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Albee, Edward 1928–
Albee, an American dramatist, poet, and novelist, has also adapted several novels for the stage. An innovative stylist, he emerged in the 1960s as one of the most important figures in contemporary drama. His plays are noted for their powerful and brilliant language and reveal a fine...
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- Critical Essays
Albee, Edward 1928–
Albee, an American dramatist, poet, and novelist, has also adapted several novels for the stage. An innovative stylist, he emerged in the 1960s as one of the most important figures in contemporary drama. His plays are noted for their powerful and brilliant language and reveal a fine sense of dramatic tension. Thematically, Albee is concerned with the sense of alienation and loneliness inherent in modern life. He was twice the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
Albee gratifies an adolescent culture which likes to think of itself as decadent.
We want to believe that we are living in the last days, that the world is falling in on our heads, that only our sickest illusions are able to offer us any reason for living. Everyone wants to be Nero watching Rome burn. To attend the last orgy, to be part of it, this is a comfortable and exciting escape from reality—the child's way out. Albee's characters, like the playwright himself, suffer from arrested development. They play the game of decadence, just as he plays the game of creativity. There is no real, hard bedrock of suffering in Virginia Woolf—it is all illusory, depending upon a "child" who never was born: a gimmick, a trick, a trap. And there is no solid creative suffering in the writer who meanders through a scene stopping here and there for the sake of a joke or an easy allusion that almost fits.
But even more, the values of Virginia Woolf are perverse and dangerous. Self-pity, drooling, womb-seeking weakness, the appeal to a transcendent "god" who is no God, the persistent escape into morbid fantasy—all these things are probably too close to our imagined picture of ourselves. It is the game of the child who thinks he is being persecuted, who dreams up all kinds of outrages, and who concludes finally that his parents found him one day on the doorstep. Albee wants us to indulge in this same game, this cheap hunt for love; he wants us to point to the stage and simper: "Oooo, there we are! How pitiable, how terrible!" The danger is that Albee may succeed; we are on the verge of becoming the silly role we are playing. (p. 63)
Albee makes dishonesty a virtue, perversion a joke, adultery a simple party game. In honest play-writing if man is mocked he is mocked before God, before the human condition; in Albee's play man is mocked before Oswald Spengler. Sartre once described the life of bad faith as a living lie—of actually believing an untruth and then acting on that false belief. Albee is not conscious of his own phoniness, nor of the phoniness of his work. But he has posed so long that his pose has become part of the fabric of his creative life; he is his own lie. If Virginia Woolf is a tragedy it is of that unique kind rarely seen: a tragedy which transcends itself, a tragedy which is bad theatre, bad literature, bad taste—but which believes its own lies with such conviction that it indicts the society which creates it and accepts it. Virginia Woolf is a ludicrous play; but the joke is on all of us. (pp. 63-4)
Virginia Woolf is doubtlessly a classic: a classic example of bad taste, morbidity, plotless naturalism, misrepresentation of history, American society, philosophy, and psychology. There is in the play an ineluctable urge to escape reality and its concomitant responsibilities by crawling back into the womb, or bathroom, or both….
We must not ignore what Albee represents and portends, either for our theatre or for our society. The lie of his work is the lie of our theatre and the lie of America. The lie of decadence must be fought. (p. 64)
Richard Schechner, "Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?" in The Tulane Drama Review (copyright, © 1963, The Tulane Drama Review), Spring, 1963 (and reprinted in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 62-5).
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Without attempting to enthrone Albee alongside anyone (though I personally admire him above all other Americans now writing for the stage), or to hail Virginia Woolf as a classic of the modern theatre (which I have no doubt it will become), I would only state that, in my experience, a more honest or moral (in the true sense) playwright does not exist—unless it be Samuel Beckett. To blame Albee for the "sickness" of his subject matter is like blaming the world's ashcans on the creator of Nagg and Nell—which has been done [Schneider is referring to an essay by Richard Schechner; see excerpt above]. And if what Albee is doing is giving us a "sentimentalized" view of ourselves rather than one as harshly and starkly unsentimental as any I know, why didn't those theatre party ladies buy it up ahead of time as they do all those other technicolor postcards which pass for plays? Or is Albee not rather dedicated to smashing that rosy view, shocking us with the truth of our present-day behavior and thought, striving to purge us into an actual confrontation with reality? Anyone who has read any portion of any play he has ever written surely must sense the depth of his purpose and recognize, to some extent, the power of the talent which is at his disposal; certainly no intelligent, aware individual today can fail to recognize somewhere in Albee's characters and moods the stirring of his own viscera, the shadow of his own self-knowledge.
If the child in Virginia Woolf is merely a "gimmick," then so is the wild duck, the cherry orchard, that streetcar with the special name, even our old elusive friend Godot. But Albee's play is not about the child—just as Godot is not about Godot but about the waiting for him—but about the people who have had to create him as a "beanbag" or crutch for their own insufficiencies and failures, and now are left to find their own way, if there is to be a way, free of him. If truth and illusion are not exactly original themes, any more than they were for O'Neill, the test is not what but how and how specifically the writer illuminates the immediacy of human life. If Albee's particular choice is more lacking in plot than our editor wishes, its reality is based upon a classic simplicity, a contemporary feeling unmatched in our theatre, a musical economy—in spite of its length—and an ability to hold and shatter his audience.
What baffles me is why the Editor is making such a fuss…. Would the American theatre be better off, would it be less voracious, corrupt, morally blind, and perverse, had the play never been written or presented? (pp. 67-8)
That The Tulane Drama Review is against the voracity and hypocrisy of Broadway has always been evident—till now. And when a play which, like it or not as you will, is serious, literate, individual in style, ablaze with talent, and written without concern for Broadway values (it was originally intended for off-Broadway); when such a play is presented with taste and economy, without abdicating to the star-system, the theatre-party system, the fancy-advertising system; when the combined talents of a remarkable cast working together in a way Broadway casts rarely do serve to lift the work to "success" over the normal run of machine-made mediocrities which reign supreme in our commercial theatre, it seems to me cause for rejoicing rather than wailing and gnashing of teeth….
It is possible, as the Editor says, that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is "bad theatre, bad literature, bad taste"; it is also at least equally possible that it is good theatre, good literature, good taste. Only time will tell. (p. 68)
Alan Schneider, "Why So Afraid?" in The Tulane Drama Review (copyright, © 1963, The Tulane Drama Review), Spring, 1963 (and reprinted in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 66-8).
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The origin of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice seems to be the old homosexual joke about the identity of God, whose punch line is "Actually, she is black." Since, however, it is no longer safe socially, let alone financially, to be jocular about Negroes, the God of Tiny Alice is, outwardly at least, white. But she is a bitch. (pp. 62-3)
It has been contended that Tiny Alice is based on Manichaeanism, or on Genet's notions of evil being good, and good evil. Accordingly, Alice may be God, or the devil, or both in one; she may also be anything one wants her to be (the lawyer explains that we do not get what we want but want what we get); or she may not be at all. (p. 63)
The time, place and duration of the action are left deliberately vague, with contradictory hints about each; the concentric castles, moreover, are supposed to suggest worlds within worlds, each repeating the other. Typically, Albee has already instructed us to enjoy ourselves without trying to understand, but that we can do just as well without seeing the play, if not better….
Tiny Alice fails as symbolism because of its inconsistency and incredibility on the literal level; without firm footing in literalness, there is no working metaphor—just as without viable dramatic characters, there are no compelling symbols. But the work fails also as pure fantasy, because it lacks even that homogeneity that lends dreams, hallucinations and fairy tales their own kind of logic…. Above all, if we were to follow Albee's jesuitic advice, and merely let the play envelop us and wash over us, how would we cope with the gritty nodules of realism and grating dialectical rugosities that refuse to dissolve in the bath water?
Even hostile critics, however, have joined Albee in admiring his play's language—he went so far as to insist on English actors as alone capable of doing justice to his linguistic demands. Actually, the language leaves much to be desired. Thus Albee uses "replica" for both enlargement and miniature, though it can mean only exact duplication. We are given "removed people" for remote or withdrawn, "quixotic" for perverse or capricious. (p. 64)
But the awkwardness is not limited to words alone. Some scenes—almost all of act three, in fact—are so attenuated as to float off before our very eyes into nothingness; others, like the conclusion of act two, are crammed so full as to fall resoundingly flat. (p. 65)
There is, moreover, a homosexual strain running through Tiny Alice, but remaining just barely supraliminal and certainly unintegrated; it thus adds considerably to the general confusion. The butler and the lawyer address each other as darling and dearest, there is much hinting about the cardinal's and Julian's being "buddies," the sexuality of the play is largely oral, and there is throughout that suggestive waspishness that characterizes many homosexual relationships…. Is all this relevant to the main theme or not? Or is it, perhaps, the main theme? Is the whole play a piece of camp metaphysics or metaphysical camping?
A line in Tiny Alice about "the same mysteries, the evasions, the perfect plot" describes not only the play but also the stratagems surrounding it and the utterances of Albee and his associates concerning it. (pp. 65-6)
It may be that Albee is the victim of self-delusion and genuinely thinks that he has made a meaningful statement. It seems at least as likely that he is being a fumiste, giving vent to his scorn for the great washed. But neither private masturbation nor public provocation is in itself so dramatically adequate that it can dispense with significant form. (p. 66)
John Simon, "'Tiny Alice'" (1965), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 62-6.
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If Albee were not so arrogant, one would view his desperate stratagems with pity. When you have failed with every kind of play, including adaptations of novels and other people's plays, the last remaining maneuver is the nonplay. Finding himself in a box, Albee has contrived two interlocking nonplays, based, apparently, on a mathematical error: it is by multiplying, not by adding, minuses that you get a plus. Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung, when run together like two ink blots of different colors, raise the Rorschach test to new dramatic heights. (p. 157)
Rather than as a fugue, the exercise struck me as a piece of vocal cadavre exquis, without even the amusing trouvailles bequeathed by chance on that famous surrealist parlor game. One can perhaps extract some quasi-meanings (like teeth from a toothless mouth): the commonplaces of communism vs. the banalities of the bourgeoisie; the parallel miseries of the rich and the poor; the shibboleths of Mao's gospel vs. the silences of the man of God. But these are not so much legitimate explications as counsels of despair. In a fugue, in any case, there is development. Here, once the quartet is visually and vocally presented, there is nowhere to go. (p. 158)
We get the same ambitious, artificial, circumlocutory prose Albee keeps elaborating in his later, sterile works. It consists of false starts, emendations, indirections, apologies, and general syntactic deviousness. One guesses that Albee imagines this to be some wonderful cross between Beckett and Joyce; in fact, it is a barren, puerile mannerism. It suggests a kind of doddering pedantry that Albee might attribute to a particular character—if it were not so often out of character…. And always that pathetic intellectual climbing of the (insufficiently) self-educated: "They didn't know who Trollope was!—that is a life for you," complains the LWL, and one winces for Albee. For behind such outcries we have come to recognize the genteel author's feelings of superiority over, and especially against, the unwashed that surround him, or that he chooses to surround himself with. (pp. 158-59)
But suppose it were the character that is being ridiculed. So much the worse for play and playwright; it would mean that they are suffering from delusions of being Beckett, who alone can get away with this sort of thing by virtue of much greater sensitivity to words and to the essential foibles of human nature. (p. 159)
As for Albee, where does he go from here? He could perhaps eliminate the third dimension from his box, or have us sit in a voiceless dark. We'll get to the grass roots of theater yet, even if it means burrowing underground like a mole. (p. 160)
John Simon, "'Box' and 'Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung'" (1968–69), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 157-60.
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All Over confronts, as the title suggests, the endemic trait of all living organisms. Death, the great leveler to a poet like William Cullen Bryant, is, for Albee, man's final confrontation with life. In the play, death is tantamount to a metaphysical conceit, with the death of the body being but one thematic strain. The famous man, whose dying is both a public event for the press and the crowd awaiting word of his demise, and a private ritual for the circle of intimates assembled for the vigil, is the instrument through which Albee explores some issues attendant to dying and death. The age at which a person becomes aware of death is an idea examined that is important to the development of psychological maturity. Knowing her husband as a thorough man with almost as much knowledge about law as Best Friend, Wife forces the lawyer into a deeper meaning of death when she dismisses fifteen, "the age we all become philosophers," as the age when he became aware of personal extinction: "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."… (p. 67)
The modern tendency to dehumanize death is another issue broached in the play. The man's removal from the hospital to his former residence, Mistress relates, occurred in obedience to his instructed need to die in familiar surroundings…. (p. 68)
Besides confronting basic issues dealing with death and portraying encounters with the experience of death. Albee's All Over exposes a more insidious kind of death. In the play, Mistress' relation of her lover's objection to the use of the verb "to be" in connection with death is no mere semantic indulgence on the part of the playwright. Her report of their conversation provides valuable insights into Albee's concern with death:
He put down his fork, one lunch, at my house … what had we been talking about? Maeterlinck and that plagiarism business, I seem to recall, and we had done with that and we were examining our salads, when all at once he said to me "I wish people wouldn't say that other people 'are dead.'" I asked him why, as much as anything to know what had turned him to it, and he pointed out that the verb to be was not, to his mind, appropriate to a state of … nonbeing. That one cannot … be dead. He said his objection was a quirk—that the grammarians would scoff—but that one could be dying, or have died … but could not … be … dead….
Death in this play encompasses those who have died, those who are dying, and those who are dead to life. Albee's deathbed scene shares traits that Carla Gottlieb has found to be characteristic of twentieth-century paintings interpreting death by depicting the deceased in the background with the survivors occupying the foreground, and by showing the participants turned away from the dead person and from one another. "Faced with death," Gottlieb concludes, "the family bonds fall apart, revealing their superficial character." In All Over, death is a mirror reflecting family ties built upon rancor, resentment, and rivalry. (pp. 73-4)
Long before the dying man expires, rigor mortis has over-taken the attendants. Although the names of the characters represent human relationships, they also signify in this play a cessation of growth. Receiving identity only through their relationship with the dying man, they have become rigid in their unchanging roles. (p. 74)
On one level, the death of the Husband-Father-Lover-Best Friend in All Over is the climax to a death watch characterized by friction and hostility among the enlarged family preoccupied with recollections of deaths and dying. On another level, the play uses death as a mirror reflecting the extent of life within the survivors. For Albee, death, then, is a metaphor for the quality of life. The irony in this play is that there is more life in the dead man than in the survivors. If all reports are true, the dying man exhibits a healthy attitude toward death that reflects a genuine, loving assumption of the moral condition…. Death, in All Over, is a measurement of life. (p. 76)
Robbie Odom Moses, "Death as a Mirror of Life: Edward Albee's 'All Over'," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1976, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), March, 1976, pp. 67-77.
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Counting the Ways is hardly even a play in any traditional understanding of the term. But then, Albee's works have come more and more of late to resemble musical compositions, and this is no exception; as he says of it: "What I intended was something like a set of piano pieces by Satie."
If in Seascape, his most recent full-length play, there was still a conflict eventuating in one of Albee's typical highly charged climaxes, here one can just barely discern the outlines of a conflict, and certainly nothing resembling a resolution. The movement (not progression, mind you) of this two-character play is circular: at the opening, She demands, "Do you love me?"—the same question He puts at the end.
The work's subtitle, "A Vaudeville," indicates what the audience should expect: a series of skits, or turns, twenty or so…. Several of these brief scenes, which more than one London critic aptly compared to animated New Yorker or Thurber cartoons, are duets, some—including a memorable one about the time She received twin gardenia corsages for a dance—are monologues, while at least one is word-less….
He and She, who resemble a sketchier but slightly more hopeful Tobias and Agnes from A Delicate Balance, pursue the author's recurrent concerns in an appropriately wistful mood: the death of sexual ardor (they have exchanged their double bed for twins); the waning of culture and civilization; the advancing existential void. But mostly, it is about the difficulty—the impossibility—of "counting the ways," of telling how we love, or even that we love, now that the words we have for expressing things of the heart have been so debased that they appear no more honest than the shopworn formulas on greeting cards. yet Albee's own poetic dialogue runs the same risk, and cannot always avoid seeming too studied, too precious. (p. 407)
A major dramatic work like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or A Delicate Balance? Hardly. Destined to be a commercial or critical success? Never. And yet, accepted on its own terms, this entertaining "diversion"—for that seems an apt classification—can delight with its considerable charm and wit and occasional beauties of language. (pp. 407-08)
Thomas P. Adler, in Educational Theatre Journal (© 1977 University College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), October, 1977.
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Listening, a play with more substance, cohesiveness, and bite [than Counting the Ways], concerns three characters who meet in a garden to exchange insights, reminiscences, and insults until one of them, who is insane, commits suicide. Although sounding some echoes of The Zoo Story (an apparently insane person elicits truth from an apparently sane one and then dies), Listening slowly, painstakingly, and with some surprises uncovers powerful and revealing relationships while playing with the nuance and pretense of language. Indeed, it is the play's emphasis on language that creates both its strengths and its weaknesses.
Listening begins with the extended, solitary musings of a man who wonders about the garden's history, purpose, and effect, thereby suggesting that the setting has some significance. Once the "trimmed and clipped" setting for flirtations and assignations, now a quiet refuge at an institution, it will become the site for the exploration of three souls. The opening speech, however, due to its repetitiveness of phrase and rhythm, seems contrived, and this sense of contrivance straining for significance increases as the characters repeat certain lines, echoing, reiterating, magnifying meaning. But the lines are ordinary (the most repeated is "You're not listening") and their meaning obvious. Thus, although their repetition suggests pregnant significance about to give birth to symbol, that significance never appears.
Misdirected to symbol-searching, one is further misled by an offstage voice which sequentially announces the numbers one through twenty, apparently to emphasize certain moments of the play. But these emphasized moments are also obscure. There appears to be an inadvertent irony resulting in Listening—a play which exposes pretense and delusion is pretentious in some of its devices. (p. 408)
Joan S. Fleckenstein, in Educational Theatre Journal (© 1977 University College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), October, 1977.