Edward Albee Albee, Edward (Vol. 3) - Essay

Albee, Edward (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albee, Edward 1928–

Albee is one of America's foremost dramatists. Although his work is often compared to that of Ionesco, Pinter, Genet, Camus, and Beckett, his plays are unique in their fusion of comedy and terror. A master of stage speech, Albee won the Pulitzer Prize for "A Delicate Balance." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The trouble with Albee's acutely original play, The American Dream, is that its bizarre Ionesco details don't add up to an experience. This one-hour work has almost everything that fancy can supply but hardly anything that experience can validate. The details, either irrational or so logical as to be extravagant, are amusing as they come at the playgoer with a suddenness and a barrage of nonsequiturs rarely encountered in "real-life" situations. For a dozen minutes or so, the humor keeps the play crackling. Mr. Albee's oblique treatment of the banal tedium of domestic life recalls Ionesco's The Bald Soprano yet seems decidedly fresh, and the satire is crisp and bracing. Then, with the entrance of "Grandma," who knows she is considered superfluous by her daughter, the author introduces a note of genuine poignancy into the proceedings, and the pathos of old age soon changes into delight when the cross old woman turns the tables on "Mommy" and gives her more than one jagged piece of her mind….

After the Grandma episode, however, The American Dream fell apart by the sheer weight of its rapidly accumulated bright particles. A bright new talent went to pieces here because it was unsustained, so far as I could determine, by a point of view that would provide cohesiveness for Mr. Albee's random scorn and rebelliousness.

John Gassner, "Edward Albee: An American Dream?" (1961), in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled From 30 Years of Drama Criticism, introduction and posthumous editing by Glenn Loney (© 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1968, pp. 591-92.

Albee's first full-length play … affords so much pulsating moment-by-moment drama, so many unreeling facets of character and so many fluctuations of feeling, and one is so continuously knocked down, picked up, and knocked down again in the course of the play, that it takes a massive quantity of resistance to conclude that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not drama on the grand scale. It reaches the same order of harrowing dramatic power as Elizabethan melodrama which the unfinicky Elizabethans called tragedy. The very same thing can be said indeed of a good many of O'Neill's plays…. For me, in fact, Albee is in the direct line of succession from O'Neill. Even if he has yet far to go if he is to achieve his predecessor's breadth of interest, variety of tone, or range of compassionate insight, Albee has the same slugging technique and the same strategy of massive assault in thrusting across the footlight area his awareness of human bedevilment. And in their writing they employ the same heavy Mahler scoring with an overplus of ostinato markings, although Albee's lines move faster and with more precision than O'Neill's. Interestingly enough, both O'Neill and Albee came to public notice as the authors of undeniably effective one-act plays before winning larger audiences as the authors of notably oversized full-length drama. This fact should give pause to those who see in the larger works mere repetitiveness or verbal incontinence rather than an essential dramatic pulsation and rhythm. The larger works reveal, rather, a similar fascination with the details of feeling and dramatic action, and with the momentum of recurring impulses that characterize behavior in an extensive situation of crisis and constitute its exciting vibration.

It is possible to work up a strong resentment toward the play, to be sure, but it is not an easy drama to ignore or forget. Mr. Albee has written a terrifying thing—perhaps the negative play to end all negative plays, yet also a curiously compassionate play (I feel plenty of compassion for the driven woman and her long-suffering husband), and exhilarating one (if for no other reason than the passionateness of the characters) and even a wryly affirmative one because of the fighting spirit of the principals whose behavior breathes the fire of protest along with the stench of corruption.

John Gassner, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1963), in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled From 30 Years of Drama Criticism, introduction and posthumous editing by Glenn Loney (© 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1968, pp. 592-95.

The fourth in a series of disappointments that Albee has been turning out since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, [A Delicate Balance], like its predecessors, suffers from a borrowed style and a hollow center. It also suggests that Albee's talent for reproduction has begun to fail him until by now the labels on his lendings are all but exposed to public view. Reviewers have already noted the stamp of T. S. Eliot on A Delicate Balance (a nametag that was somewhat more subtly imprinted on Tiny Alice as well), and it is quite true that Albee, like Eliot before him, is now trying to invest the conventional drawing-room comedy with metaphysical significance. But where Eliot was usually impelled by a religious vision, Albee seems to be stimulated by mere artifice, and the result is emptiness, emptiness, emptiness….

The failure of the language, actually, is the most surprising failure of [A Delicate Balance], especially since Albee's control of idiom has usually been his most confident feature. Here, on the other hand, banal analogies are forced to pass for wisdom…. If colloquialisms are spoken, they are invariably accompanied by self-conscious apologies: One character drinks "like the famous fish," while another observes, "You're copping out, as they say." Empty chatter is passed off as profound observation with the aid of irrelevant portentous subordinate clauses….

It is clear that Albee has never heard such people talk, he has only read plays about them, and he has not retained enough from his reading to give his characters life. More surprisingly, he has not even borrowed creatively from his own work, for although a number of Albee's usual strategies are present in A Delicate Balance, they do not function with much cogency. One character, for example, tells of his difficulties with a cat that no longer loved him—a tale that recalls a similar tale about a dog in The Zoo Story—but here the narrative is no more than a sentimental recollection. Similarly, a dead child figures in this work, as in so many Albee plays, but it has no organic relevance to the action and seems introduced only to reveal the sexual hangups of the protagonist and to fill up time….

A Delicate Balance concerns a family of four—a passive husband, an imperious wife, an alcoholic sister-in-law, and a much divorced daughter—whose problems are exacerbated when they are visited by some married friends. This couple has just experienced a nameless terror in their home, and when they move in on the family for comfort and security, a delicate balance is upset, all the characters learning that terror is infectious, like the plague. This plot has a nice touch of mystery about it, but its main consequence is to move various sexually estranged couples into each other's rooms after various impassioned dialogues. What finally puzzles the will is how very little Albee now thinks can make up a play: a few confessions, a few revelations, a little spookiness, and an emotional third-act speech.

Robert Brustein, "Albee Decorates an Old House" (1966), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 83-6.

In A Delicate Balance, Mr. Albee has returned to the world of domesticity which gave him his strongest full-length drama, and it is understandable that reviewers should have registered some relief at encountering a sympathetic approach to humanity in the work. He has exorcized the ghost of Strindberg without calling up the ghost of Pollyanna to take its place. In fact, some of the bad writing in the play retains memories of Virginia Woolf in the airing of the wife's grievances against her husband….

John Gassner, "A Delicate Balance" (1966), in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled From 30 Years of Drama Criticism, introduction and posthumous editing by Glenn Loney (© 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1968, pp. 603-07.

Albee's version of Everything in the Garden … is without interest, and I'm not concealing very well my reluctance to write about it. What continues to remain somewhat interesting, because unresolved, is the author's ambiguous relationship to his audience. As I have had occasion to remark somewhat too often, Albee's identity as a dramatist is highly uncertain. Lacking his own vision, he turns to adaptation; lacking his own voice, he borrows the voice of others. What has remained constant through his every change of style—through the progression of his influences from Genet to Strindberg to Pirandello to Williams to Ionesco to Eliot—is his peculiar love-hatred for those who attend his plays. Albee's desire to undermine the audience and be applauded for it is now leading him into the most extraordinary stratagems and subterfuges, just as his desire to be simultaneously successful and significant has managed by now to freeze his artistic imagination. He has two choices, I think, if he is ever to create interesting work again: either to resolve this conflict, or to write about it. But both alternatives oblige him to become a great deal less masked, a great deal more daring, a great deal more open than he now chooses to be.

Robert Brustein, "Albee at the Crossroads" (1967), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 87-90.