Tiny Alice Essay - Tiny Alice, Alan Schneider

Tiny Alice, Alan Schneider

Introduction

Tiny Alice

Tiny Alice debuted on 29 December 1964 in a production directed by Alan Schneider at the Billy Rose Theatre in New York. The drama addresses the crisis of faith arising from the human tendency to represent the infinite and supreme with symbols that—as human constructs—are necessarily limited and inadequate. The action surrounds Julian, a Catholic lay brother who is sent by the Cardinal to negotiate with Miss Alice, a wealthy recluse who purportedly wishes to bestow an enormous sum on the Roman Catholic Church. Within her mansion, Julian finds, besides Alice herself, her lawyer, her butler, and a huge model of the mansion. He is then confronted by a series of bewildering circumstances and events, including Alice's initial appearance as a decrepit old woman and her subsequent revelation as a young woman disguised; a fire in the model mansion which exactly mirrors a simultaneous conflagration in the actual building; and his marriage to Miss Alice, presided over by the Cardinal. In the end, all the characters but Julian engage in a ritual surrounding the model. When Julian refuses to acknowledge the divinity of the miniature Alice within the model, he is shot by the Lawyer. As he slowly dies, he finally announces: "I accept thee, Alice … God, Alice … I accept thy will."

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Tiny Alice initially met with critical consternation. John McCarten, for instance, was "bewildered" by the play, and Robert Brustein found it "meaningless" and censured Albee's "sham profundity." Subsequent commentators, while not necessarily judging Tiny Alice a complete success, have found a coherence and meaningfulness that the early reviewers had missed. These critics have focused on the play's exploration of the nature of reality and of the limits of human intellect and rationality when grappling with ideas of God and infinity, which by definition, exceed human reason. Leonard Casper has perhaps best summarized these approaches to the play in his observation that "Tiny Alice is a dramatization of all that must remain tantalizing beyond the mind's reach: all mysteries whose permanence we deny even as impressions of their permanence accumulate in our experience."

Production Reviews

Howard Taubman (review date 30 December 1964)

SOURCE: A review of Tiny Alice, in The New York Times, 30 December 1964, p. 14.

[In the following review of the premiere of Tiny Alice at the Billy Rose Theater, Taubman declares that Albee's writing "abounds in moments touched with pungency and irony, " but he admits he was disappointed by the play's ending.]

The mark of a real writer is his refusal to stand still or repeat himself. In Tiny Alice Edward Albee has moved into the difficult, mysterious, ever tantalizing realm of faith.

In this new play, which opened last night at the Billy Rose Theater, Mr. Albee has attempted nothing less than a large, modern allegory on a theme that after almost two millenniums is essentially timeless. He is writing about the passion of a Christ-like figure, if not of Christ Himself.

Mr. Albee has not, unless I am mistaken after a first hearing, cast fresh light on this theme. But he has written with the literacy of a man who knows that the word itself can be charged with drama and with a gift for making a scene on a stage reverberate with subtle overtones.

Indeed, his command of sheer theater grows steadily, and it has been richly and imaginatively abetted by Alan Schneider's staging. Even if you find Mr. Albee's subject and treatment too enigmatic, Tiny Alice provides the kind of exhilirating evening that stretches the mind and sensibilities.

Tiny Alice, for all its cryptic way with plot, characters and settings, does not seem to me all that enigmatic. But Mr. Albee has virtually ordered his critics not to give away his play's surprises, and my aim is to be obedient. I shall not reveal the ending, except to whisper that it comes as no surprise once you have grasped the play's symbolism.

Mr. Albee begins with a scene that shows him at the top of his bent as a dramatist in command of his métier and his subject. In the garden of the Cardinal's impressive residence a lawyer and His Eminence meet again. They had known and loathed each other as schoolfellows. The lawyer, played with fierce, insulting intelligence and pride by William Hurt, duels verbally with the Cardinal, a shrewd figure under rich red robes and his air of silken benevolence, as played by Eric Berry.

Mr. Albee brings these two to life so swiftly, vividly and brilliantly with his relish for snapping, sardonic humor that you expect them to be characters in a realistic drama. But once they get down to business, you amend your expectations.

The lawyer tells the Cardinal that he is the representative of the richest woman in the world. His mission—and his announcement is tinctured with the venom of a serpent rather than the grandeur of mighty philanthropy—is to give the church $100 million a year for the next 20 years. Now you are sure that this is not realism. Not even J. Paul Getty could afford to be that magnanimous. The Ford Foundation, perhaps, but no individual.

The richest woman turns out to be Miss Alice, and she lives in a magisterial castle that has been shipped beam by beam and stone by stone from England and reconstructed somewhere, presumably in America. Mr. Albee does not say, but one imagines that this is where the richest woman in the world would live. Who but an American would take apart, ship and reconstruct so enormous a castle?

What's more, a large, scrupulously exact model of the castle stands on a platform in the vast, high-ceilinged, paneled library, which is the most elegant of William Ritman's three elegant sets. This model is apparently furnished and peopled like the castle itself, and it not only reflects what is going on in the building but also serves as a further symbol of a world within a world.

To negotiate what the lawyer calls "the odds and ends" of the incredible gift, Julian, a lay brother and the Cardinal's secretary, must come to the castle to meet Miss Alice. The lawyer has investigated Julian's history thoroughly but has not been able to account for six years. While Julian will not give away his secret to the lawyer, he does not hesitate to tell it to Butler, who is the butler.

John Gielgud in his black robe and with a simple dignity that does not disguise his wounds and uncertainties makes of Brother Julian a touching figure of humility. John Heffernan as Butler is familiar and impertinent, yet oddly wise and tender. Both roles are difficult to encompass, for they do not grow out of a base of realism, as do those of the lawyer and Cardinal.

The most difficult role of all is that of Miss Alice. For she resembles Kundry in Wagner's Parsifal—a woman who is suffering mother and enveloping temptress. The only place where Irene Worth does not carry off her challenging assignment is at her first appearance, where she briefly masquerades as an ancient hag, and here one feels Mr. Albee's notion has not worked out.

In her scenes with Julian, Miss Alice is gentle and teasing, seductive and devouring. In her relations with the lawyer she flares up and cringes, as if indeed she were Kundry and he were her Klingsor, the evil magician in Parsifal. Miss Worth ranges over these demanding changes with delicacy of nuance, and Mainbocher has dressed her with equal distinction of nuance.

Mr. Albee knows how to make individual scenes count. He has conceived confrontations that tingle provocatively and images suffused in a muted religious light. His writing abounds in moments touched with pungency and irony. His observations on wealth, established religion, service and martyrdom emerge sharply from the dramatic context.

In the final scenes Tiny Alice all but drops the mask of allegory. The symbols become virtually the figures they were meant to represent. And the play itself loses the richness of texture it has had in the course of its development. One realizes that Mr. Albee is reduced to illustrating rather than illuminating his theme. If one is disappointed at the end, one does not forget the boldness and wonder of the journey Mr. Albee has dared to undertake.

John McCarten (review date 9 January 1965)

SOURCE: "Mystical Manipulations," in The New Yorker, Vol. XL, No. 47, 9 January 1965, p. 84.

[In the review below, McCarten finds Tiny Alice bewildering.]

In Tiny Alice, at the Billy Rose, Edward Albee leads us ingeniously into an allegorical maze, but once he has got us in the middle of the thing, his sense of direction seems to fail him, and we find ourselves bewildered. During his guided tour through metaphysical territory previously explored by the likes of T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, we are favored with all kinds of puns and ponderosities, but enlightenment about the characters we encounter is in very short supply. The drama commences with an acid colloquy between a cardinal and a lawyer who once were schoolmates. The cardinal's mother, the lawyer remarks in passing, was a whore, whereupon the cardinal points out that the lawyer's nickname when they were boys together was Hyena. The lawyer then makes some references to homosexuality among the clergy, and after that the gentlemen take up the details of the business that has brought them together. It seems that one Miss Alice, the richest woman in the world, would like to give the Roman Catholic Church a hundred million dollars a year for the next twenty years, provided that Julian, a lay brother who is secretary to the cardinal, oversees the operation. We move now from the cardinal's garden, where the former schoolmates have conducted their tête-à-tête, into Miss Alice's mansion, which is about the size of the Château Frontenac. Most of the action takes place in an enormous chamber containing a miniature of the establishment, in which everything that happens in Miss Alice's big house is tinily reënacted. Just what this Chinese-box arrangement signifies I do not know. I'm not certain, either, that I can explain the significance of the doings in the mansion—maybe "castle" would be a better word for it—after Brother Julian drops in to make sure that Miss Alice's gift flows smoothly into the coffers of the Church. The lawyer suddenly becomes mysterious, Miss Alice's butler becomes mysterious, Miss Alice becomes mysterious, and so, for that matter, does Brother Julian, who, it develops, once spent six years in an insane asylum after losing his faith in God, and may or may not have had an affair during his incarceration with a woman passing herself off as the Virgin Mary. Eventually, there are indications that Miss Alice and her lawyer and her butler are in a sort of conspiracy to seduce Brother Julian from the bosom of his church, and when Miss Alice eventually persuades him to marry her, it appears that spiritually he is a goner. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't but at the climax of Tiny Alice he is certainly dead, after being shot and putting on a death scene that Little Eva might envy.

Under the direction of Alan Schneider, John Gielgud, as Brother Julian; Irene Worth, as Miss Alice; William Hutt, as the lawyer; John Heffernan, as the butler; and Eric Berry, as the cardinal, all go about their work with a confidence that is, in the circumstances, highly commendable. The sets are by William Ritman, and they are so impressive as to be almost overpowering.

Henry Hewes (review date 16 January 1965)

SOURCE: "Through the Looking Glass, Darkly," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, 16 January 1965, p. 40.

[In the following mixed review, Hewes asserts that Tiny Alice "seems to care less about entertaining us than about expressing the playwright's personal terror."]

Edward Albee has written the most controversial play of the season. It is titled Tiny Alice (after the girl on the unreachable side of the looking glass?), and its controversy is increased by the frequent ambiguities that make it difficult even to state the controversy. While we plan to wrestle with the play more fully in the January 30 issue of SR, a quick first reaction might define Tiny Alice as being about a would-be martyr named Julian who is pushed to a strange destiny by several terrestrial agents of God. These include a greedy Cardinal who rationalizes selling a man's soul for the benefit of the Church, and whose hypocrisy serves to push Julian away from the unreality of sham religion. There is the lawyer, a Satanic provocateur who surehandedly and cruelly masterminds the whole transaction. There is Butler, a Mephistophelean super-servant who gives friendly and practical assistance. And there is Miss Alice, a compassionate temptress who leads Julian through what are to him the unpleasant realities of physical sex to a divine and pure marriage with "Tiny Alice," whom she represents.

The action and badinage take place in an enormous house inside which there may be many mansions. Designed with massive impressiveness by William Ritman, it includes a big sealed (tollhouse that is an exact replica of the larger house. And we are told that inside the replica is at least one more miniature model of the model, and, of course, "the mouse" who is the play's title character. At one point in the play it is implied that Julian is a Christ figure torn between the protection of an insane asylum where he can live without faith but with hallucinations in the real world whose corruptions and chaos are unbearable, or the...

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Critical Commentary

Philip Roth (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Play that Dare Not Speak Its Name," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 2, 25 February 1965, p. 4.

[In the following review of the published version of Tiny Alice, Roth charges that the play is "obviously a sham " that attempts to obscure its "true subject. " It is, he contends, "a homosexual daydream in which the celibate male is tempted and seduced by the overpowering female."]

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...

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Further Reading

Ballew, Leighton M. "Who's Afraid of Tiny Alice? "The Georgia Review XX, No. 3 (Fall 1966): 292-99.

Suggests that Tiny Alice "may take place entirely in the mind of the lay brother, Julian."

Campbell, Mary Elizabeth. "The Statement of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice. "Papers on Language & Literature IV, No. 1 (Winter 1968): 85-100.

Structural analysis that argues that Tiny Alice propounds the thesis that humanity's numerous scientific achievements "so potently free, ease, and expand his life that a man may tend, whether wittingly or no, to center his energies and hopes in these concerns, to such a degree that the spiritual aspects of his...

(The entire section is 383 words.)