Edward Albee American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4910

Albee is one of the most discussed and analyzed playwrights of American theater. Many books, countless reviews, and hundreds of articles have been published examining the artist and his plays. Most critics agree that Albee is an important writer whose recurring themes include the condemnation of cruelty, emasculation, social complacency,...

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Albee is one of the most discussed and analyzed playwrights of American theater. Many books, countless reviews, and hundreds of articles have been published examining the artist and his plays. Most critics agree that Albee is an important writer whose recurring themes include the condemnation of cruelty, emasculation, social complacency, and vacuity. His characters appear to wallow in their own fantasies; the plays exhibit a pervading and overwhelming sense of loss, probably triggered by his own disturbed childhood. Albee is concerned with the illusions that keep people from seeing reality. He believes that he lives in a time when religious, moral, political, and social structures have collapsed. The dramatist is also preoccupied with the fear of death—a continuing motif since his first play. Albee’s plays do not end happily, but he never strains to make them tragic.

Albee has a love-hate relationship with his critics, submitting to numerous interviews in which he proceeds to give cryptic answers. He is alternately praised for his consummate craftsmanship, intelligence, and sensitivity and criticized for his clumsiness, dim-witted mentality, or crassness. Albee looks with scorn at attempts to analyze him or his work. He consistently reads all material written about him but derisively views it as well-meaning fiction. Probed about his own artistic credo, Albee is usually coy, but he has written that “the health of a nation, a society, can be determined by the art it demands.” The statement may be a key to understanding Albee’s own work, because he is openly critical at what passes for entertainment today on Broadway, in films, and on television. Albee praises the technological achievements in all three media and the high level of competence in acting and directing, but he decries the stereotyped, superficial, and sentimental literary material.

Albee’s work is unusual for his attempts to fuse comedy and terror. He has said that he wants simultaneously to entertain and offend his audiences. In fact, audience indifference to his plays is one thing Albee abhors. He firmly believes that the theater must be “possessed” by the playwright rather than by the actor, director, producer, or audience. Throughout his career, he has steadfastly refused to condescend to changing theatrical fashions and resolutely follows his own inner visions.

Albee remains one of the great innovators of the theater, having experimented with various genres and techniques over the years, and he has been labeled at one time or another an absurdist, surrealist, existentialist, and satirist. He avoids easy labels or descriptions; about his own work, Albee has said that he does not concern himself with thinking about his style or direction: “I’m interested in the fact that I write plays in such different styles from time to time. . . . I’m not doing it to avoid, or to revenge, or to confuse, or to be fresh in my own mind, even. I just do it because that is the way each one wants to be.”

Whatever Albee’s approach may be, he has not slowed his output of plays, creating at least one a year. Critics and audiences alike think that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains his masterpiece, and The Zoo Story remains his most popular one-act work. Albee himself is noncommittal about naming a favorite play, but he has expressed a fondness for The Sandbox, which he feels is his most perfectly written play (it is also his shortest).

Albee’s weakest literary efforts have not been his own creations but his championing of other writers through his role as stage adapter. He has adapted six works into plays, including Carson McCullers’s 1951 novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1963); Malcolm (1966), the 1959 novel by James Purdy; Everything in the Garden (1967), by playwright Giles Cooper; and Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita (1981), and only the first one received mixed reviews. The other three were rigorously criticized and have rarely been performed. Albee remained particularly incensed about the failure of the Broadway production of Lolita. In the introduction to his Selected Plays of Edward Albee, published in 1987, Albee assailed the production for its “combination of disrespect for Nabokov’s and my text, directorial vulgarity . . . and a lax and insensitive turn by a leading performer.” Bartleby (1961), an operatic adaptation of Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” also failed. An Albee adaptation of Truman Capote’s 1958 work Breakfast at Tiffany’s never opened.

Albee’s work has rarely been adapted to the screen; it is generally viewed by filmmakers as too difficult, talky, uninteresting, and static. The one major exception was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in 1966. The film adaptation starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and was well received by the public. The playwright had nothing to do with the film version, but he has stated that he enjoyed it overall despite certain liberties taken with the text. Albee remains prolific, and no one can say in which direction his career will continue to develop. Time and again, he has been dismissed as washed up, and yet some of his best, award-winning work, such as Three Tall Women and The Goat: Or, Who Is Sylvia?, has come during the latter part of his career.

Albee refuses to be categorized, and each new work is different from the last. He says of his writing simply that “my mind fills with plays, and I write them down from time to time to unclutter my mind.” It is interesting to note that Albee is computer illiterate and writes out all his plays in longhand. When directing his own work, he admits to holding heated “conversations” with the playwright about the use of certain passages, and usually the director wins out. It may be too soon to tell if the death of his life partner, sculptor Jonathan Thomas, on May 2, 2005, will have a significant impact on his future work.

The Zoo Story

First produced: 1959 (first published, 1959)

Type of work: Play

A vagrant’s death wish finds fulfillment after he meets a stranger in New York’s Central Park.

The Zoo Story, Albee’s first important play, was partially written on his thirtieth birthday, in 1958, as a present to himself. Albee composed the play in three weeks but then could not find an American producer who would stage it. Albee had created a highly unusual and original work in his first venture that bears comparison with Samuel Beckett’s first play, En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954). Eventually, a German production of The Zoo Story was arranged on September 28, 1959, at the Schiller Theatre Werkstatt in Berlin. Four months later, the American premiere took place—on a double bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape—on January 14, 1960, at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City and ran for 582 performances. Albee won the Vernon Rice Memorial Award for The Zoo Story.

The Zoo Story is a stunning tour de force by a new playwright. It is theatrically simple yet thematically complex. The long one-act play has only two characters, strangers to each other, who meet in Central Park on a summer Sunday afternoon. When the curtain rises, Peter is sitting on a park bench reading a book. Albee describes him as “a man in his early forties, neither fat nor gaunt, neither handsome nor homely.” The other character, Jerry, walks in and sees Peter. Albee’s brief description is as follows: “a man in his late thirties, not poorly dressed, but carelessly.” He exhibits “a great weariness.”

The Zoo Story is classically structured into three main segments that develop in a climactic order. The introductory section introduces Peter and Jerry and the many differences between them: their clothing, economic and social backgrounds, literary tastes, philosophies of life, and ways of communicating. In the middle section, Jerry narrates a long story about himself and an old, mangy dog that lives at his rooming house. The final section builds to a violent conclusion after Jerry tells Peter what happened to him at the zoo.

Peter and Jerry are oppositional characters in The Zoo Story. The only thing they have in common is their age. Albee’s description of Peter is a man “moving into middle age,” although “his dress and his manner would suggest a man younger.” Peter is in no way remarkable or distinctive. He represents a kind of bourgeois Everyman who is comfortable with his sedentary life and avoids taking risks. Jerry, on the other hand, lives on the outer edge of society. He is a rootless person whose “fall from physical grace should not suggest debauchery.” Jerry immediately goads Peter into conversation, a maneuver that the overly polite Peter finds disturbing, because he does not want anyone to penetrate his carefully polished facade. Peter tries to steer the conversation to duller topics, but Jerry will have none of it. Jerry eventually strips away all of Peter’s protective layers and reveals the raging animal within him.

The separation of humans from their true animal nature is an important theme in The Zoo Story. Peter remains blissfully ignorant of the animal within himself until Jerry, who always knew that he was an animal and that meaningful communication with others is difficult because of the individual’s isolation, makes him face it. Hence the importance of the “Jerry and the dog” story, which reaffirms humankind’s animal heritage and hatred of anything that invades personal security. Jerry finally goads the once-passive Peter into a fight in defense of his honor. The terrified Peter, responding like a savage beast, picks up Jerry’s knife and is tricked into killing him.

Another important theme in The Zoo Story is the salvation of the individual through sacrifice. Jerry sacrifices himself, removing his isolation by reaching out to Peter, changing Peter for the better. The play ends with Jerry giving a Christlike exhortation to Peter, his disciple. The Zoo Story unfolds like a Greek tragedy that builds relentlessly to a horrifying and preordained conclusion. Peter’s final howl, “OH MY GOD,” amplifies Jerry’s onstage whimper as the curtain falls.

The American Dream

First produced: 1961 (first published, 1961)

Type of work: Play

In this savage satire, Albee portrays the American family as substituting artificial values for real ones.

The American Dream was the fourth play written by Albee. It received its American premiere at the York Playhouse on January 24, 1961, and ran for 370 performances. Four of the five characters in the play—Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, and Young Man—also appeared in an earlier Albee work, The Sandbox. Unlike The Zoo Story, The American Dream is an absurdist play.

The long one-act is structured into three major sections and eleven groupings of the five characters. The first part deals with the family unit itself—Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma—and the decision of whether Grandma should be put into a nursing home. The second section involves the introduction of Mrs. Barker, a social chum of Mommy, who once worked for the Bye-Bye Adoption Service. The final part begins with the arrival of the Young Man and Grandma’s attempt to keep from being institutionalized.

In The American Dream, Albee attempts to show that the much-vaunted American Way of Life is absurd. The playwright seeks to show how deprived of meaning Americans’ normal human feelings and relationships have become. He points out that people go through the ritualistic motions of loving and caring for one another, and respond to sexual attractiveness or neighborly concerns, but no feelings are engaged. All five characters may speak to each other, but they live in their own worlds, isolated from one another. Their repetitive language of endearments to each other is deflated and hollow.

The play opens with Mommy and Daddy waiting for someone to come and fix the toilet. Mommy tells a story about buying a beige-colored hat, but she exchanges it when her club chairwoman, Mrs. Barker, tells her that it is wheat-colored. Grandma enters carrying many neatly wrapped boxes; it appears that she spends her time wrapping these mysterious boxes. Soon, Mommy reveals her plan to send Grandma to a nursing home and convinces Daddy to agree. Grandma will not go quietly, however, and proves to be a stubborn match for her daughter. She tells Daddy that Mommy stated at age eight that she would marry a rich old man and even implies that their marriage is a disaster.

Albee pokes merciless fun at what he perceives to be a matriarchal society and at the impotence of the American family head. Sterility is an important theme: Mommy and Daddy cannot conceive a child. Daddy’s character is vague, ineffectual, and without determination compared to the nightmarishly efficient Mommy. Mommy is the driving force in the family unit. Only Grandma can stand up to her daughter’s wiles and match her. Into this feminine beehive of activity comes Mrs. Barker, the club chairwoman. She makes herself very comfortable and even removes her dress when asked. Through Mrs. Barker’s arrival, it is revealed that Mommy and Daddy adopted a little child from her years ago. They systematically dismembered their “bumble of joy,” however, because it behaved in a normal and natural manner instead of adapting to their artificial values.

Following that revelation, the Young Man enters and converses with Grandma. He is a handsome, vital, and completely empty-headed dolt whom Grandma calls “The American Dream.” He wants to be a film actor and will do anything for money. He tells of an identical twin and of their separation at childhood; he feels as though he lost part of himself. In short order, Mommy and Daddy adopt him, with Mrs. Barker’s blessing. The new adoptee will move into Grandma’s old room, and Mommy will use him as a lover. Grandma closes the play with a short address: “So, let’s leave things as they are right now . . . while everybody’s happy . . . while everybody’s got what he wants . . . or everybody’s got what he thinks he wants. Good night, dears.”

The American Dream is a less successfully realized and integrated work than The Zoo Story. Unlike the concise structure of The Sandbox, which it superficially resembles, the play is overly long, and some of the speeches appear padded. Yet Albee has neatly skewered the American way of life, taking the false images promulgated by television, films, advertising, and political exploitation and revealing them to be totally empty and devoid of any meaning.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

First produced: 1962 (first published, 1962)

Type of work: Play

Two married couples pass the night together, hurling verbal abuse at each other until they come to a better understanding of themselves and their spouses.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is regarded as Albee’s most successfully realized play. It premiered on October 13, 1962, and ran for 664 performances. The original cast starred Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard, and Melinda Dillon and was directed by Alan Schneider, who has been closely associated with staging Albee’s work on the New York stage. Audiences and critics alike enthusiastically received the play. The play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Antoinette Perry Award (Tony), and the Foreign Press Award. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? caused a sensational controversy when it did not win the Pulitzer Prize as well. Two distinguished members of the Pulitzer committee resigned in protest. Albee subsequently won two Pulitzer Prizes, for A Delicate Balance and Seascape.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Albee’s first full-length original play. It represents a departure for him, not only in form but also in focus. In his earlier work, Albee stood outside society and vented his anger as an outraged social commentator whose passionate concern for justice and equality made him side with society’s victims. He had been a champion of the lonely and oppressed. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee shifts his concern from the have-nots to the haves—in this case, college professors. They represent the core of civilized society (they educate their country’s future leaders), and what he discovers there is perverse, cruel, hypocritical, immoral, and sterile.

Albee’s play has little or no plot, but it moves forward rapidly. It has four characters: two married couples, with husbands teaching at the same small college. Martha is middle-aged, the daughter of the college president, and unhappily married to younger husband George. He has somehow disappointed her by not living up to her high expectations. Nick and Honey, the other (much younger) couple, are also locked into an unhappy marriage. Nick married her for money and what turned out to be “hysterical pregnancy.”

Throughout the long evening George and Martha (Albee names them after the childless George and Martha Washington) argue violently and trade insults with furious savagery. Albee has fashioned a highly fascinating battle of the sexes. The intense love-hate relationship of the couple is evident from the first moment, when they enter their house from a party slightly drunk and weary at 2:00 on a Sunday morning. Eager to go to bed, George is amazed that Martha has invited a new biology instructor and his wife over for drinks. It becomes clear that George and Martha enjoy verbally abusing each other, and the arrival of Nick and Honey only exacerbates the situation.

Albee has given subtitles to each of the three acts in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The first one is titled “Fun and Games,” the second, “Walpurgisnacht,” and the third, “The Exorcism.” Throughout the first act, George and Martha relentlessly bait and exasperate the other couple until Nick and Honey reluctantly enter into the spirit of it. Martha reveals to them that she and George have a grown, secretive son. In act 2, Albee draws a clear parallel between the two couples and shows that frustration is what fuels them—particularly sexual frustration, as exemplified by Nick’s failure to satisfy Martha.

During the first two acts, George has suffered the most abuse, but in act 3 he breaks free of his personal devils and attempts to exorcise the same from Martha; he tries to make her realize that there is not, and never was, a son. Martha’s howling realization and acceptance of the truth brings the embattled pair closer together by the final curtain. Again, Albee reintroduces the recurring themes of the destruction of children by their parents and of men and women by each other.

Unlike other playwrights who allow their characters to keep some of their lies and illusions—most notably Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams—Albee strips all of them away from his characters. He makes it clear in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that he believes self-deception is evil and that no fraud should be entertained, no matter how comforting. Only the passionate search for the truth can nurture and fulfill human beings. Albee says that people must live without illusion and accept the inevitable consequences.

Tiny Alice

First produced: 1964 (first published, 1965)

Type of work: Play

A naïve lay brother of the Catholic Church is seduced by the world’s wealthiest woman.

Tiny Alice was first staged at the Billy Rose Theater on December 29, 1964, and it ran for 167 performances. It starred Sir John Gielgud, Irene Worth, William Hutt, Eric Berry, and John Heffernan; Alan Schneider directed. Tiny Alice provoked a fury of critical responses at its premiere, ranging from “brilliant” to “sophomoric.” Most critics, as well as the performers involved, confessed to not understanding the play and called it a metaphysical muddle. One reviewer dismissed it as a Faustian drama written by a highly endowed college student. Subsequent revivals of the work have aroused the same acrimonious response.

Albee, in introductory remarks to the published text in 1965, kept the controversy alive by writing:It has been the expressed hope of many that I would write a preface to the published text of Tiny Alice, clarifying obscure points in the play—explaining my intention, in other words. I have decided against creating such a guide because I find—after reading the play over—that I share the view of even more people: that the play is quite clear.

What is clear is that Albee did not include Tiny Alice as an important or representative work when he published Selected Plays of Edward Albee in 1987.

Despite its confusing allegorical structure, Tiny Alice has more of a plot coherence than most of Albee’s other plays. Miss Alice is the world’s richest woman; she will donate two billion dollars to the Catholic Church if the cardinal’s secretary, lay Brother Julian, will be sent to her for further instructions. Brother Julian is a strange individual, dedicated to service in the Church; however, he spent six years of his life in a mental institution. In time, Miss Alice seduces him into marriage, and that sacrament, blessed by the Church, proves to be his undoing. He discovers that Miss Alice is a sham and is the personification of Tiny Alice, who lives inside a model house that is an exact replica of the real mansion. The play ends with Julian dying, alone and abandoned by everyone as he faces death.

The play is written in three acts; unlike The Zoo Story, which opens weakly and then builds in dramatic intensity, Tiny Alice has a strong first scene. It begins with the cardinal and the lawyer (church and state) crisply discussing the monetary gift to be bestowed on the Church by Miss Alice. Unfortunately, the high level of tension introduced cannot be maintained in later scenes, as they are minor characters in the play. Later the audience is introduced to Brother Julian and Miss Alice, and it is their star-crossed union that forms the centerpiece of the action.

Albee again brings in his familiar themes of aloneness, isolation, and the illusions to which people desperately cling. He also is concerned with the abandonment of one’s faith and the relationship between sexual and religious ecstasies. Brother Julian, for example, spent six years in a mental institution because his faith left him. While there, he may or may not have had a hallucinatory sexual experience with a demented woman who believed she was the Virgin Mary. Miss Alice seduces Julian through her deeds rather than with words. Near the end of the play, having rejected him, she cradles the dying Julian in a pietà embrace.

Albee doubtless meant the model with Tiny Alice inside to represent a Platonic symbol of the bright world of ideals that people carry inside their minds. For Albee, Julian’s confusion and penance at the end of the play give him absolution and a state of grace. Julian has examined his conscience, abandoned his delusions, and will make the necessary sacrifice to God and Tiny Alice. His acceptance of death finally releases Julian from a lifetime of doubt and gives him insight into himself. Albee makes it clear that Julian’s illusory faith has finally been stripped away.

Three Tall Women

First produced: 1994 (first published, 1995)

Type of work: Play

Three women of widely varying ages come together to discuss the human condition of life, love, loss, and death.

The Pulitzer Prize award-winning Three Tall Women premiered in New York City on March 18, 1994. The play proved a popular success and ran for two years, first opening at the Vineyard Theatre and later continuing its run at the Promenade Theatre. It was widely hailed by the theater critics and won not only the Pulitzer, but also the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Lucille Loritel Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for best play. The drama’s critical success rejuvenated Albee’s fading playwriting career, which had been in a slump for more than a decade.

The play is structured in two acts populated by three women generically named A, B, and C. The setting of act 1 is a “wealthy bedroom, French in feeling,” the residence of A, a dying matriarchal figure in her nineties who is attended by her companion B, who is fifty-two. The play opens with C, twenty-six years old and A’s young lawyer, arguing with A about her true age. The old woman fiercely rails on about her life, her health, her approaching death, and the many painful memories that she still carries. A is especially embittered because she believes that her estranged homosexual son does not come to visit, although B tells the audience that he does. Despite B’s attempts at conciliation between the two women, C’s character reacts negatively to the old woman. A lively, sometimes hostile, funny, and often profane discussion erupts among all three women. The act concludes when A’s majestic, Lear-like character suffers a stroke.

Act 2 opens full of dramatic surprises. At first A appears to be propped up in bed and wearing a breathing mask, while B and C discuss A’s legal situation and the importance of a will. Suddenly a very lively A enters from offstage and jumps into the legal fray. It quickly becomes apparent that all three characters embody the same woman at different stages of her life. The ensuing exchange of opinions about who they really are takes on a deeper resonance, with C loudly protesting that she will never become like either of them. The audience knows, of course, that she will in time. In fact, B tells her with a “(Sour smile.) Well . . . you just wait.” The son now appears (remaining mute throughout) and is berated by B and defended by A, while C looks at him in amazement.

The latter part of the act focuses on all three women beginning to merge their memories, thoughts, and recriminations into a continuing collective consciousness, simultaneously becoming a larger-than-life Everywoman. Following A’s denunciation of the other two, the playwright suddenly reverses the dramatic tension by having all three women give life-affirming speeches. He ends the play with them holding hands and looking at the audience, facing life and death unafraid. It is Albee’s most upbeat ending.

Three Tall Women is Albee’s most autobiographical work. The playwright has acknowledged as much, and the central character of A (as well as B and C) is inspired by his own adoptive mother, a tall, “thin, aristocratic, proud” woman who was also racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic. Albee is willing to look critically as his mother and their dysfunctional relationship with widely divergent emotional views, which led to his fleeing home at an early age. In the preface to his published play, Albee writes, “I knew I did not want to write a revenge piece—could not honestly do so, for I felt no need for revenge.”

Three Tall Women is Albee’s older self attempting to understand his own formidable, unloving mother. In real life, Albee never reconciled with his mother, but here he largely succeeds in coming to terms with his conflicting feelings toward her and creates a believable, sympathetic, and largely moving figure.

Peter and Jerry

First produced: 2004

Type of work: Play

A husband and wife reveal some unpleasant truths about their supposedly happy marriage.

Forty-six years after The Zoo Story, Albee’s playwriting career appeared to have come full circle. His play Peter and Jerry, a prequel to The Zoo Story, opened on May 28, 2004, to celebrate the fortieth season of the Hartford Stage Company, a theater long associated with Albee’s work. Critical reaction to the new work was mixed, with most reviewers praising it but others decrying his attempt to rework and update a classic.

Actually, the full title of the work is Peter and Jerry. Act I: Homelife. Act II: The Zoo Story. Albee says he was quite happy with the original The Zoo Story but wanted to flesh out and offer more insight into the character of Peter. In Homelife, Peter is now seen in his Upper West Side home, where he lives with his wife, two daughters, cats, and a parakeet. He is absorbed in a book (by Stephen King this time) that he will later bring to the park. Ann, his wife, wishes to have a frank talk with him about their married life together and joins him.

Peter attempts to continue reading his book; however, Ann will have none of it. She says that she loves him but is unhappy with their present life despite the obvious creature comforts. Ann wants her husband to let go emotionally and allow his passionate animal instincts to emerge more fully. Peter attempts to explain and justify his behavior, but Ann is disgusted with his explanations. She is far more interested in dissecting what she perceives as a failed marriage. Their brutally frank exchange of dialogue is Albee at his best: sharp, revealing, sexually explicit, and absurdly funny. By act’s end, mild-mannered Peter’s character is fully revealed as a far more interesting individual as he proceeds to the park where Jerry will accost him.

With the creation of Homelife, The Zoo Story now no longer needs to be paired with other one-act plays to make a full evening of theater. While the newer work is less striking than its predecessor, the plays have a synergistic effect on each other, with the characters of both Peter and Jerry revealed in a fuller light. Albee always felt that the character of Peter was more of a sketch and revealed primarily through Jerry’s eyes. The prequel Homelife corrects that imbalance, gives Peter greater emotional depth, updates both plays to the present day, and makes the tragic ending dramatically more confrontational and gripping.

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Edward Albee Drama Analysis