Three Tall Women Essay - Three Tall Women

Edward Albee

Three Tall Women


Three Tall Women

Three Tall Women premiered on 14 June 1991 at the English Theatre in Vienna, in a production directed by Albee. It debuted in America on 27 January 1994 at the Vineyard Theatre, New York. Douglas Aibel was the Artistic Director and Jon Nakagawa was the Managing director for this first U.S. staging. The play begins with a meeting between an elderly woman in her nineties known as A, her middle-aged caretaker B, and a young lawyer named C, who has come to help A settle her affairs. As the three women interact, each becomes aware of and impatient with the others' shortcom ings. The first act ends as A suffers a stroke, and in subse quent scenes Albee departs from a strictly realistic plot, having all three characters appear as various manifestations of A at different times during her life. The play concerns stereotypes and familial ties, and is considered largely autobiographical; in his introduction to the published version of the play, Albee has stated that the character A was based on his mother, and the relationship between parent and playwright mirrors that of A and her homosexual son.


Several reviewers have accorded Three Tall Women qualified approval, noting several shortcomings in the play; nevertheless, it has earned Albee his third Pulitzer Prize. Ben Brantley has found the play obvious but has admired its "affecting emotional core." Stefan Kanfer has labeled the play "elegant" but has judged it a decidedly "minor effort." Other critics, including John Simon, Robert Brustein, and John Lahr, have been enthusiastic in their appreciation of the drama. Lahr has called Three Tall Women "a wary act of reconciliation, whose pathos and poetry are a testament to the bond, however attenuated, between child and parent." A recurring theme in commentary on the play has been its relation to Albee's other works. Tim Appelo has noted several similarities between Three Tall Women and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. These two works, he has declared, "seem parallel, sister dramas reaching out to each other across the intervening wastes and oases of Albee's career." Marian Faux, too, has seen similarities between the two plays and has detected a characteristic concern with family conflict. William Hutchings, however, has observed affinities between Three Tall Women and works by Samuel Beckett, judging Albee's the lesser effort. August W. Staub has placed the play in a wider context, assessing it in terms of classical Greek views of life and art. He has concluded that Three Tall Women "is at once very ancient and completely contemporary, so contemporary, in fact, that it might well be called one of the great summation moments of 20th century theatre."

Production Reviews

Ben Brantley (review date 14 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee Conjures Up Three Ages of Women," in The New York Times, 14 February 1994, pp. C13,C16.

[In the review below, Brantley expresses several reservations about Three Tall Women, but concedes that "there is an undeniably affecting emotional core and a shimmeringly black sense of humor" to the play.]

The woman identified simply as A in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, the startlingly personal work that is receiving its New York premiere at the Vineyard Theater, shares many of the linguistic and psychological traits common to characters in Mr. Albee's more abstract plays. She is given to questing reiteration of certain phrases that take on different shadings in the repetition; she shifts disjunctively between arrogant complacency and fearful disorientation; and her memory slides and stumbles like a neophyte skater. "I can't remember what I can't remember," she says.

But A is a woman whose speech patterns are not merely stylized representations of Mr. Albee's enduring obsessions with the elusiveness of personality and its self-deceptions. There is a purely naturalistic reason for her behavior. Played with virtuosic reversals of mood by the superb Myra Carter, A is a 92-year-old woman (or is it 91, as she insists?) who is on the threshold of death. And the way she talks is rooted in the very familiar struggle of the aged with encroaching senility.

Her presence reinforces what has always been implicit in the playwright's works: life must be defined by the inescapable proximity of death. As one character states, children should be made "aware they're dying from the moment they're born."

Three Tall Women, which is basically an anatomy of one life, is by no means an entirely, successful play. Cleanly directed by Lawrence Sacharow, it makes its points so blatantly and repeats them so often that one perversely longs for a bit more of the cryptic obliquity that is Mr. Albee's signature.

But it is often a truly moving work. Mr. Albee has admitted in interviews that it was directly inspired by his own adoptive mother, a domineering, Amazonian woman. And the details of A's life, including her ambitious marriage to a wealthy man and her warring relationship with her recalcitrant son, seem to tally with what we know of Mr. Albee's family history. He has described the writing of the play as "an exorcism." And one can see in A the roots of the controlling women who abound in the rest of his oeuvre.

The members of the play's speaking cast are indeed three tall women, whose roles, if not necessarily their functions, change in the play's two acts. (There is, very significantly, an additional wordless part, that of the prodigal son, played by Michael Rhodes, who arrives in the second act after his mother has a stroke.) Set in a bedroom (designed by James Noone) whose conventional but lavish appointments bespeak an insulating affluence, the play devotes its first half to dialogue among the aged A; B, her 52-year-old acerbic but empathetic caretaker (Marian Seldes); and C (Jordan Baker), a brashly confident 26-year-old from A's lawyer's office who has come to discuss finances.

Mr. Albee baldly sets these characters up as representatives of three ages of woman. C embodies all the intolerance and the conviction of immortality of youth, and is impatient with the old woman's meanderings. The caretaker, in turn, is impatient with C's impatience and given to sharp-tongued reminders that A represents C's future. (In this sense, she is a sort of stand-in for Mr. Albee, as playwright, not as son.) And throughout all this, A fades between past and present.

In the second act, a body with an oxygen mask, representing A, is found lying on the bed. The three actresses return, now as A at different phases in her life. Although this allows Mr. Albee to create a more complete and reflective biography of A, particularly involving her thorny relationship with her son, the symbolic triangle remains much the same, with the youngest woman shouting at the oldest, "I will not become you!"

There are some eloquently made statements in this act about the vantage points afforded by different ages, particularly on the subject of sexuality. Unfortunately, the revelations built around the reasons for A's son's leaving home have less than their intended dramatic impact. And one could do without such leaden touches as Ms. Seldes's choral repetition of the phrase "And so it goes."

All that said, there is an undeniably affecting emotional core and a shimmeringly black sense of humor, dazzlingly interpreted by the bold, inventive performances of Ms. Carter and Ms. Seldes. (Ms. Baker is unable to make much of the relatively thankless role of uncomprehending youth.)

In the first act, in particular, Ms. Carter is sublime. Alternately imperious, coquettish and infantilely mawkish, she captures the flame of exasperated willfulness that still burns in this woman, as she pursues her evanescent memories like a bloodhound.

Ms. Seldes is just as impressive, though in an utterly different, audaciously stylized way. As the caretaker in the first act, she has a sly, gremlin-like crouch and a delivery that slices the air. Like Mr. Albee himself, her character sees the grotesque universal joke in the old woman's situation. (The scene in which she pantomimes stealing the household silver, in response to suspicious questions from the old woman, is priceless.) In the second act, she trenchantly conveys the barbed, elegant worldliness of A at 52 as well as the swelling repository of anger behind it.

Ultimately, it appears that in working through autobiographical material, Mr. Albee has felt the need to be as carefully lucid and precise as possible. Though it seems unfair to accuse a playwright of excessive obviousness when he has so often been critically browbeaten for just the opposite, the play does suffer from didacticism and overstatement.

Nonetheless, Three Tall Women remains essential viewing for anyone interested in the forces that have shaped this influential writer. And the evening holds the considerable added benefit of two of the most riveting performances in town.

Stefan Kanfer (review date 14-28 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Time—and Again," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXVII, No. 2,14-28 February 1994, pp. 22-3.

[In the review below, Kanfer affords Three Tall Women qualified approval, considering it an "elegant minor efforf."]

Whatever happened to Edward Albee? The young playwright of the early '60s, he began his career with small but auspicious Off-Broadway efforts like The American Dream and The Sandbox, both about the sorrow and bitterness of old age. His first full-length work, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963), focused on ambition and self-deception, dazzled Broadway audiences, won critics' awards, and announced the arrival of a major talent. Albee went on to earn two Pulitzer prizes (for A Delicate Balance and Seascape) and to write many original plays, plus adaptations of other people's writings (including Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita).

His reward for all this industry has been a latter-day neglect. Too many of Albee's major works have failed on the main stem, and lesser plays have not prospered Off-Broadway. Who remembers The Lady from Dubuque, The Man Who Had Three Arms, Finding the Sun? Although they are included in some anthologies of the American theater, an entire generation now regards the 65-year-old playwright as a supernova, a star that burned out long ago. The production of Three Tall Women at the Vineyard Theater may help to correct that impression—but just barely.

Here again is the once-famous amalgam of bitchiness and poignance. A rich and self-centered nonagenarian (Myra Carter) is failing rapidly. Known only as A, she is attended by B (Marian Seldes), a grim middle-aged factotum, and by C (Jordan Baker), an attractive young lawyer who is there to straighten the old lady's tangled finances. Act I concerns A's infirmities and incontinence, as she rails against her weak bones and failing memory. B variously prods and pampers her, while C is the observer. Shocked and horrified at the trials of senescence, she wonders whether A is being mistreated or merely handled with the firmness she deserves.

For A is a collection of resentments and prejudices. Blacks are niggers. Jews are to be used but never trusted. Homosexuals, including her son ("He just packed up his attitude and left me"), are referred to contemptuously. Through the years, she suspected every servant of pilfering. Without any evidence, B is included in that disgraceful company.

Like her two listeners, A was a tall woman (although age has made her bones shrink a little). Her late husband was a small man with a glass eye and a lot of money. He is fondly recalled—but not as fondly as the horse trainer who seduced her and, of course, had to be fired after a month of furtive adultery. "I had a good deal," she explains. "I couldn't endanger my situation." A's testimony is more than C can bear. There is no way, she vows, that she will come to this sort of end. But she has spoken too soon and too late.

In Act II, as A lies on her deathbed, B and C are revealed as something far different from their first appearances. They are not individuals after all; they are, rather, the former selves of A, at the ages of 52 and 26. Time is annihilated, and the three tall women interact. The young one, C, is full of romantic expectations, whirling on a dance floor, speculating about a series of beaux, planning a vibrant and happy life. B is the older and wiser one, having compromised her dreams for decades of imprisoning security. A is a kind of Queen Lear, having outlived her friends and become estranged from her only child. When he returns, The Boy (Michael Rhodes) can simply sit wordlessly at her bedside, his body language pronouncing the elegy for the mother he can neither leave nor love.

Under Lawrence Sacharow's subtle direction, the trio of actresses find every possible nuance in the text. Baker moves easily from terror to radiance and back again; Seldes gives the play its gravitas; and Carter manages to be querulous and comic in the same short breath, dropping her voice an octave to confide a secret, then rising to an eerie cackle as she recalls her husband's indiscretions and her own sexual misadventures. James Noone's bedroom set is merely functional, but Muriel Stockdale's costumes amount to a fifth character, commenting on the passages of time and the alterations of personality.

If this were 1962, Three Tall Women would herald the ar-rival of a playwright as promising as David Ives. One could hardly wait to see his next production. But we have been through all that with Albee, and this elegant minor effort gives very little reason to cheer. After years of commercial and esthetic disappointments, Edward Albee is once again Off-Off-Broadway. Like so many of his characters through the decades, he is going out the way he came in.

John Simon (review date 28 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Trifurcating Mom," in New York Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 9, 28 February 1994, pp. 118-19.

[In this review, Simon expresses pleasant surprise at the quality of Three Tall Women. If the device of three actors depicting different ages of the same character is a "gimmick, " he declares, "it is an inspired one. "]

Few playwrights have had such a spectacular rise and fall as Edward Albee. The celebrated author of The Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? turned into the execrated perpetrator of The Lady From Dubuque and The Man Who Had Three Arms, and landed somewhere between obloquy and oblivion. If someone had told me how good his Three Tall Women (1991) is, I wouldn't have believed him; I hardly believed my own eyes and ears.

The play is said to concern Albee's mother, but that is almost as irrelevant as that he was an adopted child who subsequently became estranged from his family. At most one could say that this allowed him both a special closeness to his protagonist and a certain distance, both of which he has turned to good advantage. In Act One, he views his nonagenarian heroine, A, from the outside, dispassionately. In Act Two, as she lies dying, he creates her passionately from the inside. From the outside, A is a bit of a pain both to B, her hired companion, and to C, the woman lawyer whom B has called in to straighten out A's finances. From the inside, Albee splits the woman into three selves—the young, the middle-aged, and the old (the actress playing C becoming the first of these; the one playing B, the second)—and brings them on in a three-way conversation to sort out the salient facts about her life and other lives intertwined with hers.

If this is a gimmick, it is an inspired one; the change of perspective is no more unsettling than reversing a reversible raincoat, and much more rewarding. Because B and C become different persons in the process, a double perspective operates for them, too: The tough, cynical C becomes the 26-year-old, naïve A, a woman sexually and existentially confused as marriage beckons; the hunched-over and subservient yet also saucy companion, B, becomes the fiftyish A, at the height of her rich woman's powers but also confronted with the setbacks a mediocre marriage and aging flesh are heir to. As for A, she is now no longer the dotty crone, a nuisance in her dotage, but the shrewd old lady with many a penetrating insight. And all this is played out against the background of … but no, I must leave room for surprise.

If you think I have revealed too much as is, I ask how else I could have conveyed the canniness and multivalence of Albee's construction. I do not share Albee's worldview—a kind of scurrilous bonhomie or amused contempt that sometimes parts to reveal better and worse things behind it—but no one can question its personal validity and dramatic efficacy. Especially noteworthy is the author's ability to keep the three women in Act Two both different and identical, the markedly diverse phases of the unmistakably same being. The three tall women of Act One become one tall woman in quirky triplicate, but in both acts, the tallness is not merely physical. Even senile or servile, stooped with age or inferior rank, these women retain proud vestiges of a shady, ambiguous grandeur.

What Albee has wrestled down here is his self-contradictory tendency toward attitudinizing hauteur and lowdown nastiness; to the extent that rudiments of both are still there, they have been polished and domesticated: There is no longer the freakish feel of a keyboard being played only at its two extremities. And he has been staunchly supported by his director and cast. Lawrence Sacharow moves his three women around as much as decently possible, avoiding both statically talking heads and arbitrary, gratuitous choreography. B's crouch in Act One may seem a bit B-movieish, but it works, and the use of the few but good props is telling.

As A, Myra Carter is A-l in my book. She prattles on or zeroes in with equal command, and negotiates the terrain from Alzheimer's to zippiness with roguishly sportive ease, even when lightning U-turns are required. As B—indeed, as both Bs—Marian Seldes gives the performance of her lifetime: There is spice to her obsequiousness, bite to her throwaway lines, bemusement in her self-possession. As C—or the two Cs—Jordan Baker is not quite in the same league, but more or less holds her own. These three are not a crowd; they are a company.

Tim Appelo (review date 14 March 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in The Nation, Vol. 258, No. 10, 14 March 1994, pp. 355-56.

[In the following admiring assessment, Appelo finds several parallels between Three Tall Women and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?]

Photos reveal Edward Albee to be stricken with the Dick Clark Syndrome: an inexplicable imperviousness to physical decay. Instead, time has taken its toll on his festering reputation.

But I'm thrilled to report that Albee the artist lives. The Vineyard Theater production of his 1991 play Three Tall Women, his first big New York premiere in over a decade, should help reverse his audience's exodus. No more the noisy young shockmeister pop star, now Albee plays un-plugged, still singing, softly, his bitter old themes of domestic-cum-cosmic discord. Rod Stewart unplugged is a lazy disgrace, Clapton a drab craftsman, but Albee is more like Neil Young: chastened by age, sad where once he soared, yet still quavering on.

Three Tall Women is largely a portrait of Albee's late, very estranged adoptive mother at 92, though the character querulously insists she's 91. (In a 1966 Paris Review interview, Albee querulously insisted he was 37; the inter-viewer reminded him he'd be 38 when the piece was published.) James Noone's set neatly conveys the old woman's luxe past and funereal future: A central floral painting is flanked by floral wallpaper, floral prints, floral lace curtains, a bed with floral pillows and a blighted floral rug worn down to atoms.

So is the wraithlike heroine, but there's a death dance of semisenescent reminiscence left in the old gal yet. Myra Carter is, as the young people say, awesome in the role of A, the nonagenarian mom. Her phrasing of Albee's half-naturalistic, wholly calculated incipient-Alzheimer's talk is impeccable; her voice dwindles to an Edith Evans warble, ascends to a helium keening, erupts abruptly into lacerating sobs as required. Her moods, too, are musical—her memories lark and plunge. We're eager and grateful for each vivid bit of that past recaptured: her debutante milieu; her runty, randy groom; horseback riding; riding her horse's groom in the stables as she screams in sexual triumph. (Some of these memories are voiced by other actors, whom I'll introduce shortly.) Three Tall Women cops a bit of the puckish bleakness of Beckett (the sole dramatist Albee has claimed utterly to admire), and a bit of Long Day's Journey Into Night, but the grief and affection seem distant, glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope. It's O'Neill without guilt, and with much less galumphing verbal rhythms. "Eventually he lets me talk about when he was a little boy," says A of her son's visits—Michael Rhodes plays the wordless role well enough—"but he never has an opinion on that; he doesn't seem to have an opinion on much of anything that has to do with us, with me." Creepily remote, Albee has predicted that he won't think much about his mom now that he's devoted a play to explicating her life. But I'll bet he didn't keep mum with Ma in real life: This is the guy of whom Richard Burton wrote, "A week with him would be a lifetime."

Old A is reproved by young C (Jordan Baker), a B-school type trying to get A's finances in order. The role is as thin as the pinstripes on C's suit, and Baker is way the hell the spindliest actor in the show. Twenty-six-year-old C is reproved by B (Marian Seldes), A's 52-year-old caretaker. As dazzling a talent as Carter, Seldes is earthy and spectral, not by turns but at once. Hunched like a sardonic question mark, she moderates the conflict between the old and young women, but she's openly on the old bat's side. She's like Mrs. Danvers on Prozac—still mean and weird, but detached, sourly entertained by life as if watching it from beyond, a well-adjusted shade. Her sly arched-brow amusement reminds me of Ian McKellen; her marvelously odd hand gestures remind me of Thai opera, except that I can't comprehend Thai opera, while her gestures clearly underline the dialogue. Many lovely ensemble moments seem centered on her hands, as if she were conducting. (Though Lawrence Sacharow's direction must have been superb, Ingmar Bergman was probably right to say that Albee's best plays can do without a director, just as chamber music doesn't require a dictatorial baton. The man is a composer, just as he wanted to be at age 11.)

Albee has this little problem as a dramatist: He abhors plots. But just as one realizes, with mounting irritation, that A's colorful fragmented vignettes will never cohere into a single structured picture—nobody cracks Albee's mosaic code—the author saves the play with a big switch in the second act. The three actresses fuse into one contrapuntally evoked character, A through the ages. It's played wonderfully (even Baker gets better), like a close basketball game going down to the wire. While the finale is a characteristic letdown (Albee favors inconclusive conclusions), by then the play has wandered around A's life long enough to give us a satisfying sense of her.

Mysteriously, we get very little sense of her relationship with her son, just a sketchy recounted encounter or two. I wanted more on this relationship, and fewer of the life les-sons the play overbearingly urges upon us: "It's downhill from 16 on for all of us … stroke, cancer … walking off a curb into a 60-mile-an-hour wall… slit your throat.… All that blood on the Chinese rug. My, my." You can get deeper philosophical insights from Dionne Warwick's...

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Critical Commentary

William Hutchings (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn 1995, pp. 799-800.

[In the following evaluation of the published version of Three Tall Women, Hutchings observes numerous similarities between the play and works by Samuel Beckett. Albee 's drama, the critic complains, "domesticates the dramatic territories that Beckett so relentlessly, evocatively, and innovatively explored. They have now been made accessible andin every senseplain. "]

Identified only as B and C, two of the three tall women of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama...

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Further Reading

Henry, William A., III. "Albee is Back." Time 143, No. (21 February 1994): 64.

Highly favorable review that calls Three Tall Women "a spellbinder."

King, Robert L. "Eastern Regionals." The North American Review 281, No. 2 (March-April 1996): 44-8.

Includes a review of a production of Three Tall Women at Stage West. King contends that the play is "basically a-social; the character relationships are not human ones. Its metaphysics are a-moral, self-centered existentialism."

Kroll, Jack. "Trinity of Women." Newsweek CXXIII, No. 8 (21 February 1994): 62.

Review that considers Three Tall Women...

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