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Edward Albee 1928-

An acclaimed and controversial playwright, Albee is best known for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his first full-length drama. Although initially characterized either as a realist or an absurdist, Albee combines elements from the American tradition of social criticism—established by such playwrights as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams,...

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Edward Albee 1928-

An acclaimed and controversial playwright, Albee is best known for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his first full-length drama. Although initially characterized either as a realist or an absurdist, Albee combines elements from the American tradition of social criticism—established by such playwrights as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill—with aspects of the Theater of the Absurd, as practiced by Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. While Albee's plays often portray alienated individuals who suffer as a result of unjust social, moral, and religious strictures, his works usually offer solutions to conflicts rather than conveying an absurdist sense of inescapable determinism. As Matthew C. Roudané has declared, "Albee's is an affirmative vision of human experience. His vision underscores the importance of confronting one's inner and outer world of O'Neillean 'pipe-dreams,' or illusions. In the midst of a dehumanizing society, Albee's heroes, perhaps irrationally, affirm living." In a career spanning more than thirty years, Albee has received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama three times: for A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women.


Albee is the adopted child of Reed and Frances Albee, heirs to the multi-million dollar fortune of American theater manager Edward Franklin Albee I. He began attending the theater and writing poetry at the age of six, wrote a three-act sex farce when he was twelve, and attempted two novels while a teenager. Many critics suggest that the tense family conflicts characteristic of Albee's dramas are derived from his childhood experiences. After attending several private and military schools and enrolling briefly at Trinity College in Connecticut, Albee achieved limited success as an author of poetry and fiction before turning to drama. Although he remained associated with off-Broadway theater until the production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he first garnered critical and popular acclaim for his one-act dramas, which prompted comparisons to the works of Williams and Ionesco. In addition to the three Pulitzer prizes, Albee has received several other prestigious honors, including the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for his dramatic works.


Albee immediately established himself as a promising young playwright with his first mature play, The Zoo Story, which received its American debut on a double bill with a play by Samuel Beckett and which was favorably compared with the elder playwright's work. Albee continued to build his reputation as an innovator in the absurdist manner with such one-act plays as The Sandbox and The American Dream. Mainstream success came with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, produced on Broadway in 1961. This drama won a number of awards but, in a controversial decision, was denied the Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1966.

Albee continued to experiment with a variety of forms, subjects, and styles in his succeeding plays; and while several of them failed commercially and elicited scathing reviews for their abstract classicism and dialogue, many scholars have commended his commitment to theatrical experimentation and refusal to pander to commercial pressures. The unorthodox Tiny Alice, Albee's follow-up to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was considered by some critics to be incomprehensible for the manner in which it deviates from realism with respect to setting, characterization, and internal time. Nevertheless, it has, in the years since its first performance, sparked a great deal of critical interest and commentary. While, for its part, A Delicate Balance was widely faulted for lacking action and cohesive ideas, it nevertheless garnered approval for its synthesis of dramatic elements and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Similarly, Albee's second Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Seascape, was regarded by some as pretentious but was commended overall for its lyrical quality and insights into the human condition. After several critical and financial disappointments in the 1980s, including The Lady from Dubuque (which closed after only twelve performances) and The Man Who Had Three Arms, Albee returned in 1991 with Three Tall Women, for which he received his third Pulitzer. His most recent work is The Play about the Baby, which was produced in 1998.

Principal Works

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The Zoo Story 1959

The Death of Bessie Smith 1960

Fam and Yam 1960

The Sandbox 1960

The American Dream 1961

Bartleby [adaptor, with James Hinton (libretto) and William Flanagan (music); from the short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" by Herman Melville] (opera) 1961

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1962

The Ballad of the Sad Café [adaptor; from the novella by Carson McCullers] 1963

Tiny Alice 1964

A Delicate Balance 1966

Malcolm [adaptor; from the novel by James Purdy] 1966

Everything in the Garden [adaptor; from the drama by Giles Cooper] 1967

*Box l968

*Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung 1968

All Over 1971

Seascape 1975

Counting the Ways: A Vaudeville 1977

Listening: A Chamber Play 1977

The Lady from Dubuque 1980

Lolita [adaptor; from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov] 1981

The Man Who Had Three Arms 1982

Finding the Sun 1983

Walking 1984

Marriage Play 1987

Three Tall Women 1991

The Lorca Play 1992

Fragments: A Concerto Grosso 1993

The Play about the Baby 1998

*These two works are performed together and referred to as Box-Mao-Box.

†This work was first produced as a radio play in 1976.

Author Commentary

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Which Theatre is the Absurd One? (1962)

SOURCE: "Which Theatre is the Absurd One?" in The New York Times Magazine, 25 February 1962, pp. 30-1, 64, 66.

[In the following piece, Albee addresses the label, Theatre of the Absurd, that had been attached to his work. He argues that "The Theatre of the Absurd, in the sense that it is truly the contemporary theatre, facing as it does man's condition as it is, is the Realistic theatre of our time; and that the supposed Realistic theatrethe term used here to mean most of what is done on Broadwayin the sense that it panders to the public need for self-congratulation and reassurance and presents a false picture of ourselves to ourselves is … really and truly The Theatre of the Absurd."]

A theatre person of my acquaintance—a man whose judgment must be respected, though more for the infallibility of his intuition than for his reasoning—remarked just the other week, "The Theatre of the Absurd has had it; it's on its way out; it's through."

Now this, on the surface of it, seems to be a pretty funny attitude to be taking toward a theatre movement which has, only in the past couple of years, been impressing itself on the American public consciousness. Or is it? Must we judge that a theatre of such plays as Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Jean Genet's The Balcony (both long, long runners off-Broadway) and Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros—which, albeit in a hoked-up production, had a substantial season on Broadway—has been judged by the theatre public and found wanting?

And shall we have to assume that The Theatre of the Absurd Repertory Company, currently playing at New York's off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre—presenting works by Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Arrabal, Jack Richardson, Kenneth Koch and myself—being the first such collective representation of the movement in the United States, is also a kind of farewell to the movement? For that matter, just what is The Theatre of the Absurd?

Well, let me come at it obliquely. When I was told, about a year ago, that I was considered a member in good standing of The Theatre of the Absurd I was deeply offended. I was deeply offended because I had never heard the term before and I immediately assumed that it applied to the theatre uptown—Broadway.

What (I was reasoning to myself) could be more absurd than a theatre in which the esthetic criterion is something like this: A "good" play is one which makes money; a "bad" play (in the sense of "Naughty! Naughty!" I guess) is one which does not; a theatre in which performers have plays rewritten to correspond to the public relations image of themselves; a theatre in which playwrights are encouraged (what a funny word!) to think of themselves as little cogs in a great big wheel; a theatre in which imitation has given way to imitation of imitation; a theatre in which London "hits" are, willy-nilly, in a kind of reverse of chauvinism, greeted in a manner not unlike a colony's obeisance to the Crown; a theatre in which real estate owners and theatre party managements predetermine the success of unknown quantities; a theatre in which everybody scratches and bites for billing as though it meant access to the last bomb shelter on earth; a theatre in which, in a given season, there was not a single performance of a play by Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Genet, Ibsen, O'Casey, Pirandello, Shaw, Strindberg—or Shakespeare? What, indeed, I thought, could be more absurd than that? (My conclusions … obviously.)

For it emerged that The Theatre of the Absurd, aside from being the title of an excellent book by Martin Esslin on what is loosely called the avant-garde theatre, was a somewhat less than fortunate catch-all phrase to describe the philosophical attitudes and theatre methods of a number of Europe's finest and most adventurous playwrights and their followers.

I was less offended, but still a little dubious. Simply: I don't like labels; they can be facile and can lead to non-think on the part of the public. And unless it is understood that the playwrights of The Theatre of the Absurd represent a group only in the sense that they seem to be doing something of the same thing in vaguely similar ways at approximately the same time—unless this is understood, then the labeling itself will be more absurd than the label.

Playwrights, by nature, are grouchy, withdrawn, envious, greedy, suspicious and, in general, quite nice people—and the majority of them wouldn't be caught dead in a colloquy remotely resembling the following:

Ionesco: (At a Left Bank cafe table, spying Beckett and Genet strolling past in animated conversation) Hey! Sam! Jean!

Genet: Hey, it's Eugene! Sam, it's Eugene!

Beckett: Well. I'll be damned. Hi there, Eugene boy.

Ionesco: Sit down, kids.

Genet: Sure thing.

Ionesco: (Rubbing his hands together) Well, what's new in the Theatre of the Absurd?

Beckett: Oh, less than a lot of people think. (They all laugh.)

Etc. No. Not very likely. Get a playwright alone sometime, get a few drinks in him, and maybe he'll be persuaded to sound off about his "intention" and the like—and hate himself for it the next day. But put a group of playwrights together in a room, and the conversation—if there is any—will, more likely than not, concern itself with sex, restaurants and the movies.

Very briefly, then—and reluctantly, because I am a playwright and would much rather talk about sex, restaurants and the movies—and stumblingly, because I do not pretend to understand it entirely, I will try to define The Theatre of the Absurd. As I get it, The Theatre of the Absurd is an absorption-in-art of certain existentialist and post-existentialist philosophical concepts having to do, in the main, with man's attempts to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense—which makes no sense because the moral, religious, political and social structures man has erected to "illusion" himself have collapsed.

Albert Camus put it this way: "A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity."

And Eugene Ionesco says this: "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose * * *. Cut off from his religious, meta-physical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless."

And to sum up the movement, Martin Esslin writes, in his book The Theatre of the Absurd: "Ultimately, a phenomenon like The Theatre of the Absurd does not reflect despair or a return to dark irrational forces but expresses modern man's endeavor to come to terms with the world in which he lives. It attempts to make him face up to the human condition as it really is, to free him from illusions that are bound to cause constant maladjustment and disappointment * * *. For the dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its senselessness; to accept it freely, without fear, without illusions—and to laugh at it."


(And while we're on the subject of Amen, one wearies of the complaint that The Theatre of the Absurd playwrights alone are having at God these days. The notion that God is dead, indifferent, or insane—a notion blasphemous, premature, or academic depending on your persuasion—while surely a tenet of some of the playwrights under discussion, is, it seems to me, of a piece with Mr. Tennessee Williams' description of the Deity, in The Night of the Iguana, as "a senile delinquent.")

So much for the attempt to define terms. Now, what of this theatre? What of this theatre in which, for example, a legless old couple live out their lives in twin ashcans, surfacing occasionally for food or conversation (Samuel Beckett's Endgame); in which a man is seduced, and rather easily, by a girl with three well-formed and functioning noses (Eugene Ionesco's Jack, or The Submission); in which, on the same stage, one group of Negro actors is playing at pretending to be white, and another group of Negro actors is playing at pretending to be Negro (Jean Genet's The Blacks)?

What of this theatre? Is it, as it has been accused of being, obscure, sordid, destructive, anti-theatre, perverse and absurd (in the sense of foolish)? Or is it merely, as I have so often heard it put, that, "This sort of stuff is too depressing, too… too mixed-up; I go to the theatre to relax and have a good time."

I would submit that it is this latter attitude—that the theatre is a place to relax and have a good time—in conflict with the purpose of The Theatre of the Absurd—which is to make a man face up to the human condition as it really is—that has produced all the brouhaha and the dissent. I would submit that The Theatre of the Absurd, in the sense that it is truly the contemporary theatre, facing as it does man's condition as it is, is the Realistic theatre of our time; and that the supposed Realistic theatre—the term used here to mean most of what is done on Broadway—in the sense that it panders to the public need for self-congratulation and re-assurance and presents a false picture of ourselves to ourselves is, with an occasional very lovely exception, really and truly The Theatre of the Absurd.

And I would submit further that the health of a nation, a society, can be determined by the art it demands. We have insisted of television and our movies that they not have anything to do with anything, that they be our never-never land; and if we demand this same function of our live theatre, what will be left of the visual-auditory arts—save the dance (in which nobody talks) and music (to which nobody listens)?

It has been my fortune, the past two or three years, to travel around a good deal, in pursuit of my career—Berlin, London, Buenos Aires, for example; and I have discovered a couple of interesting things. I have discovered that audiences in these and other major cities demand of their commercial theatre—and get—a season of plays in which the froth and junk are the exception and not the rule. To take a case: in Berlin, in 1959, Adamov, Genet, Beckett and Brecht (naturally) were playing the big houses; this past fall, Beckett again, Genet again, Pinter twice, etc. To take another case: in Buenos Aires there are over a hundred experimental theatres.

These plays cannot be put on in Berlin over the head of a protesting or an indifferent audience; these experimental theatres cannot exist in Buenos Aires without subscription. In the end—and it must always come down to this, no matter what other failings a theatre may have—in the end a public will get what it deserves, and no better.

I have also discovered, in my wanderings, that young people throng to what is new and fresh in the theatre. Happily, this holds true in the United States as well. At the various colleges I have gone to to speak I have found an eager, friendly and knowledgeable audience, an audience which is as dismayed by the Broadway scene as any proselytizer for the avant-garde. I have found among young people an audience which is not so preconditioned by pap as to have cut off half of its responses. (It is interesting to note, by the way, that if an off-Broadway play has a substantial run, its audiences will begin young and grow older; as the run goes on, cloth coats give way to furs, walkers and subway riders to taxi-takers. Exactly the opposite is true on Broadway.)

The young, of course, are always questioning values, knocking the status quo about, considering shibboleths to see if they are pronounceable. In time, it is to be regretted, most of them—the kids—will settle down to their own version of the easy, the standard; but in the meanwhile … in the meanwhile they are a wonderful, alert, alive, accepting audience.

And I would go so far as to say that it is the responsibility of everyone who pretends any interest at all in the theatre to get up off their six-ninety seats and find out what the theatre is really about. For it is a lazy public which produces a slothful and irresponsible theatre.

Now, I would suspect that my theatre-friend with the infallible intuition is probably right when he suggests that The Theatre of the Absurd (or the avant-garde theatre, or whatever you want to call it) as it now stands is on its way out. Or at least is undergoing change. All living organisms undergo constant change. And while it is certain that the nature of this theatre will remain constant, its forms, its methods—its devices, if you will—most necessarily will undergo mutation.

This theatre has no intention of running downhill; and the younger playwrights will make use of the immediate past and mould it to their own needs. (Harold Pinter, for example, could not have written The Caretaker had Samuel Beckett not existed, but Pinter is, nonetheless, moving in his own direction.) And it is my guess that the theatre in the United States will always hew more closely to the post-Ibsen/Chekhov tradition than does the theatre in France, let us say. It is our nature as a country, a society. But we will experiment, and we will expect your attention.

For just as it is true that our response to color and form was forever altered once the impressionist painters put their minds to canvas, it is just as true that the playwrights of The Theatre of the Absurd have forever altered our response to the theatre.

And one more point: The avant-garde theatre is fun; it is free-swinging, bold, iconoclastic and often wildly, wildly funny. If you will approach it with childlike innocence—putting your standard responses aside, for they do not apply—if you will approach it on its own terms, I think you will be in for a liberating surprise. I think you may no longer be content with plays that you can't remember half-way down the block. You will not only be doing yourself some good, but you will be having a great time, to boot. And even though it occurs to me that such a fine combination must be sinful, I still recommend it.

Text, Subtext, and Performance (1990)

SOURCE: "Text, Subtext, and Performance: Edward Albee on Directing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" by Rakesh Solomon, in Theatre Survey, Vol. 34, No. 2, November 1993, pp. 95-110.

[The following interview was conducted in January 1990, during rehearsals for a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that Albee was directing. He here focuses on the play from the dual perspective of playwright and director.]

"Who's afraid of the Tanks?" proclaimed the headline of the Lithuanian daily, Lietuvas Rytas, in its review of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Vilnius in April 1990, six weeks into the nation's tumultous declaration of independence that had brought Soviet tanks onto city streets.1 Seizing the fundamental point of the play—the need to destroy illusion and face reality without fear—Lithuanian audiences saw a distinct analogy with their national situation that demanded they forswear dreams of some painless future solution and confront the reality of Soviet military intervention. Their grasp of the play, despite cultural chasms and the vagaries of simultaneous translation, testified to the clarity of Albee's staging of this classic of the American theatre.

The production originated eight months earlier at the Los Angeles Music Center where Albee directed Glenda Jackson as Martha and John Lithgow as George. This Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre production, which included Brian Kerwin as Nick and Cynthia Nixon as Honey, played at the Doolittle Theatre from October 5 to December 17, 1989. Because Glenda Jackson's and John Lithgow's film commitments permitted only a limited run, Albee planned the production with first-rate actors as understudies so that they could capably take over as the new cast after the Los Angeles engagement. For this fresh cast of Carol Mayo Jenkins as Martha, Bruce Gray as George, John Ottavino as Nick, and Cynthia Bassham as Honey, Albee also arranged another full fledged four-week period of rehearsals and paid previews, from December 19, 1989, to January 10, 1990, at the Alley Theatre in Houston, where Albee has been an Associate Artist for Direction and Playwriting since 1988. The Music Center's proscenium setting, costume, and lighting designs were also retained: the Alley's resident designers, in consultation with their Los Angeles counterparts, made only minimal modifications for their thrust Large Stage. Following a four-week run at the Alley Theatre, the production proceeded on a short tour of the United States, a three-city engagement in Lithuania, and stints at the Sovremennik Theatre in Moscow and the Maly Theatre in Leningrad.2

Albee's comments about his text and production in this discussion are part of an ongoing dialogue that I have had with him for over a decade. Since 1978 I have observed Albee direct professional productions of ten of his own plays in New York and elsewhere—ranging from his first play, The Zoo Story, to his 1992 American premiere, Marriage Play. I have also seen Albee stage two of Samuel Beckett's plays, Ohio Impromptu and Krapp's Last Tape, and I have observed Albee work with his long-time director, Alan Schneider, when the latter staged the Broadway premiere of The Lady From Dubuque. Typically, I attend every rehearsal for a production—from opening day to final preview—and document and critique each day's work, while carrying on an intermittent conversation with Albee between rehearsal sessions, culminating in one or two extended tape-recorded interviews near opening night. At that time I also tape-record interviews with some actors, scene and lighting designers, and the stage manager. This exchange on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was taped at the Alley Theatre on January 6, 1990, concluding my observation of his Los Angeles staging and his Houston rehearsals.

In the following discussion Albee offers insights into the details of his rehearsal process, from his special perspective as both playwright and director. Journalists and scholars have sought and received more interviews from Albee than from most other contemporary American playwrights, both because he continues to provoke interest and because his frequent lecturing, teaching, and directing oblige him to grant interviews. My long professional relationship with Albee and my thorough acquaintance with the particulars of his rehearsals, however, allow me to press, persist, and probe much further. More than most subjects, Albee comes armored against the interviewer's probes: he brings deeplyingrained, almost reflexive interview habits of defense through deft deflection, shrewd rationalization, the too-simple explanation, or the opaque comment. His caution stems partly from his personality and partly from a distrust of authorial or critical paraphrase as substitute for the essence and experience of a work of art, a trait he shares with many writers in what Nathalie Sarraute terms the "age of suspicion." During our conversations over the years, however, Albee has become progressively less guarded, and I have had to nudge him less. It is still difficult, nonetheless, to elicit from him a candid, blunt, or spontaneous response, especially about matters of subtext, allusion, and interpretation—subjects about which interviewers have found him adroitly evasive or uncooperative.

This conversation on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains distinct from other Albee interviews, moreover, in its sustained attention to a single play and in its concentration on matters of rehearsal and performance. Albee ranges widely from minute details of setting, properties, and timing to broad issues of directorial interpretation. He reveals his rationale for crucial textual revisions made during the Los Angeles and Houston rehearsals and distinguishes between a script's dramaturgic refinement during rehearsal versus updating to suit altered audience expectation. He furnishes subtextual readings, divulges incidental topical references, and considers key problems of characterization, throwing new light on his conceptions of George and Martha. In addition, Albee discusses the appropriate time in rehearsal to address subtext, motivation, and rhythm; the necessity of discrete directorial strategies for different actors; the value of rehearsing durng preview week; and his reasons for shunning demonstration of business and too-detailed scene work.

Albee also explains what impelled him to direct the critically acclaimed 1976 Broadway revival of Virginia Woolf? with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara, and he compares details of his 1976 and 1989-90 stagings with those of Alan Schneider's 1962 premiere production. Moreover, Albee briefly touches upon his philosophy and method as a teacher of playwriting and directing.

Albee's comments about staging Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and about directing in general must be seen within the context of his extensive directorial experience. He has directed professional productions—revivals or premieres—of nearly all of his original plays. He directed a professional production of his first play, The Zoo Story, as early as 1961, only two years after its first production.3 Albee directed the Broadway premieres of The American Dream (1968),4Seascape (1975),5 and The Man who Had Three Arms (1983),6 besides the revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?7 He also directed the first stage performance of Listening (1977), the first American performance of Counting the Ways (1977) at the Hartford Stage Company,8 and the world premieres of Marriage Play (1987)9 and Three Tall Women (1991)10 at the English Theatre in Vienna. In addition, Albee co-directed the radio premiere of Listening (1976), broadcast on National Public Radio and the BBC.11 Albee has also staged plays by fellow dramatists Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard and David Mamet, as well as those by Beckett.12

Albee's views about rehearsal strategies and the dynamics of performance, moreover, are informed by his long experience in substantially influencing first productions of his plays staged by other directors. The New York Times pointed out in 1968 that unlike other playwrights—"new … [or] established"—"Edward Albee has managed to take control of virtually all of the pertinent aspects of the production of his own work."13 Vigorously exercising the prerogative ensured him by the Dramatists' Guild standard contract, Albee from early in his career has been actively involved in most aspects of production, from the choice of director, designers, and cast—including understudies—to the specifics of settings, costumes, properties, and lighting. Alan Schneider recounts in his autobiography, Entrances: An American Director's Journey, that halfway through the rehearsals of The Zoo Story, even though the playwright was receiving his first American production, Albee, together with producer Richard Barr, fired director Milton Katseals and took over the directing, a change not indicated in the program.14 During the casting of the Broadway production of A Delicate Balance in 1966, Schneider writes, "My dream of working with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne vanished" because "Edward was determined to assert his writer's prerogative."15 Similarly during the Broadway rehearsals of The Lady From Dubuque that I observed, Albee's preference for a simple set and minimal properties frequently prevailed over Schneider's desire to introduce small set pieces and properties to convey a lived-in feeling or to illustrate information.16

Albee's assertions in the following pages thus compel attention because they are grounded in more than three decades of broad practical experience in the American theatre and because they reveal the thinking of an eminent playwright about his most acclaimed work. The way Albee articulates his artistic concerns, moreover, offers a glimpse into his personal sensibility. Above all, without suggesting some naive intentionalism, Albee's views on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and its appropriate realization on stage constitute important testimony about his dramaturgical and directorial aesthetic, a testimony invigorated by the immediacy of dialogue.

[Solomon]: You have spoken of the importance of subtext in the rehearsal process. Did you re-examine the subtext in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? prior to your rehearsals in Los Angeles?

[Albee]: No. I don't prepare that. When I'm doing a play that I've written, I just say it, and the subtext comes to my consciousness. I'm already aware of it.

Did you work on the actors' getting to understand the sub-text?

Oh yes, of course, when they don't; but if they're very bright, they do to begin with. Subtext is more important than text even, sometimes. So long as they understand subtext. I'm trying to think of one specific thing with Glenda Jackson in Virginia Woolf that she didn't understand. Now, I can't remember the very specifics of it. One of the things that I tried to emphasize in the production and finally got Glenda to do—and I'm getting Carol to do here for the most part—is to understand that what they're doing is exorcising a metaphor. Something they both realize is a metaphor, and that it is not the death of a real child. There is a distinction between the death of a metaphor and the death of a real child. And the play for me is more touching and more chilling if it is the death of a metaphor. That's one of the things I'm trying to emphasize in this production. And I think I am getting the through-line of the exorcism of the fantasy-child metaphor a little clearer this time.

Have you seen productions where the intellectual experience is totally absent?

Yes, I have, and I don't like them at all. They're terrible.

Where was the emphasis in the original production that Alan Schneider directed?

I thought it was a little bit toward the emotional. Just a little bit too much.

Compared to your present production?

You see, that production got criticized by a couple of critics … I remember Walter Kerr said he couldn't believe that a couple as intelligent as George and Martha could believe that they had a child.17 They never did believe it. So, either he intentionally misunderstood, or the production led him to misunderstand.18 So that's one of the reasons I started directing this play: to correct that misinterpretation of the nature of the play. Now it may be the play that way—not my way—is a more wrenching emotional experience. I don't know. I tend to think not. I think the mind and the gut together are better involved than one at the expense of the other.

Compared to the 1962 production, have you cut the playing time much more here?

I don't remember what those timings were. I think this may be a little brisker.

Reviews of your 1976 production mentioned how much faster everything seemed.

Seemed. I don't imagine that the difference was more than two or three minutes in each act. But that adds up. This production is just as brisk as the one in 1976.

The 1976 production was much brisker than Alan's 1962 production.

Well, yes. That's true.

And funnier too.

But none of the lines were changed.

Talking of changes … you made several changes in your text for this production.

Oh very few. The major change that I made was cutting out the reference to the child in the first scene of the play, which is unnecessary.19 The other cuts I've made here—what? A word here, two or three words there. That's all. Just for rhythms.20

One change does seem to be a big one. Martha's "Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference" has become, "Truth and illusion, George; you know the difference." Correspondingly, George's "No; but we must carry on as though we did" has become, "Yes; but we must carry on as though we did not."21

Oh well, that's because I wrote it incorrectly to begin with.

How come you didn 't notice that earlier?

I don't know. A mind lapse.

Not a change of mind?

No. No, no. No. No, no. It's just that I mis-wrote myself—I didn't put it down correctly.

In your discussion with the actors about it, you kept saying, "That's a very minor matter. That's a very minor matter." Do you really think so?

No, it's a major matter. But what they meant by "major," they wanted to go back to doing it wrong.

Why did you cut George's comment, "What will happen to the tax deduction? Has anyone figured that out yet?" when he speaks of the time when people will make babies in test tubes?22

The playwright got better! Logically, couples with children would get tax deductions no matter how their babies were made.

You also deleted the exchange between George and Martha where she suddenly and flagrantly denies Nick and Honey's existence in their living room but then without explanation accepts their presence.23

It made Martha too unreasonable.

Did you wish to stress Martha's loquaciousness by substituting "mouth"for "nose" in George's retort, "In my mind, Martha, you are buried in cement, right up to your neck. No … right up to your nose… that's much quieter."24

Yes, and it makes it clearer and nicer.

Why did you cut one of George's two identical announcements, "Pow!!! You 're dead! Pow! You 're dead!" when he pulls the trigger of his fake Japanese gun?25

Once is enough. Besides, I didn't want the actors to get any ideas!

Did you think the cuts in Mike Nichol's film version of Virginia Woolf were major ones?

Yes, of course. They took out the whole historical-political argument of the play. They took out the business about science and a number of other things that the play happens to be about.

When directing this 1962 script in 1989-90, did you reconsider things?

No, I don't consciously do that. I've not tried to update this play. I don't think people walked in a different way in the sixties than they do in the eighties. Or even thought in that much of a different way.

In many ways, Nick's values resemble those associated with Yuppies in the eighties.

All good literature is supposed to anticipate the future. True; it does, you know. What I was suggesting was that people who are wise enough to untrick themselves may be better off. I think the least self-deception that people can live with, the better. Well, what does change is audience perception. But you can't go around trying to second guess audience perception, because you distort your work.

Because of changed audience perception, when I taught The Zoo Story at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I had to defend Jerry and his viewpoint.

Well, of course. We're a nation of conformists now. I find that self-deception leads not only to personal trouble but to political malaise and to social irresponsibility. The self-deception that this country has been dealing in for many years now is preferring to be lied to by political leaders, preferring to be conned by short-term values. We may find ourselves in a much greater state of decline than people realize now. Audiences, when they were a little freer with themselves, used to think The American Dream was very funny. But now you do The American Dream for a middle-aged audience, and they sit there in silent hostility.

Hostile towards the playwright?

They don't like examining themselves any more. They get very angry about it. Shocking to me.

Why is George so angry at Martha's story about his careermore angry than he is when she mentions the child?

Attrition. Time, time, time, time. It's something—the career—about him being a flop and a failure and not living up to … This is something that she—every time she gets a few drinks in her and a little audience—she starts on it. After twenty-three years you get fairly tired of it. You just can't stand it anymore.

Still, I was comparing that anger to the anger that I expected and the anguish I expected when Martha reveals the son to the guests.

Well, George's involvement with the son has never been as emotional as Martha's has. Neither of them literally believes it, but Martha slips into believing it probably because she's a woman. Women and their relation to children, their wombs, and the whole thing. Her involvement with the son is more personal and emotional than George's is.

But George's greater passion about his career throws me off because I thought the emotional focus would remain on the betrayal of the closely-held, private arrangement.

That's interesting. I must look at that. Maybe I'm doing something wrong.

The import of Martha's disclosure seems to get submerged under George's fury.

Mm. I'll look at that. Maybe I have changed my mind about a few things over the years.

In the opening scene when Martha mentions that Honey, the guest they are expecting, has small hips, John Lithgow used to add with some relish, "Oh, God!" It got laughs. It's a small joke, but I'm sure you didn't eliminate it without some reason. Why did you cut that out? Do you think there's a lack of logic?

I think it's a cheap joke. It's a cheap joke. And also it doesn't make any sense. Because George …

George says he likes "everything in proportion," and he is not attracted to Honey when she arrives.

Yes. And he does not like women without hips. Martha has hips. Martha's ample. It's illogical. John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson liked it. It was a cheap joke, and they liked it. John and Glenda also barked at each other "Woolf! Woolf!" on George's "You'll crack your big teeth."26 I hated that too. You have to give them little things every once in a while.

You were thinking aloud about how George knows that Martha has been talking about him, when he returns with the liquor from offstage. I think George knows because he comes in on Martha's line about him, "along come George."27

If he's heard that coming in, then it's all right. Let's see: "But then George came along … along come George," and George reenters. I guess he knows. I guess he knows. I guess it's clear. I believe in being my own devil's advocate from time to time.

If you want to be objective when directing your own work.


After Martha's great howl, "NOOOOOOoooooo," at the finality of George's decision to kill the child, in this production George tells Nick, "She'll be alright now" I think rather quickly.28

I gave him a note two days ago not to do that so quickly.

It kept happening.

Yes. I'll remind him. Thank you for reminding me.

Such a quick comment suggests much more premeditation on George's part.

Yes, it does. I should give him that note almost immediately.

I've often wondered about the reference to Crazy Billy, "some little boy about seventy," when George announces the telegram regarding their son's death.29

Oh, a friend of mine Bill Flanagan, the composer; he and I worked at Western Union together, and I used to always kid him about how much older he was than me. So, a "little boy about seventy." It's just a private joke.

Another question about a topical reference and possibly subtext. George tells Nick that the abstract painting in their living room was done by "some Greek with a mustache Martha attacked one night."30 Is that a reference to the Greek-American artist you know?

Theodoras Stamos.

Do you own any of his works?

Yes. A couple.

And what was the subtext you suggested to George? During a rehearsal you told him that one evening Martha went to that painter's home and kept…

Kept putting the make on him, and then he gave her a painting to get rid of her.

Why did you introduce a picture of Mahatma Gandhi?


Why Gandhi's picture on the living room bookshelf?

It occurred to me that George and Martha are two people who in their growing up in the the 1940s, in their innocent liberalism, admired both Roosevelt and Gandhi very much.

I sense a degree of pacifism in George. Though he doesn 't say it, it's probably because of his pacifism that he didn 'tgo to fight in the war. He stayed back and ran the History department.

I don't know why he didn't go. Maybe he was a conscientious objector. It never occurred to me. That's interesting. You do not find Gandhi worthy of admiration?

Oh I do, yes.

Yes. Well, I do too.

Certainly, I was just curiousafter all your Oriental jokes!

That Oriental joke is meant to be intentionally in bad taste.31

On George's part, of course.

Yes. It's meant to be a parody of the sort of barroom, you know, locker room talk that jocks do together.

How can Honey recite the Latin mass for the dead when she grew up in a fundamentalist home?

I don't understand that. I don't know why. There are depths to that girl that I haven't figured out yet.

All throughout the rehearsals, it seems to me, you gave many more directions to the actor who plays George than to the actor who plays Martha.

Well, George is on stage almost all the time during the entire play. He has many more lines. He also controls the psychological arc of the play. He is in control of the entire arc of the play the entire time. And therefore, I have to be more concerned with making sure that his performance doesn't deviate from my intention, more than I have to be with the other actors. Last night, the notes that I gave him I want to talk to him about again because I didn't do that quite as well as I might have. It's just that more can go wrong. And it has been more tightly controlled. I think the notes I try to give to all of them are fundamental notes as to the nature of characterization. And also I try to give people notes when I see danger signals. When I see they're doing things that I know are going to get them in trouble later in the play. Or distort the character. Now, Bruce Gray [George] is a highly inventive, highly shrewd, and highly skilled actor. And therefore he's more apt to go astray.

And Carol Mayo Jenkins [Martha], in contrast, is…

Well, no … There is less opportunity for Martha to go astray than there is for George. Let's put it that way.

It must be so since you are saying it, but it is surprising, nonetheless.

Also they're very different kinds of actors. Carol sets performance. We see the gold of the performance. Bruce is constantly shifting his characterization. And now he's gone to the point where I have to bring him back. He's gone too far. he's become baroque and mannered and artificial. And I have to bring him back to truth. And every actor—no two actors work the same way. No two actors work at the same speed. No two actors have the same way of working. So you have to work differently.

Why no rehearsals the last three days [i.e. before one evening technical rehearsal and two evening performances for invited audiences]?

There comes a certain point in rehearsal where if you think the actors know pretty much where you want them to be and what you want them to be doing, you have to let them play the role for a while. And play with the audience. And then after a few days of watching them with the audience, then you can see whether they're going in the right direction or not. You can over-rehearse in theory. I mean, theoretical rehearsal should stop at a certain point, and real rehearsal should start.

What are real rehearsals?


Rehearsals after they've played in front of invited preview audiences?

Yes. That's a different kind of rehearsal.

So you plan to do more work.

I'll do some work next week [with three scheduled previews]. I'll do some work after they open, too.

I haven't noticed you rehearse short scenes in painstaking detail, orchestrating every element. I know you like to give actors general intention notes, and you expect them to come up with the specifics. You used to do that in 1978 when I first saw you; these are more experienced actors by and large, and you can do that more safely. However, sometimes I wonder whether detailed scene work might not benefit this production.

All you tell an actor when you do that, ultimately, is how you would do the scene. That doesn't tell them how they should do the scene. Then you're asking them to imitate rather than be. That's a last resort. If you can't get it any other way, then you do that. But you've noticed that I am very specific, when they miss a beat, or I tell them to wait a beat before they say a line, or accent this word rather than that word. That's very specific stuff.

I understand you give specific notes as well, but I was thinking of sustained moment-to-moment work on selected segments. After the two invited audiences, too, you haven't addressed matters of tempo, speed, and so on.

I didn't find them shifting all that much. I did tell them that the top of three was slow, which it was again. I think they generally know what they're supposed to be doing. Generally.

You 've worked with other directorsAlan Schneider, Peter Hall, Franco Zeffirelliwhen they 've staged your plays. Did you come across closer scene work in their rehearsals?

No, not really.

Not really? Do you have an overall rhythm that you are working for?

I must. I must. Yes, of course. I mean each two minute section has its rhythms. And these rhythms combine to give the whole rhythm of an act, and the three acts give the rhythm of the whole piece.

Do you build towards certain tempos…

Most you establish at the very beginning. Now you must remember with these actors here, they sat in from the very first day of rehearsal with Glenda Jackson and John Lith gow. And I spent a lot of time with them the first week discussing character motivation. Everything that I didn't have to discuss here because those actors were there.

Yes, I am aware that they are even borrowing things. Certainly, they 're borrowing blocking and even characterization.

Sure. Blocking is fine. Let them borrow that.

Even sometimes rhythms and certain bits of business.

Yes. That's o.k.

So I'm aware that they got a lot of guidance from you in Los Angeles too. But are there some things that you would rather not see here in Houston?

A few of George's mannerisms.

I don't know what his mimicking the child is about.

It's that mimicking I want to remove. It's getting in the way.

While directing were you tempted to include a few asides to the audience?

In this play? No. It's an absolutely naturalistic play. None of my naturalistic plays has direct addresses to the audience. It's only the stylized ones.

I thought there was an aside phase in your career when you introduced asides into earlier texts while directing, as you did with a few plays I saw you stage a few years ago.

In some of my plays, maybe eight or ten of them, people speak to the audience. But those are mostly the stylized plays. It doesn't happen in the naturalistic ones. This is a naturalistic play. All the … classical … unities and everything. The whole thing.

Why don't you write another one with classical unities and all that?

I have. It's called Marriage Play.

Having directed it in Vienna, will you direct its American premiere as well?

Sure. I'll direct it on Broadway.

Do you have a Broadway producer for Marriage Play?

Michael Harvey, a young producer who's produced with Richard [Barr] and other people—somebody I've known for twenty-five years because he was very young.

From observing you rehearse Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I could deduce some of your directorial ideals. When you teach, what kinds of goals and principles of directing do you posit?

You certainly should have a vision of the way you think the play wants to be performed when you start directing it. Yet at the same time, you must also be ready to shift when you find that the play is somewhat other than you imagined it, or there are other values that you hadn't seen. But you must have an overall vision of the piece. With any production, ninety percent of it is casting. If you cast properly, if you cast correctly—intelligent, gifted actors—our job is so much easier. You don't have to do the line by line thing. Directing, of course, is a lot of knowing how to work with actors. The first two weeks are basically subtext work, so actors really understand why the character behaves the way the character does in a certain section.

What about visual matters? What about rhythm?

Well, there's always a visual thing. You have to stage pictures that you create in your mind. You do have rhythms that you're after. There's tension, release of tension, passive and active moments. And you've got to populate the stage properly in all of those, in all of those times. There's a tie-in between the visual picture and the psychology of the piece, of course, always. Who is moving? Who is standing still? Who's sitting? The tempo of the speeches. The intentions. All of that has to be put together. So it is a combination of music and painting and literature at the same time. You have all three of them.

How do you teach this in your directing class?

I don't teach directing as much as I teach playwriting. I don't teach playwriting, either.

There's an apparent contradiction: on many occasions, you have said that you can't teach playwriting, yet you do teach playwriting at universities.

You can't teach. No, you can't. I referee. I point out the way things … When I work with playwrights, I try to make sure that they are accomplishing what they want. And then we may discuss possibly whether it's what they should want. I don't try to make them rewrite a play according to the way I think a play should be written. I try to make them write the play so that it really is what they think they've accomplished. With a lot of young playwrights, there's a great difference between what they think they've written and what they have written. It's not only simple things like that great thirty-second silence that they all request for that important psychological moment, when they need five or four seconds at the most. They just don't think in stage terms. And I try to make them see the play and hear the play on a stage while they write it. That saves an awful lot of time.

In your directing classes, too, I assume you ask students to bring in scenes, and then you referee rather than say…

Yeah. Well, I like to look at them working with actors and see if they're working with the actors properly. Also, I like to see if they understand the shape of the play, if they understand the intention. And the why's: "Why did you do it this way?" "Why didn't you do it that way?" And I say, "Try it that way and see how different it is." Then they learn from the experience of doing things in different ways. The one thing I've never been able to accomplish yet in class, and I would love to do it, is to have a young playwright with his new play that he's never seen on stage before and have it rehearsed in two situations separately. One with the author and a young director and a group of actors working without any interference from anybody else. And then me directing the play with professional actors or with another group of actors. And then to do these two scenes one after the other and see the distinction and the difference. It would be instructive for the playwright, and for me, too.


1For further details see Everett Evans, "Alley's 'Virginia Woolf' to play in Soviet Union," Houston Chronicle (3 January 1990): Sec. D: 1, and Richard Coe, "Lone Star Over Lithuania," American Theatre (September, 1990): 22-27.

2Politics caused a last-minute cancellation of the engagement at the Sovremennik Theatre, where artistic director Galina Volchek had herself played Martha in a Russian production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Coe, 24.

3Albee has cited this production on several occasions; for example, see the account of his press conference in Barbara Selvin, "Albee directs Albee," Village Times (Stony Brook, NY: 24 August 1978): 7.

4Dan Sullivan, "Theater: Albee's 'Bessie Smith' and 'Dream' Revived," New York Times (3 October 1968): 55.

5Clive Barnes, "Albee's 'Seascape' Is a Major Event," New York Times (27 January 1975).

6Frank Rich, "Stage: Drama by Albee: 'Man Who Had Three Arms'" New York Times (6 April 1983).

7Clive Barnes, "Stage: 'Virginia Woolf,'" New York Times (2 April 1976): Sec. 2:1.

8Edward Albee, Counting the Ways and Listening: Two Plays. (New York: Atheneum, 1977), 4,56.

9"'Morning Report… Stage," Los Angeles Times (14 May 1987): Sec. 6: p. 2.

10David Richards, "Edward Albee and the Road Not Taken," New York Times (16 June 1991): 14.

11Albee, Counting the Ways, 56.

12Rakesh H. Solomon, "Albee Directs 'Ohio Impromptu' and 'Krapp's Last Tape'" Beckett Circle 12. 2 (1991): 1-2; "Notizen," Theater heute 26 (November 1985): 67; and John Ottavino, personal interview, 4 January 1990.

13Barbara La Fontaine, "Triple Treat on, Off and Off-Off Broadway," New York Times (25 February 1968): 42.

14Alan Schneider, Entrances: An American Director's Journey. (New York: Viking, 1986): 275.

15Schneider, Entrances, 374.

16For more details see my "Crafting Script into Performance: Edward Albee in Rehearsal," American Drama 2.2 (Spring 1993): 76-99.

17See Walter Kerr, "First Night Report: 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'" New York Herald Tribune (15 October 1962): 12.

18Like Albee, Alan Schneider also chafes at this critical misinterpretation more than twenty years later; unlike Albee, however, Schneider attributes the problem entirely to the reviewer's obtuseness. See Schneider, Entrances, 324.

19The largest deletion—a page and a quarter in the standard Atheneum edition of the play—contained George's six insistent warnings to Martha not to mention their kid when their guests arrive, and Martha's defiant claim to a right to bring up any subject; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (New York: Atheneum, 1962): 19-20. The second set of excised references consisted of two similar but cryptic exchanges after their guests arrive; Virginia Woolf?, 30. The simplicity of Albee's explanation for these deletions belies their inevitable dramaturgic and thematic import.

20Although Albee slights these changes, many of them serve to achieve dramatic economy, refine characterization, eliminate ambiguity, or correct faulty logic, as seen in examples below.

21Virginia Woolf?, 202.

22Virginia Woolf?, 40.

23Martha: "We're alone!" / George: "Uh … no, Love … we've got guests." / Martha (With a covetous look at Nick): "We sure have." Virginia Woolf?, 121.

24Virginia Woolf?, 64.

25Virginia Woolf?, 57.

26Virginia Woolf?, 14.

27Virginia Woolf?, 80.

28Virginia Woolf?, 233.

29Virginia Woolf?, 230.

30Virginia Woolf?, 21.

31According to Albee, public relations people in the Los Angeles production sought unsuccessfully to remove the Oriental references.

Interview with Albee (1991)

SOURCE: An interview with Edward Albee, in The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary Amer ican Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 1-23.

[The following interview, conducted by Laurence Maslon, was held in the fall of 1991 as part of the "Conversations with Leading American Playwrights " series sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution's Campus on the Mall program. Albee here discusses his approach to play writing and offers his views on the state of American theater.]

[Laurence Maslon]: Why are you a playwright?

[Edward Albee]: Why am I a playwright? Because it's the only thing that I can do hallway decently. If there was anything else I could do, I probably would do it.

Weren't you a poet first?

I attempted poetry, I attempted novels, I wrote short stories and essays—and they were all terrible. I tried to be a composer and that didn't work, I tried to be a painter and that didn't work; I even did sculpture and then there was nothing left, so I started writing plays.

What about being a playwright appeals to you the most?

The fact that I am one, I think. When I started writing plays, I discovered that's what I should have been doing all along. I am a playwright, therefore I write plays; it's not that I write plays and therefore I am a playwright.

How do you feel about the production process? Is it an impediment or is it part of the process?

The great joy is in writing the play, in the creative act itself. Seeing the play produced, if it is produced well, if it is produced honorably and honestly and to the playwright's intention, that's great. But a first-rate play exists completely on the page and is never improved by production; it's only proved by production. All these people who go around saying that a play is just there for actors and directors to turn into a work of art—that's nuts. The creative act, the writing of the play when a playwright sees it and hears it performed on a stage as he writes it, is the best production he'll ever see of a play of his that's any good.

You once said that The Sandbox was the only one of your plays that approached perfection.

No, I said it was the only one in which I thought I didn't have time to make any mistakes.

Because it was only fifteen minutes long?

Because it was only fifteen minutes long—and I even wrote a shorter one called Box.

Do you think that's more perfect?

Well, I made fewer mistakes in that one since I didn't have as much time.

"There was a time when good plays, plays that were not constructed for the mass market only but plays that were honest with themselves and also honest with the historical continuum of the theatre, there was a time when those plays could run on Broadway, if they didn't get the critical nod. That's no longer true." That statement is certainly true now, but you said it in the summer of 1963.

Well, it's even worse now, isn't it? I just think we should forget about Broadway—ignore it, leave it to the Shubert Organization and the other real estate groups, leave it to the advertising department of the New York Times and just ignore it, turn our backs on it completely. The American theatre is in pretty good shape; it exists in the minds of its playwrights, it exists in the majority of its regional theatres, at least those who haven't turned into tryout houses for the Broadway theatres. It exists in the experimental ofF-Broadway theatres, and it exists in university theatres. Let's just ignore Broadway; it doesn't have anything to do with anything anymore.

To what degree was that quote true in 1963? We usually think of that as some golden time.

We playwrights are supposed to think ahead a little bit and see trends. Even then it was getting clear to me that trouble was about to happen. The star system, the economics of the theatre, the desire of people who were putting on plays to make them as safe and ersatz as film and television: all those forces were beginning to get deeply rooted. The fact that now they have completely taken over the commercial theatre in the United States is sad, but a lot of us saw it coming back in 1963.

When you had your first successes in the sixties, it seemed that America was starting to ask some more questions. Do you think we 've lost that edge as theatregoers?

The early sixties were very interesting because off-Broadway had its birth around 1960. We were a society that asked a lot of questions about ourselves then. We've certainly gone away from that. At least for over twenty years now we seem to want our theatre more and more to lie to us: to tell half-truths, to be escapist, to be comforting, to say that "we are fine" rather than hold the mirror up to us as it's supposed to and ask the tough questions. God knows, film and television can't do it in this country anymore. Because of economics, the theatre can, and it's a pity that it's being discouraged from doing that.

Your work confirms the fact that you are a very provocative playwright who likes to prod the audience into using their head. Is that job tougher for you now?

No, I keep right on doing it. It's not tougher for me. Apparently it's tougher for the audience, which indirectly, I suppose, makes it tougher for me, since I like to eat as much as anybody else does. But no, I don't find it any tougher to do. As a matter of fact, I find more of a need to do it.

Since we 're in Washington, and since many find the way we fund art in America pretty reprehensible, have we gotten the sort of artistic support that we deserve?

The amount of money that is funded for the education of the public in the arts is ludicrously small, and the attempt on the part of both the know-nothings and the cynics who know better to try to cut that funding is criminal. We have so much waste in our government. There is so damn much pork barrel legislation which transcends the minimal amounts we give to the arts. We would be much better off to support the arts until people couldn't stand it anymore. We should support the arts to such an extent that participation in the arts becomes as natural as breathing.

As an inveterate museumgoer, do you think that theatres should have the kind of accessibility that museums dowith ticket prices that allow more people to attend?

This whole thing about ticket prices is so confusing. The fact that people are willing to spend seven dollars and fifty cents to see appalling movies leads me to conclude that maybe you could charge a little bit more to see a play by Chekhov. I don't know. Maybe people should be willing to pay a little bit more to see a great play than a lousy movie, but God knows there is something wrong with our serious culture in this country when our theatre is more often than not in the possession of the upper middle class which happens to be white. Most of our arts are, as a matter of fact, in possession of that group, and we are a far more diverse society than that. The fact that we have not been able to make our more serious arts broader in scope is deeply troubling to me. That's only partly economic, and it's partly educational as well. It has to do with the double social standard we have in this country.

You 've funded different foundations to support artists yourself and are supportive of artists in general. Are there different ways we might go about funding artists in our society from the way we do it?

My foundation doesn't fund artists. It provides a place where painters and sculptors and writers and composers can come and live and work and have some freedom to do their work without financial pressure and also have the opportunity to intermingle with people in the other arts, which they don't normally get the chance to do. In an ideal society we wouldn't need to be funding our creative artists, but the vast majority of the money that goes into the support of the arts in the United States does not go to the support of the creative artist. It goes to things. It goes to buildings; it goes to existing organizations which may or may not be interested in producing the work of living creative artists. I bet no more than 5 percent—and I would say that is maybe a generous figure—of the money that goes to the support of the arts in this country goes to the support of the creative artist individually. I've sat on grant-giving councils all over the place, including the National Endowment and the New York State Council on the Arts, and in both places (although it may have changed in the National Endowment by now) it was assumed that money should be spread around. It should be spread around to institutions, in the Dakotas as well as in more urban areas, on the assumption that, for example, there must be as many first-rate composers of string quarters in Dubuque as there are in New York. I worry when I see millions of dollars of New York State music grant money going not to support worthwhile composers but to support a symphony orchestra somewhere up near, but not in, Buffalo. I'm not sure that we have our priorities correct.

God knows, we should try to make the arts available to all people, but we should not use any kind of federal funding, any grant funding, to lower the standard of the arts, which is quite often what we do, on the assumption that to bring the arts to a large number of people you've got to lower the standard of what is brought to the people. There is a corruption in that that should be avoided. We're talking about such a small amount of money. We're talking about, what, for the National Endowment, $126 million a year, when our deficit this year is going to be $350 billion, and our budget is $2 trillion or some preposterous sum? The amount of extra money that it would cost to do proper funding for the individual creative artist is so tiny, it's almost absurd to have to talk about it.

In the eighties, there was a lot of work and time spent in workshopping plays and developing plays.

That's a term I hate—the verb "to workshop." When did that become a verb, by the way?

Back in the sixties you started Playwrights Sixty-Six, where you worked with up-and-coming playwrights.

We did the first productions of an awful lot of young playwrights including Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, LeRoi Jones, Adrienne Kennedy, and on and on and on. But one thing we did not do is "workshop." We assumed that these plays were just fine as they were; we liked their rough edges. Most "workshopping" rounds the rough edges of plays so that they can't stick into anybody's mind. It rounds the edges and shaves them down and makes them accessible and acceptable. Plays are meant to be tough and jagged and wrong-headed and angry and all the things that "workshopping" all too often destroys. So we didn't workshop plays. We took angry, tough, imperfect plays, and we put them on the stage, and everybody had a good time.

Have directors become too collaborative in that process, do you think, over the years?

Let's put it this way: as a metaphor or a simile, whichever you like, for a play let us take a string quartet composed by a composer. Let's go back to Beethoven's time, okay? Nobody workshops a string quartet. The first violinist and say,"You know the composer wrote a C-sharp there; we don't like that, do we? Let's make that into an F." Everybody—directors and actors and producers and dramaturgs and theatre owners and theatre managers—feels that a play is there to be collaborated upon. A play is a work of art, for Christ's sake! You shouldn't do a play that needs to be collaborated upon; you should do a play that you respect and want to do to its total virtue. The idea of directors feeling that they are creative artists rather than interpretive artists, and of actors feeling that they are creative rather than interpretive artists, is so much bullshit. And it's done serious damage to our theatre. We get critics who think that they have the right to be collaborative artists as well—and then we're really fucked up.

Have we lost the ability to trust a playwright?

I don't think we've lost the ability to do it. Somewhere along the line it's become the assumption that the playwright is there to be worked upon instead of letting the playwright work his magic upon other people.

Is that the lack of strong producers who have had commitments to works?

No, it's the fault of strong producers who feel it is their property. Unless you're going to do improvisatory theatre, you can't do it without the playwright. Playwrights, generally speaking, are given a pretty hard time these days. They're not being treated with—I hate the word "respect," but it's a good one. You hear it too infrequently in the arts these days. They are not being given the respect that they deserve.

You were lucky, as you've said in print, that you had a director in your early career, in Alan Schneider, who respected your work.

Alan once said to me that only on two occasions in his professional life (and neither was with a play of mine, I'm happy to say) did he direct a play that he didn't respect. This led him to respect an awful lot of unpopular plays by Beckett, by me, by various other people—but Alan did respect the play. He did not believe that a play should be rewritten during the rehearsal period, did not believe that a play should be rewritten to accommodate the taste of the audience or to accommodate the diminished talents of the actors. If they were diminished talents, he felt that the play was there to be served. Alan did something very, very interesting that taught me a lot both as a playwright and when I became a director as well. Alan would come to me weeks before rehearsal began on a new play of mine with hundreds of questions that he wanted to ask me about my intentions—about the characters, who they were, what their background was. We had several sessions of hundreds of questions each, and it was useful to me because I discovered that I really did know things about my plays and about my characters that I hadn't known because nobody had asked me before. It also indicated to me that he was not going to wing it, that he was going to do what the playwright intended—and that was a very, very good lesson for me.

It's got to be more than mere coincidence that you and Alan Schneider met over a Beckett play.

It is a coincidence that we met over a Beckett play unless you want to assume fate. What are you getting at?

Beckett's been an author you've admired, an author you've been influenced by?

Oh God, yes! Sam Beckett invented twentieth-century drama and made all sorts of amazing things both possible and impossible for the rest of us. Possible because he opened up so many doors and windows for what could be done, and impossible because we all realized we couldn't do it as well as he did. Meeting Alan was nice, but meeting Beckett was much more important.

Do you think that Beckett has been well assimilated, now that Godot has become a classic?

I wish you wouldn't say Godot. I don't think it's his best play; everybody else does, but I don't. What does "assimilated" mean?

That he's become acknowledged at least by critics and scholars and students to be one of the major playwrights, if not the major playwright, of the twentieth century. Gradually, we 've been able to incorporate him and understand him better.

We certainly don't produce him very much, I'll tell you that. I think if you assimilate someone into your culture you give them the respect of producing their work from time to time. I teach down at the University of Houston, and I work quite a lot at the Alley Theatre there, which is a good regional theatre. Last winter I directed a double bill of two of Beckett's plays—Krapp 's Last Tape and Ohio Impromptu—and I discovered in the history of the Alley Theatre it was the second time they had done a production of Beckett's plays, which is astonishing. We were talking about Broadway earlier. You think about the number of playwrights who are not produced in what is meant to be the American theatre in any one given season, the number of playwrights who are not on Broadway this year (well, there aren't any playwrights on Broadway this year), the number of playwrights who regularly do not get produced in our commercial theatres: like Sophocles and Aristophanes and Euripides; and maybe Shakespeare now and again if it's set in Spanish Harlem maybe. Or if the right TV star wants to do it. And Racine, Molière, Beckett, Chekhov, Ibsen, Pirandello—these people are not performed in our commercial theatre. In our theatre consciousness as a theatregoing public, I don't think we've assimilated any of the great playwrights.

But since 1963, when you made the quote that I mentioned earlier, those playwrights are being done. They aren 't being done in New York, but they are being done in resident and regional theatres on an ongoing basis. If you take your first statement, which is let's forget about New York anyway, then is it just as well that they are being done around the country?

When I went to Berlin in 1959 for the world premiere of my play The Zoo Story, I noticed what was being done on the Broadway stages of West Berlin of that time, and it was interesting. It was Brecht, it was Beckett, it was Goethe of course; it was the great playwrights. Maybe that's what prompted those remarks that I made, because I noticed that that wasn't happening in those days on Broadway, from which we took guidance as to what the nature of theatre was. What a bizarre country we are, where our commercial theatre does not concern itself with great art. I'm delighted that those regional theatres that aren't behaving like tryout houses for Broadway are living up to their responsibilities and are doing some of the great plays, balanced nicely with more easily salable stuff usually. I think that's fine. It's the very least they can do, but I don't think that doing the very least they can do is ever enough.

I also have a theory—I've had it for a long time; I've probably been wrong for a long time, but I still have it—that there is nothing innately corrupt about the taste of the American people. It is that they are not given the opportunity of choice, of being able to choose between that which is really good and that which is mediocre. I'm convinced that if not only our Broadway theatres but our regional theatres were secretly funded so that a group of very, very good people (I'd like to be in the group, of course) could decide what plays would be done, and these were the plays that the American audience had access to for a period of ten or fifteen years, I'm convinced that that would probably become the taste of the American theatregoing audience.

I had a long talk with Walter Kerr one night many years ago. He pointed out to me that something really terrible has happened to American taste because back in the Greek days, and in Shakespeare's day, everybody was pouring in to see plays by Sophocles. And I said that there wasn't anything else to do; that's the only entertainment they had; they had to do that. And he said, "Well, what about the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's day?" And I said that there were three entertainments available to people in Elizabethan England: there were executions, there was bear-baiting, and there was King Lear. The people who couldn't get in to the bear-baiting and the executions went to see King Lear. Translate bear-baiting and executions into movies and television today. The people who can't get in to the bear-baiting and who can't get in to the executions go to the live theatre.

When you first started writing, you were labeled as part of the group of writers known as the Theatre of the Absurd, but you have an active dislike of labels.

Only when they are inaccurate. When Martin Esslin coined the name Theatre of the Absurd, it was a philosophical concept; but somehow very, very quickly it got translated into being stylistic. So a Theatre of the Absurd play was not a naturalistic play, and that made the whole thing ridiculous. That's when I stared getting fussy about it.

Someone once asked John Gielgud, a man who should know, what style was, and he said, "Style is simply knowing what play you're in."

Exactly. All plays are naturalistic and all plays are highly stylized, because there is no such thing as naturalism except for maybe Paddy Chayevsky and a few other people.

If people walked into a theatre and didn 't know it was your play playing there, what would you like them to notice about it to indicate to them that it was your play?

If they knew my work, perhaps there is a sound that my plays make; maybe there is an Albee sound, but I can't find it, I'm not aware of it. Maybe some of my preoccupations and concerns about how we lie to each other—the truths we tell, the evasions—would be prevalent in the play. Beyond that I don't know. I'd like to think that if they're willing to be engaged they'd have an involving time and maybe, possibly, come out changed, conceivably even for the better.

You 've often described yourself as the most eclectic playwright who ever wrote. You 've tackled all sorts of different kinds of characters and situations. Is there an Albee style? Or does that change from play to play?

I don't know. People tell me to go see a play by this or that new playwright, that it sounds exactly like me; so I go to see it and I don't know what they're talking about. Style is a matter of form and content that codetermine each other. You don't try to take a subject matter that wants to be handled in a fantastic way and stick it in a naturalistic framework. The two relate to each other. There are degrees of stylization in all of my plays. None of them is naturalistic; some of them give the illusion of being more naturalistic than others. There must be a way my characters speak that defines an Albee play to an audience, but I don't know what it is because I don't think about myself in the third person.

Don't actors and directors often make the mistake of erring on the naturalistic side of plays and not enough on the stylized side?

You can't. When you act a play, no matter how stylized a play is (and I've learned this as a director too), all you can act and all you can direct is the moment-to-moment literal naturalistic truth of what is happening to the character at that particular moment. You can't act stylized unless you're a lousy actor. Even if you're in a highly stylized play, you're still acting naturalistically within that play. All of my plays are naturalistic no matter how highly stylized they are, so it's a very tricky matter. You can't act style, in the same way that you can't act metaphor. You can't act meaning; you can only act what is happening.

Let's talk about Seascape, a 1975 play that is set, geographically, on a beach on Long Island, isn 't it?

The beach in Seascape? No, but I assumed that it has seasons, so it's probably somewhere in the North.

And a middle-aged couple is visited by another middle-aged couple who share some problems with each other, except the second couple are a pair of lizards who come from the sea. That's certainly not a "naturalistic" situation.

Yes, it was absolutely naturalistic. Those weren't metaphorical lizards, those weren't symbolic lizards, those were real lizards, real beach, real humans. It's the old thing with most people and comedies. Most people in comedies don't know that they are being funny. If the actor knows that he's being funny, then the play won't be funny.

Another thing about Seascape that's interesting is that it had an additional act at one point.

Yes, it did. It was a three-act play at one time. It was about as long as Parsifal, not quite as funny but almost as long. I took one act out because, although I had it in at the first rehearsal and I enjoyed it, it was totally unnecessary. The fact that I could remove that entire act overnight like a tooth without any damage to the sense of the play indicated to me that maybe I was being a little bit self-indulgent. So I took it out; but it was staged at some point by some people who got hold of it. Somebody did the whole damn thing in Holland, I believe. The original second act took place at the bottom of the sea. It was nice; I have it somewhere. It made a few problems for the set designer, of course, but he solved them. That was Bill Ritman, who solved them nicely.

You 've talked a lot in print about how music has influenced you. How have the fine arts and design influenced you as a writer?

When you write a play, at least when I write a play, when I'm putting it down on paper anyway, and even when I'm thinking about it before I put it down on paper, I see it and I hear it. But I don't see it and hear it in some kind of amorphous general area. I see it and hear it as a performed stage piece, which saves me an awful lot of time in that I don't have to do as many rewrites as other people do, because I see it being performed on the stage. Since I see it and I hear it, I have a fairly comprehensive visual sense of what it should look like and what it should sound like as well as what it should mean. Therefore, I like to work in great detail with the set and lighting and costume designers, not insisting on this or that particularly but having a sense, because I have a sense of the specific environment. I want the set and costume and lighting and sound designers to have that same sense.

Does your interest in modern art influence the way you consciously or unconsciously put a play together or the way you see it visually?

No, I usually try to have a set that is, as Thurber put it, a container for the thing contained. I don't like to sit in the theatre and watch the set. I like sets to be efficient, and I like them not to call any attention to themselves beyond being proper containers for what's happening. As much as I admire twentieth-century art, and while I do like to see it employed both in dance and in opera even far more than it is, sometimes it can get in the way of theatre.

Boris Aronson said the best sets you should notice for two seconds.

About that. There was a time when in every play that Jo Mielziner, who was a very famous set designer, designed the following would happen: the curtain would go up, we'd be in some kind of murk, and lights would very, very slowly start appearing all over the set, and the set would start appearing, and damned if the audience didn't applaud. The set got applauded. Now that's wrong, totally wrong. Aronson's quite right; you should notice the set and then it should go away. Everything should go away in the theatre. You shouldn't be aware of acting, you shouldn't be aware of directing, you shouldn't be aware of playwriting either. You should be aware of the reality of the experience that's happening to you; all of that stuff has got to vanish. If any of it is terribly noticeable to you, then somebody has done his job wrong. And it makes no difference whether it's a naturalistic play or a highly stylized one.

In terms of music, you once said that one day your plays would get to the point where they would have to be con ducted.

I write very precisely and carefully. I learned from Chekhov and I learned from Beckett to write very, very carefully and precisely, and I also learned that drama is made up of two things: sound and silence. Each of them has its own very specific duration. Playwrights notate sound and silence, loud and soft, just as precisely as a composer does. There is a profound difference in duration of pause between a semicolon and a period, for example, and a wise playwright knows that, in the same way that a composer knows the difference between durations. I discovered that writing a play is very similar to writing a piece of music. The psychological structure of a play is similar to that of a string quartet. You attempt simultaneity of speech the same way the instruments are playing, although you can't very often do simultaneity because it's easier with instruments. But you are composing in a sense, and I have watched other directors (I was going to say conductors), as well as myself, directing me, directing Beckett; and at a certain point in the rehearsal, the director, off somewhere so no one will see that he has gone quite mad, is standing there not looking anymore, but he is indeed conducting. A play that is written very carefully and very precisely and accurately can be conducted. It is sound and silence; it's a matter of durations, and if you write that carefully you do end up being conducted. When I go back to a play that I've directed (one of mine or Beckett's or anybody's) a week or so later, I don't have to watch the production because I know the actors are going to be standing where they are supposed to be, sitting where they are supposed to be. That's just directing traffic; if you've done that right, then you forget about it. All I have to do is listen and I can tell whether the production is where it should be or whether it's getting sloppy and falling apart and so I go back in and reconduct.

Do you listen to music when you write your plays?

No, I listen to music before I write. I prefer to listen to the music of what my characters are saying when I write. I think everybody should begin the day by listening to a couple of Bach fugues. It sort of gives a sense of order and coherence to the day. Maybe that's a good way to start—after the oat-meal, some Bach. My own musical tastes in what we call serious music go from Obrecht and Gilles right on up to Elliott Carter, so I don't have any problem anywhere there. I have a little problem with some of the second-generation romantic composers like Respighi and people like that.

Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? It sort of goes in two parts for you, doesn't it?

Three. My writing process is in three parts. There is what I assume is going on in my mind creatively without my being aware of it. That must take a fair amount of time because I have never said, with the exception of one play (The Death of Bessie Smith, which I wrote because of my rage at what I believed had happened to her in 1937 in the South), "I must write a play about this or that." I have never been aware of getting an idea for a play; a number of critics would agree with this, but not the way I mean! I become aware that I have been thinking about a play. When I become aware of a play that I have been thinking about, it's already gone a certain distance; it's already quite nicely formed in my head. The characters are already there, the destination is there generally. Generally, the environment of the play is already there when I become consciously aware of it. That's part one.

Part two is, again as Thurber said, let your mind alone: leaving all of that alone, not writing the play down instantly when I'm aware that I have been thinking about it, but letting it develop, mutate, letting it do things, letting it take its own time. I will play tricks to see how well I know the characters that are developing in my head. I will figure out some scene that cannot be in the play, and I will take a walk and improvise dialogue with these characters for a scene that will not be in the play to see how well I know them. I can keep a play in that condition in my head anywhere from four or five months to six or seven years. I always have two or three or four of them sort of floating up there ready to land, in a holding pattern above the airport of my desk. Oh God, I didn't know I was going to say that!

Then comes the time when I decide it is now time to write the play down on paper, to get it out of my head because it's taking up too much space. I haven't the vaguest idea of what the first two, three, four lines of dialogue are going to be; I have no idea of what any of my characters are going to say. That's called writing the play down on paper, where you discover and articulate everything you've been planning. That's the third part of writting, and that for me never takes more than two or three months. I can write a play down in two or three months, but I might have thought of it for, God knows, two or three or four years before I was aware of it. I write one draft, I make pencil corrections, and that's what I go into rehearsal with. I think I do most of my rewrites in my mind before I'm aware of the fact that I'm doing them, so I don't have to do them on the page.

There's an idea for a play that you've mentioned in interviews over the years as being imminent. It's about Attila the Hun.

I still have that play up there; it's still floating around along with a few others. I may get to that. Interesting guy, Attila. Do you know much about him? Very interesting guy. Did you know that Attila the Hun was one of the most educated men in Europe? Did you know that Attila the Hun was raised in the Roman court, as sort of a hostage, and that the Roman emperor's son was raised in Attila's father's camp, so that Attila was one of the most educated men in Europe? Did you know that one of his boyhood friends from when he was living in Rome became Pope Gregory, who was pope when Attila laid siege to Rome? It was the two boyhood friends meeting outside of the walls of Rome, and Pope Gregory somehow persuaded Attila to lift the siege of Rome. That's a good scene to write, let me tell you. Most people don't know these things. It struck me as very interesting that one of the most educated people in Europe would try to destroy civilization. As I watch history, it's not the most novel idea in the world, I suppose, but it certainly is an interesting one. Also, a nice thing about writing that kind of historical play is that there weren't too many journalists around in those days, so there's not too much written and I can make up my facts.

You don't get enough credit for the wonderful parts you write for actors. Do actors as part of the process help you or hinder you?

When I'm writing a character, I don't concern myself with anything except the reality of the character. I would never think about a specific actor for a role, because then I wouldn't write a character; I'd write a role. I don't start thinking about actors until I finish the piece. I try to make the characters as real and as three-dimensional as I possibly can, which maybe, if I succeed, is why actors like to work on them.

Have there been specific moments where actors might have contributed something you hadn 't expected that helped you turn a play a certain way or added something to your perspective on a play?

When you write something, you're working both from your conscious and your unconscious mind, and you don't necessarily always know what you have done until somebody points it out to you; so an actor can indeed reveal a facet of a character that I've written, a depth of the character, that I wasn't consciously aware of. But if the actor's done a proper job, the actor is revealing what was there, something merely that I didn't know about. I've evolved a nice rule: If an actor or a director does something to a play of mine which diminishes it, which makes it less interesting than I thought it was, they're wrong, and I will not take any responsibility for it; if, on the other hand, a director or an actor finds something in a character of mine or a play of mine that makes it far more interesting than I have consciously known that it was, I instantly take credit for it. I've never had an occasion where an actor has suggested that things be in the character that were not there and then I've gone ahead and put them in. That's never happened. The actors that I've worked with—and I've worked with some pretty good ones—maybe had their hands full with the characters as written. There have been one or two occasions where I've been unfortunately stuck with a star whose competence was less than tolerable, who tried to simplify a role down to that particular tiny talent that the actor had. Those have been unhappy experiences, but generally the finest actors have been very busy with the characters I've written. They seem happy with them, or if they're not they don't tell me.

You make a distinction in a lot of your interviews between interpretive artists and creative artists. Does directing your own plays help you eliminate the middle man, get closer in contact with what's going on in the play with the actors?

The only reason, I think, that I became a director was to direct my own work with as much accuracy toward what I saw and heard when I wrote the play as I possibly could, on the assumption that that might be useful to somebody, to see what was really going on in the author's mind. The nice thing about directing your own work if you're the playwright is that there are two salaries. That's by far the nicest part. And you have double control over choice of actors, and I like that too. I suspect that when I'm directing a play of mine I'm far more willing to make cuts and changes than I would permit any other director to suggest. Maybe this is because I have greater confidence in myself, and maybe that is because my level of boredom is far lower than most people's.

I think I've probably learned a good deal about playwriting from directing, and probably a good deal about directing from playwriting. The idea put out by the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers that playwrights should not direct their own work is put out merely because they want to have all the jobs available for the members of their union. It's based on the notion that the playwright shouldn't direct his own work because he understands it. Or perhaps he knows too much about it. Some playwrights can never be objective about their own work and shouldn't direct their own work. Some playwrights shouldn't be allowed in the theatre when their plays are in rehearsal because they will take anybody's suggestion and rewrite and quite often destroy their own work or do serious damage to it. Look what happened with Tennessee Williams and so many of his plays. Elia Kazan changed them. Tennessee always had his commercial success afterwards with Gadge's version, but he would then publish his original version along with it so that he had it both ways.

You once said that one of the reasons you like directing is that when you 're not, you watch directors and actors fight over what the subtext is, and when you are, you know what the subtext is because you wrote the subtext.

Yes, but I've also discovered as a director that the author's subtext has nothing to do with the subtext that two different actors will need for the same role. I've directed fifteen or twenty different productions of The Zoo Story in the past thirty years. For one of the first productions I directed of it, a young actor—now recently dead, alas—named Ben Piazza was playing the role of Jerry. All you have to know to follow this is that in the play the character Jerry has a rather profound relationship with his landlady's dog. On the second day of rehearsal Ben came up to me and said, "When Jerry was growing up, did he have a dog?" This was obviously something Ben the actor needed to use to understand how the character related to his landlady's dog, and I tried to think back to the subtext that I had in my mind when I created the character of Jerry. I couldn't remember, so it occurred to me, let's see, what will be most useful for Ben Piazza to use to create this character? I said, "Oh yeah, Jerry grew up on a chicken farm his father had in New Jersey about fifty-seven miles from New York." I was making all of this up totally. "And there were lots of animals. Not only were there these awful chickens around, there were goats and sheep and two horses and six dogs." And I named the dogs for him, told him what brand they were, and I told him of a couple of the adventures that Jerry had had as a kid with the dogs. Ben nodded, we went back into rehearsal and never discussed it again, and he was a very good Jerry.

Twelve years after that I was directing another very good production of The Zoo Story somewhere else with totally different actors. This doesn't happen too often, but it happened this time. The actor playing Jerry came up to me the third day of rehearsal and said, "When I was growing up [by "I" he meant Jerry], did I have a dog?" And of course I thought back to what I told Ben Piazza, but then a bell went off and I said, "This actor will work better through deprivation." So I said to him in answer to his question, "No, you weren't allowed to have any pets when you were growing up. You wanted pets very badly, but your father hated dogs. You sneaked a puppy into your room when you were six years old, and your father drowned it." So he nodded, he went back, and we had a very good production of the play. The question is, which is true? Which subtext is true? Both. Because the subtext that each actor needs is the subtext that is valid, that will allow the actor to become the character. I learned as a director that subtext is there not to force but to become the character. If you hired the right actor, an intelligent talented actor, 90 percent of your work is done—if you've written a halfway decent play. I discovered that most problems that actors seem to be having in a scene have less to do with the writing of the scene than they have to do with subtextual choices that have been made.

Who are some of your favorite actors?

I've been very lucky, with the exception of a couple of actors that I would never work with again in my life. I've worked with some extraordinary performers, both English and American, and in foreign languages. Just to mention a few of the ones that I've been lucky enough to work with: John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Peggy Ashcroft, Colleen Dew-hurst, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, and I'm going to forget a lot of them now. I've worked with some awfully good actors and had a good time working with them. When I first started writing plays and getting involved with actors, I believed what everybody else did: that actors were not necessarily bright or sensitive people. I found that this is quite often true, but the very best are both enormously intelligent and sensitive and deeply caring people. I was very relieved and pleased to find that to be true.

Can you tell us about your most recent play, Three Tall Women?

Three Tall Women had its world premiere at the English Theatre in Vienna this past June. I directed it. There are four actors in it: three tall women and one fairly tall man. It's in two acts. You need more? I'm very bad about talking about the work. I don't like to tell the stories of plays. All right. In the first act, a ninety-two-year-old woman is in conversation with her fifty-two-year-old sort of nurse-companion and a twenty-six-year-old assistant. The play is basically this old woman rambling variously about her past, about her hates, about her vengefulness, all the things that when you get to ninety-two you seem to get very fond of talking about. She is not senile, but she lives in a past that did not exist quite often. She has a stroke at the end of Act I which silences her.

When Act II begins, the stage is empty except she is there in the bed with an oxygen mask. The fifty-two-year-old woman and the twenty-six-year-old woman come in looking and seeming somewhat different from who they were in the first act, and they stand over the bed of this comatose woman, and then the woman herself comes in and obviously it's a dummy on the bed. We understand fairly quickly that the three women are really the same woman at different ages: at ninety-two, fifty-two, and twenty-six. We learn a great deal more about that woman. We learn a great deal more about how we view life at twenty-six, how we view life from the top of the mountain looking both backward and forward at fifty-two, and how we view ourselves at both twenty-six and fifty-six when we are ninety-two, and how we imagine we are going to be behaving when we are ninety-two when we are both fifty-six and twenty-six. As usual in my plays, not a great deal happens; but all of that happens. The English Theatre in Vienna is very interesting. A lot of the audience speaks far less English than it pretends to, and this includes some of the critics. But the ones who seemed to understand the play were quite fond of it, and those who seemed bewildered were not.

Could you say something about the film version of Virginia Woolf?

As Beckett says, it was better than a kick in the teeth. When I sold the rights of that play to Warner Brothers, they promised me Bette Davis and James Mason, who were both exactly the right age for it at that time. Bette Davis was fiftytwo, and James Mason had always been forty-six, so it was just dandy. Then it was decided that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were big stars, and so they became Bette Davis and James Mason. I suppose the only problem was that Elizabeth Taylor was thirty-two. She was trying to play a fifty-two-year-old woman, and I don't think she quite convinced me that she was fifty-two. I think they pretended that she was forty-five, which made the nonexistent child no longer on the eve of his twenty-first birthday but younger, which destroyed one of the metaphors of the play for me. Another thing about the film bothered me a little bit, although it's a lot better than a lot of films of plays have been. I wrote the play in color, but for some reason they made the film in black and white. I don't understand that. Maybe that's because black and white is more serious. I don't know. It certainly messed up the video cassette sale, I'll tell you that.

Also, the play is both very serious and very funny. I found the film, maybe because it was not a live experience, very serious but not particularly funny. I also found the film not as claustrophobic as I intended the play to be. The play is meant to be set in one room. I didn't even like them going up to the bedroom or to the kitchen, and when they went out to that ridiculous roadhouse I thought it was doing serious damage to the claustrophobic intention of the play. I imagine that I had been influenced to a certain extent by Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit, but I also think I probably wrote the play as an answer to another claustrophobic play by Eugene O'Neill called The Iceman Cometh. The Iceman Cometh postulates that you have to have pipe dreams or false illusions in order to survive, and I think Virginia Woolf was written to say, maybe, that you have to have them but you damn well better know that they're false illusions and then survive knowing that you're living with falsity.

I much prefer the film that was made of my play A Delicate Balance that had Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, and Kate Reid and a number of other very good people in it, directed by Tony Richardson. I thought that was a some-what better film. In neither case, however, and this is interesting, was there a screenplay used. I'm told there was a screenplay written for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and indeed it says, "Screenplay by Ernest Lehman," the producer of the film; but as I look at the film (and I've seen it seven or eight times now), as far as I can see he wrote two sentences: "Let's go to the roadhouse," and I believe the other one was something like "Let's come back from the roadhouse." I'm told he paid himself $350,000 for writing the screenplay, so that's $175,000 dollars a sentence, which is pretty good.

I'm told that there was a screenplay that he did write, in which (and I hope this is apocryphal) the nonexistent child had become a seriously retarded child, a real child, and was kept upstairs. Well, so much for historical political metaphor. Anyway, I'm also told that when Burton, Taylor, and Mike Nichols read the screenplay, after their laughter died down they said, "If we have to use this screenplay, we will not make the film," and so they went back and went into rehearsal as if it were a play for a couple of weeks and used my text. They cut about fifteen or twenty minutes out of it; they cut out almost all of the historical political argument, and they unbalanced it slightly, making it more Taylor's film than Burton's film.

The film of A Delicate Balance was a better film. It was part of that ill-fated American Film Theatre project, where serious films of serious plays were made rather well, as often as not, and then shown without much advertising in places that people could not get to at hours when they would not go. A Delicate Balance was also rehearsed as a play and was shot in sequence. They shot that movie from the beginning of the play until the end, five days for each act. The only other play of mine that was made into a film I have not seen. That was the film of my adaptation of Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café. I saw some rushes and I saw some shooting of that, and I did not want to see it. I heard it was fairly literal and not very good.

There is a story about Virginia Woolf— that Henry Fonda's agent got the script but didn 't tell him about it, and he was furious forever after.

Yes. This is to say nothing against Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, who were both superb in their roles, but neither of them was the first choice. Henry Fonda, whom I had seen onstage and whom I respected as a stage actor, was offered the role of George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the 1962 production. His agent did not show it to him and said, "Mr. Fonda is not interested." Whether he would have taken the role or not, who knows. He said he would have taken the role, but he might not have. I think that was the end of that particular agent for him anyway! We offered the role of Martha originally to Geraldine Page with the agreement both of me and Alan Schneider, who had been hired to direct the play, and Gerry Page was very excited about doing it. But she said in her tiny voice that she would have to talk to Lee Strasburg about it first. She came back a couple of days later with the information that Lee was going to allow her to do the role, and it was okay if Alan Schneider directed it but that he, Lee Strasburg, would have to be at all rehearsals as a sort of éminence grise. And that is why Geraldine Page did not play Martha on Broadway in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Do you think it's possible that any of your female characters are actually male homosexuals in disguise? Do you think homosexuality plays a part in much of your work?

Well, let's see, I've got about three plays where there are characters who are gay, so I suppose to that extent that it does. What I've never done is write a male character as a female or write anybody who was gay as straight or straight as gay. There's a difference you may have noticed between men and women, and it would be very very difficult to lie in that particular fashion, and playwriting is not about lying. I don't know how that story about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? got started that, somewhere along the line, it was written about two male couples. You never know what's going on in the deepest recesses of your mind, so I asked a number of actresses who were playing Martha if they thought they were playing men. I asked Uta Hagen; it had never occurred to her. When I directed it in 1976 with Colleen Dewhurst, I asked her if she thought that she was playing a man, and I asked Ben Gazzara if he thought he was playing a gay man. It had never occurred to either of them. It had never occurred to Elizabeth Taylor that she was playing a man, and it never occurred to me. I don't think all that game playing and role playing are necessary.

There was a disgraceful article written in the New York Times by the then drama critic, one of the several they have gotten rid of although they have not gotten rid of all of them that they should have, a man named Stanley Kaufrmann. He wrote an insidious and slimy and disgusting article not naming the names of any of the playwrights he was talking about but saying that we all knew, nudge, nudge, did we not, that a number of our most famous American playwrights were homosexuals, and did we not also know, nudge nudge, that they were really writing about males when they were writing their female characters? It was appalling and disgusting and the sort of thing that infiltrates far too much of our criticism. He was talking about Tennessee Williams primarily then, and Tennessee never did that, and I can't think of any self-respecting worthwhile writer who would do that sort of thing. It's beneath contempt to suggest it, and it's beneath contempt to do it. These critics who suggest it ought to grow up or ought to go into another kind of butchery, hog slaughtering perhaps.

You 've always had harsh words about critics. What is a good critic?

A good critic is one who likes my work. A bad critic is one who does not. All playwrights feel this way. Some of us are honest enough to admit it.

It's been said that some of your plays, perhaps most notably Virginia Woolf and Tiny Alice, reflect your own experience of being adopted. Do you believe that?

I was adopted and I am real. The child in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was metaphorical, so I don't think there's too much relationship there. In Tiny Alice, I don't think there's any relationship to adoption whatever. The one play where it might be suggested that there is some biographical input in the play is The American Dream, but even there it is so metaphorical and so highly disguised that I'm not so sure even there. I'm not one of these playwrights who writes about himself very often, maybe because I find my characters much more interesting than I am. And I also find the characters that I can invent are a good deal more interesting than the people that I know. Even in the play The American Dream the character Grandma, of whom I'm very fond and who's a very, very interesting character, was, I suppose, infinitely more interesting than my maternal grandmother, upon whom it was partially based. I wish she had been as interesting as the character that I wrote, but alas, she was not.

I also think that character is based partially on Beulah Witch. Those of you who are old enough to remember "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie" will remember Burr Tillstrom, whom I knew. Burr would invite me over to his apartment in Chicago for an evening and he would say, "Excuse me, there's somebody who wants to talk to you." And he would disappear into another room, and all of a sudden I would hear this great cackling voice of Beulah Witch say, "Edward, come here!" And I'd go into that room, and there would be a little puppet stage, and Burr would have disappeared behind it, and there would be Beulah, and she and I would sit and have a half-hour conversation. As a matter of fact, I told Burr that The American Dream should be performed by him and the Kuklapolitan Players, that the play could be done very nicely by all of them. Oliver J. Dragon, of course, could play the American Dream; and Beulah Witch, of course, could play Grandma; and it would have been a nice experience.

I always write about myself in the sense that my characters are limited by my perceptions, though sometimes I think that they can imagine things that I cannot imagine. I'll tell you one thing: they have read things that I haven't, because I can read a book and within six weeks or less completely forget everything about the book. I've started reading books a second time, only realizing three-quarters of the way through that I've read this book before. I forget everything that I read, but twenty years after I've read something and forgotten about it I'm writing a character in a play and the character will quote from something that I cannot remember the experience of having read. I don't write about myself very much. Every character I write is limited by my perceptions but is also basically invented by me from people I've known and from people I've observed plus the particular kind of invention or creativity that we're supposed to do as writers. I've not written many memory plays. I've not written many plays about me or my family.

You once added up the names, didn 'tyou say, of all the writers who influenced you?

Once, back in the middle sixties when I was very interested (much more interested than I am now) in critical evaluations of me and my work, I started noticing that critics, with this particular type of shorthand that passes for critical thought, were saying that Albee's work resembles this one or that one or that one. I was quite pleased by the good list of writers that I'd clearly been influenced by. I made a list of twenty-five contemporary playwrights that I was supposed to have been influenced by. And I looked at a lot of them and I thought, yeah, sure I'd been influenced by them, I would have been a damn fool not to have been. But there were six or seven playwrights on that list that I was supposed to have been influenced by whose work I didn't know. I thought that was going to be the neatest trick of the week, and then I went and read these people's work, and I realized that, of course, I had been influenced by them because we both had been influenced by the same sources.

Everybody, unless he's a self-conscious primitive or a damn fool, is going to be influenced by his predecessors and his betters. It's our responsibility to be; we don't want to reinvent the typewriter. We don't want to be so ignorant that we get a bright idea to write a play about a young man who comes back to the city after having been away since he was a kid and he falls in love with a female mayor of the city who happens to be twenty or twenty-five years older than he and they get married and then he discovers that it's his mother. If we've read Oedipus Rex we're not going to do that. But it was interesting to me that there were these playwrights that I was supposed to be influenced by that I hadn't known. Of course I'd been influenced by them because we had been influenced by the same people.

What terrifies you?

Not being asked wonderful questions.

Introduction to Three Tall Women (1994)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in Three Tall Women: A Play in Two Acts, by Edward Albee, Dutton, 1994, pp. 3-5.

[In the following remarks prefacing the published version of Three Tall Women, the playwright discusses the origin of the play in his experiences with his adoptive mother.]

People often ask me how long it takes me to write a play, and I tell them "all of my life." I know that's not the answer they're after—what they really want is some sense of the time between the first glimmer of the play in my mind and the writing down, and perhaps the duration of the writing down—but "all of my life" is the truest answer I can give, for it is the only one which is exact, since the thinking about the play and the putting it to paper vary so from play to play.

Few sensible authors are happy discussing the creative process—it is, after all, black magic, and may lose its power if we look that particular gift horse too closely in the mouth, or anywhere else, for that matter; further, since the creative process cannot be taught or learned, but only described, of what use is the discussion? Still, along with "where do your ideas come from?", the question is greatly on the mind of that tiny group of civilians who bother to worry it at all.

With Three Tall Women I can pinpoint the instant I began writing it, for it coincides with my first awareness of consciousness. I was in a group of four who were on a knoll (I could even now show you the exact spot, the exact knoll) observing the completion of a new house, the scaffolding still on it. There were three adults and tiny me—my adoptive mother, my adoptive father, my nanny (Nanny Church) and, in Nanny Church's arms—what? three-month-old Edward, certainly no older. My memory of the incident is wholly visual—the scaffolding, the people; and while I have no deep affection for it, it is my first awareness of being aware, and so I suppose I treasure it.

I have the kind of mind that does not retain much consciously—I experience, absorb, consider, banish into the deeps. Oh, should someone remind me of a significant event, its sights and sounds will come flooding back, but free of emotional baggage—that dealt with at the time of the incident, or catalogued elsewhere. And I know that my present self is shaped by as much self-deception as anyone else's, that my objectivities are guided by the maps I myself have drawn, and that nothing is really ever forgotten, merely filed away as inconvenient or insupportable.

So, when I decided to write what became Three Tall Women, I was more aware of what I did not want to do than exactly what I did want to accomplish. I knew my subject—my adoptive mother, whom I knew from my infancy (that knoll!) until her death over sixty years later, and who, perhaps, knew me as well. Perhaps.

I knew I did not want to write a revenge piece—could not honestly do so, for I felt no need for revenge. We had managed to make each other very unhappy over the years, but I was past all that, though I think she was not. I harbor no ill-will toward her; it is true I did not like her much, could not abide her prejudices, her loathings, her paranoias, but I did admire her pride, her sense of self. As she moved toward ninety, began rapidly failing both physically and mentally, I was touched by the survivor, the figure clinging to the wreckage only partly of her own making, refusing to go under.

No, it was not a revenge piece I was after, and I was not interested in "coming to terms" with my feelings toward her. I knew my feelings, I thought they were pretty much on the mark, and knew that I would not move much beyond the grudging respect I'd slowly developed for her. I was not seeking self-catharsis, in other words.

I realized then that what I wanted to do was write as objective a play as I could about a fictional character who resembled in every way, in every event, someone I had known very, very well. And it was only when I invented, when I translated fact intact into fiction, that I was aware I would be able to be accurate without prejudice, objective without the distortive folly of "interpretation."

I did not cry and gnash my teeth as I put this woman down on paper. I cannot recall suffering either with her or because of her as I wrote her. I recall being very interested in what I was doing—fascinated by the horror and sadness I was (re)creating.

Writers have the schizophrenic ability to both participate in their lives and, at the same time, observe themselves participating in their lives. Well… some of us have this ability, and I suspect it was this (frightening?) talent that allowed me to write Three Tall Women without prejudice, if you will.

I know that I "got her out of my system" by writing this play, but then again I get all the characters in all of my plays out of my system by writing about them.

Finally, when I based the character "Grandma" (The American Dream, The Sandbox) on my own (adoptive) maternal grandmother, I noticed that while I liked the lady a lot—we were in alliance against those folk in the middle—the character I created was both funnier and more interesting than the model. Have I done that here? Is the woman I wrote in Three Tall Women more human, more multifaceted than its source? Very few people who met my adoptive mother in the last twenty years of her life could abide her, while many people who have seen my play find her fascinating. Heavens, what have I done?!

Interview with Albee (1996)

SOURCE: An interview with Edward Albee by Richard Farr, in The Progressive, Vol. 60, No. 8, August 1996, pp. 39-41.

[In this conversation, Albee discusses the social and political content in his plays.]

Despite wealthy adoptive parents who sent him to exclusive schools like Choate, Valley Forge, and Trinity College, playwright Edward Albee didn't have an easy start. He was expelled from most of the schools, or expelled himself. At eighteen he expelled himself from his parents' home and spent a decade drifting in and out of casual jobs.

He was a messenger for Western Union when, at twenty-nine, he wrote an angry, deeply disturbing one-act play called The Zoo Story, in which a businessman on a park bench is coerced into stabbing a vagrant.

The play was a sensation, the critics hailed it as the first work of a hugely original talent, and Albee went on to write a series of chilling attacks on the American domestic verities, most notably The American Dream (1961), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and A Delicate Balance (1966)—which won Albee his first Pulitzer prize.

Albee said from the start that he hated the commercial values of Broadway, and he was one of the founders of the Off-Broadway movement. Perhaps the critics decided that the very successful Angry Young Man needed a lesson in humility. After 1966 his reputation went into a quarter-century tailspin, as each new offering "failed" to live up to the promise of the early work. Albee continued to produce original drama at the rate of one play per year. Critics responded by dismissing nearly all of it as willfully experimental and obscure, and Albee responded to their criticism by dismissing the most powerful New York critics, by name, as know-nothings.

Albee has always been an experimentalist, and he seems not to have cared that some of his work has not been well received. So there was some irony in the relief critics expressed in 1992, when he won another Pulitzer for Three Tall Women. "Albee has done it again," was the cry, as if the entire theater community had been waiting thirty years to see if the old dog could jump through the hoop one more time. Albee is a name to reckon with again. A Delicate Balance has just celebrated its thirtieth birthday on Broadway by winning three Tony awards, including Best Revival.

Albee travels constantly, teaching and lecturing, but in New York he can be found in a cavernous TriBeCa loft, an abandoned cheese warehouse he bought eighteen years ago in the days before cavernous TriBeCa lofts were fashionable. Despite the gray hair, he doesn't look close to his sixty-eight years. We sit on black leather couches in the middle of his extraordinary art collection. A Dogon granary door is propped up just behind the author, a Picasso sketch stands in a frame on a desk, and a Japanese grain-threshing device sits on the floor nearby. An Australian aboriginal war axe lies dangerously on the table between us.

[Farr]: Your plays don't express very overtly political sentiments. Is that because you don't want to seem to be getting up on a soap-box?

[Albee]: I do think that all of my plays are socially involved, but sometimes very subtly and very indirectly. Certainly The American Dream was socially involved. It's about the way we treat old people, the way we destroy our children, the way we don't communicate with each other. The Death of Bessie Smith was a highly political play. Sometimes it's subtle and sometimes it's fairly obvious.

It has been suggested that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is "really " about two gay couples.

If I had wanted to write a play about two gay couples, I would have done it. I've had to close down a number of productions that tried to do that play with four men. It doesn't make any sense; it completely distorts the play. Changing a man into a woman is more than interpretation: It's fucking around with what the playwright intended.

Do you try to exercise strong control over how your plays are produced?

I always tell actors and directors—whether I'm working with them or not—do whatever you like so long as you end up with the play that I wrote. There's more than one way to skin a cat, lots of different interpretations. The only time I really complain is if, either through intention or inattention, the director distorts my play.

Many of your plays are about families, especially about family dysfunction.

This has been going on ever since drama was invented. Oedipus Rex is about family and family dysfunction; King Lear is about family and family dysfunction. Nothing new about it. If I wrote plays about everyone getting along terribly well, I don't think anyone would want to see them. All serious theater is corrective. You have to show people things that aren't working well, and why they're not working well, in the hope that people will make them work better.

But some playwrights don't focus on the family so much.

Which ones? Brecht maybe. But the atomic family is such a central part of human society. You can't get away from it.

What is your attitude to marriage and the traditional family?

As with all things: When it works, it's fine. When it doesn't, do away with it.

Is the legalization of gay marriage an important issue?

Why do you ask? Look, one day I'll write a play about a dysfunctional gay marriage. OK?

Are you working on a play now?

I have two plays, one that I'm writing now called The Play about the Baby—that's the title of it—which I'm halfway into, and there's another one floating around in my head called The Goat, which very much wants to be written down.

Do you write every day?

If writing is thinking about writing then I'm writing all the time. There isn't a day that goes by when I'm not thinking about a new play. But the literal writing down of a play—I seldom do that more than three or four months out of the year. That happens only after the play is fully formed in my mind: I wait until I can't do anything else but write it down. I never make notes because I make the assumption that anything I can't remember doesn't belong there in the first place.

Do you do much rewriting?

I may, in my head, before I write things down. A lot of the writing is in the unconscious. I do very little rewriting once I write a play down on paper, very little.

What's the role of comedy in drama?

I've found that any play which isn't close to laughter in the dark is very tedious. And conversely, even the purest comedy, if it isn't just telling jokes, has got to be tied to reality in some way. I think a play should do one of two things, and ideally both: It should change our perceptions about ourselves and about consciousness, and it should also broaden the possibilities of drama. If it can do both, that's wonderful. But it's certainly got to do one of the two.

Does the artist have a duty not to preach politics in his work?

Most serious drama is trying to change people, trying to change their perceptions of consciousness and themselves and their position as sentient animals. Sometimes it's very overtly political and sometimes very subtly so. The way we vote, the way we function as a society, is determined by our sense of ourselves and our consciousness, and to the extent that you can keep people on the edge, alive, alert, and reexamining their values, then they will deal more responsibly with the particular issues. But didacticism belongs in essays.

Isn 't there any good art that's didactic? Dickens? Goya?

In the second half of the twentieth century things get more complex and it's harder to think of examples. David Hare does write didactic plays: Racing Demon, for instance, which I have retitled, not unaffectionately, Raging Didacticism. When there's too much didacticism going on I start sighing. I say: I know this stufF—dramatize it for me!

You have always opposed the commercial pressures and values associated with Broadway. Do you feel uncomfortable with the success that A Delicate Balance is enjoying there now?

I never feel bad about getting awards; if they're giving out awards, I'd like to have them. But I don't care. They don't matter. The plays that seemed to matter on Broadway this year were very different from what usually wins. None of them originated on Broadway. So maybe something better is happening, though I think it's a little strange.

You have taught at various institutions. Do you make any conscious effort to radicalize your students?

I do, yes. I probably shouldn't because I'll probably get thrown out—we're talking about Texas, where I teach now. I don't give them grades on how radical they've become, but I do talk a lot about their responsibilities. And I do often mention right at the beginning that there isn't a single creative artist whose work I respect who has been anything other than a liberal.

Ezra Pound?

Well… there are exceptions.

Have your students changed, politically?

Even back in the "activist" sixties and seventies I would talk to a lot of students and most of them couldn't argue dialectics for more than thirty seconds. They had an emotional involvement and they had a few slogans but they were not informed. Anyway, I teach aspiring writers, almost all of whom are liberal because they realize that anything that is not liberal is not going to respect their freedom of speech, freedom of activity. So quite selfishly, they are liberal, though how they will vote when they make it I have no idea. Some of them will get rich, go to Hollywood, and start voting Republican. Even in a democracy, things like that happen!

In 1961, you said that we were ruled by "artificial values, " and you spoke with contempt of the view "that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy keen. " Have we slipped further into "artificial values "?

I think we've slipped a lot further. We have to go back to the fundamental responsibilities of democracy. Democracy is fragile and it must be made to work, which demands an awful lot of effort on everybody's part. I find the real and planned incursions against our civil liberties frightening and dangerous. The so-called religious right of the Republican Party—the Christian right, they call themselves, although in my view they are neither Christian nor right—is after a totalitarian state. But none of these things would be allowed to happen if we had a population a) that bothered to vote; b) that informed itself of the issues; and c) that understood that democracy is a participatory governmental system. We don't live up to our responsibilities to democracy.

Would you describe yourself as a capital-D Democrat?

The first time I ever voted was in a New York City mayoral election. There were three candidates: a Democrat who was perfectly OK but a hack; a Republican who was probably not as terrible as all Republicans are these days; and a candidate for the American Labor Party who everyone said was a Communist. He was actually a leftwing socialist, and he was the only person who a sensible person could have voted for. But the whole question of what is leftwing has shifted so. My God, Nelson Rockefeller would be considered leftwing now. I not only voted for the American Labor Party once, I also voted Republican once—no, twice—to get Javits reelected. But yes, I'm a Democrat, though I'm afraid I'm much more of an unreconstructed New Deal Democrat than most, perhaps because that was when I first had some political consciousness.

People are criticizing Clinton for being too conservative.

Clinton needs a lot of criticism, but don't let's criticize him so much that Dole gets elected. Wait until he gets his second term, if he gets it. Then you'll find a much more liberal President because he won't be up for reelection.

What's it like, in these conservative times, to work on NEA grant committees?

I don't get asked as much as I did. I'm a troublemaker. The pressures that were put on us occasionally to find as many worthwhile sculptors in North Dakota as there were in Brooklyn—well, I'm in favor of populism within rational limits, but. … I also served for a while on the New York State Council for the Arts, but I was equally vocal there, and I'm not invited to do those things too much now.

Did you enjoy them?

Yes, I considered it a civic responsibility. You know, in the thirties there was a huge arts program, for the visual arts especially, where a great generation of abstract painters was put to work decorating public buildings. And a lot of writers was put to work in schools. But nobody remembers that. They all think the National Endowment was the first time anyone had thought of using creative artists for the public good. We spend about thirty-eight cents per person per year on support of the arts in this country. In Germany it's five or six bucks. All the howling that's taking place in the fens of ignorant Republicanism attacking these supposedly huge grants is preposterous, it seems to me—sinister and cynical and totally fallacious. This is less money per year than you pay for one pack of cigarettes. If you don't want to educate yourself, you have a responsibility to educate other people, educate your children; this is part of the responsibilities of democratic life.

However, there's a widespread sense that art is really just entertainment for highbrows.

Not only that! Art is dangerous. It's obscene. It's anti-god. And these arguments that the philistines come up with wouldn't work if people were educated to want art.

You helped to create the Off-Broadway movement in the early 1960s, which seems to have been a period when anything was possible in the arts. Why have things gone from there to here?

A combination of fear and greed. I remember a time, I can't give you a date, but all of a sudden college students were informed—I don't know by whom—that what you did was graduate, get a cushy job, and vanish into society. I see it more and more. Mind you, my playwriting students haven't figured it all out yet. They still think that individuality has some virtue; they still think that their responsibility, if they possibly can, is to change the way people think.

So, despite the slough of cultural-conservative despond, you see grounds for optimism?

How old are we, as a country? Two hundred years? I think we'll survive Gingrich and Dole.

What's best in contemporary American theater?

I don't make lists. I always leave somebody good out. We have so many good playwrights in America now, a whole new generation.

Is there any dominant theme or style emerging?

We have great diversity of style. I do find that the more naturalistic a play is, the more popular it tends to be.

Is that a criticism?


Why is naturalism a problem artistically?

Theater audiences have been trained towards naturalism. The critics don't like experimental plays generally, and they steer audiences away from them. It's part of the fear of the intellectual in American culture. A big problem in this country.

Do you have an aversion to musicals, in general?

I think it's a bastard art form. The music isn't usually very good. I used to like junk musicals when Rodgers and Hart wrote them, and Cole Porter, but then they didn't have any pretense. The stuff that's on now is supposed to be serious music writing and serious theater, but it's just pretentious, middle-brow junk. I dislike it a lot. The last musical I liked a lot was Evita, because it was politically interesting.

I notice that one of the theater reference books lists your religion as Christian. For an Absurdist playwright that seems odd.

That may just be a weird oversimplification of something I said at one time. I'm a great admirer of the revolutionary leftist politics of Jesus Christ, and I am a Christian in the sense that I admire him a great deal. But I don't have any truck with the divinity or with God, or any of that stuff. I just think he's an interesting revolutionary social thinker—and that makes me a Christian, does it not?

Many of your plays seem to be about the maintenance or collapse of illusions. As if the goal is to live life without illusions.

I don't think there's any problem with having false illusions. The problem is with kidding yourself that they're not false. O'Neill said, in that extraordinary play that nobody does, The Iceman Cometh, that we have to have pipe dreams. I think Virginia Woolf was in part a response to that; it's better to live without false illusions, but if you must have them, know that they are false. It's part of the responsibility of the playwright to help us see when they're false.

There seem to be Chekhov-like and Beckett-like elements in your plays. Are you influenced by other playwrights?

I certainly hope so. You learn from people who've come before you and who have done wonderful things. The trick is to take the influences and make them so completely you that nobody realizes that you're doing anything else but your own work.

Overviews And General Studies

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Tom F. Driver (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "What's the Matter with Edward Albee?," in American Drama and Its Critics: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alan S. Downer, University of Chicago Press, 1965, pp. 240-44.

[The essay below contains a harshly negative assessment of Albee's work through Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and asserts that this play enacts "homosexual liaisons. "]

The nation's publicity media, desperately in search of a "gifted young playwright," and unable to practice that asceticism of taste which is the requisite of culture, have praised the mediocre work of Edward Albee as if it were excellence. They have made the author of six bad plays into a man of fame and fortune, which is his good luck. They have also made him into a cultural hero, which is not good for anybody. It is time to disentangle our judgments of his merits from the phenomenon of his popularity.

Four of Edward Albee's six bad plays are too short to fill an evening. Another is a dead adaptation of a famous story. The sixth is the most pretentious American play since Mourning Becomes Electro. In each of these works there are serious, even damning, faults obvious to anyone not predisposed to overlook them. To get Albee in perspective, we should examine first the faults and then the predisposition of the audience not to see them. As a maker of plots, Albee hardly exists. Both The Zoo Story, his first play performed in New York and Who 's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his most successful, are built upon an unbelievable situation—namely, that a sane, average-type person would be a passive spectator in the presence of behavior obviously headed toward destructive violence. In The Zoo Story, why does Peter just sit there while Jerry works himself up to suicide? Why doesn't Nick, in Who's Afraid?, take his young wife and go home when he sees that George and Martha want only to fight the whole night through? In both cases, the answer is either that there is some psychological explanation that has not been written into the play, or that if Peter or Nick did the logical thing and went home the play would be over.

Sometimes it is argued that this objection is out of place. It is held that the passivity of Peter and Nick is allegorical and is supposed to point to our general passivity in the presence of destructive tendencies in modern life. But this is cheap allegory. A situation cannot function well as allegory unless it is a believable situation. Whatever allegorical element is present in the situation of The Zoo Story and Who's Afraid? is in conflict with the realistic convention that both plays assume.

Failure to maintain the chosen convention occurs in all the Albee plays, even in The American Dream, which does not pretend to realism but is more like the "theater of the absurd." It opens in such a manner as to suggest that Albee is imitating Ionesco, or perhaps will parody him. After ten minutes it is no longer clear whether any reference to Ionesco is intended, and it never becomes clear in the rest of the play. On the other hand, no different convention imposes itself. Toward the end of the play the comic mode is destroyed by a long autobiographical speech by the title character, a speech so full of Freudian cliché and self-pity that the only humane response to it is to be embarrassed for the author. No one could have written it who did not regard himself above his art. In the work of amateurs we expect this sort of thing, we forgive it. But we do not praise it, for to do so is to substitute indulgence for criticism.

Who's Afraid? displays another failure to maintain convention. This play is supposedly a realistic depiction of "how life is." I have yet to hear a reasoned defense of it on any other grounds, including that of its director, Alan Schneider (Tulane Drama Review, Spring, 1963). Yet we are shown a married couple who go through life as the "parents" of a twenty-one-year-old "son" who is purely imaginary. The play ends when this "son" is sent to an imaginary "death" by his "father."

To be sure, the message of Who's Afraid? is clear in spite of this confusion; too clear. In many marriages illusions grow and have to be "exorcised" (this pretentious, crypto-religious word is Albee's), in order to save what is left of the partners. But the device Albee uses to state such a truism is once again from Ionesco. Patched into a realistic play, it turns the whole into a crazy mixture of the obvious and the incredible. This is not, as some have said, a problem in the third act only. The flaw that ruins the third act is already present in the first two, rendering them unbelievable.

Patching and stitching is the mark of Albee's style, if bad habits may be called a style. Scarcely five lines go by without making one feel that something extraneous has been sewn in. The scenes have no rhythm. They give no impression of having developed organically from situations deeply felt or from ideas clearly perceived. Nothing is followed through in the terms initially proposed. There is no obedience to reality outside the playwright's head, nor much evidence of consistency within it.

If Albee's arbitrary manner puts an unnecessary and uninstructive burden upon the audience, it also gives the actors more to do than they can accomplish. The exhaustion that the actors, as well as the audience, say they feel at the end of Who's Afraid? does not come from having experienced too much but from having pretended to experience it. All acting involves pretense, but there is such a thing as being supported by a role. Albee's roles have to be supported by the actors.

The performances of Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill in Who's Afraid? are remarkable to see, yet they are pathetic. These two skillful people are forced to manufacture on stage, moment by moment, semblances of character which the script not only does not support but even undercuts. The more brilliantly they perform, the more anguish we feel. But it is anguish for the performers. Arthur Hill manages his tour de force by holding desperately all evening to a few mannerisms, such as his gait, the unbalanced carriage of his shoulders, and his operatic delivery of the lines. Uta Hagen, with more variety, pulls even more tricks out of her professional trunk. In the course of the play's three and a half hours, it is the actors rather than the characters who become hysterical. Faced with the same hurdle in The Ballad of the Sad Café, Colleen Dewhurst takes a more dignified recourse. Given no intelligible character to enact, she refuses to pretend to act. She poses. Hers is the most beautiful example of non-acting I have ever seen, and I applaud her for it. No slightest hint of emotion escapes to betray the purity of her refusal; she is on strike, declining to do the playwright's work for him.

The falseness of Albee's characters is also due to the fact that they are but surrogates for more authentic ones. The characters who could make psychological sense of Who's Afraid? are not the two couples on stage but the four homosexuals for whom they are standing in. Granted that George is not very masculine and Martha not feminine, still we are asked to accept them as a heterosexual couple who might love each other. Their mutual sado-masochism renders this request absurd. They maintain their fight with increased pleasure-pain all night long.

I do not deny that heterosexual couples engage in some of the same behavior and show some of the same psychology. They do. But a play built around such an orgy invites us to ask what part of life it most aptly refers to. The answer is not to marriages but to homosexual liaisons. The play hides from the audience its real subject. This is quite apart from the question whether Albee knows what the real subject is. I think he does, but if not his job as a playwright is to find out. And to make his play tell it. We are driven to saying that either Albee does not know what he is saying or else that he is afraid to say what he means.

The significant cultural fact we have to deal with is not the existence of Albee's six bad plays but the phenomenon of their popularity. The public has been sold a bill of goods, but there must be reasons why it is willing to buy. What are these reasons?

Whatever may be said against Albee—and I've only said the half of it—one must also say that his bent is wholly theatrical. All his mistakes are theatrical mistakes. He confuses theatrical conventions, but he does not, except in The Ballad of the Sad Café, confuse the genre of playwriting with that of film, novel, or television. This is rare in today's theater. I expect this instinct for the theatrical is what people really have in mind when they refer to Albee's talent. "Talent" is the wrong word, for the nature of a talent is to grow, and Albee shows no signs of that. He does show a theatrical instinct.

Although theatricality is an important component in all great drama, it can also characterize some of the worst. That is, it can be used imaginatively or it can be used merely fancifully. Albee's use is the latter. There is evidence that this is a direct cause of his success. The truly imaginative use of theatricality is found today in Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genêt, none of whom has ever caught on with the large New York theater audience. Critics on the daily papers either misinterpret these playwrights (the New York Times told us recently that Genêt's The Maids is a "social tract") or they find them "obscure." Albee is preferred not because he is better but because he is worse. Since his themes are obvious, even hackneyed, they cannot be obscure. And his reckless inventiveness can pass for complexity without forcing anyone to entertain a complex thought. In short, he provides a theatrical effect conveniently devoid of imaginative substance.

This accounts, I believe, for the so-called "involvement" of the audience at Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Since the situation and the characters are false, the play provides an occasion for the display of pseudo-emotions: mock anger, mock hatred, mock envy, and finally mock love. These are provided on stage by the actors, with whom the audience enters into complicity. Thus the audience achieves, at no expense to its real emotions, a mock catharsis.

In addition, there is reason to suppose that the very roughness and the gaucheries that mar Albee's plays contribute to his success. Most of the values that operate in our society are drawn from the bourgeois ideal of domestic harmony, necessary for the smooth functioning of the machine. Yet we know that there are subconscious desires fundamentally in conflict with the harmonious ideal. Albee satisfies at once the ideal and the hidden protest against it. In his badly written plays he jabs away at life with blunt instruments. If his jabbing hit the mark, that would be another matter. But it doesn't, no more than does the child in the nursery when he tears up his toys. That is why Albee is the pet of the audience, this little man who looks as if he dreamed of evil but is actually mild as a dove and wants to be loved. In him America has found its very own playwright. He's a dream.

Lee Baxandall (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Theatre of Edward Albee," in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer 1965, pp. 19-40.

[In the following essay, Boxandoli delineates standard devices, situations, and character types in Albee's plays, in an effort to define the "core of Albee's viewpoint."]

Edward Albee's theatre continues to be controversial. The discussion centers around two questions: one has to do with truth, and the other with dramatic structure. The first runs as follows: is the image of human relations in America which Albee presents justifiable because it is in some sense realistic, or is his an essentially flawed and perverted point of view? The second is: are there valid grounds for the invented child in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the confused events which lead to Julian's death in Tiny Alice, or is Albee artistically callow and unable to structure a play properly?

The Albee Family America

Affluence is estranging America from her own ideals. … It is pushing her into becoming the policeman standing guard over vested interests.

—Arnold J. Toynbee, America and the World Revolution

The play is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.

—Edward Albee, Preface to The American Dream

What is the structure of Albee's theatre? His characters are definitely interrelated and cohesive from play to play; the heart of his technique is an archetypal family unit, in which the defeats, hopes, dilemmas, and values of our society (as Albee sees it) are tangibly compressed. The device of course is as old as Greek tragedy; only the particularity of this family is new. The economy of setting forth a concrete conflict to represent more abstract and even essentially undramatizable situations has always attracted dramatists. (Thus, with a sociologist's insight, C. Wright Mills stressed that public issues erupt as private troubles.) In the family, then, a dramatist can still find the conjuncture of biography and history.

Three generations comprise Albee's archetypal family: Then, the epoch of a still-dynamic national ethic and vision; Now, a phase which breaks down into several tangents of decay; and Nowhere, a darkly prophesied future generation. Only two characters are left over from Then: Grandma, and a paterfamilias or patriarch who is occasionally mentioned but never appears. These establish a polarity based upon the axis of female and male principles. It has been often re-marked that Grandma is the sole humane, generous creature in the Albee ménage. She tries to relate to others in a forthright and meaningful fashion, but at her age she no longer commands the requisite social weight. The others, her offspring, do not want Grandma involved in their dubious lives. They ask her to stifle her "pioneer stock" values. Her pleas that she be put to use—"Beg me, or ask me, or entreat me … just anything like that"—are not heeded, because she is of a different epoch. She sums up the inheriting generation: "We live in an age of deformity. It's every man for himself around this place."

The paterfamilias represents the dynamic principle of the vanishing generation. In The Death of Bessie Smith, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Tiny Alice, his function as entrepreneur and primitive accumulator of wealth is described with awe, but he is never seen. He is the Mayor, the capricious tyrant of Memphis, in his time a capable and dynamic figure—"for the Mayor built this hospital"—but incompetent in his senility—"The Mayor is here with his ass in a sling, and the seat of government is now in Room 206." He remains the Mayor from his sick-bed; he continues to wield power, because for his generation to do so is instinctual. Nor do younger persons offer a challenge. The upcoming generation desires nothing better than to serve the Mayor's political machine or to creep to his bedside for small favors. His counterpart in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is Martha's father, the College President. George speaks of him (ironically) as "a God, we all know that"; his mansion is nicknamed Parnassus and the whole faculty does obeisance to an infinitely remote and super-powered figure with a "great shock of white hair, and those little beady eyes" like a mouse's—a man who "is the college" and "is not going to die." Miss Alice's fortune was accumulated by a departed father. Time and again, it is the Robber Barons vs. the new Organization Men. The elder generation's male was an energetic asocial titan. As reflected in the paterfamilias and Grandma, an American ethos is vanishing, an ethos that was purposive and energetic, regardless of whether its humane or ruthless aspects came momentarily to the fore. And whatever else they were, the announced values were real.

The Now generation is also dominated by male and female archetypes. Mommy and Daddy of The American Dream are the most clear-cut representatives of this generation. Looking at them from the standpoint of their elders' values, it is apparent that Mommy provides the transitional figure. She, and not Daddy, takes an interest in practical enterprise; she inherits the male aggressiveness. But although she delights in power, she is glaringly incompetent as the moral steward of her generation. Mean-spirited, immoderate, insincere, and inclined to hysteria, Mommy makes up with wildness what she lacks in confidence. Long relegated to a subordinate family function, Mommy cannot instantly acquire leadership qualities. Yet Daddy has abdicated, for some reason not apparent to her, and someone must govern.

Mommy has several variants, emphasizing one or another aspect of her. Thus the Professional Woman of The American Dream, Mrs. Barker, provides the grotesque caricature in the Mommy gallery. She makes her way into areas once reserved for men, diminishing as a human being with each triumph. Martha, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has the essential Mommy traits but her character is more complex; she understands her errant behavior even as she compulsively continues it. Miss Alice, the capricious possessor of great wealth, is a Mommy too, and although she has an ineffectual impulse to "care" about people, she—like the Lawyer, who counsels her in practical affairs—is "saved by dedication" to the cruel values of her culture and can grow "hard and cold" when Julian's life is at stake.

What this "dedication" can imply, taken to an extreme, is shown by the Nurse in The Death of Bessie Smith. Nurse, though not yet married, is the meanest of the Mommies. Her neurotic and anti-intellectual political attitudes add a sinister dimension to the composite Mommy portrait. Nurse admires Franco, whose opinion, like her father's, "counts for something special." And she is sadistic. Having vehemently refused to put her life on a rational basis, Nurse is prone to hysterical outlets. She could tear the tissue of civilization:

I am sick of everything in this stupid, fly-ridden world. I am sick of the disparity between things as they are, and as they should be! … I am sick of talking to people on the phone in this damn stupid hospital. … I am sick of the smell of Lysol. … I am sick of going to bed and I am sick of waking up. … I am tried of the truth …I am tired of my skin. … i want out!

This is irrational apocalyptic politics: the voice of the bigot and potential fascist. Why does Albee attribute these tendencies to Mommy, who for him symbolizes contemporary power in America? The first dispute over Albee comes to a head here. Does his representation of Mommy really suggest some important truth? Or is it the distorted revenge of an injured man?

In the first place, Mommy as a political symbol is ambiguous. She represents an emergent force in society, and does anyone doubt that women have strikingly improved their social and economic lot in recent years, that they have gained more professional and managerial positions, hold more property, exercise more real control in the home and community? Is it then surprising that a socially advancing group fails to distinguish itself by urbane reasonableness? In every revolution power has been accrued first and its judicious use learned later. On the other hand, is it not likely that Albee wishes Mommy to represent the political tendency of the nation rather than of simply one sex? We are left uncertain, for, because of his reliance on a family myth and the construction he places on woman's role, Albee's political meaning remains somewhat blurred. Mommy may offer a comment upon power in America. Don't we find in American foreign policy some of the traits attributed to Mommy? Didn't America suddenly rise to world power and responsibility during World War II? Didn't it have to adapt suddenly from an isolationist past? And hasn't there been much comment on the transformation from an "inner-directed" to an "other-directed" personality type in America? If this interpretation is substantially correct, judgments made on Albee's lack of objectivity about women need qualification, at the least.

Mommy has taken over the male prerogatives; what is left to Daddy? He has none of his predecessors' traits and the variants of his type are defined by whether they oppose the present passively or with active negation; they have no hope for the future. Daddy trails off toward the Nowhere generation; it is often unclear whether he is Mommy's husband or son. Indeed he is best discussed in connection with the Nowhere generation, since he and they both behave infan tilely. The most passive of the Daddies is in The Sandbox and The American Dream; he no longer "bumps his uglies" on Mommy or disputes her power, except in quibbles which she enjoys. Whether this Daddy is even employed is uncertain. Surely he is not imaginative. His dreams of becoming a senator, winning a Fulbright scholarship, or leaving Mommy's apartment are ludicrous. George, the history professor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, represents the opposite pole. No less futile practically, he strenuously produces jokes, situations, and other "fun and games"—imaginative avenues away from despair.

Among the younger males the two in The American Dream show once again, very clearly, the weight Albee gives to this passive-active axis. Only one of the youths actually ap-pears. The other, we learn, was the identical twin of this "American Dream" and died while an infant, just months after Mommy and Daddy adopted him. Both twins are homosexually oriented, making symbolic comment upon an emasculated and narcissistic national vision. Grandma says that the dead twin had been sensitive, resentful, and indomitable, with a wildness which made him unbearable to Mommy—who at last mutilated the boy's genitals. She would have murdered him, had he not cheated her by dying first. The passive twin is, by contrast, welcome in Mommy's home and, it seems, in her bed.

The other Albee males can be located in relation to these poles. In The Zoo Story, Jerry, with a sensibility so un-bridled that he eventually destroys himself, is a counterpart of the twin who died, just as the docile conformist Peter is kin to the "American Dream," the twin who lived. The polarization in The Death of Bessie Smith, though less focussed, appears in the contrast between an erotically obsessed Intern and an obsequious orderly. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the conformist Nick is a forecast of triumph for the IBM male. In Tiny Alice, Julian is an imaginative saint with a mission, while the other men passively dissolve into their social roles. This is not so terrible for the butler, whose name, after all, is Butler; Albee suggests that the man's genuine capacities (as society has developed them) do not stand in contradiction to the serving role he plays. The situation of the Cardinal and Lawyer is otherwise. Though they are well educated, their personalities are determined by their social roles and they have no names but their functions. These men have in a sense chosen to be types rather than individuals; yet the Cardinal is also provided with a biography which might stand as the classic explanation of why Albee's passive males are that way: his father was a "profiteer," his mother irresponsibly whored around rather than instill him with life values. Even his paternity is in doubt. Thus, lacking tangible origins or values, the Cardinal in craven bafflement "worships the symbol not the substance" and takes the Father proposed by the Church. He will in turn perpetuate symbols over substance. There will, of course, be no offspring.

In the two most recent plays, a female of the third generation also appears. One is Honey, Nick's wife, who has numerous naïve dodges aimed at getting free of responsibil ity: no child-bearing or growing up for her! She abdicates, as have the more sensitive Albee males. Albee does not say why Honey follows the road of inner emigration, but one may guess that she is appalled by what maturity would require her to be and do. With the example of Mommy before her, she defends her childlike looks and innocence through doses of unwitting hysteria and knowledgeable abortion: she will not further this vector of history! Honey's counterpart in Tiny Alice does not appear, but we hear about her from Julian, who was fascinated by her during his years in the asylum. This woman, like Honey, is infertile and at the same time hysterically focussed on pregnancy. ("A woman who, on very infrequent occasions, believed that she was the Virgin Mary.") She calls upon God in erotic cadences, goes into false pregnancy with the belief that she will deliver the Son of God—and dies from cancer of the womb. Symbolically, this is the fate of all who do not choose, as Julian does, active martyrdom—who instead stay with "the same uproar, the evasions" of sterility.

Thus it ends. Albee's American family undergoes anxiety and terrible barrenness as it staggers into decay. A few fugitives detach themselves and seek solutions in aesthetics. They watch a historical dream wither. What is the core of Albee's viewpoint? The generations move away from practicality toward emasculation; away from the energetic but amoral use of power toward an amoral but inoperative use of power. A frightened populace creating illusory values; a country afraid to articulate its genuine but shoddy rules of conduct; and a handful of males stimulated to imaginative activity of a high order. George's mental purview has little in common with Daddy's sigh, "I just want to get everything over with," and the Intern's lewd unrealized fantasies are nearly as alien to him. George's escape into imagination is the sole solution Albee propounds to the national condition.

Out of the Family into Symbolic Transcendence

I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind

With that which, but by being so retired,
O'er-prized all popular rate, in my false brother
Awaked an evil nature;…
                             —Prospero in The Tempest

The form of an Albee play derives from some characters' imaginative power to force events, not toward historically viable solutions, but at least into channels which are telling and satisfying symbolically.

The Zoo Story, Albee's first play, uses this artistic strategy in showing the struggle by Jerry—who has cultivated his sensibility and integrity but has paid for it with social failure—to make significant contact with a man called Peter, who is a success and a conformist. Other forms of contact proving impossible, Jerry at last provokes Peter into causing his death by stabbing. This might be nothing but a brute, desperate act, yet it becomes much more because it is instilled with rich overtones of the circumstances which made Jerry abstain from the social order. He has gone out of the family, and he symbolically transcends it by showing Peter why, through the particulars of his death.

Albee's formal cunning can be seen, beneath the colloquial language and precise detail, in his bold and intricate sense of organization. "Plays are constructed rather the way music is," he has said, and a lifetime love of music and friendship with composers has prepared him for building a strong skeleton under the alluring flesh. For example, the associations evoked by the characters' names in The Zoo Story bring out the polarity of these third-generation males. Peter of course is Greek for rock; he is, as Christ bid, the rock on which the institutions stand. (The existentialists depict persons who live inauthentic existences as being the equivalent of stones, rocks, and trees.) Jerry, like Jeremiah, denounces the false gods of his day. Thus we are prepared, by the names alone, for Jerry's dying whisper to the apostle of conformity, "I came unto you … and you have comforted me … Dear Peter."

Beyond the force of names is the sheer suggestiveness of sounds. Take the handling of the vocal "O." It becomes, by the play's conclusion, an architectonic element. Early, there is Peter's polite and disinterested "Oh?" as he unresponsively answers the importunate Jerry. It is often used, and is a token of his studied indifference to lives presented to him outside routine channels. Half-way through the play, however, Peter in distress switches to "Oh my; oh my." Jerry tosses back, "Oh your what?" and keeps talking—the "Oh" rises more urgently to Peter's lips. Jerry is stabbed, and Peter howls, "many times, very rapidly," "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God—…"in total incomprehension, to which Jerry replies with"a combination of scornful mimicry and supplication,""Oh … my … God," and dies. A sound has been imbued with the anguish of the conforming man under stress.

Among the medium-sized units in this play, the fable about the landlady and the obscene dog, for example, is built along the lines of a music-hall sketch. Elsewhere in the Albee plays one can discern arias, duets, and fugues. So much is fairly obvious. The over-all symbolic construction of the plays is more complex and deserves close attention, still using The Zoo Story as our model.

At the start of this section, I quoted Prospero's explanation of how he studied those esoteric subjects for which the world condemned him. The black arts enabled him, in an isolated place away from vested society, to control all events to his hermitic satisfaction. For those Albee characters with extraordinary imaginative powers, matters are similar: in large part they determine the course and outcome of the symbolic actions in which they are willing to participate. Of course, the differences from The Tempest are important. The powers granted Albee's figures can be called magical only as a metaphor of efficacy; at the same time, the physical and social sciences have steamrollered personality so that there seems little left to man's initiative which does not play into the game of those forces that crush integrity and sensibility.

It is in this perspective that Albee chooses heroes who use essentially aesthetic means to improve the quality of their lives. Bessie Smith is a working artist; Julian, Jerry, and George build imaginative worlds which provide meaning. Two other characters, Grandma at the conclusion of The American Dream and Jack, who brings Bessie Smith's corpse into a white hospital though he knows she is already dead, are rather ordinary persons who transcend themselves in situations of extreme indignity. Albee opposes these figures to the world of effete conformity—a world, incidentally, much changed from Shakespeare's, which beckoned to nearly every man with seemingly endless possibilities. An era which produced as heroes Tamburlaine, Faustus, Richard III, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus, hardly could bring forth from its greatest dramatist a hero who preferred surrogate to practical triumphs; at least not until the end of his career darkened Shakespeare's view. The notable thing about Albee is that, writing late in the epoch which Shakespeare heralded, from the "island" which some think was the model for that in The Tempest, he sets out with the premises on which Shakespeare ended, as though there were no others. The resort to fantasy has become a priori to practical living. Man is from birth on that deserted isle—with Caliban.

Jerry, George, and Julian are foremost in having exceptional powers of symbolic transcendence. These powers are in life used at various levels of awareness and skill by many persons, even seeming conformists. Passive noncompliance with certain social norms may, when sustained, amount to symbolic negation. More advanced forms are seen in acts of sabotage: pranks, vandalism, riots, the remains of lunches that Detroit auto workers sometimes deposit in a difficult corner of the cars they make. Works of art may provide a lucid, transformed expression of the impulse. Its point is always not only to relieve frustration but also to mock or make manifest some absurdity or indignity inherent in the situation.

Thus Jerry by his death incriminates the good citizen Peter; Jerry has plotted the entire devious development of the action. Probably he had sought and failed to become a writer. In this instance his talents are cunning: "sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly," and relentless: "don't react, Peter, just listen." He flaunts his superiority over a man whom society has awarded the merit badges; he hopes also, and quite desperately, to find some understanding from him. Should Peter respond, the bitter conclusions drawn in isolation will be disproved and the rebel can live. Yet Jerry has from the start little hope, and Peter does not admit awareness even when faced with Jerry's major effort, the parable of the dog, which brings forth only an indignant "I don't understand!" To admit awareness would force Peter to change values and reject the status he has dearly bought. He lies. And Jerry, weary of the indecisive encounters with the Peters, decides for once upon an indelible communication. "You fight, you miserable bastard," he cries, "fight for that bench; fight for your parakeets; fight for your cats; fight for your two daughters; fight for your wife; fight for your manhood, you pathetic little vegetable (spits in Peter's face), You couldn't even get your wife with a male child." Each move is calculated. Jerry knows how to dissolve the aplomb of this antagonist, and it is no difficult matter to induce Peter to seize the knife and hold it thrust out while Jerry, running upon it, dies.

There is symbolic richness in this tableau of death. On the face of it, Jerry is relieved of his unremitting conflict with the Peters. The social process of life-destroying forces in stealthy conquest of life-enhancing forces becomes public and accountable; Peter can no longer deny complicity. "You won't be coming back any more, Peter; you've been dispossessed"—robbed of certitude about his way of life. An audience, should it include Peters, vicariously might be as shaken, as dispossessed. This retribution alone can gratify Jerry. He is so set on broadening Peter's awareness that he urges him to gather his wits and flee before a policeman can come, for it would be futile for the Peters of society to punish Peter; his imagination must do the work. Then Peter may no longer be Peter. This is the primary import of the death.

Jerry's violence and his strategy are like those of American urban juvenile gangs. The gang members feel themselves outcasts; with no other outlets, they turn to destructive but significant acts. Two gangs battling for a turf are struggling for something that, like the park bench, in reality can "belong" to neither. And while they, like Jerry, may dislodge Peter with their knives, the victory is Pyrrhic—that is, symbolic.

From another perspective, Jerry's death is erotic. Jerry withdrew from "normal" sex when he rejected conformist social goals, and it seems mixed up in his mind with the other "normal" activities he despises. Occasional sordid contacts with women and daily encounters with his obscene landlady (another Mommy) reinforce his queasiness. Peter's domesticated heterosexuality is part of what affronts Jerry, and as he throws himself onto the blade in Peter's hand he spears himself on erect sex, terrifying and fascinating because institutional. The irony is that Peter's way of life scarcely has prepared him to perform this duty, and he would not have held the blade out if Jerry had not assaulted the root of his honor: property rights. Jerry is the more capable male; in the real encounter he plays the active partner.

The pattern is of deliberate symbolic adventures which unveil repugnant aspects of society and are symbolically satisfying to the doer. Albee develops this pattern in two ways. The less effective is found in The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith. In these plays a situation is slowly built up like a mosaic, and the transcendence is sprung suddenly, at the end. Grandma and Jack provide brilliant curtain effects, but this strategy has a bad effect on the total structure. We do not see the characters develop or change (except for the frantic revelations provided by the arrival of Bessie Smith's corpse) and the nature of the final transcendence is obscure.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? …

The scene is a small New England academic community. Martha is the daughter of the college president and her husband, George, is a history professor. One night they return late from a faculty party and begin an orgy of verbal sado-masochism: After tearing at each other's dignity and illusions, they turn on a new faculty couple, Nick and Honey, whom Martha has invited for a nightcap. Martha takes Nick to bed, but he is impotent; meanwhile George has retreated to the disinvolved recesses of his imagination, from which he is able to kill his and Martha's most precious shared illusion, the myth supposed to provide a measure of symbolic transcendence: that they have a son. In this mayhem, George is the catalyst, determining the nature and scope of their "fun and games" and guiding the pivotal story about the child.

What is the context of George's actions? Is it merely a quaint college town? The stage setting of the New York production implicated the entire American educated community. It showed a tasteful home, with fitted, recessed bookshelves, hi-fi, curtains, fireplace, early American period furniture, oak beams, a wrought-iron colonial eagle, an American flag queerly reversed, an impressionist painting over the mantel—the comforts of modern living side by side with roughhewn tokens of the revolutionary past, but dominating them: an American House of Intellect. George and Martha are what has become of the Washingtons; they quip that they have lived "over the past couple of centuries" in this place. George is a symptomatic American intellectual, the most lucid of all Albee's heroes and the best adjusted to his predicament. He and Julian are the only Albee heroes employed by an institution of society. As a history professor, he has a wider perspective than the average man. He is an insider as well as an outsider, and his situation permits him—far more than Jack, Jerry, the "American Dream," or Grandma—to bare the problems of conformists and malcontents equally.

George's practical failures are his own choice. He was not born incompetent. Martha tells an anecdote about George's refusal to join a sparring match with her father, the college president, during the wartime fitness-program days; Martha took a playful poke at George then, and he went down. He has refused to assume the organization-man etiquette that would qualify him as her father's heir-apparent. "He'd be no good at trustee's dinners, fundraising," Martha notes accurately. "He didn't have any personality, you know what I mean?" What really was objectionable was George's insistence on his right to individuality; given the situation, he had little choice but freely to choose futility.

Like the other Mommies, Martha is an apotheosis of consumerism. With her teeth "like a cocker spaniel," she chews up ice cubes, drinks, George, the young men of the faculty. She describes her dilemma with images from the movies:

Bette Davis comes home from a hard day at the grocery store … she's a housewife; she buys things … and she comes home with the groceries … and she puts the groceries down, and she says, "What a dump!"…she's discontent.

Martha isn't stupid. She is capable of criticizing her own actions, and she can be very affectionate. But she can have no realistic hope of becoming more than a Discontent Housewife while her imagination remains derivative. For although the general situation of "liberated" American women depends on no one woman, it is only through concrete analysis of her own life that any one woman can escape Martha's indefinable frustrations. Again, the imagination is crucial.

Conformist, repressed, neurotic, the wave-of-the-future couple, Nick and Honey, lack the passionate energy that would enable them to control their own fates. Like their lives, their marriage has been "taken for granted." Unfortunately, Nick is bright, a biologist who experiments with chromosomes in the hope of creating human types to order—an intention that troubles humanist George. This expert in the routine of an impersonal science is lost in Martha and George's highly fantasized world. Since Nick and Honey base their lives on unexamined illusions, George is able in no time to reduce their marriage to obscene dust, remarking, "I hate hypocrisy."

George took up talk after he allowed Martha's father to block publication of his first novel. Martha and George are very good indeed in their repartée; like commedia dell'arte zanies, they repeatedly enact scenes. George is the more devastatingly inventive, but Martha, once off and running, is the more swinishly effective. She achieves barbarisms that aesthetic George must deftly avoid. Yet George plays the game of withering insult with all his being, for imagination is all he has, while Martha regards the combat as a mere escape-valve for emotions firmly rooted in her consumer mentality. This difference becomes clear in the scene where Martha encourages Nick to "hump the hostess." At first she gives George numerous chances to stop her—any sign of compassion or generosity would do it. Why does George prefer to turn to a book? Given his immense stake in the values of lucidity and imagination, he cannot do otherwise: despite the anguish of the moment, George delights in the image of himself reading while Martha sweats in bed upstairs, for this symbolic revelation of their distinct modes of fleeing the world is too splendid!

After Martha's attempted infidelity, George, who had left the house, re-enters with a bunch of snapdragons which he hurls like spears at Martha and Nick: small phalli of his graceful symbolic revenge. In this one scene, George's commitment to imaginary deeds is completely visible. Martha pleads that the adultery didn't really come off, but George keeps hurling the snapdragons. She cries, "Truth or illusion, George. Doesn't it matter to you?" And George hurls another stalk. The truth for Martha is in the act. For George, intention is the truth.

Thus we come to the question of whether the invented child is an artistic error. Since George (and, to a lesser extent, Martha) is both motivated and gifted enough to sustain that myth, my answer is obvious. Sterile in so many ways, they cannot live with their sterility. With the child, George achieves—if only in fantasy—his crazy wish to perpetuate history "in spite of history" and to keep it under his control a little longer. The fantasy-baby gives Martha someone all her own, to use any way she wants, just as countless women have used their actual children. The motives are not extraordinary, although the resources George brings to the project and his final exorcism of the fantasy are.

At the Masque Theatre in New York, shortly after the play opened, Albee was asked what he thought of O'Neill's message in The Iceman Cometh that life-illusions are necessary. He replied that he felt O'Neill had made a very strong case, but that perhaps in the long run it was best for people to try to live with the truth. The tension between truth and illusion is at the heart of Albee's plays. That so many critics condemned the invented child is a comment on the American tendency to respect only the pragmatic and down-to-earth, and to distrust the abstract and intangible. This is the audience's problem, not Albee's—he is entitled to any aesthetic means that work, and this "device" of the child works. However, Albee has been acutely aware of his problems in communicating; his response has been to allow directors, chiefly Alan Schneider, to stress the matter-of-fact possibilities in the scripts, keeping the Broadway customers from confronting the full aesthetic, moral, and intellectual difficulties. But there are side-effects, among them the loss of a perspective in which the more audacious "devices" could be understood.

… Tiny Alice

Tiny Alice again shows a character's sustained effort to live by imagined values. However, this is the first Albee play in which the form of the symbolic transcendence is expressed from within. Everything said and enacted—erotic and ascetic, matter-of-fact and fantastic, incisive and elusive—is Brother Julian's revery.

This is not immediately apparent. The first scene is a struggle over Julian's fate between the forces of humane concern and material temptation; the fight is rigged, as the Cardinal is scarcely more humane than his temptors, Miss Alice and her Lawyer. Offered $100,000,000 a year for twenty years in return for sending Julian—apparently once his lover—to Miss Alice, the Cardinal hardly hesitates. His Church career dominates him even when the pistol is finally raised to kill Julian. As for the Lawyer, the Cardinal is right to describe him as a hyena who tears open at the anus the carrion it finds along the trail of the real predators. (I might add that writers from Freud on have discussed anality as the basis of the capitalist ethos.)

The battle between the Cardinal and the Lawyer is lively but unfair, because whatever its basis in real events it is now occurring in Julian's mind, and is rehearsed only to show cause for Julian's drive toward martyrdom. Critics have generally liked this opening section, but they have failed to grasp the play's development. (Tiny Alice has the logic peculiar to sexual revery; it is compulsive, ambiguous, and obsessive in its events as well as in its language. As Julian tremulously nears the subjective and fantasized heart of his experience, the semblance of rational causation fades. The revery accompanies orgasm or is its sublimated counterpart. We cannot guess this at first. But as the morning sunlight fades into the dark recesses of spirit and the senses the imagery begins to equivocate between gross sensuality and soaring asceticism, and we begin to understand.) Then all light vanishes; the "mouse in the model" on stage—an emblematic Julian—dies. The breath and heartbeat of Julian, or whoever is imagining all this, resound to every corner of the theatre—this is how we hear our own vital organs when relaxing into sleep or, I suppose, death.

In the initial clarity the males included the Lawyer, a hated father-figure who has been Mommy's lover and now schemes to do the dreamer harm, and the Cardinal, who was the beloved but has succumbed to the despicable values of the father-figure. (Enter Mommy as the world's most powerful woman. At first she seems a dreadful hag, but soon she becomes seductive. These exhilarating and terrifying changes correspond to a rising flood of emotion recollected, and not in tranquility. Sexual memories and hallucinations pour forth as the language fragments toward grandiose symbolism or erotic caress. A stable groom with hairtufts on his thumbs; much talk of hair on muscled men's backs; images of penetration by a gladiator's thumbs, by a lion's claws, by the Holy Spirit, all haunt Julian. He recounts the speech of the woman in the asylum who implored the divinity to enter her, a speech climaxed by her verbal "ejaculation" (says Julian), after which all subsided into nothingness. The microcosm of the play's form is in that speech. In turn, a climax to Julian's revery—his ejaculation—comes when the Lawyer fires into the dreamer's abdomen, and the martyr collapses as "blood" spreads over his groin. The other figures, now unimportant, leave. The saint is alone with his pain and ecstasy; his organs throb; the imagining reaches its epiphany.

This is symbolic transcendence with a vengeance. But, although it is grounded in masturbatory fantasy, the play makes powerful statements about the nature of that transcendence and the world which induces some to attempt it. Essentially, Tiny Alice asserts no values other than those men create. Life is "chance," which men edit into "mystery," the purposes they create for themselves. The Cardinal urges Julian to "accept what you do not understand." "We do not know anything," but a man can develop his "special priest-hood" although "an act of faith is required." It is better to "accept" a course leading to saintliness than, like the Cardinal and the Lawyer, to become symbol rather than symbolic transcender. We all are "instruments" whose value, though self-chosen, is conferred from without; it is best to elude the trappings of material power and to answer "How will I know thee, Oh Lord?" with "By my faith!" For, as Julian says, "My faith and my sanity—they are one and the same." All of us are waiting "until the pelvic cancer comes." But to follow one's individual idea of meaningful existence, "not losing God's light, but joining it to my own," is the secret of "how to come out on top, going under." Since "consciousness is pain" and all go under, says Albee, why not at least shape your own path? And he gives us Julian.

We are in the land of a strange metaphysics, communicated through "mental sex play" and with the godhead a woman who becomes, for the pilgrim martyr, anything he requires her to be. Thus Alice is actually "something very small enclosed in something else" (Albee to Newsweek). That "else" is at first her institutional wealth. Then, as Julian moves toward saintliness, Alice becomes the Bride of Christ. As he dies, she cradles him in her arms, deliberately in the pose of Michelangelo's Pietà. Julian has created her, first as his nemesis, haunting him with childhood terrors; then, in his triumphant apostate, she becomes Elysium.

Supporting Julian's web of associations is a neo-Platonic "philosophy" of appearance and substance which Albee takes as a metaphor of symbol and substance in social and aesthetic life. Made concrete on stage in the model of the mansion with its mysterious reflection of outside events, this static system intellectualizes and extrudes what is—and should have remained—implicit in Albee's art. Yet it is not hard to see why Albee wished to elaborate it. His plays are allegories saying "this is the essence of how it is"; that is the function of his family. The Cardinal provides a good example of what this method does and does not achieve. In the Masque Theatre discussion, Albee talked about Brecht's Galileo, which he had seen at the Berliner Ensemble. The scene of the Cardinal-turned-Pope being dressed while the Inquisitor keeps at him for permission to show Galileo the torture instruments had particularly impressed Albee. The meaning of the Brecht scene, however, is in its process: as more and more garments of the Papal authority are placed over his shoulders, and as the footsteps of the faithful continue without cease, the man's consciousness of his obligations to an office and situation becomes overpowering. In contrast, Albee's Cardinal is never capable of choice; allegory rather than process unfolds; the Cardinal merely does what Albee a priori deems necessary to his office; and where Brecht had shown a specific opportunity for a knowing man to exercise a social function with more or less rigidity or humanity, Albee builds a metaphysic while denying man freedom within a social role. Tiny Alice offers one of the purest recent embodiments of the enticing notion that man is born free and enchained by society. No wonder Albee has difficulty showing the dynamics of men within their institutions, and tends to come up with marginal aesthetic "notes," to the damage of his art.


Albee the satirist is without peer among American playwrights as he crisply negates destructive values through the medium of his family. His ability to affirm values, however, is limited by unconscious acceptance of some attitudes of that very consensus he scorns in other respects, and by the family structure he uses so well for scorn. He also is too close to his heroes, so that when he goes beyond satire his language thickens into solemn rhetoric. At the crucial moments—to return to the problems with which I began this essay—Albee is neither untruthful nor unskillful. But taking the plays in their entirety, what Albee despises provides yeast for his drama; what he hopes is too often chaff.

The basis of Albee's affirmation is stated by George, speaking to Nick: "You disgust me on principle, and you're a smug son of a bitch personally, but I'm trying to give you a survival kit. do you hear me?" Nick replies, "up yours!" and George continues:

You take the trouble to construct a civilization… to … to build a society, based on the principles of…of principle … you endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man's mind … you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same … you bring things to the saddest of all points … to the point where there is something to lose … then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours. I suppose there's justice to it, after all the years … Up yours.

The playwright's grimace and defensive wit fall away; the wicked sybarite is uttering a Liberal's cautions. Government is a form of art and art a means of government. The world goes around because of work, principle, morality.

This world is threatened by the moral vacuity of the Nicks and—what? As George refills Nick's glass he tells us:

Here we are … ice for the lamps of China, Manchuria thrown in. To Nick. You better watch those yellow bastards, my love … they aren't amused. Why don't you come over to our side, and we'll blow the hell out of 'em. Then we can split up the money between us and be on easy street. What d'ya say?

George, though sarcastic, is quite serious. The West has somehow allowed the Chinese to grow militant as it goes slack, and resistance to the "yellow bastards" is in order. Their threatening independence might be put down if America could recoup purpose and unity, and overseas wealth would pour in as before.

The meaning of the passage is unequivocal, and casts new light on Albee's championing of pioneer attitudes. Apparently he also favors the Liberal principle of building America by exploiting other peoples: Spanish, French, Mexicans, and above all the Negro and the Indian. George's speech bristles with ugly fear in the face of change. Nor is George alone in expressing this hostility to the aspirations of others. The Nurse in The Death of Bessie Smith also resists such change—again, her speech is not in an ironical context which would "criticize" it, as was her "sick of civilization" speech cited earlier, for example—when she envisions with a shudder a Negro "millenium" and "a great black mob marching down the street, banners in the air." Tiny Alice has nothing but cliché cynicisms to offer on the topic of radical social change. "Every dictator was once a colonel who vowed to retire, once the revolution was over" and "it is easy to postpone elections." Alice even gives money to some revolutions, along with churches, symphonies, and other reliable institutions. One wonders how the example of the American revolution can have been lost on such "thinking," unless the cause be present-day chauvinism. Yet Albee's terror of other people's rebellious autonomy is of a piece with the American Liberal outlook; now, especially, it blinds one to the agencies of historical affirmation. Thus George:

When people can't abide things as they are, when they can't abide the present, they do one of two things … either they turn to a contemplation of the past, as I have done, or they set about to …to alter the future.

His distaste for the latter direction is expressed in a phrase drawn from Martha's sexual conduct: "When you want to change something … you bang! bang! bang!"

Left as he is without acceptable doorways to the future, Albee inevitably must end his American family in sterility. This limits his range as a dramatist. "The discord between the present and the past," as Chekhov said, "is first of all felt in the family," yet if one's imagery ends there, without exploring the worlds of play, struggle, and work, human potential scarcely can be known. Albee has depicted a hospital, a beach, a Cardinal's residence, yet family relations remain paramount for each. If the plays are to be believed, history will end in the aestheticism of symbolic transcendence. History will continue, of course, and will say something about the limits of Albee's dramatic vision.

Drama is the most socially rooted of the arts, and aestheticism as an affirmation has never been wholly comfortable on stage. Because Albee is so incapable of historical affirmations, he identifies too closely with his symbolic transcenders and loses aesthetic distance. These difficulties become audible in George's rhetoric when he is serious: the spark of slang goes and his speech becomes amazingly opaque. This is even more true in Tiny Alice, since all the characters' language is projected in Julian's mind and can be turned into dry cant. Tired, unfelt commonplaces about the Human Condition abound, ritually uttered substitutes for real human conditions enacted in history.

In Tiny Alice a final problem also comes to a head, caused by Albee's uncritical presentation of his heroes. Julian's imagination, which creates the action, is too homosexual for general application or comprehension. Most plays "compromise universality" in the other direction; they generalize and fantasize about existence with an implicit heterosexuality just as narrow, and just as blandly disregard the other side of sexuality. However, though a homosexual viewpoint may make some special contribution, it is less generally valid, balanced, and embracing than is the best pondered heterosexual outlook, given a world in which the homo-sexual still is despised and persecuted. It may be intensively and effectively expressed—Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers, as well as Tiny Alice, shows what remarkable art is thus engendered. But as a rule art gains when a writer pleads nei ther the homosexual nor the heterosexual vision, but maintains a nice understanding and irony for both. The homo-sexual vision is not in itself debilitating; what hurts is not to have it set in the broadest perspective.

Arthur K. Oberg (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee: His Language and Imagination," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XL, No. 1, Spring, 1966, pp. 139-46.

[The following essay explores Albee's "problems with language, " arguing that "Albee's words, seemingly self-generative and unending, become substitutes for real acts. "]

The experience of reading or rereading an Albee play after witnessing its production brings none of the disappointments that follow upon confronting a work of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller in print—a discovery of a thinness of text, a suspicion of whatever emotion or power the play managed to evoke on the stage. 1 Albee, in contrast to these dramatists, reads as well as he plays. Yet, criticism of Albee generally has failed to examine the defining quality of that language and its relation to the world and to the characters that Albee chooses to portray. From The Zoo Story to Tiny Alice we hear "the jazz of a very special hotel," 2 Albee's unmistakable style. An admission of Albee's debt to Ionesco or Beckett or Coward is only to realize how different Albee's dialogue finally is from anything that the theatre has ever known. Acknowledgement of a debt to O'Neill's confessional copia and hacking verbal bitchiness is more helpful, although of a nature that is too general for extended comparison.

Albee's dramatic language is distinguished by its abundance and virtuosity. He has an ear for puns, allusion, and repartee that reveal an inventiveness of the first order. What is heard is a compendium of styles, a style that ranges as wide as the language of any Restoration play. Albee draws upon everything from the high or grand styles of literature down to the vaudeville routines of popular tradition. For the inclusiveness of what gets into the dialogue there is an exclusiveness of reference, joke, and nuance; not every playgoer shares Albee's metaphysical or literary or sexual play of mind, although if Diana Trilling's appraisal of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is correct, a large part of an audience's re-exclusiveness, sponse is aspiration toward this "closed circuit"3 exclusiveness, an intellectual kinship with the very special persons whom Albee depicts in his plays.

The inclusiveness and exclusiveness of Albee's style are one and the same response to a paralyzed societal situation, specifically American. There is mockery with an elitist vengeance. Albee recognizes the humor and poetry latent in cliché and makes his audience superior to the clichés of advertising, army talk, and Armageddon by inventing a pastiche-made dialogue that topples the idols of the market place. 4 In the world of Albee's plays no one is safe and nothing is sacred. Albee's appropriation of styles as different as baby and Indian and body "talk" becomes an attempt to break down the frozen forms of expression that our public lives variously necessitate. Using metaphor as cliché and cliché as metaphor, Albee pushes them as far as they will go, exposing established systems and personal arrangements which outworn metaphor thoughtlessly would perpetuate. Albee stands outside the cliché and looks at the disparities indicated—between institution and icon, embodiment and essence, passive and active agent. The dialogue, in the course of indicating and criticizing these divisions, approaches parody that is in danger of turning back upon itself. Cliché, excessively mocked, dwindles from metaphysics and satire into "sophomoric conundrum" and "semantics." Albee, as brilliantly inventive as Salinger in his prose style, risks being betrayed by a creative inclusiveness and exclusiveness that finds expression in his use of cliché. In trying to embrace and transcend all styles, Albee risks concluding by having no style at all.

If there are side roads along which writers would occasionally lead an audience, Albee's language has its own ways of putting us off and of deflecting our attention from what is central. The humor, the repartee, the self-creating inventiveness and copia can overwhelm; although Albee's style is consciously and defensively circuitous, we may get lost as the words become ends in themselves. Albee's peculiar metaphysical conceits and logic of non sequitur and of il-logic may lead an audience away from the matter at hand. The range and the variety of the dialogue reveal a richness that threatens to make the play stop from time to time as the playwright and his characters lingeringly savor the lines or thoughts involved. Inflicted with the burden of consciousness, Albee's protagonists give voice to both an existential and artistic dilemma. As they are caught in the web and the weaving of words, these characters alternate between exposing and hiding what they would say. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tiny Alice, capitalizing upon what were already tendencies in the early plays, veer both toward lyrical incomprehensibility and hinting understatement. When, as in the case of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Albee exclusively underwrites, he produces a linguistically flat, boring, and fraudulently suggestive play.

What is unfortunate in any critical consideration of Albee is that certain aspects of his dialogue—the satire, the copia, the inventiveness, the showmanship—tend to obscure characteristics of the language which relate to the distinctive strength that the plays elicit in the theatre. The range and the virtuosity of Albee's plays are noticed at the expense of more serious earmarks of the speech. The degree of consciousness that the characters exhibit in formulating their thoughts and in finding and fixing an appropriate language, for example, is intentionally conceived. While comment upon mental and verbal processes from within a play is neither new nor exceptional in the drama, the extent to which Albee's protagonists call attention to the use and mechanism of language merits particular regard. Words are defined, conjugated, declined; from Albee's earliest short plays through Tiny Alice there is repartee in which words and phrases are modified, paraphrased, and corrected. One character refines another's talk, improvising as well at will. Language, a playful and deadly game, forces the Marthas and Georges to indulge in one-upsmanship. They talk for victory and are as conscious of their routines as their guest is made or as Mommy becomes in The American Dream:

Mommy: Nonsense. Old people have nothing to say; and if old people did have something to say, nobody would listen to them. (To Grandma) You see? I can pull that stuff just as easy as you can.

(p. 44)

And in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

Nick (Snapping it out): All right… what do you want me to say? Do you want me to say it's funny, so you can contradict me and say it's sad? or do you want me to say it's sad so you can turn around and say no, it's funny. You can play that damn little game any way you want to, you know!

(p. 33)

After such knowledge there can be neither forgiveness nor naiveté.

As Albee's characters learn what speech can and cannot do, they realize that the efficacy of language lies in manipulating and controlling themselves, others, and the unknown. What can be named is manageable. The danger, most prominent in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is that the rules keep changing and that language, as dialectic, becomes a dangerous game. From Jerry and Peter in The Zoo Story to Julian and Alice in Tiny Alice there is an awareness of mind and language as subterfuge, of words as concealment and exposé. The movement of several plays toward a stripping down process exemplifies this use of language as confessional instrument or agent. An audience is asked repeatedly to entertain speech as more than speech. Language is employed as dialectic and exorcism—in The American Dream Albee uses the metaphysics of cliché to indicate the sterile and outworn lives of Mommy and Daddy; in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the play moves toward a ritualistic disposing of an imaginary love child by George's recitation of prayers for the dead in Latin. Words, both white and black magic, are wielded as weapon and talisman, and in the dialogues of Albee's plays there are stretches of talk when we hear unmistakable psychoanalytic couch technique. But as language reaches toward therapeutic use there are also reminders and instances of words losing their reference points, terrible moments in which the characters seem to be speaking in different languages. Although language can function as more than speech, there are times when it functions as much less. Words cease to behave as denotative and connotative indices, and the characters work to restore words to old meanings or to raise them to new ones. While an Albee protagonist does not join Beckett's Maddy in his extremity of "struggling with a dead language," 5 neither does he voice assurance that individual meanings cannot be lost or slip or die.

If we can get beyond the verbal and mental façade of an Albee play to probe what makes The Zoo Story or The Death of Bessie Smith or Tiny Alice a moving experience, we are struck by a pathos dictated by facts of loneness and loneliness and fear. And it is language to which Albee resorts to fill up the time and the tedium, much like the intent and impression of dialogue in a Beckett play. But something else is involved. Words are employed by Albee's characters as a means of getting through to one another, even when this is possible only by the infinite capacity of words to wound and hurt.' Behind the words of Jerry or George we hear all that is painful and pathetic. While language alternates between relentless directness and hinting vagueness (an uncertain "him" or "you-know-what," a reference without antecedent) an audience watches as the characters press the limit of their vocabularies. This limit has no end. Dialogue, never adequate, attempts to surround what it would control, seeking victory in its copia and in an intensity which is related to this abundance. Against the hacking bitchiness of Albee's dialogue no "survival kit" exists. We are subjected to the kind of afternoon or evening the play provides precisely because of the pain involved, a pain that the variety and creativity of the dialogue would desperately hide or at least divert from our notice.

As the rhythms and rapid reversals of Albee's plays establish themselves, language strives not only to function as more than speech but to replace character and action, and to do so entirely. In Albee's world one confronts "special people, special problems" (Tiny Alice, p. 135). From Jerry to Julian, Albee is concerned with presenting studies in alienation, 7 characters who are unable to relate to the outside world of human relationships. Unable to "relate"—as key a word in Albee as "contact," "rapport," or "syntax"—Albee's protagonists look to language to forge whatever identity and relationship their lives have lacked. The most real thing about Jerry or Grandma or Martha is their words. In the absent Bessie Smith what is most energetic is her song. By turn confessional and obsessive, healing and lethal, their language allows them a confidence and strength that their daily human or even, as in Jerry's case, animal contacts deny or inadequately furnish.

While Albee's characters join a long line of contemporary American and European dramatic protagonists in their painful attempts to "relate," Albee goes on to create the illusion of relationships by a copia in language, a "syntax" that masquerades as character and action. This creates as uncomfortable a situation for an audience as that presented in T. S. Eliot's plays where it is behavior, partly reflected in speech, that masquerades as action. Albee's words, seemingly self-generative and unending, become substitutes for real acts. As verbal and "mental sex play" (Tiny Alice, p. 112), language turns into masturbation, and speeches in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comment upon this most revealingly:

George: But you've moved bag and baggage into your own fantasy world now, and you've started playing variations on your own distortions. …

(p. 155)

George (Chuckles, takes his drink): Well, you just hold that thought, Martha … hug it close … run your hands over it. Me, I'm going to sit down … if you'll excuse me … I'm going to sit over there and read a book.

(p. 168)

Whatever "contact" Albee's characters manage to establish in the early plays is achieved exclusively within and by means of words. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tiny Alice the verbal veneer more frequently cracks, and Albee is increasingly aware of foreshadowing a world of human relationships beyond the dramatic syntax of language. Julian's monologues are anticipated in Martha's speech at the opening of Act III when she admits feelings that language finally can neither replace nor hide:

I cry all the time too, Daddy. I cry allllll the time; but deep inside, so no one can see me. I cry all the time. And Georgie cries all the time, too. We both cry all the time, and then, what we do, we cry, and we take our tears, and we put 'em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays (Begins to laugh) until they're all frozen (Laughs even more) and then … we put them … in our … drinks.

(pp. 185-86).

George cried in the earlier acts of the play, but under the continual barrage of words this is likely to be forgotten. Un-like a Pirandello play, the overwhelming impression of an Albee play is not one of life and feeling continually asserting itself and breaking out of the confines of art. There is something about an Albee play that in the end is claustrophobic. Whatever contact a character is able to attain outside of language occurs too infrequently and is too sketchily imagined. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the amount of drinking and hacking bitchiness is too intense to allow an audience to posit any substantially real life for Martha and George outside their braying words or after the play. Yet the possibility of such a life is essential if the destruction of the imaginary love child is to be effective beyond its immediate dramatic impact. As for Albee's conception of the wedded state, it seems little more than some third-rate, pulp fiction perception of marriage as hellish argument and being good in bed.

A similar shortcoming in perspective appears in Tiny Alice where physical, heterosexual relations (here seen as epiphany, seduction, and the third and fourth removed reciting and discussion of a D. H. Lawrence poem) take on the feel of mock actions. Albee's problems with language are compounded with and related to those of sex, as we already noted in his confusion of words with orgasm. Unable to conceive of heterosexual relations as anything more than the marriage of a Martha and George or than the relationship of Julian with the physical Alice or with the woman at the asylum, Albee also falls short of establishing "aestheticism as an affirmation" or "symbolic transcendence," achievements which have been remarked in his plays.8 For there must first be viable, concrete intimations of real relationships in order that transcendent ideals may be seriously entertained.

Just as the satire and inventiveness of an Albee play are in-adequate to explain its power in the theatre, so is Albee's homosexual imagination inadequate to the characters and action of his work. Although the Tyrones are long on their journey into night before the curtain ever rises, there is at least in O'Neill the memory of a time when marriage or the family were more than monstrous conceptions. There is nothing inherently sacred about either family or heterosexual life, but Albee's criticism or attempted transcendence of them loses conviction in the face of his holding only a poor idea of what they might have been like. As a result, behind the lunging language of the plays there is more pathos than terror. An hysterical note keeps slipping through the words, and words prove as incomplete as Albee's perspectives. To argue that Albee has made whatever contacts he knows how addresses a consideration that ought never to have been raised. The plays are admittedly dramatic; the texts, impres sive; Albee, intellectually honest. But in the end we must return to the plays, an art in which Albee expects language to accomplish too much and in which his confined vision of human relationships begs for alternatives. In The American Dream a hint of the family as other than nightmare might have prevented satire from turning into caricature. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? some notion of only the possibility of a creative marriage—something like that presented in John Updike's short story, "Wife-Wooing"—might have been useful. And in Tiny Alice a clearer idea of the real life or "dimension" that Julian rejects might have resulted in less aesthetic confusion and in a more satisfying and major play.


1The choreographic production of an Elia Kazan has done much to create the impression that the text of a Williams or Miller play is stronger than in truth it is.

2Edward Albee, The Zoo Story, in The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, and The Sandbox (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1960), p. 30. Other page references given in the text are to the following editions of Albee's plays: The American Dream (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1961); Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (New York: Atheneum, 1962); Tiny Alice (New York: Atheneum, 1965).

3Diana Trilling, "The Riddle of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Claremont Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964), p. 219. Diana Trilling borrows this phrase from Mary McCarthy who originally used it of J. D. Salinger's work. An interesting analogy might also be made with Samuel Beckett's "closed set," "closed field" technique and dialectic noted by Hugh Kenner, Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), pp. 92-93.

4For a comparison of Albee's clichés with those of Pinter and Ionesco see Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), pp. 226-27.

5Samuel Beckett, All That Fall, in Krapp 's Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1960), p. 80.

6The number of references to speech as weapon and as all kinds of weapons in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is significantly large.

7For a study of Albee's social estrangement in a mechanized America see Peter Wolfe, "The Social Theater of Edward Albee," Prairie Schooner XXXIX (Fall 1965), 248-62. For a study of Albee's aesthetic distancing see Thomas B. Markus, "Tiny Alice and Tragic Catharsis," ETJ, XVII (October 1965), 225-33.

8Lee Baxandall, "The Theatre of Edward Albee," TDR, IX(Summer 1965), pp. 39,25.

Henry Knepler (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee: Conflict of Tradition," in Modern Drama, Vol. 10, No. 3, December 1967, pp. 274-79.

[In the essay below, Knepler examines Albee's uneasy mixture of the American dramatic tradition, with its emphasis on rationality, causation, and explanation, with elements of the Theatre of the Absurd, with its stress on senselessness and incomprehension.]

In The Introduction To His Excellent Collection American Playwrights on Drama Horst Frenz remarks, axiomatically, that "O'Neill never founded a school." He is right, of course, if one considers school to refer to the usual stylistic or structural elements of drama. In the Marlovian or Racinian sense O'Neill did not found a school. In the sense in which his work has become engrained in the American dramatic tradition, however, he did. I do not mean the rather facile, negative sense which Professor Frenz refers to in the same sentence: "O'Neill never founded a school, and the constant experimenting and frequent change of style, which are so noticeable in his work, characterize the work of other American dramatists as well." Mere eclecticism of theatrical modes is not the cohering element of a school or a tradition.

Nor has the American drama "sprung full-grown from the imagination of Eugene O'Neill" as it seems to Robert Brustein. Somewhere between these poles lies the meeting ground of O'Neill's talent and the cultural forces through which the drama in America developed into a reasonably coherent literary tradition. That this tradition has a strong affinity for psychological or psychiatric or psycho-analytic modes needs no particularly extended rehearsal. But, again, these modes are not what gives American dramatic literature its particular cohesive quality. The Freudian couch which hovers, Chagall-like, over the American drama, is not of itself a tradition, only a manifestation of it. Rather, the same forces which spread the psycho-analytic interest until it pervaded much of American intellectual life, also underlie the tradition.

Perhaps unawares himself, Arthur Miller characterizes its source: " … by force of circumstance I came early and unawares to be fascinated by sheer process itself. How things connected. How the native personality of man was changed by his world, and the harder question, how he in turn could change the world." The key word is repeated in the passage: how. How to build a better mousetrap. How to fix our cities, our youth, our wars, our world, our inner and outer selves. The interest in psycho-analysis is therefore part of a montage made up of, among other things, urban renewal, Dale Carnegie, prohibition, mass education, and what Theodore H. White calls the action-intellectuals. This is said in all seriousness; the American willingness to change things, from cars to countries, is no laughing matter. This leaves man a world in the process of amending itself to which he must make a running adjustment as best he can, his radar spinning away, in David Riesman's analogy, in search of other friendly bleeps in the void.

Eugene O'Neill, transforming personal necessity into brilliant drama, not so much established the tradition as translated it from the larger scene to the stage. In the context of the drama that world view had of course to be made explicit in terms of conflict: this explains not so much the attention as the kind of attention paid to sex and to the family: in the American tradition they do not merely become opponents in a tug of war; the pervasive concern with understanding, explaining and amending them makes them roadstations on the Calvary of change. They are of course also the factors, or reputed to be so, which send American man to the psychiatrist, thereby providing the obverse of the coin: Our fascination with process sends us to the repairshop. And it also gives us the idea that all things can be fixed, if we try hard enough. At this junction of consequence and desire resides the American dream.

In the plays which Edward Albee has written so far the conflict between two traditions, the American and the Absurd, is fierce, because they are intellectually incompatible and because he attempts to use both simultaneously.

The American prescribes that man must attempt to make sense of his environment and, moreover, that someday, somehow, he will. The Absurd, as stated by Martin Esslin (and quoted, with disapproval, by Albee) "attempts to make [man] face up to the human condition as it really is, to free him from illusions that are bound to cause constant maladjustment and disappointment… For the dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its senselessness." Albee fights that senselessness with all the brilliance of his characterization, his dialogue and his symbols, while at the same time using the modes and theatrical elements of the Absurd: the disembodied static situation; the hints of other dimensions beyond the real or visible; the allegorical maze; and so on. He uses the means or themes of the Absurd to portray the human condition: isolation; repetition; illusion. But he uses them in the American manner: isolation is very conscious and involuntary; repetition is guiltily self-imposed and recognized; and illusion is hallucinatory, mad, i.e., a clinical matter. And he puts it all in the sexual, familial context of O'Neill, Miller, Williams and Inge. This paper attempts to single out some of the results in Albee's work of the conflict between the two traditions. It does not give an over-all evaluation of his work; it merely tries to describe a sub-surface conflict creating surface dramatic problems which, moreover, Albee seems to be resolving. His latest play, A Delicate Balance, veers rather strongly back to the tradition of O'Neill.

In his two earliest plays, The Zoo Story and The Death of Bessie Smith, Albee handles the familial, sexual causality directly. As Jerry tells it in The Zoo Story "… good old Mom walked out on good old Pop when I was ten and a half years old; she embarked on an adulterous turn of our southern states …" The second scene of Bessie Smith shows the dominance of the Nurse over the would-be in-valid father, and their hate for each other, which in turn underlies her domination of her would-be lover, the Intern, and of the Orderly, a Negro, and in turn is vaguely made to underlie not only her racism but all racism. This causal element is of course only one aspect of a series of subtle and complex relationships. The point about this element is, however, that it stands out in both plays and serves, espe cially in The Zoo Story, as an almost gratuitous addition to a wealth of other material characterizing Jerry and his position. It stands out, I am inclined to think, as if Albee had felt that, without this bit of Freudian byplay, Jerry or even the Nurse would have been incomplete.

Albee's next play, The American Dream, with its satellite, The Sandbox, need only be compared to Ionesco's Bald Soprano and Pinter's Collection to show the familial, always heavily sensual, as the burial ground of the human condition. Mommy and Daddy are as desiccated as Mr. and Mrs. Smith in Ionesco's play or the couple in Pinter's, but then-condition differs. Mr. and Mrs. Smith show, perhaps, the aimless boredom of middle class existence, the Pinter couple displays the cruelty of replacement and renewal, but Mommy and Daddy are held together by the perdurable hoops of steel made of impotence and guilt, the chief fixings of all couch-based fixes.

In Albee's first full-length play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Mommy moves toward reality and becomes Martha, the castrating wife, in a three hour running battle all in the family. In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, an adaptation of Carson McCullers' novella, Miss Amelia's marriage to Marvin Macy is a necessary part of her Calvary. In Tiny Alice, Miss Alice's marriage to Julian is part of his Calvary—and a very explicit Calvary at that. Mommy and Daddy reappear in A Delicate Balance—softened, more rounded and more realistic, tending toward Inge rather than Ionesco, beset by friends fleeing from a nameless threat, by a daughter back from her third or fourth divorce, and an alcoholic sister as the commentator character. Divorce and alcoholism, like impotence, homosexuality, and loss of religious faith underlie the variations, presented with often great subtlety, of man's isolation without and within himself.

To seal this isolation Albee uses a psychological variant of a device which James O'Neill, Eugene's father, would have remembered well. In nineteenth century drama it was known as the Pathetic Child. With Albee it becomes the would-be child, ranging from the symbolically emasculated young man in The American Dream to the alienated divorcee in A Delicate Balance. The phantom child in Virginia Woolf is the most interesting. Martha and George have invented a child for themselves; it is a secret between them, whose disclosure to visitors leads to George's "killing" him, by means of a fictitious telegram about a car accident at his fictitious college. I was struck by the parallel to Salinger's story "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut": there, a small girl, alone and alienated from her mother, invents a playmate for herself. When the mother tells a friend about that phantom playmate, the little girl has him killed in a car accident, and calmly invents another. The same air of contamination pervades the story as the play. In Virginia Woolf George and Martha are really children in a statement on arrested development which corresponds to freudian theory. The variations continue: Miss Amelia, in the Sad Cafe, adapts rather than adopts the little hunchback Cousin Lymon as one would a child; she loses him when he runs off with her would-be husband Marvin Macy, to whom she refused to bear a child. The most complicated man-child relationship is in Albee's most equivocal play, Tiny Alice. In different ways the play deals with two children. Brother Julian, the protagonist, in his morning-glory freshness and honesty, is the innocent fallen among the thieves. The other child is part-object of a story he himself tells. An inmate of a mental hospital believes herself to be with child; a medical exami-nation discloses that she has a fatal cancer of the womb. The edifice of symbols surrounding this simple event is a fretwork of mirrors of illusions: the woman believes that she is the Virgin Mary; Julian committed himself to the mental hospital in which she was a patient because of his loss of religious faith which was accompanied by hallucinations. Because of these hallucinations he is not sure if he did or did not have intercourse with the woman. The whole structure of illusion therefore has a medical bent which is also noticeable in other Albee plays. The imaginary child in Virginia Woolf is an indication of his parents' sickness, just as the emasculated and therefore perfect American Dream-boat is of the sickness of society. The Delicate Balance is the one between sanity and insanity, or what we believe these two states to be. The guests who foist themselves upon Agnes and Tobias in that play are driven from their home by an undescribed, hallucinatory experience. Albee, though he may not have intended this, cannot rid his plays of the idea that illusion is sick, or at least a matter of clinical concern. The prevalence of would-be children whether as phantoms, like in Tiny Alice and Virginia Woolf, or as seemingly grown up, like in The American Dream and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe has therefore a double function: isolation and illusion. Except for a few culture heroes like Grandma (The American Dream) and Martha's father (Virginia Woolf) men and women are seen as children and therefore given to illusions. The child-man relationship is not Wordsworthian, however; it is a case of arrested development, of stunted growth or maturity, according to psycho-analytic principles. The trap of human illusion which is sprung for us in The Caretaker or Waiting for Godot has no such causes, nor could it have.

Repetition, the third major element singled out here, is a central aspect of the Absurd drama. The Bald Soprano is a perpetuum mobile, ending with the same lines as the opening. The Balcony has its variations of a theme in the brothel; repetition is the point in The Collection; The Dumb Waiter has its hired killers doing just another job; and so on. Repetition serves Albee in the same manner, but it also gets in his way at times. As we watch Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, we find that Nick and Honey are not the first victims drawn and quartered on the battleground of Martha and George. The battle is permanent which would make it a condition rather than a process. So Albee contradicts and weakens his impact in several ways: at the end of the play the phantom child has been liquidated, and the ground rules of battle are changed thereby. And Honey, who was afraid of childbirth before, leaves the inferno wanting a child. (She has just one line, one moment, to indicate that, which makes it appear more like the old crime movie where the last sixty seconds show that crime, so lovingly portrayed for eighty-nine minutes, does not pay.)

In Tiny Alice the trouble is exactly the opposite: the uniqueness of the situation, so obviously desired for Julian, is undermined by symbols and conversation until one gets a kind of déjà vu effect, as if Miss Alice and her crew were quite used to swatting such flies as Julian. Repetition and illusion are closely linked in Albee's work. There is comfort in repetition and pattern, comfort for children to witness expected and expectable events, comfort for all ages, if we can see that terrifying constant process of change somehow patterned; comfort especially if we remember that the kindly clinician needs to be able to find the pattern in order to cure. That, perhaps, accounts for the occurrence of symbols in circular patterns, often great swaths of interlocking circles. In Virginia Woolf, for example, George tells Nick the story of a prep school friend who advertently-inadvertently killed his parents, later ran his car into a tree, and ended his days in a mental institution. The story reappears as George's own, though we cannot be sure of that, and also as a novel he wrote, which was suppressed by his formidable father-inlaw, the President of the College. In the end George reports that the death of the phantom son occurred in the same way as the suicide attempt of the prep school boy.

At times, these great swaths of symbols look most like the creations of a talented, malicious child who wants to provide happy hunting grounds for English teachers. My favorite is the commingling of blood and wine, semen and blood, stringing together a great edifice of sex and faith in Tiny Alice. In the end blood turns back to wine, the bottles of the magnificent wine cellar, poorly tended, are popping the rotting corks; especially of a superb Mouton Rothschild—Blood of the Lamb indeed!

A New Yorker cartoon not long ago depicts a group of men and women on folding chairs around a table, on a stage: a first reading of a play. One man is up, talking, his foot on his chair: the director. The caption says: "Now, the first thing we have to get straight is what exactly Aristophanes was trying to say." Albee plays on our culturally conditioned desire to get behind things, to see, in Arthur Miller's phrase, "how things connect." With O'Neill this was legitimate, so to speak, a genuine desire caused by a genuine anguish. With Albee it seems to be a structure consciously made up of rewards and punishments for the audience, which perhaps makes him a Pavlovian rather than a Freudian in the American theatrical tradition. He challenges us deliberately, he dares us to look behind what he says. He does it brilliantly, with a wealth of talent in construction, in dialog, in imagery. Perhaps he is both admired and disliked because his nowyou-see-it-now-you-don't view of the human condition gives us the kind of inside dope we currently deserve.

C. W. E. Bigsby (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee," in Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama, 1959-66, University of Missouri Press, 1967, pp. 71-92.

[In the essay below, Bigsby examines Albee's "insistence on the need to abandon a faith in illusion. "]

American drama in the early sixties has been effectively dominated by one man. In three years Edward Albee took the American theatre by storm. His first play, The Zoo Story (1959) was greeted by The Villager as, 'The finest play, written by an American, that can be seen for love or money' while Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? received the New York Drama Critics Circle award for the season 1962-3. Indeed this, his first full-length play, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by that Committee's drama jury. The nomination was, however, rejected because, in the words of W. D. Maxwell, a member of the advisory board, 'I thought it was a filthy play'.1

Albee, like Gelber, has shown himself to be fully aware of the vision of the European absurdists and indeed he has adopted both their analogical method (The Zoo Story) and their style (The American Dream). At the same time, however, again in common with Gelber, he has been struck by the insufficiency of their vision. If Solly, in The Connection, represented merely a potential, in Albee's plays that potential is realised and confrontation is accepted as the necessary basis for a life which if absurd in origin need not be so in fact. Albee accepts Camus's suggested progression from absurdity to love and his plays, starting with The Zoo Story and progressing to Tiny Alice and A Delicate Balance, are directly concerned with that 'momentous enlightment' which leads to a 'real companionship, founded on truth and purged of all falsehood'. Where Gelber has become frozen in stylistic revolt Albee has refined both his method and his thought in formulating a genuine alternative both to illusion and to despair. Indeed in some senses this process of refinement has gone too far so that Tiny Alice is in danger of degenerating into mere esoteric theorising.

Albee's faith is essentially that which Bellow insists upon in Henderson the Rain King, which was published in the same year as The Zoo Story. Indeed it is interesting to note just how closely these two writers' philosophies match one another. To both writers the self is seen as a barrier between the individual and the rest of humanity. Ihab Hassan, in his book Radical Innocence, has pointed out that the natural progress of Bellow's heroes is from humiliation to humility2—a process which purges this egocentricity while establishing the need for acceptance. This progress is equally true of Albee's protagonists who similarly come to understand that genuine existence lies only through the acceptance of reality and the establishment of a true relationship between individuals. Ironically this is a lesson which both Henderson and Jerry, the protagonist of The Zoo Story, derive from a contact with animals. In Henderson the Rain King it is a lion whose unavoidable qualities teach Henderson the need for acceptance and thus love while in Albee's play the same lesson is taught by a dog.

The Zoo Story describes the life which man has created for himself as a 'solitary free passage' characterised by indifference towards others. The isolation, which is the result of this attitude towards life, is stressed by the image of the zoo which is established in the course of the play as a valid image for man who has come to accept loneliness as the norm of existence. Albee's thesis is that there is a need to make contact, to emerge from these self-imposed cages of convention and false values so that one individual consciousness may impinge on another. This act he defines as love.

The New York Times has called The Zoo Story'a harrowing portrait of a young man alienated from the human race'. Yet ironically the play is dedicated to demonstrating that this alienated individual, a man in his late thirties called Jerry, has more sense of the urgent necessity for human contact than does society itself. Jerry has reached a moment of crisis. The purposelessness of his life has begun to evidence itself in his appearance. He is 'not poorly dressed, but carelessly'; his body 'has begun to go fat'. As Albee says, 'His fall from physical grace should not suggest debauchery, he has, to come closest to it, a great weariness' (Z.S. p. 11). The origin of this weariness is his growing realisation of the gulf which exists between him and his fellow men. As he admits, 'I don't talk to many people—except to say like: give me a beer, or where's the john, or what time does the feature go on, or keep your hands to yourself, buddy' (Z.S. p. 17). Jerry's isolation is complete. Not only does he know nothing of those who share his rooming house—itself in a state of dilapidation which mirrors Jerry's own decline—but he is also effectively cut off from the past. His parents are long dead and the two picture frames which he owns are both empty. But having undergone a sudden enlightenment, a perception of the need for real human contact, he sets out across Central Park to pass on his new-found message. There he meets Peter, the epitome of middle-class complacency.

Peter is 'neither fat nor gaunt, neither handsome nor homely'. He is, in fact, virtually non-existent. His opinions are shaped by Time magazine and his values are those of a society to whom status and income rank before communication. He is sitting on his bench in Central Park precisely because here no demands can be made on him. He is remote from other people. If he exists as little more than a stereo-type with no individuating characteristics this is essentially how Albee sees him. The world he lives in is essentially that of the American dream. Indeed even his marriage is revealed by Jerry's relentlessly probing questions to be little more than a social contract in which the dominance of the woman has emasculated the man and thus denied the necessity even of sexual contact. In a real sense, therefore, Peter is ultimately as isolated as Jerry had been.

To Albee, rather as to Karl Jaspers, modern society has detached itself from fundamentals and has created a new system of values by which the pursuit of material wealth and technological efficiency have come to replace basic human needs. As Philip Mairet says, paraphrasing Jasper's beliefs, these new values 'console man with the feeling that he is progressing, but make him neglect or deny fundamental forces of his inner life which are then turned into forces of destruction'.3 Jerry's function in The Zoo Story is literally to 'save' Peter; to bring him back into a genuine relationship with his fellow man.

Jerry attempts to establish the importance of human contact by explaining the source of his own conversion. He describes a macabre duel which he had fought with a dog. This dog had attacked him each time he had entered his rooming house. Anxious to avoid contact he had tried at first to placate it with food, feeling as he did so rather as if he were offering a sop to Cerberus. When this had failed, he explains to Peter, he had then attempted to kill it. Only when the dog was dying, however, had he suddenly realised that some sort of connection had been possible between the dog and himself—a contact which his action had aborted. It was at this point that Jerry had experienced his 'momentous enlightenment' for he had realised the absolute need for contact between human beings. As he says to Peter, who is clearly disturbed by the story, 'if you can't deal with people, you have to start somewhere, with animals'. (Z.S. p. 34.) When Peter refuses to learn the lesson implicit in the parable Jerry goes on explicitly to insist on the validity of animals as an image for humanity, 'I went to the zoo to find out more about the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other, and with people too. It probably wasn't a fair test. What with everyone separated by bars from everyone else, the animals for the most part from each other, and always the people from the animals. But, if it's a zoo, that's the way it is' (Z.S. p. 39-40).

With this insistence on the validity of the zoo as an image for human beings consciously cut off from their kind Jerry comes finally to the conclusion that only through the stimulus of violence will any permanent contact be established. Neither allegory nor direct statement has succeeded in bringing Peter face to face with what Jerry sees as the ba sic problem of humanity. When his right to possession of the bench is challenged Peter's indignant reply shows that all of Jerry's comments about the evil of human isolation have had no impact. 'I see no reason why I should give up this bench. I sit on this bench almost every Sunday afternoon … It's secluded here; there's never anyone sitting here, so I have it all to myself (Z.S. p. 41). Jerry recognises that his defence of the bench has become not only a defence of the solitariness of the human condition but also a justification of the values of a society which, it is implied, distracts man from the real problem of human existence. Jerry's retort expresses Albee's belief that absurdity stems not from the human situation but from man's response to that situation—a response which values the achievement of success above genuine fulfilment. 'You have everything in the world you want; you've told me about your home, and your family, and your own little zoo. You have everything, and now you want this bench. Are these the things men fight for? Tell me, Peter, is this bench, this iron and this wood, is this your honor? Is this the thing in the world you'd fight for? Can you think of anything more absurd?' (Z.S. p. 44). Jerry throws Peter a knife and by deliberate insults provokes the violence which ensures that he will not be able to escape the consequences. As Jerry thrusts himself onto the knife one is conscious of the fusion of sexuality and violence which has emerged as a mark of the urge to establish contact. There can be little doubt that contact has at last been established and that Peter will never be able to return to his bench of isolation, 'You won't be coming back here any more, Peter; you've been dispossessed. You've lost your bench' (Z.S. pp. 48-9). The message which Jerry had received from the dog in violence he has now passed on to his fellow man also in violence. Like Saul Bellow's Henderson Albee seems to subscribe to the belief that truth comes 'in blows'. Both Jerry and Henderson are shaken out of their private worlds of solitude and illusion by an enlightenment forced on them by an animal. As Henderson admits, '… unreality! That has been my scheme for a troubled but eternal life. But now I am blasted away from this practice by the throat of the lion. His voice was like a blow at the back of my head'.4

The Zoo Story is thus concerned with stressing the inadequacy of illusion—an illusion which is in essence the American dream. Peter, as we have seen, is a successful man. He has an executive position, a good salary, a family—and he is totally hollow and unaware of the needs of human beings. When Jerry had asked, 'Don't you have any idea, not even the slightest, what other people need?'' Peter's reply had equated need with physical possessions, 'Well, you don't need this bench. That's for sure' (Z.S. p. 45). Peter's failure stems from the fact that he has never dared to confront the reality of his life—the reality which Jerry meticulously and brutally lays bare. The compromise which he has reached with his life has left him effectively emasculated and totally solitary and yet it is not until Jerry forces him to confront this reality that he becomes aware of any insufficiency. Jerry realises that to Peter he is only 'a permanent transient' in 'the greatest city in the world. Amen' (Z.S. p. 37) but step by step he brings him to an acceptance of the fact that he has come to accept his pointlessly mundane existence, in the same way that a child uses pornographic playing cards, 'as a substitute for real experience' (Z.S. p. 27).

The Zoo Story is concerned, then, with redemption, for Peter is not only brought into a new and more meaningful relationship with reality but is introduced to the need for that genuine human contact which is the antithesis of absurdity. It is clear that Albee would agree with Bellow's Henderson when he says that, 'it's love that makes reality reality'5 although it is equally clear that this is a humanistic concern for fellow men and not that sexuality which serves merely to emasculate.

While Albee was content, in The Zoo Story, merely to sketch in the details of an absurd society, in The American Dream, written in the following year but not produced until 1961, he examines the alternative to confrontation. In doing so he borrows directly the techniques of the theatre of the absurd and demonstrates the vacuity of a society which refuses either to accept compassion or the need to embrace reality. While The American Dream is not directly concerned with confrontation it is worth dwelling on it for a moment for in this play Albee clearly identifies his vision of the absurd—a vision which differs fundamentally from the deterministic absurdity of a European drama derived out of Camus. At the same time it is apparent that through this oneact satire Albee is continuing to urge the need for genuine human contact based on a clear perception of the real.

Albee's play is dedicated to revealing the inadequacy of the American Dream—that faith in the inevitability and value of success which Horatio Alger had propounded. It is, as Albee himself has said, 'an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen'.6 The Dream itself is a young man's vision of the future. It is a belief that the here and now is unimportant or that it is merely a step towards the achievement of some ambition which equates wealth with happiness and social acceptance with fulfilment. The future holds out the assurance of success to the young and guarantees a world where everything is 'peachy-keen'. It is a philosophy which must measure worth by utility since achievement is, according to the Dream, evaluated solely by material criteria. By this utilitarian approach, however, people become as liable to obsolescence as do machines. In Albee's play Daddy has fulfilled his social function in marrying Mommy and supplying her with the money which she had coveted while she in turn has completed her function in submitting to his sexual demands. All this lies in the past, however, and all Daddy can do now is to moan plaintively, 'I just want to get everything over with' (A.D. p. 70)—a complaint which clearly threatens the substance of the Dream itself. When he does make a concession to the Dream it is in the form of lip- service paid to the validity of ambition. 'All his life, Daddy has wanted to be a United States Senator; but now … he's changed his mind, and for the rest of his life he's going to want to be Governor … it would be nearer the apartment, you know' (A.D. p. 83).

In a functional society the characters are identified by their function. For the most part they are ciphers whose very hollowness is a reflection of the emptiness of the values by which they live. Mommy and Daddy, the endearing terms of family relationships, are identified with casual indifference and expediency on the one hand and emasculated ineffectualness on the other. The only character identified by name is Mrs. Barker and her name is consistently ignored or forgotten. In accepting the standards of society they have lost their individuality and hence their names. Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, the Young Man and Mrs. Barker are the expressionistic realisation of a society in which the humanising aspects of pity, affection and love have given way to a cold, clinical rationalisation which substitutes commercial value for worth and 'cool disinterest' for concern with fellow man.

The traditional foundation and justification of the Dream rests in the home and the family unit. While it is surely between the members of a family that contact can be expected to be initiated Albee shows not only that this initiative is not attempted but that a false scale of values leads to a positive widening of the gap between individuals. Daddy, who is emasculated as a result of an operation, no longer has any physical contact with his wife who has long before shown her disinclination for such contact. The situation is, in fact, reminiscent of that which has pertained in Peter's family life in The Zoo Story.

Marriage is seen by Mommy as no more than a social contract in which she has bought wealth and security with sexuality. It is a commercial transaction. 'We were very poor! But then I married you, Daddy, and now we're very rich… I have a right to live off you because I married you, and because I used to let you get on top of me and bump your uglies' (A.D. pp. 66-7). If the word 'love' occurs in the dialogue it is in such a context as to emphasise the devaluation of its meaning. Mommy states her iove' for Grandma but is at the same time planning to have her committed to a home. She brings to her family relationships the criteria of the world of commerce. She seeks above all 'satisfaction'. When her adopted child fails to give her this satisfaction she dismembers it and kills all its senses of compassion, love and affection. The true value of this 'satisfaction' becomes apparent, however, when Mommy greets the Young Man, whom Grandma identifies as the personification of the American Dream, with the toast, 'To satisfaction! Who says you can't get satisfaction?' (A.D. p. 126). For although he has an attractive manner and is 'almost insultingly good-looking in a typically American way' (A.D. p. 107) it is clear that he is as impotent as Daddy. In fact it transpires that he is the brother of the child whom Mommy had mutilated and that he has suffered injuries corresponding to those inflicted by her. These injuries have left him 'incomplete' and deprived of the emotions which prompt and facilitate human contact. 'I cannot touch another person and feel love … I no longer have the capacity to feel anything. I have no emotions … I let people touch me … I let them draw pleasure from my groin … from my presence … from the fact of me … but, that is all it comes to. As I told you, I am incomplete … I can feel nothing … I am …but this … what you see' (A.D. p. 115). Thus the faith of this society is placed solely in illusion—in the Dream. The failure to confront reality prevents the establishment of any meaningful relationships. Love becomes impossible and absurdity is accepted as the norm.

The American Dream has been identified by Martin Esslin as an integral part of the theatre of the absurd. While it is true that there are several points of contact between the theatre of the absurd and Albee's work, there does, however, remain one central difference. Esslin derives his definition of the absurd from Camus and Ionesco. Camus says, '… in a universe that is suddenly deprived of all illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an inemediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity'.7 Absurdity for Camus, therefore, derives directly from the human situation. Albee's expressionistic satire is directed, however, not at the fatuity of life per se but rather the nullity to which a false response reduces it. Where Camus suggests that man 'deprived of all illusions … feels a stranger' Albee contends, on the contrary, that absurdity lies in a continued adherence to illusion. Ionesco defines the absurd as 'that which is devoid of purpose … Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless'.8 To Albee a man who is cut off from his religious and transcendental roots still remains a man. Only when he cuts himself off from the reality of his situation does he lose his humanity and become absurd. Albee is not concerned with the absurdity of reality but rather the absurdity of illusion. The target for his satire is the American Dream.

Stylistically The American Dream accepts the European contention that absurdity is most logically portrayed by a non-rational form which reflects and extends the theme. The influence of Beckett and Ionesco is largely restricted to style, however, for Albee insists on a potential for amelioration which would be denied by the European dramatists. His attack on 'the substitution of artificial for real values in our society' assumes the validity of these 'real values' while in the person of Grandma he demonstrates his belief in the viability of dissent. If the inauthenticity of modern life is a mark of man's desire to choose dehumanisation rather than face the true nature of the human condition he implies that this failure of courage is not inevitable. The American Dream, is, however, a slight work which if it successfully adapts Ionesco's style to his own vision (in particular The Bald Prima Donna (1950) which similarly ridicules bourgeois society) lacks the sheer intensity and originality of The Zoo Story.

Richard Schechner, the editor of the Tulane Drama Review, greeted Albee's next play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as a 'persistent escape into morbid fantasy'. Like W. D. Maxwell he found it a filthy play and indicted it for its 'morbidity and sexual perversity which are there only to titillate an impotent and homosexual theatre and audience'. More perversely he saw in the play 'an ineluctable urge to escape reality and its concomitant responsibilities by crawling back into the womb, or bathroom, or both'.9 The vigour of this revulsion was shared, however, by other critics who similarly misapprehended Albee's intention in a play which far from endorsing illusion remorselessly peels off protective fantasies in order to reach 'the bone … the marrow' (V.W. p. 213). Indeed as Alan Schneider, the play's Broadway director, has pointed out, '…i s Albee not rather dedicated to smashing that rosy view, shocking us with the truth of our present-day behaviour and thought, striving to purge us into an actual confrontation with reality? '10 (my italics).

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is indeed concerned with the purgation and ultimate destruction of illusion and was in fact at one time to have been called The Exorcism. If the play's present title seems at first to be little more than an incomprehensible private joke, however, it is clear that Albee's concern with confrontation does establish something more than a tenuous link between his work and that of Virginia Woolf. For while Mrs Ramsay, in To The Light-house (1927), had felt that 'To pursue truth with … lack of consideration for other people's feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her… an outrage of human decency'11 on a more fundamental level she had acknowledged the inadequacy of such a reaction for with her mind 'she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that'.12 This was the very perception which had been granted to Miller's Quentin, while, like Miller, Virginia Woolf urges confrontation as a genuine response to this perception. Mr Ramsay accepts that 'life is difficult; facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness … one that needs, above all, courage, truth, and the power to endure'.13

On the purely realistic level the play concerns George, a professor of history at a New England College, and his wife Martha. On returning from a party given by Martha's father, the president of the college, they entertain Nick, a new lecturer in the biology department, and his wife Honey. George and Martha uninhibitedly play out a personal ritual of violence and abuse which seems to stimulate them although it embarrasses their guests. As the liquor flows more freely, however, the guests are included in the games which become more brutally crude and hurtful. Martha breaks some personal taboo by mentioning their son and in the second act, spurred on by her husband's apparent indifference, attempts to commit adultery with Nick; an attempt only frustrated by his drink-induced impotence. In the third act George revenges himself by telling Martha that their son, an illusion accepted by them both as a defence against an impotent reality, has died. When Nick recognises the child as being a compensatory illusion he accepts it as a parallel to his own case. He and Honey leave while George and Martha confide to each other their fear of the reality which they must now learn to face.

In retreat from reality Albee's characters resort to Faustian distractions, passing through the varying degrees of sensuality from drunkenness to sexuality in a play whose second act is aptly entitled Walpurgisnacht. The retreat into illusion which seems to provide an alternative to a harsh existence is not, however, an attractive alternative. For Albee points out that far from facilitating human contact, illusions rather alienate individuals from one another and serve to emphasise their separation. Out of contact with reality they are like the mad—undeveloped. Indeed this immaturity is emphasised by the child-language which recurs throughout the play.

In a story parable which George recounts, a boy accidentally kills his parents. When he loses his mind as a result he is locked up. Finding him unable to face reality 'they jammed a needle in his arm' (V.W. p. 96). This is an image of contemporary life as Albee sees it. For if the needle is replaced by liquor the escape of the child becomes valid for the man,'… we cry, and we take our tears, and we put'em in the ice box, in the goddam ice trays until they're all frozen and then … we put them … in our … drinks' (V. W. p. 186). Where the young boy retreats into the protection of an asylum man retreats into the closed world of illusion. 'Do you know what it is with insane people?' George asks, 'Do you? … the quiet ones? … They don't change … they don't grow old … the under-use of everything leaves them… quite whole' (V.W. p. 97). So the characters in the play itself seem to have arrested their development. In essence they are children. Honey is referred to in Dr. Seuss terms and curls up on the floor like a young child while George and Martha play sad games like 'Vicious children' with a 'manic' manner.

The play is divided into three acts, 'Fun and Games', 'Walpurgisnacht', and 'The Exorcism'—a progression which, like that of The Zoo Story, leads from humiliation to humility. In the first act Albee begins to probe into the pragmatic values which direct the lives of his four characters and initiates the conflict between Martha and George in which they employ as weapons those fantasies which were to have acted as an asylum. George accuses Martha of having 'moved bag and baggage into your own fantasy world'. She has, he claims 'started playing variation' on these 'distortions' (V.W. p. 155). Martha, searching for a weapon with which to hurt her husband, breaks their own code and mentions their son. So the substance of their illusion is used to injure rather than to unify and Martha tells Nick and Honey that 'George's biggest problem … about our son, about our great big son, is that deep down in the private-most-pit of his gut, he's not completely sure it's his own kid' (V.W. p. 71). The act ends therefore, with George's humiliation.

The second act continues the savage games as George mercilessly lays bare the true nature of his guests' relationship, just as Jerry had penetrated Peter's illusions in Albee's earlier play. With the truth revealed Honey rushes from the room to be sick while Nick retreats into the distraction of drink and sexuality which gives the act its name. This is a retreat familiar enough to George whose whole life since coming to New Carthage has consisted in a similar distraction. He confesses that, 'I'm numbed enough … and I don't mean by liquor, though maybe that's been part of the process—a gradual, over-the-years going to sleep of the brain cells' (V.W. p. 155). The final physical humiliation which Martha inflicts on him at the end of the act, however, spurs him to wake from this coma. He hurls away the book, which is the symbol of his escapism, as it had been in The Zoo Story, and determines to force a direct confrontation with reality.

The third act is thus concerned with the ritualistic exorcism of all illusion. While Martha confesses that she has passed her life 'in crummy, totally pointless infidelities' (V.W. p. 189) she pleads with George not to continue 'Truth or illusion, George. Doesn't it matter to you … at all?' (V. W. p. 204). His answer consists in his conscious murder of their fantasy child—a rite watched with growing apprehension by Honey whose own fear of physical reality had resulted in her present sterility, 'no! … i don't want any … go 'way … I … don't… want … any … children. I'm afraid! I don't want to be hurt' (V.W. p. 176). George chants the Latin of the burial service as Martha repeats the detailed mythology which they have invented to give substance to their illusion. This act completes the progression from humiliation to humility for all of the characters. Thus the ending, although not definitive, does hold out the hope of 'a real companionship, founded on truth and purged of all falsehood'.

In essence the violent games which George and Martha play are the means whereby they finally attain to this simple acceptance—just as Bellow's protagonists win through to affirmation as a result of humiliation. At first the games clearly act as a substitute for sexual excitement. The mounting fury of their bitterness and invective reaches a shouting crescendo and then relaxes abruptly into tenderness. When George pulls a fake gun on Martha at the climax to one of their fights the symbolism becomes overt and is re-enforced by the conversation between them which follows:

George: You liked that, did you?

Martha: Yeah … that was pretty good. (Softer) C'mon … give me a kiss.

(V.W. p. 58)

Martha then tries to put George's hand on her breast but he breaks away and aborts the action. Nevertheless their continuing violence does serve to'get down to the bone … the marrow'. If George is not altogether conscious that their games constitute a gradual disintegration of illusion, however, his final act of sacrifice is made with a full understanding of its implications. Indeed there is evidence that, aware of the danger of illusion, he had previously attempted to destroy the fantasy child:

Martha: And George tried.

George: How did I try, Martha? How did I try?

Martha: How did you … what? … No! No …he grew … our son grew …up.

(V.W. p. 224)

While there is no concrete assurance that a confrontation of reality will permanently restore their fractured relationship the closing tableau is of Martha leaning back on George's arm as he puts his hand on her shoulder. The language of this closing section is drastically simplified and the whole scene provides an audible and visual confirmation of the simple and uncomplicated state to which their relationship has returned,

Martha: … You had to?

George: Yes.

Martha: I don't know.

George: It was … time.

Martha: Was it?

George: Yes.

(V.W. p. 240)

While before they had disavowed their own failure in attacking others they now admit to their joint responsibility for sterility. Together they accept their inability to have children, ' We couldn't'—a confession to which Albee adds his own comment in a stage direction, 'a hint of communion in this' (V. W. p. 238). Accepting the Faustian imagery which Albee introduces their final redemption is in essence that which Faust had grasped, 'Those who their lives deplore / Truth yet shall heal'.14

If George and Martha are capable of creating a complex mythology rather than face their true situation then so too is the society which they represent. It is Albee's contention that there is as great a need for society to abandon its complete faith in these abstractions—the American Dream, religion and science—as there had been for George and Martha to abandon theirs.

To both Miller and Albee abstractions such as the American Dream are less visions of the future than alternatives to the present. Since this serves to take individuals out of their direct relationship with actuality, which is a factor of the present, it serves also to take them out of any genuine relationship with each other. Alienation thus becomes less an aspect of the human situation than a consequence of an inauthentic response to that situation. The watch-word of this 'success-society' thus becomes 'non-involvement'. Honey does not 'want to know anything' (V. W. p. 178) while her husband preserves his 'scientific detachment in the face of… life' (V. W. p. 100). Attempts at establishing contact are scornfully rejected:

George: (After a silence) I've tried to … tried to reach you … to …

Nick: (Contemptuously) … make contact?

George: Yes.

Nick: (Still)… communicate?

George: Yes. Exactly.

Nick: Aw … that is touching…that is…downright moving … that's what it is. (With sudden vehemence) up yours!'

(V.W. p. 116)

In the face of this failure in society both Miller and Albee advance the same solution. As an alternative to euphemism and self-delusion Miller urges the necessity to 'take one's life in one's arms' while Albee insists on the need to face 'Virginia Woolf however harrowing that prospect may be.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and After the Fall are in essence both modern secular morality plays. The gospel which they teach, as we have seen, is the primacy of human contact based on an acceptance of reality. If Albee sees this as essentially a Christian objective in The Zoo Story and, indeed, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which a son is sacrificed for redemption, then Miller recognises it as an empirical truth intuitively felt by Holga and painfully and laboriously learnt by Quentin. The religious overtones which abound in all three plays serve to create a myth for this secular religion which is not so far removed from the liberal humanism of Tillich. Where Gelber's Jaybird had congratulated himself on creating 'no heroes, no martyrs, no Christs"15 Albee creates all three. For deprived of God man is of necessity his own salvation. Following his 'sanctification' of Jerry, in The Zoo Story, it is not too fanciful, I believe, to note the consistency with which George, the man who is finally responsible for the destruction of illusion, is associated with Christ. The first line of the play, which heralds George's entrance, is 'Jesus' while the act ends with the same apparent identification. Martha leaves George alone on stage with the same contemptuous expletive, 'Jesus'. This identification is repeated in the third act when Nick throws the door open and 'with great rue' shouts out 'Christ' (V. W. p. 195). Once again this heralds George's entrance. It is clear, however, that this play lacks the precise parallels which had brought The Zoo Story to the verge of allegory.

Reduced to its simplest terms New Carthage is a kind of Vanity Fair in which the Worldly Wise distract the pilgrim from his true path. Modern Christian, however, is not urged to forego the pleasures of the American Dream in order to obtain the fruits of his virtue in a later world but rather to enjoy the real consolation of fellow humanity in the alienated world of the present. Failure to accept the need to confront reality is not only to deprive man of dignity but also to leave him adrift in incomprehension, in flight from the world as it really is. This is the modern hell of Albee's morality plays. The salvation of human contact is aborted by the refusal to abandon illusion. All that remains is a frustrating parody of contact in which love begets revulsion, humour begets anger and the aspirations of the two seeking contact are disastrously out of phase. 'George who is good to me, and whom I revile; who understands me, and whom I push off; who can make me laugh, and I choke it back in my throat… who tolerates, which is intolerable; who is kind, which is cruel; who understands, which is beyond comprehension … ' (V.W. pp. 190-1).

Strindberg's tortured life gave to his concern with the battle of the sexes almost a manic dynamism which has only really been matched by O'Neill, whose own experience drew him to the Scandinavian's work. It would be an error, however, to see Albee as an extension of this revolt against the natural order. For to him human relationships are out of phase not because of the workings of an ineluctable destiny or because of the arbitrariness of sexual attraction (although, in The Ballad of the Sad Café (1963) he shows he is not blind to this) but because of the demonstrable failure of the individual to establish a genuine relationship between himself and his situation. To Albee, as to Miller, the failure of the man/woman relationship epitomises a more general failure. For it is in this relationship that fruitful contact should be most easily attained. Where O'Neill had been concerned with establishing a compromise between the individual and his situation, and where Beckett presents a vision of that individual overwhelmed by his situation, Albee discovers genuine hope. For he sees in confrontation the first step towards a genuine affirmation, which lies not through 'pipe-dreams' or 'flight' but through a positive acceptance of human limitations.

Albee's success on Broadway with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? presented many critics with a paradox. For while he had formerly been hailed as the leader of the off-Broadway avant-garde his success on Broadway seemed near to sacrilege. Indeed Diana Trilling saw it as proof of his basic conservatism and triviality, although where this leaves Shakespeare is not clear. Yet Albee's play was in truth something of a landmark in American drama. It is the first full-length play to accept the absurdist vision and yet to formulate a response which transcends at once both despair and casual resolution. To the abstract speculation of Pirandello and Genet—who doubt the very existence of an objective reality—he adds a moral dimension while re-instituting the 'humanist heresies' for which Tynan had called. If he abandons the style of the absurdists as demonstrably un-suited to his theme then he still retains the analogical structure of The Zoo Story. For while he clearly has roots in Strindberg it is equally clear that structurally his plays have more in common with Brecht and Beckett and even the later O'Neill. Like The Good Woman of Sezuan (first produced 1943) and Waiting for Godot his plays are structured on the metaphor. Albert Camus prefaces his novel The Plague (1947) with a quotation from Defoe which is in essence a justification of the analogical form, 'It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!'16 This is a justification which not only Albee but also Durrenmatt and Frisch would endorse, for the extended metaphor is equally the basis for their work. Indeed it is, perhaps, from these writers also that Albee derives his masterful blending of comedy and anguish.

John Gassner has called Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 'essentially naturalistic',17 and certainly the play has a naturalistic 'texture', that is to say we are not in Willy Loman's insubstantial house. The walls are solid; the setting is 'real'. Yet naturalism implies a concern with surface exactitude which has nothing to do with Albee's method. He himself has described the play's setting as 'womb-like' and while avoiding the simplicities of symbolism (simplicities to which he submits in his next play, Tiny Alice) he is not so much concerned with maintaining a precision of appearance as with seizing an essential reality. Like Brown after him he is concerned with presenting an analogue of the human situation. He himself has called his play realistic, defining the term to mean that drama which faces 'man's condition as it is'. In defining realism in these terms he is clearly also defining what he sees as the role of the dramatist in a society in which the audience is 'so preconditioned by pap as to have cut off half of its responses'. In refusing to pander to a supposed need for 'self-congratulation and reassurance"18 Albee was not only maintaining his artistic integrity but he was demonstrating that in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—originally written for off-Broadway production—he had produced a play which could seemingly resolve the paradox of the avant-garde. For where The Zoo Story played to only moderate audiences in The Provincetown Playhouse, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? proclaimed the same message from the stage of the Billy Rose Theatre on Broadway and, but for the squeemishness of W. D. Maxwell would have received the Pulitzer Prize it so obviously deserved.

Albee's subsequent plays have served to extend and re-enforce his insistence on the need to abandon a faith in illusion which ultimately constitutes little more than moral cowardice. Tiny Alice, which was received somewhat coldly by the critics, represents Albee's rejection of religion as a substitute for confrontation. Like Nigel Dennis, in Cards of Identity, he sees belief in an abstraction as merely an excuse for the surrender of responsibility and identity. Its origin lies not in spiritual conviction but in fear; fear of an empty universe in which man must create his own meaning and his own relationships. Where George and Martha had created an imaginary son in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the protagonist of Tiny Alice creates what Albee would consider an imaginary son of God. Both inventions are an expression of fear of present reality.

Like T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party the plot of Tiny Alice is basically concerned with a conspiracy. A group of three people, a lawyer, a butler and their employer, a rich recluse called Alice, are seemingly dedicated to weaning brother Julian, the play's protagonist, away from the church. Julian, a lay-brother, is sent to Alice by his Cardinal in order to arrange the details of a two-billion dollar grant which she is making to the church; a donation which turns out to be the cost of his freedom. In his first interview with her she appears at first as an old woman only to throw off her disguise after a few minutes to reveal herself as an attractive young woman—a contrast between appearance and reality which is an obvious clue to his central theme in a play which he himself has described as 'a morality play about truth and illusion'.19

Gradually Alice wins Julian's affection and devotion but it becomes clear that she is merely a surrogate. In embracing her he comes to embrace the concept which she represents; a concept which Albee mistakenly makes concrete in the form of a model castle which dominates the stage during much of the play. This is even referred to as 'Alice' by the conspirators and is an obvious image of the concrete and diminished world which Julian is made to accept vicariously through his marriage to Miss Alice. Julian had been unable to accept fully the God created by man, 'Soft God? The servant? Gingerbread God with the raisin eyes?' (TA. p. 106). In search of a real vision he becomes the ideal subject for the conspirators secular evangelism. Yet he revolts against the limited, 'tiny', world, bereft of comforting abstractions, with which they confront him. Having lived an empty life in which the denial of intimate human contact has been a sworn article of faith he feels that continued belief in God is the only means to self-justification, 'I have… have… given up everything to gain everything, for the sake of my faith and my peace' (TA. p. 167). When Alice urges him to 'accept what's real' (TA. p. 167) he refuses. Left with no other alternative the conspirators shoot Julian and leave him to discover the truth of their precepts as he faces death.

In The Zoo Story Albee was prepared to point the way to a secular religion in which man pre-empted the divine function. In Tiny Alice he once again creates a saint for his religion; a saint this time whose message cannot be confused with support for christian mythology. Julian dies finally accepting a diminished universe and accepting a martyrdom which has nothing to do with Christ. He rejects the abstract in favour of the concretely human. Dying in a mock crucifixion he finally confesses his faith in Alice, as opposed to some diffuse and distant God. As R. W. B. Lewis says of the novelist Ignazio Silone's faith, he understands now that 'The first sign of manhood is a shedding of abstractions in an effort to press toward 'an intimate opening on to the reality of others'.20 This is essentially a description of the process which lies at the heart of Albee's own philosophy. Julian, then, comes finally to accept his error; to accept that the six years which he had spent in an asylum because of a loss of faith were in fact six years of sanity, 'I cannot have so mis-understood my life; I cannot have … was I sane then? Those years? My time in the asylum? was that when i was rational? then?' (T.A. pp. 168-9). At the end of the play the church is compromised and Julian is finally reconciled to his humanity and to reality. For to Albee belief in an afterlife devalues the present and thus undermines the necessity for human contact in an empty but real world. If he were to formulate the central article of faith for his secular religion it would surely be close to that of Martin Buber as expressed by the Rev. James Richmond, 'Genuine religion means being converted to this life and this world'.21

Here, for virtually the first time, therefore, Albee attempts a clearer exposition of his views on the 'consolation' of religion, linking it, seemingly, with a blind faith in science or the American dream as but another inauthentic response to life. Illusion and reality, he suggests have become confused. As the lawyer says, with what Albee rather preciously describes as 'a small smile', 'It is what we believe, therefore what we know. Is that not right? Faith is knowledge?' (T.A. p. 165). Clearly a world in which faith and knowledge are accepted as synonymous is inimical to a playwright who insists on the need for a courageous confrontation of reality. As Silone says, 'In no century have words been so perverted from their natural purpose of putting man in touch with man as they are today. To speak and to deceive … have become almost synonymous'.22 It is clear, therefore, why Albee feels that language has to be underpinned by a structure of imagery which facilitates communication on a more fundamental level. It is precisely Albee's failure to master this process in Tiny Alice, however, which detracts from the play's effectiveness. He lacks Chekhov's skill at making the symbol an endemic part of the play. Like Tennessee Williams he seems here to have developed a tendency towards strewing his stage with any number of highly significant objects. The result, however, is less to generate genuine dramatic effect than it is to simulate the appearance of a 42nd Street junk store (dried-up fountain from Camino Real, anatomical charts from Summer and Smoke and now a phrenological head and model castle from Tiny Alice).

Tiny Alice is not an easy play to understand and in many ways Albee has lost his command of the dramatic medium itself. When asked about its complexities, however, he has replied that, 'the play is not supposed to be terribly easily apprehensible. It's meant to contain things that audiences must take out of the theatre with them and think about.' But perhaps there is more than an element of truth in the answer that he offered to a bewildered John Gielgud shortly before the latter was due to play the part of Julian on Broadway, 'I know you want to know what the play is about, John, but I don't know yet, so I can't say.'23

Unfortunately Albee's next play, Malcolm (1966), evidences the same opacity. Based on Purdy's surrealistic novel the play, in the words of the New Yorker review, '… limped out of the Shubert last week after lingering for seven performances.' The same review found the play 'filled with stilted dialogue, pseudo-profundity, and wearisome vulgarity'24 while Robert Brustein, writing in The New Republic, identified what he saw as a trend in Albee's work whereby his plays 'get more abstract and incoherent until he is finally reduced, as here, to a nervous plucking at broken strings.'25 Certainly Albee has chosen to adapt a novel whose complexities are, perhaps, not particularly suited to the dramatic medium. Purdy's picaresque indictment of the contemporary world is phrased in the kind of oblique and stylised terms which do not translate well into a form which is so much more demanding of the audience. Nevertheless if he has not entirely succeeded in finding a viable dramatic equivalent for Purdy's unique vision he has continued his commitment to experimentation while producing a play which expands his personal vision of modern society as sketched in The American Dream.

Malcolm is an expression of Albee's sense of alienation from the empty and bizarre world of modern society. It is his vision of a society whose principle gods are money, sex and perjured art and in which everything and everybody is for sale. Malcolm himself is an innocent exposed to and eventually destroyed by the corruption of this society to which, 'Innocence has the appearance of stupidity' (M. p. 9). This modern Billy Budd sees the destruction of innocence, however, not as a natural corollary of a disciplined society but rather as a by-product of a frenzied hedonism. Malcolm dies of sexual hyperesthesia—that destructive sexuality which Albee had identified as a substitute for genuine fulfilment in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

At the beginning of the play Malcolm, like Peter in The Zoo Story, is seated on a bench-—a retreat which is an expression both of his innocence and of his failure of nerve. Where Peter had been 'saved' by Jerry, however, Malcolm never really understands the forces which destroy him. His education, like that of Lemuel Pitkin in Nathaniel West's A Cool Million, consists of a series of encounters which gradually destroy him. By degrees he begins to accept the logic of this alien world and to become more remote from a simpler existence which remains for him little more than a vague memory of a genuine familial relationship.

At the end of the play, crucified by a world which understands nothing but exploitation, he returns to another existence; the latest in Albee's lengthening line of saints all of whom have given their lives for a world which steadfastly refuses to understand what they are on about. There is, however, a new note in this play. For although the need for love is stressed by its notable absence from this wretched world, Albee provides us with no one within the play who recognises the significance of this. He has moved, it seems, from sounding the warning bell to sounding the knell of a lost world. For after this Second Coming, a miracle recognised by no one, there lies only the apocalypse—a sobering thought for those who watch Malcolm rise on his golden bench and can only remark, 'he didn't have the stuff… that's all' (M p. 138).

Having abused the innocent who had come among them they are left with only an image of him—a painting, itself produced for profit, and now an apt substitute for a purity which can only survive in this ersatz and therefore unthreatening form.

With his latest play, A Delicate Balance (1966), however, Albee takes a step back from the near-despair of Malcolm. Once more he goes about his self-appointed task of dissecting the quiet inhumanity of a fading civilisation. He continues his indictment of a society which has to rely on illusion to survive and which is incapable of realising that the inevitable result of this is a loss of identity and 'the gradual… demise of intensity, the private preoccupations, the substitutions'.26

A Delicate Balance is set in the affluent suburban home of Agnes and Tobias whose comfortable complacency is only slightly disturbed by the presence of Claire, an alcoholic relation. The action is concerned with the effect on this elderly couple of a visit by their friends, Harry and Edna, who arrive unexpectedly saying that they have experienced 'the terror'. Whatever the nature of the terror the visit serves to upset the delicate balance of middle-class temporising. The characters are made to confront the gulf which has opened up between reality and illusion in their lives and to define their own stance in relation to it. Ultimately, however, the clearest analysis of what Albee calls 'the regulated great gray life' is made by the alcoholic Claire. She expresses what can surely be taken as Albee's own conviction about the America of which he has been so critical, 'We're not a communal nation … giving but not sharing, outgoing but not friendly … We submerge our truths and have our sun-sets on untroubled waters … We live with our truths on the grassy bottom, and we examined all… the implications like we had a life for nothing else … We better develop gills.'27 As we have seen Albee has already expressed his sense of the urgency of this metamorphosis in Malcolm. A Delicate Balance is merely his latest essay on the need for confrontation.

The relative success of this play on Broadway may be due in part, however, to the fact that the terms in which Albee is here continuing his analysis are more readily available to an audience which found the stylised allegory of Tiny Alice and the surrealistic insights of Malcolm difficult to grasp. It is certainly not a sign that Albee has finally capitulated to the pressures for re-assurance which he has always castigated in the American theatre. Indeed it is clear that without the radical approach of an Albee the American theatre would be in danger of stagnating once again. For if he is capable of grotesque misjudgement, as in Tiny Alice and Malcolm, then he is also capable of the achievement of The Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while his commitment to continued experimentation makes him the chief hope for a developing drama.


1Wendell V. Harris, 'Morality, Absurdity, and Albee', Southwest Review, XVIX, iii (Summer, 1964), p. 249.

2Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (New Jersey, 1961), p. 291.

3Philip Mairet, 'Introduction', Existentialism and Humanism, p. 11.

4Henderson the Rain King, p. 307.

5Ibid., p. 286.

6Edward Albee, The American Dream and The Zoo Story (New York, 1963), pp. 53-4. References to The American Dream are abbreviated to 'A.D. ' and corporated into the text.

7The Theatre of the Absurd, p. xix.

8Ibid., p. xix.

9Richard Scheduler, 'TDR Comment', Tulane Drama Review, VII, iii (Spring, 1963), pp. 8-10.

10Alan Schneider, 'Why So Afraid?' Tulane Drama Review, VII, iii (Spring, 1963), p. 11.

11Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (London, 1960), p. 54.

12Ibid., p. 102.

13Ibid., p. 13.

14Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Faust—Part Two, trans., Philip Wayne (Harmondsworth, 1959), p. 277.

15The Connection, p. 62.

16Albert Camus, The Plague, trans., Stuart Gilbert (Harmondsworth, 1962), p. 3.

17Directions in Modern Theatre and Drama, p. 358.

18'Which Theatre is the Absurd One?', pp. 334-5.

19Thomas B. Markus, 'Tiny Alice and Tragic Catharsis', Educational Theatre Journal, XVII, p. 230.

20R. W. B. Lewis, The Picaresque Saint (London, 1960), p. 151.

2lRev. James Richmond, Martin Buber (Nottingham, 1966), p. 13. The text of a lecture delivered at Nottingham University on March 17, 1966.

22The Picaresque Saint, p. 155.

23R. S. Stewart, 'John Gielgud and Edward Albee Talk About the Theatre', Atlantic Monthly, 215, iv (April, 1965), pp. 67-8.

24Anon., 'Innocent Astray', New Yorker, January 22,1966, p. 74.

25Robert Brustein, 'Albee's Allegory of Innocence', The New Republic, January 29,1966, p. 36.

26Edward Albee, A Delicate Balance (New York, 1966), p. 82.

27Ibid., p. 93.

Martin Esslin (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Parallels and Proselytes: Edward Albee," in The Theatre of the Absurd, revised edition, Anchor Books, 1969, pp. 226-70.

[In the following excerpt from the expanded version of his groundbreaking 1961 work, Esslin discusses Albee's plays and declares The American Dream "Albee's promising and brilliant first example of an American contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd."]

The work we have surveyed in this chapter shows that the Theatre of the Absurd has had its impact on writers in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. The relative absence of dramatists of the Absurd in the United States, however, is puzzling, particularly in view of the fact that certain aspects of American popular art have had a decisive influence on the dramatists of the Absurd in Europe.…

But the reason for this dearth of examples of the Theatre of the Absurd in the United States is probably simple enough—the convention of the Absurd springs from a feeling of deep disillusionment, the draining away of the sense of meaning and purpose in life, which has been characteristic of countries like France and Britain in the years after the Second World War. In the United States there has been no corresponding loss of meaning and purpose. The American dream of the good life is still very strong. In the United States the belief in progress that characterized Europe in the nineteenth century has been maintained into the middle of the twentieth. There have been signs, particularly since the shock administered by the Russian successes in the space race, that disillusion and frustration might become a factor in the American scene, but the rise of phenomena like the beat generation has been marginal compared to parallel developments in Europe.

It is certainly significant that such a notable work of the American avant-garde as Robert Hivnor's Too Many Thumbs, which has been compared to the fantasies of Ionesco, is in fact an affirmation of a belief in progress and the perfectability of man. It shows a chimpanzee compressing his evolution to the status of man—and far beyond that, to complete spirituality—into a matter of months. The fantasy is there, but certainly no sense of the futility and absurdity of human endeavour.1

On the other hand, Edward Albee (born in 1928) comes into the category of the Theatre of the Absurd precisely because his work attacks the very foundations of American optimism. His first play, The Zoo Story (1958), which shared the bill at the Provincetown Playhouse with Beckett's Krapp 's Last Tape, already showed the forcefulness and bitter irony of his approach. In the realism of its dialogue and in its subject matter—an outsider's inability to establish genuine contact with a dog, let alone any human being—The Zoo Story is closely akin to the world of Harold Pinter. But the effect of this brilliant one-act duologue between Jerry, the outcast, and Peter, the conformist bourgeois, is marred by its melodramatic climax; when Jerry provokes Peter into drawing a knife and then impales himself on it, the plight of the schizophrenic outcast is turned into an act of sentimentality, especially as the victim expires in touching solicitude and fellow-feeling for his involuntary murderer.

But after an excursion into grimly realistic social criticism (the one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith, a re-creation of the end of the blues singer Bessie Smith in Memphis in 1937; she died after a motor accident because hospitals reserved for whites refused to admit her), Albee produced a play that clearly takes up the style and subject-matter of the Theatre of the Absurd and translates it into a genuine American idiom. The American Dream (1959-60; first performed at the York Playhouse, New York, on 24 January 1961) fairly and squarely attacks the ideals of progress, optimism, and faith in the national mission, and pours scorn on the sentimental ideals of family life, togetherness, and physical fitness; the euphemistic language and unwillingness to face the ultimate facts of the human condition that in America, even more than in Europe, represent the essence of bourgeois assumptions and attitudes. The American Dream shows an American family—Mommy, Daddy, Grandma—in search of a replacement for the adopted child that went wrong and died. The missing member of the family arrives in the shape of a gorgeous young man, the embodiment of the American dream, who admits that he consists only of muscles and a healthy exterior, but is dead inside, drained of genuine feeling and the capacity for experience. He will do anything for money—so he will even consent to become a member of the family. The language of The American Dream resembles that of Ionesco in its masterly combination of clichés. But these clichés, in their euphemistic, baby-talk tone, are as characteristically American as Ionesco's are French. The most disagreeable verities are hidden behind the corn-fed cheeriness of advertising jingles and family-magazine unctuousness. There are very revealing contrasts in the way these writers of different nationalities use the clichés of their own countries—the mechanical hardness of Ionesco's French platitudes; the flat, repetitive obtuseness of Pinter's English nonsense dialogue; and the oily glibness and sentimentality of the American cliché in Albee's promising and brilliant first example of an American contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd.

With his first full-length play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (first performed in New York on 14 October 1962) Albee achieved his breakthrough into the first rank of contemporary American playwrights. On the surface this is a savage marital battle in the tradition of Strindberg and the later O'Neill. George, the unsuccessful academic, his ambitious wife, and the young couple they are entertaining, are realistic characters; their world, that of drink-sodden and frustrated university teachers, is wholly real. But a closer inspection reveals elements which clearly still relate the play to Albee's earlier work and the Theatre of the Absurd. George and Martha (there are echoes there of George and Martha Washington) have an imaginary child which they treat as real, until in the cold dawn of that wild night they decide to 'kill' it by abandoning their joint fantasy. Here the connexion to The American Dream with its horrid dream-child of the ideal all-American boy becomes clear; thus there are elements of dream and allegory in the play (is the dream-child which cannot become real among people torn by ambition and lust something like the American ideal itself?); and there is also a Genet-like ritualistic element in its structure as a sequence of three rites: act I—'Fun and Games'; act II—'Walpurgisnacht'; act III—'Exorcism'.

With Tiny Alice (1963) Albee broke new ground in a play which clearly tried to evolve a complex image of man's search for truth and certainty in a constantly shifting world, without ever wanting to construct a complete allegory or to offer any solutions to the questions he raised. Hence the indignant reaction of some critics seems to have been based on a profound misunderstanding. The play shows its hero buffeted between the church and the world of cynical wisdom and forced by the church to abandon his vocation for the priesthood to marry a rich woman who made a vast donation dependent on his decision. Yet immediately the marriage is concluded the lady and her staff depart, leaving the hero to a lonely death. The central image of the play is the mysterious model of the great mansion in which the action takes place, that occupies the centre of the stage. Inside this model every room corresponds to one in the real house, and tiny figures can be observed repeating the movements of the people who occupy it. Everything that happens in the macrocosm is exactly repeated in the microcosm of the model. And no doubt inside the model there is another smaller model, which duplicates everything that happens on an even tinier scale, and so on ad infinitum, upwards and downwards on the scale of being. It is futile to search for the philosophical meaning of such an image. What it communicates is a mood, a sense of the mystery, the impenetrable complexity of the universe. And that is precisely what a dramatic poet is after.

With A Delicate Balance (1966) Albee returned to a more realistic setting which, however, is also deeply redolent of mystery and nameless fears, while Box and Quotations from Mao-tse Tung (1968) returns to an openly absurdist convention by constructing an intricate pattern of cross-cut monologues, some emerging from tangible people (chairman Mao, a talkative lady), one from an empty box.


1Less than ten years after that passage was written, the situation is fundamentally changed: under the impact of events like the assassination of President Kennedy, the rise in racial tension and, above all, the war in Vietnam, the self-confidence and naïve optimism of the United States has received a severe jolt. And there has been a veritable flood of plays—and novels—written in the absurdist vein. To do this movement justice would require a study of its own. All that can be done here is to mention the names of some of the outstanding young writers who have emerged in this field: Paul Foster (Tom Paine), Megan Terry (Viet Rock), Rochelle Owens (Futz!), Jean-Claude van Itallie (America Hurrah), LeRoi Jones (Dutchman), Ed Bullins (The Electric Nigger), Israel Horowitz (This Indian Wants the Bronx). While these and other plays in a similar style owe a great deal to improvisational techniques, they also quite clearly derive from the dramatists of the Absurd discussed in this book.

Gerald Weales (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee: Don't Make Waves," in The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's, The Macmillan Company, 1969, pp. 24-53.

[In the following essay, the critic explores the recurring themes of isolation and separation throughout Albee's work.]

Something tells me it's all
happenin ' at the zoo.

                                              —Simon and Garfunkel

Edward Albee is inescapably the American playwright of the 1960's. His first play, The Zoo Story, opened in New York, on a double bill with Samuel Beckett's Krapp 's Last Tape, at the Provincetown Playhouse on January 14, 1960. In his Introduction to Three Plays (1960), Albee tells how his play, which was written in 1958, passed from friend to friend, from country to country, from manuscript to tape to production (in Berlin in 1959) before it made its way back to the United States. "It's one of those things a person has to do," says Jerry; "sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly."

For Albee, once The Zoo Story had finished its peregrinations, the trip uptown—psychologically and geographically—was a short one. During 1960, there were two other Albee prouctions, largely unheralded—The Sandbox, which has since become a favorite for amateurs, and Fam and Yam, a bluette, a joke growing out of his having been ticketed as the latest white hope of the American theater. These were essentially fugitive productions of occasional pieces. In 1961, one of the producers of The Zoo Story, Richard Barr, joined by Clinton Wilder in the producing organization that is always called Theater 196? after whatever the year, offered The American Dream, first on a double bill with William Flanagan's opera Bartleby, for which Albee and James Hinton, Jr., did the libretto,1 and later, when the opera proved unsuccessful, with an earlier Albee play The Death of Bessie Smith. During the next few years, there were frequent revivals of both Zoo and Dream, often to help out a sagging Barr-Wilder program, as in 1964 (by which time Albee had become a co-producer) when first Dream and later Zoo were sent in as companion pieces to LeRoi Jones's Dutchman, after Samuel Beckett's Play and Fernando Arrabal's The Two Executioners, which opened with Jones's play, were removed from the bill. Albee had become an off-Broadway staple.

By that time, of course, Albee had become something else as well. With Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), he had moved to Broadway and had a smashing commercial success. By a process of escalation, he had passed from promising to established playwright. After Woolf, Albee productions averaged one a year: The Ballad of the Sad Café (1963), Tiny Alice (1964), Malcolm (1966), A Delicate Balance (1966) and Everything in the Garden (1967). None of these were successes in Broadway terms (by Variety's chart of hits and flops), but except for Malcolm, a gauche and imperceptive adaptation of James Purdy's novel of that name, which closed after seven performances, all of them had respectable runs and generated their share of admiration and antagonism from critics and public alike.

Although favorable reviews helped make the Albee reputation, critics have consistently praised with one hand, damned with the other.2 If Harold Clurman's "Albee on Balance" (The New York Times, January 13, 1967) treats Albee as a serious playwright and if Robert Brustein's "A Third Theater" (The New York Times Magazine, September 25, 1966) seems to dismiss him as a solemn one, only Broadway serious, the recent collections of their reviews—-Clurman's The Naked Image and Brustein's Seasons of Discontent—indicate that both critics have had the same kind of reservations about Albee from the beginning. Albee, contrariwise, has had reservations of his own. From his pettish Introduction to The American Dream to the press conference he called to chastise the critics for their reactions to Tiny Alice, he has regularly used interviews and the occasional nondramatic pieces he has written to suggest that the critics lack understanding, humility, responsibility.

In spite of (perhaps because of) the continuing quarrel between Albee and his critics—a love-hate relationship in the best Albee tradition—the playwright's reputation has grown tremendously. It was in part the notoriety of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that turned Albee into a popular figure, and certainly the publicity surrounding the making of the movie version of Woolf helped to keep Albee's name in the popular magazines. Whatever the cause, Albee is now the American playwright whose name has become a touchstone, however ludicrously it is used. Thus, Thomas Meehan, writing an article on "camp" for The New York Times Magazine (March 21, 1965), solicits Andy Warhol's opinion of Tiny Alice ("I liked it because it was so empty"), and William H. Honan, interviewing Jonathan Miller for the same publication (January 22, 1967), manages to get Miller to repeat a commonplace criticism of Albee he has used twice before.

All this is simply the chi-chi mask over a serious concern with Albee. According to recent reports of the American Educational Theatre Association, Albee has been jockeying for second place (after Shakespeare) in the list of playwrights most produced on college campuses. In 1963-64, he held second place; in 1964-65, he was nosed out by Ionesco. The attractiveness of short plays to college dramatic groups—as Ionesco's presence suggests—helps explain the volume of Albee productions, but, with The Zoo Story invading text anthologies and Virginia Woolf climbing onto reading lists, it is clear that the interest in Albee in colleges is more than a matter of mechanics. More and more articles on Albee turn up in critical quarterlies—always a gauge of academic fashions—and those that are printed are only the tip of a happily submerged iceberg; Walter Meserve, one of the editors of Modern Drama, estimated in 1966 that 80 per cent of the submissions on American drama were about four authors: O'Neill, Williams, Miller, and Albee. The interest abroad is as intense as it is here. This is clear not only from the fact that the plays are translated and performed widely, but in the desire of audiences to talk or to hear about the playwright. Clurman, in that article in the Times, reporting on lecture audiences in Tokyo and Tel Aviv, says that there was more curiosity about Albee than any other American playwright. Albee's position, then, is analogous to that of Tennessee Williams in the 1950's. He recognizes this himself. When he wrote Fam and Yam in 1960, he let Yam (the Young American Playwright) bunch Albee with Jack Gelber, Jack Richardson, and Arthur Kopit. In an interview in Diplomat (October, 1966) he suggested that playwrights should be hired as critics; it was now Williams and Arthur Miller that he listed with himself.

In "Which Theatre Is the Absurd One?" (The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 1962), Albee wrote that "in the end a public will get what it deserves and no better." If he is right, his work may finally condemn or justify the taste of American theater audiences in the 1960's. More than likely, a little of both.

"I consider myself in a way the most eclectic playwright who ever wrote," Albee once told an interviewer (Transatlantic Review, Spring, 1963), and then he went on to make an elaborate joke about how he agreed with the critics that twenty-six playwrights—three of whom he had never read—had influenced him. Critics do have a way of getting influence-happy when they write about Albee—particularly Brustein, who persists in calling him an imitator—but they have good reason. There are such strong surface dissimilarities among the Albee plays that it is easier and in some ways more rewarding to think of The Zoo Story in relation to Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter and A Delicate Balance in terms of T. S. Eliot and Enid Bagnold than it is to compare the two plays, even though both start from the same dramatic situation: the invasion (by Jerry, by Harry and Edna) of private territory (Peter's bench, Tobias's house). Yet, the comparison is obvious once it is made. Each new Albee play seems to be an experiment in form, in style (even if it is someone else's style), and yet there is unity in his work as a whole. This is apparent in the devices and the characters that recur, modified according to context, but it is most obvious in the repetition of theme, in the basic assumptions about the human condition that underlie all his work.

In A Delicate Balance, Tobias and his family live in a mansion in the suburbs of hell, that existential present so dear to contemporary writers, in which life is measured in terms of loss, love by its failure, contact by its absence. In that hell, there are many mansions—one of which is Peter's bench—and all of them are cages in the great zoo story of life. Peter's bench is a kind of sanctuary, both a refuge from and an extension of the stereotypical upper-middle-class existence (tweeds, horn-rimmed glasses, job in publishing, well-furnished apartment, wife, daughters, cats, parakeets) with which Albee has provided him—a place where he can safely not-live and have his nonbeing. This is the way Jerry sees Peter, at least, and—since the type is conventional enough in contemporary theater, from avant-garde satire to Broadway revue—it is safe to assume that the play does, too. Although Albee intends a little satirical fun at Peter's expense (the early needling scenes are very successful), it is clear that the stereotyping of Peter is an image of his condition, not a cause of it. Jerry, who plays "the old pigeonhole bit" so well, is another, a contrasting cliché, and it is the play's business to show that he and Peter differ only in that he does not share Peter's complacency. Just before Jerry attacks in earnest, he presents the play's chief metaphor:

I went to the zoo to find out more about the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other, and with people too. It probably wasn't a fair test, what with everyone separated by bars from everyone else, the animals for the most part from each other, and always the people from the animals. But, if it's a zoo, that's the way it is.

"Private wings," says Malcolm in the play that bears his name. "Indeed, that is an extension of separate rooms, is it not?" In a further extension of a joke that is no joke, Agnes, in A Delicate Balance, speaks of her "poor parents, in their separate heavens." Separateness is the operative word for Albee characters, for, even though his zoo provides suites for two people (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) or for more (A Delicate Balance), they are furnished with separate cages. "It's sad to know you've gone through it all, or most of it, without …" says Edna in one of the fragmented speeches that characterize A Delicate Balance, as though thoughts too were separate, "that the one body you've wrapped your arms around … the only skin you've ever known … is your own—and that it's dry … and not warm." This is a more restrained, a more resigned variation on the Nurse's desperate cry in Bessie Smith, "… I am tired of my skin. … i want out!"

Violence is one of the ways of trying to get out. The Nurse is an illustration of this possibility; she is an embryonic version of Martha in Virginia Woolf, with most of the venom, a little of the style, and practically none of the compensating softness of the later character, and she hits out at everyone around her. Yet, she never escapes herself, her cage. The other possibility is love (that, too, a form of penetration), but the Albee plays are full of characters who cannot (Nick in Virginia Woolf) or will not (Tobias, the Nurse) make that connection. The persistent images are of withdrawal, the most graphic being the one in A Delicate Balance, the infor mation that Tobias in fact withdrew and came on Agnes's belly the last time they had sex. Although failed sex is a convenient metaphor for the failure of love, its opposite will not work so well. Connection is not necessarily contact, and it is contact—or rather its absence, those bars that bother Jerry—that preoccupies Albee. He lets Martha and George make fun of the lack-of-communication cliché in Virginia Woolf, but it is that cultural commonplace on which much of Albee's work is built. Jerry's story about his landlady's vicious dog—although he over-explains it—is still Albee's most effective account of an attempt to get through those bars, out of that skin (so effective, in fact, that Tobias uses a variation of it in Balance when he tells about his cat). Accepting the dog's attacks on him as a form of recognition, Jerry tries first to win his affection (with hamburger) and, failing that, to kill him (with poisoned hamburger: it is difficult to differentiate between the tools of love and hate). In the end, he settles for an accommodation, one in which he and the dog ignore each other. His leg remains unbitten, but he feels a sense of loss in the working arrangement: "We neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach each other."3

"Give me any person …" says Lawyer in Tiny Alice. "He'll take what he gets for … what he wishes it to be. ah, it is what I have always wanted, he'll say, looking terror and betrayal straight in the eye. Why not: face the inevitable and call it what you have always wanted." The context is a special one here, a reference to Julian's impending martyrdom to God-Alice, who comes to him in the form or forms he expects. I purposely dropped from the Lawyer's speech the references to "martyr" and"saint" which follow parenthetically after the opening phrase, for as it stands above, the speech might serve as advertising copy for the Albee world in which his characters exist and—very occasionally—struggle. The too-obvious symbol of The American Dream, the muscle-flexing young man who is only a shell, empty of love or feeling, is, in Mommy's words, "a great deal more like it." Like it, but not it. Appearance is what she wants, for reality, as Grandma's account of the mutilation of the other "bumble" indicates, is dangerous.

The American Dream is a pat example of, to use Lawyer's words again, "How to come out on top, going under." Whether the accommodation is embraced (Dream) or accepted with a sense of loss (Jerry and the dog), it is always there, a way of coping instead of a way of life. It can be disguised in verbal trappings—comic (the games in Virginia Woolf) or serious (the religiosity of Tiny Alice, the conventional labels of A Delicate Balance). In the absence of substance, it can be given busy work; Girard Girard spells everything out in Malcolm: "You will move from the mansion to the chateau, and from the chateau back. You will surround yourself with your young beauties, and hide your liquor where you will. You will… go on, my dear." The unhidden liquor in A Delicate Balance (even more in Virginia Woolf, where it serves the dramatic action, as lubricant and as occasional rest) provides an example of such busyness: all the playing at bartending, the weighty deliberation over whether to have anisette or cognac, the concern over the quality of a martini. The rush of words (abuse or elegance) and the press of activity (however meaningless) sustain the Albee characters in a tenuous relationship (a delicate balance) among themselves and in the face of the others, the ones outside, and—beyond that—the nameless terror.

Implicit in my discussion of the separateness of the Albee characters and the bogus forms of community they invent to mask the fact that they are alone is the assumption that this is Albee's view of the human condition. The deliberate refusal to locate the action of his most recent plays (Tiny Alice, Malcolm, A Delicate Balance) strengthens that assumption. In fact, only two of Albee's settings can be found in atlases—Central Park (The Zoo Story) and Memphis (Bessie Smith). Even these, like the undifferentiated Southern town he borrowed from Carson McCullers for The Ballad of the Sad Café and the fictional New England college town of Virginia Woolf, might easily serve as settings for a universal drama. Yet, in much of his work, particularly in the early plays, there is a suggestion, even an insistence, that the problem is a localized one, that the emptiness and loneli ness of the characters are somehow the result of a collapse of values in the Western world in general, in the United States in particular. The American Dream, he says in his Preface to the play, is "an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society." Such an attack is implicit in the depiction of Peter in The Zoo Story.

It is in Virginia Woolf that this side of Albee's "truth" is most evident. He is not content that his characters perform an action which carries implications for an audience that far transcend the action itself. He must distribute labels. George may jokingly identify himself, as history professor, with the humanities, and Nick, as biology professor, with science, and turn their meeting into a historical-inevitability parable about the necessary decline of the West, but Albee presumably means it. Calling the town New Carthage and giving George significant throw-away lines ("When I was sixteen and going to prep school, during the Punic Wars …") are cute ways of underlining a ponderous intention. I would not go so far as Diana Trilling (Esquire, December, 1963) and suggest that George and Martha are the Washingtons, or Henry Hewes (The Best Plays of 1962-1963) that Nick is like Nikita Khrushchev, but Albee is plainly intent on giving his sterility tale an obvious cultural point. Martha's joke when Nick fails to "make it in the sack" is apparently no joke at all: "But that's how it is in a civilized society."

My own tendency is to brush all this grandiose symbol-making under the rug to protect what I admire in Virginia Woolf. If we can believe Albee's remarks in the Diplomat interview, however, all this comprises the "play's subtleties"; in faulting the movie version of his play, he says, "the entire political argument was taken out, the argument between history and science."4 The chasm that confronts the Albee characters may, then, be existential chaos or a materialistic society corrupt enough to make a culture hero out of… (whom? to each critic his own horrible example, and there are those would pick Albee himself), or a combination in which the second of these is an image of the first.

There is nothing unusual about this slightly unstable mixture of philosophic assumption and social criticism; it can be found in the work of Tennessee Williams and, from quite a different perspective, that of Eugène Ionesco. The differentiation is useful primarily because it provides us with insight into the shape that Albee gives his material. If the lost and lonely Albee character is an irrevocable fact—philosophically, theologically, psychologically—if all that angst is inescapable, then his plays must necessarily be reflections of that condition; any gestures of defiance are doomed to failure. If, however, the Albee character is a product of his societal context and if that context is changeable (not necessarily politically, but by an alteration of modes of behavior between one man and another), then the plays may be instructive fables. He has dismissed American drama of the 1930's as propaganda rather than art, and he has disavowed solutions to anything. Still, in several statements he has suggested that there are solutions—or, at least, alternatives. Surely that possibility is implicit in his description of The American Dream as an "attack." In the Transatlantic Review interview, he said that "the responsibility of the writer is to be a sort of demonic social critic—to present the world and people in it as he sees it and say 'Do you like it? If you don't like it change it.'" In the Atlantic, he said, "I've always thought… that it was one of the responsibilities of playwrights to show people how they are and what their time is like in the hope that perhaps they'll change it."

Albee, then, shares with most American playwrights an idea of the utility of art, the supposition not only that art should convey truth, but that it should do so to some purpose. There is a strong strain of didacticism in all his work, but it is balanced by a certain ambiguity about the nature of the instructive fable. In interviews, he harps on how much of the creative process is subconscious, how little he understands his own work, how a play is to be experienced rather than understood. Insofar as this is not sour grapes pressed to make an aesthetic (his reaction to the reviews of Tiny Alice), it may be his way of recognizing that there is a conflict between his attitude toward man's situation and his suspicion (or hope: certainly conviction is too strong a word) that something can, or ought, to be done about it; between his assumption that this is hell we live in and his longing to redecorate it.

Whatever the nature of the chasm on the edge of which the Albee characters teeter so dexterously, to disturb the balance is to invite disaster or—possibly—salvation. If the conflict that I suggest above is a real one, it should be reflected in the plays in which one or more characters are willing to risk disaster. The American Dream and The Sandbox can be passed over here because, except for the sentimental death of Grandma at the end of the latter, they are diagnostic portraits of the Albee world, not actions performed in that setting. The Death of Bessie Smith and The Ballad of the Sad Café are more to the point, but they are also special cases. Although risks are taken (the Intern goes outside to examine Bessie; Amelia takes in Cousin Lymon in Ballad), the plays are less concerned with these acts than they are with the kind of expositional presentation—not particularly satirical in this case—that we get in Dream. Even so, the Intern's risk is meaningless since the woman is already dead; and Amelia's love is necessarily doomed by the doctrine the McCullers novella expounds—that it is difficult to love but almost impossible to be loved—and by the retrospective form the play took when Albee saddled it with a maudlin message-giving narrator. Tiny Alice and Malcolm are two of a kind, particularly if we consider them as corruption-of-innocence plays, although there is also a similarity of sorts between Malcolm's attempt to put a face on his absent father and Julian's attempt to keep from putting a face on his abstracted Father. They are even similar in that Albee, sharing a popular-comedy misconception about what that snake was up to in the Garden, uses sex as his sign of corruption—ludicrously in Alice, snickeringly in Malcolm. Traditionally, one of two things happens in plays in which the innocent face the world: either they become cor rupted and learn to live with it (the standard Broadway maturity play) or they die young and escape the corruption (Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows or Maxwell Anderson's Winterset). In the Albee plays, both things happen. Julian dies after accepting the world (edited to fit his preconceptions about it) and Malcolm dies, muttering "I've … lost so much," and loss, as the plays from The Zoo Story to A Delicate Balance insist, is what you gain in learning to live with it. There are extenuating circumstances for the deaths in these plays (Julian's concept of God is tied in with his desire to be a martyr; Malcolm's death is borrowed from Purdy, although Albee does not seem to understand what Purdy was doing with it in the novel), but these plays, too, are illustrations of the Albee world, and the deaths are more sentimental than central. Everything in the Garden is such an unlikely wedding of Albee and the late Giles Cooper, whose English play was the source of the American adaptation, that it is only superficially characteristic of Albee's work.

It is in The Zoo Story, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance that one finds dramatic actions by which the ambiguity of Albee's attitudes may be tested. In The Zoo Story, so goes the customary reading, Jerry confronts the vegetative Peter, forces him to stand his ground, dies finally on his own knife held in Peter's hand. In that suicidal act, Jerry becomes a scapegoat who gives his own life so that Peter will be knocked out of his complacency and learn to live, or LIVE. Even Albee believes this, or he said he did in answer to a question from Arthur Gelb (The New York Times, February 15, 1960): "Though he dies, he passes on an awareness of life to the other character in the play." If this is true, then presumably we are to take seriously—not as a dramatic device, but for its content—Jerry's "you have to make a start somewhere" speech in which he expounds the steps-to-love doctrine, a soggy inheritance from Carson McCullers ("A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.") and Truman Capote (The Grass Harp). That the start should be something a great deal less gentle than the McCullers-Capote inheritance might suggest is not surprising when we consider that violence and death became twisted life symbols during the 1950's (as all the kids said after James Dean's fatal smashup, "Boy, that's living") and, then, turned literary in the 1960's (as in Jack Richardson's Gallows Humor and all the motor-cycle movies from The Wild Angels to Scorpio Rising).

The problem with that reading is not that it is awash with adolescent profundity, which might well annoy some of the audience, but that it seems to be working against much that is going on within the play. Although Albee prepares the audience for the killing, it has always seemed gratuitous, a melodramatic flourish. The reason may be that it tries to suggest one thing (salvation) while the logic of the play demands something else. Except for a couple of expositional lapses, Jerry is too well drawn a character—self-pitying and aggressive, self-deluding and forlorn—to become the conventional "hero" (Albee uses that word in the Gelb interview) that the positive ending demands. He may well be so aware of his separation from everyone else that he plans or improvises ("could I have planned all this? No … no, I couldn't have. But I think I did") his own murder in a last desperate attempt to make contact, but there is nothing in the play to indicate that he succeeds. At the end, Peter is plainly a man knocked off his balance, but there is no indication that he has fallen into "an awareness of life." In fact, the play we are watching has already been presented in miniature in the dog story, and all Jerry gained from that encounter was"solitary but free passage." "There are some things in it that I don't really understand," Albee told Gelb. One of them may be that the play itself denies the romantic ending.

Virginia Woolf is a more slippery case. Here, too, the play works against the presumably upbeat ending, but Albee may be more aware that this is happening. According to the conventions of Broadway psychology, as reflected, for instance, in a play like William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, in a moment of crisis two characters come to see themselves clearly. Out of their knowledge a new maturity is born, creating an intimacy that has not existed before and a community that allows them to face their problems (if not solve them) with new courage. This was the prevailing cliché of the serious Broadway play of the 1950's, and it was still viable enough in the 1960's to take over the last act of Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein 's Window and turn an interesting play into a conventional one. Virginia Woolf uses, or is used by, this cliché.

Although the central device of the play is the quarrel between George and Martha, the plot concerns their nonexistent son. From George's "Just don't start on the bit, that's all," before Nick and Honey enter, the play builds through hints, warnings, revelations until "sonny-Jim5 is created and then destroyed. Snap, goes the illusion. Out of the ruins, presumably, new strength comes. The last section, which is to be played "very softly, very slowly," finds George offering new tenderness to Martha, assuring her that the time had come for the fantasy to die, forcing her—no longer maliciously—to admit that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf. It is "Time for bed," and there is nothing left for them to do but go together to face the dark at the top of the stairs. As though the rejuvenation were not clear enough from the last scene, there is the confirming testimony in Honey's tearful reiteration "I want a child" and Nick's broken attempt to sympathize, "I'd like to. …" Then, too, the last act is called "The Exorcism," a name that had been the working title for the play itself.

As neat as Inge, and yet there is something wrong with it. How can a relationship like that of Martha and George, built so consistently on illusion (the playing of games), be expected to have gained something from a sudden admission of truth? What confirmation is there in Nick and Honey when we remember that she is drunk and hysterical and that he is regularly embarrassed by what he is forced to watch? There are two possibilities beyond the conventional reading suggested above. The last scene between Martha and George may be another one of their games; the death of the child may not be the end of illusion but an indication that the players have to go back to go and start again their painful trip to home. Although there are many indications that George and Martha live a circular existence, going over the same ground again and again, the development of the plot and the tone of the last scene (the use of monosyllables, for instance, instead of their customary rhetoric) seem to deny that the game is still going on. The other possibility is that the truth—as in The Iceman Cometh—brings not freedom but death. To believe otherwise is to accept the truth-maturity cliché as readily as one must buy the violence-life analogy to get the positive ending of The Zoo Story. My own suspicion is that everything that feels wrong about the end of Virginia Woolf arises from the fact that, like the stabbing in Zoo, it is a balance-tipping ending that conventional theater says is positive but the Albee material insists is negative.

In A Delicate Balance, the line is clearer. The titular balance is the pattern of aggression and withdrawal, accusation and guilt which Tobias and his family have constructed in order to cope with existence. Agnes suggests that Tobias's "We do what we can" might be "Our motto." When Harry and Edna invade the premises, trying to escape from the nameless fears that have attacked them, they come under the white flag of friendship. Tobias must decide whether or not to let them stay, knowing that the "disease" they carry is contagious and that infection in the household will likely upset the balance. His problem is one in metaphysical semantics, like Julian's in Tiny Alice, although God is not the word whose meaning troubles him. "Would you give friend Harry the shirt off your back, as they say?" asks Claire, before the invasion begins. "I suppose I would. He is my best friend," answers Tobias, and we hear echoes from The American Dream: "She's just a dreadful woman, but she is chairman of our woman's club, so naturally I'm terribly fond of her." Dream's satirical fun about the emptiness of conventional language becomes deadly serious in Balance, for Tobias must decide whether the meaning of friendship is one with substance or only surface—whether friendship is a human relationship implying the possibility of action and risk, or simply a label, like marriage or kinship, to be fastened to a form of accommodation. As Pearl Bailey sang in House of Flowers, "What is a friend for? Should a friend bolt the door?" Tobias (having failed with his cat as Jerry failed with the dog) decides to try doing more than he can; in his long, broken speech in the last act, he displays his fear, indicates that he does not want Harry and Edna around, does not even like them, "but by god … you stay!!" His attempt fails because Harry and Edna, having decided that they would never risk putting real meaning into friendship, depart, leaving a depleted Tobias to rearrange his labels. He will have the help of Agnes, of course, which—on the balance—is a great deal, for she finds the conventional words of goodbye: "well, don't be strangers." Edna, who not many lines before made the "only skin" speech, answers, "Oh, good Lord, how could we be? Our lives are … the same." And so they are.

Thematically, A Delicate Balance is Albee's most precise statement. The gesture toward change, which seemed to fit so uncomfortably at the end of The Zoo Story and Virginia Woolf, has been rendered powerless within the action of Balance. Not only are Albee's characters doomed to live in the worst of all possible worlds; it is the only possible world. The impulse to do something about it can end only in failure. Yet, Albee cannot leave it at that. He cannot, like Samuel Beckett, let his characters turn their meaninglessness into ritual which has a way, on stage, of reasserting the meaning of the human being. He almost does so in Virginia Woolf, but his suspicion that games are not enough—a failure really to recognize that games are a form of truth as much as a form of lying—leads to the doubtful exorcism. Although the angster in Albee cannot let Tobias succeed, the latent reformer cannot help but make him heroic in his lost-cause gesture. He becomes an older, wearier, emptier Jerry, with only the unresisting air to throw himself on at the end.

"Better than nothing!" says Clov in Endgame. "Is it possible?" Out of the fastness of his wasteland, and against his better judgment, Albee cannot keep from hoping so.

In my critical and psychological naivety, I assume—as the paragraphs above show—that Albee's plays are really about the accommodations forced on man by his condition and his society. It is impossible, however, to get through a discussion of Albee without facing up to what might be called—on the analogy of the fashionable critical term subtext—his sub-subject matter. That is the "masochistic-homosexual perfume" that Robert Brustein found hanging so heavily over The Zoo Story. It is a perfume of little importance except insofar as it throws the audience off the scent of the play's real quarry.

A student stopped me on campus a few years ago, hoping I would be able to confirm the story that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was first performed by four men in a little theater in Montreal. When I expressed my doubt, he went off to call a friend in New York who knew someone who knew the man who had been stage manager … although somehow he never got the confirmation he wanted. Except for the circumstantiality of this account (why Montreal?), it was a familiar rumor. Albee, in the Diplomat interview, explained that it was a letter to the Times that started the whole thing, that from there it passed into print elsewhere, first as rumor, then as fact. "I know the difference between men and women," he said, "and I write both characters." The more sophisticated interpreters simply step over Albee's denials and assume that the play, whoever it was written for, is really about a homosexual marriage. The reasoning here is that homosexual marriages, lacking the sanctions of society, are extremely unstable and that to survive at all they must create fantasy devices to bind the couple together. Hence, the imaginary child—for what other kind of child could come from the union of two men? There is a kind of specious logic in operation here. The flaw in it, however, is the refusal to recognize how much fantasy is a part of any relationship, how two people who are close (husband and wife, lovers of whatever sex, good friends) invent private languages, private rituals, private games which set them off from the others. Jimmy and Alison play at squirrels-and-bears in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, and Sid and Iris play wild-mountain-girl in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window without either couple being taken as surrogate homosexual unions. My own inclination would be to let Martha and George have their "little bugger," as they call the nonexistent child, without insisting that they have a big one.

I have heard the play praised for the clarity with which it presented a homosexual couple, but, for the most part, such readings are based on a rejection of the possibility that George and Martha may have a representative heterosexual marriage. A similar rejection takes place when the play is dismissed as a kind of homosexual denigration of conventional marriage. Surely the castrating female and the dominated male are such commonplace psychological stereo-types—on and off stage—that their appearance need not be taken as an indication of a perverse attempt to do in all the Darbys and Joans who provide America's divorce statistics. Besides, Martha and George do not really fit those stereo-types. They appear to at the beginning, but as the play goes on it becomes clear that they are really very evenly matched in a battle that has been going on seriously since Strindberg's The Dance of Death and comically since The Taming of the Shrew. Albee's male wins, as in Shakespeare, but only tentatively, as in Strindberg. Not that Albee is particularly interested in the battle of the sexes as such. He has his own use for it, which is not to attack heterosexuality, but to present one of his many accommodation images: a well-matched pair of antagonists form a balance of sorts.

If a play like Virginia Woolf could call up the homosexual echoes, it is not surprising that Tiny Alice set them roaring. The opening scene between Cardinal and Lawyer is an exercise in bitchiness, primly nasty and insinuating, a marked contrast to the verbal exchanges between Martha and George. It passes from Lawyer's sneering comment on the caged cardinals ("uh, together… in conversation, as it were") to a variation on the old joke about the suitability of a boy or a clean old man, to hints of a schoolboy affair between the two men (Lawyen'TU have you do your obeisances. As you used to, old friend"), to mutual accusations in which Lawyer becomes an anus-entering hyena and Cardinal a mating bird. The business of the scene is apparently expositional, setting up the donation that will send Julian to Alice, so the tension between the two characters and the implication of their past relationship is gratuitous. So, too, is Lawyer's calling Butler "Darling" and'TJearest." The homosexual overtones in Julian (his attraction to the Welsh stableman, his kissing Miss Alice's hand "as he would kiss a Cardinal's ring," and the sensuality of his martyrdom dream in which the lion seems to mount him and he lingers over the entrance of the gladiator's prongs) might be more legitimate, a suggestion of the ambiguity of celibacy. Still, since he is sacrificed to heterosexuality—in that ludicrous scene in which he buries his head in Miss Alice's crotch, a cunnilingual first for the American stage—there is justice in Philip Roth's celebrated attack on'The Play that Dare Not Speak Its Name" (New York Review of Books, February 25, 1965). Roth accused Albee of writing "a homosexual daydream" about the martyrdom of the celibate male and disguising it as a metaphysical drama. Several weeks later (April 8, 1965), a letter to the editor insisted that there was no disguise at all in the play because a "tiny alice" is homosexual jargon for, as the writer so coyly put it, "a masculine derrière." Acting on this information, Bernard F. Dukore added an ingenious footnote to an article in Drama Survey (Spring, 1966) in which he considered that Julian, Butler, and Lawyer, all lovers of Miss Alice, might really be lovers of "tiny alice" and the opening doors at the end an anus symbol, but—as he went on to complain—a play that depends on a special argot for its symbolism is lost on a general audience. If "tiny alice" really is a gay word for anus and if Albee is using it consciously, he may be making an inside joke which has some relevance to his presumed serious play. If one of the points of the play is that all concepts of God (from Julian's abstraction to the mouse in the model) are creations of the men who hold them, a sardonic joke about God as a "tiny alice" is possible. Certainly, Albee has made that joke before, casually in Virginia Woolf (where George speaks of "Christ and all those girls") and more seriously in The Zoo Story (where one of the suggestions in Jerry's where-to-begin-to-love speech is "with god who is a colored queen who wears a kimono and plucks his eyebrows …"). On the other hand, the phrase could turn the play into an audience put-down such as the one described by Clay in Dutchman, in which he says that Bessie Smith, whatever the audience thought she was doing, was always saying, "Kiss my black ass."

This kind of speculation, hedged in as it is by ifs and maybes, is finally pointless. I almost wrote fruitless, but I stopped myself, assuming that my use of "inside joke" earlier is contribution enough to a silly game. How cute can a critic get without his tone corrupting his purpose? This question has relevance for the playwright, too. The problem about Tiny Alice is not whether there is a hidden homosexual joke and/or message, but that the obvious homosexual allusions seem to have little relevance to the plot device (the conspiracy to catch Julian), the play's central action (the martyrdom of Julian), or its presumed subject matter (the old illusion-reality problem). Unless Roth is right, the homosexual material is only decoration, different in quantity but not in kind from the additions and emphases that Albee brought to the already campy (old style) surface of Purdy's Malcolm.

The Zoo Story is the only Albee play in which a homosexual reading seems possible and usable in terms of what else the play is doing. It is, after all, the account of a meeting between two men in Central Park ("I'm not the gentleman you were expecting," says Jerry), in which one lets himself be impaled by the other, who has a phallic name. Jerry, dying, says, "I came unto you (He laughs, so faintly) and you have comforted me. Dear Peter." Jerry's casual references to the "colored queen" and the police "chasing fairies down from trees" on the other side of the park; his story of his one real love affair with the park superintendent's son, whom Otto Reinert (in Modern Drama) identifies with Peter by virtue of Peter's "proprietary claim" to the park bench; the implications in Jerry's "with fury because the pretty little ladies aren't pretty little ladies, with making money with your body which is an act of love and I could prove it"—all contribute to the possibility of this being a homosexual encounter. If it is, then much of the verbal and physical business of the play—Jerry's teasing, his wheedling, his tickling, the wrestling struggle for the bench—can be seen as an elabo-rate seduction which, since Jerry forces his partner to hold the knife, can only be summed up as getting a rise out of Peter. The dramatic fable can be read this way and still be relevant to the thematic material discussed earlier in this chapter. The problem comes when we consider the end of the play. If it is the positive ending that Albee suggested in the Gelb interview, if Jerry has passed on his "awareness of life," it must be Peter's initiation, and that, as Jerry says earlier, is "jazz of a very special hotel." On the other hand, as John Rechy keeps insisting in his seemingly endless novel, City of Night, a homosexual pickup in a park is a particularly workable image for the failure of contact between people.

"You know, I almost think you're serious," says Nick about something other than drama criticism, and George answers, "No, baby… you almost think you're serious, and it scares the hell out of you."

I feel a little that way about my very plausible reading of The Zoo Story in the section above. For if I am willing to accept the possibility of Peter as phallus, how can I deny all the interpreters who insist on seeing Jerry as Christ and Peter as the rock upon which to build his church? At least, the analogy of the homosexual pickup works comfortably within the action of the play and, less comfortably, with the thematic material. Despite the Biblical echoes ("I came unto you" again), the Christ-Jerry analogue is possible only to the extent that every sacrificial victim is a Christ figure, but that is a tautology which contributes nothing to an under-standing of the play. If we see Jerry's suicidal finish as a sacrifice, we learn precious little about his action by nod-ding wisely and saying: oh, ho, Christ. We might as well say: oh, ho, Sydney Carton. Still, writers will use mythic and historical identifications for their characters (Tennessee Williams in Orpheus Descending), and critics will go myth-hunting and trap the slippery beasts. It has now become customary to dive into the underbrush of each new Albee play and bring them back alive.

Albee is partly to blame. He uses obvious symbols such as the muscular young man who is The American Dream and the athletic death figure in The Sandbox. He asks Julian and Miss Alice to form a pietà in Tiny Alice and the dying Julian to spread his arms to "resemble a crucifixion." In some notes prepared for a press conference, later printed in The Best Plays of 1964-1965, Albee said of Tiny Alice: "The play is full of symbols and allusions, naturally, but they are to be taken as echoes in a cave, things overheard, not fully understood at first." I take this to mean that they have no functional use in the play, in relation to either character or action, and that at best they provide a texture as allusive words do in some poetry. In a play, as in a poem, an allusion may uncover another realm of possibility (for instance, the ironies that keep emerging in Peer Gyni), but it can do so only if it does not wreck itself on the dramatic facts of the play. Take that pietà, for instance. It must either make clear something in the relationship between Julian and Miss Alice that has been implicit all along, or it must seem—as it did on stage—an exercise in literary pretentiousness.

Tiny Alice is the most blatant, but all the Albee plays insist on suggesting that there is more there than meets the eye and ear. This can be seen in the way Albee appears to be playing with the significance-seekers. In Agnes's "We become allegorical, my darling Tobias, as we grow older." In George's "Well, it's an allegory, really—probably—but it can be read as straight, cozy prose." Of course, Albee may mean this, too. In either case, he deserves to have the significant-name game played in his dramatic front yard. So Jerry becomes not only Christ but Jeremiah, and Julian not only Christ but Julian the Apostate. The Washingtons and the Khrushchevs get into Virginia Woolf. When Agnes, commenting on how much Claire has seen, says, "You were not named for nothing," she is presumably making a nasty crack about claire as an adjective meaning bright.6 Yet audiences came out of the theater asking questions about St. Clare, St. Agnes, the Apocryphal Tobias, and even Miss Julie.

Albee may be fond of symbols and allusions, echoes and things overheard, but he plainly does not work—as the search for mythic analogies suggests—with dramatic images that come from outside his plays. This does not mean that he is the naturalist he occasionally claims to be, as when he told a New York Times interviewer (September 18, 1966) that even Tiny Alice was naturalistic. Even in Virginia Woolf which is certainly the most naturalistic of his plays, the situation is basically unrealistic; the drinking party is a revelatory occasion, not a slice of life in a small New England college. For the most part, his characters have neither setting not profession, and when they are defined by things, the process is either conventionally (Peter's possessions) or unconventionally (the contents of Jerry's room) stereotypical, so obviously so that realism is clearly not intended. Nor do the characters have biographies, at least of the kind one has come to expect from the psychological naturalism of the Broadway stage. Virginia Woolf, harping as it does on the parental hang-ups of its two principals, comes closest to that pattern, but it is never very clear in this play how much of the memory is invention, which of the facts are fantasy. If Virginia Woolf and The Zoo Story are, at most, distant cousins of naturalistic drama, how much more remote are Albee's plainly absurdist plays (The Sandbox, The American Dream), his "mystery" play with its label-bearing characters (Tiny Alice), his drawing-room noncomedy (A Delicate Balance).

A close look at Albee's language provides the clearest indication of the nonrealistic character of his plays. A Delicate Balance is the most obvious example. The lines are consciously stilted, broken by elaborate parenthesis ("It follows, to my mind, that since I speculate I might, some day, or early evening I think more likely—some autumn dusk—go quite mad") or pulled up short by formal negative endings ("Must she not?"; "is it not?")—devices that call for inflections which stop the natural flow of speech. There are lines that are barely comprehensible ("One does not apologize to those for whom one must?"), which cannot be read without great deliberation. The verbal elaboration has particular point in this play since the language itself becomes a reflection of the artificiality of the characters and the setting, a pattern in which form replaces substance. This can best be seen in the play's most intricate digression. "What I find most astonishing," Agnes begins as the play opens, only to interrupt herself with her fantasy on madness. Her thought meanders through Tobias's practical attempt to get the after-dinner drinks, and we are fifteen speeches into the play, past two reappearances of the "astonish" phrase, before her opening sentence finally comes to an end. Seems to end, really, for the phrase recurs just before the final curtain, as Agnes goes her placidly relentless way—"to fill a silence," as the stage direction says—as though the intrusion of Harry and Edna and Tobias's painful attempt to deal with it were an easily forgotten interruption of the steady flow of nonevent.

In the Atlantic interview, explaining why he felt that English actors were needed for Tiny Alice, Albee said that he had moved from the "idiomatic" language of Virginia Woolf to something more formal. A Delicate Balance is a further step in elaboration. Yet, the language of the earlier plays, however idiomatic, is plainly artificial. Albee has used three main verbal devices from the beginning: interruption, repetition, and the set speech, the last of which makes use of the first two. The set speeches are almost formal recitations, as the playwright recognizes in The Zoo Story when he lets Jerry give his monologue a title: "the story of jerry and the dog!" There are similar speeches in all the plays: Jack's "Hey … Bessie" monologue which is the whole of Scene 3 of Bessie Smith; the Young Man's sentimental mutilation speech in The American Dream; George's "bergin" story and Martha's "Abandoned" speech in Virginia Woolf; the narrator's speeches in Ballad; Julian's dying soliloquy in Tiny Alice; Madame Girard's Entre-Scene monologue in Malcolm; Jack's direct address to the audience in Garden. Although Albee does not direct the speaker to step into a spotlight—as Tennessee Williams does with comparable speeches in Sweet Bird of Youth—he recognizes that these are essentially solo performances even when another character is on stage to gesture or grunt or single-word his way into the uneven but persistent flow of words. Of Tobias's big scene at the end of Balance, Albee says "This next is an aria."7 In The Zoo Story, Jerry does not use a simple narration; his story is momentarily stopped for generalizing comments ("It always happens when I try to simplify things; people look up. But that's neither hither nor thither") and marked with repeated words ("The dog is black, all black; all black except…") and phrases ("I'll kill the dog with kindness, and if that doesn't work … I'll just kill him"). The word laughter punctuates the "bergin" story the way laughter itself presumably broke the cocktail-lounge murmur of the bar in which the boys were drinking.

It is not the long speeches alone that are built of interruption and repetition; that is the pattern of all the dialogue. On almost any page of Virginia Woolf you can find examples as obvious as this speech of George's: "Back when I was courting Martha—well, don't know if that's exactly the right word for it—but back when I was courting Martha. …" Then comes Martha's"Screw, sweetie!" followed by another attempt from George, more successful this time, "At any rate, back when I was courting Martha," and off he goes into an account which involves their going "into a bar … you know, a bar … a whiskey, beer, and bourbon bar… ." Sometimes the repetitions become echoes that reach from act to act as when Martha's "snap" speech in Act Two is picked up by George in the snapdragon scene in Act Three. From The Zoo Story to Everything in the Garden, then, Albee has consciously manipulated language for effect; even when it sounds most like real speech—as in Virginia Woolf—it is an exercise in idiomatic artificiality.

At their best, these artifices are the chief devices by which Albee presents his dramatic images. Neither naturalist nor allegorist, he works the great middle area where most playwrights operate. He puts an action on stage—an encounter in a park that becomes a suicide-murder, a night-long quarrel that ends in the death of illusion, an invasion that collapses before the defenders can decide whether to surrender or to fight—which presumably has dramatic vitality in its own right and from which a meaning or meanings can emerge. The central situation—the encounter, the relation-ship implicit in the quarrel, the state of the defenders and the invaders—is defined almost completely in verbal terms. There is business, of course, but it is secondary. Jerry's poking and tickling Peter is only an extension of what he has been doing with words; George's attempt to strangle Martha is a charade not far removed from their word games. When events get more flamboyant—the shooting of Julian, Julia's hysterical scene with the gun—they tend to become ludicrous. The most obvious example in Albee of physical business gone wrong is the wrestling match between Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy in The Ballad of the Sad Café; the fact that it is the dramatic climax of the play does not keep it from looking silly on stage. Ordinarily, Albee does not need to ask his characters to do very much, for what they say is dramatic action. "The old pigeonhole bit?" says Jerry in The Zoo Story, and although it is he, not Peter, who does the pigeonholing, the accusation and the mockery in the question is an act of aggression, as good as a shove for throwing Peter off balance.

In the long run, Albee's reputation as a playwright will probably depend less on what he has to say than on the dramatic situations through which he says it. The two Albee plays that seem to have taken the strongest hold on the public imagination (which may be a way of saying they are the two plays I most admire) are The Zoo Story and Virginia Woolf. The reason is that the meeting between Jerry and Peter and the marriage of George and Martha, for all the nuances in the two relationships, are presented concretely in gesture and line; they take shape on the stage with great clarity. Tiny Alice, by contrast, is all amorphousness. It may finally be possible to reduce that play to an intellectual formulation, but the portentousness that hovers over so many lines and so much of the business keeps the characters and the situation from attaining dramatic validity. The Zoo Story is more successful as a play, not because its dramatic situation is more realistic, but because it exists on stage—a self-created dramatic fact.

A Delicate Balance is a much stronger play than Tiny Alice. As the discussion early in this chapter indicates, it is probably Albee's most perfect combination of theme and action, and its central metaphor—the balance—is important not only to the play but to Albee's work as a whole. Yet, compared to Virginia Woolf, it is an incredibly lifeless play. The reason, I think, is that the Martha-George relationship has dramatic substance in a way that the Tobias-Agnes household does not. Too much has been made—particularly by casual reviewers—of the violence, the hate, the anger in the Martha-George marriage. It is just as important that the quarrel be seen in the context of the affection they have for one another and the life—even if it is a long, sad game—which they so obviously share. One of the best inventions in all of Albee is the gun with the parasol in it, for what better way of seeing the relationship of Martha and George than in terms of a murderous weapon that is also a sheltering object; the instrument is a metaphor for the marriage, and its use is a preview of what will happen in the last act.

From the moment the play opens, from Martha's challenge, "What a dump. Hey what's that from?" it is clear that Mar tha and George play the same games. He may be tired at first, not really in the mood for a session of name-the-movie, or he may be faking indifference because he cannot remember that the "god-damn Bette Davis picture" Martha has in mind is Beyond the Forest (1949), but there is companion-ship in the incipient quarrel that will not disappear as the argument grows more lethal. It can be seen directly in several places. Near the beginning of the play, after a mutual accusation of baldness, they go into a momentary affectionate scene in which his "Hello honey" leads to her request for "a big sloppy kiss." Almost the same phrase, "C'mon … give me a kiss," is her compliment for his having been clever enough to introduce the parasol-gun into the game room. Much more important than the grand games to which he gives labels—Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, Hump the Hostess—are the small games that they play constantly—the play-acting routines, the little-kid bits, the mock-etiquette turns, the verbal games. The whole force of the play depends on their existence as a couple, a relationship made vivid in moments such as the one in Act III when Nick, humiliated at his sexual failure, begins angrily, "I'm nobody's houseboy …" and Martha and George shout in unison,"Now!" and then begin to sing, "I'm nobody's houseboy now. …" Their closeness is important if we are to recognize that George can be and is cuckolded. This event takes place on stage in Act II when Martha and Nick dance together sensuously and, speaking in time to the music, she tells about George's abortive attempt to be a novelist. It is at this moment that their marriage is violated, that George's anger shows most plainly, that he initiates a game of Get the Guests. "Book dropper! Child mentioned " accuses George, and we see—perhaps before he does—the connection that forces him to carry "the bit about the kid" to its murderous conclusion. One may come away from Virginia Woolf suspicious of the end of the play and its presumed implications but never in doubt about the dramatic force of either characters or situation.

A Delicate Balance provides a marked contrast. We learn a great deal about the antipathy between Agnes and Claire, the sexual life of Agnes and Tobias, the marriage problems of Julia, the nameless fears of Edna and Harry, but the situation is explained more than it is presented. Some of the language is witty, some of it—particularly Agnes' lines—is quietly bitchy, but speeches do not pass from one character to another, carving out a definition of their relationship; lines fall from the mouths of the characters and shatter on the stage at their feet. Thematically, this is fine, since separateness is what Albee wants to depict, and he is ingenious in the way he lets the artificiality of his language contribute to the general sense of empty facade. Unfortunately, the characters are defined only in terms of their separateness, their significance as exemplary lost ones. Not so indeterminate as Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance still lacks the kind of concreteness that comes from a dramatic image fully realized on stage. The characters are given a little biography, a few mannerisms, a whisper of depth, but they remain highly articulate stick figures moving through a sequence of nonevents to a foregone conclusion.

Unless Edward Albee is on some unannounced road to Damascus, there is not much doubt about what he will be saying in the plays that lie ahead of him. It is how he chooses to say it that will be important. In the face of his most recent work, in which significance seems to be imposed from the outside instead of meaning rising from within, we have every reason to be afraid, not of, but for Virginia Woolf.


1According to a letter from Albee (October 13, 1966), Hinton, who was writing the libretto, fell ill and Albee finished the work; as he remembers it, he wrote the Prologue, the last scene, and did "considerable revision" on the other three scenes. The title page of the vocal score lists Flanagan with Hinton and Albee as one of the authors of the libretto. The opera, of course, is based on Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." My responses are highly suspect since I did not see the opera in production; I read the libretto and listened to at least two of my friends—unfortunately, not at the same time—make piano assaults on the score. I would guess that the most effective scene, musically and dramatically, is Scene 2 in which Mr. Allan (the name given to Melville's nameless lawyer-narrator) goes to his office on Sunday morning and finds Bartleby there; his aria carries him from complacent Sunday-morning ruminations (mostly to slightly doctored lines from Melville) through the confrontation with Bartleby to his attempt to make sense of this clerk who will not do his work and will not go away. Bartleby's one-note "I would prefer not to" echoes in variations all through Allan's confusion in this scene. Less happy moments musically are church bells which chime in the piano part after they have been mentioned in the libretto and the calculated contrast at the end of Scene 3 when beyond the huffing-puffing violence can be heard the soprano of the office boy singing his way back on stage with the ballad-like song that identifies him. For the most part, the libretto is a softening of Melville's story. Since the Bartleby of the story makes a claim on the lawyer which cannot be (or is not) fulfilled, Melville's work has an obvious thematic relevance to Albee's. What is missing in the dramatization is Melville's superb ambiguity; there is not even an attempt in the opera to get the effect that Melville achieves when his narrator, who believes that "the easiest way of life is the best," manages to comfort himself by pigeonholing Bartleby when the clerk is no longer alive and mutely accusing. The "Oh, Bartleby, Oh, humanity" that ends the opera is sentimental although it probably means to be something more exalted. The "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" that ends Melville's story is ironic.

Flanagan, to whom Albee dedicated The Zoo Story, did the mustic for The Sandbox, The Ballad of the Sad Café, and Malcolm. Flanagan's music for The Sandbox is printed with the play in Margaret Mayorga's The Best Short Plays, 1959-1960.

2My own reviews, from The Zoo Story (The Reporter, February 16, 1961) to Everything in the Garden (The Reporter, December 28, 1967), have suggested with a decreasing amount of flippancy that there is less to Albee than meets the eye. Although my review of Virginia Woolf (Drama Survey, Fall, 1963) now seems unnecessarily condescending, my general misgivings about Albee as a playwright have not disappeared. What has disappeared, alas, is a letter that Albee sent to The Reporter to straighten me out after my review of The Zoo Story.

3One of the persistent—and, I think, unfortunate—ways of reading Albee is to assume that the animals and the animal imagery which figure in so many of the plays are being used to make some instructive point about man's nature. For instance, John V. Hagopian, in a letter to the New York Review of Books (April 8, 1965), insisted that the point of Tiny Alice is that "man must embrace his animal nature." It is true that Brother Julian has an abstraction problem in that play, but his acceptance of the world (and all the animals and birds that wander through the lines in Alice) is not—as the ambiguity in his death scene indicates—a sure sign of either health or reality. There is a certain amount of sentimentality in such a reading of the play, at least if the "embrace" is taken as positive rather than factual. In Albee's work there is a general equation between man and animal. This can be seen in The Zoo Story, not only in Jerry's dog tale and the zoo metaphor, but in the confusion of Peter's children with his cats and parakeets. Perhaps there is something ennobling, an up-the-chain-of-being slogan, in Jerry's comfort to Peter, "you're not really a vegetable; it's all right, you're an animal," but as Mac the Knife would say, "What's the percentage?" Albee's animals reflect the predicament of his men. There are still bars to look through, accommodations to be made.

4Perhaps we cannot believe him. In an article on the making of the movie (McCall's, June, 1966), Roy Newquist quotes Albee: "They had filmed the play, with the exception of five or ten minutes of relatively unimportant material." Although I quote from a number of interviews in this chapter, I am aware that interviews, at best, are doubtful sources of information and opinion. There are the obvious dangers of misquotation and spur-of-the-moment remarks which are untrue (is The Ballad of the Sad Café an earlier play than Virginia Woolf as Albee told Thomas Lask in a Times interview, October 27, 1963, or are we to believe the dates accompanying the Atheneum editions of his plays?) or only momentarily true (the conflicting opinions about the movie version of Woolf). Beyond that, it is clear that Albee, when he is not on his high horse, likes to kid around. I am not thinking of an occasion like the joint interview with John Gielgud (Atlantic, April, 1965), where the chummy inside jocularity masks what must have been a major difference of opinion over Tiny Alice, but of an interview like the one in Transatlantic Review, in which Albee is very solemn and still sounds as though he is putting Digby Diehl on. Or the one in Diplomat that got me into this footnote in the first place, for in that one Albee uses what I assume is a running gag, of which Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., never seems aware. In three variations on a single line, he ponders whether or not Woolf Alice,and Balance are comedies on the basis of whether or not the characters get what they want or think they want. The joke, of course, is that the line comes from Grandma's curtain speech from The American Dream: "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."

5One of the "echoes"—to use Albee's word (The Best Plays of 1964-1965) for the unanchored allusions in Tiny Alice—must surely be a song that little boys used to sing: "Lulu had a baby, / Named it Sonny Jim, / Threw it in the piss-pot / To see if it could swim."

6According to my French distionary, claire, as a feminine noun, means "burnt bones or washed ashes used for making cupels." Chew on that.

7Albee's one attempt at fiction—the beginning of a novel which Esquire (July, 1963) printed as one of a group of works-in-progress, a fragment that was probably written for the occasion—is essentially a long speech like the ones in the plays. The Substitute Speaker, a play that Albee has been announcing since 1963, will contain the granddaddy of the solos if it really has in it the forty-minute speech Albee once promised.

Ruby Cohn (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Verbal Murders of Edward Albee," in Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 130-69.

[In the essay below, the critic expresses reservations about the "surface polish " of Albee's dialogue but concludes that he is "the most skillful composer of dialogue that America has produced. "]

Collectively, O'Neill with his realistic idiom, Miller with his varied inflections, and Williams with his functional imagery brought American dialogue to a maturity that was Edward Albee's birthright. Albee-playwright was born at the age of thirty, with perfect command of contemporary colloquial stylized dialogue.

Albee's intensely American yet original idiom is striking if we compare a passage from Albee's first play, The Zoo Story (1959), with the competent translation into German, the language of its first production.

But good old Mom and good old Pop are dead … you know?…1 I'm broken up about it, too …I mean really. BUT. That particular vaudeville act is playing the cloud circuit now, so I don't see how I can look at them, all neat and framed. Besides, or, rather, to be pointed about it, good old Mom walked out on good old Pop when I was ten and a half years old; she embarked on an adulterous turn of our southern states …a journey of a year's duration … and her most constant companion … among others, among many others … was a Mr. Barleycorn.

Ja—oh, weh und ach—, Mammi und Pappi sind tot, and ich weiss nicht, ob ich es ertragen könnte, sie dauernd vor mir zu sehen, fein säuberlich eingerahmt. Nebenbei bemerkt, oder vielmehr gar nicht nebenbei: Mammi ist Pappi weggelaufen, als ich zehneinhalb Jahre alt war. Sie hatte sich auf eine ehebrecherische Fahrt durch unsere Südstaaten begeben. Der Ausflug dauerte ein ganzes Jahr. Der beständigste unter ihren Reisegefahrten war, wie sich später herausstellte, ein Mister Barleycorn.

The cloud circuit vaudeville act is absent from the German, as are the ironic rhythmic resonances of the repeated "good old." And it is not even clear that the only fidelity of Jerry's mother is to whiskey.

Albee combines this vividly colloquial diction with a seemingly leisurely indirection. In the work of the other three dramatists, dialogue was examined in Aristotelian terms: how did it further the plot? How did it reveal character?

How did it delineate thought (usually interpreted as theme)? These questions are still useful for Albee's plays, and yet the dialogue of The Zoo Story sounds absurdly disjunctive. But under Albee's disjunction lie an eventful plot, coherent characters, and thematic consistency.

The main theme of The Zoo Story is communication. A "permanent transient" tries to communicate with a proper publisher, whom he meets one Sunday on a Central Park bench. One human being tries to communicate with another. Being a highly unorthodox individual, Jerry uses highly unorthodox means of communication—entirely verbal at first. Early in The Zoo Story, Jerry informs Peter: "I took the subway down to the Village so I could walk all the way up Fifth Avenue to the zoo. It's one of those things a person has to do: sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly " (my italics). Jerry's long walk enables him to describe his methodology. Jerry could have gone to New York City's Central Park Zoo by the cross-town bus, but, deliberately indirect, he chose a circuitous route, "a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly." As Hamlet is "but mad north-north west," Jerry walks "northerly," seeking by indirection to find direction out, seeking by indirection to communicate with Peter. At the verbal climax of the play, Jerry's dog story, he uses the same pointedly clumsy phrase to describe his indirection: "the story of jerry and the dog! … What I am going to tell you has something to do with how sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly." When we hear the dog story, we are already familiar with Jerry's "out of the way" dialogue and its two main rhetorical patterns, pointed thrusts and digressive monologues.

The dog story is an analogue for the titular and thematic zoo story, which Jerry does not narrate, though he predicts that it will be in the newspapers and on television. Jerry's dog story is a parable, as Albee's Zoo Story is a parable. In the latter, vagrant confronts conformist on a park bench; in the former, man confronts animal in a dark hallway. Jerry is vagrant and man; conformist Peter replaces the animal as Jerry's friend-enemy. Jerry views Peter as he does the dog—with sadness and suspicion; Jerry tickles Peter as he tempts the dog—into self-revelation; Jerry forces Peter to defend his premises as the dog defends his premises; Jerry hopes for understanding from the dog ("I hoped that the dog would … understand") and from Peter ("I don't know what I was thinking about; of course you don't understand.") As the dog bit Jerry, Peter stabs Jerry.

However, the dog's hostility to Jerry begins the dog story whereas Peter's hostility to Jerry is only gradually aroused in The Zoo Story. The dog's hostility is at the surface of his animality, but Peter's hostility is calculatedly manipulated by Jerry, whose physical assault on Peter is comprised of five actions—tickling, shoving, punching, slapping, and immolating himself on the knife. But the physical assault has been prepared by Jerry's skillful verbal assault: "I have learned that neither kindness or cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves; and I have learned that the two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion." Jerry combines the two in his education of Peter, with cruelty more immediately evident than kindness.

After Jerry's verbal attack, a terrified Peter screams when Jerry opens his knife: "you're going to kill me!" But Jerry's intention is more subtle. "Jerry tosses the knife at Peter's feet" and urges him to pick it up. Once the knife is in Peter's hands, Jerry taunts him into using it. He slaps Peter each time he repeats the word "fight." Since Peter is a defensive animal (when pressed) and not an attacker, Jerry "impales himself on the knife. " Though Jerry, wounded, screams like a "fatally wounded animal," he dies like a man—talking. In dying, Jerry comes to partial self-recognition through his stream of associations: "Could I have planned all this? No … no, I couldn't have. But I think I did." His final broken phrases reflect the disjunctive quality of his behavior.

Jerry's fragmented life and speech contrast with Peter's coherence and order. Peter's effort to light his pipe triggers Jerry's first taunt: "Well, boy; you 're not going to get lung cancer, are you?" With this thrust, Jerry exposes Peter's caution. At the same time, he introduces death, one of the play's themes, into the dialogue; he will harp on that theme in his account of his parents and aunt, in the dog story, and, finally, in his own death. Only in dying does Jerry shift from cruel to kind words, reassuring Peter that he is "an animal, too." The "too" is significant; Peter and Jerry are both animals, as are the seals, birds, and lions at the zoo; as are the parakeets who make Peter's dinner and the cats who set his table. In his dog story, Jerry says he put rat poison into the hamburger bought for a pussy-caf, so as to kill the landlady's dog. We see no animals on stage, but they recur thematically in the dialogue. Thus, animals become inter-changeable. Albee's Zoo Story, the story that is not told, generalizes that men are animals; beneath an illusion of civilization, they live in rooms that resemble zoo-cages. They may use words and knives instead of fangs and claws, but they still can kill.

As Gilbert Debusscher has shown, this aspect of The Zoo Story is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer. In both plays, too, "the cleverly interrupted monologue moves forward first by jerky and monosyllabic staccatos, then through the largo of long confessional passages, toward an unbearable tension which is resolved in a violent and sensational climax."2 In both plays, that climax is a kind of mystical ecstasy—erotic, religious, but above all thematic.

By his climactic death, Jerry finally communicates with Peter, teaching him that men are brothers in their animality. However, Jerry does more than reveal Peter's animality to him. Like the Old Testament Jeremiah, whose cruel prophesies were a warning kindness to his people, Albee's Jerry may have educated Peter in his relation to God. Jerry occasionally introduces biblical notes: "So be it." "And it came to pass that …" "Amen." Before the dog story, Jerry exclaims: "For God's sake." After poisoning the dog, Jerry promises its owner that he will pray, though he does"not understand how to pray." At the end of the dog story, Jerry recites a list of those with whom he has tried to communicate—a list that begins with animals and ends with God, anagram of dog. In his cruel-kind deviling of Peter, Jerry calls on Jesus, and Peter replies with a "God damn" and a "Great God" almost in the same breath3

This undercurrent of religious suggestion is climaxed by the final words of the play. Toward the beginning, Peter reacted to Jerry's unconventional life story with "Oh, my; oh, my." And Jerry sneered: "Oh, your what?" Only after the impalement is Jerry's question answered—by Peter's whispered repetitions: "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God."—the only words Peter speaks while Jerry dies, thanking Peter in biblical phrases: "I came unto you and you have comforted me." After Jerry's revelation of Peter's animal nature, and Peter's subsequent departure according to Jerry's instructions, we hear "oh my god!" as an off-stage howl—the final proof of Peter's animality, but also of his humanity, since he howls to his God. Jerry, who tells an animal story, closes the play by echoing Peter's "Oh my God" in the difficult combination demanded by the stage direction: "scornful mimicry and supplication. " That tonal combination is Jerry's last lesson in the pedagogy of cruel kindness. Much of his scornful wit has been mimetic, and yet the wit itself is an inverted plea for love and understanding; the very word "understand" resounds through the play.

Because life is lonely and death inevitable, Jerry seeks communication in a single deed of ambiguous suicide-murder. He stages his own death, and by that staging, he explodes Peter's illusion of civilization, converting him into an apostle who will carry the message of man's caged animality—the zoo story. Jerry's death brings us to a dramatic definition of humanity—born with animal drives but reaching toward the divine. Though this definition is at least as old as Pascal, Albee invests it with contemporary relevance through his highly contemporary idiom.

With gesture and language, Jerry teaches Peter. The relationship of the two men is not simply non-conformist versus conformist, but teacher and student, realist and illusionist, man and fellow-man. Shifting from intimate questions to intimate revelations, Jerry opens a new world to Peter. Even in his dying speech, Jerry does not sentimentalize, and he remains partially mocking as he narrows down to the final spaced syllables: "Oh … my … God." Homosexual interpretations of The Zoo Story miss its wide resonance, but there is love in Jerry's pedagogy—a love rooted in animality and straining toward the divine.

In The Death of Bessie Smith (1959), Albee changes both structure and texture, but his dialogue continues to combine associational monologues with lethal thrusts. Based on a newspaper story of the death of the Negro blues singer, The Death of Bessie Smith is documentary in origin—a unique phenomenon in Albee's work. But his Bessie Smith is a presence and not a character in his play, whose most sustained character is a voluble young Nurse. Lacking Jerry's pedagogic kindness, the Nurse's dialogue is vitriolic, and yet she is not responsible for the death of Bessie Smith.

In the eight scenes of the play, Albee attempts to counter-point two story-threads—the trip North of blues-singer Bessie Smith, and the Nurse's sadistic control of a Southern hospital. The Nurse story overshadows that of Bessie Smith, who is known only through the dialogue of her chauffeur-companion, Jack. Albee gives names to the sympathetic Negroes—Jack, Bernie, Bessie Smith—whereas the type-casts the white world—Nurse, Father, Intern, light-skinned Orderly, Second Nurse. Named and unnamed characters are alike in their loquacious inaction. As Paul Witherington has noted, they talk about doing things which they do not do.4

The Nurse is the only coherent character in The Death of Bessie Smith, and she coheres through her scornful verbalizations. To her father, she sneers: "I'll tell you what I'll do: now that we have His Honor, the mayor, as a patient… when I get down to the hospital… If I ever get there on that damn bus … I'll pay him a call, and I'll just ask him about your 'friendship' with him." The Nurse goads her mulatto orderly: "Tell me, boy … is it true, young man, that you are now an inhabitant of no-man's-land, on the one side shunned and disowned by your brothers, and on the other an object of contempt and derision to your betters?"

About half way through the play, Jack's car, with Bessie Smith as passenger, crashes off stage. On stage the Nurse carries on a bored telephone conversation with a second Nurse at another hospital. It is this second Nurse who is indirectly responsible for the death of Bessie Smith, but we do not learn this till the end of the play.

In the two longest of the eight scenes (sixth and last) the cynical but conformist Nurse engages in a thrust-and-parry dialogue with the liberal Intern. At his rare dialectical best, the Intern is as cruel as the Nurse. Though ideologically opposed to her, he desires her—a desire inflamed by her taunts. When his sneer about her chastity evokes her threat to "fix" him, he combines admiration with vengefulness: "I just had a lovely thought… that maybe sometime when you are sitting there at your desk opening mail with that stiletto you use for a letter opener, you might slip and tear open your arm … then you could come running into the emergency … and I could be there when you came running in, blood coming out of you like water out of a faucet… and I could take ahold of your arm … and just hold it…and watch it flow … just hold on to you and watch your blood flow …" The carefully cadenced pauses augment the cruelty of the words.

The death of Bessie Smith occurs off stage, between the last two scenes of the play. In the brief seventh scene, the Second Nurse refuses hospital admission to Bessie Smith, injured in an automobile accident: "i don't care who you got out there, nigger, you cool your heels!" Similarly, when Jack brings Bessie Smith to the central hospital in the last scene, the Nurse refuses admission to the singer. As the Intern and Orderly rush out to Bessie in the car, Jack tells the Nurse about the accident, and she recalls the Intern's wish that he might watch while her blood came out "like water from a faucet." But it is Jack who has watched the ebb of the life-blood of Bessie Smith. When the Intern and Orderly re-enter, "their uniforms are bloodied, " and Bessie Smith is dead.

In The Death of Bessie Smith nurses do not tend the sick; they converse at hospital admissions desks, refusing care to the injured. "Mercy" is merely an expletive without meaning. The Nurse says that she is sick of things; the word "sick" is on everyone's tongue. But it is Bessie Smith who dies of the sickness in the South. The Nurse speaks of her letter opener in the Intern's ribs, of a noose around his neck, but it is Bessie Smith who dies violently. The Nurse likes Negro blues, but she will not lift a finger to save a Negro blues inger; rather, she mocks dead Bessie Smith, singing until the Intern slaps her. Albee's play indicts the whole sick South for the murder of Bessie Smith; his setting is a Southern hospital in which no one is well, but only Bessie Smith dies. Nevertheless, the singer's story is fragmentary, and we are left with a more vivid impression of the verbal duelling of Nurse and Intern; this is often gratuitous skirmishing in a loosely constructed, morally earnest drama.

By contrast, satiric caricature is Albee's main technique in The Sandbox (1959) and The American Dream (1960). Both monologues and thrust-and-parry exchanges contain the clichés of middle-class America. The implication is that such clichés lead to the death of Grandma, who represents the vigorous old frontier spirit. In her independence, Grandma resembles Jerry or the Intern, but age has made her crafty, and she has learned to roll with the punches. In both The Sandbox and The American Dream, Mommy delivers these punches verbally, and yet she does not literally kill Grandma.

Of the relationship between the two plays, Albee has written: "For The Sandbox, I extracted several of the characters from The American Dream and placed them in a situation different than, but related to, their predicament in the longer play."5 The Sandbox is named for the grave of Grandma, the first-generation American, and The American Dream is named for the third-generation American, a grave in himself; in both plays, murderous intention is lodged in the middle generation, especially Mommy. In The Sandbox, Mommy and Daddy deposit Grandma in a child's sandbox, as Hamm deposited his legless parents in ashbins in Beckett's Endgame. Half-buried, Grandma finds that she can no longer move, and she accepts her summons by the handsome Young Man, an Angel of Death.

In The American Dream, Ionesco is a strong influence on Albee. Like The Bald Soprano, The American Dream thrives on social inanities. Like Ionesco, Albee reduces events to arrivals and departures. As in The Bald Soprano, a mock-recognition scene is based on circumstantial evidence^—husband and wife in the Ionesco play, and in the Albee play, Mrs. Barker and the American family for whom she barks. Albee also uses such Ionesco techniques as proliferation of objects (Grandma's boxes), pointless anecdotes (mainly Mommy's), meaningless nuances (beige, wheat, and cream), cliché refrains (I don't mind if I do; how fascinating, enthralling, spellbinding, gripping, or engrossing.).

Within this stuffy apartment of Ionesco motifs, Albee places a family in the American grain, with its areas for senior citizens and its focus on money. When Mommy was eight years old, she told Grandma that she was "going to mahwy a wich old man." Sterile, Mommy and Daddy have purchased a baby from the Bye-Bye Adoption Service, that puns on Buy-Buy. Mommy spends much of her life shopping (when she isn't nagging Daddy or Grandma). In The Sandbox, Mommy and Daddy carry Grandma to death, but in The American Dream, Mommy nags at Grandma's life. She informs a feebly protesting Daddy that he wants to put Grandma in a nursing home, and she threatens Grandma with a man in a van who will cart her away. Mommy treats Grandma like a naughty child; she discusses Grandma's toilet habits, warns her that she will take away her TV, worries about her vocabulary: "I don't know where she gets the words; on the television, maybe."

And Grandma, who is treated like a child, repeats the phrases we learn as American children: "Shut up! None of your damn business." Grandma tells the story of the family child to Mrs. Barker. Since "the bumble of joy" had eyes only for Daddy, Mommy gouged his eyes out; since he called Mommy a dirty name, they cut his tongue out. And because "it began to develop an interest in its you-know-what," they castrated him and cut his hands off at the wrists. Our acquaintance with Mommy has prepared us for Grandma's account of Bringing up Bumble. But more painful than the mutilations are the ailments it subsequently develops, because we can hear in them Mommy's cruel American platitudes: "it didn't have a head on its shoulders, it had no guts, it was spineless, its feet were made of clay." This is Mommy's more insidious castration, nagging the child into a diminutive Daddy, who is "all ears," but who has no guts since he "has tubes now, where he used to have tracts." Daddy's organs are related to housing, on the one hand, and television, on the other—both mass produced in modern America, and both part of the modern American dream life. In The American Dream, like father, like son. Daddy "just want[s] to get everything over with," and his bumble-son does get everything over with, by dying before Mommy can complete her murder of him.

In The American Dream, it is an off-stage bumble that predicts Grandma's death, as an off-stage rumble announces Grandma's death in The Sandbox. Like the bumble, Grandma escapes Mommy's murderous malice by a kind of suicide. As Jerry turns Peter's reluctant threat into the reality of his death, Grandma turns Mommy's repeated threats into the reality of her disappearance from the family. Mommy is even more conformist than Peter, so that she cannot perform deeds of violence herself. Daddy has been devitalized on an operating table, so that Grandma has to be threatened by a proxy murderer—the man in the van.

When a handsome Young Man arrives, Grandma is alone on stage, and she instantly recognizes the American Dream shaped by Mommy. He shares only appearance and initials with the Angel of Death in The Sandbox, but he has the same meaning. The American Dream is an Angel of Death who is linked to both the mutilated bumble and to Grandma. In a confessional monologue, the Young Man tells Grandma of a twin "torn apart" from him, so that it seemed his heart was "wrenched from his body," draining him of feeling. As his twin brother was mutilated physically, the American Dream is mutilated emotionally.

When Mrs. Barker intrudes upon this confrontation of the numb young modern man with the vigorous old frontier spirit, Grandma introduces him as the man in the van, Mommy's bogey-man. Asking him to carry her boxes, Grandma follows the Young Man out. Boxes and sandbox are coffin and grave; the American Dream leads but to the grave, and Grandma, accepting her fate, goes out in style—escorted by a handsome swain whose gallantry replaces feeling.

Though minatory Mommy later admits that "There is no van man. We … we made him up," she readily accepts the American Dream as a replacement for Grandma. Thus, the "comedy" ends happily, though Grandma is dead to Mommy:"Five glasses? Why five? There are only four of us." In spite of Mommy's malice—expressed in the clichés of contemporary America—Grandma and bumble manage to die their own deaths.

In the conversation between a sympathetic Grandma and an ambiguous American Dream, Albee dilutes his satire. In spite of Grandma's pithy frontier comments and her asides on "old people," Grandma does not openly oppose Mommy. Since the Young Man is first caricatured, then sentimentalized, his long speeches sag. He will "do almost anything for money," and he tries to sell us the sad story of his life. Apparently ignorant of the mutilations to his twin brother, he describes his parallel loss of sensation that has resulted in his inability to love. In spite of Albee's rhythmic skill, this abstract statement of losses is duller than Grandma's pungent summary of the mutilation of his twin, and this dulls the edge of Albee's satire. In spite of the Young Man's warning that his tale "may not be true," the mutual sympathy of Grandma and the American Dream is incongruously maudlin. Albee makes an effort to restore the comic tone by bringing back Mommy and Daddy with their mindless clichés, and the play ends with Grandma's sardonic aside: "everybody's got what he wants … or everybody's got what he thinks he wants." The word "satisfaction" has threaded through the play, and the American family finally snuggles into its illusion of satisfaction.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963) such illusion is less satisfactory, and it is expressed in a more varied and vitriolic idiom. As in Albee's earlier and shorter plays, however, murderous dialogue leads obliquely to murder. As the shadow of death lay over the sunny afternoon of The Zoo Story, death lies like a sediment in Martha's gin, Nick's bourbon, Honey's brandy, and mainly George's bergin. George claims that "the favorite sport is musical beds" in New Carthage, but the sport that commands our attention is elaborate word play in a diapason whose dominant note is that of death. And yet this death-dipped gamesmanship—the word "game" is repeated over thirty times—exposes an anatomy of love. Despite the presence of four characters, the play's three acts focus on the relationship of George and Martha, who express their love in a lyricism of witty malice.

Games do not formally begin in Act I, in spite of its title, "Fun and Games." However, the "fun" of stylized questions, exclamations, repetitions, and repartee involves us immediately in the verbal play of George and Martha. During the first few minutes of the drama, Martha calls George cluck, dumbbell, simp, pig, blank, cipher, and zero. George addresses Martha as "dear" and "love," but his offhand accusations relate her to animals—braying, chewing ice cubes like a cocker spaniel, and yowling like a sub-human monster. Through the swift first act, the dialogue rises toward a dissonant duet: Martha chants about George's failures while he tries to drown her voice in the party refrain, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Toward the end of Act III, "Exorcism," George and Martha reach "a hint of communion." Despite their exchange of insults, George and Martha are together at the end of Acts I and III—the first mercilessly comic and the last mysteriously serious. During the three acts, neither of them can bear the extended absence of the other; each of them praises the other to Nick. Separated between Acts II and III, both George and Martha, independently, think of A Streetcar Named Desire. (Martha refers to The Poker Night, the original title of Williams' play, and George quotes the Spanish refrain of the Mexican flower-vendor.) However aggressive they sound—both utter the word "No" like a staccato tom-tom—George and Martha are attuned to one another, and they need one another.

George and Martha have cemented their marriage with the fiction of their son. Except for their inventive dialogue, they are outwardly conformist; privately, however, they nourish their love upon this lie. George's playlong preoccupation with death hints that such lies must be killed before they kill.

The distinctive love duet of George and Martha contains Albee's theme of death. Early in Act I, George tells Martha "murderously " how much he is looking forward to their guests. Once Nick and Honey are on scene, George shoots Martha with a toy gun, and then remarks that he might really kill her some day. In Act II, Nick and George exchange unprovoked confessions: Nick reveals intimacies about his wife and her father, but George's anecdotes center on death. He tells of a fifteen-year old boy who had accidentally shot his mother; when the boy was learning to drive, with his father as teacher, he swerved to avoid a porcupine, and he crashed into a tree, killing his father. Later in Act II, Martha summarizes George's novel about a boy who accidentally killed both his parents. Martha's father had forbidden George to publish the novel, and George had protested: "No, Sir, this isn't a novel at all… this is the truth … this really happened … to me!" George reacts to Martha's mimicry with a threat to kill her, and he grabs her by the throat. Athletic Nick, who resembles the American Dream both in physique and lack of feeling, tears George from Martha, and she accuses her husband softly: "Murderer. Mur … der … er." But George's stage murder will be performed verbally rather than physically.

While Nick and Martha disappear upstairs, drunk Honey voices her fear of having children, and George needles her: "How you do it? [sic] Hunh? How do you make your secret little murders stud-boy doesn't know about, hunh?" And George proceeds to plan the "secret little murder" of his child of fantasy. In Act III George and Martha declare "total war" on one another, and Martha vows "to play this one to the death." The death happens to a fantasy son, who, by George's account, swerved his car to avoid a porcupine, and crashed into a tree. George's imaginary child and his perhaps imaginary father died in precisely the same way.

Though George fires a toy gun at Martha, then tries to throttle her; though she leaps at him when he kills their child; though Honey shouts: "Violence. Violence." four times, the only stage murder is verbal. Such murder is oblique, and George leads up to it obliquely, with his "flagellation." The idiom that has nurtured their love will serve also to kill the illusion at its heart.

Martha may have downed George with boxing-gloves, but he outpoints her with words. He corrects her misuse of "abstruse" for "abstract," "something" for "somebody," "it" for "him." George insists upon "got" as a correct past participle. He builds balanced periodic sentences, for example his use of triplets in his description of Martha's drinking habits. Martha mocks him as Dylan Thomas, but the very name suggests an appreciation of George's language. Twice, Martha summarizes: "George and Martha: sad, sad, sad." but George and Martha speak the wittiest lines of American drama—economical, euphonic, and perfectly timed for our gaiety rather than sadness.

The sado-masochistic marriage of George and Martha is sustained through their verbal dexterity and their imaginary child, which save them from conventional academic mediocrity. Far from a deus ex machina, the child is mentioned before the arrival of Nick and Honey, when George warns Martha not to "start in on the bit about the kid." By that time, they have been sparring in their recurrent pattern, Martha cutting George with his lack of success and George striking at Martha's age, drinking, and promiscuity.

Guests heighten the pitch of the George-Martha exchange, as they move frankly into games. Though George has twice cautioned Martha not to mention their child, he himself is tantalizingly evasive when Nick asks whether they have children. While Martha is upstairs changing, she evidently tells Honey about their son, and that is the change that sets this evening off from similar evenings in the life of George and Martha. Once revealed, their son must die.

But George perceives this only at the end of Act II, and Martha struggles against it. Through two full acts, the couple spars verbally, with Nick as goad. Martha uses the child in Strindbergian fashion, suggesting that George might not be the father of the child. Unlike Strindberg's Captain, however, George is not vulnerable to this blow about their "bean-bag," but he is extremely vulnerable to Martha's taunts about his lack of success. As Martha mouths the phrase: "A great…big…fat…flop!" George breaks a bottle and clutches its splintered neck—a gesture that he may have learned from Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. But the jagged glass does not prevent Stanley's attack on Blanche, nor does it prevent Martha's attack on George.

Act II introduces some variations in the verbal fencing: George and Nick toward the beginning, Martha and Nick in the middle, and George and Honey at the end. But the bedrock remains George versus Martha. They have a momentary fling in French; they speak of their child in sexually insulting terms. George invents taunts: "Book dropper! Child mentioner!" These taunts summarize the two lies of George's own life—the murder of his father, which is the expression of the end of childhood, and the murder of his son, which may be the expression of the end of marriage. Martha's accusation against George—"Murderer. Mur … der … er." points both forward and backward in the play.

George charges Martha with "slashing away at everything in sight, scarring up half the world," and she claims that that is the reason he married her. Each insists that the other is sick—a leitmotif of this play as of The Death of Bessie Smith. In the prelude to their declaration of "total war," each marriage partner assaults the other's dominant fantasy:

Martha: … before I'm through with you you'll wish you'd died in that automobile, you bastard.

George: (Emphasizing with his forefinger) And you'll wish you'd never mentioned our son!

Each predicts the other's wish to renounce lies, implying an embrace of truth, but predictions are only obliquely fulfilled in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?!

snap—sound, word, and gesture—becomes a stage metaphor in the destruction of lies, which may lead to truth. Martha snaps her fingers and informs George: "It's snapped, finally. Not me… it. The whole arrangement." She rhymes "snap" with"crap," and uses the word insistently, repetitively, to announce the beginning of their "total war." But George plays more intricate variations on the theme of snapping. His Act III entrance is delayed and mysterious—"a hand thrusts into the opening a great bunch of snapdragons. " "In a hideously cracked falsetto " he chants: "Flores; flores para los muertos. Flores." In Williams' Streetcar, the Spanish words denote the end of the relationship of Blanche and Mitch. Comparably, George seems to announce the end of their relationship, as built upon an illusory son. After Martha lies that Nick is not a houseboy, George "flourishes the flowers, " shouting "snap went the dragons!!" Then George throws the snapdragons—his flowers for the dead—at Martha, one at a time, stem-first, spear-like, as he echoes her "snaps" at him. St. George slew the dragon; Albee's George slays with hothouse snapdragons and the word "snap."

Before throwing the snapdragons, however, George starts a story about an eccentric moon on a Mediterranean trip, which he claims was a graduation present from his parents. "Was this after you killed them?" asks Nick. "George and Martha swing around and look at him. " Then George replies ambiguously: "Truth or illusion. Who knows the difference, eh, toots?" Martha charges: "You were never in the Mediterranean … truth or illusion … either way." Only after Martha tells George that he cannot distinguish between truth and illusion, does he pelt her with the snapdragons. Martha repeats the dichotomy: "Truth or illusion, George. Doesn't it matter to you… at all?" This time George doesn't throw anything as he answers her: "snap!" And with relish, he sets the scene for snapping their common illusion, in preparation for the possibility of truth.

In his triumphant enactment of the murder, George snaps his fingers for Nick to join the final game, Bringing Up Baby; the ambiguous gerund embraces introduction, education, and vomiting. George himself claims that they have been playing Snap the Dragon, before beginning Peel the Label. Thus, Snap the Dragon becomes Bringing up Baby becomes Peel the Label, as George snaps his fingers for Honey to support his outrageous boast that he ate the death telegram. Death rites are accompanied by snaps, involving all four characters.

The death scene and its aftermath contain the most perfectly cadenced dialogue of a remarkably rhythmed drama. Rhythm abets meaning in George's attack on Martha's illusion. So zealous is he in punishing Martha that it is difficult to believe in the purity of his corrective purpose. George and Martha fire a salvo of mutual sexual accusation. Before breaking the news of the son's death, George joins Martha in a discordant duet, as at the end of Act I. Martha begins a sentimentalized account of the life of their son, while George begins to recite the Requiem Mass. Then Martha shifts to innuendoes against George, and George uses their son as a weapon against her. In harmonious discord, Martha invokes the purity of their son in "the sewer" of their marriage, while George chants the Mass in Latin. As George lingers over his announcement of their son's death, Martha at first reacts with fury but soon wilts like the scattered snap-dragons. Suddenly, Nick reveals his illumination about their child, asking: "You couldn't have … any?" And George replies: "We couldn't."—a sentence that Martha echoes with Albee's scenic direction: "A hint of communion in this. " It is the broadest hint we have. At the departure of Nick and Honey, the dialogue narrows down to monosyllables; the playlong repetitions of "No" dissolve into a series of affirmatives (with two exceptions, in which George denies the rebirth of illusion). When George hums the title refrain, Martha admits that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf—a woman afflicted with a madness that drove her to suicide.6

Martha's fear is understandable. Whatever will George and Martha do now that their bean-bag is dead, their illusion exorcized? Since Albee once planned to give the Act III title, "The Exorcism," to the entire play, we know that he attaches importance to it. To exorcise is to drive out evil spirits, and in New Carthage the evil spirits are the illusion of progeny—Honey's imaginary pregnancy and Martha's imaginary son, which terminate in a "Pouf." These imaginary children live against a background of repetitions of the word "baby" in reference to adults.

The illusions of Martha and Honey are both child-connected, but they differ in cause and effect. Honey seems to have forced Nick into a marriage which "cured" her of a psycho-somatic pregnancy. During marriage, her "delicacy" is the apparent reason they have no children. Without truth or illusion, they live in a vacuum of surface amenities. But when Martha indulges in an idealized biography of her son (before George kills him), Honey announces abruptly: "I want a child." She repeats this wish just before Martha shifts from the son as ideal biography to the son as weapon against George. Though Honey's conversion is sudden (and scarcely credible), it seems to be sustained.

For George and Martha, the exorcism is less certain, less complete, and far more involving. The marriage of Nick and Honey kills their illusion, but the illusion of George and Martha is born in wedlock, perhaps because they could have no real children and Martha "had wanted a child." Martha's recitation indicates that the conception of the child—intellectual and not biological—may have originated as a game, but the lying game expressed their truest need. The imagery associates their son with classical and Christian divinity—golden fleece and a lamb—but such imagery also links the fathers of the two women, who emerge as calculatingly diabolic. An ambiguous creation through most of the play, son Sunny-Jim is killed on the eve of his maturity—an inverse Oedipal act by which George hopes to rid his domain of sickness.

Uninteresting in themselves, Nick and Honey function as foils and parallels of George and Martha: the syllabic similarity of the names, the parallel fantasies of the women, the similar yet opposing professions of the men, and the cross-couples advancing the plot. Without Nick, Martha's adultery would not have driven George to murder their son; without Honey, George could not have accomplished the murder. Albee's repetitions of "True or False" and "Truth versus Illusion" emphasize truth, but it is problematical whether truth can be sustained in the world of the play, and Albee leaves it problematical, refusing Martha the easy conversion of Honey. Unless the Act III title, "The Exorcism" is ironic, however, George and Martha construct a new relationship on the base of Truth—"Just… us?"—though their gifts seem more destructive than constructive. Dawn breaks on Martha's fear, and our lasting impression of the play is not of exorcism but of the exercise of cruel wit.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee exhibits rare mastery of American colloquial idiom. Since colloquialism is usually associated with realism, the play has been viewed as realistic psychology. But credible motivation drives psychological dramas, and Albee's motivation is flimsy: Why does George stay up to entertain Martha's guests? Why, for that matter, does she invite them? Why do Honey and Nick submit to being "gotten?" Why do Nick and George exchange confessions? Drinking is only a surface alibi, but the play coheres magnetically only if we accept the Walpurgisnacht as a donnée. These four people are brought together to dramatize more than themselves.

Of his novel, George says: "Well, it's an allegory, really—probably—but it can be read as straight, cozy prose …" No one has called Albee's prose "cozy," but it too has been viewed as"straight" realism, sometimes of "crooked" sexuality.7 Like George's novel, however, Albee's drama is "an allegory, really—probably." In an interview, Albee himself affirmed: "You must expect the audience's minds to work on both levels, symbolically and realistically.8

Albee sets Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a realistic living-room in a symbolic New Carthage. Carthage (meaning "New City") was founded in the ninth century B.C. by a semi-legendary, deceitful Dido, and it was razed to the ground in 146 A.D. By the fifth century, it had again become a power which St. Augustine called "a cauldron of unholy loves."9 Albee uses the historical conjunction of sex and power as spice for the American stew he simmers in his cauldron. He himself suggested: "George and Martha may represent the Washingtons and the play may be all about the decline of the West."10 10 Nick was named for Nikita Kruschev. In spite of a tongue-in-cheek tone, Albee's hints are borne out by the play.

Albee's unholy lovers are George and Martha, whose names evoke America's first and childless White House couple. As the legendary George Washington could not tell a lie, Albee's George murders in the name of Truth. George describes his fictional son as "Our own little all-American something-or-other." Albee thus suggests that illusion is an American weakness. American drama has been much concerned with illusion, but Albee's America is representative of contemporary Western civilization. George "With a handsweep takefsj in not only the room, the house, but the whole countryside. " He speaks French, Spanish, and Latin in the play, and he echoes President Kennedy's "I will not give up Berlin." George characterizes the region as "Illyria … Penguin Island…Gomorrah…"Realm of fantasy, realm of social satire, realm of sin—George's condemna-tory geography shows an academic foursome in the decline of a romantic mythology, love in the Western World.11 A humanistic George opposes a mechanized Nick. George can see the handwriting on the wall, and it is the penmanship of Oswald Spengler, whose book George flings at the chimes that become a death knell. On one broad level, then, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is in the American tradition of dramatized illusion: O'Neill's Iceman Cometh, Williams' Streetcar Named Desire, and Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Albee also reaches out beyond America into an examination of the nature of love, which may be his metaphor for Western civilization. The games of the play—Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, Hump the Hostess, and Bringing up Baby—suggest a miniature society, and though George mocks his own Napoleonic stance, he is preoccupied with history. But his anemic humanist yearnings tend to be submerged in his playlong vitriolic idiom.12 His views of history are simplistic—the construct-a-civilization speech; his views of science are simpleminded—the mechanical Nick-maker. George wants to defend Western civilization against its sex-oriented, success-oriented assailants—"I will not give up Berlin."—but his defense of life and love is centered in his invective rather than his scrotum. An attacker rather than defender, George is more effective against illusory dragons than for bastions of civilization. And George's limitations limit the resonance of Albee's play. Despite his keen ear for American idiom, Albee can scarcely bring new social standards to the White House. Martha is finally reduced to her fear, and George to his post-murder "It will be better. … It will be … maybe." But when has"betterness" emerged from murder, even if the victim is imaginary?

Albee claimed that Tiny Alice (1965) Is a mystery play in two senses of the word: "That is, it's both a metaphysical mystery and, at the same time, a conventional 'Dial M for Murder'-type mystery."13 But the play's one murder—the Lawyer's shooting of Julian—takes place before our eyes, without detective story mystery. Instead, the mystery of what is happening on stage dissolves into the larger mystery of what happens in the realm of ultimate reality. Governing both is a conception of mystery as that which is forever hidden from human understanding.

Albee's protagonist is Brother Julian, who claims to be "dedicated to the reality of things, rather than the appearance," but who has to be violently shocked—shot to death— before he recognizes reality, and even then he tries to convert it into familiar appearance. Using the disjunctive technique of Absurdism and the terminology of Christianity, Albee drapes a veil of unknowing over his mystery. Thus, the play is nowhere in place and time, though the flavor is American and contemporary. The three stage settings are fantastic, and Miss Alice's millions are counted in no currency. Time moves with the fluidity of a dream, and yet it is, as the Lawyer claims: "The great revealer." Except for pointed references to Julian's "six blank years," Albee obscures the passing of time; the Lawyer says that Miss Alice's grant is a hundred million a year for twenty years, and after Julian is shot, the Lawyer offers the Cardinal "two billion, kid, twenty years of grace for no work at all." The play may thus last twenty years between the twelve "tick"s in the Lawyer's opening gibberish and Julian's dying question: "is it night … or day? Or does it matter?"

Of the five characters, two have names, two are named by their function, and one—Butler—bears the name of his func tion.14 Albee has denied that the name Alice stand for Truth and Julian for Apostasy, but he cannot expunge such associations for us. Named or unnamed, however, all characters are locked into a function: Brother Julian into service to his God, the Cardinal into service to his Church, and the castle trio into service to their deity, knowable only as the mouse in the model. Servants of Tiny Alice, they appear to master the rest of the world. Their dialogue suggests that, like the trio in Sartre's No Exit, they are bound in an eternal love-hate triangle. Their mission is to deliver victims to Tiny Alice, at once a reduced truth and a small obscene aperture into an aspect of being.15

Their victim is Julian, a lay brother, who is a kind of Everyman. As in a medieval Morality, we are involved in the conflict within Everyman's soul, but we are aware too of our world in which that conflict resonates. Rather than Virtue versus Vice, Albee's Julian becomes a battlefield for Truth versus Illusion.

Though Julian is at the center of the play, Albee delays introducing him. Instead, the drama begins with personifications of power à la Jean Genet: Cardinal and Lawyer, sacred and profane, church and state, buddies and enemies, with a long past behind them. We first see Julian at the castle, in conversation with the Butler, whose symbolic function is a stewardship based on his serving of wine, Christian metaphor for blood. Butler also offers Julian water, tea, coffee, before port and champagne—sweet and effervescent forms of wine—and, appropriately, Butler tries to sweeten the ineluctable claims of Tiny Alice upon Julian. Butler guides Julian through the wine-cellar of the castle, and he pours champagne at Julian's wedding, which is his last supper.

As in earlier plays, Albee builds his dialogue with thrustand-parry exchanges and monologues, but he uses them somewhat differently; the verbal skirmishing often ends in a draw, and the monologues sound explicit but are buried in the central mystery, which is unknowable. As in earlier plays, Albee's thrust-and-parry dialogue leads obliquely to murder. The master verbal fencer of Tiny Alice, the Lawyer, shoots Julian, but Miss Alice is the principal agent of his undoing, and she, as the Lawyer remarks, was "never one with words." Rather, she acts through surprises: the old hag turns into a lovely woman; unprompted, she confesses to Julian her carnal relations with the Butler and the Lawyer; abruptly, she inquires into Julian's sex life; before marrying and abandoning Julian, she alternates a mysterious prayer with an address to "someone in the model." She cradles the wounded Julian, making "something of a Pietà." At the end she is cruel and kind; her last words are "Oh, my poor Julian"; yet she leaves him to die alone.

Miss Alice's seduction of Julian is accomplished through deeds rather than words, but Julian himself translates the erotic into a highly verbal mysticism. He defends his loquacity to Miss Alice: "Articulate men often carry set paragraphs." In each of the play's three acts, Julian indulges in a rhapsodic monologue that does not sound like a set paragraph, since its rhythms are jagged. Like the disjunctive monologues of The Zoo Story, the cumulative effect is apocalyptic, but Julian's apocalypse is sexually rooted, lay brother that he is (Albee's pun). In Act I, Julian describes a perhaps hallucinatory sexual experience with a woman who occasionally hallucinated as the Blessed Virgin. Not only does Julian speak of ejaculation; he speaks in ejaculations. Julian's mistress with an illusory pregnancy recalls the illusion-ridden women of Virginia Woolf; as the imaginary child of that play is an evil spirit to be exorcized, the imaginary pregnancy of the hallucinating woman of Tiny Alice proves to be a fatal cancer. And even as Julian confesses to Miss Alice what he believes to be his struggle for the real, she tempts him with her own desirability—very beautiful and very rich.

In Julian's Act II monologue about martyrdom, he shifts his identity—a child, both lion and gladiator, then saint and the hallucinating self of the Act I monologue—all couched in imagery that is sexually suggestive. While Julian describes his eroto-mystical, multi-personal martyrdom, Miss Alice shifts her attitude, first urging Julian to marry her, then spur-ring him to sacrifice himself to Alice, whom she invokes in the third person.

In Act HI, Julian, who left the asylum because he was persuaded that hallucination was inevitable and even desirable, embarks on his final hallucination, which ends in his real death. Abandoned and dying, Julian recollects (or imagines) a wound of his childhood, as Miss Alice in her prayer recollected (or imagined) being hurt in her childhood. Alternately a child and the hallucinating woman who called for help, Julian is forced to face himself in death—the prototypical existential confrontation. With phrases of the Thirteenth Psalm, Julian very slowly and desperately dis-solves Miss Alice into Tiny Alice into the Christian God. Unable to accept the words of the lucid Lawyer: "There is Alice, Julian. That can be understood. Only the mouse in the model. Just that."—Julian recoils from the hermetic, dustfree vacuum of Tiny Alice, from the unblinking eyes of the phrenological head: "Ah God! Is that the humor? the abstract? … real? the rest? … false." Unable to laugh at such absurd humor, Julian reverts to Christian illusion, to traditional images that protect him from the reality of abstraction, which is death.

Julian calls on deity in the words of Christ on the cross: "alice? my god, why hast thou forsaken me?" As a "great presence" engulfs him, Julian takes the crucifixion position, injecting his God into Alice: "God, Alice … I accept thy will." Albee's play opens on Genet's satiric Balcony, but it closes on the Blackness of Ionesco's dying king; both Julian and Bérenger go down fighting against predatory death, but they both go down. On a throne, or crucified, or whimpering in bed, Everyman is food for Tiny Alice who devours in mystery.

Julian's three experiences pivot on his confusion between illusion and reality: the sexual experience may have been a hallucination; the experience of martyrdom has haunted Julian's imagination, and he dies in an evocation of Christ, the martyr, which may be his last illusion. Rhythms of ec-static agony and the image of blood link the three experiences, or the three descriptions of experience, which perhaps become experience through description.

Between his three monologues as within them, Julian's speech is fragmentary, interrogative, and recapitulatory. In contrast to the sinewy syntax of the Lawyer, Julian's sentence fragments are heavy with gerunds, adjectives, ef-forts at definition through synonyms. As Jerry's indirection mirrored the theme of The Zoo Story, Julian's phrasal fragmentation mirrors the theme of Tiny Alice, and that fragmentation functions partly as synecdoche.

"In my Father's house are many mansions," said Christ (John XIV, 2) and in the mansion of Tiny Alice are many rooms. True to his heredity and calling, Brother Julian praises library, chapel, and wine-cellar—all with religious associations. Alone in the library after his wedding, he recalls the childhood loneliness of an attic closet. But all rooms belong to Tiny Alice, and space does not contain them. When the fire in the model announces a fire in the chapel, Julian asks Miss Alice: "Why, why did it happen that way—in both dimensions?" After his wedding, Julian likens the disappearance of people to "an hour elaps[ing], or a … dimension." And shortly after shooting Julian, the Lawyer remarks to his old buddy-enemy, the Cardinal:"We have come quite a … dimension, have we not?" In Tiny Alice dimensions are diffused and confused; one does not move, as in the Great Chain of Being, from an animal dimension, to human, to angelic, to divine. Rather, all dimensions are interactive, and point to the whole meta-physical mystery in its more private parts.

Those parts are sexual, but Albee also suggests them through verbal insistence on birds and children—vulnerable both. Bird imagery embraces everyone: the play opens with a nonsense address to birds; the Cardinal has cardinals in his stone-and-iron garden; the Butler speaks of swallows "screeping"; the Lawyer's poem is said to have the grace of a walking crow; Miss Alice is first visible in a wing chair, and she later envelops Julian in the "great wings" of her robe; Julian is variously a "bird of pray," a "drab fledgling," and a "little bird pecking away in the library," summarizing his piety, innocence, and sexual vulnerability. At times, too, the characters act like children, or they summon recollections of childhood. Julian is often and explicitly called "little," and in his dying soliloquy, he becomes a little boy calling for his cookie. All these lines suggest the helplessness of birds and children in the world of Tiny Alice, who is at once mouselike, monstrous, and feline.

Like imagery and fragmentation, the tone of Albee's dialogue is complex. Familiar is the stinging salaciousness of the opening scene between the Cardinal and the Lawyer. This functions symbolically, since the Cardinal-Church is the son of a whore, and the Lawyer-State eats offal and car rion. The titillation of these disclosures is counterpointed against the formality of the syntax—first-person plurals, avoidance of contractions, emphasis on prepositional nuance, and self-conscious word-play (the eye of an odor). Only rarely does the Lawyer slip into a vigorous Americanism that underlines his malice: "Oh, come on, your Eminence." "You'll grovel, Buddy. As automatically and naturally as people slobber on that ring of yours." "Everyone diddled everyone else." "We picked up our skirts and lunged for it! IIIIIII! Me! Me! Gimme!"

The Lawyer, who evokes Satan for the Cardinal, is the chief instrument of Albee's mutilating dialogue. Not only does he thrust at the Cardinal; he sneers endearments to the Butler, and he woos Miss Alice as "clinically" as he fondles her. At his first meeting with Julian, he belittles the Cardinal and humiliates Julian. After shooting Julian, the Lawyer directs the death-scene, without pity for the dying martyr. The Butler accuses the Lawyer: "You're a cruel person, straight through; it's not cover; you're hard and cold, saved by dedication; just that." And yet, both the Cardinal and the Butler speak of the Lawyer as "good," for he is good in his dedication to Tiny Alice.

The cross-relationships of the five characters of Tiny Alice are more complicated than in Virginia Woolf: the Cardinal and the Lawyer loathe each other, Miss Alice detests the Lawyer, and the Lawyer has never liked the Butler. The Cardinal may have had carnal relations with the Lawyer and with Julian; Miss Alice has had the Butler and the Lawyer as lovers; in Julian's presence, the Butler and the Lawyer address each other with words of endearment; the Lawyer and the Butler play at being the Cardinal and the Lawyer, the Butler plays at being Julian the victim, Miss Alice takes the very name of Tiny Alice. Julian is, successively, the Cardinal's secretary, the Butler's protegé, Miss Alice's husband, the Lawyer's victim. And Julian alone seems to be mortal.

As in Albee's earlier plays, violent death leads to a revelation of a deeper layer of reality. Miss Alice tells Julian pointedly: "Accept what's real. I am the illusion." Finally, Miss Alice will be Alice missing, as want [desire] of emphasis becomes a lack of emphasis. And yet, the Butler who makes this semantic point, has mocked Julian: "Six years in the loony bin for semantics?" The Lawyer and Butler debate Julian's fate almost as a semantic exercise: Will he be pushed "back to the asylums. Or over … to the Truth," which is Tiny Alice.

Julian's wedding day becomes his death day. Earlier, Julian used pious clichés for a business deal: "That God has seen fit to let me be His instrument in this undertaking." Dying, Julian flings the same word at the Lawyer, as an insult: "Instrument." The play reveals the Lawyer as the instrument of absurd reality, which is Tiny Alice. Julian, on the other hand, is first and last the instrument of his own imagination. He is both Everyman and the victim of the "awful humor" of Tiny Alice, precisely because he claims to reject illusion for reality. That is his illusion, with which he commits himself to an asylum. And rather than accept the reality of Tiny Alice, he is ready to commit himself again, but is prevented by the Lawyer's fatal shot. The cynical lucid Lawyer has already foretold the pattern of Julian's final behavior, mixing the formal and the colloquial in the same speech: "face the inevitable and call it what you have always wanted. How to come out on top, going under."

Because he bends his imagination to embrace the inevitable, Julian achieves the difficult martyrdom he seeks. On stage, the long dying scene borders on the ridiculous, as Julian's initial resistance to the inevitable is ridiculous. But, "going under," he summons the heroic illusion of his culture; not a "Gingerbread God with the raisin eyes," but a human god crucified for man. Julian dies in imitation of Christ, deaf to Tiny monstrous Alice who comes thumping and panting to devour him. The play ends on Alice, truth, reality, after Julian has been crucified in his illusion, but our lasting impression is that of a hero—vulnerable, loquacious, even ridiculous, but nevertheless heroic in the intensity of his imagination.

Even puzzled audiences have been involved in Julian's plight, which the Butler describes: "Is walking on the edge of an abyss, but is balancing." Albee's next play, A Delicate Balance (1966) is named for that perilous equilibrium. Like Virginia Woolf, the play presents a realistic surface; as in Virginia Woolf, a love relationship in one couple is explored through the impact of another couple. There is enough talking and drinking to convey the impression of a muted, diluted Virginia Woolf. Both plays end at dawn, but the earlier play contains "Exorcism." The later play dramatizes what Albee has called "arthritis of the mind."16

Each of the six characters of A Delicate Balance "is walking on the edge of an abyss, but is balancing"; a middle-aged marriage is balancing, too, until a makeshift home in a "well-appointed suburban house" is threatened by both family and friends. In Friday night Act I, terror-driven friends seek refuge in the family home; in Saturday night Act II, the master of the house, Tobias, assures his friends of their welcome, but his daughter Julia reacts hysterically to their presence. In Sunday morning Act III, the friends know that they are not welcome, know that they would not have welcomed, and they leave. The delicate balance of the home is preserved by an "arthritis of the mind."

The play begins and ends, however, on a different delicate balance—that of the mind of Agnes, mistress of the house-hold, wife of Tobias, mother of Julia, sister of Claire. In convoluted Jamesian sentences, she opens and closes the play with doubts about her sanity; at the beginning, she also extends these doubts to an indefinite you—"that each of you wonders if each of you might not…" And as we meet the other members of the family, we can understand the wonder: Claire the chronic drunk, Julia the chronic divorcée, and To-bias who heads the house. Though Agnes starts and finishes the play on her doubts about sanity, each of the acts drama tizes the precarious stability of the other members of the family: first Claire, then Julia, and finally Tobias. In each case, the balance is preserved, a little more delicate for being threatened.

However perilously, the family is bound together by love. In Claire's words to Tobias: "You love Agnes and Agnes loves Julia and Julia loves me and I love you … Yes, to the depths of our self-pity and our greed. What else but love?" Agnes, who blames the others for their faults, describes such blame as the "souring side of love" in this drama about the limits of love.

Agnes early characterizes the family to Tobias: "your steady wife, your alcoholic sister-in-law and occasional visits … from our melancholy Julia." But her description is only a first approximation: her own steadiness is severely strained, Claire insists that she is not "a alcoholic," and Julia is more hysterical than melancholy. By Act III a harassed Tobias, having suffered his passion, offers a contrasting description of the same family: "And you'll all sit down and watch me carefully; smoke your pipes and stir the cauldron; watch." He thus groups wife, daughter, sister-in-law as three witches, or the three fates "who make all the decisions, really rule the game…"And who preside over the term of life until death cuts it short.

As in other Albee plays, death lurks in the dialogue of A Delicate Balance, but death is not actualized in this play. Violence is confined to a single slap, a glass of orange juice poured on the rug, and an ineffectual threat with a gun. In words, however, Claire urges Tobias to shoot them all, first Agnes, then Julia, and herself last. Agnes suggests that Claire kill herself, and Claire in turn asks Agnes: "Why don't you die?" It is this sisterly exchange between Claire and Agnes that inspires Tobias to his digressive monologue, his cat story. Because his cat inexplicably stopped liking him, Tobias first slapped her and then had her killed. Out of the depths of his greed and self-pity, he had her killed.

Like Jerry's dog story, Tobias' cat story is an analogue for the play of which it is part. As Tobias kills the cat, he will effectively kill his friends, Harry and Edna, when he denies them a home. As Claire and Agnes approve his conduct to-ward the cat, Claire and Julia will approve his conduct to-ward Harry and Edna. The death of the cat maintains Tobias' delicate emotional balance in spite of his bad conscience, and the departure of Harry and Edna will maintain Tobias' delicate family balance in spite of his bad conscience.

The threat of death is almost personified by Harry and Edna. Julia tries to aim her father's gun at the visitors, and Agnes calls their terror a disease and a plague. In demanding that Tobias make a decision with respect to Harry and Edna, Agnes reminds him of the intimate details of their sexual life after the death of their son, Teddy. She addresses Tobias as "Sir," with a servant's deference to a master. But this master gives no orders, and it is Harry and Edna, conscious of their own mortality, who decide to leave, taking their plague with them.

A Delicate Balance is itself in most delicate balance between the cruel-kindness of its surface and the mysterious depths below, between a dead child and a new dawn, between ways of loving and ways of living. Albee has posed his equilibrium discreetly, without the symbolic histrionics of Tiny Alice, without the corruscating dialogue of Virginia Woolf. At the most general level, the arrival of Harry and Edna raises the question of the limits of love; Tobias says to Harry: "I find my liking you has limits … but those are my limits! not yours!" Harry and Edna push each family member to his limits. Before their arrival, Agnes thanks To-bias for a life without mountains or chasms, "a rolling, pleasant land." But the plague can attack rolling, pleasant lands, and it is carried by one's best friends.

In Harry and Edna, Albee creates Janus-symbols, for they are at once Tobias and Agnes, and their friend-enemies. Described in the Players' List as "very much like Agnes and Tobias," Edna and Harry live in the same suburb and belong to the same club. They are godparents to Julia, as Tobias and Agnes are her parents. When Harry serves drinks, Agnes remarks that he is "being Tobias." When Edna scolds Julia, Albee's scenic direction indicates that she "becomes Agnes. " Just before leaving, Edna speaks in the convoluted formal sentences of Agnes.

Otherwise, however, Harry and Edna do not sound like To-bias and Agnes, and they did not look like them in the original production supervised by Albee. Edna weeps whereas Agnes rarely cries; Edna shows desire whereas Agnes conceals it. As clear-sighted Claire (Albee's pun) points out to Tobias, all he shares with Harry is the memory of a summer infidelity with the same girl. Tobias denies being frightened, while fright ambushes Harry and Edna. Harry admits honestly what Tobias conceals clumsily: "I wouldn't take them in." When Harry and Edna finally depart, Agnes lapses into a rare cliché: "Don't be strangers." to which Edna replies: "Oh, good Lord, how could we be? Our lives are … the same." Rather than being like Tobias and Agnes, Harry and Edna are the same as Tobias and Agnes—minus a family.

Terror drives Harry and Edna from their house because a couple is inadequate bulwark against emptiness; they are free of the blood-ties which protect us from the loneliness of self and the encroachment of living death. Harry and Edna arrive after a family conversation about the bonds of love; their terror has no cause: "we were frightened … and there was nothing." They were frightened because there was nothing.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? George and Martha conceived an imaginary child to sustain their love; in the autumn of their lives Harry and Edna find themselves engulfed by nothing. As Tobias and Agnes would be, were the void not filled with the repetitive failings in the family: Agnes and Claire both call Tobias' anisette "sticky"; Agnes says of both Claire and Julia, separately, that either she will come down from her room, or not; Claire and Julia both contrive to apologize accusatively. The game of musical recriminations is what keeps the family love alive, and this is what Harry and Edna need—what they want, in the most insistent pun of the play.

In dramatizing the failure of love, which is death, Albee is ascetically sparing of vivid imagery and dazzling dialogue. Though he does not quite indulge in the fallacy of imitative form, he seems to imply that a drama with emptiness at its center, must echo in hollowness. Each time two characters start to thrust and parry verbally, the spark is damped. Each of the characters apologizes at least once, snuffing out verbal fireworks. Damped, too, are the few threads of imagery—the household, childhood, helping, and sinking. So fragile is the sensuous quality of the imagery, that it seems mere verbal repetition. All the characters refer to the house as they all recall a childhood before "Time happen[ed]." Help is usually mentioned in connection with invisible servants, though Agnes says tentatively to Harry and Edna: "If we were any help at all, we …"

Rhythm and rhyme emphasize the feelings of fragmentation and displacement. Claire's comic anecdote about the topless bathing-suit is emblematic of her fragmented life. Agnes comments obliquely on the thin surface of all their lives: "It's one of those days when everything's underneath." Claire claims that they all submerge their truths, then turns to Edna: "Do you think we can walk on water, Edna? Or do you think we sink?" Edna is "dry " as she replies: "We sink." All the drinking in all three acts reveals their ineffectual ef-forts to develop gills.

Sparing his imagery, Albee plays upon the verb want to sustain the delicate balance. Its double meaning, wish and lack, were already suggested in Tiny Alice, and Albee exploits this ambiguity more fully in A Delicate Balance. Claire wishes Agnes to die but doesn't know whether she wants it. Hysterical, Julia shifts from "they [Harry and Edna] want" to "i want … what is mine!" Agnes asks Harry and Edna pointedly: "What do you really … want?" And some minutes later, Edna replies, playing on the same verb: "if all at once we…need … we come where we are wanted, where we know we are expected, not only where we want." Harry insistently questions Tobias: "Do you want us here?" And in Tobias' final aria, he shifts from: "i want you here!" to "i don't want you here! i don't love you! but by god … you stay!"

Love is lack and love is wish in A Delicate Balance, and Albee suggests that the human condition is to be bounded by want—lack and wish. "The living-room of a large and well-appointed suburban house. Now." is where we live in contemporary middle-lass America. Not a social America, however, but a metaphysical Kafkaesque America, the leading nation in the decline of the West. The play's American resonances are muted: Republicans and Reno are brief guideposts; Alcoholics Anonymous and tax deductions are possible markers. American slang and imagery are used apologetically:

Claire: … the shirt off your back, as they say.

Julia: AS they say, I haven't the faintest.

Agnes: … the fatal mushroom… as those dirty boys put it.

Tobias: You're copping out… as they say.

The "regulated great gray life" is greater, grayer, and more regulated in America, but it reaches out tentacularly over the whole world.

Each of the sisters uses her own distinctive rhythm to state the play's theme.

Agnes: There is a balance to be maintained, after all, though the rest of you teeter, unconcerned, or uncaring, assuming you're on level ground … by divine right, I gather, though that is hardly so.

Claire: We can't have changes—throws the balance oft".

The death of their son, Teddy, has thrown off the balance in the home of Tobias and Agnes, who teetered in a household that gradually took on the balance of a home again. Rather than upset the balance, Claire and Harry both lie to Agnes about the infidelity of Tobias. Rather than upset the balance, the family members play out their identity patterns, with only momentary shifts: Agnes poses as Julia's father, To-bias imitates Julia's hysteria, Claire plays a Tobias who explains to a judge the murder of his family, Julia spouts the opinions of her most recent husband, and Claire may be the nameless upended girl whom Tobias and Harry seduced one "dry and oh, so wet July." Identity itself is in delicate balance in this "regulated great gray life." Edna speaks of and for them all when she summarizes her recognition of the delicacy of all balance, which is life: "It's sad to come to the end of it, isn't it, nearly the end; so much more of it gone by … than left, and still not know … still not have learned … the boundaries, what we may not do … not ask, for fear of looking in a mirror."

In generalizing the predicament of his characters into the human condition, Albee relies on biblical associations of "house," as on associations of the names of the two couples, and of the three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when Christ suffered his passion. Harry means torment, and clear-sighted Claire calls him "old Harry," which is a nickname for the devil; in contrast, Agnes is the lamb of God. The two couples, who are the same, range from angelic expressions of love to diabolic noncommitment. The other two names, Tobias and Edna, figure in the Book of Tobit; by angelic intervention Tobias was able to marry Sara, though her first seven bridegrooms died before possessing her; the mother of Sara was Edna. Albee's parallels with the Book of Tobit are obscure; nevertheless, the Book of Tobit is concerned, like A Delicate Balance, with ties of blood and with the burial of the dead. Albee's Tobias is occasionally called Toby or Tobe, and like his biblical eponym, he is faced with the problem of Being.

A number of biblical references to "house" illuminate this family in the "well—appointed suburban house:"

For I know that thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living.

(Job XX, 23)

Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die and not live.

(Kings X, 1; Isaiah XXXVIII, 1)

If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.

(Mark II, 25)

But biblical prophets and patriarchs were men of great faith whereas Albee's Tobias wants that firm ground, and he quivers in the delicate balance of which his wife is fulcrum. For that is the house he has moulded, under the illusion that it has moulded him.

Like Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance ends at dawn, and dawn's meaning is again problematical. In spite of exorcism, Martha continues to fear Virginia Woolf; in spite of the fulcrum, the delicate balance might not last through a morning that Tobias implies is "very late at night." On the stage of A Delicate Balance, moreover, the pale language serves to pale dawn's light. Though Agnes apologizes for being articulate, she and Tobias tend to talk around subjects. Though Claire mocks Tobias: "Snappy phrases every time." she utters the play's few snappy phrases. Written in a minor key, A Delicate Balance lacks the lethal dialogue that has become Albee's trademark, but death nevertheless hangs heavy in the atmosphere.

In Adapting Giles Cooper's Everything in the Garden, Albee tries a combination of the injurious repartee of Virginia Woolf and the stilted phrases of A Delicate Balance. Though Albee had earlier adapted two novels—Carson MacCullars' Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1963) and James Purdy's Malcolm (1965)—Everything in the Garden (1967) in his first adaptation of a play, and his dialogue changes are instructive. Most obvious is the transfer from English to American suburbia, with its corresponding idiom. The Madame's name is changed from Mrs. Pimosz—"like primrose, but have no r's"—to Mrs. Toothe, whose bite pierces to blood. Jack, the victim who is buried in the garden, is changed to a witty narrator who addresses the audience directly, before and after his death. Both plays—Cooper's and Albee's—too easily indict a comfort literally built on corpses—the "everything" that is buried in the garden, but the dialogue of Albee's indictment shows his habitual rhythms. The wife's reaction to the Madame's offer uses his characteristic pauses:

Cooper: YOU must see I can't take money from you like this.

Albee: Look, you … you can't just … give me money like this. I can't just…take money from you.

Or the husband's curtain line, when he learns the source of his wife's wealth:

Cooper: Farrow and Leeming! Acton here. I want a case of champagne and two bottles of brandy. Can you deliver them this afternoon?

Albee: … and … and … so, so, so, scotch, and … bourbon, and … (Full crying now) … and gin, and … gin, and … gin, and … (the word gin takes a long time now, a long, broken word with gasps for breath and the attempt to control the tears) … g-i-ii-n, and… (Final word, very long broken, a long bowl) G——i——i——i— ——i——n——n——n——n. (Curtain falls slowly as the word continues.)

Though adaptations permit Albee to exercise his muscular dialogue, their thematic facility is unworthy of him. Like his sketch, Fam and Yam, they are evidence of self-indulgence.

In "two inter-related plays," Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, Albee engages in quite different verbal exercises—different from anything he or any other playwright has attempted. For the first time, Albee's murderous thrust-and-parry dialogue vanishes completely, as each of his characters retreats into a solipsistic monologue.17 Nothing happens on stage; or rather, only the dialogue happens but the threat of death is implicit in that dialogue.

Box presents us with the titular box that takes up "almost all of a small stage opening. " While we look at the box, in a constant bright light, we hear the disembodied voice of a woman, which "should seem to be coming from nearby the spectator. " In the second of the two inter-related plays, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (about eight times the length of Box), an ocean liner appears within the outline of the box; aboard are four characters—Mao, who addresses us from the ship's railing, a stationary Old Woman who also addresses us directly, a Long-Winded Lady in a deck chair who addresses herself to a silent clergyman in his deck chair. The articulate trio is soon joined by brief phrases from the disembodied voice of Box. In the final Reprise we see the silhouettes of the four figures of Mao—now silent—as we hear a selection of about half the original Box monologue.

In Virginia Woolf, Albee counterpoints the Requiem Mass against a drunken conversation; in Tiny Alice, he integrates the Thirteenth Psalm into Julian's dying monologue. But in Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, Albee makes unparallelled use of quotation—not only selections from Mao's Red Book, but over twenty stanzas of Will Carleton's "Over the Hill to the Poor-House." And since we have al-ready heard the phrases of Box, three of the four voices recite familiar material, all of which functions as background for the only personal story of the play, associationally nar-rated by the Long-Winded Lady.

Though the voice of Box does not emanate from the box, it uses the cube as its point of departure, and since all we see is a box, verbal associations spring readily for this word—prison, coffin. Albee has already used boxes in The Sandbox and The American Dream, where they are associated with Grandma, the dying frontier spirit. There is a faint echo of this in Box, where a woman's voice reaches us from outside the box, close to us. We are not yet boxed in, but the threat is visually before us throughout the woman's monologue.

The voice belongs to no empiricist, for it moves almost immediately beyond what our senses perceive, to the possibility of a rocking chair in the box, to generalizations about crafts, and on to art. Through a lyric threnody of loss, the voice suggests that art is powerless to prevent catastrophe—"seven hundred million babies dead"—and that the very practice of art is a kind of corruption in a time of disaster. And yet, art gives us "the memory of what we have not known," introduces us to experience we cannot otherwise know, as sea sounds can frighten the land-locked. In a world where "nothing belongs," art strives for order.

Mao opens the second play with a fable from Chapter XXI of the Red Book, which glorifies the Chinese masses. Mao then moves on to Communist theory and tactics, growing more and more aggressive in vocabulary, though "his tone is always reasonable " and his purpose always pedagogic. Many of the quotations are drawn from Chapter VI of the Red Book, "Imperialism and All Reactionaries are Paper Tigers." In that chapter and in Albee's quotations, the arch-imperialist is the U. S., so that Mao's final words damn America: "People of the world, unite and defeat the U. S. aggressors and all their running dogs." Mao's patiently positive attitude culminates in an injunction to widespread murder.

The Old Woman, who "might nod in agreement with Mao now and again, " is not so repetitive in her chant, and Albee stipulates that "she is reciting a poem, " even though its subject matter is very close to her. In other words, her poverty is evident in her shabby clothes and the simple food she eats in our presence, but she is not necessarily identical with the persona of Will Carleton's poem. That persona uses limping, heavily accented, rhymed hexameters to complain about the events that sent her "over the hill to the poor-house." Widowed, she loses five of her six children as, one by one, they go out to live their own lives. After the sixth child marries, she is successively rejected from the homes of each of her children, and finally she is sent to the poor-house, inspiring her final maudlin prayer: "And God'll judge between us; but I will al'ays pray / That you shall never suffer the half I do today."

Mao has given us a formulaic system, the Old Woman a formulaic lament, but the Long-Winded Lady is entirely original and personal. She starts with an incomprehensible splash, imagining the reaction of "theoretical… onwatchers." Associationally, she has a childhood memory of breaking her thumb, then a more recent recollection of a taxi going wild. As she entered with a plate of crullers on the bloody scene (recalling Marie Antoinette and her brioches in the face of famine), the Long-Winded Lady comments on the utter inadequacy of any response to disaster. More and more, the theme of death links her disparate associations; uncle, sister, and husband speak of death, and her husband was aware of the perpetual process of dying before he was attacked by the agonizing cancer that killed him. Though his dying is now over, "his death stays." And it is with that death that the Long-Winded Lady lives, having no communion with her daughter, and no relationship with anyone else. Finally, toward the end of the play, the Long-Winded Lady describes the opening splash in detail. It is her splash, but she describes it without a single "I." She fell off an ocean liner (like the one on which we see her) splash into the ocean. Ironically and improbably, however, she did not sink but was rescued. After congratulations came questions: Could anyone have pushed her? Did she throw herself off? Try to kill herself? The Long-Winded Lady closes her monologue and the Mao part of Albee's play with a half-laughing denial: "Good heavens, no; I have nothing to die for." It is a brilliant twist of the cliché: "I have nothing to live for." We live—most of us—by natural momentum, but voluntary death demands a dedication beyond the power of the Long-Winded Lady—or most of us.

As the disembodied woman's voice opens the "inter-related plays," so it closes them in a "reprise." But between Box and Reprise Albee expunges catastrophe from the Voice's monologue, having suggested disaster in each of the three separate monologues of Mao. Reprise retains the Box images of music, birds, order, and an art that hurts. Though the Voice is matter-of-fact, even "schoolmarmish, " it is lyrical in the hint that emotion alone invests events with meaning, and yet the emotion of art is unable to act meaningfully upon any event. Pain can merely be contained by order—"Box."

From Chekhov on, we have been familiar with characters who talk past each other rather than engaging one another in dialogue. But in Mao each of the characters is completely unaffected by the other's speech, gives no evidence of hearing the others. And there is no plot connection between the speeches, as there is in Beckett's Play. But theme, tone, and contiguity give rise to associations of meaning for us, as the characters speak singly.

Death is the theme that unites the three visible and audible characters—the holy crusade of Mao, the old widow, and the very personal description of dying in the monologue of the long-winded widow. But though death sounds in these monologues, the notes are subtle and discontinuous. Thus, the Old Woman is absent from the following threnodic strain:

Mao: A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.

Voice, From Box: When art begins to hurt, it's time to look around. Yes it is.

Long-Winded Lady: And I, he said, I—thumping his chest with the flat of his hand, slow, four, five times—I … am dying.

Each of the four voices is distinctive and unique, and yet they may be paired by tone or style. Mao and the Old Woman recite ready-made phrases; the Long-Winded Lady and the Voice speak searchingly, punctuating their discourse with pauses and images. Yet, the Voice is schoolmarmish as Mao is pedagogical; each of them comments on the nature of reality, but their realities are different. By contrast, the persona of the Old Woman and the Long-Winded Lady gradually reveal life stories; both are widows, and both are touched by death. In addition to these pairs, the three women's voices may be grouped by pathos; they sing in a minor key. Masculine Mao, on the other hand, is positive and optimistic, and the masculine clergyman is silent.

Thematically, death binds these four voices, and stylistically repetition is their common technique. Mao emphasizes single words or ideas by reiteration; the Old Woman does not recite Carleton's poem straight through, but chooses certain lines or stanzas to linger over and dwell upon; occasional phrases of the Long-Winded Lady recur—above all "dying"; after the initial performance of Box, all the words of the disembodied voice are repetitions, and the final Reprise means repetition. The Reprise joins end to beginning in a kind of musical parallel for a box, but since music moves in time, repetition itself becomes thematic through strains of dialogue.

Because the Long-Winded Lady alone has a personal, a dramatic monologue, she is at the center of the play. Seeking the counsel of a silent clergyman, she is threatened by the two other figures on this ship of fools—the ruthless system of Mao and the maudlin poverty of the Old Woman. Long-winded, unrooted, she is a middle-aged, middle-class Miss America, that last corrupt and dying outpost of Western civilization. Unlike George and Julian, who also represent the Western tradition in Albee's plays, the Long-Windedz Lady utters no words of optimism or heroism. She can merely offer the stuff of her life to a silent and therefore ineffectual representative of God. Like Joyce's distant artist paring his fingernails, a disembodied voice embraces all experience in the order of art. But the question nags as to whether Albee's particular art is drama.

Edward Albee is the most skillful composer of dialogue that America has produced. His very first play showed thorough mastery of colloquial idiom—syntax, vocabulary, and above all rhythm. With adroit combinations of monologue and witty repartee, Albee dramatizes human situations. He never permits his characters to lapse into discussion, and he rarely inflates them with abstraction. Almost always, he mirrors the meaning of events in the rhythm of his dialogue: Jerry's indirection, George's surgery, Julian's fragmentation, the Long-Winded Lady's long wind. Difficult as marriage is within his plays, they contain unusually harmonious marriages of sound to sense.

But suspicion is born of Albee's very brilliance. His plays are too well crafted, his characters too modishly ambiguous, his dialogue too carefully cadenced. This is not to say that he writes perfect plays—whatever that may be—but his surface polish seems to deny subsurface search, much less risk. Again and again, O'Neill stumbled and fell in the darkness of his dramas; even the final achievements lack grace, but their solidity endures. Miller has probed into his own limited experience and into his own limited view of the experience of his time, but his plays sometimes give evidence of reaching to his limits. Williams expresses his guiltiest urges, and though the very naivete of his guilt restricts the resonance of his plays, he does agonize toward religious resolution. Albee's plays are not devoid of suffering, and in any case one cannot measure the quality of a play by some putative pain of the playwright. Nevertheless, Albee's craftsmanship recalls the meditation of the disembodied voice of Box: "arts which have gone down to craft." And it is particularly ungrateful to turn his own finely modulated words against Albee. But just because his verbal craft is so fine, one longs for the clumsy upward groping toward art.


1Albee consistently uses … to indicate actors' pauses; in this chapter, therefore, such punctuation is his.

2Gilbert Debusscher, Edward Albee: Tradition and Renewal (Brussels, 1967), 19-20.

3Cf. Rose A. Zimbardo, "Symbolism and Naturalism in Edward Albee's The Zoo Story," Twentieth Century Literature (April, 1962), 10-17.

4Paul Witherington, "Language of Movement in Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith," Twentieth Century Literature (July, 1967), 84-88.

5Preface to Signet edition of The American Dream, 9.

6Writers at Work, Third Series (New York, 1967), 331, gives Albee's account of the origin of his title—soap-writing on the mirror of a Greenwich Village bar—but he nevertheless exploits the resonances of the English novelist's name.

7Ibid, for Albee's denial that the play was conceived with four men in mind. Though George calls Nick "toots," "love," and "baby" though Martha says George is a "floozie," this is irrelevant to the sado-masochistic interdependence of George and Martha.

8Ibid., 337.

9A comparable Walpurgisnacht atmosphere is evoked in Book III of St. Augustine's Confessions, which describes his domicile in Carthage from his seventeenth to his nineteenth year. Not only lust, but play-acting and illusion are central to Augustine's experiences in Carthage.

10Michael E. Rutenberg, Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest (New York, 1969), 232.

11Thomas Porter, "Fun and Games in Suburbia," in Myth in Modern American Drama (Detroit, 1969), 225-47, presents an excellent critique of the play in this light.

12Cf. Lee Baxandall, "The Theatre of Edward Albee," Tulane Drama Review (Summer, 1965), 19-40.

13New York Times (December 27,1964). Section 2, p. 1.

14In the movie All About Eve, Marilyn Monroe remarks that it would be funny if the butler were named Butler.

15Tiny Alice evidently means "tight anus" in homosexual argot, though Albee has denied having this "arcane information." In any case, Tiny Alice does not depend upon knowing the argot, as Virginia Woolf does not depend upon knowing St. Augustine's Confessions.

16Rutenberg, 250.

17Rutenberg, 214: "Instead of writing out the speeches one after the other, Albee has said he 'wrote each speech for each character' on a different page."

Rachel Blau Duplessis (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "In the Bosom of the Family: Evasions in Edward Albee," in Recherches Anglaises et Américaines, No. V, Summer,, 1972, pp. 85-96.

[In the following essay, Duplessis argues that in his plays Albee takes "questions of power, work, failure or success and privatiz[es] them, making social issues appear exclusively as family issues, and solv[es] them as if they were family issues. "]

This is an essay about Edward Albee's family plays, taking Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) as the center of interest, but also treating A Delicate Balance (1966) and, to a lesser extent, The American Dream (1960).1 Secondarily, it is an essay about the relation of a literary work to its historical context, taking these plays as a test case of a hypothesis about that relationship.

We are used to considering a literary work as a unity. In appreciating or analyzing art, we tend to harmonize it, smoothing arguments that do not fit; taking images, themes or structures as indications of one tendency, rather than of di-verse or divisive tendencies; perceiving one ruling idea or world picture. In short, we take hold of a literary work as if it expressed no conflicts or contradictions within it.

However, there are many works which do not fit this critical assumption. There are works in which the endings do not respond to the images, themes and situations which these endings are intended to conclude.2 There are works in which the author's professed subject violates the traditional conventions, values or artistic decorum to which he/she also ad-heres.3 There are works in which the real or embodied ideas and the announced ideology of the author are visibly inconsistent.4 These examples all suggest that literary works are the site of contradictions or conflicts: discontinuity between the body of a work and its ending, conflict between the subject and accepted aesthetic norms, conflict between the expressed and the covert views of an author. Thus I will postulate that conflict often lies at the heart of the artistic situation and go on to construct a working hypothesis that accounts for it. To formulate the hypothesis, we must ask what are conflicts; how do we identify important ones; how are they resolved; and what do conflicts tell us?

Conflicts within a literary work include 1) fundamental and opposing categories of assumptions built into the world of the work and/or 2) clashes between various formal elements of the work. It is my contention that these fundamental conflicts in literature correspond to a social and historical context in some fashion—directly, or through modifications, distorsions, transformations and omissions.

How does the critic identify important conflicts? This is a question about which I can make only an empirical observation. The artist tries to move the conflicts expressed in the work towards some kind of resolution, which may be presented as the ending (but is not necessarily the ending). It follows that at the point at which resolution occurs or is being prepared for, we are most likely to observe the work's fundamental contradictions, because it is precisely those which are most in need of resolution, and which it is most satisfying to see resolved.

How, then, are conflicts resolved? I have found two patterns so far. Conflicts can be resolved in a synthesis (involving form, incident, character, imagery, etc.), which includes, yet transcends the fundamental and opposing issues. Or, on the other hand, conflicts can be resolved in an evasion, a pseudo-synthesis which deliberately and unmistakably avoids the primal quality of the clashes exposed within the work.

Both evasion and synthesis are legitimate ways of handling contradictions. A work is not "bad" if conflicts are evaded, "good" or "successful" if conflicts are synthesized. The question is rather why certain resolutions take shape as they do. To trace this, we must ask why particular conflicts ap-pear in a work by a certain person, at a given historical moment, with a specific set of coordinates (genre, audience, critical reception). A resolution through evasion may be perfectly satisfying to the audience; it may even be what pleases the audience, for perhaps the audience itself would rather avoidthe clash of fundamental issues than see them resolved. Further, evasion may be the only possible resolution, if the social or historical evolution of certain conflicts had not reached the point at which an author could compose a synthesis.

A literary work may reveal contradictions in attitudes and actions in individuals, or within identifiable social groups or reveal clashes between several groups.5 A literary work may also clarify what historical problems existed, or what were considered problems by contemporaries. It may present contradictions in heightened or flattened form. By a study of conflict, the form, content and social-historical implications of a work are linked in one explanation.

How can we apply this hypothesis to Albee's work? To define the fundamental contradictions in Albee's family plays, we must watch these works at the point of resolution. From such an investigation, we can detach the various contradictions which the ending is designed to resolve.

Two prominent problems resolved by the ending of Virginia Woolf concern the bitch goddess, who is tamed, and the missing child, who is killed. Martha is a brilliantly constructed and dramatically sufficient portrait of the stereotypical emasculating woman. The missing male child is doubly non-existent, for he is imaginary and at the end of the play he is also dead. It is no secret that parent-child and husband-wife relationships (along with the cross-bred combination father/husband and child/wife) figure importantly in Albee's world, although, interestingly, Albee is squeamish about recognizing this.6 In fact, many relationships in his plays that do not superficially conform to family models can be assimilated to them. Julian is the child to numerous parents—including a destructive sexual mother—in Tiny Alice (1964). These parents are at the mercy of a Larger Parent, the unseen Big Alice. Julian's martyrdom, whatever else it involves, contains the familiar mutilated, destroyed or dead son at its heart. The pattern of weak father, threatening son, and destruction (here by murder/suicide) likewise occurs in The Zoo Story (1958).

Are these family antagonisms the fundamental conflict in Albee? Not, I would say, in themselves, although wife and husband, parent and child clash in dramatic and important ways. To discover the conflict, we must look at the point of resolution to discover what forces the play has unloosed and how the author finally handles them.

Virginia Woolf ends with a now familiar tableau, revealing Martha's essential insecurity and dependence on George, and George's control and dominance of their relationship and her needs. The problems of this prototypical "American" couple to which the tableau is Albee's solution are the failure of the man and the bitchiness of the woman. The problems are constructed in stereotypes (henpecked man, nagging wife) and the solutions are also envisaged in stereotypes. According to the familiar norms Albee proposes for his solution, the man's social function is to engage in productive work, to be a success, and to be emotionally alert and/or sexually potent. The woman's social function is to engage in reproduction and/or non-productive work (both Honey and Martha have distorted these terms, by engaging in non-productive reproduction—not having kids), to help her husband be a success, and to remain a tempting sexual object. The play will accomplish the substitution of these norms for the earlier stereotypes.

The man's world is the world outside the family. The university workplace is rife with rivalries and competition, and the men must succeed in this world, or not at all. In the play there is a running gag about whether Nick is going to take over the Biology or the History Department which effectively expresses the rivalry between the two men and their anxieties about success and failure. Nick also has an opportunistic plan for taking over the whole university, while George is already an established failure ("I am in the History Department… as opposed to being the History Department… in the sense of running the History Department," p. 38). George engages in intellectual badinage with Nick, deliberately attacking Nick's research. Albee does this more clumsily than it would be done in real life, but he gives a reasonably true picture nonetheless. Starting from Nick's assumed method ("A system whereby chromosomes can be altered," p. 65), George traces the implications of Nick's work. Eventually there will be no more cultural and national differences, and "the sea-hanging rhythm of… history will be eliminated" (p. 67). Nick's professional work is an attack on George's professional work, and so George will try to cut him down. George is witty. Nick does not answer. Yet there is never any doubt that George is a failure. But given his wit and intelligence, why is he a failure? Why must we assume that wit and intelligence are associated with failure? What stopped George from "playing the game" of success—for he loves to play other games with Martha? Or, even more crudely, why couldn't George take advantage of his privileged position as the President's sonin-law and step into the President's shoes? No answer is worked out within the play. We are faced with a full-blown and definitive problem, George's failure, for which there is no explanation, and whose source—perhaps in the relation of George's personality to the demands of the workplace—lies entirely outside of the actions of the play.

Albee accounts for George's failure by noting, once, his "high moral sense" which "wouldn't even let him try to better himself (p. 124). For the weight the play puts on George's failure, this is a minimal explanation, which itself hides an unexamined social law: only low and unprincipled people win. More importantly, this "high moral sense" is not entirely ratified by the exhibition of George's malice, bitterness and nastiness in the course of the play.

A second reason Albee offers is more promising. Daddy (the Paterfamilias in BaxandalFs terms) prevented George from publishing a novel about a boy who accidentally kills both his parents (a work whose summary is given on pp. 94-97).7 We must accept that George's major scholarship as a historian lies in autobiography: "This isn't a novel at all… this is the truth… this really happened…to me!" (Martha's words, dramatizing George's predicament, p. 137). It is striking that the man's major work in career terms is about family relations. Nick's major work in biology is also "about" sex and children. This pattern is quite significant; it is repeated in the interchanges between Nick and George. All exchanges (whether sheer monologue by George or dialogue) are arrested by the deliberate change of subject from science, technology, the university, genetic regulation, the "wave of the future", to sex, women, children and Daddy. This substitution of family questions for other issues raised in the play is an important pattern and will be pursued further here.

Albee's "Mommies" and other of his women surprisingly conform to the stereotyped notions of women's place: that women take care of home and children (imaginary or not) while men take care of the rest of the world. Martha does not try to enter the universe traditionally set apart for men. Rather, she is hostess for her Daddy, courtesan-in-residence for the university, and tries hard to be a mother, telling anecdotes of the imaginary son's imaginary upbringing. Further, despite her situation as a faculty wife, Martha never participates in the "intellectual" discussions that take place between George and Nick. Her realm is caustic remarks, cutting stories and gossip. Similarly, Mommy in The American Dream is an inveterate consumer, endlessly exchanging beige hat for wheat and wheat hat for beige. She holds a malicious, but not inaccurate view of the legal and economic bases of marriage: she is entitled to money from Daddy because Daddy is allowed to fornicate with her. In the same play, Albee's semi-professional woman, Mrs. Barker, plays her role dressed only in her slip; she had been asked to take her clothes off early in the play and willingly conforms to the invitation to be a sex object. Her meager "professional" status as an adoption agency officer is totally undercut, for she does not remember a thing about her clients or her work. Grandma is not exempt either. As a cook, she has prepared uneaten box lunches for her school-age daughter. She is also enough of a trickster to enter a baking contest—and win first prize—under a man's name and with a store-bought cake, but the essential pattern is intact. Mother, courtesan, consumer, sex object, wife, cook, volunteer semi-professional, hostess—these are the dependent social roles Albee's women play. Why then are they accused of emasculating the men?8

Because none of his women ever tries to enter the "male" worlds of business, action, productive work and potency, one cannot say they are emasculating because they intrude. However, they do investigate whether the men succeed in their proper sphere. They notice and comment on the men's failure to hold up their half of the bargain, insistently remarking that the Daddies are flops. Thus the women are verbally abusive to the men precisely because the men do not succeed in the same stereotypical terms as the women. So the women fail to conform to the sex role stereotypes only in their refusal to be silent about the failures of their men. But they do not cause these failures.

Failure for Albee's male characters has its source outside the plays. It depends on the men not meeting certain standards of competition and success in the workplace. These assumptions are neither brought into the plays nor made explicit within them. The women's bitchiness and domination have their sources in the men's failure; rather than causing failure, the women simply comment incessantly upon it. What resolution is offered by Albee for these failures?

At the end, the humiliated, weak, unsuccessful man is shown to be stronger than the brutal, emasculating woman. The family problems are solved, not by investigating their real source, which we have seen to lie outside the family, but by further regulating the family relations in a highly normative manner. The man is returned to his position of mastery, dominance and control over a subordinate, dependent woman by exorcising all challengers, upstarts and rivals to the central couple. In this case, George exorcises Martha's Daddy, the missing son, and Nick, who functions as a rival in the workplace and as a substitute son in the Mother's affections.

Up to the time of the play, George had not been able to break the hold that Martha's Daddy has over his daughter. Within the play, he breaks the hold by his superior game-playing abilities; but he wins by making total war on Martha, not on Daddy. His success involves a simultaneous parent-child and husband-wife subordination. Martha becomes like a little girl at the end; George emerges as a successful replacement for the Paterfamilias—without touching on any of the issues that made him a failure in the first place.

In addition, to construct this resolution, the male child is killed because he is too tempting to his mother—imaginatively tempting in Virginia Woolf and sexually tempting in American Dream. A powerful mother-son team disrupts the proper order of the family. Thus to return the father to the center, inevitably the child must be broken, as is his mother, but by different means, usually death. In American Dream, the fact that Daddy does not return to power makes the mother-son relationship begin again, cyclically, with a new son. The child may also be regarded as the battlefiled on which the primal couple wages constant war; in any case, by slow death or swift, he is broken. Behind this destruction of the male child lies an assumption about the "proper" order of the family. Albee's implicit definition makes the family a stable couple with an unchallenged head (the dominant male) helped and approved of by the subordi-nate female. The reasons that lead to the murder or mutilation of the male rival are thus not investigated. Rather, Albee assumes them.

In one of his aspects, Nick is a "son" to George and Martha. He is obliquely referred to as "our own little sonny-Jim" (p. 196). Further, Albee clears the ground for an Oedipal plot by making Honey, nominally a character in the play, spend most of her time off stage on the bathroom floor. The rivalry between George and Nick for Martha can take shape uninterrupted by the superfluous second woman. Nick has indeed threatened to replace George in Martha's bed and in the university, while his work and his attitudes attack George's values. This rivalry, which originates outside the confines of the play, has been transferred entirely from society to family.

In the conclusion, George replaces the Paterfamilias above him, subordinating the wife-child, while successfully fighting a rear-guard action against his own replacement by the son(s) below. This reversal is constructed by Albee's taking questions of power, work, failure or success and privatizing them, making social issues appear exclusively as family is-sues, and solving them as if they were family issues. Albee shows power entirely in family terms, and often in exclusively sexual terms. In the play's logic, because the Presi-dent of George's college is Martha's father, relations in the workplace are made over into family relations. Because a younger rival to George is involved as the son in an Oedipal plot, society and the workplace are made over into the family. Albee has evaded discussion of the real source of the men's failure; instead he puts the onus on relationships inside the family and returns to the cliché portrait of the harridan, implying that the men fail because their women are emasculating. In fact, investigation of the plays shows that the true position is precisely opposite: the women are emasculating because their men fail.

What then is the fundamental conflict or contradiction in Albee's family plays? A provisional answer can be given now, although we are only part way there. The fundamental conflict is between a) the idea that problems and clashes found in the family actually originate in the family and can be solved in the family and b) the idea that problems and clashes expressed by the family originate outside the family and can be solved only by turning to these origins. Albee wants to put forward the first idea; his resolution and the audience's admiration alike are based on it. Yet strong indications of the second idea can be found in his work.

The static family with a man as the unchallenged head is reconstructed by the subordination and destruction of the other family members. But this occurs only on the sufference and with the cooperation of representatives of "problems," which have come into the family from outside and which obligingly leave at the key moment, not really exorcised, not really solved, but simply eased out the front door. In Virginia Woolf, Honey, already an approved-of child-woman, is cured in the same action with Martha and assumes her proper sexual role ("I want a child. I want a baby," p. 223). But Nick represents the problems coming from outside the family, although Albee transposes them by making Nick the "son" of the family. The play's action has not cured these problems. These problems are work, careerism, science, the fall of the west; even—and Albee is reasonably serious—the problem of powers politics personified by Nikita Khrushchev ("Nick is very much like the gentleman who used to run the Soviet Union": Albee9). The problems are a mixed bag of undigested bits, but their very confusion is significant. Something is wrong somewhere—is it the two cultures? or the failure of the "principles of… of principle" (p. 117)? of the geo-political threat of the Asian yellow peril (p. 166)? Albee is not clear where the problems lie, what to call them, or how to organize them, but Nick does represent them. And there is no dialogue between George and the problems Nick represents. Much of the scenes between them consists of sporty monologues by George. Albee gives Nick no rebuttals.

As a problem from the outside, Nick resembles the friends, Edna and Harry, in A Delicate Balance (1966), who have a vague terror and creep into the play's major family. What is to be done with them? The beginning of the resolution in Delicate Balance, as in Virginia Woolf, requires masculine dominance. At the beginning of the third act, Agnes (the wife) anatomizes the contractual terms on which a man and a woman construct a marriage, by the strictest sexual division of labor.

She runs the house, for what that's worth; makes sure there's food, and not just anything, and decent linen; looks well; assumes whatever duties are demanded … The reins we hold! It's a team of twenty horses, and we sit there, and we watch the road and check the leather … if our … man is so disposed. But there are things we [women] do not do … We don't decide the route … We follow. We let our … men decide the moral issues … Whatever you decide …I'll make it work; I'll run it for you …

(pp. 136-38)

Agnes' speech is designed to force her husband Tobias to dominate, decide, master his entourage of three child-wives: his real wife, his often-divorced daughter, and his sister-inlaw. He must decide something about the invasion by these neighbors who, simply and inexplicably terrified of life, have retreated to the family, putting themselves in a child relationship to parents (who are their contemporaries) and into a sibling relationship with the other dependents of Agnes and Tobias. Albee tries to make their terror take the shape of familiar family patterns.

At the climax of the play, Tobias performs a difficult aria that perfectly expresses the contradictory position of the family in Albee: either as the source of, and cure for problems; or, because not the source of problems, not ultimately their cure. First he states that the family did not ask for this invasion, acknowledging that it was not born inside the family, "i don't want you here!" (p. 166). The vague, troubling disease Edna and Harry bring, the "plague," is virtually undefined by the play. But whatever it is, once within the family, the terror is obliged to stay, because in Albee's world it is only in the bosom of the family that the problems can be transformed and solved, "by christ, you're going to stay here, you've got the right" (pp. 166-67). Why the right? Again, because the family is the place where social problems are transformed to family relationships and resolved by Albee's one characteristic solution: a strong man placed unchallenged as the head, aided by a subordinate—his wife. All social problems are privatized into family problems so they can be solved.

But despite Tobias' pleading to preserve this function of the family, "Stay? Please? Stay?" (p. 167), the problems decide to go home anyway. If on one hand the "delicate balance" of the family has been restored by Tobias' taking—or trying to take—a manly position, on the other hand, it also gets restored—concurrently and necessarily—by letting the problems depart, having them slip away from the family which could not solve them. Because the family cannot solve or resolve the terror of Edna and Harry, it cannot restore a "delicate balance" to society. It is no wonder that Agnes then ends the play (stage direction: "To fill a silence") by attempting a further privatization of solutions. She feels she will lose her mind; she is not sure it hasn't already happened. The individual psyche is frightened by the burdens of history, and the way the psyche resolves troubles, through dreams and nightmares, is proposed as the only solution to its fear. So the family ultimately fails.

According to Albee, the only way problems from the outside are solved is if they can be made over on the model of relationships within the family: Nick as son; Nick and Honey as children (George: "Home to bed, children," p. 238); Edna and Harry as children; the menacing Van Man in American Dream as son (a transformation that occurs off stage); Death as an Oedipal grandson in The Sandbox. Al-though in Virginia Woolf there is an apparent finality about the solution that implies that the problems entering with Nick have been solved, George does not actually meet the challenge posed by Nick. The problems simply understand and vanish. However cooperative the problems are as they leave, their unmotivated exit is a clear indication that the family cannot and does not solve them. Although the plays overtly state the opposite, in fact not all the problems evoked by the plays can be made over into family relationships.

So the fundamental contradiction in Albee has to do with opposing ideas about the function and centrality of the family. Overtly the plays propose that problems and conflicts seen in the family originate in distortions of family relation-ships and can be solved by righting these relationships in stereotypical ways. Covertly within the plays the opposing issue is also posed; that problems and conflicts seen in the family originate outside the family (in work, politics and society, all quite vaguely presented by Albee), and that they cannot be solved within the family. The second proposition, shadowing the first and in conflict with it, is present in inarticulated and even immature form, but is nonetheless palpably present.

The resolution turns on two necessarily linked evasions. Order is restored by assimilating all problems to family relationships, and curing them by re-establishing sexual stereotypes and killing (mutilating) the rival; this solution in Virginia Woolf never traces the sources of the man's failure, but rather confuses the cause of the man's failure with its effect—the dominance of the woman. This is the first evasion. Then, problems raised in the play which cannot be assimilated or transformed into family issues simply leave, unsolved and unaccounted for at the end. This is the second evasion, which logically follows from the first.

It remains to establish what relation the contradiction and its resolution in evasions have to larger social issues, and to American society at the time the plays were written and performed. Certain of the conflicting elements in Albee's family plays can be directly traced to the society. For example, the plays articulate a nervous sense of the existence of undefined or vague problems, such as competition, work and success, and a general challenge to dominance and proper order. But the cure for these problems is privatization, viewing them as family and/or individual issues. So Albee's first cure does not especially differ from that proposed by popularized psychology. Albee's second cure is effected by the unmotivated exit of problems; knowing they cannot be solved, they just go away. This wishful thinking is rather poignant, after all.

This said, the odd clustering of the "problems" Nick represents and the very vagueness of Edna and Harry's terror may provide a clue to the common denominator of the social problems in Albee's family plays. What is the fear—of "nothing," of "the dark" (p. 55), of its being "too late" (p. 169), or "the end" (p. 168)—in Delicate Balance?

The issue posed by the plays is who or what will control the future. Control of the future is implied in everything Nick represents: technology-science, genetic research, world political alignments, the "decline of the west." George stands with his embattled values and combats Nick as the "dry run for the wave of the future" (p. 178). Eventually, Nick leaves, chastened by George's display of mastery over Martha. Presumably, George's setting his house in order according to strict principles of family dominance will enable George to have authority in the outside world. However, it is unclear that this is so. We know that Nick-as-Oedipal-son has been thwarted, but has Nick-as-career-rival really given up? So George's achievement of dominance at home may have to simply substitute for his dominance in the outside world. In any event, it is clear that Albee favors re-establishing traditional order. What remains unclear is what larger effect this restoration will indeed have.

Following this interpretation, we can appreciate the other-wise random political remarks in this play. They all concern attacks on or threats to hegemony. The association of Nick with Nikita Khrushchev; the mention of the "yellow bastards," the alleged decline of the west, the threat of technology to humanism all imply a preoccupation with a fading hegemony. George's question whether the west is declining points up the political trauma of those who considered themselves unquestioned rulers: our position as ruling sex, ruling class or ruling country is not so unchallenged as before, therefore "the west is declining" and civilization, which we embody, is in danger. Although far from logical, this syllogism has always been tempting to a group whose control—inexplicably, to it—is challenged.

At the end of A Delicate Balance, Agnes describes a struggle which she and others of her kind do not even witness, al-though it is somehow decisive for them.

Everything becomes … too late, finally. You know it's going on … up on the hill; you can see the dust, and hear the cries, and the steel… but you wait; and time happens. When you do go, sword, shield… finally… there's nothing there … save rust; bone; and the wind.

(p. 169)

Something is going wrong. The future is being formed by a battle outside the control of those who felt themselves dominant. And this fact brings terror.

The evasion of problems which the plays construct is what Albee's audience values. Evasion is not the failure of resolution. It is a particular mode of resolution which avoids dealing with the fundamental contradictions exposed within the work. The pseudo-synthesis which resolves the play apparently solves contradictions but does so only by transforming them into other issues for which a solution can be offered. It is a pseudo-synthesis because it gives the appearance of solving the original contradictions but does not. In Albee, the evasion is constructed by transforming problems which do not have their origin in the family into family problems. From the "decline of the west" to the failure of the man in the workplace, social problems are evoked in the play, but the establishment of male hegemony in the family fails to solve even the man's problem, much less the larger issues. The significant exit of characters representing these problems shows a further avoidance, concurrent with the first. Therefore Albee does not synthesize the contradiction which he himself sets up. Evasion is his resolution.


1The editions used are: for Virginia Woolf the Jonathan Cape edition; for Delicate Balance, the Pocket Books edition; for American Dream, the Jonathan Cape edition. All further page references will be to the respective editions and will appear in the text.

2Leo Marx, "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn", in Claude M. Simpson, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), pp. 37-40.

3P. J. Keating, The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp. 4-5.

4The analytic distinction is from Albert Memmi, "Problèmes de la Sociologie de la Littérature," in George Gurvitch, ed., Traité de Sociologie (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1960).

5I am generally indebted to Lucien Goldmann, "La sociologie de la littérature: statut et problèmes de méthode," Marxisme et sciences humaines (Paris, Gallimard, 1970).

6"[Interviewer]: How about the theme of parents who in one way or another are murdering their children, and children, at least symbolically, killing their parents? Albee: That occurs in two plays—The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—but then again I've written eight plays, so it's hardly a recurring theme." Walter Wager, ed., The Playwrights Speak (London, Longmans, Green and Co., Ltd., 1969), p. 48.

7An excellent study which includes an anatomy of the family in Albee is Lee Baxandall, "The Theater of Edward Albee", in Alvin B. Kernan, ed., The Modern American Theater (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967).

8Albee lists emasculation as an important American problem in the Preface to The American Dream.

9The Playwrights Speak, p. 39.

Lawrence Kingsley (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Reality and Illusion: Continuity of a Theme in Albee," in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, March, 1973, pp. 71-9.

[In the following essay, Kingsley observes how Albee's "struggle with reality and illusion endures throughout the major part of his career. "]

Albee has had occasion more than once to note the prominence of reality and illusion in his work. Tiny Alice he calls "a perfectly straightforward story, dealt with in terms of reality and illusion, symbol and actuality."1 The title of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "means who's afraid of the big bad wolf… who's afraid of living life without false illusions."2 The American Dream "is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."3

These three plays then—The American Dream, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Tiny Alice—are preoccupied with the disparity Albee discerns between a fantasy world and the world in which his characters must live. Tiny Alice constitutes the fullest elaboration of this problem, and the preceding plays build toward it in terms of increasing complexity.4 Though not keyed to quite the same problem, The Zoo Story and A Delicate Balance surround the other three plays in order of composition and relate to them in theme. If we approach Albee from this larger perspective, we observe how his struggle with reality and illusion endures throughout the major part of his career, young though it still is, and leaves a generally coherent body of work inclusive of his best plays.

The genesis of his concern with reality and illusion is the Nietzschean distinction between Apollonian and Dionysiac tragedy. This well-known and many-sided distinction, which Nietzsche likened to the difference between dream and intoxication, arises in Albee from the belief that "there was a time when people believed in deities. And then revolutions came—Industrial, French, Freudian, Marxist. Gods and absolutes vanished. Individuals find this very difficult and uncomfortable. All they have left is fantasy or the examination of the self."5 Fantasy is the compelling alternative, because when Albee's characters look inward all they find is self-contempt. As Nietzsche said, man is "an incarnation of dissonance" and life, to be borne, needs an absorbing illusion.6 The Apollonian component in art supplies that illusion, but Nietzsche cautioned that "the image of Apollo must incorporate that thin line which the dream image may not cross, under penalty of becoming pathological, of imposing itself on us as crass reality."7

Here is the borderline which Albee's characters fail to heed. Left to their own resources, they construct for themselves a world of illusion which affords escape from their recurring sense of personal inadequacy. Illusion works for a time, but soon brings complications which want redress. Albee therefore introduces illusion only to reassess it, to show how his characters must rid themselves of falsehood and return to the world in which they must live. The Apollonian component must exert itself in conjunction with the Dionysiac, which most primitively is an "ecstatic reality." The Dionysiac impulse "takes no account of the individual and may even destroy him, or else redeem him through a mystical experience of the collective."8

Though the Apollonian-Dionysiac duality is infinitely more complex in Nietzsche, it provides the guidelines within which Albee develops his contention that illusion must keep a proper proportion with reality. This is the importance of The Zoo Story: that in it Jerry tries to reorder his life, to break out of the harried existence in which he finds himself, but cannot. The American Dream, which ends inconclusively, then dramatizes an Apollonian dream realm where man has respite from his Dionysiac self-destruction. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and in Tiny Alice, Albee moves one step further and purges illusion in the course of the play. In the former this purgation is attained through Bringing Up Baby, during which George "kills off" the fictive child. Purgation in Tiny Alice takes the form of compelling Brother Julian to accept the reality of his situation. A Delicate Balance once again broaches the theme of outer versus inner reality; however, here it is not fantasy which distorts the individual's perception, if by fantasy we under-stand projection of fiction as reality; rather it is fear which is in question, and Albee verifies the title: he restores balance before the totter proceeds too far, causes loss of self-awareness. The control he exercises may be one reason why that play is less exciting than his earlier work, but it also helps to explain why his characters have gained, in a way, new rapprochement with reality, for now they are not permitted to stray very far from the norm of self-candor.

In The Zoo Story Jerry strives for self-candor without attaining it. He announces, "I'm crazy you bastard" (p. 51). To what extent this assertion is true, we cannot say. Is he simply supplying a ready answer for Peter? Or is he taking sadistic pleasure in watching Peter squirm under the revelation of what he knows to be accurate self-description? What-ever the case, he wanders around the city as a "permanent transient" (p. 45), trying to rediscover his bearings: "sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly" (p. 25). Jerry was psychologically dislocated in youth when his father walked into a bus, and his mother ran off with another man. His family problems, as the usual explanation runs, are offered as the source of his inadequacies in love, here manifested as proneness to homosexuality and inability to love the same person more than once. This deviation in love parallels his peregrinations about the city and, in a larger sense, tendency toward schizophrenia.

Throughout the play Jerry tries to bridge the gap between himself and external reality. One way is to insist that Peter understand his problems. A second comes to light in the story of the dog, with which Jerry finally "made contact" (p. 41) after abortively trying to poison it. Considering himself as yet unready for the more difficult task of dealing with human beings, he prepares himself for that next step by establishing rapport between himself and common objects: "A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING. If not with people … with a bed, with a cockroach, with a mirror …" (p. 42). He is groping for a hold on reality on a one-to-one basis: himself and any object before him.

This quest for greater self-integration, greater amalgamation with the world around him, is partially successful. He cannot change, but at least he knows what is happening to him; he can see his life in a certain perspective, and himself as the agent of the drama he is enacting. He knows that he has decided to walk north from the zoo until he meets someone, that he will provoke a fight, and will be killed. Hence, he tells Peter at the beginning of the play that he can review the event about to occur on the evening news.

In this one-act play there is none of the complexity later involved when Albee challenges one's awareness of reality on subtler counts. We are presented simply with a study of Jerry's attempt to expound his private world to Peter—a world where the encounter with the landlady's dog takes on metaphysical dimension, where God is "a colored queen who wears a kimono and plucks his eyebrows" (p. 42) , where the contest for the park bench is a fight for one's man-hood. Say what he will, Jerry fails to communicate; Peter remains passive until the last moment and even then responds to Jerry only in self-defense. Jerry's estrangement is ended merely by death.

Whereas Jerry knows the distinction between fantasy and "real experience" (p. 32), illusions generated in The American Dream are not only unresolved, but unadmitted when the play concludes. The play stops just where Grandma says it does: "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" (p. 93). Mommy and Daddy have their Young Man; the Young Man has a new home; Mrs. Barker has the adoption fee, and Grandma has release from the home that mistreats her. The only trouble is that their values are built on sand—to take the cue from The Sandbox, an earlier draft of the play. Mrs. Barker accepts a fee for delivering the Young Man who comes there by accident. Muscle-bound and handsome, he would seem a perfect son for Mommy and Daddy, since they are unwilling to go through the rigors of raising an infant and want him, as it were, prefabricated, made to certain specifications. However, he is unable to love his foster parents: "I no longer have the capacity to feel anything. I have no emotions." To that degree, he represents an inverse image of Jerry, who at least tries to respond to the world around him. The American Dream, in contrast, accepts "the syntax around me, for while I know I cannot relate … I know I must be related to" (p. 78).

Mommy and Daddy also accept the world as it is presented to them. Mommy defers to Mrs. Barker's judgment on the beige-colored hat. Mrs. Barker, we recall, insists that Mommy's hat is wheat-colored instead of beige. Mommy knows that the choice of words is a quibble; but because Mrs. Barker is the chairman of her woman's club, having authority over her, she accepts the better-advised opinion. Daddy similarly yields to false values. He is eager to hear how "masculine and decisive" he is in concurring with Mommy's decision to have Grandma carted away:

Daddy: Was I firm about it?

Mommy: Oh, so firm; so firm.

Daddy: And was I decisive?

Mommy: SO decisive! Oh, I shivered.

Daddy: And masculine? Was I really masculine?

Mommy: Oh, Daddy, you were so masculine; I shivered and fainted.

(pp. 30-31)

Not even Grandma is immune from pretense. She is the year's winner in a baking contest with a store-bought, dayold cake. From the moment we first see her, she temporizes, seeking to escape with her boxes before the "van people" (p. 29) arrive. Thus, she speaks to the Dream boy about going "into my act, now" (p. 79). Much of her vituperation is part of this act, to speak as old women are supposed to talk. This calculated indulgence of pretense removes her, it seems, from the fault to which the rest of the family fall victim: not realizing the implications or even the fact of their pretense.

Because the play ends abruptly, when Grandma steps forth as interlocutor and calls a halt to the action, sand-castle illusions are allowed to stand. They are not in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Here Albee again explores the meaning of a child in a sterile marriage, a problem for which he has a natural feeling, being himself an adopted child. Because they cannot have a child, George and Martha are contemptuous of each other. Martha is fifty-two, stuck in a small college town, unloved by her father, and fond of alcohol. Her father, the president of the college, had hoped that George would follow in his footsteps, but George has never amounted to much even in the History Department. By inventing the existence of a child, George and Martha escape mutual recrimination and provide themselves with the single solace in their marriage. Martha maintains that

the one thing I've tried to carry pure and unscathed through the sewer of this marriage; through the sick nights, and the pathetic, stupid days, through the decision and the laughter … through one failure after another, one failure compounding another failure, each attempt more sickening, more numbing than the one before; the one thing, the one person I have tried to protect, to raise above the mire of this vile, crushing marriage; the one light in all this hopeless… darkness… our son.

(III, p. 227)

Over the years the need for such an outlet has blurred the line between reality and illusion and brought George and Martha to take the easiest way out. "I'm numbed enough," George says, "and I don't mean by liquor, though maybe that's been part of the process—a gradual, over-the-years going to sleep of the brain cells … I bring everything down to reflex response" (II, p. 155). Reflexively, George succumbs to the idea of the child; similarly, as Martha states, her son's birth was easy, "once it had been … accepted, relaxed into" (III, p. 217). What has happened, plainly, is that George and Martha have evaded the ugliness of their marriage by taking refuge in illusion. Martha points out: "Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference." And George replies: "No; but we must carry on as though we did" (III, p. 202). In this way they construct a whole mythology around the child which they treat as fact. He was born on a September night, not unlike the present night, twenty-one years ago from the next day. His parents remember his childhood habits and experiences, how home life was agonizing for him, and carry the story forward to the present, when he is supposed to be away at college. By the end of the play the lad has compiled a sizable personal his-tory.

Each parent delineates this history so as to undercut the other. For example, George says the boy resisted Martha's attempts to turn him into "a weapon" (III, p. 225) against his father. Martha, on the other hand, thinks her son "could not tolerate the shabby failure his father had become" and so asked her "if it—possibly wasn't true, as he had heard, from some cruel boys, maybe, that he was not our child" (III, p. 225). Each parent in this exchange calls what the other says lies. They are able to return from their fantasy world when it suits their convenience.9

George is less addicted to illusion than Martha and seems, by and large, merely to be indulging her in her Walpurgisnacht or "witch's sabbath," as Albee labels the second act after the famous sequence in Goethe's Faust. George accuses her: "you've moved bag and baggage into your own fantasy world now, and you've started playing variations on your own distortions …" (II, p. 155). At the same time he accepts his own responsibility: "the one thing in this whole sinking world that I am sure of is my partnership, my chromosomological partnership in the … creation of our … blond-eyed, blue-haired … son" (I, p. 72). George claims he has been trying to clean up this mess for years. His method of doing so is to arrange"The Exorcism," as the last act is called, whereby he simply announces that their son is dead.

With the three-part structure of "Fun and Games," "Walpurgisnacht," and "The Exorcism," Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? represents marked advancement over Albee's previous treatment of illusion. Here illusion is not just conjured up, as in The American Dream, and left to the acerbity of its ironic statement for deflation; rather, it is studied for all the mileage of its comic worth in "Walpurgisnacht," and then conceptually purged in the final act. This compulsion to purge illusion sustains Albee in Tiny Alice.

Tiny Alice, however, represents his concern with reality and illusion in a phase where Albee has the experience of his earlier drama for study and can twist and turn the tensions which he has already created. Lack of critical agreement about Tiny Alice arises from a failure to see this pattern of reality and illusion as it develops from his previous work. Reality now exists on different planes and becomes relative: what is illusory may partake of reality within a limited range. Characters joke about reality and take advantage of whoever is denied their perspective. Rather than pursue these issues, critics by and large attempt to find unified allegory, when there is none, or confine themselves to matterof-fact summary and isolated insight.10 The confusion that results has unjustly been foisted upon Albee. From the first he has been beleaguered by accusations that the play is intentionally opaque; shortly after it opened he even held a press conference in the interest of dismissing them. "Maybe I meant it [Tiny alice]," he says, "to be something a little different from confusing—provocative, perhaps, rather than confusing."11 That statement should be underscored, as well as Albee's assertion in the preface that "the play is quite clear."

It may be helpful to summarize what happens literally. Alice, who is compared to the legendary Croesus, the world's richest man, has decided to give the Church an annual hundred million dollars for the next twenty years. By no means does her generosity derive from need to make her peace with God. "Her soul is in excellent repair," Lawyer says, "If it were not, I doubt she'd be making the gesture." She is motivated simply by the Christian notion that God's field must not lie fallow, that it is wrong for money to be idle: "It is, as I said, that she is overburdened with wealth …and it is…wasted… lying about" (I, p. 15); in her wine cellar "bottles have burst, are bursting, corks rotting" from not being used: "Some great years, popping, dribbling away, going to vinegar under our feet" (II, p. 80).

To transact the grant, Alice sends Lawyer to Cardinal. It turns out that the two are old school acquaintances and have always hated each other. They flaid each other in some of Albee's most brilliant dialogue, which serves the further purpose of introducing Julian. In this opening exchange Cardinal betrays his interest in meeting the alluring Alice; trying to feign indifference to her, as would befit his clerical pose, Cardinal is forced to send his secretary to collect the money. Julian is a lay brother and ingénue. Partly because of his vow of celibacy, Alice is challenged to seduce and later marry him; but, moreover, she acts at Lawyer's instigation. Lawyer exercises a certain power over her, as we see at the beginning of the second act, and he can humiliate Cardinal if Alice wins Julian away from the Church. He goes to the extent of making Cardinal conspire in the lay brother's downfall, holding it as one of the conditions of the grant that Cardinal perform the marriage ceremony. Having turned over the money in one lump sum—two billion dollars—Alice, Lawyer, and Butler, another one of her lovers, cast off Julian and change residences.

Julian cannot realize that there are two different Alices and that he marries only one of them. There is Miss Alice who abandons him, and there is Tiny Alice whom he loves vicariously through the former. Only Miss Alice exists in real life, but Julian confuses her with her double, the doll house miniature whence the play's title is taken. Tiny Alice appeals to Julian as offering all the wealth, taste, and sexual gratification he could never enjoy in the Church. However, the Alice with whom Julian has to reckon, Miss Alice, is venial and changeable in affection: she can fulfill his dream only on a temporary basis. Since he, on the other hand, thinks he has bargained for a permanent relationship—marriage no less— Miss Alice becomes a counterfeit of the woman he tries to love: "have done with forgery, Julian," Miss Alice implores, "accept what's real. I am the … illusion" (III, p. 167). At the same time what is real to him, as he becomes blinded to all except love, shrinks to the model, the miniature image which is unchanging. Cleaving to his ideal, Tiny Alice becomes the only reality Julian is willing to acknowledge. To show how fully Julian feels her presence at the end, the doll symbolically comes to life: Tiny Alice shadows the stage, and we hear her heartbeat.

Albee makes quite a toy of the model. Assuming Julian's point of view, he would have us believe that the model is not a replica of the castle, but the other way around. In it is another model, and in that yet another, ad infinitum. Although Miss Alice says that there are little people running around inside the model, she is jesting. The game of receding mirrors, whereby reality is reflected on ever-smaller levels, is to be taken seriously only when applied to Julian, as when he discovers the fire in the chapel first in the model. This incident of the fire is not explained at the time and is certain to mystify the audience. But perhaps that is Albee's wish—to tease us just enough that we are led to question the nature of reality in this play, and therefore put on the alert for answers that come later, which otherwise we might miss.

The purpose of the model is to give a concrete diagram of a similar abstracting process at work in each character. Just as the model is patterned after some ultimate reality, each character represents something larger than himself. Tiny Alice is abstracted from Miss Alice as only one part of her. Lawyer is an emissary of Miss Alice, Julian of Cardinal, and Cardinal of the Church. Beyond that, Lawyer, according to Butler, is "acting like the man you wish you were" (II, p. 100), and Cardinal "has to wear a face" (II, p. 102), hiding behind ecclesiastical pomp. During Act Two, Scene One, Butler plays Lawyer, and Lawyer interprets Cardinal. What happens in these instances is that reality separates from replica. To mistake replica for reality, as Julian does, is to live in illusion.

Unlike Lawyer, Julian cannot learn "never to confuse the representative of a… thing with the thing itself (I, p. 39). Instead, Julian invests it with an untrue reality. He imputes to Miss Alice an ideal of purity which longer exposure to her soon undercuts. This error in perception may be one to which all divines are subject, for Cardinal is also said to worship "the symbol and not the substance" (II, p. 105). Since God is ineffable, an old argument goes, all we can know are His manifestations. Although Cardinal repeats Julian's mistake, he survives where the lay brother fails because he is worldly enough not to confuse business with Church. But Julian attempts to retain his faith and thinks it is part of God's plan for him to marry Alice. He cannot see that in reality he turns away from the Church and establishes Tiny Alice as his new deity. Not knowing that the two dei-ties, old and new, are incompatible, he worships the new in the language of the old. Hence the infusion of Christian imagery in the death scene, where Julian positions himself in a crucifixion and calls: "Alice? alice? my god, why hast thou forsaken me?" (III, p. 189).

Julian's Christian role must not be over-emphasized. To a degree, he stands for the Paschal Lamb: he has been sacrificed by the Church for Alice's dowry—"the greatest marriage settlement in history" (III, p. 146). But if he is Christ, he is Christ married to Tiny Alice and condemned to serve as priest at her shrine, the model beside which he dies. Until the moment of his death, he refuses to accept this priest-hood; death is required to make it insistent upon him that he has meanwhile been living in illusion.

After Tiny Alice Albee wrote A Delicate Balance. Each of its two contrasting couples, Agnes and Tobias, Edna and Harry, confuse what they fear with what will come to pass; they assume the worst and act on the basis of their expectations. Their response is thus in excess of the circumstances calling it forth, or in other words based upon a warped sense of reality. Comedy is the natural result, as characters seem to react too violently. In this respect the two couples are intended to parallel one another. Agnes says, "we see ourselves repeated by those we bring into it all, either by mirror or rejection, honor or fault" (II, p. 82); and Edna concludes, "Our lives are … the same" (III, p. 166).

In the same problem that rocks the Blooms' marriage in Joyce's Ulysses, Agnes and Tobias have lost a son whose death is so fixed in their minds that they are afraid to risk another pregnancy. As a consequence they sleep alone, Tobias sequestered upstairs where he practices masturbation. Edna and Harry are similarly impelled to irrational action, though theirs is much more comic. As they sit around their house, a nameless terror descends upon them. They do not know why they are frightened, only that they suddenly want to be with friends. The ensuing visit shows the vacuity of these people, their tendency toward unsupported fiction, but, more importantly, hints at the metaphysical condition of modern man: in an age of anxiety, as Auden calls it, we are aware of impending doom, but never know what form it will take, whether that of the bomb, or reversion to an id mentality, where our darkest fears, without warning, become the reality in which we live.

Once sheltered in their friends' house, Edna and Harry are thrown into conflict with Julia over the possession of her bedroom. This situation gives rise to speculation about who belongs there in the first place and by what right. Tobias attempts to render an answer in his long climatic speech. Harry and Edna, he reasons, are intruders. Their forty-year friendship may have grown to love, but even it has limits. He does not want the intruders, but they must stay, because he is duty-bound to be hospitable. The balancing of these contradictions is Tobias' contribution to the "balancing act" (II, p. 83) of Agnes, and as counterpoise to her, yet another balance.

Agnes, helpmeet that she is, tries to offset the problems in her marriage by maintaining an outward show of calmness: "There is a balance to be maintained, after all, though the rest of you teeter, unconcerned, or uncaring, assuming you're on level ground… though that is hardly so" (II, pp. 81-82). What she tries to steady is pretense of normal life in a family whose members submerge their truths, as her sister Claire says, and have their sunsets on troubled water. The water has been troubled since Teddy's death, which creates an"unreal time" (II, p. 101) for Agnes. She doubts that she loves or is loved, or'that Teddy had ever lived at all" (II, p. 102). Tobias is "racked with guilt" (III, p. 139), and ever since their marriage has been fraught with pain. The long-term effect on her by the time the play opens, is to threaten her with madness. But here too she maintains a delicate balance.

The borderline between reality and illusion is much more firmly drawn in this play than in Albee's earlier work. The child that George and Martha made up really exists this time. Despite what she may think, Agnes is never in any danger of going mad; Claire may be addicted to drinking, but she knows that she is and places no great reliance on the Alcoholics Anonymous as the solution to her problems. Characters still labor under a distorted apprehension of reality, but no longer is their distortion caused by formulating private fictions. Whereas illusion before had to be purged, now there is no formal exorcism; the intruders leave of their own accord, and, purely for want of a bedroom in the crowded house, Tobias ends his siege of sterility. On these counts A Delicate Balance may be thought to find a proximity with reality missing in Albee's earlier work.

The disjunction between reality and illusion has been a continuing theme in Albee, despite his belief that "I don't pay much attention to how plays relate thematically to each other."12 In each play examined the theme of reality and illusion is, willy-nilly, articulated by the play as a whole, yet diffused throughout the work in individual details which parallel the major conflict: Honey's hysterical pregnancy, Julian's experience in the asylum, or the way Jerry's landlady relives what never happened are examples. The major conflict typically involves characters reluctant to face the self in its pettiness and lack of fulfillment; dodging personal problems, they retreat to an Apollonian realm of illusion, from which a Dionysiac annihilation must return them. Albee is reported to have rejected the argument which O'Neill develops in The Iceman Cometh that life-illusions are necessary. After viewing a performance of the play, he said that O'Neill had made a strong case for illusion, but that truth is better to live with.13

The need to correct different modes of self-evasion deter-mines not only the burden of each play, but Albee's overall development as a playwright. The Apollonian paradise felicitated in The American Dream is demolished in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and in Tiny Alice, with The Zoo Story acting as prologue to the search for meaningful reality and A Delicate Balance as epilogue in which that reality is, in some measure, found.


1Quoted in Louis Calta's report of Albee's press conference, New York Times, March 23,1965, p. 33.

2Stated in an interview with William Flanagan, "Edward Albee: The Art of the Theatre," Paris Review, 39 (1966), p. 103.

3Preface to The American Dream (New York, 1961), p. 8. This and the following editions are cited only by act and page reference hereafter: The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox (New York, 1960); Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (New York, 1962); Tiny Alice (New York, 1965); A Delicate Balance (New York, 1966).

4His adaptations do not belong to this discussion, for Albee is a relatively faithful adapter, and there is little point in reflecting on him what is already fully developed in his source. In the interest of condensation, I have similarly excluded The Death of Bessie Smith. The dreaming nurse there—"sick of the disparity between things as they are, and as they should be" (p. 124)—is less Albee's quarry than is racism.

5Quoted in T. B. Morgan, "Angry Playwright in Soft Spell," Life, May 26, 1967, p. 93.

6The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Francis Golffing (New York, 1956), p. 145.


8Ibid., p. 24.

9This is the way I read the play. Michael E. Rutenberg includes "Two Interviews with Edward Albee" as an appendix to Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest (1969; rpt. New York, 1970), in which Albee says that George and Martha "are always totally aware that they are dealing with a myth and not reality" (p. 235). In the opinion of Daniel McDonald, "Truth and Illusion in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Renascence, 17 (Winter 1964), 63-69, each of the four characters is constantly forming new illusions. Ruth Meyer, "Language: Truth and Illusion in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," ETJ, 20 (March 1968), p. 69, believes that there is "no clear cut distinction between truth and illusion in the play."

10See, for example, Rutenberg, pp. 111-126; Richard E. Amacher, Edward Albee (New York, 1969), pp. 130-153; Mary Elizabeth Campbell, "The Statement of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice," Papers on Language & Literature, 4 (Winter 1968), 85-99; C. W. E. Bigsby, "Cunouser and Cunouser: Edward Albee and the Great God Reality," Modern Drama, 10 (Dec. 1967), 258-266; William F. Lucey. "Albee's Tiny Alice: Truth and Appearance," Renascence, 21 (Winter 1969), 76-80, 110.

11R. S. Stewart, "John Gielgud and Edward Albee Talk about the Theatre," Atlantic, 215 (April 1965), p. 68.

12Ibid., p. 64.

13Quoted in Lee Baxandall, "The Theatre of Albee," rpt. in The Modern American Theatre, ed Alvin B. Kernan (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1967), p. 92.

Nelvin Vos (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Process of Dying in the Plays of Edward Albee," in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, March, 1973, pp. 80-85.

[In the essay below Vos examines Albee's treatment of death in his plays.]

In Edward Albee's play of 1967, Everything in the Garden, one of the major characters comments:

You should have been in London in the war. You would have learned about death … and violence … All those nights in the shelters, with the death going on. Death and dying. Always take the former if you can.

Albee has not been following this advice in his own dramaturgy, for his plays, culminating in his most recent contribution, All Over, have centered largely on the process of dying.

The settings, characters, and actions of his plays are haunted by death, both natural and violent. Indeed, as Ruby Cohn has commented, "the shadow of death darkens all Albee's plays."1 In the presence of "the death going on," the real self is made visible, for illusions are unmasked at this moment. Human freedom may become aware of its limitations, and therefore self-knowledge may be achieved. To confront death therefore becomes frequently the encounter with terror and sometimes the arrival at rest and peace.


"Is he dead?" asks the wife as All Over begins. We are in the presence of death, but we never see the dying husband who is behind the hospital screen. Therefore we must concentrate on those who have come to wait out the ritual of his dying: his wife, his mistress, his son and daughter, his best friend, a doctor, and a nurse. The New York production with its cold spotlights and brilliant metallic furniture accurately conveyed the atmosphere of a high black vault, for both the characters onstage and the audience are participating in a deathwatch.

But the various characters, just as we in the audience, view the ritual of the deathwatch in different ways. The Best Friend relies on tradition:

It is more or less required that you be …I think: here. Family. Isn't it one of our customs? that if a man has not outlived his wife and children—will not outlive them … they gather?

The daughter in her cynicism comments that the mass media has brought out a small crowd: "the kind of crowd you'd get for a horse with sunstroke, if it were summer.… They're lounging, nothing better to do, and if it weren't night and a weekend, I doubt they'd linger." In reply, the Nurse focusses, as the entire play does, on the process of dying: "That's the final test of fame, isn't it, the degree of it: which is newsworthy, the act of dying itself, or merely the death." With the Kennedys and with King, she continues, the public was cheated, and possessed a kind of anger at having missed the dying. Only in Pope John's dying could one"share," for in those "two weeks of the vilest agony," the confrontation with death became a meaningful experience for the public. In the encounter with death within this play, the Mistress and particularly the Wife become more aware of their own limitations. The Mistress asks tentatively at the beginning of the play, "This is … ritual, is it not?" and later asserts: "You can't suffer with a man because he'd dead; his dying, yes. The only horror in participating is … well, another time." The suffering horror is revealed in the Wife's confes sion at the end: "All we've done … is think about our-selves." She realizes that she is unwilling to sacrifice:

Selfless love? I don't think so; we love to be loved, and when it's taken away… then why not rage…or pule. All we've done is think about ourselves. Ultimately.

Each of the characters is dead to every other; the failure of love is a form of dying, as Albee declared in a New York Times interview:

… I write plays about how people waste their lives. The people in this play [All Over] have not lived their lives; that's what they're screaming and crying about.2

Indeed, the expected last line of the play, "All over," encapsulates the drama: the husband has died, the news of his passing will be broadcast all over, and most of all, for the characters and the audience the ritual of participation in dying has concluded.


Albee's plays have frequently concentrated their action in a ritual of deathwatch with a priest, actual or incognito, as officiant. In All Over, the Doctor rather self-consciously comments: "I'm rather like a priest: you have me for the limits, for birth and dying, and for the minor cuts and scratches in between."

The earlier play, The Sandbox, in its brief action portrays an embryonic and more satirical version of All Over. The sandbox is Grandma's grave, Mommy and Daddy hire a musician to contribute to the rite, and the Young Man in his calisthenics and in his comforting words to dying Grandma assumes the role of a benediction-giving priest. Grandma is vivacious even while dying, but the inauthentic existence of Mommy and Daddy has not been touched at all. They have been playing funeral; they have not actually participated in the ritualistic process of dying. Only spectators, they leave with the same indifference and blindness with which they arrived.

After Jack's murder by his friends in Everything in the Garden, Albee's stage directions indicate "This is a wake and the ladies have sorrow on their faces. " Only Jenny is disturbed by the cold-blooded murder which was committed to keep the truth quiet; the others remain detached. By the end of the drama, Jenny too is objectively insisting that the garden in which Jack has been buried should be "well planted and taken care of; kept up. I think it should look like all the others. Don't you think so?" The corruption of values has made their existence a living lie.

In two of Albee's plays, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tiny Alice, a character playing the role of a priest is central to the core of the drama. George's intonation of a Requiem Mass indicates a ritualistic burial of the illusory son. The sacrifice of the child as a scapegoat ("the poor lamb," says Martha) to exorcise the evil spirit of illusion is the last game George initiates: "We're going to play this one to the death." Martha at first refuses to participate in the burial ritual; however, she engages in a confession simultaneous with George's Latin phrases: "I have tried, oh God I have tried. …" Nick and Honey are primarily passive spectators to this event, but later Honey does come forth with a Latin response to George's litany, and Nick comments:"Jesus Christ, I think I understand this." Out of this process of dying, purgation and purification emerge. The sacrificial death of the son brings atonement and reconciliation at dawn on a Sunday morning.

Julian in Tiny Alice is actually a lay brother, but he had always wanted to be a priest, and within the drama he performs the roles both of officiant and sacrifice. Albee suggested to John Gielgud, who played the title role in the New York production, that Julian is "the innocent coming into this rather extraordinary assemblage of people."3 He would have become a priest, but he could not reconcile his idea of God with the god men create in their own image. The Butler accurately tells Julian: "You are of the cloth but have not taken it"; Julian is not yet ready to die to the world. His religious struggle is now put to the test when he is brought to the castle of Miss Alice.4 His "special priesthood," as his cardinal pointed out to him, is with Alice, the unseen abstract being, and he is to be sacrificed to her. Although he had always hungered for such a vocation ("I have … dreamed of sacrifice," and later,"oh, martyrdom. To be that. To be able … to be that"), he cannot accept it when it is offered to him. He is torn, as Albee explained in his speech at the Billy Rose Theatre following the opening of the play, "between the selflessness of service and the conspicuous splendor of martyrdom."5 In his hesitation, the Lawyer mortally wounds Julian with a pistol. When all exit, the audience is left alone to participate in Julian's dying on his wed-ding day:

I have never dreamed of it, never imagined what it would be like. I have—oh, yes—dwelt (Laughs at the word) …dwelt… on the fact of it, the … principle, but I have not imagined dying. Death … yes. Not being, but not the act of… dying?

To dream of sacrifice may be consoling, but to imagine dying is to face the possibility of nothingness. As he dies, throwing out his arms to receive Alice, his form is in the position of a crucifixion. In his final self-delusion, Julian creates and believes in what he knows does not exist. He has sacrificed himself to a god created by man in his own image. He has died for nothing. m


To give one's life for another, the action of sacrificial love, has certainly been one of the major motifs in Albee's dramatizations of the process of dying. In The Zoo Story, Peter's murder of Jerry finds its source in Peter's earlier indifference and coldness towards others. Jerry, however, has staged his own act of dying; it is an action of passion; his suicide is transformed into an act of martyrdom. At the cost of his own life, Jerry causes Peter to become aware of man's universal animality ("You're an animal, too") in order to rescue Peter's humanity. Peter is awakened from his spiritual deadness, and Jerry has arrived at the place he desired amid his restlessness: "You have comforted me. Dear Peter." Although both are, as Julian was in Tiny Alice, in a God-forsaken plight at the end ("Oh my God!"), both have gone "a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly"; they have arrived at a perception of what it means to face death.

But the opposite of sacrificial love has also intrigued Albee. Not to be willing to give one's self to another implies an indifference and hate which leads to murder. Ironically, the murder in Everything in the Garden is committed by the very women who earlier were very willing to give them-selves to another in prostitution. In The Death of Bessie Smith, the neglect of hospital employees, according to Albee's interpretation, contributed to the death of the singer. The Nurse tells Bessie's chauffeur, "you wait! You just sit down and wait!," and meanwhile Bessie bleeds to death. All of these ordinary people are caught in their own predicaments, and the failure of love (whether the love of the Nurse for her father, the Intern, and the Orderly, or the love of one's neighbor) leads to death.

The relationship of the failure of love and the terror of death is the core of A Delicate Balance. Harry and Edna, coming for shelter and comfort to their neighbors, Tobias and Agnes, insist that fear has overwhelmed them:

Harry: It was like being lost: very young again, with the dark, and lost. There was no … thing … to be … frightened of, but…

Edna: we were frightened … and there was nothing.

The terror to be faced is the darkness of death, nothingness itself. The household of Agnes and Tobias does not respond to this plea; the inhabitants, as someone has suggested, are "Bad Samaritans." Indeed, in playful conversational inter-change, which nevertheless has meaningful nuances, Claire suggests that Tobias kill his wife, Agnes recommends that Claire kill herself, and Claire later flippantly asks, "Why don't you die?" When the distraught daughter of Agnes and Tobias enters the room with a pistol, she is putting into action the deep hatred verging on murder present in the entire household. Clear-sighted Claire's perceptivity, as usual, is accurate:

"Love" is not the problem. You love Agnes and Agnes loves Julia and Julia loves me and I love you. We all love each other; yes we do. We love each other.… Yes; to the depths of our self-pity and our greed. What else but love?

As she cynically remarks later, "I tell ya, there are so many martyrdoms here." But no one lives or dies for another; instead the play conveys the death of marital love (the daughter's past four marriages, the disintegrating marriages of Agnes and Tobias and of Harry and Edna), the death of family love, and the death of friendship. Agnes' response to Tobias' story of the cat he had killed represents the larger action of the play: "Well, what else could you have done? There was nothing to be done; there was no … meeting between you." Death has conquered love in this drama.


Not only in the relationship of neighbors, but more especially in the relationship of parents and children, Albee portrays the lack of love which leads to death. Mommy and Daddy place Grandma in the sandbox as if she were an animal. In The American Dream, Mommy and Daddy not only continue their cold indifference to Grandma, but they have emasculated their son. When his twin arrives as the American Dream, Grandma, who possesses the enduring and pioneer convictions of an authentic American Dream, leaves. Questioned about Grandma's leaving, Albee replied that her dying is really a departure "from a form of life that is a great deal more dead than anything else. I guess I meant her specifically to die, but not in the sense that we understand die; to move out of the death within life situation that everybody else in that play was in."6 Amid the sterility of the household with its worship of materialistic values, Grandma's authentic existence—symbolized by her omniscience—contrasts sharply with the life-lie of the rest of the family.

The death of a son and its influence on the parents' love of one another figures prominently in two of Albee's plays. In A Delicate Balance, Agnes comments about their son's death: "It was an unreal time: I thought Tobias was out of love with me—or, rather, was tired of it, when Teddy died, as if that had been the string." The result of this alienation between the couple is described by Agnes as "Such … silent… sad, disgusted… love."

Although, as Ruby Cohn has indicated, "death lies like a sediment in Martha's gin, Nick's bourbon, Honey's brandy, and mainly George's 'bergin'"7 in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the lacerating dialogue and figurative acts of murder lead to a renewal of love. As Martha recalls the time she knocked down George in a wrestling match, George's sudden appearance with a short-barreled shotgun which opens into a colorful Chinese parasol indicates his murderous intent. "You? … Kill me? … That's a laugh," comments Martha to which George replies, "Well, now, I might … some day." Later, George while grabbing Martha's throat shouts, "i'll kill you!" to which Martha responds, "Murderer. Mur … der … er." George's destruction of the fantasy of the son does kill part of Martha and part of himself; it has been their joint creation. Suicide, premeditated homicide, and martyrdom are all intermingled in this mercy killing. The child born of the mind for secret pleasure is killed by an act of the will for public suffering, and the birthday upon which he assumes manhood becomes his death day. As told by George, the cause of the son's death occurred in the identical manner in which he earlier had recounted the accident of killing his father: "He was … killed… late in the afternoon … on a country road, with his learner's permit in his pocket, he swerved, to avoid a porcupine, and drove straight into a… large tree." George as son and as father therefore is himself dying in this act of self-sacrificial love. By symbolically eating the telegram containing the news of the son's death, George is perhaps performing a eucharistic sacramental act.8 Later, one of Martha's stage directions reads "a hint of communion in this. " All this appears to fulfill George's prophecy that "… it's going to make your performance tonight look like an Easter pageant." Out of this cauldron of suffering, the son's death leads to the resurrection of those present. The sacrifice, in the word's etymology, has once more, if only for a moment, "made holy" the relationship of marital love.

In the ritual of death therefore, whether as a participant in the dying of another or in encounter with death itself, one is attempting, as Northrop Frye suggests, "to recapture a lost rapport with the natural cycle."9 One could add that the ritual of death in Albee's plays also attempts to recapture a lost rapport with other men, both family and neighbors, intimates and strangers.


Existential philosophy has reminded us that in the encounter with death, man faces the mystery of Being and Nothingness. Death brings man to the threshold of authentic existence; death is all over, universal as well as conclusive. In such a spirit, Tolstoy in his old age could say to Gorky: "If a man has learned to think, no matter what he may think about, he is always thinking of his own death."10 So, too, Albee at age forty-three could say in a New York Times interview: "I had an awareness of death when I was 15, but I turned 36 or 37 before I became aware that /, Edward Albee, was going to die. The realization did not fill me with dread. I simply became aware of the fact that this is the only time around for me."11 These two quotations play counterpoint to a conversation in All Over:

The Wife: How old were you when you became aware of death?

The Best Friend: Well … what it meant, you mean. The age we all become philosophers—fifteen?

The Wife: No , no, when you were aware of it for yourself, when you knew you were at the top of the roller-coaster ride, when you knew half of it was probably over and you were on your way to it.

To become aware that dying is a process which involves one's self is to gain self-knowledge.

Sharing this theme, but not the tone, with the continental absurdist playwrights, Albee's plays center on the action of a wake/funeral as does Genet's The Blacks, on the haunting presence of the absent one as does Waiting for Godot, on the suicide-martyrdom of Ionesco's The Chairs and The Lesson, and on the birthday as death day in Pinter's The Birthday Party. And most of all, in his latest play, Albee has transformed Ionesco's portrayal of the encounter with death in The Killer and particularly the process of dying in Exit the King into an American setting with little of the surrealism which marks most of the absurd plays. What direction Albee will next take in his journey toward death remains to be seen in his future plays.


1Edward Albee, University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, No. 77 (Minneapolis, 1969), p. 44.

2The New York Times, April 18, 1971.

3"John Gielgud and Edward Albee Talk about the Theater," The Atlantic Monthly, April 1965, p. 68.

4For a discussion of Tiny Alice as a morality play in which Julian is tempted by the World (the Butler), the Flesh (Miss Alice), and the Devil (the Lawyer), see Mary Elizabeth Campbell, "The Tempters in Albee's Tiny Alice," Modern Drama, XIII (May, 1970), 22-33.

5Cited in The Playwrights Speak ed. Walter Wager (New York, 1967), p. 34.

6Cited in Michael E. Rutenberg, Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest (New York, 1969), p. 74.

7Cohn,p. 17.

8For an interpretation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which develops the play's mythic relationships to Easter, see Rictor Norton, "Folklore and Myth in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Renascence, 23 (1971), 159-167.

9Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York, 1963), p. 15.

10Cited in William Barrett, Irrational Man (Garden City, 1958) p. 145.

11The New York Times, April 18, 1971.

Catharine Hughes (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee," in American Playwrights: 1945-75, Pitman Publishing, 1976, pp. 52-63.

[In the essay that follows, Hughes presents a largely negative appraisal of Albee's works.]

Almost from the moment of his first New York production, The Zoo Story (1960), Edward Albee has been regarded as the most 'promising' American playwright since the Williams-Miller generation. With Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), the hopes and hosannas increased. Since, there has been mainly disappointment, a series of plays that fell short of effectiveness interspersed with adaptations of other writers' works. Was Albee, then, yet another flash-inthe-pan, a one-play playwright destined to the same fate as Inge, Anderson and all too many others? It would be easy to concur. Yet Albee (born in 1928) is still in his forties. His two most recent plays, All Over (1971) and Seascape (1975), while not successful on the level of Virginia Woolf, are among his most ambitious.

The Zoo Story takes place in Central Park. It is summer; it is the present and Peter is smoking a pipe, peacefully reading a book, when he is approached by Jerry. He is exactly what he appears to be: a young publishing executive (salary $18,000); one wife, two daughters, two cats, two parakeets and an apartment in Manhattan's East Seventies. He has, in short, all the prerequisites for a character in the Sloan Wilson grey-flannel-suit novels of the period.

Albee sets his theme early: Jerry tells Peter, 'I don't talk to many people—except to say like: give me a beer, or where's the john, or what time does the feature go on … You know—things like that.… But every once in a while I like to talk to somebody, really talk.'

Who does talk to many people? Peter is bewildered by the seeming lack of communication; yet communication, for him, exists only in the realm of the inconsequential. Repeated attempts by Jerry leave him only indifferent, visibly resentful that his afternoon's relaxation has been interrupted by this somewhat unkempt young man. He is unwilling to become involved on any level save the most superficial. With something as important as an argument over who has proprietary rights to the park bench, everything is clear, is on the surface, safe. In trivia there is no necessity for involvement: it is detached from such dangerous areas as the human heart.

The Zoo Story marks the beginning of what has been, to a large extent, Albee's continuing theme. In it, Jerry and Peter 'make contact' only in the play's melodramatic conclusion. Before that, there is the story of Jerry and the dog: for Jerry it is an all-important encounter, one in which he is able to see not only his own tragedy, but the tragedy of an entire generation; for Peter only a somewhat disturbing diversion, one to which he can close his mind. The dog, obviously intended as some form of universal symbol, yet touchingly believable, each day meets Jerry in the hall, then attacks him. One day, Jerry tells Peter, he reached his decision: 'First, I'll kill the dog with kindness, and if that doesn't work … I'll just kill him.' After an unsuccessful attempt to poison the animal, Jerry discovers that 'I had tried to love, and I had tried to kill, and both had been unsuccessful by themselves. … I hoped that the dog would understand'.

'Don't you see?' he asks Peter, 'a person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING. If not with people … something.' And, after a long series of 'things', he concludes: '… with God who, I'm told, turned his back on the whole thing some time ago … with … someday, with people. People.'

Peter is seemingly uncomprehending throughout Jerry's entire long soliloquy. He reacts at the proper moments, of course: wincing at the proposed killing of the dog, but scoffing at the idea of 'contact' between Jerry and the dog. One really is not surprised at his 'I don't understand', for it has become obvious that Jerry expects too much when he seeks someone either to share or comprehend his own experience. Words alone cannot convey it. Peter and, by extension, most of modern man, is incapable perhaps, but more frequently unwilling, just as Jerry and the dog were ultimately unwilling: 'We regard each other with a mixture of sadness and suspicion', Jerry says, 'and then we feign indifference. We walk past each other safely; we have an understanding.… The dog and I have attained a compromise; more of a bargain, really. We neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach each other.'

'i don't want to hear any more', Peter shouts. Indeed, he does not. For Jerry has come far too close to reaching him; has touched on a problem not merely his own, but that of every man. And so the return to trivia; to the parakeets and, eventually, to the bench dispute and the play's violent ending, wherein Jerry, forcing Peter into an open 'fight', asks him: 'Don't you have any idea, not even the slightest, what other people need?' His conclusion, excessively melo-dramatic though it is, is effectively reached when Jerry, having finally aroused Peter, forces a knife upon him, then impales himself on it.

In The American Dream (1961), Albee's leit motif assumes the form of comedy. Incisively satiric, bitingly ironic, the opening exchange between Mommy and Daddy—which occupies several minutes—is over so important, so earth-shaking, a point as the colour of Mommy's new hat; whether it is wheat-coloured or beige. It is the only level on which Mommy and Daddy attempt conversation; a conversation as empty, as meaningless, as the symbolic empty gilt picture frame that hangs over their sofa. It is not merely funny—perhaps not really funny at all. It is the tragedy of two human beings, the daily occupants of each other's world, who really exist without each other, yet attempt to love what they do not know. Albee has written that the names of the two characters are terms of 'empty affection and point up the pre-senility and vacuity of their characters'. It is this vacuity—and the vacuity of 'the American dream'—that absorbs him.

When a Mrs Barker comes into their home—she knows not exactly why, nor do they—she becomes part of Albee's world. A 'professional woman', she is involved in so many Good Works that she cannot keep them separated. Which of her committees, which of her Responsible Citizens Activities, has brought her there? She is the typical socialite, pursuing her works of 'charity' on alternate Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And for what reason; for any motivation beyond filling in time? This is never verbally posed or answered, and perhaps it is just as well. Albee prob-ably comes closest to it when he has Mommy inquire, 'Are you sure you're comfortable? Won't you take off your dress?' 'I don't mind if I do', Mrs Barker replies. One then wonders, amid the empty picture frames and the 'empty' boxes, whether, in the world of Albee's American Dream, anything is what it appears to be. The handsome young man who next comes to the apartment looking for work obviously is not. He describes himself: 'I no longer have the capacity to feel anything. I have no emotion; I have been drained; torn asunder… disemboweled. I have, now, only my person … my body … my face.… As I told you; I am incomplete. I can feel nothing. And so … here I am … as you see me. I am but this … what you see. And it will always be thus.'

Is this, then, the American Dream? Possessor of great surface values, yet empty inside, something sought after, yet, when found, unworthy of the seeking? Albee's Young Man, virile, handsome, seemingly the personification of the American ideal, yet a hollow man; illusory, a goal—a dream—which Albee seems to view as, not so much beyond attaining, but as not worth having once achieved. For the surface—the glitter, the chrome, whatever—is not the reality. Whatever else is said, however disarmingly or fantastically some of it is couched, there is always the American Dream—and it is always not exactly what it has appeared.

If there is any one thing that dominates both The American Dream and The Zoo Story, it is probably this: in a society seeking only the personal comfort, the status and the convenience of the material moment, human involvement, human sensitivities, must be ignored. Peter on the park bench denies Jerry's need; the Young Man's identical twin was once cruelly repudiated, spiritually and physically dismembered by 'Mommy' and 'Daddy'. All wish to inhabit their own private world; all wish, most of all, to avoid reaching that point at which they might begin to know, to experience, some share of another's agony.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee brings that agony scorchingly to the surface. Nearly three and a half hours long, the play is a prolix indictment of contemporary society's frequent inability to distinguish illusion from reality, surface from essence. But it is more than that. The love-hate relationship of the middle-aged faculty couple, George and Martha, as it is hurled out in the presence of a younger couple, is a cascading torrent of expletives, vulgarity and imposed 'shock' effects (at least for its time). For all this—and its frequent transparency—Virginia Woolf is almost un-questionably the major theatrical experience provided by an American writer of Albee's generation. It shakes and excoriates, accuses and excuses, with an abandon and consistency seldom seen on recent American stages.

The 'Fun and Games' of Act 1 begin at 2 a.m. Nick and his young wife, Honey, have joined George and Martha for that they think will be a nightcap. What it turns into is an evening from which neither couple can emerge unchanged. In their liquor-sodden discontent, George and Martha cast aside the conventional banality of much modern conversation. Having long since discovered that to love is also to hurt, they carry their realization to its ultimate form. Martha is the daughter of the college president; George is the supposed faculty failure, the man for whom the bright future once envisioned has turned to the ashes of frustration. As they attack each other on this and other questions from the past, a present emerges. It is in this present that Virginia Woolf oversteps itself in its reliance upon a plot thread finally too flimsy to sustain the surface brilliance of its first two acts.

George and Martha have a son—or so they tell Nick and Honey. He is essential to their relationship, imperative to their need to rail each other for their respective failures with him. Yet, George warns her, 'Just don't start the bit, the bit about the kid'. In a sense, he is an echo of the Young Man in The American Dream. Frequent allusions to him provide much of the forward momentum in an otherwise largely plotless drama. When, in 'The Exorcism' of Act 3, it finally becomes apparent that he is, after all, illusory, the imaginary creature of their childless marriage, the play suffers from what borders on a reductio ad absurdum. In tying together the pieces, Albee has—as have so many before him—imposed a conclusion which is fundamentally artificial. It is more than merely artificial; it is melodrama tagged on to something inherently literal, tinsel as the appendage of realism. For George, in his revenge on Martha, his desire to win this 'game' they play, decides to 'kill' their imaginary son. Over this death of illusion he reads, in Latin, the prayers for the dead. Martha cries out that he cannot do it; cannot make this decision alone, but she pleads in vain. 'It will be better', George tells her. The illusions by and for which we live are fragile, Albee suggests, waiting only for the word by which they topple. That the word is not more frequently spoken is a testimony only to our civilized pretence, our power of self-deception. Were we to cut through them to a kind of ultimate and impossible honesty, foundations would alter, a world would be changed. Or, as George reminds Honey: 'When people can't abide things as they are, when they can't abide the present, they do one of two things … either they turn to a contemplation of the past as I have done, or they set about to … alter the future. And when you want to change something … you bang! bang! bang! bang! bang!'

In the flagellation and self-flagellation, the anguish and peculiar kind of love of George and Martha, Albee unleashes a verbal avalanche. Repetitive and excessive, it is frequently also moving and startlingly evocative. There remain, however, moments in which Albee's self-indulgence causes one to pause. The achievement of Virginia Woolf was a distinctly relative one. In saying, as one critic did, that it towered 'over the common run of contemporary plays', how much really had been said?

'Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference, eh, toots?' George demands of young Nick. 'Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference', Martha insists to George. 'No,' he responds, 'but we must carry on as though we did.' So they do, in their shared final agony over the 'death' of the child they could not have, the child George insists they had to'kill'.

With Tiny Alice (1964) Albee continued to be controversial, but added an element of pretentiousness and calculated obscurantism, a pseudo-Cocktail Party atmosphere, that resulted in a deservedly brief Broadway run.

A lawyer who once attended school with the Cardinal, where they were ardent antagonists, arrives representing a client who wants to give $100,000,000 to the Church 'now' and 'the same amount each year for the next twenty'. She is 'overburdened with wealth'. It is one of several 'bequests—arrangements' she (Miss Alice) is making at the moment: to Protestants, to Jews, to Catholics, to hospitals, to universi-ties, to orchestras, to 'revolutions here and there'.

Brother Julian, the Cardinal's secretary, is to be sent to take care of the 'odds and ends'. He is, the Cardinal says, 'an old friend of ours', a lay brother.

In Miss Alice's mansion is a 'huge doll's house model of the building of which the present room is a part. It is as tall as a man'. It is exact, 'even with tiny candlesticks on the tables'. So exact that there is a model within the model.

Miss Alice's lawyer has a dossier on Brother Julian, but it has six 'blank' years, years when he was in his thirties, and he declines to fill them in. When the lawyer is gone, how-ever, he admits to Butler, the butler, that 'I lost my faith. In God', and that he had put himself in a mental home.

When Julian first meets Miss Alice, she has a face that is 'that of a withered crone, her hair grey and white and matted; she is bent; she moves with two canes'. But he had been told that she was a young woman. Hers, however, is a disguise, a game. She tells Julian that Butler was once her lover, that the lawyer now is.

The bemused, utterly confused, Julian acknowledges: 'I imagined so many things, or … did so many things I thought I had imagined. The uncertainty … you know?' Miss Alice has what is perhaps the only feasible reply: 'Are you sure you're not describing what passes for sanity?'

Miss Alice decides he should perhaps 'move in' and thus be available to answer her questions.

As often happens, however, deliberate obscurantism becomes tedious. As Alice and the lawyer argue, the model catches fire. The chapel. But the actual chapel is on fire. When they succeed in extinguishing the fire in the house the one in the model goes out as well.

When Julian comes to stay in the house, he realizes he is being tested. Why? 'And why am I being tempted? By luxury, by ease, by …by content … by things I do not dare to discuss.' In time, he reveals his desire for martyrdom, is self-entranced when Alice suggests, 'Marry me'.

And marry they do, after further deliberate obscurantism. Then there occurs what is described as 'the ceremony of Alice', in which the 'great benefit to the Church' resulting from their marriage is alluded to. He is then told that he has married 'her', the Tiny Alice in the model. 'You are hers.' He insists he will return to the asylum, wondering whether that was when he was 'rational'.

Instead, the lawyer shoots him and, as they leave Julian goes through a long, long, long monologue in which he seems to equate Alice and God, the God who has apparently deserted him, but whose will he accepts.

Although Albee has claimed that the critics are to blame for imposing on Tiny Alice things he never intended, he is mistaken. It is a bad, and a pretentious play.

A Delicate Balance (1966), which received the Pulitzer Prize that many think should earlier have gone to Virginia Woolf, offers a marked and welcome change of pace. Like much of Pinter and the theatre of the absurd, of which Albee was at least marginally a member, it suggests a hidden, un-named element of menace, disaster lurking just outside the door, perhaps just up the stairs.

Agnes and Tobias are a well-off couple in their fifties. Her sister, Claire, whom she has railed at earlier in the evening, returns to the living room in the play's opening scene to say: 'I apologize that my nature is such to bring out in you the full force of your brutality.' Tobias suggests that she attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, but she responds with the glib sense of irony that characterizes her behaviour throughout the play: 'They were alcoholics, and I was not. … I was just a drunk. … They couldn't help it; I could, and wouldn't. … They were sick and I was merely … willful.'

Shortly thereafter, Harry and Edna, their best friends, ap-pear quite unexpectedly. Why have they come? It seems they had been sitting at home and suddenly they 'got frightened'. There was seemingly nothing to cause it, says Harry, 'but we were very scared', and could not remain there, so they have come to visit Agnes and Tobias, who put them up in their daughter Julia's room.

Julia returns home the next day, yet another marriage—her fourth—on the rocks. Harry and Edna have remained upstairs all day. They appear briefly, with their coats, but it is only to announce they are going home to pick up their things and will return. When they do, they are clearly 'moving in'.

'Edna and Harry have come to us', Agnes tells Claire and Julia, 'dear friends, our very best, though there's a judgment to be made about that, I think—have come to us and brought the plague. Now, poor Tobias has sat up all night and wrestled with the moral problem', the problem of whether they shall be permitted to remain. When Harry comes downstairs, he asks Tobias 'Do you want us here?' but only moments later, he volunteers that, in Tobias's position, he would not let them stay. Tobias, however, insists they've 'cast [their] lot together, boy, we're friends'. He cannot keep up the facade, however; he wants them to leave and finally must acknowledge it, though still insisting they remain.

Edna, however, knows that it is all over. 'It's sad to come to the end of it', she says, 'nearly the end; so much more of it gone by … than left, and still not know—still not have learned … the boundaries, what we may not do … not ask for fear of looking in a mirror. … It's sad to know you've gone through it all, or most of it, without… that … the only skin you've ever known … is your own—and that it's dry … and not warm.' And so they leave. Agnes, Claire and Tobias are left to themselves and, Agnes reflects/we'll all forget… quite soon'.

Every man, perhaps, is an island, with in the end only his own resources to draw upon, whether those resources include something known as the spiritual, a god, God—or nothing. Yet, he cannot avoid the process of life, with all it entails, or of death, even the small deaths that take place every day. It is the plague, the 'disease', that pursues him. In A Delicate Balance, an at times very funny, at others quite poignant, play, Albee alludes to all of this and makes it far more palpably believable than it was to be in either of his more recent works.

All Over (1971) is what is sometimes referred to as a 'difficult' play. A great man is dying. He is not otherwise identified; a politician perhaps; an artist or a financier. In the event, he is a celebrity. As the press and television crews lurk downstairs awaiting his death, others, too, maintain their vigil: The Wife, The Daughter, The Mistress, The Doctor, The Son, The Best Friend, The Nurse. Albee does not further identify them.

Albee is at his best when his characters are at their bitchiest. The Wife and The Mistress possess a degree of rapport. Both after all—the wife of fifty years and the mistress of twenty—love the man who is dying, bicker though they do over whether he should be cremated or buried, food for flames or food for worms. The children, middle-aged children, sulk about, failures and haters. Hated, too. Especially The Daughter, who periodically erupts in a vitriol, scorn and bitterness reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. The Best Friend and lawyer reflects—on his wife, on his former relations with the dying man's wife, on the things a deathwatch recalls—while the eighty-six-year-old Doctor and The Nurse occasionally leave their places beside the screened-off bed upstage to venture their own observations and memories.

Initially, they all speak in formalized cadences and heightened language, a dialogue that is both non-realistic and precise: 'This is what I have come to love you so little for: that you love yourself so little.' 'He said he thought not.' 'While I merely your wife of fifty years.' … 'Baleful as I suppose my gaze must have been to him.' Since this was Albee's twelfth play and he has written some of the most vibrant dialogue in the American theatre, it seems safe to assume the artificiality is intentional. It is not what Albee does best, and he does not do it well in All Over, though the language fortunately becomes somewhat more lifelike, if not really alive, as the play wears on.

The Wife talks of 'the little girl I was when he came to me' and The Mistress of her 'status' and her first love affair during a long-ago summer. The Daughter, who is incapable of love, lacerates her mother for her failure to do so; The Son, an emotional eunuch, finally becomes emotional when he details not some memory of his father's kindness or lack of it, but the unchanged contents of his bathroom.

So they continue through the play's two acts, haranguing each other, exhibiting their rancour and their venom, their sarcasm and their spleen. They seek themselves, but not within themselves. Virtually everything that emerges emerges in terms of their attempts to define themselves in relation to the dying man. It does not really work. We know no more of him when the play ends than we did in its first few moments and only marginally more of them.

'All we've done is think about ourselves. Ultimately', The Wife says as the play approaches its conclusion. There has been a great deal of talk and a great deal of surface emotion has been expended. There have been some completely riveting moments, but The Wife, The Mistress and all the rest are attempting to bring to life characters who are essentially the puppets of a playwright's vision, figures who move about speaking arias that refuse to sing, lines that refuse to resound in the vacuum of a deathwatch that ultimately has as little to say about living as about dying.

Seascape (1975) has been described, by the author, among others, as the 'life' part of a life/death play that began with All Over. Regrettably, life is one of the things it most obviously lacks.

A middle-aged couple by the names of Nancy and Charlie have been spending some time by the sea. 'Can't we just stay here forever?' she asks, for she loves the water as Charlie once did. As a boy, he wanted to live under the sea, wanted to be 'fishlike'. He used to go 'way down, and try to stay'. He would go in, 'take two stones, look up one final time at the sky … relax … begin to go down. … And one stops being an intruder, finally—just one more object come to the bottom, or living thing, part of the undulation and the silence. It was very good.'

Charlie hasn't, however, done it since he was seventeen and it has been 'too long' for him to go back again, as Nancy urges. He would rather 'remember'. He would rather do nothing. And that is precisely what they do for approximately thirty-five minutes of the first act: nothing but review their lives tediously and acrimoniously, though this acrimony has none of the acerbic bite and bitchy humour of Virginia Woolf and certainly none of the interest.

Just when tedium threatens to become numbness, two lizard-like creatures emerge from the sea. They are Sarah and Leslie and they too are apparently middle-aged (though telling a middle-aged lizard from a young lizard is clearly beyond my competence). At first, the two couples are afraid of each other, then gradually they begin to develop points of contact, are in turn aggressive, responsive, patronizing, curious. Charlie tells Nancy that what is happening is not real, that they are in fact dead from the liver paste they had at lunch. 'We ate the liver paste and we died.'

The two couples experience both harmony and conflict, things shared and things unknown to the other. What is one to make, for instance, of Nancy having had only three children, and taken care of them for twenty or more years, when Sarah has had seven hundred and abandoned them?

Albee, however, is more concerned with similarities than with differences. 'In the course of the play', he has commented in an interview, 'the evolutionary pattern is speeded up billions of revolutions.' Thus, it slowly evolves that Sarah and Leslie are, or have the potential to be, every bit as bigoted, every bit as middle-class in their values and behaviour, as Nancy and Charlie. They, however, aren't put off by blacks or 'foreigners', but by fish: 'There's too many of them; they're all over the place … moving in, taking over where you live … and they're stupid! '

Why had they come up from the sea, these two green-scaled creatures, who, at least, still enjoyed an innocence, a sense of wonder, long gone from the couple they have come upon? ' We had changed', Sarah reveals, 'all of a sudden, everything … down there … was terribly … interesting, I suppose; but what did it have to do with us anymore?' So they came up from what Charlie refers to as the 'primordial soup, the glop'. What has been going on, he tells them, is 'called flux. And it's always going on; right now, to all of us.' And maybe, he admits, he envies them, 'down there, free from it all; down there with the beasts'.

Envy or no, Charlie causes Sarah to cry at the thought that Leslie will one day die, go away forever. It is an alien concept and Leslie attempts to choke him, for Sarah has never cried before.

'It's … rather dangerous … up here', Leslie concedes/Everywhere', returns Charlie. So they decide they will go back down again. It goes almost without saying, however, that they will not, cannot; the process must go on.'You'll have to come back', advises Nancy, 'sooner or later. You don't have any choice.' And Sarah and Leslie recognize the truth of what she says, which prompts their anxiety. Nancy tells them she and Charlie could 'help'. At the curtain, Leslie has acceded: 'All right. Begin.'

As a course in very elementary Darwinism, Seascape just might have some value; as a play, it is pretentious, simplistic, verbose and banal. Albee prides himself on being a 'literary' writer, but is it literary or pretentious when Nancy advises: 'Charlie has decided that the wonders do not occur; that what we have not known does not exist; that what we cannot fathom cannot be; that the miracles, if you will, are bedtime stories; he has taken the leap offaith, from agnostic to atheist; the world is flat; the sun and the planets revolve about it, and don't row out too far or you'll fall off?

As in All Over, the writing is presumed (by the author) to be poetic and resonant, profound, when in reality it is devoid of life and artificial, the producer of inertia. In Seascape, it would seem only to confirm what has become more and more evident with the passing years: that it is to such plays as Tiny Alice, Malcolm, All Over and Seascape, not the earlier, more vital and vibrant—even more profound—Zoo Story and Virginia Woolf, that one must look for the 'real Edward Albee'. It is a sad discovery to make.

Lucina P. Gabbard (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee's Triptych on Abandonment," in Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 14-33.

[In the essay below, Gabbard explores the theme of abandonment in The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, and The Sandbox, maintaining that each is a "unique picture of abandonment…all hinged together by the shared and related themes of ambivalence, escape into fantasy, and preoccupation with death. "]

Edward Albee's earliest plays—The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, and The Sandbox—ring with rage at society's disregard for its outcasts. An adopted child himself, Albee wrote these plays in the late fifties when he was temporarily estranged from his legal parents and, thereby, transferred from wealth to near-poverty. Considering this personal closeness to the theme of abandonment, it is not surprising that his first plays express a serious concern for life's expendable ones. This concern struck a chord with the youth of the sixties who vented their own rage by fight ing for Civil Rights and protesting the Viet Nam War. In the sixties Albee's one-acts were among the most frequently performed plays on American college campuses. Jerry became the prototype of American youth, unheard by the government and abandoned to the war in Viet Nam. Bessie Smith became the symbol of the disadvantaged Blacks for whom students marched in the South. Grandma was a rallying point for youthful disenchantment with the middle-aged establishment who had rejected old folk along with young adults.

Beneath these sociological realities, however, the plays comprise a deeper unity and a more universal experience based on the psychoanalytic concepts of separation anxiety and abandonment depression. Psychiatrists James Masterson and Donald Rinsley have described a major effect of these neuroses as a feeling that life offers only two alternatives: "either to feel bad and abandoned… or to feel good … at the cost of denial of reality and self-destructive acting out."1 Each of Albee's first three plays illustrates this choice; the central figures choose fantasy and death as escapes from the hostility and despair of rejection. Indeed, the three plays form a triptych, each panel a unique picture of abandonment and all hinged together by the shared and related themes of ambivalence, escape into fantasy, and preoccupation with death.2

The Zoo Story, as its title indicates, is built on stories; and these stories, which Jerry tells to Peter, set up the psychoanalytic patterns common to all three plays. In this first play the central conflict is between Jerry, the abandoned one who seeks understanding and acceptance, and Peter, the indifferent father-figure who desires privacy and freedom from intrusion. The play reveals that Jerry has been reenacting this same conflict all his life, continuously locked into the role of outcast, locked out of love and belonging. He was only ten years old when his mother deserted him and his father for a spin with adultery and alcohol. A year later, both she and his father died within two weeks. Jerry was passed on to a dour aunt who forsook him on high school graduation day by dropping dead on their apartment stairs.3 Jerry is currently languishing in loneliness at a cheap rooming house where a hostile dog tries to forbid him entrance. He calls himself a "permanent transient" (ZS, p. 37), forever denied a home of his own. Jerry's sense of abandonment extends to heaven itself; he has tried to relate to God just as he has tried to deal with people, animals, a bed, a cockroach, a mirror, pornographic playing cards, and the "pretty little ladies" (ZS, p. 35). However, his search for the Divine is locked into the same pattern that controls all Jerry's efforts at contact. By his megalomaniac tendencies he identifies with Jesus, the son, and casts God in the role of the indifferent parent. Jerry is the anguished son drying on the cross of pain calling out, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27-47).

The image of Jerry's abandonment is intensified by his position in the deep center of a honeycomb of outcasts. Mother gave up the ghost alone in an Alabama dump after which father solitarily drowned his despair in an alcoholic binge ended by a collision with a city bus. The rooming house is a cluster of castaways: "the colored queen," the Puerto Rican family, the unseen tenant in the front room, and the crying woman (ZS, p. 33). The landlady too is isolated with her gin, her unsatisfied desire, and her infected, misused dog. In Jerry's mind, the rooming house with miserable ones confined in every cubicle is like a zoo where animals are caged behind bars. The rooming house, the zoo, society itself—each is a prison where offenders are deprived of their natural habitats and sentenced to permanent exclusion. The inmates are too lost in their own needs to answer anyone else's call. Thus, their abandonment deepens.

In their entrapment these people suffer from a combination of separation anxiety and abandonment depression. The two states can be differentiated: separation anxiety is the fear of losing the loved one or his love, while abandonment depression is the despondent aftermath of realizing this loss. Characteristically, however, the anxiety and the depression intermingle, holding the individual psyche in their double grip and blending their manifestations into indistinguish-ability. Jerry, for example, in his search for acceptance continually expresses his anxiety to Peter: "You're not angry?" (ZS, p. 26) and "You're not thinking of going are you?" (ZS, p. 29). Finally, as he dies, Jerry admits the full measure of his concern: "Oh, Peter, I was so afraid I'd drive you away. You don't know how afraid I was you'd go away and leave me" (ZS, p. 48). This fear of being left alone has spurred Jerry's constant search for contact, his effort to find a way to deal with something—"If not with people … somethings" (ZS, p. 34). But he has never been able to maintain a loving relationship. His empty picture frames are an effective symbol of the roots of his depressed and anxious state.

Catalyst to Jerry's anguish is hostility, his defense against loss of love. His hostility and his feelings of rejection create a spiraling action, one intensifying theother.4 Thus, Jerry's yearning for contact is foredoomed to failure by the hostile behavior that comes in its wake. He invariably insults and offends those whose love and attention he seeks. His speech about "the teaching emotion" echoes this pattern of response:

I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves: and I have learned that the two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion. And what is gained is loss.

(ZS, p. 36)

Jerry's words suggest an interrelationship between mother and child explained by Masterson and Rinsley. The insecure mother, threatened by her child's attempts at individuation, withdraws her emotional support and affection. Only when the child regresses to infantile behavior does she reward him again. "The twin themes (reward and withdrawal) of this interaction are subsequently introjected by the child," becoming "the leitmotif of his psychic structure. …"5 In Jerry's parlance, reward equals kindness and withdrawal equals cruelty.

Clearly, Jerry learned this equation in childhood, and his conduct both with the dog and with Peter can be construed as a paradigm of his ambivalent relationship with his parents. In the story about the dog, Jerry explains that he was so offended by the dog's snarling attacks that he decided to "kill the dog with kindness." If that failed to win acceptance, Jerry would "just kill him [the dog]" (ZS, p. 31). For kindness, Jerry offered hamburgers. The dog gobbled them up and, after a momentary smile, attacked again. Jerry counterattacked by kneading rat poison into the hamburgers. When the dog became "deathly ill" (ZS, p. 30), Jerry discovered that he loved the dog and wanted to be loved by him. After the dog's recovery, however, every confrontation was a stand-off.

Jerry's behavior with Peter follows the same pattern. Jerry has become so offended by society's rejection that he decides, while at the zoo, to make a kind, friendly overture to whomever he meets on his walk: "I would tell you things … and the things I would tell you … Well, here we are. You see?" (ZS, p. 48). When Jerry speaks these words, he lies dying; and he is flooded with love—as he was when the dog lay dying. Consequently, Jerry leaves unspoken the hateful side of his zoo plan: if the person does not give Jerry understanding and acceptance, Jerry will kill himself. Jerry throws hamburgers at Peter in the form of conversational gambits designed to make contact, friendship. Peter responds reluctantly; he even listens. In other words, he smiles momentarily. Then Peter withdraws by refusing to under-stand, and Jerry's murderous impulse is aroused. He counter-attacks. He shoves Peter off the bench and forces him to pick up the knife onto which Jerry runs. The act of violence completed, Jerry becomes loving again. He thanks Peter for his comfort and, protectively, hurries him off.

As models for Jerry's relationship with his parents, these incidents reveal the ambivalent alternation of love and anger, the recurring swing between the longing for closeness and the wish to kill. The repeated compromise is the retreat into feigned indifference where there is neither love nor hurt. Writing about early ego integration, Dr. Otto Kernberg describes a similar pattern as one of the "phases of the syndrome of maternal deprivation in infants":

The stage of initial search behavior and rage after abandonment by mother may represent the activation of the "all bad" self- and object-image, the absence of the "good mother" being equivalent to the activation of the "bad mother." The later phase of resignation, indifference, and final disappearance of the capacity for attachment may reflect the eventual deterioration of the good self-object image and the subsequent weakening of attachment behavior.6

Kernberg explains that only the mother's tolerance of the infant's anger can strengthen his image of the good self and the good object and "decrease his fear of his own aggressive tendencies." Moreover, projection sometimes complicates this picture. The infant attributes his own rage to his mother and sets up "a vicious circle of misinterpreting mother's behavior" in terms of "paranoid distortions of her." Conse quently, the bad self- and object-image is reinforced.7

Projecting this all bad mother-image is especially apparent in Jerry's description of the landlady as "a fat, ugly, mean, stupid, unwashed, misanthropic, cheap, drunken bag of garbage" (ZS, p. 27). By pushing Peter off the bench, Jerry forces his father-image to assume the murderous rage that so terrifies Jerry within himself. Even God is not immune from Jerry's defensive projections. Rose Zimbardo has pointed out that "the Story of Jerry and the Dog" is a Christian parable by which Jerry reveals "to Peter the nature of the human condition."8 On a more personal level, Jerry describes his own private condition, his projection of inner hostility onto everyone, including God, who "turned his back on the whole thing some time ago" (ZS, p. 35). Jerry's anger is also evident in his devaluation of people into animals. Jerry, for example, relates Peter's wife and daughters to their cats and parakeets; he associates the alienated people of his world with animals in the zoo.

Jerry's complex relationships with people and the dog are dominated by these combined defenses—projection, dehumanization, and splitting (separating the good self and object from the bad self and object). The dog, for instance, represents part-images of both Jerry's mother and his father.9 Thus, the dog and the landlady are split images of mother, and the dog and Peter are split images of the father. The dog is the withdrawing, hostile mother who attacks Jerry when he needs supplies or attention.10 Significantly, the attacks come as Jerry tries to reenter the rooming house after having left autonomously. The landlady is the immature mother who, out of her own need, rewards her child's clinging, regressive behavior. The landlady "presses her disgusting body up against" Jerry, making him "the object of her sweaty lust" (ZS, p. 28). Jerry perceives the landlady and the dog as one when he refers to them as "the gatekeepers of my dwelling" (ZS, pp. 27-28). On the other hand, the dog is the attacking father whose identity is fused with the image of bad mother. Father attacks when too many demands are made upon him; and Jerry exhibits the megalomaniac, demanding behavior typical of rejected children. Peter is the mildly friendly father—passive and unwilling to acknowl-edge Jerry's needs, too indifferent to supply the closeness Jerry longs for. The story of Jerry and the dog, therefore, is an externalization of parts of both Jerry's parental relation-ships. The story of Jerry and the landlady and the action between Jerry and Peter represent the other halves of these relationships.

Similarly, splitting and fusion underlie Jerry's messianic view of himself and his association of God with the other roomers. Part of the time, Jerry idealizes himself as the caring, searching, mistreated one. When he asks, "was trying to feed the dog an act of love?" (ZS, p. 36), the implied answer is-—yes. On the other side of the coin, Jerry's narcissism al-lows him to be demanding, manipulative, and self-righteous.11 He fuses God with the fellow roomers who are abandoned by the world and withdrawn from it into self-absorption. God is "a colored queen who wears a kimono and plucks his eyebrows"; he is "a woman who cries with determination behind her closed door" (ZS, p. 35). Capital letters blare out this message, which transforms God into a pitiful freak and a self-pitying outcast—neither of whom shows any interest in Jerry or the world.

When efforts to devalue, control, and exploit have failed, Jerry exhibits a pronounced propensity for escape from reality into illusion. The most significant case is the occurrence at the zoo. Jerry is consistently vague about what happened at the zoo—ostensibly as a suspense-building technique to maintain Peter's interest. He uses the broad pronoun it as he declares that Peter will read about it in the papers or see it on television. Early in his encounter with Peter, he speaks as if he had consciously planned a course of action at the zoo, but he seems confused about the reality of his plan: "… could I have planned all this? No … no, I couldn't have. But I think I did" (ZS, p. 48). Jerry's confusion is over the difference between fantasy and reality. He inadvertently discloses his frequent fantasizing in discussing the porno-graphic playing cards with Peter; he says when a person gets older he uses "real experience as a substitute for … fantasy" (ZS, p. 27). Evidently, while at the zoo Jerry indulged his favorite pastime: he wove a fantasy. When events spontaneously unfold exactly as he imagined them, he is surprised. Undoubtedly, Jerry has spun this same fantasy many times, but never before has it become real experience. In their psychological study of suicide, Schneidman, Faberow, and Litman explain the origin of self-destructive acts in fantasy:

Suicide acts, as a general rule, are not sudden, unpredictable, impulsive, momentary, or random acts. In most cases, the suicide plan has been developed gradually and rehearsed in fantasy and preliminary action. In nearly every case of suicide there is evidence of crisis, conflict, ambivalence, mixed motivations, and multiple determinants.12

The same authors add that the most serious suicide cases "seem to be living out a memory-fantasy of being abandoned and left to die."13

This then is what happened at the zoo: Jerry rehearsed once more his plan to kill himself if he could not gain the acceptance he so badly needed. What better way to show his symbolic parents the effect of their behavior. By his suicide he could punish them for abandoning him; they would be sorry when they saw his dying face on television. In fantasy Jerry has gone "a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly" (ZS, p. 30). Jerry has finally substituted real experience for this long-rehearsed fantasy, but he has confused his revenge-victim. He has laid the guilt on a mere image of his father, a random acquaintance—Peter. Finally, Jerry brings his fantasy to full fruition by urging Peter to flee, thereby enabling himself to die abandoned and alone.

Such self-destructiveness is only one of the manifestations of Jerry's continuing preoccupation with death. Another is his empty picture frames, which keep alive his awareness of the demise of his parents. Peter's pipe-smoking suggests a fatal illness—lung cancer (ZS, p. 13). Even Peter's daughters' birds prompt a macabre response in Jerry; he thinks it a shame they are not diseased so "the cats could eat them and die" (ZS, p. 18). He openly confesses his murderous plan for the landlady's dog.

Hanging over all these smaller concerns with death is the suicide plan. Like a black storm cloud, it envelops the atmo-sphere of the play, making it close and threatening. Jerry keeps his plan alive by his constant references to the zoo and the face Peter will see. In hindsight, these references ap-pear to outgrow mere suspensefulness and become ominous. As Jerry smiles and relaxes into his final speech and Peter stands stunned and transfixed, the answer to what happened at the zoo crashes into clarity—Jerry planned to kill himself. The purpose of his entire plan of action was death, the alternative to a loveless life.

By the development of these four basic themes—abandonment, ambivalence, escape into fantasy, preoccupation with death—The Zoo Story presents Albee's vision of suffering humanity crying for help. The problem is capsuled in the title image; the world is a zoo, not a forest. Locked out of their compatibility with nature and community, men become imprisoned within hostile selves. They feel isolated, alienated, and alone. Their despair centers on anger, and they must separate themselves from one another to prevent their mutual destruction by hate and violence. Therefore, their sense of abandonment deepens until the only answer to the call for help seems to lie in self-destruction.

In The Death of Bessie Smith the locale shifts from New York to Memphis, Tennessee, where oneness is missing in the whole racial structure. The bigoted White nurse and the "Uncle Tom" Black intern make explicit the play's social protest; however, white and black are also color representations of the "all good" and "all bad" dichotomy peculiar to the sufferer from separation anxiety. This disunity is also inherent in the play's divided form; its one act is broken into eight scenes. Color and fragmentation are further empha-sized in the setting. The Death of Bessie Smith is played in fragmentary scenery against a sky drop that changes color to fit the events on stage. The play, moreover, entwines two separate groups of characters—Jack and Bessie versus Nurse, Intern, and Orderly.

The sociological conflict in this play matches that of The Zoo Story. The first play pits the established upper class against the rooming house outcasts; this one opposes the White establishment with the Black outcasts. On the individual level, however, the plays have reverse patterns. The weak father-figure is in the foreground of The Zoo Story whereas the hostile mother-figure, Nurse, takes the forefront in The Death of Bessie Smith. Jerry, the chief figure of abandonment, dominates the stage in The Zoo Story, while Bessie remains an unseen character in The Death of Bessie Smith. Even the scenic images are reversed. The Zoo Story is played outdoors in the park where Jerry meets his death. The entry hall of the rooming house where Jerry met rejection is merely part of the exposition. The Death of Bessie Smith is played indoors at the admissions desk where Bessie is rejected, while her outdoor death is made known through an announcement by Intern.

Both plays feature the abandonment theme, but The Zoo Story centers on the outcasts, Jerry and his counterparts in the rooming house. The Death of Bessie Smith shows that separation anxiety and abandonment depression are experienced by the establishment as well. A sense of entrapment in loneliness and frustration pervades the whole drama and is communicated by the background music that swells and fades with the rhythm of the play. The very essence of the "Blues" is musical melancholy, and Bessie Smith's popularity was born of this plaintive call to inner sadness. As her voice sings out its forlorn message, her physical absence is transformed into omnipresence; and her mournful spirit hovers over the play. This omnipresence is intensified at the outset by the "hot blue" sky that silhouettes the darkened set,14 symbolizing the repressive gloom that envelops the play.

The opening scene introduces the homelessness of Jack, who is "travelin"' to that "big Place"—"North" (TP, p. 27). He is traveling with Bessie, in a last-ditch effort to revive her career. But Bessie is paralyzed by abandonment depression. She has faded from sight in the last four or five years, victim of her own efforts to escape the world in drink. At Nurse's house, the Father growls his anger at being left alone. He refuses to cooperate in his own abandonment by driving Nurse to work, but he defends against everyday loss by ordering Nurse to "Go on! Go!" (TP, p. 36). At the hospital, the Orderly has "Uncle Tom'd… [himself] right out of the bosom of … [his] family." He lives in"noman's land," shunned by his peers and derided by his betters (TP, p. 47). Intern lives in dissatisfaction, tormented by the "sense of urgency" and "dislike of waste" that ulcerates his own stagnation. His voice is quiet and intense as he speaks his anguish at being separated from his perception of a more satisfying life: "I am stranded … here …" (TP, p. 59). Nurse speaks for both herself and her waning culture as she questions Orderly's awareness of the "way things are":

Haven't you been appraised of the way things are? … Our knights are gone forth into sunsets… behind the wheels of Cord cars … the acres have diminished and the paint is flaking … that there is a great … abandonment?

(TP, p. 70)

She feels imprisoned in the world's sickness, and she longs to be out of it; but she fights her need for others by ordering them about.

The end of the play is a montage of abandoned figures. Jack in his shock is abandoned by the entire staff, who offer him neither understanding nor comfort. Intern is not only frustrated by his inability to be helpful to an already dead Bessie Smith, but he is totally vulnerable to Nurse's hysterical dictum: "You are finished. You have had your last patient here … Off you go, boy!" (TP, p. 80). He returns the rejection by a slap across her face and backs away. Orderly, as the nervous witness, verbally abandons his Black race by echoing the indignation of White segregationisrh: "I never heard of such a thing … bringing a dead woman here like that …" (ibid.). Behind his words, the music swells; and Bessie's doleful "Blues" prompt the mental image of her abandoned body, bleeding its life away "like water from a faucet" (TP, p. 76).

Inseparably intertwined with this abandonment is the ambivalence, manifested by searingly discordant relation-ships. Nurse battles with Father, who exhibits resentment at her leaving him each day; yet he also reveals a wish to cling to her as he pouts about her patients getting more attention than he (TP, p. 35). All of Nurse's relationships—with Father, with Orderly, and with Intern—are characterized by devaluation and manipulative efforts. She calls Orderly a "genuine little asslicker" (TP, p. 46) and sends him out for her cigarettes. She spurns Intern's proposal of marriage, insisting that Orderly can better afford "realistically, economically" to marry her (TP, p. 56). She and Intern attack and counterattack with ferocity born of an extreme sensitivity to criticism that undercuts their false self-images.15 Intern calls her a "cloistered maiden" with a "collection of anatomical jokes for all occasions" (TP, p. 53). She responds by calling him a "lance-high, love-smit knight" whose real interest is "a convenient and uncomplicated bedding down" (TP, p. 55). Thus, they project a sexual promiscuity and coarseness which is the substitute for their inability to experience tender feelings for one another.

The splitting and projection of these characters is highlighted by the color imagery—black opposed to white. The traditional associations, however, are reversed. The Whites are the bad characters. For example, a nurse is usually an angel of mercy robed in the purity of a white uniform; but Nurse is the archetypal black witch—hostile, vengeful, and aggressive. The great white doctor, as Nurse characterizes Intern, is not only impotent to save lives, he is destructive in his love relationship with Nurse. Even his supposed liberalism is exposed as false. Orderly is included among the bad people by another color reversal; he is a "white nigger." The Whites are bad chiefly because they reject the good Blacks, and the Blacks are good primarily because they are rejected. Secondarily, they are good because their destructiveness is turned inward: they harm themselves, unpremeditatedly, whereas the Whites harm others willfully.

Within this split of the bad Whites versus the good Blacks, identity diffusion is a complex construct of shifting antagonists and counterparts. Jack and Bessie, for instance, are counterparts to Nurse and Father, for within both pairs there is a parent-child relationship. Nurse and Father interchange these roles; he is the biological father, but she is the bread-winner. They alternately punish one another by withdrawing love and support. Jack, however, is a consistent parent-figure and caretaker to Bessie. He takes all the responsibility: he makes the plans, calls the "son-of-a-bitch in New York" (TP, p. 37), and gets Bessie moving. He is protective and even affectionate; he calls her "Honey" and "Baby." And indeed, she is his baby. She spends the day asleep in bed; she leaves the entire conduct of her affairs to Jack. He is truly "cartin' her around."

On the other hand, Nurse and Bessie are counterparts, bad and good mother-figures. Nurse is the hostile present one, and Bessie is the benign absent one. In this sense, Bessie bears a resemblance to Jerry's mother in The Zoo Story, who died of alcoholism in the South. Nurse, with her unsatisfied lust and guardianship of the building, is reminis-cent of Jerry's landlady. Within The Death of Bessie Smith, many clues link Nurse and Bessie as opposite sides of one coin. Nurse fills her house, her ears, and her spirit with the sound of Bessie's music. Bessie's career has dwindled to little more than a famous name, like Nurse's cultural heritage. As Bessie is tended by Jack, Nurse is tended by Orderly, who fetches her cigarettes, and Intern, who brings coffee and chauffeurs her home. Nurse even insists to Intern that she sings—as Bessie does: "I sing, too, boy … I sing real good" (TP, p. 80). Bessie bleeds to death when her arm is wrenched off as a result of Jack's careless drunken driving. Intern envisions a similar death for Nurse: the stiletto she uses for a letter-opener slips and tears open her arm; then Intern holds it while the blood flows like water running from a faucet (TP, p. 67).

Intern, Orderly, and Jack are the split father-figures. Intern is the lustful aspect, Orderly the subservient aspect, and Jack the protective aspect; but all are ineffectual. The Father and the Mayor, in this system, are necessarily grandfather figures—authoritative and self-centeredly unconcerned. This construct of male figures blends a collection of antithetical qualities—authority and servitude, sexuality and impotence, protectiveness and unconcern—all fluctuating to match the changing emotions of the aggressive-regressive female constructs. The pattern of ambivalence is appropriate to the alternating independence and regression of the child caught in the throes of anxiety over separation and loss. It is also the wellspring of the family discord that recurs in Albee's plays.

The unhappy people in The Death of Bessie Smith indulge in a variety of fantasies and escape mechanisms to deny their sordid realities. Bessie has chosen alcohol, which allows her to drink away her nights and sleep away her days. Jack too escapes in drink, but he still dreams of wealth and fame as Bessie's entrepreneur. Unfortunately, the "bird" Jack carts around is too "soused" to fly. In fact, all the characters in this play express their fantasies in terms of "moving" imagery. Jack and Bessie are "drivin' north" to New York (TP, p. 38). Orderly does not intend to stay in Memphis "carrying crap pans"; he sees himself "going beyond that" (TP, p. 42). Nurse says he bleaches his hands, face, and neck every night so that he can step across the color line. Intern fancies himself in Spain. He is intense as he tells Nurse his desire: "If I could bandage the arm of one person … if I could be over there right this minute" (TP, p. 59). Nurse has some vague nostalgia for the lost grandeur of the Southern past, where a white knight would have courted her. She bitterly demands fulfillment of this doomed dream from Intern: "You will be my gallant… You will court me, boy, and you will do it right!" (TP, p. 63). She escapes from the disappointment of this lost illusion by wishing to be gone from the hospital. Her uniform "scratches"; she is tired of her skin; "I WANT OUT!" she cries (TP, p. 71). The Father's fantasy of moving covers less distance; nevertheless, it elevates him to a sense of importance. He goes down to the Democratic Club, where he smokes expensive cigars, talks big, and pretends to be close friends with the mayor. All these illusions of movement and action are as ironic as Jack's bird image, for all these dreamers are steeped in apathy, trapped in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

The individual apathy blends with the sick society in a dying world. In fact, death imagery dominates the play. As the rooming house and the zoo represented The Zoo Story's imprisoning world, the hospital represents The Death of Bessie Smith's decaying world. The mayor himself is in the hospital "flat on his belly" (TP, p. 40). Father has headaches and takes pills, and Nurse calls him "a poor cripple" (TP, p. 33). Orderly's inner sickness is symbolized by his bleaching out. Intern's sexual desire is wasting into sterility. His proposals of marriage make Nurse sick. She is, moreover, "sick of everything in this hot, stupid, fly-ridden world" (TP, p. 70). Jack's sickness has been alcoholism, and forevermore it will be guilt—for Bessie's death.

This imagery of sickness and death intertwines with the color imagery. As the ambivalence theme opposes the colors white and black, the death imagery moves from pale sickness in white hospital rooms, to fiery images of lynchings and mutilation, and to the darkness of the grave. The day itself is dying; the "great sunset blazes" (TP, p. 80) at the end of the play. The racist culture is scorched; "the pillars of the houses are blistered and flaking" (TP, p. 57). Intern perceives the whole world burning in the setting sun:

The west is burning … fire has enveloped fully half of the continent… the … fingers of the flame stretch upward to the stars … and there is a monstrous burning circumference hanging on the edge of the world.

(TP, p. 51)

Over "half a million people" have been killed by gunfire in Spain (TP, p. 59). Love itself, the source of all life, is being consumed in its own flames: Intern's "body burns" as his "heart yearns" (TP, p. 52). Nurse, "chained to … [her] desk of pain," perceives him as a "monstrous burning intern hanging on the edge of… [her] circumference" (TP, p. 51).

Burnings blend into images of lynchings as Intern drolly reminds Nurse that it is permissible to burn orderlies at will (TP, p. 57). When his jokes have turned to insults and her laughter to fury, she advises him to keep her threats "burning in the back of… [his] brain" because—she says with wild laughter—his "neck is in the noose" (TP, p. 63). Earlier she has envisioned Father with a shotgun across his lap waiting to shoot birds. Nurse conceals her racist fear in ridicule of Orderly as she speaks of "the great black mob marching down the street' with Orderly's "bleached-out, snowy-white face in the middle of the pack" (TP, p. 46). She laughingly completes the image moments later with, "You white niggers kill me" (TP, p. 47).

The hospital includes a cluster of mutilation images. The mayor has "his ass in a sling" as a result of surgery for his hemorrhoids. A man two rooms down walked into the hospital "with his hands over his gut to keep his insides from spilling out" (TP, p. 40). Castration images have been perversely projected onto the emasculating females. Intern conjures up the picture of Nurse tearing open her arm (a phallic symbol) with the stiletto-like letter-opener, and Jack describes the matching image of Bessie's right arm torn off at the shoulder.

Finally, death imagery is the focal point of the play's title, The Death of Bessie Smith. Bessie was already dead when Jack brought her to Nurse's all-white hospital. Nurse and Orderly reject and abandon her corpse, but they do not kill her. Intern even attempts to save her. The accident that killed her was the result of carelessness—Bessie's and Jack's. They had both been drinking. Jack had no idea of his driving speed. He and Bessie had been "riding along… laughing" and Bessie had heedlessly allowed her arm to hang out the window (TP, p. 76). Bessie's bloody, violent death was caused basically by her alcoholism—a sickness often called slow suicide. Bessie was not only dead before arrival at the hospital, she was dead before the accident. She had killed her career and her spirit several years earlier by drinking instead of meeting her commitments. It was a dead weight Jack was carting to New York. Bessie's spirit had been stifled and started on its suicidal course by the oppressive racist culture that spawned her. She was the unfortunate infant of a disturbed community who rewarded her for her dependent, servile behavior and punished her for all attempts at self-assertion and individuation. Bessie was smothered into self-destructiveness by a sick society.

The Death of Bessie Smith presents a society founded on hostility, epitomized in the murderous mind of Nurse. The play shows that hostility within ripples out into larger and larger spheres, souring and tainting everything in its wake. Nurse's anger encompasses everyone around her—White and Black. She is contemptuous of her co-workers, the patients, her parents, the town authorities, even the national leaders. And, ironically, she is the unhappiest one of all. But Albee's vision is not one-sided; he shows the source of Nurse's hostility in the selfish, demanding spirit of her intended nurturers, the absence and unavailability of her intended protectors. Anger is portrayed as the result of a reciprocal withdrawal from fear of the loss of love. The only alternative to aggression against others is the path Bessie took, self-destruction.

Thus, The Death of Bessie Smith is a group picture of lovelessness and self-concern. The final moments of the play reveal the malaise to be hopeless because no one even suspects his own blame, and no one breaks out of himself. Orderly draws over himself the self-protective cloak of "Uncle Tomism" and abandons his suffering Black brother, Jack. Intern steeps himself in self-pity and indignation that his pseudo-heroic effort to save Bessie, motivated primarily by spite for Nurse, was spoiled by Bessie's premature demise. Nurse's fury has recoiled into frozen wrath. Only Jack has any sense of his own guilt. But stunned and comfortless, he is already reaching for the balm of rationalization. And Bessie is past all self-revelation. Bessie is dead!

The Sandbox concerns itself with Grandma's abandonment in death. Unlike Jerry and Bessie, however, Grandma does not die violently. Her death is slow and, at the end, peaceful. Albee wrote this play in memory of his grandmother, who died in 1959 at the age of eighty-three, and in it he blends the rejection of the young and of the old by placing Grandma in a sandbox to die. The setting communicates the centrality of the title symbol; the sandbox, an elevated, raked enclo-sure, occupies center stage. Only two chairs, side by side, share the remaining space. The circumstances of Grandma's death emphasize the play's comment on society's neglect of both children and the aged. Thus, The Sandbox adds new texture to the trio of plays on abandonment. The Zoo Story deals with class opposition, The Death of Bessie Smith with racial opposition, and The Sandbox deals with opposition between the generations. Appropriately, the three plays move inward from a community of strangers in a New York rooming house and park, to a smaller company of co-workers in a Memphis hospital, to the basic family unit. The characters no longer represent parent-figures; they are aggressive Mommy and passive Daddy, sharing the focus with Grandma, the aged, abandoned child. The Young Man is a lifeguard watching over Grandma from behind her sandbox. In this play, the sandbox is the entrance hall of life, the hospital dying room, and the grave. It is located on a sandy beach near the sea, whose waters symbolize both birth and death. The focus on the life cycle is intensified by the sky drop behind "which alters from brightest day to deepest night" (TP, p. 9). As the action of the play proceeds, the symbolism deepens. Mommy and Daddy, seated opposite the sandbox, perform two rituals simultaneously: baby-sitting and death-watching.

The theme of abandonment begins graphically as Grandma is carried in by the armpits, drawn up rigid, and dumped unceremoniously into the sandbox. The look of "puzzlement and fear" (TP, p. 11) on her face expresses her anxiety; her sounds of protest, "Ahhhhhh! Graaaaa!" (ibid.) emphasize her dual role of infant and old woman. As The Zoo Story's central conflict is between Jerry's desire for under-standing and Peter's desire for freedom from intrusion, The Sandbox pits Grandma's need for the final comfort of the dying against Mommy's wish to be free of the inconvenience. Mommy's commands—to Grandma, "Be quiet," and to Daddy, "Don't look at her" (TP, p. 13)—express the wish for riddance. Like Jerry, Grandma tells the story of her life of rejection. She begins with the here-and-now of her eightysix years: "Honestly! What a way to treat an old woman! Drag her out of the house … stick her in a car… bring her out here from the city … dump her in a pile of sand … and leave her here to set" (ibid.). Then, she flashes back to her widowhood at thirty, when she was left to raise Mommy "all by … [her] lonesome" (TP, p. 14). After Mommy married rich Daddy, they moved Grandma out of her natural habitat, the farm, into their big town house where they treated her like a dog: they "fixed a nice place for me under the stove … gave me an army blanket… and my own dish …" (TP, p. 15-16). Mommy verifies Grandma's story of rejection by her actions. As the lights dim to indicate night, Mommy "Shhh's" Daddy in a wordless demonstration of the pattern of neglect perpetrated on infants and aging parents, put out to play in the daytime, put to bed at night—in bom cases, out of the way.

Ultimately, Grandma plays dead so that Mommy and Daddy are free to complete her abandonment. They grasp the opportunity to depart, feigning mourning and leaving Grandma to the final ministrations of the hired help—the Young Man. He and Grandma are counterparts in this portrait of abandonment. She, representing infancy and old age, is excluded from the inner circle of the family. He, representing adult youth, is excluded from the inner circle of his chosen profession—acting in the movies. The studios have not even given him a name, and he is forced to earn his living by hiring out as a lifeguard. Nevertheless, the unclaimed youth and the deserted matriarch share a desolate moment of tenderness in the final moments of Grandma's abandonment.

The sweet smiles of Grandma and the Young Man and their expressions of endearment at the end of the play are the only manifestations of love in The Sandbox. All else is the other side of ambivalence. Even the names Mommy and Daddy are, by Albee's directions, significant of the "empty affection" and "vacuity" of the characters (TP, p. 8). Mommy de-personalizes Daddy by dismissing his complaints and mocking his lack of authority with rhetorical queries like, "What do you think, Daddy?" (TP, p. 9). His docile obedience to her every command is the symptom of his repressed anger. Mommy accentuates her contempt for Daddy by her flirtatious behavior toward the Young Man. Daddy's question, "Shall we talk to each other?" reveals their alienation; and Mommy's response, "… if you can think of anything to say," measures its depth.

Both Mommy and Daddy show total disregard for Grandma. Daddy's concern is only for himself as he whines about the heat and the cold. He dismisses all responsibility for Grandma with the reminder that she is Mommy's mother, not his (TP, p. 10). Mommy's only words to her dying mother are reprimands. Only when she thinks death has finally taken Grandma does she express a pretense of grief calculated to gain solicitude for herself: "—poor Grandma … I can't bear it!" (TP, p. 17). However, she quickly finds solace in her pride at having done things well, by which she means having spent enough money to bury Grandma in style.

Grandma's behavior, presented as it is in terms of the baby in the sandbox, is similar to the acute distress of the abandoned child.16 Grandma bangs her toy shovel against her pail and yells, "Haaaaaa! Ah-haaaaaa!" (TP, p. 12). When Mommy does not respond with loving attention, Grandma throws a shovelful of sand at her and screams at Daddy (TP, p. 13). Also like an abandoned child, who ultimately gives up angry response for sociability with his nurses,17 Grandma turns her attention away from Mommy to the audience and the Young Man. She addresses them both with smiles and acceptance. And, significantly, she willingly acquiesces to death, shoveling furiously to bury herself, then assuming the corpse-like pose of folded hands over her prostrate body.

Grandma's behavior could be alternately described as split into the good self and the bad self. The bad self she offers to Mommy and Daddy; the good self she gives to the Young Man. He, in turn, as her counterpart in abandonment, represents the emptiness and self-worthlessness that comes with rejection. He perceives himself as "the kiss of death." Grandma, however, perceives his other aspect, his ideal self; and she accepts his kiss as an act of affection. She returns it and ignites a brief spark of divine love.

Thus, Grandma departs willingly from the two-faced environment on the beach, a world dominated by Mommy's and Daddy's counterfeit love and grief. This hypocrisy is the keynote of the confusion of reality and fantasy in The Sandbox, and Albee emphasizes it by use of the play/life metaphor. The audience is made aware that Mommy and Daddy are staging a performance by the presence of the Musician and by the characters' references to themselves as actors and role players. The metaphor also brings out in relief two prominent traits of people with histories of mental deprivation. Kernberg describes these as "a great need to be loved and admired by others" (true of actors) and "an emotional life" that is "shallow"18 (true of role players).

The entire action of the play is cast in the form of a stage illusion. Mommy signals its start by the words, "Let's get on with it" (TP, p. 10) while summoning the Musician onto the stage. He places his music on his stand; she orders him to begin; he nods to the Young Man; and then Mommy and Daddy go through all the ritual motions of providing play-time for baby and funeral time for Grandma. Everything oc-curs on cue. When the lights dim, Grandma asks for "nice and soft" music for "this part" (TP, p. 16). At the sound of an "off-stage rumble," Mommy begins to weep, for that is the cue that Grandma's time has come (TP, p. 17). Grandma starts burying herself in an obliging effort to die at the moment designated in Mommy's scenario. When she does not quite succeed, she calls out to the electrician: "Don't put the lights up yet… I'm not ready" (TP, p. 18). But the lights rise anyhow—on cue, and Mommy recites to Daddy that their long night of suffering is over and they must now "face the future" (ibid.). Grandma plays dead, giving them their next cue. The Young Man steps in and insists on playing his part: " I … I have a line here," he says (TP, p. 19). Then he delivers his speech: "I am the Angel of Death. I am … u h … I am come for you" (TP, p. 20). After his kiss, she compliments his performance. The curtains close on the final tableau, and Mommy's show is over. The entire family has performed dual roles. Unloving Mommy and Daddy have also portrayed the falsely bereaved daughter and sonin-law. Grandma has been ignored both as infant and as aged parent. The Young Man has played several roles—would-be actor, lifeguard, and the Angel of Death who flaps his wings, claims a life, and metamorphoses the sandbox into a coffin.

As the Angel of Death, the Young Man also concretizes the theme of preoccupation with death. Hovering over the sandbox, he recalls the Beckettian image of man born astride a grave. Within the setting of Albee's play both the sea and the box blend birth and death, and the sand suggests the aridity and the sterility that infects the characters. Only Grandma shows any genuine feeling, but at the outset even she has lost the suppleness of a body warmed by love. She is al-ready "quite rigid" (TP, p. 11) as they carry her in. Mommy and Daddy emit an inner deadness which they can only try to conceal by pretended emotions. Daddy's passivity reflects his loss of the power to think and act. He can only ask "What do we do now?" (TP, p. 13). Mommy's answer to Daddy is her deadly refrain: "We wait. We … sit… and we wait … that's what we do" (TP, p. 12). Again the image is Beckettian; but Albee's "Godot" is on stage, flapping his wings and waiting for the cue to assume his role.

The Young Man, seeking an identity to fill his empty self, easily accommodates the role of Angel of Death because of his self-loathing, born of the absence of love. He is the manifestation of the inner deadness that Mommy and Daddy breed; he is their symbolic child. Finally, Grandma exhibits the will to self-destruction by her cooperation with death. She lets the Young Man ease her into eternity with his gentleness. It is a poignant moment of union and rebirth, for she gives the Young Man a taste of affectionate approval that nudges his buried soul: "Oh…" he says "blushing." In death Grandma stirs the blood of life within the Young Man.

The final effect justifies Albee's satisfaction with this play: "I'm terribly fond of The Sandbox. I think it's an absolutely beautiful, lovely, perfect play."19 Indeed, it does make its statement with poetic simplicity. Its unfolding events oppose an extravagance of fakery with a speck of authenticity, an excess of hostility with a crumb of benevolence, a lifetime of rejection with a moment of love; and the power of the diminutive transmutes emptiness and anguish into peace.

Thus, the triptych is complete. Each of the three panels pictures abandonment, each with the same secondary themes springing out of the same sociological and psychoanalytic roots. Yet, on the surface each panel is a different painting—different central figure, different setting, different colors, different imagery, different symbols. Likewise, each play ends with the death of the abandoned one; but in each case the tone is unique. Jerry dies alone, calling out to God in scornful supplication. Bessie bleeds to death, unattended but silent and unconscious. Grandma accepts death knowingly and peacefully during an exchange of affection that whispers of rebirth.


1James F. Masterson and Donald B. Rinsley, "The Borderline Syndrome: The Role of the Mother in the Genesis and Psychic Structure of the Borderline Personality," International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 36 (1975), 171. This article, like most of those cited in this paper, was written about the Borderline Syndrome, a malaise rooted in maternal deprivation and featuring separation anxiety and abandonment depression. Since the meaning and relevance of the terms separation anxiety and abandonment depression seem more self-evident, they have been used throughout this study in place of Borderline Syndrome. The choice of terms also includes the implication that people can suffer from these neuroses without necessarily being classified as clinical cases.

2Actually these four related themes are basic to all of Albee's original plays, but individual ones shift their emphasis from one theme to another. Thus, these first three plays create a special grouping by their primary focus on the abandonment theme.

3Edward Albee, The American Dream and The Zoo Story (New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 35. Subsequent references to The Zoo Story will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text as ZS.

4See John Bowlby, "Separation Anxiety," International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 61 (1960), 20. Bowlby describes the increase of both anxiety and hostility as they interact within the infant.

5Masterson and Rinsley, "The Borderline Syndrome," p. 165.

6Otto Kemberg, "Early Ego Integration and Object Relations," Annals of New York Academy of Science, 193 (1972), 240-41.

7Ibid, p. 241.

8Rose A. Zimbardo, "Symbolism and Naturalism in Edward Albee's The Zoo Story," in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. C. W. E. Bigsby (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975), p. 51.

9See Otto Kemberg, "Borderline Personality Organization," Journal of American Psychoanalytic Association, 15 (1967), 679. Kemberg describes this kind of fusion: "Hatred of mother extends to hatred of both parents who are later experienced as a 'united group' by the child.…"

10Doctors Norman Litowitz and Kenneth M. Newman also describe various levels of identification among Jerry, the dog, the landlady, and Peter in "Borderline Personality and the Theatre of the Absurd," Archives of General Psychiatry, 16 (Mar. 1967), 279.

11See Kemberg, "Borderline Personality Organization," p. 676. Kemberg states that identification with primitive "all good" self- and object-images is accompanied by "deep feelings of having the right to exploit and to be gratified."

12Edwin S. Schneidman, Norman L. Faberow, and Robert E. Litman, The Psychology of Suicide (New York: Science House, 1970), p. 297.

13Ibid., p. 300.

14Edward Albee, Two Plays: The Sandbox and The Death of Bessie Smith (New York: New American Library, 1960), p. 17. Subsequent references to these two plays will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text as TP.

15See Peter Hartocollis, "Affects in Borderline Disorders," in Borderline Personality Disorders, ed. Peter Hartocollis (New York: International Universities Press, 1977), p. 504. Hartocollis mentions such sensitivity as typical of Borderline Personalities.

16Bowlby, "Separation Anxiety," p. 2.


18Kemberg, "Borderline Personality Organization," p. 655.

19William Flanagan, "Edward Albee" (an interview), in Writers at Work, 3rd series (New York: Viking Press, 1967), p. 346.

Mary Susan Yates (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Changing Perspectives: The Vanishing 'Character' in Albee's Plays," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, 1984, pp. 210-29.

[In the following essay, Yates charges that over the course of Albee's career his characters have grown increasingly abstract, eventually becoming "mere vehicles for the expression of… ideas. "]

As an American dramatist, Edward Albee moves from the philosophical position that reform can be affected by creating an awareness of social problems to the conclusion that man's condition is irremediable. In between these two stages of his career, Albee concentrates on psychological problems which result from restrictive social situations. As Albee moves closer philosophically to the absurdists, form follows content and the characters in his plays undergo a gradual process of dehumanization.

From the early plays to the middle plays, Albee shifts his emphasis from the idea that society is a force for good or evil to the idea that individuals are psychologically motivated by this force. To portray these ideas, realistic charac ters present social problems through discussions and argu ments. Other, more emotionally complex, characters reveal their personal conflicts through monologues and stories. The social-problem plays include The Zoo Story (1959), The American Dream (1959-60), and The Sandbox (1959), while Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) and A Delicate Balance (1966) are more concerned with psychological problems.

Later Albee's perspective changes drastically and the situation itself assumes control of the action; the character is portrayed as victim. As a personality, the character literally vanishes from the stage because in these more recent plays, Albee has either characters who do not speak at all or a disembodied voice which replaces the characters. In effect his works lose their dramatic quality. Plays from this cate-gory include Box and Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung (1968) and Counting the Ways and Listening: Two Plays (1977).

Characters in Albee's Social-Problem Plays

Albee's first play, The Zoo Story,1 is an almost totally realistic play written in the spirit of an Ibsen social drama. Like Ibsen, Albee views society as a force in building relation- ships, and gaining control of this force becomes the focus of Jerry's efforts throughout the play. Although Albee simplifies the problem of class structures by having only two characters in Zoo Story, Jerry's question about "the dividing line between upper-middle-middle class and lower-upper-middle class" (p. 23) indicates an awareness on Albee's part of the issue's complexity. For Albee, like Ibsen, the solution lies in revolutionizing a society which fosters empty alliances and which sets up obstacles to meaningful relation-ships.

Albee stresses the disparity between Jerry's and Peter's economic situations by having Jerry describe himself as a "permanent transient" (p. 45) whose home is in a "sickening rooming house on the West Side of New York City" (p. 45) while Peter is identified as a publishing executive who lives in an apartment in the East Seventies. Furthermore, their dialogue reveals that Peter is a "happily" married man with two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets. In contrast, Jerry has no family ties, nor does he have a girl friend. He tells Peter, "I've never been able to have sex with, or, how is it put… make love to anybody more than once" (p. 30).

However, as Jerry points out, Peter's relationship with his wife and family is no more emotionally satisfying than Jerry's contact with prostitutes. Like Ibsen, Albee develops the characters of Jerry and Peter by emphasizing the importance of the past in their present situation. Also like Ibsen, Albee stresses that the barriers which divide all classes are artificial.

The problem of class leads to problems with communication, and since Jerry feels he cannot speak directly to Peter about his needs, he relates a parable. The story of Jerry and the dog gives insight into Jerry's character and serves to emphasize the play's theme. Briefly, the story tells how Jerry deals with the malevolence of his landlady's dog. First, he plans to "kill the dog with kindness, and if that doesn't work … just kill him" (p. 37). As Peter follows the story with distaste, Jerry pleads with him for understanding: "You must believe me; it is important. We have to know the effect of our actions" (p. 40). However, Peter does not understand; words are inadequate without the crisis which Jerry provokes. Peter's social consciousness, like that of the audience whom Albee is trying to reform, can only be shocked into awareness.

The anagnorisis for both Peter and the audience comes when Jerry forces him to defend his territorial rights and to commit murder.

Peter: (Does not move, but begins to weep) Oh my God, oh my God.

Jerry: (Most faintly, now; he is very near death) You won't be coming back here any more, Peter; you've been dispossessed. You've lost your bench, but you've defended your honor. And Peter, I'll tell you something now; you're not really a vegetable; it's all right, you're an animal. You're an animal, too.

Peter learns that he and Jerry are as close as brothers and he becomes a psychologically motivated character capable of making the changes (within society) that Albee recom-mends.

Albee develops the personalities in his first plays by parallels and contrasts in their relationships. Although the degree of realism varies from play to play, the development of "character" in the traditional sense of the term is subordi-nate to the emphasis on a character's role within the family structure and within the larger context of society. Even early in his career, Albee subordinated character to theme.

Following Zoo Story one year later with The American Dream,2 Albee flattened out his characterizations for the purpose of illustrating the consequences of failed human relationships. With the exception of Grandma, these characters have no personalities: any identities they might have had have been submerged by the social roles they play. However, unlike Jerry and Peter's association, which is dominated by love and brutality, the relationships among Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, and the beautiful young man are characterized by sterility.

In her full-length study of Albee, Anne Paolucci says, "They [his characters] are not, properly speaking, individuals but rather states of mind or conscience, or guilt and sin and apathy and regret and indifference—often in opposition to one another."3 She adds that the people in Albee's plays are "not so much embodiments of a dominant trait as fluid states, dissolving masks, a series of psychological x-rays."4 Paolucci fails, however, to note Albee's levels of characterization. Grandma is much more realistic than Mommy, Daddy, and the beautiful young man. As a character, Grandma's function is to interpret the consequences of Mommy and Daddy's empty relationship although, unlike the traditional "pointer" character, she remains at all times the center of the play's conflict.

The theme of The American Dream operates on two levels. First is the failure within the family to achieve real contact and closeness, as symbolized by Mommy and Daddy's sterility—their inability to have a child or even to rear one. Then, as the title suggests, there is the wider social reference: the pursuit of the American way of life eliminates concern for both the old and the young by perpetuating the myth that material goods are an adequate substitution for love.

Mommy and Daddy have no self-awareness and gain none throughout the play. Mommy's tirade on the hat for which she demands satisfaction is indicative of the level to which their relationship has fallen. What appears to be a pointless and childish discussion on whether a hat is beige, wheat, or cream-colored is actually a commentary on Mommy and Daddy's values. They have no fixed standards except materialistic ones. Their values are as relative as the color of the hat, which changes according to the amount of artificial light it receives.

The old and the young are squeezed out of the family structure as a result of Mommy and Daddy's middle-class American values. Grandma, who finally runs away, is constantly threatened by Mommy with the Van People while the beautiful young man is separated from his twin brother and robbed of his ability to relate to other people. The implication is that this lack of feeling is responsible for the death of Grandma, an event which Albee reserves for The Sandbox.5

In The Sandbox, Mommy and Daddy bury Grandma in a child's sandbox and piously observe her death in a parody of the death watch. They do not mourn, and, in fact, Grandma is not yet dead when Mommy exits by saying, "It pays to do things well" (p. 156). The audience is never allowed to forget that this entire drama has been carefully orchestrated by Mommy.

As a character, Grandma represents the old American pioneer spirit and provides a sense of the past which has led to her death. She is also the character used by Albee to interpret the action for an audience which might be confused by players who provide their own stage directions. In an aside to the audience, Grandma says:

I had to raise … that over there all by my lonesome; and what's next to her there … that's what she married. Rich? I tell you … money, money, money. They took me off the farm … which was real decent of them … and they moved me into the big town house with them … gave me an army blanket… and my own dish… my very own dish! So what have I to complain about? Nothing, of course. I'm not complaining.

(p. 152)

Somehow the values of independence, ingenuity, and industriousness, which made it possible for Grandma to raise Mommy, have been lost.

At least some of Albee's early characters are psychologically motivated individuals who also function symbolically. In The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and The Sandbox, Jerry, Peter, and Grandma are believable people portrayed by Albee with compassion and insight; they are his spokesmen for reform. All three have been victimized by society, but they are not defeated. On the other hand, Mommy, Daddy, and the young man are almost "cartoon characters,"6 as Anita Maria Stenz has described them, due to the fact that they symbolize the emptiness of the American dream. Albee maintains his sense of character in these three plays by as-signing moral responsibility although he introduces flat characters in The American Dream and in The Sandbox to show what happens when social positions and roles become more important than the people who fill them.

Characters in Albee's Psychological Problem Plays

In the plays following The Sandbox and The American Dream, Albee's attention is directed to psychological problems of a more personal nature. Environmental influences are still important in Albee's middle plays, but in them he carefully sets up valid cause-and-effect relationships as reasons for aberrant social behavior. To paraphrase Agnes in A Delicate Balance,7 Albee at the height of his career, beginning with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?8 and ending with A Delicate Balance, is not so much concerned with what choices are available as with what choices are made (Act III, p. 142). He becomes more concerned with motivations and he internalizes his characters to reflect this interest.

This section will be an examination of the main characters in both Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, for both plays illustrate Albee's ability to handle social and psychological concerns simultaneously while portraying consistent, fully developed characters. George and Martha, Nick and Honey, and Agnes and Tobias are distinct identities, yet they are Everybody Else. These three couples are examples of very emotionally complex characters who explore the sources of their conflicts and deal with their illusions through arguments, discussions, monologues, and stories.

One method of understanding the paradox of universals represented by the particular is to compare George and Martha with their counterparts in The American Dream. Mommy and Daddy are very flat characters who passively accept the consequences of their decisions. As universal types, they illustrate the debilitating effects of social positions and roles. On the other hand, George and Martha are very creative, three-dimensional characters whose efforts to come to grips with their existence result in the birth and death of their only "son." Furthermore, we know nothing of Mommy and Daddy's background other than the fact that social conditioning has motivated them to accept their roles. Of George and Martha, we know everything although their past is a mixture of fact and fantasy confused by their difficulty in separating the two. Like Mommy, Martha is another "braying" bitch (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Act I, p. 1031) while George is another emasculated husband like Daddy. But in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? we are given insight into why they have these traits. As Anita Maria Stenz has noted, we have the story of "a Mommy who tried in vain to solve the problems of her existence in marriage and of a Daddy who found society's definition of success wanting."9

In the later play Albee does not suggest sweeping reforms in the social structure but the improvement of the quality of individual relationships. He implies through George and Martha that the answer to social problems lies in an honest and painful reassessment of human relationships. Unlike Mommy and Daddy, George and Martha both gain insight into the consequences of their illusions and learn to accept themselves and each other without preconceived ideas about social roles. Like many of Albee's characters, George and Martha have difficulty communicating, so they play very painful games to strip each other of pretense. Before "The Exorcism," Martha tells George, "Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference." He replies, "No; but we must carry on as though we did" (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Act III, p. 1093). After "The Exorcism," bereft of their illusions, George and Martha face the dawn and the task of rebuilding their relationship:

George (puts his hand gently on her shoulder; she puts her head back and he sings to her, very softly): Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf,

Martha: I… am … George …

(Act III, p. 1106)

At the end of the play, George and Martha have no more defense mechanisms.

As in the older realism of Ibsen, the present crisis which George and Martha face is explained by the past. Through stories and dialogue, the two protagonists give their versions of why all their disappointments and disillusions have erupted this particular evening. However, in contrast to Ibsen's realism, their viewpoints represent not only the differing perspectives of a man and woman but also a curious mixture of fact and fantasy which both George and Martha have difficulty separating. In an Afterword on the play, Otto Reinert and Peter Arnott note that "when George 'kills' his and Martha's child, he destroys an illusion that has been a reality of their life together." Both characters rationalize their failures and distort the truth.

Mommy died early, see, and I sort of grew up with Daddy. (Pausethinks) … I went away to school, and stuff, but I more or less grew up with him. Jesus, I admired that guy! I worshipped him … I absolutely worshipped him. I still do. And he was pretty fond of me, too … you know? We had a real… rapport going …a real rapport.

(Act I, p. 1054)

Martha's attitude toward her father is that of a child anxiously awaiting parental approval. Later, she decides to marry into the college and supply her father with a successor since she herself can not take over the presidency. Every action Martha takes is calculated to please her benevolent "Daddy."

George destroys Martha's illusion of her father by calling him "a great white mouse" (Act I, p. 1053) with white hair and red beady eyes. George also destroys the myth of Martha's relationship with her father: "She has as well a tiny problem with spiritous liquors—like she can't get enough… and on top of all that, poor weighed-down girl, plus a father who really doesn't give a damn whether she lives or dies, who couldn't care less what happens to his only daughter…" (Act III, p. 1120). In actuality, Martha's relationship with her father has made it impossible for George and Martha to have a real marriage.

George also has his illusions and childish stories of wish fulfillment. Like many children, George has hated his parents and wished at times to kill them. Forced to repress the anger, George felt guilty as a child, but as an adult he deals with his hostility creatively. George writes a book about a son who killed his parents and then pretended it was an accident. When Martha's father forbids him to publish his manuscript, George replies, "No, Sir, this isn't a novel at all… this is the truth … this really happened … TO ME!" (Act II, p. 1072). Just as George destroyed her illusions, Martha cruelly exposes George's fantasy to Nick and Honey. Ironically, through this book George had hoped to achieve the professional status Martha blames him for lacking. The unraveling of truth from illusion gives the play its modern psychological perspective.

To a certain extent, George's role in relation to Martha is similar to Jerry's relationship with Peter in Zoo Story. The audience never knows what provokes Jerry, but Martha's public humiliation of George finally gives him the impetus to hurt her enough to destroy the illusions fostered by them both. Max Halperen accurately explains that "In killing the child, so enmeshed in the lives of the 'parents,' George effectively kills the old George and Martha.… The illusory father dies, as well as the illusory mother. It is now possible for George and Martha to be reborn into the reality that is this, not the after life, a life that has never been possessed by either cithern."10

Through George and Martha's example, the younger generation is revitalized. Honey, who has refused to have children, is led to the point of confessing "I want a child" (Act III, p. 1100), while Nick is treated to a look at the destructive force of unbridled ambition. In response to "The Exorcism," Nick says, "Jesus Christ, I think I understand this" (Act III, p. 1104). Albee implies that like George and Martha, Nick and Honey will reevaluate their relationship and reestablish it on a more honest, adult basis. Instead of viewing each other as a means to an end, each can now regard the other as an individual. The play transcends the personal problems of two sick marriages and makes a very positive social comment on life in America. George, Martha, Nick, and Honey have all learned that the pursuit of materialism and social position leads only to dissatisfaction. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee says that the American dream is dead, but that the American family structure is very much alive.

In an interview at Pan American University, April 22,1980, Albee was asked why he showed so much hatred or disappointment in the family. He replied:

There are several ways for families to hang together. One is to ask no questions, another is to ask all questions. When you ask no questions, you hang together until you just disintegrate and aren't aware of why the disintegration is taking place and if you ask all questions, you may possibly recreate a family structure but with firmer bonding.11

His observation is applicable to both Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance. In the former, George and Martha strengthen their relationship by airing grievances and disappointment which have occurred over a period of approximately twenty-one years. In the latter, Agnes struggles to maintain the delicate balance between sustaining her family and keeping her own sanity. She seeks only to "keep this family in shape" (Act II, Scene 2, p. 80). A Delicate Balance is a quieter, more pessimistic statement on the family structure than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In mood it has more in common with The American Dream. As a result, although Agnes and Tobias are fuller, more realistic versions of Mommy and Daddy, they are still flat and lifeless.

This time Albee's American family is made up of an older couple facing retirement, an alcoholic sister-in-law, and, at times, their daughter Julia, who is thirty-six years old. Each character has his or her private grief, which accounts for the repressed tension within the family. They wonder aloud about the solutions to their problems and, at times, seem to address the audience rather than each other with their grievances. What their friend Edna says about herself and Harry is true of Agnes and Tobias' family also: "… that the only body you've wrapped your arms around … the only skin you've ever known…is your own—and that it's dry … and not warm" (Act III, p. 164). They are all isolated characters who come together only when threatened with the invasion of Harry and Edna.

Tobias is a retired businessman who has had a successful career in the city. Having fulfilled his financial obligations to his family, he has retired to the suburbs to enjoy the good life. However, as a father and a husband, Tobias has failed and he feels guilty about his inadequacies. His daughter Julia cannot establish a mature relationship with a man because she has never felt secure in her relationship with her father. They have never been able to communicate, and Tobias still does not feel comfortable talking to Julia. He announces to no one in particular, "If I thought I might break through to her, and say, 'Julia …' but then what would I say? 'Julia …' Then Nothing" (Act I, p. 33). He describes the relationship between himself and his daughter by telling a story about a cat he once had. The cat had been his for about fifteen years when suddenly it stopped liking him. The same thing happened between himself and Julia when Julia reached adolescence.

Like Jerry in the story of Jerry and the dog, Tobias tried to reach the cat with first kindness and then cruelty. He felt betrayed and resentful when the cat did not respond, so he took her to the vet and had her killed. Now he is wracked with guilt that he did not go on and accept the cat's indifference. Tobias feels that he has somehow destroyed Julia, and he is resentful because he does not see where he has failed. As a husband, Tobias failed to support Agnes emotionally when their son died. He cheated on his wife that same summer and refused to father another child or even express his sense of loss. He knew that his wife was sexually unfulfilled, so he "coped" with his inadequacies by withdrawing to a separate bedroom.

Agnes is a very different character from Albee's mommy figures. She has allowed Tobias to make the important deci sions of their lives while she has ordered her life around his. In contemplating their life together, Agnes says that a woman "assumes whatever duties are demanded—if she is in love, or loves; and plans … The reins we hold! It's a team of twenty horses, and we sit there, and we watch the road and check the leather … if our … man is so disposed" (Act III, p. 131). As usual, the rhetorical quality of Agnes' speech emphasizes that she has difficulty expressing her particular desires, so she speaks in terms of universals.

Agnes and Tobias do not really communicate until Agnes feels that she is being threatened in her own home by their best friends, who arrive and announce that they are staying. She is aware of the instability in her own family and fears the terror that Harry and Edna have brought with them. Gently and with tact, she brings Tobias to the understanding that he cannot make up for his failures as a husband and a father by being a true friend. At this point, Agnes and Tobias are actually talking to each other, rather than in general, al-though the quiet, intense quality of their discussion indicates that they are still not saying what they really think.

Furthermore, Agnes brings Tobias to the point that he can be honest when Harry finally asks whether or not he and Edna are really wanted. Tobias' answer is a passionate response.

(Soft) You've put nearly forty years in it, baby; so have I, and if it's nothing, I don't give a damn, you've got the right to be here, you've earned it.

(Loud) and by god you're going to take it! do you hear me? you bring your terror and you come in here and you live with us! i don't want you here! i don't love you! but by god … you stay!

(Act III, p. 162).

When the play ends with the departure of Harry and Edna, Tobias and Agnes welcome the restoration of order in their household. Agnes stands with her arm around her husband in a gesture of support. Tobias recognizes that at this stage in life, he can afford no more guilt: all he can say to his family is "I'm sorry. I apologize" (Act III, p. 170) and let the past go. Earlier in the play, Tobias has said that if there is no love, at least "there can be silence, even having" (Act I, p. 33). As Agnes tells him, he has only two choices: to be content with simply having his wife's company, his alcoholic sister-in-law, and occasional visits from Julia, or to re-establish his relationship with these three women on a more honest and loving basis.

A Delicate Balance is an interesting play in terms of an overall view of Albee's career. The play contains bits and pieces of the others, but it marks a major change in both style and philosophy. In A Delicate Balance, Albee indicates that he doubts modern man's ability to form personal relationships which help alleviate the stress of restrictive social situations. Because of this philosophical viewpoint, Albee's characters are isolated from each other and somewhat overwhelmed by the circumstances of the play. To paraphrase Jerry in The Zoo Story, Agnes, Tobias, Harry, Edna, Julia, and Claire can neither hurt nor love each other. For example, when Tobias finally unburdens himself by confessing that he does not really want his best friends to move in, Edna very calmly replies, "Harry, will you bring our bags down? Maybe Tobias will help you. Will you ask him?" (Act III, p. 163). There are fewer arguments in this play and more monologues and stories than in those previously discussed. The whole play has a rather detached quality which Albee further develops in his later plays—specifically, in Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and in Counting the Ways and Listening, In spite of the fact that in 1966 A Delicate Balance won the Pulitzer Prize, which had been denied Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? there is justification in Walter Kerr's criticism that the play is more like an essay than an experience.12

The ending of A Delicate Balance is not unlike the conclusion of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both plays present the same choices and focus on the motivations of the characters involved. However, in the latter, George and Martha tear down their barriers to communication through "fun and games" (title of Act I) and slash away at each other until they are finally purged of illusions. In contrast, Tobias and Agnes reveal their estrangement through calm, philosophical monologues directed more at the audience than at each other. Their speeches lack the wit and the sharpness of George and Martha's night-long brawl and, as a result, To-bias and Agnes are rather flat characters when compared with George and Martha.

The Introspective Plays

In Box, Quotations from Mao Tse-tung,13 Counting the Ways, and Listening,14 form follows content, as in Albee's earlier drama. In Box, Albee has no characters onstage and uses, instead, a disembodied voice to express his philosophy. In Quotations, he has four characters, three who speak in disconnected monologues and one silent character. In Counting The Ways, Albee has a man and woman, identified only as "He" and "She," who step in and out of the play as they discuss their relationship with each other and with the audience. In Listening, there are three characters—the Man, the Woman, and the catatonic Girl—and another disembodied voice that counts to divide the play's scenes. The characters in Listening are symbolic in that they represent universal man by the fact that they have no particular personality traits or individual experiences which give them life. Because Albee is focusing on "the condition of 'man'"15at this stage in his career, he structures the later plays around his characters' recollections of universal experiences—disillusionment, isolation, and death. The characters are portrayed as victims who recount their experiences in an effort to establish some cause-and-effect relationship between their past and their present isolation. They can establish no logical sequence of events, and hence they become "non-characters." They are merely vehicles for the expression of Albee's ideas and, in some instances, extreme abstractions. These characters seldom address each other, sometimes do not speak at all, and occasionally do not appear onstage. In these later plays, Albee loses his sense of character. He has no plays but only the essays which Ken-earlier accused him of writing.

In his experiment with "the application of musical form to dramatic around structure" Albee uses box as a "parenthesis"16 around quotations from Mao Tse-tung. There are no characters in Box but only a Voice which "should seem to be coming from near by the spectator," according to the stage directions (p. 127). Onstage is a box which is "solid, perfect joints … good work," as it is described by the Voice (p. 128). Because the play is a meditation on the box, the members of the audience become the "characters" in the play. That the speaker expects some kind of response is evident by her manner of address. To the audience, she says, "If only they had told us! Clearly! When it was clear that we were not only corrupt" (p. 129). Again, she includes the audience in her meditation: "Well, we can exist with anything; without" (p. 131). The response to the dialogue takes place within the minds of the spectators if they are receptive to the "play."

In the play which both introduces and concludes Mao, Albee is making two statements. First, all arts are degenerating. In Albee's words, "Many arts: all craft now … and going further" (p. 128). Second, "art hurts" because "it reminds us of loss"—of the order of the past (p. 130). There is no play as such because the kind of art symbolized by the box is no longer possible. The present is disordered as represented by the fact that seven hundred million babies die of starvation in one place while milk is spilled at another location.

Quotations from Mao Tse-tung is an effort on Albee's part to write more personal variations on the theme of order. Three of the characters recall their pasts in an effort to establish some reason for the disorder of their present lives. However, none of the characters address the others although at times their monologues almost seem to be responses to each other. The following excerpt is an example of the introspective technique which Albee develops in his later plays:

Chairman Mao: … On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.

Long-Winded Lady: And so high!

Old Woman: Over the hill to the poor-house.

(pp. 139-40)

All three speeches make some reference to height. The audience is aware of the connection, but the players seem to be totally isolated and unaware of each other's presence. Albee assumes that the audience will relate to one or more of the characters and also meditate on the theme of order, but the actual effect of Mao is that the audience is isolated from the characters.

The minister who represents organized religion is an extreme example of this isolation. He does not speak in the play, and as a silent character, he represents the ineffectiveness of the church in modern life. The minister never responds to the Long-Winded Lady who attempts to communicate with him. According to the stage directions, "He must try to pay close attention to the Long-Winded Lady, though—nod, shake his head, cluck, put an arm tentatively out, etc. … He must never make the audience feel he is looking at them or is aware of them" (p. 136). Albee intends for the audience to understand that the minister cannot speak.

In Mao, the Long-Winded Lady turns to the silent minister in her search for identity, but the other characters turn to the audience with their monologues. The members of the audience, in effect, become silent characters for the players on-stage who are making their pleas for understanding. Albee does not really expect any kind of response in terms of action from the audience. He is very pessimistic in these later plays and increasingly hostile toward the general public in his later interviews.

Isolation as a theme is explored in both Counting the Ways (1976) and Listening (1975). Counting the Ways is a discussion by two "universal" characters—He and She—of that sense of aloneness which Albee believes exists in every marriage. "Scene Fourteen" is representative of the entire play. The audience is told that the couple's king-size bed has mysteriously divided and become two single beds. He wants to discuss the situation, but She at first refuses.

She (Smiles a small, superior smile): Then, we are at an impasse. (Fr. pronunciation)

He: NO, we are not; we will discuss it.

She (Didactic): If I will not, and only you will, that is not a discussion.

He (He, too): Silence is a reply.

She (Snorts): Of sorts. For some I suppose. Martyrs in the desert? Old people at the post office.

(Scene 14, pp. 28-29)

In Listening, two of the characters—the Girl and the Woman—have no sense of the past and no basis for communication. Although the Man, who was once the Woman's lover, tries to get her to recall their past relationship, she disdains his attention and refuses to be pained by the memory.

The Man: I knew which flowers you preferred; you told me all about your father's whip, and all about the day you were strong enough to take it from him, and how you beat him for an hour.…

The Woman (Curiously unconcerned): No, I never told you any of that; it was someone else.

The Man: DO you still not shave beneath your arms?

The Woman (After a pause): Who are you?

(p. 122)

Even though they have been lovers, the Man and the Woman are still strangers.

The catatonic Girl represents the voice of the dramatist. She is Albee's spokesman for the only "message" he has to offer in these later plays: "You don't listen … Pay attention, rather, is what you don't do" (p. 73). The Girl cuts her wrists at the end of the play because no one is listening or paying attention to her and because she learns from the Man and Woman's conversation that the empty fountain was once full. She can no longer bear to live because what she sees hurts too much.

Albee apparently can no longer bear to write about "the condition of 'man'"17 because he finds the situation too painful. In Box, the Voice says, "When art begins to hurt … when art begins to hurt, it's time to look around" (p. 129).

Albee's last plays "hurt" because they are so abstract and pessimistic that the audience is alienated. As a dramatist, Albee becomes so concerned with relating his opinions in these last plays that his characters become merely vehicles for the expression of these ideas. They become symbolic characters as Albee seeks to communicate the meaninglessness of American life. As a result, Albee loses his sense of character and his sense of the dramatic.


1Edward Albee, The Zoo Story, in Three Plays (New York: Coward-McCann, 1960), pp. 11-62. All references to the play are made to this edition.

2Edward Albee, The American Dream (New York: Coward-McCann, 1960), pp. 11-93. All references to the play are made to this edition.

3Anne Paolucci, "The Existential Burden," in Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee (Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1972), p. 26.

4Paolucci, p. 35.

5Edward Albee, The Sandbox, in Three Plays (New York: Coward-McCann, 1960), pp. 143-58. All references to the play are made to this editon.

6Anita Maria Stenz, Edward Albee: The Poet of Loss (New York: Mouton Publishers, 1978), pp. 32-33.

7Edward Albee, A Delicate Balance (New York: Atheneum, 1967), pp. 1-170. All references to the play are made to this edition.

8Edward Albee, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Twenty-Three Plays, ed. Otto Reinert (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1978), pp. 1030-1105. All references to the play are made to this edition.

9Stenz, p. 38.

10Max Halperen, "What Happens to Who's Afraid … " in Modern American Drama: Essays in Criticism, ed. William E. Taylor (DeLand: Everett/Edwards, 1968), pp. 140-41.

11"Edward Albee: An Interview," in Edward Albee: Planned Wilderness, Living Author Series, No. 3, ed. Patricia De La Fuente (Edinburg, Texas: Pan American University, 1980), pp. 6-7.

12Michael Rutenberg, Playright in Protest (New York: DBS Publications, 1969), pp. 140-41.

13Edward Albee, Tiny Alice, Box, and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1971). All quotations from the plays listed in the title are from this edition.

14Edward Albee, Counting the Ways and Listening (New York: Atheneum, 1977). All quotations from the plays listed in the title are from this edition.

15Albee, Introduction, Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, p. 124.

16Ibid., p. 123.

17Ibid., p. 124.

Rodney Simard (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Harold Pinter & Edward Albee: The First Post-moderns," in Postmodern Drama: Contemporary Playwrights in American and Britain, University Press of America, 1984, pp. 25-47.

[In the excerpt below, Simard explores Albee's technique of undercutting "conventional expectations by dividing his emphasis between external and internal reality. " The critic further argues that Albee's "realistic framework, the family, serves as the point of departure for his own type of subjective reality, an examination of his characters ' psyches."]

Albee was early heralded in America as the brilliant young playwright and the inheritor and savior of the native dramatic tradition. Like Pinter in Britain, Albee was the first American dramatist to look beyond national boundaries and offer an infusion of Continental experimentalism to a drama that was dominated by the social realism of Miller and the psychological realism of Williams, although neither of these playwrights had produced a major work for some time. And also like Pinter, Albee looked to the European absurdists for his methods, which he turned to an examination of particularly American concerns, recognizing the limits of absurdism but also the value in its expansion of dramatic possibility.

Tom F. Driver observes that "the story of American theater is that of an attempt, not entirely successful, to create an indigenous art for a mass audience that is highly materialistic and is experiencing an astonishingly rapid growth in material power and technical knowledge," adding that the American sensibility has little awareness of man's being born to catastrophe, and that interiority in drama has traditionally been expressed in therapeutic, neo-Freudian terms, seldom, if ever, in terms of Chekhovian tragicomedy. 1 American drama had indeed made significant advances since O'Neill, and in a relatively short period, but one must not fail to note the parallel development with Britain, which had also been fairly static in terms of development since the burst of originality in Shaw. American drama dates from O'Neill, for both America and Britain share the same dramatic heritage before his emergence. Perhaps the lack of a distinctly native tradition in contrast to the British tradition, which stretches back beyond Shakespeare, is the reason why many modern dramatic critics have so frequently deplored the condition of native drama, but by the late 1950s, everyone was willing to herald the emergence of originality. Unlike Pinter, who emerged during the burst of activity of New Wave drama, Albee was alone in his attempts and seemed to be the figure America had been awaiting to revitalize moribund Broadway.

Catapulted into fame and immediately subjected to rigorous scrutiny, Albee has always been simultaneously lauded and reviled, and he continues to suffer from extremes in evaluations of his works. While in the early 1960s, the usually astute Driver could dismiss Albee as "the author of six bad plays," 2 Tennessee Williams could also say that he "is the only great playwright we've had in America." 3 The inheritor of a realistic Anglo-American tradition, Albee rejected that tradition and looked to Europe, especially to Ionesco and Beckett, and became the first American postmodern dramatist, like Pinter inspiring a new generation of writers whose experimentation has largely escaped the attacks Albee experienced while working in seeming isolation. Rejecting "our one-dimensional dramatic tradition, his search for a new dramatic language is part of a deep-rooted instinct to find adequate expression for the existential dilemma at the heart of the modern experience," asserts Anne Paolucci. 4

In 1962, while observing that the Theater of the Absurd is either on its way out or undergoing a fundamental change, Albee was able to "submit that The Theatre of the Absurd, in the sense that is is truly the contemporary theater, facing as it does man's condition as it is, is the Realistic theater of our time.…"' And Paolucci notes that,

The theater of the absurd has struggled to find ways of redefining these essentials, Juxtaposing internal landscape and external events, facts and fantasy, reshaping language to suit the splintered action, using everything that the stage offers to do so. But the kind of protagonist that emerges within this new medium is forever threatening to dissolve into a voice, a mind, a consciousness, a strange creature without identity or personality.6

Albee, like Pinter, avoids the traps of enclosure and reduction to essence evident in Beckett's work, attempting like the Englishman to achieve a plurality of vision and to avoid creating existential artifacts. Paralleling the course of Pinter's experimentalism, Albee's work continues to explore the means to expand the limits of dramatic reality with each new play, building on the concepts and methods asserted in each succeeding work. Much like Pinter's, his technique is to undercut conventional expectations by dividing his emphasis between external and internal reality. He terms his method "selective reality," 7 which is a combination of the concept of plastic theater as evidenced in Williams' The Glass Menagerie, a memory play which breaks down the time continuum and portrays a subjective, impressionistic reality, and the metaphorical allusiveness of the Beckett canon. His characters and situations are both specific and general, functioning on one level of reality within the context of the drama as well as suggesting multi-leveled layers of universal significance. His national inheritance is evident in his specific social criticism, an established American convention since the 1920s, and while he criticizes institutions, they are not necessarily specifically American, although they tend to be more specific than the menace, or threat to individuality, evident in Pinter's work.

Often using the family as a microcosm of society, he examines the nature of human bonds in a situation where the present is contingent on both past and future. His realistic framework, the family, serves as the point of departure for his own type of subjective reality, an examination of his characters' psyches, dramatized in as late a play as All Over/ Albee's method, as a brief overview of his canon will suggest, is to uncover and reveal the unconscious of his characters, making internal reality his mode and the interplay of personalities and values his dramatic action. His producer, Richard Barr, has noted that "Edward was the first playwright to say that people invent their own illusions to give themselves a reality. And his characters are aware of it. … The awareness was what was new." 8

Albee's subject matter is the conventional system of false values, empty language, and sterile emotion that are the means by which modern individuals, not simply Americans, "illusion" themselves from reality. External reality is not the true reality of modern existence but lies beneath the surface in the individual mind, riddled with its own subjective set of illusions and anxieties. His work is social criticism only insofar as modern individuals are social creatures. He examines people not in the isolation of the room/womb as Pinter does, but in their familial environment, which Albee sees as a cage which separates them from all other people who inhabit their own individual cages. He attacks language as a masking illusion, composed of clichéd conventions which obscure meaning rather than conveying it. In his early plays particularly, such as The American Dream and The Sandbox, where the influence of Ionesco is strongest, the trite speeches of his characters demonstrate their lack of feeling and their inhumanity, the danger and horror of the ordinary, as they avoid communication with those people seemingly closest to them, an effect underscored by their familial situation.

All of Albee's characters experience a glimpse into the void of meaninglessness, but only those who surrender to it become the human wreckage many critics find to be the hallmark of his drama. Even one of the bleakest of his plays, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? offers the possibility of redemption at the end. If George and Martha, like all his characters, can confront the reality of the emptiness of their lives and throw off their insulating illusion, such as their personal myth of the nonexistent child, then they may have the hope of constructing a subjective validity of existence. Only when stripped of illusion can humanity hope for redemption and salvation, an elevation invariably offered in terms of establishing meaning and assigning value to another person in an honest and aware relationship. While Pinter dramatizes choice on a metaphoric level, examining characters as they construct a method for dealing with life, Albee suggests that self-value is ultimately reflected in one's relationships with others. One must discard lies and evaluate self for what it is, then subjectively construct a set of values that recognize that, while essentially isolated, people give meaning to themselves only by choosing to value other people and by finding strength in others in order to confront the void. While Albee does not deny that the existential reality of life is isolation and a subjective perception of reality, he goes one step further than Pinter by suggesting that people must be social creatures and must establish realistic means for dealing with others. Love and commitment are his chief weapons against meaninglessness.

Like Pinter, Albee's range of experimentation is wide and he continues to produce works that further develop certain basic premises. His first play, The Zoo Story (1959), examines the isolation of modern life and argues for the need and difficulty of meaningful, as opposed to empty, human communication. Humans are no better than animals if they refuse to recognize the presence of their cage and then break out of it and touch another human being. Realistically grounded, the play uses standard absurdist techniques to heighten reality and to suggest its internal quality, for while it hinges dramatically on the murder/suicide of Jerry, the resolution is in Peter's psyche, as he, like the reader, struggles to make sense of what he has experienced. The Death of Bessie Smith (1960) is more clearly rooted in external reality and explores the social cages created by gender, race, profession, and psychology, pointing out the disparity between things as they are and things as they should be.

Following this venture into psychological realism, he produced The Sandbox(1960) and The American Dream (1961), two absurdist plays that are variations on a theme and are paradigmatic of the early Albee. Evidencing the strong influence of both Ionesco and Beckett, these episodic works are constructed of linking situations and employ conventional, cliche-ridden language. While the three generations of family members function allegorically to point out the emptiness of modern life as well as to direct several important social attacks, their primary function is to underscore the isolation and lack of communication in relationships externally structured on love but internally founded on lies and sterility. Time past (Grandma) is discarded by the mechanized and inhuman present (the solipsistic Mommy and emasculated Daddy), whose heir is the empty and materialistic young man (the American Dream), the personification of anesthetized external beauty who will do anything for money. He is the future of the modern individual who refuses to place value on internal qualities.

These allegorized metaphors of modern humanity give way to the more realistic and specific characters of his first full-length play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). A dramatization of the empty ritual by which people insulate themselves from an awareness of themselves, the play exposes the internal horror beneath the surface of ordinary social interaction as the characters flail about in the void of meaninglessness without attempting to face the reality of their lives and construct a sense of subjective worth and direction. Enclosed in their room, George and Martha savage each other in an attempt to externalize the blame for the emptiness of their lives, which are based on multiple illusions, such as the imaginary child and George's ascension to the presidency of the college. Only at the end of the play when they have brutally stripped each other of these illusions does the possibility exist of facing reality. At the close of Act III, "The Exorcism," Martha admits her fear of Virginia Woolf, the fear of madness in denying reality, as she and George retire to rest for the new day, literally and metaphorically the new beginning of their lives together. While quite specifically about two people in a specific situation, wielding words as weapons to cloak reality, the play is also open to metaphoric interpretations reminiscent of Beckett's work. The roots of American idealism are suggested by their names, the disparity between public existence (Nick and Honey) and private reality (George and Martha) is contrasted, and one can read the play as a conflict between failed history (George) and the new methods of science (Nick). Thus, this play, as is characteristic of all of Albee's plays, functions in a specific way, exploring the layers of subjective reality, as well as in a general way, providing metaphors for many of the conflicts of modern existence.

Albee's next effort was at sustained religious allegory, Tiny Alice (1964), and is a not altogether successful attempt at presenting subjective, existential reality in symbolic terms. His restrained A Delicate Balance (1966) is perhaps Albee's finest exploration of existential terror in its attempts to probe his basic philosophic preoccupations within a realistic framework. Like Beckett and Pinter, he takes this idea to further dramatic extremes in his brace of experimental works, Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1968). These theatrical attempts at allegorical minimalism are lyrical intertwinings of interior monologues which attempt to present objective and subjective reality simultaneously.

However, Albee returned to his more characteristic realistic mode with his next works, All Over (1971) and Seascape (1975), which were originally planned as companion pieces under the collective title of Life and Death. The former is a modern morality play, at once naturalistic and symbolic, which eschews exposition and explores the veiling nature of memory and the subjectivity of time. Clearly Pinteresque in technique, it remains characteristic of Albee in its final insistence on human values and the abandonment of illusion for personal salvation. The latter play defies external reality by presenting two lizards as human prototypes in its attempt to dramatize a collapse of time, confronting modern humanity with what it once was. By suggesting that individuals must assume a stance of negative capability and confront the unknowns of life boldly, Albee once again affirms the power of emotion in the renewed, realistic bond between Charlie and Nancy, his existential everymen.

The following year, Albee again returned to Beckettian (and Pinteresque) experimentation with Listening, an exploration of the subjectivity of perception. His allegorized—yet specific—Man and Woman are portraits in isolation and the inability to communicate as they drift in the haze of memory, detached from time, exploring the impossibility of verification of self. Counting the Ways (1977) continues this exploration into minimalism and subjectivity, as He and She maintain their own delicate balance, threatened with non-existence. Affirming love at the conclusion, it charts the impossibility of knowing or communicating anything, especially redemptive emotion. Reality for these characters is completely subjective as they attempt to break through their cages of isolation; they realize the impossibility of empirical knowledge yet the necessity of affirmation as She responds to his "Do you love me?" with "I think I do.'" Albee's recent play, The Lady from Dubuque (1979), is a return to the realistic mode. It presents a social group of characters who are nonetheless isolated from each other despite the elaborate network of connections they have imposed on their lives. Personified psychological states, they represent individual reactions to nothingness. Again, he underscores the subjectivity of reality by insisting that no matter what social bonds we construct to illusion ourselves, we are essentially alone. Contemporary people can find sustenance in love and the courage to face the unknown, but their reactions and values are intensely personal.

John von Szeliski states that "in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance we have the most significant representation of the essence, and the effective treatment, of a world view of the 1960s or the 1970s."10 Awarded a Pulitzer Prize (which many people maintain was a consolation for losing it with Who's Afraid), this play is perhaps the best example of the polarity in Albee criticism, but many of the attacks on the play may be surprise reactions to the uncharacteristic understatement of the work. It is an examination of free-floating anxiety, the "Terror," to which all human beings are susceptible, manifested here as a failure of love and a fear of isolation. The balance of the title is the delicate line which separates reality from illusion, which the typical Albee couple, Agnes and Tobias, try to walk. In Pinteresque fashion, they inhabit their room, insulated from reality, and face threats from all sides; they are poised between extremes in their own family, for Claire represents escape in self-withdrawal and Julia is escape in flight. Faced with varieties of isolation, from cynicism to romance within their own family structure, they have to confront the Terror brought into their home by intruders, their best friends, Edna and Harry.

The power of the drama arises from its shift from the external to the internal, from objective to subjective reality, and the conclusion is much like that of Who's Afraid: battle weary, scarred, and exhausted, Agnes and Tobias, like George and Martha, have undergone an ordeal and are indeed drained, but they lack the cushioning illusion they held at the beginning of the play which separated them from self-awareness and from each other. Agnes' closing line, "Come now; we can begin the day" (170), holds the promise of a new beginning, a brutal facing of reality highly reminis-cent of the sunrise in Ibsen's Ghosts. While apparently less than they once were, the characters have achieved a new potentiality simply by losing what they once had: the illusions that made them withdraw into the room in isolation from each other and the world. Having glimpsed the void, their fear is generalized as a fear of meaninglessness or nothingness, but it has specific applications as well. Their lives are obviously not what they had been trying to believe they were, for the concept of family and the ritual of communication are empty, merely gestures to maintain the illusion of emotion and meaning where none actually exist. So not only do they fear an abstract philosophical concept, they fear the emptiness and isolation of their collective and individual lives as well.

As in Pinter's work, the menace in this play is an abstraction, but Albee goes further by giving it very specific applications as well. While the nature of action in Pinter is relatively unimportant, since he stresses the importance of the decision process itself, Albee maintains that action is vital while suggesting the nature of the action: people must strip themselves of illusion, bond themselves to one another, and emerge from their rooms to face the daylight of shared reality. Subjective reality is every individual's terrain and the realm of personal consciousness, but it is isolating. Fragmented subjective realities must be bound together to form a collective, for people cannot retreat from the society of which they are a part, even if the unit is as small as a marriage or a family. Like Pinter, studying the response to external demands, Albee presents the fear by fiat; nothingness is an existential reality. His concern is with how his characters deal with abstractions, with the choices they make. Action in the face of contingency is the primary post-modern dramatic subject.

As in Beckett and Pinter, Albee's plays generally begin in recognizable, external reality and shift to specific explorations of inner realities within the characters. His method of selective reality within a traditional framework allows him to expand the limits of conventional realism by dramatizing characters in the process of self-exploration, stripping away the layers of illusion to reach the emptiness of their lives, the naked masks of Pirandello. But Albee is not content with a dramatization of choice and his characters are not stale-mated abstractions, such as Reader in Ohio Impromptu or even Disson in Tea Party. They are recognizable, individualized characters who reach their lower depths and stand stripped of false notions of self, attaining a universality by their nakedness. Albee's drama is a celebration of the possibility of ascent, of the possibility of redefining self and emerging from isolation to make contact with others. His optimism lies in his belief in redemptive emotion, a positive valuation of one's self and one's fellow human beings. Albee may be cynical about the difficulty involved in the struggle for self-awareness, but his drama concludes with possibility. The thunder in the drama holds a tentative promise of rain in the existential wasteland of postmodern existence.

In summary, both Pinter and Albee represent a distinct break with the Beckettian tradition, itself a fusion of realism and experimentalism. Their plays stand at the crossroads of twentieth-century drama, and various attempts have been made to place them technically and historically, the most important theories being dissonance, compressionism, and contextualism. While each of these views has its merits, both playwrights must be viewed as unique transition figures, the first of the postmoderns, for whom no specific categories are immediately applicable.

In the Beckettian tradition of minimalism and the movement toward essence, some plays by Pinter and Albee, such as Landscape and Box, have been viewed by Robert May-berry as comprising a theater of dissonance or discord, "the disassociation of the visual and the verbal media"; similar in form to the interplay between objective and subjective reality which characterizes all these plays, this particular theory asserts that "Beckett relocated the central conflict traditionally found in a struggle between characters to the more abstract level of conflicting media," placing the dramatic actions of the plays within the minds of the readers.11 Both Pinter and Albee have returned to conventional forms that adhere to a basic realistic tradition after their experiments in theatricality, yet they preserve the effect of dissonance. Within a recognizable mode of external reality, their plays probe the consciousnesses of individual characters, exposing at once the social framework of their lives as well as their interiority. The juxtaposition of the specific and the general, the subjective and the objective, the particular and the universal, the interior and the exterior, the imagistic and the metaphoric, creates both the plurality of form and response, defying probability for possibility to engage readers to the limits of their own awareness. These dramas expand from the specificity of the text to the consciousness of the characters to the perception of the reader. Meaning in these plays spirals inward to the point where it is given substance only in response to the dramatic action. Readers are at once alienated from a form which seems familiar on the surface but thwarts their expectations while they are actively engaged in the resolution of the action and the assignment of value. The subjectivity of reality, therefore, embraces reader/audience perception, and the postmodern form is one which simultaneously alienates and engages.

Noting that absurdism denies the "weapons" of traditional drama, Laurence Kitchin observes that the mode "attacks us below the threshold of consciousness, mainly by visual devices and by language in a state of fragmentation, in short, by a kind of intellectual clowning." Dismissing absurdism as a fruitless experiment in form, Kitchin goes on to maintain that the two basic forms of postmodern drama are the epic and compressionism, the latter being plays "in which the characters are insulated from society in such a way as to encourage the maximum conflict of attitudes." 12 While such a term aptly describes the works of Pinter and Albee, it tends to suggest the theatricalism of the late Beckett canon more than the existential realism of the postmoderns. Maintaining that realism, not theatricalism, is the essential mode of modern drama, John Gassner argues for a contextual view of drama that results in the "coexistence of realism and non-realistic stylization turned into an active and secure partnership in the interests of essential realism." He observes that,

In one way or another, modern drama has again and again manifested an instinct for organization, as against disorganization; a feeling for crescendo, as against decrescendo, stasis, and circularity; a regard for language, as against a disregard for it in favor of silent mimesis or mime; and, in general, a marked esthetic orientation, as against a sense of disintegration and chaos.13

The tension between these impulses is precisely the difference in direction between Beckett and his successors, Pinter and Albee. They reject his dissolution into essence and insist on a dramatic portrayal of existence, and their works are contextual in a similar sense to which the term was originally applied to poetry, relying on tensions of context rather than direction, probing and displaying vertical depth rather than horizontal movement.

As Marvin Rosenberg observes, the modern impulse is to hold time at bay, to circumscribe the present and to isolate a non-narrative felt life. He points out that this impulse can follow two paths, toward the "pure," a theatrical embodiment of a mental state, where the character becomes a trans-parent image rather than an intermediate symbol (as in Godot), or becomes a condition of living (as in the late Beckett); or it can follow traditional development, wherein character is extended in dimension (as in Death of a Salesman). As Rosenberg maintains, contextual drama seeks to represent the psyche which rebels against pattern,14 but as Bert O. States points out, Rosenberg's concept of contextual form is actually a description of effect. He maintains that the plays of the "New drama" "do not imitate actions, they imitate the mind; or, in clearer terms, these plays do not have plots, they have psychology."15 The positions of both scholars are extremes, for postmodern drama, as established by Pinter and Albee, seeks to dramatize consciousness detached from time, and the action or plot is the interplay of individually apprehended consciousnesses and subjective evaluations of reality. Reality is what the individual character (and reader) apprehends it to be, and the dramatic action is often the disparity between one view and another or between perceived and external reality. What appears to be a realistic drama staged in terms of external reality is found to be actually unfolding on the level of the subconscious, and it is on this level that it has its effect on the reader. The external framework acts as a touchstone to measure the depth of the playwright's probing into subjective perception. By the continual interplay between external and internal reality, readers are able to chart the depth and progress of their own involvement in the play. The readers' positions and responsibilities are to integrate the two (or more) levels of reality and draw their own subjective conclusions. Thus, in the most Brechtian manner are the readers involved in the work, and they must apprehend the totality of the dramatic experience to interpret it, for the form is decidedly not discursive in the traditional sense. Even the language is unreliable, for text often serves only to point to a more important subtext, which underscores the essential literary condition of postmodern drama, for form and content are in-separable, and while performance adds another dimension to the individual play, direct interpretation of the text alone discloses the theatrical and dramatic intentions of the playwright.

Pinter and Albee effectively point the direction for the unification of the late modern interior view of the human condition with traditional realism in an effective, integrated form. Their adaptation of experimental techniques, especially those advocated by Beckett and the other absurdists, to conventional form has allowed an expansion of possibility for the exploration of a paradoxically reduced postmodern concern, the existential reality of human existence. The individual applications of these concepts by a new generation of dramatists signal the establishment of a distinctly postmodern dramatic literary aesthetic.


1Romantic Quest and Modern Query (New York: Delacorte, 1970), pp. 285,321-22.

2"What's the Matter with Edward Albee?" in The Modern American Theater, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 99.

3Quoted in Richard E. Amacher, Edward Albee (New York: Twayne, 1969), p. 170.

4From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee (Carbonéale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 10,5.

5Quoted in John Gassner, Directions in Modern Theatre and Drama (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), p. 334.

6Paolucci, p. 10.

7Quoted in Amacher, p. 34.

8Quoted in David Richards, "Edward Albee: Who's Afraid of the Critics?" Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), 18 Feb. 1982, Sec. C, p. 8.

9Edward Albee, Counting the Ways, in The Plays (New York: Atheneum, 1982), III, 51; subsequent references to the various plays in this four volume edition will appear as page numbers in parentheses in the text.

10Tragedy and Fear (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1971), p. 23.

11"A Theatre of Discord: Some Plays of Beckett, Albee, and Pinter," Kansas Quarterly, 12 (1980), 7.

12Drama in the Sixties (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 30, 21, 46; see also

13Gassner, pp. 354,358; italics in the original.

14"A Metaphor for Dramatic Form," in Gassner, pp. 342-50.

15"The Case for Plot in Modern Drama," Hudson Review, 20 (Spring 1967), 52-53.

Thomas P. Adler (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "From the Margins: Edward Albee and the Avant-Garde," in American Drama, 1940-1960: A Critical History, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 201-14.

[In the excerpt below, Adler contends that Albee's early short plays "serve as a culmination or summing up of many of the central emphases of post-World War II American drama."]

A compelling case can be made that the birthsites of modern American drama during the 1915-16 season were one of the nation's earliest "regional" theaters and an off-Broadway playhouse, when short works by Susan Glaspell, such as the protofeminist play "Trifles," and by Eugene O'Neill, such as the sea plays like "Bound East for Cardiff," were first produced at the Wharf Theater on Cape Cod and later at the Provincetown on Macdougal Street in New York. An equally compelling argument can be made that the birthsites of contemporary American drama during the 1959-60 season were again off-Broadway and out in the regions, with premiers in New York but away from Times Square of the first theatrical works by Edward Albee, Jack Gelber, and Jack Richardson and of plays in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Arthur Kopit. Both groups of artists, separated by nearly a half-century, wrote against the Broadway establishment of their times and for audiences desiring something more than commercial pap. As Stuart Little remarks at the beginning of his historical survey entitled Off Broadway: The Prophetic Theater, "Off-Broadway is a state of mind, a set of production conditions, a way of looking at theater at every point at odds with Broadway's patterns."1

Kopit, whose Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad (for marquees large enough to accommodate it, the subtitle is: "A Pseudoclassical Farce in the Bastard French Tradition") finally reached off-Broadway in 1962, explains that these dramatists were committed to reinvigorating an American theater so fallen into desuetude that it bore "little more than superficial resemblance to the society and culture surrounding it" and so, un-like theater in most European countries, "lacked necessity" and did not matter. 2 In cultural histories of France, 1959 stands out as something of an annus mirabilis, with three important New Wave directors, Jean-Luc Goddard, Alain Resnais, and Francois Truffaut, all making first films that radically altered the grammar and style of the cinematic medium, Breathless, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and The 400 Blows. The 1959-60 theatrical season in America would be hardly less a breath of fresh air, definitively announcing the end of the postwar era with Albee's The Zoo Story Gelber's The Connection, and Richardson's The Prodigal. …

Albee and the Absurd

Like O'Neill a half-century earlier, Albee chose initially to write what he calls "the brief play," and, in fact, he was introduced to New York audiences at the very same theater, the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where O'Neill had been. Nor had there been any dearth of important one-act plays during the 50 intervening years by American writers as various as Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty), Thornton Wilder ("The Long Christmas Dinner," "Pullman Car Hiawatha," "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden"), Tennessee Williams ("27 Wagons Full of Cotton," "Portrait of a Madonna"), and William Inge ("To Bobolink, for Her Spirit," "The Boy in the Basement"). In his landmark study, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), Martin Esslin was the first critic to suggest that Albee, on the basis of his earliest one-act plays, should be grouped together with Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and company. Albee, in fact, refers to Ionesco's writings in his frequently reprinted essay, "Which Theatre is the Absurd One?" (1962). Playing with possible senses of the word "absurd," the dramatist's own answer to the question posed by his title is "the commercial Broadway one," for "what could be more absurd than a theater" that measures aesthetic quality by the amount of money taken in at the box office; that relegates the playwright to a collaborative position; that worships imports from London next to idolatry; and that in some seasons sees "not a single performance of a play by Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Genet, Ibsen, O'Casey, Pirandello, Shaw, Strindberg—or Shakespeare?" Albee goes on to propose "that the supposed Realistic theater" that encompasses most of the works produced on Broadway "panders to the public need for self-congratulation and reassurance and presents a false picture of ourselves to ourselves," whereas "The Theatre of the Absurd, in the sense that it is truly the contemporary theater," forces audiences to "face up to the human condition as it really is."3

Albee dramatizes the same point in his slight little sketch, Fam and Yam (1960), which is "An Imaginary Interview" between The Famous American Playwright of the post-World War II generation, probably William Inge, and The Young American Playwright of the nascent off-Broadway movement, almost certainly Albee himself. The playlet might be seen as his clarion call for a new American theater as opposed to the ailing and sickly old, which was characterized by "greedy" theater owners, "opportunistic" producers, "slick" directors, "assembly-line" critics, "pin-headed" theater parties, and playwrights who themselves elevated financial over artistic success.

Along with excoriating most commercial Broadway theater in his essay, Albee offers his personal perspective on what constitutes absurdist drama: "As I get it, The Theatre of the Absurd is an absorption-in-art of certain existentialist and post-existentialist philosophical concepts having to do, in the main, with man's attempts to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense—which makes no sense because the moral, religious, political and social structures man has erected to 'illusion' himself have collapsed" (147). Albee's works do, indeed, consistently explore the illusions that humankind creates in every area of endeavor to cushion and help make bearable the reality of that existence. In doing so, he recurrently employs many of the theatrical techniques—incomplete exposition; breakdown of causal connections; ambiguous closure; language games—that have come to be associated with one or other of the major Continental absurdist playwrights.

Yet there remain serious questions as to whether Albee in his early short plays does in fact subscribe to the central ideological tenets of the absurd. Brian Way, for instance, has argued convincingly that Albee "retreat[s] from the full implications of the absurd [wherein] the arbitrary, the disconnected, the irrelevant, non-reason, are seen to be the main principle or non-principle of the universe," because he "still believes in the validity of reason—that things can be proved, or that events can be shown to have definite meanings." 4 While Albee might at times embrace absurdism in style, he generally does not (except in his metaphysical drawing-room play, Tiny Alice [1964]) adhere to or advance an uncompromisingly absurdist philosophy. Ideologically, he remains a traditional liberal humanist, assuming much the same philosophical stance and political agenda as Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, and Lorraine Hansberry before him, exalting the natural virtues of an enlightened commitment to ideals of conduct guided by reason; a criticism of moral failure within a framework of compassion; and an overriding sense of responsibility to the community of humankind.

This is not to deny, however, Albee's leadership among the theatrical avant-garde, which he describes as "free-swinging, bold, iconoclastic, and often wildly, wildly funny." He continues by promising audiences, "If you will approach it with childlike innocence—putting your standard responses aside, for they do not apply—if you will approach it on its own terms, I think you will be in for a liberating surprise" ("Which Theater?" 150). Albee's fullest statement of his aesthetic goals appears in the introduction to his most experimental drama, Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968), where he speaks about the dual obligation facing the serious dramatist: "first, to make some statement about the condition of 'man' … and, second, to make some statement about the nature of the art form with which he is working. In both instances he must attempt change." Refusing to placate or be satisfied with the status quo entails, in turn, a commitment on the part of the playwright to "try to alter his society [and] to alter the forms within which his precursors have had to work." Nor does he omit his spectators or readers from the equation, for "an audience has an obligation (to itself, to the art form in which it is participating, and even to the playwright) to be willing to experience a work on its own terms." If they are to fulfill his own dicta, Albee's one-act plays, then, will partake in a spirit of anarchy, challenging preconceived ideas, theatrical conventions, and audience expectations.

Albee's One-Act Plays

First premiered in 1959 in West Berlin, before its New York opening on a double bill with Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape in January 1960, Albee's The Zoo Story despite its brevity, establishes itself as emblematic of the age that produced it. A parable of alienation and spiritual dislocation in the nuclear age of anxiety, it dramatizes "the way people exist," afraid of aloneness yet equally leery of making contact, "everyone separated by bars from everyone else." The bench on a Sunday afternoon in Central Park, the only object on a minimally dressed stage, becomes symbolic of the space, so close and yet so distant, that separates and imprisons individuals within their own shells; and the park/garden itself intimates a fallen world of discord rather than harmony. Contemporary urban society is filled with outcasts, the marginalized and the disenfranchised. As Jerry catalogues them, in his roominghouse alone there live, among others, "a colored queen" who frequently plucks "his eyebrows … with Buddhist concentration"; "a Puerto Rican family" of husband, wife, and uncounted children; a "person in the front room whom [he's] never seen"; and a "woman who cries deliberately behind her closed door."

In a pattern he will repeat over and again in his later works, Albee brings a character from the outside into the playing space to challenge someone already there. On the park bench reading sits Peter, a fortyish, Madison Avenue type textbook editor who lives on the Upper East Side with his nuclear family, consisting of a wife and two of everything else, daughters, cats, parakeets, TVs—but no sons. Ironically, the happily conformist and complacent Peter is perhaps the most unknowingly isolated of all. Fulfilling the image of the perfect organization man in the gray flannel suit, he is so predictable as to be a nonentity, and thus can be described only by what he is not: "neither fat nor gaunt, neither hand-some or homely"; through Peter's characterization, Albee removes the veneer from the "peachy-keen" Eisenhower era, revealing the shallowness and disquietude lurking underneath. Most damning of all for someone in the world of books and education who should be a sophisticated reader, Peter seems baffled by the narrative text that the intruder Jerry creates for him.

Jerry, whose handsome good looks have been replaced by "a great weariness," possesses an awareness of loneliness and death-in-life that Peter lacks. Orphaned at a young age (his memory box contains two empty picture frames), he experienced a loving homosexual relationship for a week when he was 15; now, however, Jerry is a "permanent transient" who finds himself unable to have sex with the same person more than once. Forcing the reluctant Peter to be his audience, in one of the wonderful verbal arias for which Albee will become known, he narrates "the story of jerry and the dog!" Standing guard for his "ugly, misanthropic" landlady is a dog who, unlike almost every one else, displays not just indifference to Jerry but open hostility. Disliking such antipathy, Jerry vows to break through and make "contact"; he determines to "kill the dog with kindness, and if that doesn't work … just kill him," first by feeding him hamburgers and then, if necessary, by poisoning the meat. The dog survives, but they do reach "an understanding." Moreover, Jerry, having tried to break down the bars between self and other "in this humiliating excuse for a jail," has "learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves; and … that the two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion. And what is gained is love." His epiphany that "we neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach each other" espouses Albee's belief that the necessity to break out of the shell of self and effect communion with the other can justify hurting that other to bring him or her to awareness. To be creative, love sometimes must be corrosive.

Peter fails to see that Jerry, in narrating the story of himself and the dog, actually tells the drama of himself and Peter as it acts itself out on a Sunday afternoon in Central Park. When Jerry as fabulist proves ineffectual because of the recalcitrance and lack of perception of his listener, he must employ other, increasingly brutal tactics. In answer to Peter's protest "i don't understand! … i don't want to hear any more," Jerry first tickles Peter; when that does not work, in a version of the child's game King of the Mountain, he pushes him off the bench; and when that still fails to create the desired effect, he ultimately forces Peter to pick up a knife and hold it while Jerry impales himself on it and dies. Now, at last, Peter may no longer be "a vegetable" but at least "an animal" whose conscious life will never be the same. Some critics have interpreted Jerry's death as either a suicide that he was unable to effect on his own or a disguised homosexual act, and validity may inhere in both readings. But it seems that Albee, as Rose Zimbardo proposes in her seminal essay,5 intended viewers of his own "story of Jerry and Peter" to understand Jerry's death as a potentially salvific sacrifice meant to raise Peter from the illusion of well-being and complacency to greater knowledge of what it means to be fully human, a reading that finds support in the biblical pharaseology ("So be it"; "I came unto you") that Albee employs near the startling close of his play.

Commissioned to provide a short dramatic piece for Gian Carlo Menotti's 1959 Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, Albee decided to take the characters from another brief play on which he was working and place them into a different situation. What resulted was The Sandbox a near perfect little gem of a play, only around 20 minutes in performance, that blends symbolism with surrealism, dedicated to the memory of his much beloved grandmother. The minimalist setting is "a bare stage" against the sea and the sky. Mommy and Daddy, with a Musician in tow who provides flute accompaniment on cue to set the mood, enter carrying Grandma "under her armpits" and rather unceremoniously plop her down in a "child's sandbox" where, some-what like Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days (1962), she proceeds to bury herself. Mommy and Daddy, whom the stage directions denote as presenile and vacuous, are deliberately flat stereotypes: she "imposing" and dominating, he "whining" and submissive, tending to respond with "Whatever you say, Mommy." They sit and, as Mommy says, "We … wait." As a number of commentators have remarked, waiting has become, after Beckett's seminal play, one of the central images of post-World War II theater. And Sandbox, as a deathwatch, is a play of waiting. Yet the platitudinous Mommy and Daddy cannot respond with any true feeling, mouthing instead only the ready-made inanities familiar from greeting cards. The ritual exists for them stripped of any meaning, except getting Grandma out of their lives and "fac[ing] the future" with the same lack of awareness with which they have gotten through the past.

Just as nothing "real" exists beneath the outer shell of Mommy and Daddy, so, too, is the "well-built" young actor, not yet given a name or identity by Hollywood, all surface and role. But dressed in a bathing suit and doing calisthenics so that his arms resemble the "fluttering of wings," he plays well and sensitively his role as the Angel of Death. Sandbox achieves its forcefulness and, finally, real poignancy, in the way that Grandma, who experiences "puzzlement" and "fear" and tangentially decries the lack of respect shown aged parents, breaks through the predictable to experience genuine emotion. What at first she thought simply a game or role, playing at dying, becomes the reality of death, come for her and waiting to be accepted. She grows in awareness, in recognition and resignation. Functioning partly as mocking chorus of her children's phony responses as well as partly stage manager who orchestrates her own end provides her with a measure of control and contributes to the dignity and tranquillity of her death. Grandma can finally "go gentle into that good night" at what is for Albee at this point in his career an uncharacteristically tender close to the play.

In his preface to The American Dream (1961), Albee writes explicitly about the intention behind his lengthy one-acter: "The play is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy keen." He comments further about his work's manner: "Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so; it was my intention to offend—as well as amuse and entertain." In its use of flat, cartoonlike characters, banal and repetitious dialogue, and outrageous non sequiturs (Mommy greets a visitor by asking "Won't you take off your dress?" to which Mrs. Barker replies "I don't mind if I do"), American Dream comes closest of all Albee's plays stylistically to the absurdist drama of someone like Eugene Ionesco in Bald Soprano (1948), in which no soprano, let alone a bald one, ever appears. As satiric social criticism, Albee's work dramatizes the devaluation of the family—in a pluralistic society traditionally the main source of moral values—brought about through an em-brace of material culture, a diminution of affective response, and a restrictive definition of sex roles that diminishes and delimits the individual.

Albee indicates this progressive deterioration in values by contrasting three generations. The wizened yet still wise Grandma hails from feisty "Pioneer stock"; the boxes in which she has packed the things "one accumulates" forge her link with the past. Now treated like a dog and bundled up to await the van man who will cart her off to the nursing home, something she would never have done to her own mother, she predicts that because it lacks a "sense of dignity" modern "civilization's doomed." She terms the present time an "age of deformity." Her daughter and sonin-law, expanded portraits of the Mommy and Daddy from Sandbox who bear the same name, are like a parody of the Strindbergian couple.

Mommy, whose more realistically portrayed antecedents in the American theater of the 1950s include the man-hating Ann from Joseph Kramm's The Shrike (1953) and the domineering Eliza Gant from Ketti Frings's stage adaptation of Look Homeward, Angel (1956), is the archetypal emasculator; she orders Daddy to "Pay attention" and deems Mrs. Barker's husband "adorable" since he is confined to a wheelchair. Marriage was entered into strictly as a business proposition, money to live off of in exchange for sexual favors; Mommy, nevertheless, is more than content that Daddy "has tubes now, where he used to have tracts," though she insults him for being "indecisive" and turned to jelly. Mommy adopts as her motto in all things the great American advertising slogan, "Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back." Unable to have a child of their own, Mommy and Daddy—unlike George and Martha in Albee's later masterpiece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), who refuse to blame each other for their sterility—adopt their little "bumble of joy" for use in the war against one another from the Bye-Bye (read "Buy, Buy") Adoption Agency. Finding him not to their liking, they mutilate him.

Now years later, baby arrives resurrected, so to speak, in the form of his twin brother, a "clean-cut, midwest farm boy type, almost insultingly good-looking in a typically American way," whom Grandma immediately dubs "the American Dream." Another actor like the Young Man from Sandbox he is a beautiful hulk on the outside, but spiritually undernourished, without feelings or moral sense within. For when his twin brother, whom he describes as "the rest of [himjself," underwent mutilation, he, too, "suffered losses. … A fall from grace … a departure of innocence" so that, cold and emotionless, he has "not been able to love anyone." His fall from grace evidences the blighting of the American Eden. Admitting that he will "do almost anything for money," he will stay as substitute son, ready to serve as stud-boy to Mommy.

Grandma finally becomes not only both stage manager/ manipulator and detached onstage audience to these proceedings but also a choral commentator, speaking a tonguein-cheek epilogue that sends the audience home while "everybody's got what he thinks he wants. … I mean, for better or worse, this is a comedy, and I don't think we'd better go any further." Her valedictory to this eulogy for the American Dream gone mad relates directly back to Albee's intention to shock his audience into an awareness that, if taken further, what he actually outlines here is closer to "the American tragedy."

The central image of marginalization of the "other," of the silencing of difference in all of Albee's one-act plays comes in The Death of Bessie Smith (1960). The playwright's coup de theater is to have the great blues singer never appear or be heard; her absence becomes in itself a powerful symbolic statement of the invisibility of blacks in white society, except when they can be commodified through their music, as Bessie was, or through their menial service, as the hospital Orderly willingly is. In life, Bessie had been answerable to her white producers and promoters, who lived off her financially and for whom she had to "hustle"; in death—and this forms the background of Albee's play—her body, shattered in a car crash, was shunted off from a segre-gated white hospital to a black hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1937. (In a New York revival late in the 1960s, Albee agreed to the addition of original recordings and photographic slides of Bessie, which he had at first rejected as too emotional a ploy; indeed, the text would seem to invite such multimedia or even cinematic treatment.) Both the racial bigotry of the South, however, and the battles between the sexes are subsumed here under a more general examination of power structures, sometimes achieved solely through language.

The Nurse dominates all the men with whom she comes in contact. She belittles her father, who seems to have schooled her in prejudice, as a "hanger-on" and a "flunky." Reduced to using a cane, he no longer even wields that powerfully, but instead raps it in "a helpless and pathetic flailing." She patronizes the black Orderly for his deferential behavior, calling him "boy" and "ass-licker," sending him to fetch cigarettes and accusing him of bleaching his skin. Like Clay in LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's Dutchman (1964), he has become an Uncle Tom, trying to "advance" himself by telling whites what they "want to hear" and buying into their value system. The Nurse both desires and derides the good-looking blond Intern, teasing him yet putting him off, reminding him of his place socially and economically, and abusing him physically. When he refuses her orders not to go outside and treat Bessie, she threatens to ruin his career at the hospital.

Some hazy writing on Albee's part leaves slightly blurry whether or not the Nurse recognizes the aloneness likely to result from her attempt to dominate others and so suffers self-hatred because of it; she professes a distaste for existence ("I am sick of everything in this hot, stupid, fly-ridden world. … I am tired of my skin. … I WANT OUT!") and is somewhere between laughter and tears as she ineffectu-ally mocks the Intern's humanity. The apocalyptic image of "the great sunset blaz[ing]" that concludes the play hints that the Intern's earlier description of sundown, "The west is burning … fire has enveloped fully half the continent," might be read symbolically as pronouncing the decline of the West, consumed by exploitation, subjugation, and victimization of weaker by stronger, minority by majority, outsider by insider. Albee's archetypal Jerry, for example, is as socially, and perhaps sexually, marginalized as Inge's characters, who could only be true to their identity and feelings—that is, their essential humanness—when hidden away in closets or in basements.

Undeniably, some recurrent patterns in Albee's short plays—a character's arriving onstage to challenge the "other" to overcome fear of the unknown and awake to a fuller humanity; power conflicts in gender relationships; criticism of middle-class stasis and moral complacency—look forward to later, more major works by the playwright, such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), A Delicate Balance (1966), and Seascape (1975). At the same time, however, the early one-acts serve as a culmination or summing up of many of the central emphases of post-World War II American drama. With their intimations of absurdity they speak, as do the works of Eugene O'Neill, of alienation and dislocation, mourning the estrangement of modern human-kind from any source of ultimate meaning. They castigate, as do the plays of Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams, an ethos of commodification that reduces culture to money and power and enshrines the material over the immaterial. Albee regrets; as does Miller, the replacement of a once empowering dream of an Eden regained by an enslaving devotion to competition and success. He reveres, as does Williams, the transmutative possibilities of art, the imaginative creation of a narrative/text or role/mask as a grace-filled moment that is potentially educative and salvific. And like Lorraine Hansberry, his art tries to subvert those social structures and benighted attitudes that inhibit human progress and potential.

What Robert Motherwell, the American abstract expressionist painter, wrote about modern abstract art in 1951 as a response to "a feeling of being ill at ease in the universe" over "the collapse of religion, of the old close-knit community and family" provides a fit summation of the thrust of modern American drama from 1940 to 1960 as perfected by Albee and such forbears as O'Neill and Williams: "It is a fundamentally romantic response to modern life—rebellious, And also, sensitive, individualistic, unconventional, sensitive, irritable."6 And also, Motherwell might have added,at its best moments, glorious.


1Stuart Little, Off-Broadway: The Prophetic Theater (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1972), 13-14.

2Arthur Kopit, "The Vital Matter of Environment," Theatre Arts, 45.4 (April 1961): 13.

3Edward Albee, "Which Theater Is the Absurd One?" in American Playwrights on Drama, ed. Horst Frenz (New York: Hill and Wang, 1965), 169-70; hereafter cited in text as "Which Theater?"

4Brian Way, "Albee and the Absurd: The American Dream and The Zoo Story," American Theatre (Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 10), ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London: Edward Arnold, 1967), 189, 191.

5Rose Zimbardo, "Symbolism and Naturalism in Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story,'" Twentieth Century Literature 8, no. 1 (April 1962): 10-17.

6Robert Motherwell, quoted in Hilton Kramer, review of The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, New York Times Book Review, 28 February 1993, 24.

Matthew C. Roudané (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Rejuvenating the American Stage" in American Drama since 1960: A Critical History, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 23-48.

[In this excerpt, Roudané investigates Albee 's "affirmative vision of human experience. "Although the "world of the Albee play is undeniably saturated with death, " he observes, "the internal action, the subtextual dimension of his plays, reveals the playwright's compassion for his fellow human beings and a deep-rooted concern for the social contract. "]

No other playwright in the 1960s influenced American drama more than Edward Albee. The beneficiary of his American predecessors, O'Neill, Miller, and Williams especially, he also was receptive to European influences, particularly those of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Peter Handke, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter. Albee would ultimately prove able to move freely, if somewhat uncomfortably, between the alternative environs of the Off-Off-Broadway theatrical movement to Broadway. While gaining inspiration from his dramatic forebears here and abroad, Albee also looked ahead, encouraging and supporting a number of then-unknown dramatists—Kennedy, Baraka, and Shepard, among others. A playwright more at ease in staging his work in the margins, Albee found himself at the very epicenter of the American dramatic world.

Reed and Frances Albee adopted Edward on 12 March 1928, two weeks after he had been abandoned by his natural parents at birth. They named him after his adoptive grandfather, owner of the largest and most profitable chain of vaudeville theaters in the country. Taken in by a wealthy family with a theatrical background, the young Albee met such writers as Thornton Wilder and W. H. Auden, who were friends of the family. A rebellious youth, Albee resisted formal education. After being expelled from a number of preparatory schools and, after a brief stay, from Trinity College, Albee worked for ten years at a series of odd jobs before composing The Zoo Story (1959), his spectacular first success. Over two dozen plays, three Pulitzer Prizes, and numerous other accolades later, Albee rightly stands side by side with the best American dramatists. He remains one of the major shapers of the American dramatic imagination. Albee's influence was especially felt the 1960s, when he found himself both lionized and attacked by the critics. He suddenly won esteem as the "best" new playwright in whose scripts the American public might find fresh theatrical validation. In a sense, however, he was the best.

Philosophical Issues

Albee draws much of his plays' essential subjects from personal experiences. As he writes in the introduction to Three Tall Women, "So, when I decided to write what became Three Tall Women … I knew my subject—my adoptive mother." Three Tall Women—which first opened at Vienna's English Theatre on 14 June 1991 and, after its 30 July 1992 showing at the Rivers Arts Repertory in Wood-stock, New York, had its New York City premiere on 27 January 1994 at the Vineyard Theatre—seems to be Albee's most frankly autobiographical work. As in such earlier works as The Zoo Story and The American Dream (1961), Three Tall Women replicates uneasy familial tensions and the playwright's lifelong preoccupation with death. A Beckettian play, Three Tall Women opens in a well-appointed bedroom in which three women—named A, B, and C—reflect on and challenge one another's lives. A is the eldest, whose nearness to death seems more pronounced with her props of a sling and walking cane; B is a middle-aged, acerbic confidante who tends to A; and C is a young attorney, a model of political correctness.

Clearly approaching her own death, A launches into a series of reflections, some bordering on vintage Albee verbal assaults, reflections dealing with death and dying. She points out the inevitability of death—it is "downhill from 16 on for all of us"—but her conception of death extends well beyond the physical. Although A appears to be a mean spirited and bigoted old woman, she also radiates more life than B and C. A recalls a past filled with loss, a sterile marriage, and a son who cannot reciprocate her love. At the end of the first act, A's anguish produces tears and a stroke.

Throughout his career, Albee subverts audience expectation, and Three Tall Women extends this pattern. In act 2 he presents a deathwatch scenario, reminiscent of All Over (1971), in which things change and time passes. A, bedridden, lies under an oxygen mask. B, humpbacked and nasty in the first act, now appears composed and regal, while C, in pink chiffon, has transformed herself into a gracious, elegant debutante.

Albee shifts away from realism to nonrealism, subverting the theatergoers sense of objective reality. The three women are really one woman. A reappears, the figure lying in the bed being a dummy, allowing the play to blend the three narratives of A, B, and C into one woman at three different stages of her life—A at ninety, B at fifty-two, and C at twenty-six. Although the three women share the same life experiences, A and B join forces in their opposition to C and in their rejection of illusions. Deception and betrayal form the greatest illusions, they tell C, forewarning that her life will be filled with disappointment. The young boy of act 1 appears as a young man now, visiting his dying mother for the last time. All of the characters, representative of various phases of a single woman's life, are haunted by sickness, denials, the process of dying, and, ultimately, death. Only A accepts her fate, embraces the reality of her death, affirming that "the happiest moment is coming to the end of it." Three Tall Women, Albee has said, was inspired by the memory of his domineering adoptive mother, with whom he felt little connection. His mother's arid marriage to a wealthy and submissive father, her marital battles with him, and the reluctant son mirror the facts of Albee's upbringing. Al-though Albee claims that he "did not want to write a revenge piece" and "was not interested in 'coming to terms'" with his feelings toward his mother, he calls the writing of the play "an exorcism." The play is his way of putting in perspective his mother (and father), who provided material comfort but little love; he also implies that the play is a reckoning with his own mortality. More tellingly, Three Tall Women embodies major philosophical issues that have long been synonymous with Albee's work.

Those issues first surfaced in The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). After Jerry astonished audiences by impaling himself on a knife in The Zoo Story and Grandma reported with appalling specificity the spiritual dismemberment of the child in The American Dream, Albee was either lauded or loathed for his dramatization. Verbal challenges, social confrontations, sudden deaths—real and imagined, physical and psychological—permeate his theater. From The Zoo Story through Marriage Play (1987) and Three Tall Women, his plays typically address such issues as betrayal, abandonment, sexual tension, the primacy of communication, loss of personal ambition, and withdrawal into a death-in-life existence—hardly issues squaring with the taste of Broadway for entertainment.

Given the militancy of his scripts and his penchant for filling his stage world with self-devouring characters, many critics pigeonhole Albee as a pessimistic or nihilistic writer. Such labels do not reflect accurately the kind of artist Albee is, however. Albee, like Eudora Welty, is a moral optimist. For Albee's worldview presupposes the talismanic powers of the theater to elicit public awareness and private insight. Within the Albee canon, one can locate an affirmative vision of human experience, a vision that belies Albee's reputation as an anger artist. The world of the Albee play is undeniably saturated with death. But the internal action, the subtextual dimension of his plays, reveals the playwright's compassion for his fellow human beings and a deep-rooted concern for the social contract. What Albee calls a "full, dangerous participation" in human intercourse is a necessary correlative to living authentically. In his plays, essays, and interviews, Albee has long argued that it is only through the hurly-burly process of immersing oneself fully, dangerously, and honestly in daily experience that the individual may sculpt a "better self government." 1 For Albee, the play becomes equipment for living. As the Girl in Listening (1976) recalls, "We do not have to live, you know, unless we wish to; the greatest sin, no matter what they tell you, the greatest sin in living is doing it badly—stupidly, as if you weren't really alive." In plays as conceptually different as A Delicate Balance (1966), Finding the Sun (1983), Walking (1984), and Fragments—A Concerto Grosso (1994), Albee implies that one can consciously choose to mix intellect and emotion into a new whole, measured qualitatively, which leads to the heightened awareness for which Living Theatre founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck yearned.

A technically versatile dramatist, Albee demonstrates, often at the cost of commercial if not critical success, a willingness to take aesthetic risks, a deliberate attempt to explore the ontological status of theatricality itself. As he writes in his prefatory remarks to two of his most experimental plays, Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968), "Since art must move, or wither—the playwright must try to alter the forms with which his precursors have had to work." Each Albee play demonstrates his ongoing effort to reshape dramatic language and contexts.

A Question of Participation

One of the qualities of distinguishing American drama is the importance of audience participation. Albee remains a leader in asking his audiences to become active participants in the stage experience. He rejects the idea of audience as voyeur. Interestingly, the French actor, director, and aesthetician Antonin Artaud, founder of the Theatre of Cruelty, deeply influenced Albee. For Artaud, the dramatic experience should "disturb the senses' repose," should "unleash the repressed unconscious," and should spark "a virtual revolt." 2 Cruelty, for Artaud, is the key alchemical ingredient that generates an apocalyptic revolt within the audience. Although Artaud and Albee would disagree on many theatrical issues, they share a belief in the use of violence. "All drama goes for blood in one way or another," Albee explains. "If drama succeeds the audience is bloodied, but in a different way. And sometimes the act of aggression is direct or indirect, but it is always an act of aggression. And this is why I try very hard to involve the audience. … I want the audience to participate in the dramatic experience" (Interview). More significantly, Albee believes that if the audience participates in the play, the violence and death, paradoxically, become positive elements. As Albee suggests, "The theater is a live and dangerous experience—and therefore a life-giving force''' (Interview).

Physical, psychosexual, and spiritual forces: these stand as the elements that so often converge in Albee's characters. This mixture, furthermore, precipitates an elemental anxiety, what the playwright calls in the preface to The American Dream "a personal, private yowl" that "has something to do with the anguish of us all." Accordingly, the power of his plays emanates from their philosophic content as well as from their sheer theatricality, from a language that rejuvenated the American stage.

Albee's experiments with dramatic forms at times place him within a postmodernist movement, but his work harkens back to a romantic tradition as well. Like Miller and Williams, Albee believes in the talismanic powers of the imagination and art to liberate, to create a liberal humanism. Underneath his characters' public bravado lies an ongoing inner drama, a subtext that presents his characters' quests for awareness. The tragic irony and feeling of loss stem from the characters' inability to understand the regenerative power implicit in self-awareness. If from the perspective of the twenty-first century such a belief seems clichéd or even shrill, it nevertheless appealed to most theatergoers and dramatists when Albee emerged as an incendiary force in the American theater in the 1960s and early 1970s.

For Albee, the play becomes the hour of consciousness. In brief, Albee's is an affirmative vision of human experience. His vision underscores the importance of confronting one's inner and outer world of O'Neillean "pipe-dreams," or illusions. In the midst of a dehumanizing society, Albee's heroes, perhaps irrationally, affirm living. If Ionesco's or Beckett's characters seem aware of suffering, they also tend to accept an attitude that precludes any real moral growth. In contrast, Albee's heroes suffer and dwell in an absurd world but realize the opportunity for growth and change. The Albee hero often experiences a coming to consciousness that draws him or her toward "the marrow"—to allude to a key metaphor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—the essence, the core of human relationships. In brief, Albee's theater consistently stages the possibility that his heroes, and perhaps the audience, can, through the process of seeing and being seen, become more honest with both their inner and outer worlds. Such honesty, for Albee, is at once a deeply personal and a deeply political force.

To regard Albee's use of verbal dueling and death as proof of some pessimistic vision is to overlook the true source of his theatrical power. As he argues in the introduction to volume 1 of The Plays, he has throughout his career defined "how we lie to ourselves and to each other, how we try to live without the cleansing consciousness of death." To ex perience the "cleansing" effects of such self-awareness—as Jerry in The Zoo Story, Grandma in The Sandbox (1960), Tobias in A Delicate Balance, the Wife in All Over, Charlie in Seascape (1975), Jo in The Lady from Dubuque (1980), and Jack and Gillian in Marriage Play discover—has long unified Albee's theater.

The Zoo Story is a classic fable of anxiety and identity. First staged in Berlin, Germany, on 28 September 1959 at the Schiller Werkstatt Theater, The Zoo Story embodies many of the qualities that have since come to characterize vintage Albee. The necessity of ritualized confrontation, the primacy of communication, the paradoxical mixture of love and hate, the cleverly abrasive dialogues, the religious and political textures, the tragic force of abandonment and death, and the penalty of consciousness all coalesce in The Zoo Story. The play elevates its two seemingly indeterminate figures, Peter and Jerry, into tragic figures, in the specifics of whose fall Albee sets forth nothing less than the general tragedy of modern existence itself.

Albee generates much tragic tension by yoking opposites together. Peter, the passive listener, lives on the East Side of New York City, and his world seems well-ordered. He represents the businessman, the upper-middle-class family man. Jerry, on the other hand, lives on the West Side of the city in a sordid world. He appears as the fatigued loner, the cosmic waif. Throughout Jerry reflects that "sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly," a reflection that culminates in a fatal chance meeting between the two characters in New York's Central Park. A random meeting turns into a mortal contest. For Jerry has decided to make "contact" with Peter by shattering his comfortable world. The play revolves around the clash of two worlds whose values and attitudes seem as separate as the men representing them. Hence the verbal jest turns into the physical assault, culminating with Jerry's ritualized suicide/murder.

When he impales himself on the knife held by a terrified Peter, Jerry not only gains the kind of purpose and expiation for which he has been searching but he also shatters Peter's predictable world. Whether judging Jerry as a psychopath living in a "zoo" (New York City), as a Christ figure, or as a shaman, critics generally acknowledge Albee's chief cultural point: to present a Peter who, through "the cleansing consciousness of death" (to use Albee's words), progresses from ignorance to awareness through Jerry's self-sacrifice. Mixing pity, fear, and recognition in the play's ending, Albee transfers the tragic insight Peter gains to the audience. For Albee, communication shatters isolation.

In The Zoo Story and, indeed, in all of his plays, Albee must be seen as a social constructionist. That is, he sees himself as an artist who, through his plays, can destabilize models of communities, expose the inherent weaknesses they harbor, and through catharsis reconstruct a new model of community and citizenship. The Zoo Story, then, is a life-affirming play. Subordinating pessimism to the possibility that the individual can communicate honestly with the self and the other, Albee presents that potential for regeneration, a source of optimism that underlies both his sense of social constructionism and his overtly aggressive text and performance. Jerry experiences a degree of religious fulfillment by giving his life. His death liberates him from an impossible present and also confirms the vitality of the "teaching emotion" he had discovered earlier. Jerry's death gives way, in brief, to nothing less than Peter's rebirth, a recharging of the spirit. Albee even claims that "Peter has become Jerry to a certain extent." Peter and Jerry, like their author, have traveled a long distance out of the way to come back a short distance correctly.

Albee does not limit the recuperative spirit of The Zoo Story to the actors but extends it to the audience. Such a deliberate attempt to diminish the actor/audience barrier—in evidence again three decades later in The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982)—essentializes Albee's dramatic theories. When Jerry dies and an absolved Peter exits, Albee envisions actor and audience as a unified collective, sharing in the emotional intensity of the action. Again, by successfully mixing pity, fear, and recognition in the play's closure, Albee transfers the tragic insight Peter gains to the audience.

This remarkable play, which made its U.S. debut at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City on 14 July 1960, energized American theater. Its impact, for many, was more pronounced because America's then preeminent dramatists failed to excite the public. In the 1960s Tennessee Williams entered what he called his "stoned age," producing until his death in 1983 plays denuded of theatrical power. Arthur Miller staged two important plays in the 1960s, After the Fall (1964) and The Price (1968), which, despite their power, did little to lessen the public's detachment.

Albee therefore emerged at the right place at the right time. The dialogue in The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, and other plays rekindled an excitement in the American theater not seen since the earlier Miller and Williams and, before them, O'Neill. Further, The Zoo Story was one of the first American plays to sensitize audiences to the vitality of Off-Off-Broadway theater. And while Kenneth H. Brown, with The Brig (1963), and Jack Gelber, with The Connection (1959), under the tutelage of Beck and Malina, waned as dramatic voices, Albee grew. The American debut of The Zoo Story was a fabulous inspiration to the struggling young Albee. After all, his play was one-half of a twin bill, the other being Krapp 's Last Tape (1958), written by none other than the world's foremost modern dramatist, Samuel Beckett. Albee's The American Dream only enhanced his reputation.

Versions of the American Family

The American Dream, regarded as America's first significant contribution to the Theater of the Absurd, is a satiric attack on a culture that, for Albee, places its faith in a consumerist, materialist world. A post-Eisenhower America, its unfettered enthusiasm for wealth and security an anodyne for the horrors of two world wars and a depression, prompted Albee to ironize "the myth of the American dream." Satiric in tone, absurdist in technique, American in cadence, The American Dream was Albee's attack on what he saw as American complacency. The play offended many. But for its author, the humorous anger was appropriate. For when he wrote this play, an optimistic nationalism—symbolized by the "right stufF' attitude of the space race, technological prowess, a renewal of faith in science, youth, and capitalism—saturated the American consciousness. The American Adam was now transformed into a postlapsarian figure, his youthful innocence tempered (and corrupted) by a blatantly self-reliant consumerism.

Such a cultural milieu invited Albee to ironize his theater. It also prompted him to experiment with absurdist satire. "The play is an examination of the American Scene," he announces in the preface, "an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen." Albee stages his attack through language. Receptive to the European absurdists, he uses the absurdist technique of devaluing language, resulting in an often illogical, cliché-ridden repartee that signifies the characters' banality. Like lonesco's The Bald Soprano (1950), The American Dream parodies language and definition, substitutes cliché for genuine comprehension, and mocks social convention and audience expectation.

With its domineering Mommy, weak Daddy, rejected Grandma, and banal Young Man (the embodiment of the American Dream), many at the time felt that the play reflected the hypocrisy of much of American life: relationships are subordinated to social categories, and often these categories function as psychological screens behind which the characters lose all sense of original thought. The power of love that Jerry tried to understand in The Zoo Story dissipates in this play. Like Mommy in The Sandbox, Mommy in The American Dream is the badgering, manipulative female, the controller of a defenseless, emasculated Daddy.

And Daddy is the patriarch of several Albee male characters who earn Mommy's wrath, in part because his primary social strategy is one of withdrawal, with the path of least resistance he takes prefiguring an ossified spirit.

Grandma is the one source of vitality in the play. She neither participates in nor is entrapped by the absurdism of the dialogue. Dignified though treated with disrespect, clear-sighted though elderly, she represents for the author a singular source of caring, an admittedly sentimental character based on Albee's own adoptive grandmother. She understands and accepts her condition, her eighty-six years of experience revealing her adaptability. An individual living "in the age of deformity," as Albee writes, she emerges as an independent figure who endures familial rejection.

Albee counterbalances Grandma's humanity with Mommy's and Daddy's cruelty. After buying a baby twenty years ago through Mrs. Barker's agency, Mommy and Daddy became deeply disappointed that their boy failed to mature into their version of the American Dream. When the boy refused to conform, they mutilated him. The appearence of the Young Man allows Mommy and Daddy the chance to recover the myth of the new American Dream; he will, of course, "do almost anything for money."

Clearly, Albee satirizes the American family. Perhaps Albee's childhood accounts for part of the unsparing satire. Albee saw in Mommy and Daddy traces of his adoptive parents, whose wealth allowed them, it appears, to substitute material pleasure for love. Perhaps these factors account for the anger of The Zoo Story and The American Dream; only in Three Tall Women, staged some three decades later, has Albee been able to come to terms with his family. Such issues as rejection, abandonment, lovelessness, spiritual withdrawals, and deaths dominate his theater. Perhaps Albee's homosexuality only added to the strained relations between uncaring parents and child. In the plays, it expresses itself in the animosity between the sexes. But Albee and his grandmother loved each other, which probably explains the positive treatment the elderly receive in The Sandbox, The American Dream, and Three Tall Women. In any event, the satire points toward a spiritual fissure that Albee feels deforms the primal family unit.

The American Dream seems somewhat dated today. Audiences have become accustomed to the outrageousness of the absurd. The political and artistic richness of absurdism, while still compelling, has been appropriated by the mass media and public art so much that its shock value has diminished. Dysfunctional families hardly seem unique anymore. Historically, however, the play exerted a notable influence on American theater following its 24 January 1961 premiere at the York Playhouse in New York City, giving inspiration and added significance to OfF-Off-Broadway. Although he is not an absurdist playwright, Albee did succeed in using absurdist techniques in a play that inspired a whole generation of dramatists to experiment with the traditional, the predictable. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee continues to dare, but with a success that exceeds his own expectations.

Challenging Broadway

A volatile confluence of theatrical forces—social, political, historical—conspired to make Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee's Broadway debut, especially timely. "To many people," observes Bigsby, "the American theatre seemed threatened with imminent collapse, while the great dramatists who had sustained the international reputation of American drama for so long were no longer in evidence" [C. W. E. Bigsby, ed. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1975, p. 4]. In other words, Broadway had reached a low point by the time Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made its epochal premiere that Saturday evening, 13 October 1962. Albee suddenly found himself "as the man singled out to take on the burden formerly carried on by O'Neill, Miller, and Williams," a position that surely thrilled the young playwright but one with which he never felt fully comfortable (Bigsby 1975, 5). If Albee experienced the pressures of one anointed to redeem Broadway theater, he succeeded with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play that checked, if not halted, Broadway's decline. The play ran before packed houses for 664 performances. Whether in praise or scorn, theatergoers responded. The movie version, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, became one of the most lucrative films of 1966 for Warner Brothers and garnered thirteen Oscar nominations that year. Simply stated, the play dominated the theater world in the 1960s and 1970s with successful revivals.

Controversy and Albee go hand in hand. His plays provoke sharply divided critical opinions, which are as mightily opposed as the characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His masterwork only exacerbated the critical battles. The play earned Albee the reputation of being a nihilist, social protester, moralist, allegorist, parodist, dramatic innovator, affirmative existentialist, charlatan, and absurdist. Whether perceived as an account of the decline of Western civilization or as "an elaborate metaphor for what Albee sees as the willing substitution of fantasy for reality, the destructive and dangerous infantilising of the imagination and the moral being by fear," Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? revitalized American drama [C. W. E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 265].

Prior to the appearance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? critics questioned Albee's status as a major dramatist, despite the fame of The Zoo Story and The American Dream. The Sandbox, Fam and Yam, and The Death of Bessie Smith (all produced in 1960) are important works insofar as they reveal Albee's emerging unity of vision and skill as an acerbic dialogist. But they are hardly major plays. Instead, they bear the growing pains of a new playwright sorting through personal, ideological, and technical concerns. Critics viewed Albee as a promising but untested composer. Was he yet another American playwright with but one or two good plays in his repertoire? Were those who praised him, perhaps in their eagerness to anoint the Next American Playwright, too hasty in their accolades? Would Albee, like his Off-Off-Broadway contemporaries Jack Gelber, Jack Richardson, and Kenneth H. Brown, fade after a promising start? Albee had not fulfilled two requirements, the Broadway reviewers felt, to ascend to "major" dramatist ranking: he had yet to compose a full-length play or to stage a play on Broadway. Albee knew such requirements were superficial, based largely on money and mass popularity rather than substance. He emphatically argued the point the Sunday before Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened at the Billy Rose:

Everybody knows that Off Broadway, in one season, puts on more fine plays than Broadway does in any five seasons. Everybody knows that Beckett, Genet and Brecht… are more important playwrights than almost any-body writing on Broadway today. … I do know that, uptown [on Broadway], "success" is so often equated with cash while, downtown [off Broadway], value does not always have a dollar sign attached.… Nonetheless, I am told by some of the cognoscenti that if this play [Virginia Woolf] is a success it will be a more important success than the others, and that if it is a failure the failure will be more disastrous than it could be downtown. It may be so, but I can't quite get it through my head why.3

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? changed the reviewers' reservations about Albee and ratified his place in the American literary canon.

Finally, it seemed, a qualitative voice had emerged to help Hellman, Williams, and Miller, whose contributions in the 1960s were less than satisfying, sustain the modern American dramatic heritage established by O'Neill and his contemporaries.

Realism and Theatricalism

Realism and theatricalism, a fusion of the illusion of reality and dramaturgic invention, crystallize in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Its verbal dueling, Strindbergian sexual politics, and unexpected exorcism within a claustrophobic set generate excitement and outrage. If nothing else, Albee's masterpiece inspires theatergoers to react. "Only a fortnight after its opening at the Billy Rose Theatre it has piled up an astonishing impact," reported one reviewer in the New York Times. "You can tell from the steady stream of letters it has precipitated. Elated, argumentative and vitriolic, they have been pouring across my desk and, no doubt, into the offices of my colleagues. Whether they admire or detest the play, theatergoers cannot see it and shrug it off. They burn with an urge to approve or differ. They hail the play's electricity and condemn it as obscene.… The public is aroused."4

Many theatergoers saw in the play Albee's endgame, a quintessential negative work. Such an assessment, however, fails to capture the spirit of the performance.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains Albee's most affirmative work. Beneath the devastating gamemanship lies the animating principle of love, which unites its players. Near the end George explains to Honey, "When you get down to bone, you haven't got all the way, yet. There's something inside the bone … the marrow … and that's what you gotta get at." The "marrow" allusion marks a key dramatic moment, for George realizes what needs to be done to save not his marriage but his and Martha's very existence: the son-myth crippling their world must be confronted and purged from their psyche. The"marrow" allusion signifies George's awareness that stripping away the illusion governing their lives is necessary for survival.

The play's ending stages the re-visioning process Albee insists is necessary for his characters' spiritual aliveness. The hatred between George and Martha gives way to rapprochement, rapprochement succumbs to relationship, and relationship leads to love. George and Martha, connoisseurs of verbal dueling, now communicate directly. Once ennobled by their lexical inventiveness, conferring on an illusion the status of objective reality, George and Martha are brought to earth not merely by sacrificing their son but also by sacrificing the very language that defined their moral imagination. The game playing, for now, is over. The ending of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? heralds the first step toward living authentically. For O'Neill illusions help; for Albee they destroy.

Albee's Virginia Woolf-like awareness of and sensitivity to fear informs the exorcism of the play. Whether in praise or scorn, the exorcism bringing the play to a climax has been the source of endless debate. It is also the source of the play's theatrical power. Throughout Albee challenges the audience's sense of logic and what is or is not real. This subversion of audience perception reaches its apogee through the exorcism of the son-myth. But the audience does not comprehend this insight until after the fact. After seeing the play the audience realizes that Albee has worked very carefully to orchestrate what turns out to be the murdering of the son-myth, but until the end of the work, the audience has no clue that the child is anything but real. While seeing the play unwind, live, the audience finds itself caught, like Nick and Honey, in the cross fire. Until Nick's epiphanic moment of comprehension minutes before the play ends—"jesus christ i think i understand this!"—Albee manipulates the audience to believe that the son lives. Even in the midst of exorcising the son-myth, the playwright draws upon that very illusion to highlight the intermixture of appearances and realities and to keep the audience's sense of what is verifiable shrouded in mystery.

If the audience harbors some doubt about the existence of "the bit," such misgivings seemingly vanish in act 3. The meticulous recall of the child confirms his very being. Even George concedes the point. George, whose levelheadedness maintains the psychic order of the play, announces before all that "the one tiling in this whole sinking world that I am sure of is my partnership, my chromosomological partner-ship in the … creation of our… blond-eyed, blue-haired … son." All dialogue and nonverbal gestures reinforce the spectator's conviction that the child lives, requiring no great deduction on the audience's part. To think otherwise would be to miss what the characters have been telling the audience and each other for nearly four hours. In essence, Albee sets up his viewers: he prepares them for an even greater emotional shock by emphasizing the presence of the illusion that, through the unexpected reversal and subsequent recognition, will explode before their gaze.

In act 3 Albee explores the interstice generated by the matrix of truth and illusion. The fictive son assumes a most real place within Martha's consciousness during the exorcism. She has a pathological obsession with her child, a fantasy conceived out of her fearful need twenty-one years before to fulfill a void in her marriage and her own existence. Psychically dependent on her fantasy, she crosses a threshold, for her child does not merely occupy her thoughts—he possesses her, like some demon spirit. George recognizes her reaction and, especially in the final act, he sets his sights on one thing: to banish the son-myth that interpenetrates his and Martha's world.

George precipitates a ritualized form of expiation through the exorcism performance. Albee mediates the entire third act with a stylized process of expunging what at one time was an innocuous private game but has now grown to assume horrific proportions. For Albee wishes the audience to associate "the exorcism," the original title of the play, with the mythological history of past rites of cleansing evil demon spirits inhabiting individuals.

Mythologically, an exorcism is a ceremony that attempts to dispel or frighten away evil or demonic forces. In old German lore, St. Walburga, a British missionary, worked in an eighth-century convent that became one of the chief centers of civilization in Germany. She is often associated with Walpurgisnacht, the May first festival in which witches reveled in an orgiastic, ritualized Sabbath on Brocken, the tallest peak in me Harz Mountains. Located on the German border, these rugged, craggy mountains were in St. Walburga's day thickly forested. During "Walburga's Night" (the witches' Sabbath), as it is known in Central Europe, witches exorcise demon spirits from villages and villagers in a heightened rite in which they use a cacophony of loud noises, incense, and holy water to achieve purgation. The mysteriousness of all the religious and cultural connotations of the exorcism myth and ritual becomes an invisible force, part of the iconography of Albee's play. Structurally, then, act 3 plays counterpoint to the Walpurgisnacht of act 2. By invoking the rite of exorcism, Albee broadens the scope of his domestic drama: the sacredness of the Unknown and the inscrutability of an existential Terror become the mystical screen on which George and Martha enact their fears. In act 3 demon spirits are first confronted, then through "Bringing Up Baby" are externalized, and finally banished by the exorcism itself.

In his influential study of myth and ritual, René Girard theorizes that sacrifice is essential if community order and harmony are to be restored. "Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred," Girard writes in Violence and the Sacred (1977). 5 Sacred violence in the form of a ritual sacrifice, suggests Girard, ultimately cleanses the community of violence. Girard develops a fascinating account concerning the relatedness of anthropology, classical tragedy, and Freud. His ideas about the roles of violence, sacrifice, and the ways in which these forces influence community and spiritual vitality place the violence and exorcism in act 3 of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a positive context. George, by the third act, must come to terms with the sacred violence that he is forced to unleash. Thus, as conductor of the exorcism, George first must discover "some way to really get at" his wife, a point that critics often seem to take as proof of the couple's viciousness and hatred for each other. Such is not the case, however. To orchestrate the exorcism. George begins with an invocation to the inner demons released in Walpurgisnacht by enraging Martha to a psycho-logical breaking point. He thereby can bring up the demons for an essentially religious reckoning and escalate the action to "[t]otal war." The viciousness of George's and Martha's arguments is a necessary ingredient, as Girard might suggest, a method of exteriorizing their unconscious fears, and the demons lurking within Martha's psyche.

When Martha reimagines her child, experiencing the height of her pain by spreading her hands in a crucifixion pose, George recites the Mass of the Dead. Here George evolves into a secularized High Priest exorcist. Through these hypnotic scenes, Albee places us within "the marrow" of the play. The illusion shattered by George's latest fiction concerning her son's car accident (the third and final re-presentation of a "Bergin" story), Martha cleanses her soul—" (A howl which weakens into a moan): NOOOOOOoooooo"—her purging cry signifying the death of the illusion and the rebirth of some semblance of sanity.

The denouement of the play suggests that the son-myth, for now, has vanished. The "hint of communion" informing George and Martha's verbal and nonverbal communication implies the start of a loving armistice, a definitive change in their relationship. The play's closure, with its Joycean affirmative texture, implies more than a reconciliation of man and wife; it further suggests that they can now accept their life, with its cajoling ambiguity and terrifying flux, without illusion. In their resolution, George and Martha, and perhaps Nick and Honey, acknowledge the dread implicit in human existence and affirm the importance of living honestly. The messy inconclusiveness of the play's closure, then, minimizes sentimentality while functioning thematically: Albee provides no promise that the marriage will be redeemed or that the illusion is inexorably shattered. But he does present the very real possibility of a truthful, loving renaissance for his heroes. Their new-tempered union will be measured in terms of their willingness to keep at bay the illusion that at one time was a source of happiness but, on this night in New Carthage, erupted in all its appalling forms. As such, the play stands as Albee's valediction forbidding mourning.

Truth and Illusion

After Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and his adaptation of Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café (1963), Albee staged the baffling Tiny Alice, a provocative, if not fully successful, work. Addressing the way in which the truth/illusion matrix influences one's religious convictions, Tiny Alice raises more questions than it answers. Refusing to compromise artistic instinct for box office revenue, Albee's play confused audiences on its 29 December 1964 opening at the Billy Rose Theatre. The play concerns Julian, a lay brother who, on his cardinal's orders, tries to finalize a multimillion dollar donation to the church, to be given by Miss Alice. She is beautiful—and happens to be the wealthiest woman on earth. Julian enters her house, a castle, only to find himself the object of a conspiracy. The Lawyer, Butler, Miss Alice, and even the Cardinal succeed in destroying Julian's faith in God. They convince him that he worships a denatured abstraction of God, not God himself. Julian's quest for meaning and his fear of sexuality and the unknown leave him vulnerable to his antagonists' scheme, which culminates in his marriage to Tiny Alice (not, as he thinks, to Miss Alice), who is yet another abstraction, a false deity who lives in the model of the castle. When Julian protests and threatens to thwart his enemies, he is shot. As he lies bleeding to death, he confronts the truth: that he cannot rely on metaphysical abstractions and that he has been betrayed by his own faith.

Tiny Alice is a dream play. Its obscurity and mystery, its homosexual overtones, and its apparent indictment of the church made for critical jousting (especially since it opened during the Christmas season). Albee's real interest, however, centers not so much on public crimes of business or the church as on private crimes of the heart. He raises broader epistemic issues than in the earlier plays, as seen through Julian's struggles with the ambiguous tensions created through truth and illusion, abstract and concrete knowledge, the relation between sexual ecstasy and religious celebration, and, of course, humankind's idea of God versus the reality of God. Even the model of the castle, an exact replica of the stage set, objectifies the complexity and mystery of the universe in which ambivalences are the norm. Albee stages the ethical dilemmas and contradictions within Julian's subconscious. The final irony in the play concerns Julian's finding "himself again," but only within a universe whose mysteries define the inscrutability of God and the reality of death.

A Delicate Balance, first performed at the Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, on 12 September 1966, signaled Albee's return to critical favor after the bewildering Tiny Alice and his failed adaptation of James Purdy's Malcolm in January 1966. A Delicate Balance, which earned its author his first Pulitzer Prize, is Albee's most blatant staging of the existentialist predicament. The play does not chart cataclysmic changes but rather the subtle shifts in human relationships: from engagement to habit, from commitment to estrangement, from love to indifference. The play stages the way in which, as the character Claire says, "we submerge our truths and have our sunsets on untroubled waters," a pattern by now assuming a thematically preeminent position within Albee's aesthetic. The play's slow-paced action captures well the spiritual inertia that has gradually ossified this family. Consciousness comes too late, it seems, for by the play's ending Agnes and Tobias's awareness reveals a void. Agnes, Tobias, and Claire allow vital lies to take over their lives. Although their friends Harry and Edna come to an awakening, the other characters, on the brink of living honestly, succumb to the illusions that so distort their existences.

The play dramatizes the lives of Agnes and Tobias, a couple nearing their sixties, whose comfortable suburban life seems as well ordered as it is fulfilled. But other people—Claire, Agnes's alcoholic sister who lives with the couple, Julia, the often-divorced daughter, and Harry and Edna, the family's best friends who move in because of their "terror"—upset this complacent home. The unexpected and unwanted intrusions of these people force Agnes and Tobias to reassess the nature of their love, their values, indeed, their very existences. As the play closes, however, Albee ironically suggests that Agnes and Tobias willingly accept the failure of their own individual nerve. The play presents a sense of aloneness in the midst of company, dread in the common, and terror in the real.

The play reaches its climax when Harry and Agnes ignite an awakening in Tobias. Such an awakening, however, does not lead to a definitive change. With Agnes, Tobias realizes their lives have been wasted, and his ravings at the end merely serve as a painful reminder of the wasted opportunities that have long immobilized the family. A positive reading of Agnes's closing speech hints at the possibility of regeneration. Maybe Tobias and Agnes will, like George and Martha before them, live more honestly "when daylight comes again." A bleaker reading of the end, however, seems more in accord with Albee's intentions. Both Agnes and To-bias have the chance to confront the illusions governing their world, Tobias's epiphanic litany at the ending signaling a qualitative shift from an anesthetized stance to a state of aliveness. But they choose, instead, to maintain the delicate balance, which tragically preserves their vital lies.

Relinquishing and Replenishing the Spirit

After some forgettable work—Breakfast at Tiffany's (1966), a musical based on Truman Capote's book, and Everything in the Garden (1968), an adaptation of Giles Cooper's play—Albee staged the inventive companion pieces, Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968), plays outlining the collapse of language and human contact itself. These two plays, concerned with the collapse of human connection and the absence of a divine grace, forced the audience to work very hard. In essence, Albee invited theatergoers to become active participants in Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, which premiered at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, New York, on 6 March 1968. "You lead a whole life," the Long-Winded Lady reflects near the end, but "no matter what, you say your name … and they have … never … heard of it."

He next staged All Over, a drama whose subject matter revolves around death. Indeed, the reality of death shapes this play, first performed at the Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, on 27 March 1971. Although its working title was simply "Death," All Over reveals the kinds of pressures death exerts on those still living. Albee reconnoiters a psy-chic terrain of the survivors. The play extends Albee's interest in death seen in Quotations from Chairman Mao TseTung, whose Long-Winded Lady laments, "Death is nothing; there … there is no death. There is only life and dying."

In terms of plot and action, little happens. The characters congregate around a famous (and never seen) dying man, forming a socially awkward deathwatch. As the play develops, we see that all of the characters have abrogated their essential selves; their petty deceits and minor betrayals have grown into death-in-life patterns of behavior. The play ends with the famous man's death, but clearly Albee implies that life has been "all over" for the living characters for too long.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's theories on death and dying influenced Albee while he was composing All Over. Her research on familial and cultural reactions to death, published shortly before All Over appeared, centers on the psychological stresses the living and the dying experience during the various stage of the dying process. Among her complex findings she suggests a simple observation that serves, in dramatic terms, as Albee's point of departure in All Over as well as in The Lady from Dubuque and Three Tall Women: "The dying patient's problems come to an end, but the family's problems go on." 6 Albee's interest lies well beyond the dying man, for what strikes most forcibly are the other characters' "problems" and their responses toward themselves. Their egocentrism clouds judgment; the dying man remains an afterthought.

Within All Over the egocentric preoccupations of the characters so infiltrate their motives and language that humane values fade, becoming distant social forces. A special kind of death replaces any humanistic values: not the physical disintegration of the body but the metaphysical dissolution of the individual spirit. Like Bessie in The Death of Bessie Smith, who never takes the stage, the dying man in All Over remains invisible. Yet, like Bessie Smith, he asserts his presence throughout the play. His dying, ironically, gives definition to the others' lack of aliveness. Albee deliberately hides the famous man behind a screen, the symbolic separator of the dying patient from the living family members. The screen represents, for Albee as for Kübler-Ross, a disturbing cultural distancing response, a way to deny an unwanted otherness. Finally, Albee emphasizes the inactive spirit of the characters by having them perform as if they were partially anesthetized, sleepwalking through their lives. Throughout the play Albee refers to a dream world, the central problem of All Over revolving around the "moral sleep" that so engaged Thoreau and, later, Camus and Bellow. Such a relinquishment of the spirit is, for Albee, un-acceptable. The playwright will rethink some of the larger issues embedded in All Over in each of his subsequent plays, especially with the more optimistic work, Seascape.

If the collapse of moral nerve forms a central problem in Albee's work through Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, then death informs his work since All Over. Seascape, which opened on 26 January 1975 at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre in New York City and which won Albee his second Pulitzer Prize, represents the dramatist's persistent concern with the problem of what may occur if the human spirit withers. Here Albee is not writing merely about the naturalistic evolution of the human and animal species but about the evolution of human consciousness itself. The sentimental play, a not-always-convincing mixture of fairy tale, myth, and history, is nonetheless one of Albee's more optimistic works.

A companion to All Over, Seascape was first entitled "Life." The design of the play seems simple enough. Nancy and Charlie are vacationing at the beach, relaxing and figuring out what they will do now that their children are grown and their own years seem numbered. When two tall green-scaled sea lizards emerge from the sea, conveniently anthropomorphized, Albee joins two distinct worlds, here represented by the human world and the animal world. Whereas in so many Albee plays the joining of two worlds leads to violence and death, in Seascape the comingling showcases the force of love and sharing. The bringing together of the sea lizards and humans does not produce illusions, but rather leads toward understanding.

During the play, the couples learn about the privileging of engagement and love. Things are not "all over" in this play. Albee, if nothing else, implies that through the sweep and play of evolutionary patterns, humankind has transcended both noble savagery and the instinctive response to nature to become beings whose mentor increasingly is reason. The power of reason, for Albee, is useful, even positive. Still, in Seascape the dominance of the rational faculties poses a real threat. The danger is that, with rationality triumphing over the instinctive, the primordial life-giving passions will dissipate and, for Charlie at least, be irreplaceable by another source of vitality. Unless reason and emotion exist in counterpoise, more ground will be lost in the wonders of evolution than gained. Albee implies that evolved humanity will cease to feel deeply, or, continuing to feel at all, will care for only the wrong things. After all, Albee called this guardedly optimistic play "triste."

Albee continues to produce and direct. Listening, commissioned as a radio play for B.B.C. Radio Three in 1976, and Counting the Ways, staged at the National Theatre in London in 1976, went largely unnoticed in the United States, as did Finding the Sun (1983) and Marriage Play (1987). Not so with his lackluster adaptation of Nabokov's Lolita in 1981, or his The Lady from Dubuque (1980) and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982), original plays that drew mainly negative responses and quickly closed after feeble showings at the gate. Fragments—A Concerto Grosso (1994) received mixed reviews and closed virtually un-noticed. If the success of Three Tall Women in 1994 marks the return of his mimetic powers, Albee faltered slightly with The Lady from Dubuque and stumbled noticeably with The Man Who Had Three Arms.

The Lady from Dubuque, first performed at the Morosco Theater on 31 January 1980, focuses on vintage Albee themes: death, dying, and failed communication among the living. What makes the play engaging is its examination of how the central couple, Jo and Sam, ultimately respond to Jo's dying. Through Sam and the other characters who are brought into the orbit of Jo's dying, Albee suggests that, although Jo's life is about to cease physically, she radiates more life than do the physically healthy characters. Jo, in brief, is not the only figure who is dying. Her companions, long before this play begins, have succumbed to a debilitating disease that now paralyzes them. Indeed, the spiritual malaise from which they suffer pervades the play, for throughout one finds an array of wasted relationships, wasted love, and wasted lives.

In several of Albee's earlier plays the characters come to realize that they may seize upon some spiritual regeneration. This motif informs The Zoo Story, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Seascape. In The Lady from Dubuque, however, the characters remain incapable of seeking fresh understanding of the public and private self. Fred and Carol, with Edgar and Lucinda, retreat into their familiar habits, unchanged or only embittered by their recent experience. Elizabeth and Oscar, probably messengers of death, perform their duty and, with Jo's death, simply take leave. Sam—unlike Peter in The Zoo Story, George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or even Charlie in Seascape—learns little about love or acceptance. He sees the help Elizabeth and Oscar give Jo but quickly loses sight of that comfort. He remains a self-centered man. With his guest he remains as dead as the Romulus and Remus figures in the game of Twenty Questions. They have conducted themselves as if they were "the very dead; who hear nothing; who remember nothing; who are nothing," as Elizabeth says near the play's end.

Herein lies the irony of The Lady from Dubuque. As in All Over, death remains a ubiquitous force, encompassing not only Jo's literal death but also including figuratively the death of her friends and husband. The presence of death gives Sam a chance to confront his real self and allows him the opportunity to embrace a well-known Albeean theme: to participate in his life honestly, compassionately, and fully. That Sam and the others do no accept this kind of immersion into their daily encounters, however, confirms the wasted opportunity.

If The Lady from Dubuque outlines wasted opportunities, The Man Who Had Three Arms addresses another form of waste: the collapse of the individual's moral nerve as a result of a public that demands a hero, even though that hero lacks substance. The Man Who Had Three Arms, which opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on 4 October 1982, presents a man savagely divided against himself and his world. Himself, the protagonist fixed behind the podium, emerges as one of Albee's least sympathetic characters, for what strikes the viewer is the character's stance toward the audience. He relentlessly lashes out at the theatergoer. Himself berates the audience in an attempt to come to terms with the incubi haunting his soul: his undeserved fame and subsequent fall from undeserved stardom. After he mysteriously grows a third arm, the media and public instantly elevate the man to celebrity status. When that third arm disappears, however, so goes his fame, money, family, and sense of self-composure.

The shaping idea of the play works as Albee explores the corrupting and transitory effect of stardom on the individual, but his presentation lacks the moral clarity and dramatic focus of some of his earlier works. Albee revised the script extensively and delayed publication for years. Himself does emerge as a more understandable, if not more likable, figure in the version appearing in the Selected Plays of Edward Albee (1987). At the end of this version, Himself, with eyes looking "more-or-less heavenward, " yells, "It's [the third arm] coming back, you fuckers! (Fist upward and clenched) You'll get yours, you mothers!" Himself thinks that his celebrated third arm is returning, but much to his surprise a foot, not an arm, appears as the final curtain falls. A Pirandellian play that Albee, if not the critics, still enjoys, The Man Who Had Three Arms (and feet?) again indicates that the playwright remains eager to restructure his stage according to the demands of his performance instincts.

If his work since Seascape lacks the theatricality of the earlier plays, he still must be seen as one of the most influential American playwrights since 1960. When he is at his best, Albee produces in certain characters and, ideally, in the audience what Robert Frost calls "a momentary stay against confusion," a still point in the messy business of living that creates the opportunity for existing with some heightened sense of self-responsibility. Heated repartee, sexual tensions, illusions, the collapse of language itself—these are the issues that Albee mines, but not from the position of a nihilist. Rather, he explores these issues because they can trigger in the plays catharsis and, ultimately, some life-affirming experience. To understand the role of death in his theater is to understand the compassion and optimism of his worldview. The plays seem overburdened with death, to be sure, but they are so conceived because the presence of death, once internalized, shapes the quality of human existence for their author.

Albee remains a regenerative figure in recent American drama. If his later works, with the exception of Three Tall Women, do not compare favorably with his earlier compositions, he nonetheless has emerged, with Arthur Miller, as an elder statesman of the American theater. His language, which once so engaged (and enraged) audiences, has become more mannered, abstract, and forced. Many of the later plays, which seem more like unfinished experiments than polished, unified plays, do not sustain the dramaturgic burdens Albee places on them. Some of these plays, many critics feel, simply repeat already outworn themes. Adding to Albee's problematic reputation are the newer voices that have eclipsed his own. Wendy Wasserstein's humor, David Mamet's elided street dialogue, Sam Shepard's mythicized stages, and August Wilson's fables now stir more critical and popular attention. On the other hand, Albee's clever use of language and moral seriousness revolutionized as it rejuvenated American drama. Long a supporter (financially and symbolically) of his fellow artists, Albee pushed American drama from the margins toward the center of cultural discourse. He continues to display an acute sensitivity to other dramatic traditions and remains intent on an experimentalism that requires a restructuring of the contemporary stage. Many feel that Three Tall Women signals a return of his mimetic powers, a recovery of the imaginative processes that were so cogent in the plays through A Delicate Balance. An innovator, he refuses to repeat old formulas or to write "safe" productions that might raise his reputation commercially. For him this bow to popular tastes and commercial expectations would compromise his commitment to produce original theater.

Albee received his third Pulitzer Prize for Three Tall Women in 1994. The only other dramatist to win more Pultizers is O'Neill. After the award Albee said, "If you really thought you were old fashioned, you could get glum about it. But there is not always a great relationship between popularity and excellence. If you know that, you can never be owned by public or critical response. You just have to make the assumption you're doing good work and go on doing it." 7 Albee has been "doing good work" for some four decades. He remains not merely one of the most controversial, helpful, and influential contemporary dramatists but also one of the few Americans responsible for introducing European influences into a uniquely American cadence and context. And he must be credited with revitalizing the American theater with his dazzling language, what Anne Paolucci calls his "verbal pyrotechnics." Albee may rightfully be credited with rejuvenating the American stage.


1Interview with the author, 23 September 1980; hereafter cited in the text as Interview.

2Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove, 1958), 41.

3Edward Albee, "Wants to Know Why," New York Times, 7 October 1962, 1,3.

4Howard Taubman, "Cure for the Blues," New York Times, 28 October 1961, 1.

5René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 31.

6Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 18.

7David Richard, "Critical Winds Shift for Albee, A Master of the Steady Course," New York Times, 13 April 1994, B-l.

Further Reading

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Amacher, Richard E. and Margaret Rule. Edward Albee at Home and Abroad: A Bibliography. New York: AMS Press, 1973,95 p.

Features primary and secondary sources from England, Germany, Switzerland, and other countries as well as the United States.

Giantvalley, Scott. Edward Albee: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987,459 p.

Comprehensive annotated collection of sources.

Green, Charles Lee. Edward Albee: An Annotated Bibliography, 1968-1977. New York: AMS Press, 1980,150 p.

Chronological listing of sources designed as a supple ment to the work of Amacher and Rule.

Tyce, Richatd.Edward Albee: A Bibliography. Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1986,212 p.

Includes a chronology of initial productions of Albee's plays, and information on their first publications, as well as a listing of critical studies.


Kolin, Philip C, ed. Conversations with Edward Albee. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988,223 p.

Contains over two dozen interviews from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Samuels, Steven. "Yes is Better Than No." American Theatre 11, No. 7 (September 1994): 38.

Interview in which Albee discusses the success of Three Tall Women. The text of the play follows.


Bigsby, C. W. E. Albee. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969, 120 p.

Includes chapters on Albee's life, early plays, adapta tions, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice, and A Delicate Balance.

——, ed. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975, 180 p.

Reprints more than twenty essays by Gerald Weales, Alan Schneider, Diana Trilling, and others.

Cohn, Ruby. Edward Albee. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969,48 p.

General survey of Albee's life and early career.

Hirsch, Foster. Who's Afraid of Edward Albee? Berkeley, Calif: Creative Arts Book Company, 1978, 142 p.

Discusses Albee's plays in thematic groups and types, such as "Living Room Wars," "Chamber Plays," and "Closet Dramas."

Kolin, Philip C, and J. Madison Davis, eds. Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986,218 p.

Collects reviews, essays on Albee's place in world drama, critical studies of the plays, and other materials.

Lewis, Allan. "The Fun and Games of Edward Albee." In American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre, pp. 81-98. New York: Crown Publishers, 1970.

Asserts that Albee has "performed the true role of the playwright: to express the human condition metaphorically, to establish new myths, and to reveal the power of the drama to have a direct and immediate impact on the audience."

Mayberry, Bo. Theatre of Discord: Dissonance in Beckett, Albee, and Pinter. Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989,90 p.

Focuses on Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.

Nelson, Gerald. "Edward Albee and His Well-Made Plays." Tri-Quarterly, No. 5 (1966): 182-88.

Examines Albee's "compulsion to be discursive rather than dramatic," to narrate rather than to present the action in his plays, which, Nelson maintains, has the effect of diminishing the audience's involvement.

Roudané, Matthew C. Understanding Edward Albee. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987,221 p.

Traces Albee's development as a playwright through The Man Who Had Three Arms.

Sterling, Eric. "Albee's Satirization of Societal Sterility in America." Studies in Contemporary Satire 15 (1987): 30-9.

Analyzes Albee's satire of the emptiness of American values in The Zoo Story and The American Dream.

Vos, Nelvin. Eugène Ionesco and Edward Albee. William B. Eerdmans, 1968,48 p.

Examines Albee's work as operating within the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd.

Witherington, Paul. "Albee's Gothic: The Resonances of Cliché." Contemporary Drama IX, No. 1 (Spring 1970): 151-65.

Examines how Albee's use of cliché in his plays demonstrates his "affinity with Gothic writing."

Additional coverage of Albee's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 54, 74; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1,2,3,5,9,11,13,25,53, 86,113; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7; Major 20th-century Writers; World Literature Criticism; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British Edition; Discovering Authors: Canadian Edition; Discovering Authors: Modules—Dramatists Module and Most-Studied Authors Module; Literature Resource Center.

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Edward Albee Drama Analysis


Albee, Edward (Vol. 1)