through a scene stopping here and there for the sake of a joke or an easy allusion that almost fits.
But even more, the values of Virginia Woolf are perverse and dangerous. Self-pity, drooling, womb-seeking weakness, the appeal to a transcendent "god" who is no God, the persistent escape into morbid fantasy—all these things are probably too close to our imagined picture of ourselves. It is the game of the child who thinks he is being persecuted, who dreams up all kinds of outrages, and who concludes finally that his parents found him one day on the doorstep. Albee wants us to indulge in this same...
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Without attempting to enthrone Albee alongside anyone (though I personally admire him above all other Americans now writing for the stage), or to hail Virginia Woolf as a classic of the modern theatre (which I have no doubt it will become), I would only state that, in my experience, a more honest or moral (in the true sense) playwright does not exist—unless it be Samuel Beckett. To blame Albee for the "sickness" of his subject matter is like blaming the world's ashcans on the creator of Nagg and Nell—which has been done [Schneider is referring to an essay by Richard Schechner; see excerpt above]. And if what Albee is doing is giving us a "sentimentalized" view of ourselves rather than one as harshly and starkly unsentimental as any I know, why didn't those theatre party ladies buy it up ahead of time as they do all those other technicolor postcards which pass for plays? Or is Albee not rather dedicated to smashing that rosy view, shocking us with the truth of our present-day behavior and thought, striving to purge us into an actual confrontation with reality? Anyone who has read any portion of any play he has ever written surely must sense the depth of his purpose and recognize, to some extent, the power of the talent which is at his disposal; certainly no intelligent, aware individual today can fail to recognize somewhere in Albee's characters and moods the stirring of his own viscera, the shadow of his own self-knowledge.
If the child in Virginia Woolf is merely a "gimmick," then so is the wild duck, the cherry orchard, that streetcar with the special name, even our old elusive...
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The origin of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice seems to be the old homosexual joke about the identity of God, whose punch line is "Actually, she is black." Since, however, it is no longer safe socially, let alone financially, to be jocular about Negroes, the God of Tiny Alice is, outwardly at least, white. But she is a bitch. (pp. 62-3)
It has been contended that Tiny Alice is based on Manichaeanism, or on Genet's notions of evil being good, and good evil. Accordingly, Alice may be God, or the devil, or both in one; she may also be anything one wants her to be (the lawyer explains that we do not get what we want but want what we get); or she may not be at all. (p. 63)
The time, place and duration of the action are left deliberately vague, with contradictory hints about each; the concentric castles, moreover, are supposed to suggest worlds within worlds, each repeating the other. Typically, Albee has already instructed us to enjoy ourselves without trying to understand, but that we can do just as well without seeing the play, if not better….
Tiny Alice fails as symbolism because of its inconsistency and incredibility on the literal level; without firm footing in literalness, there is no working metaphor—just as without viable dramatic characters, there are no compelling symbols. But the work fails also as pure fantasy, because it lacks even that homogeneity that lends dreams, hallucinations and fairy tales their own kind of logic…. Above all, if we were to follow Albee's...
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If 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 Tsetung, when run together like two ink blots of different colors, raise the Rorschach test to new dramatic heights. (p. 157)
Rather than as a fugue, the exercise struck me as a piece of vocal cadavre exquis, without even the amusing trouvailles bequeathed by chance on that famous surrealist parlor game. One can perhaps extract some quasi-meanings (like teeth from a toothless mouth): the commonplaces of communism vs. the banalities of the bourgeoisie; the parallel miseries of the rich and the poor; the shibboleths of Mao's gospel vs. the silences of the man of God. But these are not so much legitimate explications as counsels of despair. In a fugue, in any case, there is development. Here, once the quartet is visually and vocally presented, there is nowhere to go. (p. 158)
We get the same ambitious, artificial, circumlocutory prose Albee keeps elaborating in his later, sterile works. It consists of false starts, emendations, indirections, apologies,...
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All Over confronts, as the title suggests, the endemic trait of all living organisms. Death, the great leveler to a poet like William Cullen Bryant, is, for Albee, man's final confrontation with life. In the play, death is tantamount to a metaphysical conceit, with the death of the body being but one thematic strain. The famous man, whose dying is both a public event for the press and the crowd awaiting word of his demise, and a private ritual for the circle of intimates assembled for the vigil, is the instrument through which Albee explores some issues attendant to dying and death. The age at which a person becomes aware of death is an idea examined that is important to the development of psychological maturity. Knowing her husband as a thorough man with almost as much knowledge about law as Best Friend, Wife forces the lawyer into a deeper meaning of death when she dismisses fifteen, "the age we all become philosophers," as the age when he became aware of personal extinction: "No, no, when you were aware of it for yourself, when you knew you were at the top of the roller-coaster ride, when you knew half of it was probably over and you were on your way to it."… (p. 67)
The modern tendency to dehumanize death is another issue broached in the play. The man's removal from the hospital to his former residence, Mistress relates, occurred in obedience to his instructed need to die in familiar surroundings…. (p. 68)
Besides confronting basic issues dealing with death and portraying encounters with the experience of death. Albee's All Over exposes a more insidious kind of death. In the play, Mistress' relation of her lover's objection to the use of the verb "to be" in connection with death is no mere semantic indulgence on the part of the playwright....
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Counting the Ways is hardly even a play in any traditional understanding of the term. But then, Albee's works have come more and more of late to resemble musical compositions, and this is no exception; as he says of it: "What I intended was something like a set of piano pieces by Satie."
If in Seascape, his most recent full-length play, there was still a conflict eventuating in one of Albee's typical highly charged climaxes, here one can just barely discern the outlines of a conflict, and certainly nothing resembling a resolution. The movement (not progression, mind you) of this two-character play is circular: at the opening, She demands, "Do you love me?"—the same question He puts at...
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Listening, a play with more substance, cohesiveness, and bite [than Counting the Ways], concerns three characters who meet in a garden to exchange insights, reminiscences, and insults until one of them, who is insane, commits suicide. Although sounding some echoes of The Zoo Story (an apparently insane person elicits truth from an apparently sane one and then dies), Listening slowly, painstakingly, and with some surprises uncovers powerful and revealing relationships while playing with the nuance and pretense of language. Indeed, it is the play's emphasis on language that creates both its strengths and its weaknesses.
Listening begins with the extended, solitary...
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