The Lady from Dubuque (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
After being the dominant American playwright of the 1960’s, Edward Albee’s production in the following decade consisted of only two full-length dramas, All Over (1971) and Seascape (1975), and two one act plays, Counting the Ways and Listening (both 1977), none of which is really comparable, either artistically or commercially, with his earlier successes (although Albee did receive his second Pulitzer Prize for Seascape). To begin the decade of the 1980’s, Albee has offered a new full-length play, The Lady from Dubuque. Given his sparse recent efforts and the thematic experimentation evident in those works, one might expect it to indicate new directions, concerns, techniques, and insights.
This experimentation, however, is not evident. For better or for worse—rather, for better and for worse—The Lady from Dubuque is a thoroughly typical Albee play, almost a synthesis of his earlier methods and themes. On the positive side, it is theatrically exciting, the timing and pacing are adroit, the characters are vivid and animated, if not complex or always convincing, the dialogue is sharp, potent, biting, clever, and occasionally beautiful, and the emotional climaxes are explosive. On the negative side, however, like so much of Albee’s post-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? work, The Lady from Dubuque is never quite in focus, either intellectually or emotionally. The relationship between the action of the play and the intellectual substructure that supports it seems needlessly ambiguous, perhaps even duplicitous.
Like All Over, The Lady from Dubuque explores the meanings and effects that a dying character has on those surrounding him / her. Yet, unlike the earlier play, the focal character in this essay on mortality is not hidden behind a hospital screen to expire out of sight, but is kept in the midst of things. Early in the play, during a game of “Twenty Questions,” Jo, a dark, slight suburban wife, tells her husband, the other partiers, and the audience, that “Your name is Sam, and this is your house, and I am your wife, and I am dying. ...” Die she does throughout the play, a little bit at a time, painfully, bitterly, sarcastically, and, finally, gently.
This juxtaposition of the party game with the dying throes of the play’s heroine establishes the very uneasy, ambiguous context of the play. The group activity is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Two couples visit Sam and Jo to drink, talk, and play party games. They seem to be old friends who have done this sort of thing for years, yet they treat one another with unrelieved disdain. “Where else,” says Fred, the most unpleasant of the unpleasant crew, “can you come in this cold world, week after week, as regular as patchwork, and be guaranteed ridicule and contempt?” The dynamics of the group are puzzling and unnerving. Is the steady stream of bitter vituperation that Jo heaps on her guests a reaction to her illness or was she always a bitch? Is the constant barrage of sophisticated hostility among the guests likewise a defensive reaction to Jo’s pending demise or has this been the group’s style from the beginning? There is no way the reader or audience member can know.
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the brutal, manipulative games played by the two couples had a purpose and direction that was gradually revealed in the course of the play. Although undeniably unorthodox and neurotic, George, Martha, Nick, and Honey do eventually emerge as believable, understandable human beings. No such design is evident in The Lady from Dubuque; it is extremely unlikely that anyone would actually behave in real life the way the characters do in this play. The guests are at best types: Fred is the crude, bigoted, loudmouth lush; Carol, his girl friend, the “dumb floozie”; Edgar, the painfully “niceguy” that nobody can stand; Lucinda, his pitifully mediocre, ordinary wife. Jo and Sam are perhaps more real, yet their personalities are fixed by her illness: she is the bitter, dying wife, he the sympathetic, but increasingly helpless husband. Thus, if we must accept the characters and action of The Lady from Dubuque exclusively as “realistic melodrama,” we must judge it a somewhat disjointed and unconvincing failure.
Such a facile judgment, however, slights at least half of the play. Despite its realistic surface, there are numerous clues planted throughout the first act to warn us against taking the action too literally. Most importantly, the characters not only talk to one another, but also directly to the audience. Albee states very precisely how this is to be done in a long “Performance Note” that precedes the text: “It is of utmost importance that the...
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