Albee, Edward (Vol. 25)
Edward Albee 1928–
American dramatist and screenwriter.
With his first play, The Zoo Story, Albee established himself as an avant-garde dramatist with great potential. His succeeding works, The Death of Bessie Smith and The American Dream, remained off-Broadway, but contributed to his growing reputation as one of the leading American figures in absurdist theater. With the Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee received international recognition.
Albee's work addresses the problem of effective intimate communication in a world of increasing personal remoteness and emotional callousness. Critics have praised Albee's ability to use common speech and idiom to generate dramatic tension. In his later plays, however, such as Tiny Alice and Seascape, the language has been heard as rather artificially elaborate and formal. Albee's recent play, The Lady from Dubuque, disappointed many critics by its unfocussed meaning. This new play, however, does employ the cocktail party setting, verbal asperity, and violence which contributed to the power of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7.)
Richard A. Duprey
It is incredible to consider that on the basis of four plays, one little more than a fragment, Edward Albee, the enfant terrible of America's avant garde, is being seriously considered in many quarters as a genuinely important playwright. The same critics and theorists who deny Thornton Wilder his legitimate right to be called a great playwright because he has written so little are ready to canonize young Albee as the greatest thing in modern drama.
This neatly tailored young man, who sounds quite rational and even personable, writes like a bomb-carrying anarchist. Without benefit of beret and red armband he seems to be principal among the new iconoclasts in our theatre. This group, claiming some inspiration from lonesco, causing many a theatre-goer to shake his head in helpless bewilderment, seek, it seems, to shake the contemporary theatre to its roots, to put mystery back on a stage that has become enamored of fact and completely captivated by obvious formulae—a theatre which to them has become ossified.
The idea, on the surface, sounds quite commendable. Our American theatre has certainly been guilty of a narcissism that has disgusted many of its patrons and practitioners. Inbred, obsessed with its own fancied significance, prudently unoriginal and technique-ridden, it is overdue for the guillotine of meaningful revolt.
There is little doubt that the American theatre needs...
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There are two Edward Albees, and they are both in The Zoo Story. in The Zoo Story, you will remember, a quiet man who is minding his own business, merely reading his newspaper on a park bench, is accosted by an unkempt, garrulous, desperately contemporary fellow who is determined to make contact at any cost. The neatnik on the bench is evasive; the beatnik circling him is fiercely direct. At play's end, the passive figure has killed the challenging one; the intruder has arranged things that way as a last resort. (p. 203)
Edward Albee #1 is the invader, the unsettler of other men's tidy little worlds, the unexpected noise on a summer day, the uninvited improviser. Not having been asked to speak, not having been offered any sort of subject for conversation, he bridles, invents, mocks, lashes out.
In this mood he can start from nowhere and in no time make a scene. Virginia Woolf, for instance, lunges forward for two long acts, emptying its lungs violently, without our having the least notion of the true nature of the quarrel. Its energy is boundless and gratuitous…. We do not understand why Martha and George behave so savagely toward one another, certainly not before the last act and, strictly speaking, not even then. But the savagery nourishes our need to be engaged as it does theirs. It is a felt presence, like heat slowly filling a cold room and imperceptibly altering the disposition we make of...
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Gareth Lloyd Evans
[The] most brilliantly effective user of the American language in drama is Edward Albee. He has achieved as much fame in England as have Miller and Williams. In his case there might seem to be a special relationship with European drama for he has frequently been dubbed an 'absurd' dramatist. The claim of his alleged affiliation to this essentially European cult was based largely on the play The Zoo Story. On the evidence, however, of a more substantial and longer work—Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—the claim seems to have an uncertain validity.
Absurdism, in so far as it relates to drama, has two main aspects—the point of view expressed in and by the play, and the method and means of expression. (p. 196)
The language of an 'absurd' play is just as distinctive as the vision which one senses or observes in it. Indeed what marks off Pinter, Ionesco, Beckett, in particular, from their nonabsurdist colleagues is the amount of attention the language they use demands (because of its uniqueness) from the playgoer and the critic. To a very high degree, the language is the focus of the vision. To try and separate meaning and speech in an absurd play is to enter far into misrepresentation or into bafflement. In absurd drama language is used poetically, in the sense that however much it may seem to be a naturalistic version of real speech, closer examination shows that it is using the resources of poetry, to...
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In All Over, Edward Albee wrote about a man dying offstage; in The Lady From Dubuque, he writes about a woman dying more or less onstage. Otherwise, there is not much difference: All Over was the worst play about dying until Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box; The Lady From Dubuque is the worst play about dying since The Shadow Box. It is also one of the worst plays about anything, ever.
Jo is dying of cancer as her valiant husband, Sam, stands lovingly by…. [Much of the first act covers] that heavily worked-over Albee territory, the closed-circuit bitchery he steadfastly puts into the mouths of his married and unmarried couples…. What had some freshness, acerb wit, and propulsion in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is here the ultimate in witless nastiness, gratuitous offensiveness, and, above all, psychological nonsense and verbal infelicity….
[Furthermore], Albee turns cancer into a sort of sick joke. Apparently privileged by the fact that she is dying, Jo is beastly to everyone…. Now, there is no need for someone doomed and in pain to be that bestial to everybody, or for everybody to tolerate and thus encourage it, but it permits Albee to practice his only skill, however moribund—insult comedy….
[After] much multidirectional animosity and nonstop imbibing …, Jo, in acute pain, is carried upstairs to bed by Sam. Forthwith, an elegant,...
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If it should prove to be the case that I like Edward Albee's new play, "The Lady from Dubuque,"… less well than other people do, one reason may be that the play is of a sort that I find particularly unsympathetic. Mr. Albee's intentions and my prejudices confront each other with an immediacy that has, if nothing else, the virtue of appropriateness, for in Albee's oeuvre a confrontation, usually within the bonds of a formally affectionate relationship, soon leads to collision, out of which a pinch of painful truth is expected to emerge. In the present instance, the truth I think I see emerging can be stated as a dictum: Plays that begin in a naturalistic vein risk losing credibility and the interest of their audiences if at the halfway mark they suddenly introduce characters who turn out to be personifications of states of mind or conditions of existence …, not unlike Sloth and Gluttony in some medieval morality play. I resent the insertion into a play about real people—about people, that is, whom we have been invited to pay attention to because they share with us the burden of being human—of creatures who pretend, for reasons that they may or may not consent to reveal, to be of our species but who are, we gradually perceive, embodiments of Death, or Life-in-Death, or one of a hundred other tiresome hand-me-down literary abstractions. Death is the harshest fact we know, not to be mitigated for us by the presence of superior Others from Out...
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[Every line of The Lady from Dubuque] bears the name of Edward Albee. It is not only fine theater, savagely funny and affecting. But it is also his best work since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nearly 18 long years ago. The curtain rises on that familiar Albee landscape, a living room late on a Saturday night. Three young couples have been playing Twenty Questions, or, more accurately, Who Am I? Sam, the host,… is up, and though everybody else is tired of the game, he refuses to quit. He wants an answer. His wife Jo … stops him, however, with a game of her own. One by one she tells their friends exactly who and what they are…. But everyone forgives Jo because she is visibly dying of cancer and is just radiating a part of her own intense pain….
The lady from Dubuque enters only … after the guests have left and Jo and Sam have gone upstairs to bed. Her title is derived from Harold Ross's famous statement that he was not editing The New Yorker for "the little old lady in Dubuque." Albee uses it ironically, and his mysterious lady … is a figure of commanding presence…. [She] is, it seems, an angel of death, or some other instrument of mercy, who has arrived to relieve Jo of her misery.
With daylight, last night's guests return to make up. They automatically accept the fact that [the lady] is Jo's mother and tie Sam up when he impotently protests. Even Jo, half delirious with...
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[The Lady From Dubuque] baffled me. It begins with a party of friends who play games around the hostess, a dying woman whose malignancy is matched by the festering poison which issues from the hostile stupidity of her (and her husband's) guests. Such a group … could never be collected in one room and could never remain together for more than a few moments after the initial exchange of insults. Are these people supposed to represent our middle class? Are we to take them as "real" people or as gargoyles inspired by a sickened imagination?
And then after a long scene of random venom, two mysterious figures—a gracious "lady from Dubuque" and a cultivated black man—enter. The supposedly real characters confront the two symbolic ones who are, I presume, minions or heralds of death.
This entrance is followed by a barrage of wisecracks and sententious utterances on a range of unrelated subjects. From this we are to gather that the main question in life is "Who am I?"; it is also asserted that when we die the world comes to an end, etc., etc. Normally I might insist that such thoughts are idle or false, but in this instance there would be no point in doing so because they emerge from a vacuum and go no-where; they float about in a virtually nonexistent context. Albee has not only lost his bearings but also cuts us off from our own, leaving us with no way to argue with him. He has created no dramatic body and...
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Whenever I review a play by Edward Albee, I worry about the distribution of his royalties. He has such a perfect gift for theatrical mimicry that I begin to imagine August Strindberg, Eugene O'Neill, and T. S. Eliot rising from their graves to demand for their estates a proper share of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Tiny Alice, and A Delicate Balance. Even living authors like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Harold Pinter might be contemplating a case against Albee, not so much for expropriating their plots and characters as for borrowing their styles. In his latest play, The Lady From Dubuque,… the playwright has gone to an unusual source—namely himself. I can see a lawsuit coming—Albee v. Albee—where the younger accuses the older writer of plagiarism, perhaps even alienation of affection and breach of promise.
Albee certainly has breached his promise in his last 11 plays, not excepting The Lady From Dubuque. It is really quite an awful piece, drenched with those portentous religious-philosophical discharges about death and truth and illusion that have been swamping his work ever since he got the preposterous idea in his head that he was some kind of … prophet and metaphysician of our disorders. I felt acutely embarrassed for actors charged with saying things like "Everything is true … therefore nothing is true … therefore everything is true." If that is true, then they ought to...
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Fate has not been kind to Edward Albee. I don't mean only the bitterness of early success and subsequent decline, though that's hard enough. Worse: He was born into a culture that—so he seems to think—will not let him change professions, that insists on his continuing to write plays long after he has dried up….
Look at Albee's career since its peak, which I take to be Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, produced 18 years ago. Three adaptations, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Malcolm, and Everything in the Garden, all deplorable…. Then Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, All Over, and Seascape, a long torpid decline interrupted only briefly by a pair of short, passable attempts at the Absurd, Box and Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. What marked the full-length plays, right after the realism of Virginia Woolf, was Albee's use of mysticism and death. I mean use, utilization, not inquiry or dramatization. The big words and ideas became weapons to club us into awe of the works' profundity, a conclusion that was inescapable because the works themselves were so tenuous, even silly. Allegory (All Over) and symbolism (Seascape) were also called into service, creakingly. Overall, Albee seemed compelled to write plays just to prove that he is still a playwright, and he grabbed at sonorous subjects and august methods to cloak his insufficiencies.
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Evaluating Edward Albee's Lolita solely on the basis of injustices done to the Nabokov novel is a disservice to the play; such evaluation misses Albee's larger, more theatrical intent. The drama at best uses the novel as a departure point, adopts its narrative framework, exploits certain of its verbal and visual images. Albee unsuccessfully attempts something more ambitious than mere adaptation; his departures from the novel are calculated to facilitate his own theatrical and spiritual sensibility. Comparing the play and the novel makes such a sensibility manifestly clear. The Nabokov book should be examined to illuminate Albee's work; it should not be used as a sacrosanct standard by which to judge the quality of an adaptation.
Even enthusiastic admirers of the novel may forget the brief introduction that precedes the journal of Humbert Humbert. The manuscript has passed from Humbert to his legal counsel and subsequently to an editor after Humbert's death. Even now, certain precautions have been taken to insure that involved parties will not be identified…. This preface pretends to lift Lolita beyond the realm of fiction…. (p. 77)
Albee's Lolita opens with the appearance of "A Certain Gentlemen"—the theatrical descendant of the editor. He too introduces the pedophilic mania of Humbert and establishes a framework for Humbert's appearance, but here his resemblance to Nabokov's editor ceases....
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Frank P. Caltabiano
American playwrights and screenwriters seem to have run out of timely issues and borrowed subjects and, since the late seventies, to have hit upon one which the great world dramatists have treated for centuries with greater insight and less arrogance and glibness: death. With The Lady from Dubuque Edward Albee takes his place among a cadre of recent Americans who have focused on this ultimate of passage rites.
Sam and his wife Jo, a victim of some terminal form of cancer, give parties for and play parlor games with a seemingly masochistic group of friends. The play opens during one such gathering. (p. 473)
The second act focuses on the appearance of the mysterious Elizabeth, an angel of death—cum-mama who, with her black friend Oscar, takes over the house with several brilliantly executed acts of psychological terrorism…. After repeated postulations of the question "Who are you?" throughout the play (most tellingly by Elizabeth in the second act), Sam, as a result of this symbolic sacrifice, discovers who he is and learns finally that his emotional dependence on Jo was robbing him of his individuality.
If the above sounds a bit familiar, it is because much of the work borrows from past successes while it leaves the craft to stand alone and naked, an empty echo of the depth and sensitivity found in The American Dream, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Tiny Alice and A Delicate...
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"The Man Who Had Three Arms," is about a man who had three arms.
That is to say a man who once had three arms, the extra having gradually sprouted from his back in midlife, like an angel's wing or a unicorn's horn or a late-blooming talent, bringing him fame, fortune and appearances on all the talk shows.
But as unexpectedly as his new limb grew, it shrank and when the man went back to having two arms again nobody wanted to interview him on TV any more. There was, however, still the Midwest lecture circuit: afternoon talks to blue-haired ladies thrilled to meet even the formerly famous.
Albee's play takes the form of such a lecture….
Will "The Man Who Had Three Arms" be another "Virginia Woolf"? No. It's not the big play that one keeps hoping Albee will come up with, the play he needs to climb back into contention in today's theater. Neither, though, does it have the stillborn feeling of his later plays—"All Over," say. There is some juice in this one, even if it is mostly bile….
The first half of the play is a game of keep-away. The lecturer will tell us what it was like to have a third arm in a moment, but first he wants to tell us about some other things. Such as what he thinks of the morbid celebrity-hunting exorcise that his appearance represents. Such as what he thinks of our pathetic faces staring up at him. (Just kidding.) Such as what he...
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