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Edward Albee 1928–
(Full name Edward Franklin Albee III) American dramatist, poet, short story writer, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Albee's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 13, 25, 53, and 86.
An acclaimed and controversial playwright, Albee is best known for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), 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 Eugene 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. According to Allan Lewis, Albee "writes plays that grip an audience, that hold with their elusiveness, their obscurity, their meaning; and he has functioned in the true role of the playwright—to express the human condition dramatically and metaphorically." In a career spanning more than thirty years, Albee has received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama three times: for A Delicate Balance (1966), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1991).
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 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. Albee has received three Pulitzer prizes, as well as several other prestigious awards, for his dramatic works.
Albee's first one-act play, The Zoo Story (1959), is a satire set in New York City in which a young homosexual attempts to force conversation on a reticent conservative. After intimidating the man into defending himself with a knife, the homosexual purposely impales himself on its blade. His next one-act drama, The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), revolves around the demise of black blues singer Bessie Smith, who died after being refused treatment at a Southern hospital that catered exclusively to white patients. The American Dream (1961), another one-act play, focuses on a mother and father whose severe punishment of their adopted son resulted in his death many years before. Albee's most acclaimed drama, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has generated popular and critical notoriety for its controversial depiction of marital strife. The play depicts the alternately destructive and conciliatory relationship between George and Martha, a middle-aged history professor and his wife, which is demonstrated during a late-night party in their living room with Nick, George's shallow colleague, and Honey, Nick's spouse.
As the evening proceeds, George and Martha alternately attack and patronize their guests before Martha, intent on wounding George, seduces Nick; George retaliates by announcing the death of their nonexistent son, whom they had created to sustain their relationship. The conclusion suggests that George and Martha may be able to reappraise their relationship based on the intimacy, which was both feared and sought all evening, that arises from their shared sorrow. In A Delicate Balance, a troubled middle-aged couple examine their relationship during a prolonged visit by two close friends. In The Lady from Dubuque (1980), Albee posited that reality is a subjective phenomenon open to multiple interpretations. This drama concerns a dying woman who vents her pain and hostility on her friends and husband prior to the arrival of an ambiguous, commanding woman who alternately evokes the images of archetypal mother and angel of death. The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983) centers on Himself, a man who acquired wealth and fame after growing a third arm that later disappeared. Addressing the audience from a lecture podium, Himself alternately pleads for sympathy and attacks his audience for his loss of prominence. Albee described his stylized drama Finding the Sun (1983) as "pointillist in manner." This play counterbalances characters, in one example contrasting a young man's forthcoming freedom with an old man's awareness of his impending death. In Marriage Play (1987), Albee returned to the themes of his earlier plays to portray the ambivalent relationship between a cynical woman and her detached husband. Three Tall Women (1991) begins with a meeting between an elderly woman in her nineties known as A, her middle-aged caretaker B, and a young lawyer named C who has come to help A settle her affairs. As the three women interact, each becomes aware of and impatient with the others' shortcomings. The first act ends as A suffers a stroke, and in subsequent scenes Albee departs from a strictly linear plot, having all three characters appear as various manifestations of A at different times during her life. The play concerns stereotypes and familial ties, and is considered largely autobiographical; the character A was based on Albee's mother and the relationship between parent and playwright mirrors that of A and her homosexual son. In The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life (1995), Albee presents the story of Federico Garcia Lorca (1900–1936), a Spanish poet and playwright executed during the Fascist reign of General Francisco Franco.
Beginning with reviews of his earliest works, Albee has garnered a wide variety of critical opinion, ranging from scathing to adoring; many commentators note Albee's inventiveness and insight into society and human nature while at the same time responding negatively to the tone or structure of his dramas. For example, although it was faulted by some as defeatist and nihilistic, The American Dream was also commended for its savage parody of traditional American values. Albee commented: "Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so; it was my intention to offend—as well as amuse and entertain." Similarly, even though some critics considered it morbid and self-indulgent, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was honored with two Antoinette Perry Awards and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Variously interpreted as a problem play in the tradition of August Strindberg, a campus parody, or a latent homosexual critique of conventional relationships, the drama has generated a wide array of critical analyses. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has more recently been assessed as a classic of American drama for its tight control of form and command of both colloquial and abstruse dialogue. While several of Albee's plays written since 1962 have failed commercially and elicited stinging reviews for their abstract classicism and dialogue, many scholars have commended Albee's commitment to theatrical experimentation and refusal to pander to commercial pressures. A Delicate Balance, while garnering approval for its synthesis of dramatic elements, was widely faulted for lacking action and cohesive ideas; when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, most regarded the decision as a belated attempt by the Pulitzer committee to honor Albee for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Although The Lady from Dubuque closed after only twelve performances, Gerald Clarke deemed it Albee's "best work since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and Otis Guernsey included it in The Best Plays of 1979–1980. The Man Who Had Three Arms also failed financially; although Albee denied any autobiographical intent, critics dismissed this play as a self-pitying portrayal of Albee, whose plays had been poorly received since the early 1960s. Critical reaction to Three Tall Women, for which Albee received a New York Drama Critics Circle Award as well as his third Pulitzer Prize, was generally positive. Although commentators have consistently identified C as the weakest character in the play, they have lauded A and B as well-defined portraits and praised Albee's focus on universal concerns. Many critics have additionally asserted that Three Tall Women is the most successful work Albee has written in years; they also note that due to its autobiographical content the play offers invaluable insights into Albee's life and career. John Lahr observed: "Far from being an act of revenge or special pleading, the play is a wary act of reconciliation, whose pathos and poetry are a testament to the bond, however attenuated, between child and parent. Three Tall Women bears witness to the son's sad wish to be loved, but with this liberating difference: the child is now finally in control of the parent's destiny, instead of the parent's being in control of the child's."
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The Zoo Story (drama) 1959
The Death of Bessie Smith (drama) 1960
Fam and Yam (drama) 1960
The Sandbox (drama) 1960
The American Dream (drama) 1961
Bartleby [adaptor; from the short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" by Herman Melville] (opera) 1961
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (drama) 1962
∗The Ballad of the Sad Cafe [adaptor; from the novel by Carson McCullers] (drama) 1963
Tiny Alice (drama) 1964
A Delicate Balance (drama) 1966
Malcolm [adaptor; from the novel by James Purdy] (drama) 1966
Everything in the Garden [adaptor; from the play by Giles Cooper] (drama) 1967
Box (drama) 1968
Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (drama) 1968
All Over (drama) 1971
Seascape (drama) 1975
Counting the Ways: A Vaudeville (drama) 1977
∗Listening: A Chamber Play (drama) 1977
The Lady from Dubuque (drama) 1980
Lolita [adaptor; from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov] (drama) 1981
Finding the Sun (drama) 1983
The Man Who Had Three Arms (drama) 1983
Marriage Play (drama) 1987
Three Tall Women (drama) 1991
Fragments: A Sit Around (drama) 1993
The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life (drama) 1995
∗First produced as a radio play.
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SOURCE: "Three Cheers for Albee," in New Yorker, Vol. 36, No. 51, February 4, 1961, pp. 62, 64-66.
[In the following excerpt, Balliett offers a highly complimentary assessment of The American Dream and a negative appraisal of Bartleby.]
Classic tragedy is still kaput, and that rare and most admirable acrobat who, by managing the almost invisible tightrope between tragedy and comedy, produced the incalculably effective form known as tragicomedy no longer exists. He has been replaced by the horror-comic writer, who, like his progenitor, must have perfect equilibrium. If he slips, the results are either cruel or empty. Fortunately, it doesn't look as if Edward Albee, the thirty-two-year-old author of The American Dream, a one-act play at the York Playhouse, will ever slip. His first and third plays, The Zoo Story and The Sandbox, which were successfully unveiled in New York early last year, are estimable demonstrations of his footwork, and this time around, Albee even flips over onto his hands, and without a single wobble. (His second play, The Death of Bessie Smith, inexplicably unproduced in this country, is quite different; it is an out-and-out horror story that all but dissolves in its own acidulous irony.) Indeed, The American Dream is a unique and often brilliant play. Its horrible aspects, which reach directly back to the butchery and perversion of the Greek theatre, are forbidding, for they have nothing to do with a stage business of moans and blood and bodies. Far worse, the play's horror is only reported or implied, and it is further pointed up by being juxtaposed with an unfailing and wholly original comic inventiveness that is by turns ridiculous, satiric, sardonic, and sensibly Surrealistic. No sooner has a Sophoclean dismemberment been mentioned than it is illumined by a comic sense that matches and often resembles the comic sense of Gertrude Stein, Lewis Carroll, and Jacques Tati. The play is not realistic, but neither is it purely illusory. It is, in the fashion of a comic nightmare, fantasy of the highest order.
Like most expert playwrights, who graciously underwrite in order to make room for their interpreters' artistic proclivities, Albee comes fully alive only when seen. (The hot-and-heavy playwright usually regards actors and actresses as mere chimneys for his fire and smoke.) On paper, his work suggests a graceful but sketchy blueprint. The American Dream deals with a brief climactic period in the lives of five characters—Mommy, Daddy, Grandma (Mommy's ma), Mrs. Barker, and The Young Man. The setting is Mommy's and Daddy's plush apartment living room, which is succinctly suggested by William Ritman in a series of tall gray panels, Romanesque arches, heavy gilt-and-brocade furniture, and gilt picture frames, one of which is surmounted by two small crossed American flags—a touch that establishes the tone of the evening before a word is spoken. Since Albee doesn't have to worry about tragedy, Mommy is from the start a hideous caricature of a childless, waspish, well-to-do middle-aged American woman. Thin-lipped and snake-faced, she speaks in a voice that alternates between needles and syrup. She moves, her shoulders bent in witch fashion, in a series of sharp zigzags, and is smartly overdressed in a purple velvet suit, pounds of gold jewelry, and ugly harlequin glasses.
Daddy is mild, cowardly, conservatively dressed, and, since his digestive "tracts" have reportedly been replaced by "tubes," largely comatose. Albee sets his queer, singsong "Alice in Wonderland" dialogue, which reveals an impeccable ear, going at once. Mommy bullies Daddy into listening to a marvellously repetitious harangue about a hat and the subtle distinctions of color between beige and wheat. ("What did I say, Daddy? What did I just say?") The conversation veers with perfect aplomb to a broken toilet that no one seems able to get fixed. ("You can't get satisfaction any more," whines Daddy.) Then Grandma, who is short, spidery, blue-eyed, and eighty-six, and is dressed in black with a large pioneer-type shawl, appears and dumps at Daddy's feet an enormous bundle of boxes she has just wrapped. (The play is an endless series of surprises; in fact, it seems more improvised than written.) The boxes are fruitlessly discussed while Grandma, Mommy, and Daddy trade with glacial composure alternately hypocritical and vicious remarks about one another, including some indelibly libidinous remarks by Mommy about her sex life with Daddy. Mrs. Barker, the prototype of the American clubwoman, arrives, and is offered every comfort—a seat, a cigarette, a drink, the chance to cross her legs, and the suggestion that she remove her flowered silk dress, which she does, revealing a handsome black slip, in which she remains for most of the play. (No one seems to know Mrs. Barker or why she is there.) The rudeness and politeness, hypocrisy and truth, immediately envelop Mrs. Barker, who amiably joins in, and bit by bit the horrible vacuity of Mommy's and Daddy's life together is revealed. Grandma, who is unsentimental, plucky, shrewd, and funny, and who is Albee's sole but wholly adequate counter-balance to what goes on about her, is our chief informant. She tells with relish of how her daughter's head resembled a banana at birth, how she herself recently slipped secretly out of the apartment and entered a store-bought cake in a baking contest and won twenty-five thousand dollars, how Mommy and Daddy would like to shut her up in a home, and how the packages she has wrapped contain all the things Mommy and Daddy are always trying to take away from her, among them a blind Pekinese (a fine Albee touch) and her television set. In the meantime, Mommy has left the room with Mrs. Barker to show her where she can get a glass of water, and Daddy to search Grandma's room. Albee, though, is always a league or two ahead of us. Mommy cannot find the kitchen, and Grandma's room has disappeared. So it goes, through the revelation, ticked off like a shopping list, of how Mommy and Daddy, twenty years before, angrily dismembered an adopted child in an effort to remedy its illnesses and also to get their monetary "satisfaction." By this time, The Young Man, a vision of handsome, heartless muscularity (the American Dream), is on hand, and—well, the more one attempts to describe Albee the more elusive he becomes. Moreover, the play's resolution, which is critical, depends on considerable suspense. It is enough to say that Grandma gets full revenge on Mommy and Daddy through The Young Man, Mrs. Barker gets dressed again, and the play ends, leaving an irreparable and enormously comic hole in contemporary American middle-class life….
A warning: This is a play for the resilient young and the wise old. All those paunchy, sluggish targets in between had best stay away.
Unfortunately, The American Dream is prefaced by Bartleby, an indigestible one-act opera skillfully adapted from the Melville story by James Hinton, Jr., and Albee, with music by William Flanagan. (The Death of Bessie Smith would have made a perfect twin.) Bartleby is a dead-end tale that deals with a mysterious and taciturn clerk of that name, who, when asked to do this or that by his employer, a New York lawyer, simply replies, "I prefer not to." The clerk even refuses to be fired, forcing the lawyer, a patient, kindly sort, to move his office. Left behind, the clerk is arrested as a vagrant and taken to the Tombs, where he dies of malnutrition. (In the opera, he expires in the lawyer's old office.) This is the sort of teasing, blank-faced symbolism that Melville revelled in, but its possibilities are pretty well buried by Flanagan's score, which is vaguely atonal and full of the difficult, craggy melodic content that Charles Ives invented.
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SOURCE: "Fragments from a Cultural Explosion," in New Republic, Vol. 144, No. 13, March 27, 1961, pp. 29-30.
[In the following excerpt from a review of The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith, Brustein argues that Albee's talent as a playwright is underdeveloped and his plays lack depth, focus, and direction.]
It is often taken as a sign of progress and maturity that our formerly Philistine fatherland has now begun to consume artistic objects with an appetite fully as ravenous as that once reserved for comic books. The phrase for this awesome phenomenon, I believe, is "cultural explosion"—but out of this explosion have come only scattered shell fragments which we vainly try to shore against our ruins. For despite increasing activity and interest, our culture is in a state of severe impoverishment. While everyone, including monkeys and IBM computers, is busy "creating," almost nobody is creating well, and the true appetite for works of art remains dreadfully undernourished by the native approximations. This fact is dimly, though indirectly, reflected in the various organs devoted to initiating cultural fashions. America's fascination with artists has always been much greater than its interest in art, but you can't have one without the other; and Life, Esquire, the women's magazines, and the newspapers are all revealing a measure of desperation in trying to unearth "exciting new personalities" to feed to an insatiable public. Years ago—and this may explain the comparative honesty of his early work—Tennessee Williams completed over fifteen plays before anyone took the slightest notice of him. Today, a Lorraine Hansberry and an Archibald MacLeish need produce only a single saleable commodity before their "dramatic genius" is proclaimed in every middle-brow publication in the land.
Edward Albee was first promoted into an "exciting new personality" on the basis of one short play (The Zoo Story), but now that he has added a couple more one-acters to the canon, the press is fairly bursting with enthusiastic epithets. In the last few weeks, he has been tin-typed by Time, interviewed by Theatre Arts, produced by Omnibus, and fluttered over by all the reviewers, with the result that we now know every detail of his life and his opinion on every conceivable theatrical subject. The irony of this situation is only surpassed by its essential sadness. To be so easily gobbled up by the media would be a forbidding omen even in a playwright who has already proven his ability. But since Mr. Albee's talent is still in a rather immature stage of development, his premature fame may prove very damaging to his creative growth.
The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith are further evidence that Albee's talent has not yet found its way out of chrysalis. Both plays are inferior to The Zoo Story, but all three embody the same vital defect: the absence of any compelling theme, commitment, or sense of life which might pull them into focus. Lacking this larger vision, Albee's plays—while beginning auspiciously, with a pyrotechnic display of arch, brittle irony—always collapse at the finish, either into whimpering melodrama (Bessie Smith) or into embarrassing self-exposure (American Dream). The consequence, reflected in both productions (which also end feebly after promising beginnings), is an abrupt switch in tone, and sometimes a sense of bewildering irrelevance—as in Bessie Smith where a Gothic report of the blues singer's death in an auto accident is forcibly superimposed on the main story of a malignant Southern nurse (out of Williams) and an idealistic interne who unaccountably pursues her.
The disunity of The American Dream is more damaging, since it mars a better work. The play begins as a scorching satire on upper middle class family life (aggressive Mommy and castrated Daddy tormenting sweet-crusty Grandma), in which the fatuities of daily conversation are brutally excoriated through the use of clichés, small talk, and illogical non-sequiturs. Albee, who has not yet developed his own style, borrows Ionesco's techniques here, and he manipulates them well in a somewhat febrile, bitchy manner. But while The Bald Soprano opened out onto all vacuous families, Albee closes in on one (probably his own); and with strong suggestions of personal bitterness, the play shifts into a story of adoption. This shift is signified by the entrance of the "Dream," a fully grown Adonis in regulation theater garb (blue jeans, tee shirt, cowboy boots) who proceeds to pour out toneless pathological confessions about his inability to feel, love, connect, be whole, etc. When Mommy, who has already dismembered his twin, adopts him, the curtain descends, while Grandma (now "dead") poignantly comments on the repetition from the wings. Thus, like The Zoo Story, this play begins as a whining letter to the chaplain, compromised by Albee's inability to objectify or transcend the wounded Self.
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SOURCE: A review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in Nation, Vol. 195, No. 13, October 27, 1962, pp. 273-74.
[In the following excerpt, Clurman acknowledges Albee's technical skill, but faults his characterizations in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as one-dimensional.]
Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?… is packed with talent…. It may well prove the best of the season. Its significance extends beyond the moment. In its faults as well as in its merits it deserves our close attention.
It has four characters: two couples. There is hardly a plot, little so called "action," but it moves or rather whirls on its own special axis. At first it seems to be a play about marital relations; as it proceeds one realizes that it aims to encompass much more. The author wants to "tell all," to say everything.
The middle-aged wife, Martha, torments her somewhat younger husband because he has failed to live up to her expectations. Her father, whom she worships, is president of a small college. Her husband might have become the head of the history department and ultimately perhaps her father's heir. But husband George is a nonconformist. He has gone no further than associate professor, which makes him a flop. She demeans him in every possible way. George hits back, and the play is structured on this mutually sadistic basis. The first cause of their conflict is the man's "business" (or career) failure.
Because they are both attracted to what may be vibrant in each of them, theirs is a love-hate dance of death which they enact in typical American fashion by fun and games swamped in a sauce of strong drink. They bubble and fester with poisonous quips.
The first time we meet them they are about to entertain a new biology instructor who, at twenty-eight, has just been introduced to the academic rat race. The new instructor is a rather ordinary fellow with a forever effaced wife. We learn that he married her for her money and because of what turned out to be "hysterical pregnancy." The truth is she is afraid of bearing a child though she wants one. Her husband treats her with conventional regard (a sort of reflexive tenderness) while he contemplates widespread adultery for gratification and advancement in college circles. George scorns his young colleague for being "functional" in his behavior, his ambition, his attitudes.
So it goes: we are in the midst of inanity, jokes and insidious mayhem. Martha rationalizes her cruelty to George on the ground that he masochistically enjoys her beatings.
Everyone is fundamentally impotent, despite persistent "sexualizing." The younger wife is constantly throwing up through gutless fear. Her lightheadedness is a flight from reality. The older couple has invented a son because of an unaccountable sterility. They quarrel over the nature of the imaginary son because each of them pictures him as a foil against the other. There is also a hint that as a boy George at different times accidentally killed both his father and mother. Is this so? Illusion is real; "reality" may only be symbolic—either a wish or a specter of anxiety. It does not matter: these people, the author implies, represent our environment; indeed they may even represent Western civilization!
The inferno is made very funny. The audience at any rate laughs long and loud—partly because the writing is sharp with surprise, partly because an element of recognition is involved: in laughter it hides from itself while obliquely acknowledging its resemblance to the couples on the stage. When the play turns earnestly savage or pathetic the audience feels either shattered or embarrassed. Shattered because it can no longer evade the play's expression of the audience's afflictions, sins and guilts; embarrassed because there is something in the play—particularly toward the end—that is unbelievable, soft without cause. At its best, the play is comedy.
Albee is prodigiously shrewd and skillful. His dialogue is superbly virile and plaint: it also sounds. It is not "realistic" dialogue but a highly literate and full-bodied distillation of common American speech. Still better, Albee knows how to keep his audience almost continuously interested (despite the play's inordinate length). He can also ring changes on his theme, so that the play rarely seems static. Albee is a master craftsman.
Strangely enough, though there is no question of his sincerity, it is Albee's skill which at this point most troubles me. It is as if his already practiced hand had learned too soon to make an artful package of venom. For the overriding passion of the play is venomous. There is no reason why anger should not be dramatized. I do not object to Albee's being "morbid," for as the conspicuously healthy William James once said, "morbid-mindedness ranges over a wider scale of experience than healthy-mindedness." What I do object to in his play is that its disease has become something of a brilliant formula, as slick and automatic as a happy entertainment for the trade. The right to pessimism has to be earned within the artistic terms one sets up: the pessimism and rage of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are immature. Immaturity coupled with a commanding deftness is dangerous.
What justifies this criticism? The characters have no life (or texture) apart from the immediate virulence of their confined action or speech. George is intended to represent the humanist principle in the play. But what does he concretely want? What traits, aside from his cursing the life he leads, does he have? Almost none. Martha and George, we are told, love each other after all. How? That she can't bear being loved is a psychological aside in the play, but how is her love for anything, except for her "father fixation," and some sexual dependence on George, actually embodied? What interests—even petty—do they have or share? Vividly as each personage is drawn, they all nevertheless remain flat—caricatures rather than people. Each stroke of dazzling color is superimposed on another, but no further substance accumulates. We do not actually identify with anyone except editorially. Even the non-naturalistic figures of Beckett's plays have more extension and therefore more stature and meaning. The characters in Albee's The Zoo Story and Bessie Smith are more particularized.
If we see Albee, as I do, as an emerging artist, young in the sense of a seriously prolonged career, the play marks an auspicious beginning and, despite its success, not an end. In our depleted theatre it has real importance because Albee desperately wishes to cry out—manifest—his life. The end of his play—which seeks to introduce "hope" by suggesting that if his people should rid themselves of illusion (more exactly, falsity) they might achieve ripeness—is unconvincing in view of what has preceded it. Still, this ending is a gesture, one that indicates Albee's will to break through the agonizing narrowness of the play's compass.
Albee knows all he needs to know about play-making; he has still to learn something other than rejection and more than tearfulness. His play should be seen by everyone interested in our world at home, for as Albee's George says, "I can admire things I don't admire."…
A final note: though I believe the play to be a minor work within the prospect of Albee's further development, it must for some time occupy a major position in our scene. It will therefore be done many times in different productions in many places, including Europe. Though I do not know how it is to be effected, I feel that a less naturalistic production might be envisaged. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? verges on a certain expressionism, and a production with a touch of that sort of poetry, something not so furiously insistent on the "honesty" of the materials, might give the play some of the qualities I feel it now lacks: it might alleviate the impression of, in the author's pithy phrase, "an ugly talent."
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SOURCE: "Albee and the Medusa Head," in New Republic, Vol. 147, No. 18, November 3, 1962, pp. 29-30.
[In the following excerpt of a review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Brustein recognizes Albee's talent for compelling and clever dialogue and his inventiveness, but also notes what he perceives as the author's failure to create a cohesive drama.]
Edward Albee's new work embodies both the failings and the virtues of his previous plays. But its positive achievements are substantial, and I am finally beginning to regard this playwright's future with real expectation. Albee's technical dexterity has always been breathtaking—for sheer theatrical skill, no American, not even Williams, can match him—but like Williams, he has been inclined to falsify his native gifts, distorting experience through self-defensive reflecting mirrors. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Albee is still not looking the Gorgon smack in the eye. Still, he has conjured up its outline. And if he tends to focus more on writhing snakes than on the other features of this terrifying monster, then even these quick glances are more penetrating than I have come to expect; and they are always projected in steaming, raging, phantasmagoric the article images.
Virginia Woolf is an ambitious play, and it evokes the shades of the most ambitious dramatists. The central conflict—a Strindbergian battle royal between George, a contemplative History professor with an unsuccessful career, and Martha, his bitterly shrewish wife—proceeds through a series of confessions, revelations, and interior journeys which recall the circuitous windings of O'Neill's late plays. Glued together by mutual hatred and mutual recriminations, the couple can connect only through enmity, each exposing the other's failures, inadequacies, vices, and secret illusions in language of savagely ironic scorn. Though the climax of the work is built on such an exposure, however, Albee seems less interested in the real history of his characters than in the way they conceal and protect their reality: the conflict is also a kind of game, with strict rules, and what they reveal about each other may not be true. This comedy of concealment reminds one of Pirandello, and even more of Jean Genet. For George and Martha—each by turns the aggressor—shift their identities like reptiles shedding skins. And as the evening grows more alcoholic, and the atmosphere more distended and surrealistic, their "total war" becomes a form of ritual play acting, performed upon the shifting sands of truth.
The "setting" for this play-within-a-play is a late night party; the "audience" is composed of a hollow young biology instructor, Nick, and his demure, simpering wife, Honey. A conventionally shallow couple, they are at first innocent bystanders embarrassed by the squabbling of their hosts, then full participants, as George sadistically exposes their guilty secrets. Nick's academic opportunism, Honey's surreptitious abortions. The waspish "fun and games" begin to take the form of ruthlessly aggressive charades. After "Humiliate the Host" and "Get the Guests" comes "Hump the Hostess" as Martha and Nick, in revenge against George, make a feeble attempt to cuckold him in the bedroom. The last episode, "Bringing Up Baby," constitutes George's revenge on Martha—not because she tried to betray him (her infidelities are apparently innumerable), but because she broke one of the rules of the game: she mentioned their "son" to strangers. Forcing Martha to recount the childhood history of this absent youth, George reads the requiem for the dead, climaxing this litany with the announcement that their son has been killed in an auto accident. But the child has never existed. He is merely the essential illusion of the childless Martha, a consoling fiction in her inconsolable reality. The play ends with Honey now determined to have a child, and Martha, submissive and frightened, being comforted by George.
Everyone seems to have boggled at this fictional child; and it is certain that the play collapses at its moment of climax. But the difficulty is not that the author introduces a spurious element into an otherwise truthful play. It is, rather, that he suddenly confronts us with a moment of truth after an evening of stage illusions. Albee's theatrical inventiveness rests mainly on incongruous juxtapositions: when George aims a shotgun at his braying wife, for example, it shoots not bullets but a Japanese parasol. These shock tactics are a sure-fire comic technique, but they have the effect of alienating the spectator from the action the very moment he begins to accept it. Thus, when George launches a blistering attack on the evils of modern science, Albee undercuts it with a ludicrous non-sequitur: "I will not give up Berlin." And when Martha speaks of her need to escape reality, he has her do so in a broad Irish brogue. George responds to Martha's infidelity by nonchalantly offering her flowers; he tells a harrowing story of matricide and patricide which is proved, first, to be autobiographical, and second, to be false; and when asked about the telegram announcing his son's death, he claims to have eaten it. Truth and illusion may be confused, as one character tells us, but after three and a half hours of prestidigitation, we become reluctant to accept one of these magical tricks as the real thing. In short, Albee is a highly accomplished stage magician, but he fails to convince us there is nothing up his sleeve. His thematic content is incompatible with his theatrical content—hi-jinks and high seriousness fail to fuse.
On the other hand, the author has a fine time showing off his sleight of hand, incidentally, I suspect, conjuring his action into the outlines of a classical myth (the evidence is jumbled, and I may be crazy, but I think I can detect elements of the story of Aphrodite, Ares, and Hephaestus, mixed with pieces from the story of Aphrodite and Adonis)….
In spite of all the excellence of play and production, however, I am left with my equivocal response. In his latest play, Edward Albee proves once again that he has wit, cunning, theatricality, toughness, formal control, poetry—in short, all the qualities of a major dramatist but one: that selfless commitment to a truthful vision of life which constitutes the universal basis of all serious art. Possibly out of fear of such commitments, Albee is still coquetting with his own talent, still resisting any real identification with his own material, so that he tends to confuse his themes, shift his attitudes, and subvert his characters. Yet, a genuine insight, merely sketched in his earlier work is now beginning to find fuller expression: that in a time of deadened instinct, people will use any methods, including deadly hatred, in order to find their way to others. This, or something like it, may become the solid foundation of Albee's future writing; but whatever it is, I await what is to come with eagerness. For if Albee can confront the Medusa head without the aid of parlor tricks or mirrors, he may yet turn us all to stone.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976
SOURCE: A review of Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 4, October 25, 1968, pp. 120, 122.
[In the following excerpt, Weales provides a favorable assessment of Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.]
Edward Albee's new play and/or plays, Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, came into New York, burdened with a reputation that set up the worst kind of expectations. Reports from Buffalo, where the work had its premiere last spring at the Festival of the Arts, told of boredom and impatience. The creators' reaction to the critical response, both public (in the New York Times Magazine, Albee said of the non-speaking clergyman in Mao, "I suppose he's sort of a critic, except that he's sober") and private (the string of silly-ass telegrams that the author, director and producer sent to a Canadian critic) suggested infantile defense of a lost cause. The production of Box on educational television, divorced both from its companion play and the physical theater, was as empty as a visually flat box can be. The heart of the problem is that it is impossible to describe the new work without sounding as though one were inventing a parody of the most pretentious kind of avant-garde theater. The pre-judgment was in; the verdict, willful chi-chi. So I went to Box-Mao expecting nothing, or worse, and found myself fascinated by play and performance alike. What Albee is up to is not so much an examination of the contemporary situation as the rhetorical and artistic means of coping with it, an implicit critique of his own work that is harsher than that made by even his most vehement critics, and he is at once fragmenting and working with conventional theater responses.
Entering the theater, one is confronted with the frame of a gigantic box, filling the stage and, since the stage is an apron, reaching into the audience. A joke about the box stage? Obviously, but it becomes more than that. Before the house lights dim, a number of spots come on, fixing the frame so that it stands out, clean, functional, empty, once the house is dark. Then a voice begins—Ruth White on tape (since she was the motel-keeper's taped voice in America Hurrah, she is in danger of becoming one of the best actresses not in the theater). Given our listening habits, the aural-visual combination on which we usually depend for concentration, a disembodied voice in the theater should be impossible to follow, particularly when the monologue runs on and on, deliberately, unhurriedly, for a great many minutes (a reported 15, but I did not time the speech). I know that when I saw the play on television, my eyes and my mind wandered the room I was in and robbed the voice of meaning, turned it into White sound. Here, however, there was only the box and the voice and they seemed to belong to one another, so I listened. The monologue is at once an evocation of nostalgia and a lecture in aesthetics. The arts are gone, the voice says, and crafts have come if not to replace them, then to occupy the vacant space. Art that hurts by telling us of our losses is the final corruption in a corrupt world, but there is still room to move around in the box and the possibility of some kind of artistic order, always on its own terms.
When the voice stills, Mao begins with the entrance of the man himself. He prowls the stage, the theater, the boxes, a little frightening in his mask, relentlessly quoting his Marxist platitudes. He shares the stage and the contrapuntal pattern with an old woman, played by Sudie Bond in the cartoon style she developed for Grandma in The American Dream, who does nothing but recite "Over the Hill to the Poorhouse," Will Carleton's marvelous exercise in 1930's poetic pop-schmaltz, and with a long-winded lady, as the program identifies her, who insistently tells the mute clergyman about the time she fell or jumped or was pushed off an ocean liner like the one on which they are riding at the moment. Once the three voices are established, they are joined by lines replayed from the opening tape, and the pattern is so organized that the lines are often direct comments on or oblique jokes about the speech that immediately precedes them….
It is quickly clear that Mao's quotations, all jargonesque abstractions, and the old woman's poem, social criticism as a tear-jerker, are rhetorical devices to avoid the human situation with which they are presumably dealing, ways of not seeing reality. The tricky thing about the play is Albee's use of the long-winded lady. As she tells the story of her fall, interrupted not so much by the other characters as her own verbal mannerisms—the familiar Albee hesitations, circumlocutions, searches for the precise word, new beginnings—she describes her own life, which, for all the admission of past affection, turns out to be as empty and meaningless as one has come to expect from an Albee heroine. She repeats her reaction to the official suggestion that she may have jumped, "I have nothing to die for."… Yet the story she tells—the dying husband, the defecting child—is the parallel of "Over the Hill to the Poorhouse" and, even while we are being touched, we know we are being had, that her rhetoric, that of heightened realism, is also an avoidance. Contemporary drama, Albee seems to be telling us, is at its best and its most corrupt when it treats of loss, as all of Albee's work does; craft, with a little box-room and its own sense of order, can at least recognize that fact. Box-Mao is a kind of confession, but, unlike so many confessions, one that is a pleasure to watch because it uses the tricks it admits.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3699
SOURCE: "Verbal Prisons: The Language of Albee's A Delicate Balance," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 201-11.
[In the following essay, Fumerton provides an analysis of Albee's use of language in A Delicate Balance.]
A Delicate Balance forms part of Edward Albee's continuing exploration into the potentialities and limitations of language. Surprisingly, however, no one has yet provided a detailed analysis of the play's language. This work intends such a study. The characters of A Delicate Balance are conscious manipulators of their language: a frightened people who use language in an attempt to control or simply to survive fearful realities. They use the decorum of language to disguise anxieties, to balance between implications (as when Agnes habitually says "either … or" and "if … then"), and thus to evade truths and choices. At the same time, they sharpen their language of evasion into a precise instrument of persuasion—wielded by all, but most skillfully by the "fulcrum," Agnes. Yet in employing it to evade and coerce, the characters limit and distort their language, separating the "word" from its concrete and unconditional "meaning." Ironically—and tragically—they become trapped within the limits they themselves impose upon language.
The play opens with a conversation between Tobias and Agnes, a husband and wife who appear contented and very much in love. The mood is subdued, the characters are attentive, and the language, although formal, is cordial and pleasant. Agnes's opening speeches undulate like the rolling of hills, never descending into deep chasms nor climbing to mountainous peaks. She begins with an idea, glides into a parenthesis that becomes a digression (intermixed with questions to her husband), returns briefly to that idea—from which she again digresses—and finally completes this same thought three pages after it was originally introduced. Her sentences overlap, continually balancing and qualifying themselves:
What I find most astonishing—aside from that belief of mine, which never ceases to surprise me by the very fact of its surprising lack of unpleasantness, the belief that I might very easily—as they say—lose my mind one day, not that I suspect I am about to, or am even … nearby….
Placid and lamb-like, Agnes appears well-suited to her name. And the further association, through her name, with Saint Agnes, a virgin martyr of the third century, evokes no striking sense of incongruity.
As the play continues, however, it becomes apparent that Tobias and Agnes are not content and that even their love is to be questioned. Their language is a camouflaging tool that expertly conceals a depth of pain and fear. Rather than being an expression of love, the almost euphonious decorum permeating the play is a mark of heightened tension (as in the tea-pouring scene of Act III) or of extreme uneasiness (as in the exchange of names when Harry and Edna first arrive). Whenever uncomfortable or fearful, the characters turn to recognized formalities in order to distance what they fear and to conceal what they feel. Thus, when left alone in the living room in Act III, Harry and Tobias formally greet each other even though they have already been in this same room with the others for some time:
HARRY: (Watching them go; laughs ruefully) Boy, look at 'em go. They got outa here quick enough. You'd think there was a … (Trails off, sees TOBIAS is ill at ease; says, gently) Morning, Tobias.
TOBIAS: (Grateful) Morning, Harry.
Ironically, Agnes, the "saint," is the most expert manipulator of this language of disguise. Her very correct, very polite, and very balanced language is deceptively open and articulate—it conceals, in fact, rather than reveals. When Agnes distinguishes between an hysterical condition and an hysterical action (in response to Tobias's declaration that Julia is in hysterics), she is actually using articulation as a defense. Similarly, when Agnes responds with the expression "either … or"—an expression frequently mocked by Claire—she articulates the alternatives, but never makes a choice: "She [Julia] will be down or she will not. She will stop, or she will … go on." Agnes is as noncommittal as Tobias and the others. By repeatedly using this expression, as well as "if … then"—expressions balancing like teeter-totters—Agnes focuses upon the implications and thus evades rather than faces the truths (which demand that one not only recognize, but actively choose between alternatives). Claire sees this clearly:
We live with our truths in the grassy bottom, and we examine alllll the interpretations of alllll the implications like we had a life for nothing else, for God's sake.
Claire's vision is indeed faithful to the meaning of her name:
AGNES: (An overly sweet smile) Claire could tell us so much if she cared to, could you not, Claire. Claire, who watches from the sidelines, has seen so very much, has seen us all so clearly, have you not, Claire. You were not named for nothing.
Constantly striving to break the balance and expose truths, Claire threatens the equipoise Agnes so carefully maintains. Claire's sentences reach for peaks and descend into chasms. Stuffed with quick, short verbs, they build up and run headlong, rather than balance:
Pretend you're very sick, Tobias, like you were with the stomach business, but pretend you feel your insides are all green, and stink, and mixed up, and your eyes hurt and you're half deaf and your brain keeps turning off, and you've got peripheral neuritis and you can hardly walk and you hate … and you notice—with a sort of detachment that amuses you, you think—that you're more like an animal every day … you snarl, and grab for things, and hide things and forget where you hid them like not-very-bright dogs, and you wash less, prefer to be washed, and once or twice you've actually soiled your bed and laid in it because you can't get up … pretend all that. No you don't like that, Tobias?
Like all potentially dangerous things, Claire must be controlled. With the mere mention of her name, before she even enters the room, Agnes's pleasantly rolling language becomes more forceful and oppressive. Her parenthetical comments (which had earlier acted digressively, dissipating her main idea) are now carefully laid one upon another in the building of her "mountain" of burdens. Note, in particular, the powerful accumulation of monosyllabic words in her first parenthesis:
If I were to list the mountain of my burdens—if I had a thick pad and a month to spare—that bending my shoulders most, with the possible exception of Julia's trouble with marriage, would be your—it must be instinctive, I think, or reflex, that's more like it—your reflex defense of everything Claire….
Agnes describes herself most aptly as the "fulcrum" of the family. A fulcrum is not only a support or point of support on which a lever turns in raising or moving something, but also a means of exerting influence or pressure. As the sole support of her family, Agnes must exert pressure to maintain its shape. She does so through language. Exemplary of this is Agnes's technique of ending a question with "was it not?" or "have I not?" thus adding assertive force to an interrogative sentence:
AGNES: (Quietly; sadly) Well, it was your decision, was it not?
TOBIAS: (Ibid.) Yes.
AGNES: And I have made the best of it. Have lived with it. Have I not?
Harry and Edna are the only people Agnes cannot quite control. These two pose a far greater threat to Agnes than does Claire because they do not fall within Agnes's domain, the family circle. Indeed, the sudden arrival of Harry and Edna is seen as a hostile "invasion" (the verb "harry" means "to plunder"). Fearing for the safety of her stronghold, Agnes struggles to control these invaders—to grasp hold of them—by shifting her mode of address. Throughout the first half of the play, everyone, including Agnes, refers to them as "Harry and Edna." Midway, however, Agnes suddenly switches to "Edna and Harry" and she alone continues to address them in this way throughout the rest of the play:
Would it seem … incomplete to you, my darling, were I to tell you Julia is upset that Har—Edna and Harry are here, that….
But Harry and Edna remain ungovernable and, therefore, most threatening.
In all other cases, Agnes successfully exerts control through language. She is able to do so because language itself is presented as an authority. But it is only accepted as such if one has the "right" to speak authoritatively. Those who are not members of the family have no right at all—at least, not in the eyes of Julia and Agnes. Consequently, when Edna criticizes the way Agnes and Claire banter—"I wish you two would stop having at each other"—Agnes immediately questions her right to interfere: "Is that for you to say?"
In contrast with the above sequence is an exchange between two rightful members of the family, father and daughter:
TOBIAS: (Quiet anger and sorrow) Your brother would not have grown up to be a fag.
JULIA: (Bitter smile) Who is to say?
TOBIAS: (Hard look) I!
Tobias, with verbal force, claims victory, and Julia silently accedes. However, the balance of power shifts at the beginning of Act III when, still dazed from his confrontation with Agnes, Tobias surrenders totally to what Julia says to him:
JULIA: (Setting the tray down) There; now that's much better, isn't it?
TOBIAS: (In a fog) Whatever you say, Julie.
In each of these dialogues one speaker emerges in control through the power of language alone. Of course, the right and ability to exercise this power rest foremost with Agnes. This is most evident when Agnes defines alcoholism:
AGNES: (Not looking at either of them) If we change for the worse with drink, we are an alcoholic. It is as simple as that.
CLAIRE: And who is to say!
After an appeal to Tobias, which receives no response, Claire accepts the definition—she is what Agnes says she is: "Very well, then, Agnes, you win. I shall be an alcoholic." The very use of "if … then"—"If we change for the worse with drink, we are an alcoholic"—is authoritarian. This sentence structure leads one to focus upon the "then" clause while unquestioningly accepting or ignoring the "if" clause.
But because the family members have raised their language to an imperious position, even those who try to exert themselves through that language are actually controlled by it: captives of their own language, they think what they say rather than say what they think. Language is a ritual that has become separated from thought and, therefore, from real meaning. The characters are all extremely polite (they cordially address each other with "darling," "dear," "please," "thank you") but Tobias himself questions, as do we, whether this cordiality is only mechanical. Do they really mean "darling" and "thank you" or is this apparent sincerity, when actually analyzed, only conditional upon circumstances—like Agnes's "if … then?":
When we talk to each other … what have we meant? Anything? When we touch, when we promise, and say … yes, or please … with ourselves?… have we meant, yes, but only if … if there's any condition, Agnes! Then it's … all been empty.
The emptiness of this ritual is most apparent when one compares the long exchange of personal names, upon the first appearance of Harry and Edna, with the similar yet confused voicing of names at the end of the same Act:
AGNES: (Reaches doorway; turns to TOBIAS; a question that has no answer) Tobias?
HARRY: (Rises, begins to follow EDNA, rather automaton-like) Edna?
TOBIAS: (Confused) Harry?
Each individual calls out helplessly, expecting no answer to alleviate his or her isolation.
Like the rules of etiquette, the rules of grammar must always be observed in A Delicate Balance. Claire deliberately breaks one of these grammatical laws by saying "a alcoholic" rather than "an," but Agnes is quick to catch any irregularity in her speech: "I dropped upstairs—well, that doesn't make very much sense, does it? I happened upstairs…." Here too, however, is an emptiness. The meaning which stands behind the order of language is missing:
EDNA: Harry is helping Agnes and Tobias get our bags upstairs.
JULIA: (Slight schoolteacher tone) Don't you mean Agnes and Tobias are helping Harry?
EDNA: (Tired) If you like.
Individual words clank hollowly within this syntactical kettle-drum—as does the expression, "best friends," or Agnes's repeated use of "glad": "We're glad you're here; we're glad you came to surprise us!" The characters have command of their own language in the same way that Harry has mastered French:
HARRY: … and I was reading my French; I've got it pretty good now—not the accent, but the … the words.
They know the lexicon and syntax of their language, but have lost, or forgotten, its meaning.
Several attempts are made to define or to redefine words in A Delicate Balance. When Agnes defines Claire as an alcoholic, she does so to gain control over her by labelling her. Edna similarly tries to manipulate the others by defining "friendship," yet she is also actually attempting to understand the meaning—or what the others mean—by the word:
EDNA: (To JULIA) You must … what is the word?… coexist, my dear. (To the others) Must she not? (Silence; calm) Must she not. This is what you have meant by friendship … is it not?
But Edna's efforts are pathetically unsatisfactory. The language to which these people have reduced themselves is simply too limited for meaningful expression.
This is most evident when Harry and Edna try to explain their terror. Their language fails to provide an adequate description of this fear or of its cause: the characters can only repeat the adjectives, "frightened," "terrified," and "scared." The closest they come to identifying their fear is through a simile:
HARRY: (Quite innocent, almost childlike) It was like being lost: very young again, with the dark, and lost.
Similarly, Julia, in her hysteria, is unable to express the full force of her pain and fear through language. In fact, the language actually disintegrates as she herself loses control: "Get them out of here, Daddy, getthemoutofheregetthemoutofheregetthemoutofheregetthemoutofheregetthemoutofhere…."
In their struggle to express themselves, individuals often distinguish between synonymous words:
AGNES: (More curious than anything) Do you really want me dead, Claire?
CLAIRE: Wish, yes. Want? I don't know; probably, though I might regret it if I had it.
They will even differentiate between identical words—as in Act III when Harry tries to explain his relationship with Edna to Tobias: "We don't … 'like.' Oh, sure we like…." In this same Act, Tobias screams that he does not "want" Harry and Edna to stay and yet he begs them to stay.
This word, "want," takes on special significance in A Delicate Balance. It denotes both a lack and a need of something:
EDNA: … if all at once we … NEED … we come where we are wanted, where we know we are expected, not only where we want….
When Edna and Harry come to the house, Julia repeatedly asks, "What do they want?" In Act II, Julia's horror-filled declaration, "THEY WANT!", is followed a few lines later by the pathetic cry, "I want!" But like the other characters, Julia does not know specifically what she lacks and needs:
JULIA: I want!
CLAIRE: (Sad smile) What do you want, Julia?
JULIA: I …
JULIA: I WANT … WHAT IS MINE!
AGNES: (Seemingly dispassionate; after a pause) Well, then, my dear, you will have to decide what that is, will you not.
"Want" lacks a definable object: it points to something beyond what each individual has, some unidentifiable thing that is missing from their lives:
TOBIAS: (Holding a glass out to AGNES) Did you say you wanted?
AGNES: (Her eyes still on CLAIRE) Yes, I did, thank you.
HARRY: (Subdued, almost apologetic) Edna and I … there's … so much … over the dam, so many … disappointments, evasions, I guess, lies maybe … so much we remember we wanted, once … so little that we've … settled for….
The word "want" exemplifies the casualties language suffers when warped into an instrument of disguise and control. Reduced to an evasive abstraction, "want" resonates with meaning yet is unable to communicate definite thoughts and feelings.
Dominated by this language, the characters themselves approach the undefinable and abstract. A distance separates them from the reader. Their talk is colloquial enough to be typically American, but elaborate enough to be found in a Restoration play like The Way of the World. Albee wishes us to be at home with these people and yet to remove them to a more abstract sphere. They are familiar, yet strangers, human and yet less vital than, for instance, George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
AGNES: Not even separation; that is taken care of, and in life: the gradual … demise of intensity, the private preoccupations, the substitutions. We become allegorical, my darling Tobias, as we grow older.
It is with the hope of arresting this process of substitution that Tobias reacts so violently against Agnes's evasively abstract use of language:
TOBIAS: (Frustration; anger) I've not been … wrestling with some … abstract problem! These are people! Harry and Edna! These are our friends, God damn it!
Ironically, these "invaders," Harry and Edna, unwittingly open up a path to salvation through self-revelation. Lifting the veil that has shielded but blinded his eyes, Tobias comes to see himself and Agnes in the figures of Harry and Edna. Indeed, Edna speaks in the same manner as Agnes (she uses the royal plural, "we," the affirmative interrogative, "didn't we?" and the expression, "if … then"), and Harry's speech mimics the vague language of Tobias (such as his repetitive use of "sure"). In one attempt at defining "friendship," Edna offers a simile that most closely "hits home": "Friendship is something like a marriage, is it not, Tobias? For better and for worse?" Tobias comes to see that the meaning of his relationships with his family is mirrored in the meaning of his friendship with Harry and Edna. Although Claire may also see this, she refuses to act. It is only Tobias—the vague, taciturn, and evasive Tobias—who accepts the revelation and makes a final bid for salvation. With open eyes Tobias makes his choice: he decides to go against what he wants—self-protection—for something he wants more—a true and meaningful relationship. Struck with the fear that love could only be error—
CLAIRE: What else but love?
—he struggles to define such words as "best friends" and "right" in order to give them meanings that are not only meaningful, but concrete and unconditional:
YOU'VE GOT THE RIGHT!
DO YOU KNOW THE WORD?
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….
Hoping to release himself and his family from their bonds, Tobias strives to reunite their divided language, to restore thought to language:
I came down here and I sat, all night—hours—and I did something rather rare for this family: I thought about something….
But when Tobias calls out to Harry, "DON'T WE LOVE EACH OTHER?"—a pathetic repetition of Agnes's emphatic "do we not?"—he is begging for an affirmative response to what he fears is untrue.
Nevertheless, Tobias's "reaching out" is a saint-like gesture. As Agnes herself declares, "we quarantine, we ostracize—if we are not immune ourselves, or unless we are saints." The religious language in the play underscores this idea of sainthood. While such expressions as "for God's sake," "hell," and "Jesus" are commonplace expletives, they are selectively placed in A Delicate Balance. "For God's sake" is most conspicuous, occurring with unusual frequency throughout the play. Whenever upset, Tobias uses the adjective "goddamned." Here, in his hysterical speech to Harry, he pleads in the name of God:
I DON'T WANT YOU HERE!
NO! I DON'T
BUT BY CHRIST YOU'RE GOING TO STAY HERE!
… you've got the right to be here, you've earned it
AND BY GOD YOU'RE GOING TO TAKE IT!
I DON'T WANT YOU HERE!
I DON'T LOVE YOU!
BUT BY GOD … YOU STAY!! (my emphasis)
In fact, the name "Tobias" comes from the hebrew word "töbhïyäh" meaning "God is good." By extending hospitality to his neighbours (a connection with the Old Testament "Book of Tobias"), Tobias attempts to justify his name. But Tobias's offer is rejected and his name remains as split from his person as the language is split from meaning.
All of the characters in A Delicate Balance refuse to be saved—they dread upsetting the balance that so carefully hides and protects them from the naked truth. Each turns from salvation to the ritualistic language Agnes maintains. Indeed, the only religious expletives to be spoken after Tobias's scene with Harry—"good heavens" and "good Lord"—evoke a chilling sensation. For Agnes herself has become something of a substitute Lord. In fact, Agnes is a necessary factor in these people's lives: each individual—even Claire, the rebel—has fallen so low that the support Agnes offers, through language, has become both irresistible and indispensable.
The characters of A Delicate Balance momentarily waver between sanity and insanity, between revelation and self-deception. Drawn from their self-created—what Claire would call their "willfull"—illusions, they approach the truth, but quickly veer away from any openness, descending back into an even deeper mire of delusion. The language of the play follows a similar pattern: moving from a split between thought and language to a momentary union of words and meaning—the confrontation between Tobias and Agnes at the beginning of Act III, and Tobias' hysterical scene in the same Act—and outward again to a language even further divided from meaning and, therefore, to a language incapable of any real expression. By the end of A Delicate Balance, language appears not as a medium for communication, but as a necessary protective device; it forms an impenetrable blockage, a thick layer of skin within which each individual may rest secure: isolated and lonely and—tragically—invulnerable.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9894
SOURCE: "Edward Albee: Playwright of Evolution," in Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, Max Hueber Verlag München, 1981, pp. 33-53.
[In the following essay, Worth examines Albee's treatment of evolution in his plays.]
Albee is a playwright whose great distinctiveness is peculiarly hard to name and define. He has been claimed for the Absurdists and linked with Ionesco on the strength of his early plays, The Zoo Story (1958) and The American Dream (1960); comparisons with Strindberg have been prompted by his relish for comic/ferocious sex battles, as in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1961); and his use of polite social rituals to convey psychological malaise has called up thoughts of T. S. Eliot and Noel Coward. He has strong affinities with some of his American predecessors, notably with the O'Neill of Dynamo and Welded, and with Thornton Wilder, who has the same feeling for the poignant brevity of human life and the rapid passing of generations. In The Long Christmas Dinner Wilder represents this by an accelerated ageing process: as the members of the family join and leave the endless Christmas dinner, they put on wigs from time to time to indicate their movement from one generation to another. Albee's use of a wig in Tiny Alice (1964) to conceal the youth of Miss Alice and then as adornment on a phrenological head, as Julian dies, makes a similar suggestion of instability and mortal change. At the end of that same play the Butler goes round the room placing dust covers over the furniture, a prelude to Julian's death. We could hardly fail to think of Endgame at such a moment—and Albee, no less than other major modern playwrights, shows his awareness of Beckett in many subtle echoes of this kind.
To be aware of these affinities and resemblances is not of course to diminish Albee. On the contrary, whatever he takes he distils into a style which is entirely his own: no American playwright has a more distinctive voice. Its special quality comes partly from its ease in moving between an intellectual and an aggressively physical mode. Albee's characters usually belong to a well-to-do, educated middle class: typical is the Long Winded Lady in Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968), described as 'very average and upper middle class. Nothing exotic, nothing strange'. We might question how 'average' she is in her reading tastes—Trollope and Henry James—but my point is that this cultivated, literate lady is the sort of person Albee favours. He is the most intellectual and literary of American playwrights. But he combines the cerebral with an extraordinary emphasis on the physical. His characters talk with often outrageous candour about their sexual and bodily activities: we are never allowed to forget that we live in an animal world. His plays are full of animals, from the dogs, cats and parakeets of The Zoo Story, the 'little zoo', as Jerry mockingly describes them, to the talking lizards in Seascape (1975) who come on to land to join with a human couple in a symposium on the nature of human beings and animals. Like Jerry in The Zoo Story Albee seems inspired by the desire 'to find out more about the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other, and with people too'. He often uses people's relations with animals to measure their relation with each other and he can give a terrifying impression of the thin line dividing one world from the other, as when in All Over (1971) the Wife and Mistress relapse into animal fury, driving the newsmen out of the room, or in the same play, a woman who has had a mental collapse is said to have been sent 'spinning back into the animal brain'.
The seemingly comfortable position of his characters, their sophistication and self-consciousness, are useful to Albee, partly because he can quite naturally enrich the dialogue with the widely ranging cultural references and quotations his theme requires, partly because it allows him to 'disturb' his characters in interesting ways. Disturbance is above all Albee's theme, or as I am calling it 'evolution'. And it is that aspect of his drama I want to examine in this essay. He is an expert in contriving shocks and explosions to break up surfaces, façades, carapaces, and in so doing create new lines of direction. With increasingly fine instruments, as his art develops, he records what happens after these disturbances. Fine degrees of change, as well as spectacular ones, are recorded with the exactitude of a seismograph: it may be a collapse, as in Listening (1975) or a cataclysmic upheaval as in Tiny Alice, or a series of small adjustments resulting in the restoration of the status quo along with an almost imperceptible change as in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance. Albee himself sometimes talks so as to suggest his evolutionary interests. The American Dream, he said, was a 'stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen'. The word 'slipping', so interestingly unexpected, surely suggests the sort of geophysical associations which underlie the intricate movements of Albee's dramatic action: earthquakes, tidal erosions, continents adrift.
When he was asked in 1968 what was the subject of his new play. Albee said he supposed it was about evolution. The play, Seascape, does indeed give an impression of the great stretch of human evolution, opening with the noise of jet planes screeching over the beach and ending, in one of Albee's most endearing and poignant scenes, with the creatures who have just come out of the sea contemplating their next movement:
NANCY: You'll have to come back … sooner or later. You don't have any choice. Don't you know that? You'll have to come back up.
LESLIE: (Sad smile) Do we?
LESLIE: Do we have to?
LESLIE: Do we have to?
NANCY: (Timid) We could help you, please?
LESLIE: (Anger and doubt) How?
CHARLIE: (Sad, shy) Take you by the hand? You've got to do it—sooner or later.
NANCY: (Shy) We could help you. (Leslie pauses; descends a step down the dune; crouches; stares at them)
LESLIE: (Straight) All right. Begin.
There is a wonderful ring to this 'begin'. It has some of the heroic quality of the evolutionary drama of Shaw which is bound to come to mind when one contemplates Albee's absorbed interest in human development. Shaw's 'metabiological pentateuch', Back to Methuselah, begins in the Garden of Eden and ends with a scene showing how human beings have extended their life span indefinitely, and have become wise enough to win the approval of the Life Force: 'And because these infants that call themselves ancients are reaching out towards that [i.e. wisdom], I will have patience with them still: though I know well that when they attain it they shall become one with me and supersede me …'. This last play in the pentateuch is called 'As Far as though can Reach'. Albee's characters indulge a great deal in this kind of thinking, stretching their minds to contemplate the future of the race as well as their own. The conversation of Charlie and Nancy in Seascape—touching on everything from jet planes and world travel to sex, ageing, mortality and the meaning of things—is only one of many such dialogues where the characters' probing of themselves and each other opens up speculation on society and human life in general. Albee is often thought of as a pessimistic playwright, and certainly he depicts some pessimistic moods and situations, but there is a kind of Shavian optimism all the same in the spirited energy his characters bring to the contemplation of their own lives and to the puzzle of the world.
Albee's characters do not have much prospect of becoming supermen, like the Ancients of Back to Methuselah, but in their anything-but Arcadian world they do succeed in making readjustments which change their own lives and may, he sometimes seems to hint, be contributing, if almost imperceptibly, to evolutionary change on a grander scale. Of course he is more interested in the dark undergrowth of his characters' psychology than Shaw; despite their wit and comic stylisations, his plays are often nearer to the tragic mood of O'Neill, the other American who shares with Albee and Shaw a preoccupation with the mysteries of evolution.
At its strongest, their urge to dramatise these mysteries drives them all into more or less fantastic modes which allow the non-human elements in the universe a vital role in the proceedings. Shaw has his talking snake in the Garden of Eden scene of Back to Methuselah, and in Too True to be Good the audience is addressed by a disgruntled microbe which, we are told, resembles a human being but in substance suggests 'a luminous jelly with a visible skeleton of short black rods'. O'Neill ends The Hairy Ape with a deathly encounter between man and ape in the zoo (anticipations here of The Zoo Story) and in Dynamo makes a destructive Mother Goddess out of electrical machinery. Similarly, Albee puts microcosm and macrocosm on stage in Tiny Alice and in Seascape brings out of the sea the creatures with unequivocal tails who identify themselves with such charming absurdity as Leslie and Sarah.
The function of Shaw's microbe is to draw attention to the wrong-headedness of human beings, the doctors, patients and fussy mothers who infect innocent microbes with measles and spoil their own lives by the unhealthy way they live them. Once the patient is set free from her genteel domestic prison by the anarchic Burglar her whole way of thinking changes totally, a change Shaw expresses through an instant physical change: in one scene a querulous girl wrapped up in blankets; in the next a beautiful animal, with hard, glistening muscles. The rebellious daughter eventually evolves to the point where she can accept her mother on terms which give them both an exhilarating new freedom. In the extraordinary last scene where one character after another is shown taking stock of his or her past life and making a choice for the future, the Elderly Lady announces her decision to change herself, move on to a different phase of evolution: 'The world is not a bit like what they said it was. I wasn't a bit like what they said I ought to be. I thought I had to pretend. And I needn't have pretended at all'.
This is very much the kind of activity Albee's characters are engaged in, a struggle to recognise what the world really is, what they really are and then to survive and evolve in the light of the knowledge they acquire or have thrust upon them. The aim is harder to realise in Albee's world than in Shaw's. Albee has in much higher degree a modern sense of the instability of the self, its lack of control over the deep movements of the psyche. There is certainly an abundance of strong-willed characters on his stage: we are always aware of the desperate will behind the 'fun and games' played out by Martha and George and the more deadly charades constructed by the unholy trio in Tiny Alice. But we are constantly aware too of the world beneath the will: the biological instincts, the subconscious, the many unknown forces that drive the human individual and the strange universe he finds himself in, along with all those animals. There is a much less strong illusion of mind controlling events than in the evolutionary comedy of Shaw or the evolutionary tragedy of O'Neill. The latter's battling characters often feel themselves driven in ways they cannot understand but they never really lose their heroic will: they retain a sense of purpose and meaning even when they are defeated, perhaps then most of all. Yet all three playwrights are linked by their fascination with the notion of tides sweeping men on to some unknown future and with their function as humans in a world which seems in a way better adjusted to animals, vegetables and inorganic elements. 'It was a great mistake, my being born a man', muses O'Neill's Edmund Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night, 'I would have been much more successful as a sea-gull or a fish'; while Shaw's Ancients in Back to Methuselah are steadily approaching the time when they will transmute themselves into a vortex of pure intelligence. One of the adolescents (newly born from an egg) puts the question, 'But if life is thought, can you live without a head?' 'Not now perhaps', replies the He-Ancient, 'But prehistoric men thought they could not live without tails. I can live without a tail. Why should I not live without a head?' The newly born then unwittingly helps to make the point by her innocent question, 'What is a tail?'; drawing from the Ancient a declaration of his evolutionary faith. The tail was a habit, no more, of which the human ancestors managed to cure themselves, and that is what must now happen with the whole body, the 'machinery of flesh and blood' which, he says, 'imprisons us on this petty planet and forbids us to range through the stars': men must free themselves from that tyranny and become the masters of matter, not its slaves.
Shaw plays with the evolutionary theme in witty argument, O'Neill uses it to fuel the tragic endeavours of his characters to rise above themselves and acquire heroic status. Albee incorporates it into the small change of life. The accidental, physical side of things looms much larger in his plays than in those of the other two: we hear more about the ordinary vicissitudes of the body, the 'machinery of flesh and blood'; in its various phases, health and illness, sexual excitement and frustration, need for procreation and disappointment in it, ageing and dying. Albee has really made himself the playwright of ageing: he studies with fascination the evolution of personality from one phase of life to another. He is interested in transitions and in the fineness of the line between different states of mind: between the vegetable and the animal, between real calm and the sinister quietness of malaise which is so often, in his plays, the stillness before the earthquake or the exhaustion following the after-shock when the troubled substance settles down again. He is acutely aware of the fragile equilibrium of the mind; no accident that one of his plays is called A Delicate Balance. His characters have this awareness too: they fear madness or question whether they are hallucinated. Often they really are 'disturbed' in the common modern sense of being mentally unstable or ill, liable to break down altogether as a result of some clinical condition, like the suicidal girl in Listening.
They also, however, need to be disturbed. The games they play, the social strategies they devise, are a form of self-protection but also a means—perhaps unconscious—of galvanising themselves into the new situations which almost always seem of impasse. Like O'Neill's Dion Anthony in The Great God Brown, Albee is interested in the sort of doubt and disturbance which enters into the system, a germ which 'wriggles like a question mark of insecurity, in [the] blood, because it's part of the creative life…'.
In this drama of 'evolvings', death plays a major role. No playwright has paid more attention to the business of dying or to death as an ordinary part of life. In the early plays the deaths tend to be outrageous and symbolic; Grandma's playful exit with the Angel of Death in The Sandbox (1959), the ritual shooting of Julian in Tiny Alice. But in the later plays the focus is on more commonplace and quiet forms of dying, often protracted so that we are obliged to see this too as process, part of life's movement. 'Is he dead?' asks the Wife in All Over, as they sit and wait for the man to die (on stage but out of view). The Mistress refuses the expression, quoting the man himself on the inappropriateness of the verb to be to a state of non-being: 'one could be dying or have died … but could not … be … dead'. Language itself insists on death becoming an activity.
There are many different kinds of active death on Albee's stage. All Over shows us one kind. The dying man is in one way peculiarly helpless; until they brought him home from hospital he had been hooked up to a machine and was totally dependent on it for life. Looking at him, his wife conceived the strange fantasy that he had become part of the machine and that the machine had become organic, 'an octopus: the body of the beast, the tentacles electric controls, recorders, modulators, breath and heart and brain waves…'. For a moment it seemed to her that 'he was keeping it … functioning. Tubes and wires'. The image is painful and shocking but it keeps the man not only in life but powerfully so. And it is a true image, for by the power of his personality he has brought these characters together and holds them to him with the tentacles of feeling; memory, grief, hostility, desire. They are 'hooked up' to him, as one critic has said, as irresistibly as he to the machine.
Though his dying is so active and we can tell that he will continue to inhabit the minds on the stage, the man ceases to breathe at the close of All Over. Other kinds of death on Albee's stage are more metaphorical, deaths which contribute to the making of lives. As one of the characters says, 'Goodness, we all died when we were thirty once'. There is the little death of sexual consummation, the death of feelings, the deaths of the selves discarded in moving from one stage of life to the next. Albee shows us some bleak 'little deaths' but his characters pick themselves up and begin again; 'Well, we can exist with anything, or without. There's little that we need to have to go on … evolving'.
I want now to look at some of the methods Albee uses to show these 'evolvings', drawing on plays from different phases of his own evolution as a playwright.
Perhaps one of the most striking features of the early plays is Albee's youthful amazement at the difficulty of shaking people up, at their imperviousness to new thoughts or anything that might disturb their self-satisfaction. Along with this goes a profound feeling for the sense of loss and uncertainty which can be experienced in human relationships, especially the parent/child relationship. It is hard to avoid thinking of his own situation as an adopted child who has admitted to antagonistic feelings towards the natural parents who abandoned him at two weeks old. His achievement is to take up the personal distress into the dramatic structure of plays like The American Dream and use it to humanise the surrealist caricatures through which he satirises bourgeois complacency. What emerges in the end is a moment of good change, an 'evolving'. I want now to look at the working out of these changes in the first of his plays.
The satire in The Sandbox and The American Dream—the two plays in which Mommy, Daddy and Grandma figure—begins by being very funny, though with the touch of nightmare the theme of imperviousness requires. Mommy is the epitome of self-satisfaction. To poor browbeaten Daddy's choral comment 'That's the way things are today; you just can't get satisfaction; you just try', she replies with triumph, 'Well, I got satisfaction' and we can see she does. She dismisses anything likely to disturb her with the simple 'I won't think about it' and ruthlessly stamps on anyone who does not conform with her chosen way, as she has done, we are told in The American Dream, with the adopted child, 'the bumble of joy'. The horrific account of the dismemberment and castration of this child which is given by Grandma to the Young Man who appears out of the blue is the moment when the derisive glee aroused by the Ionesco-like stereotypes, Mommy, Daddy and Mrs. Barker, turns into something more human and more deeply disturbing. What Grandma describes, in her dry, laconic style, as a far-off fabulous event, is felt by the Young Man as a real nightmare, somehow associated with his lost twin, or perhaps, other self: without knowing how it happened, he has felt himself drained, emasculated and hollow. Grandma and the Young Man are victims of Mommy and this remains the Young Man's function: physically perfect but inwardly hollow he is absorbed into the family as their American Dream. But Grandma has another role to play. She enlists his aid in her escape plan, and gathers together all her boxes, full of memories and dreams, and walks out on them, reappearing on the side of the stage, unseen by the dreadful family, to tell the audience:
Well, I guess that just about wraps it up, I mean, for better or worse, this is a comedy, and I don't think we'd better go any further. No, definitely not. 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.
What everybody thinks he wants is not perhaps what he would really want if he could be brought to understanding of himself, so Grandma implies. To be left with Mommy can be no happy ending for the Young Man, nor is there much prospect of happiness for Mommy with the 'clean-cut', midwest farm boy type, almost insultingly good-looking in a typically American way, as he detachedly describes himself. As for Grandma's exit, critics have been inclined to see this as a way of representing her death: reacting like the social worker, muddled Mrs. Barker, they feel incredulous about the possibility of a departure for a new life at her age: 'But old people don't go anywhere; they're either taken places, or put places.' Albee, however, corrects that view. Grandma dies, perhaps, but not in the usual sense: rather, he says, she moves 'out of the death within life situation that everybody else in the play was in'. She takes her boxes with her, loaded with the past—'eighty six years of living … some sounds … a few images'—but she has a lively sense of the future too, as her delighted reaction to the handsome young man suggests. 'Well, now, aren't you a breath of fresh air!', she says, and 'Yup … yup. You know, if I were about a hundred and fifty years younger I could go for you'. 'Yes, I imagine so', he spiritlessly replies, pointing up the sad difference between the young man who has become fixed in a deadly stereotype and the old lady who is still, despite all expectations, 'evolving'.
Evolution is a more painful matter in The Zoo Story. The complacent bourgeois here is not a monstrous caricature like Mommy, but a mild, well-mannered, believable man who attracts considerable sympathy for the plight he finds himself in: accosted while enjoying a quiet read, on a bench in Central Park on Sunday afternoon, by a youthful version of the Ancient Mariner looking for someone to listen to his story. The unwelcome apparition begins without preamble, MISTER, I'VE BEEN TO THE ZOO' and then proceeds to force on his reluctant auditor elaborate stories about squalid encounters with his landlady who pesters him with her 'foul parody of sexual desire' and with her dog, a 'black monster of a beast'.
Jerry is an alarming figure, sardonic and intense. When he says later in the play, as he drives Peter on, 'I'm crazy, you bastard,' we must wonder whether it is not in fact so. In the end he kills himself in a peculiarly whimsical way, forcing the unfortunate Peter to defend his place on the bench by thrusting a knife into his hand as a weapon, and then running on to it. Yet his is the perspective that triumphs. Though Jerry is clearly in a process of breakdown, it is equally clear that Peter is too undisturbed. He shares something with Mommy after all: despite, or because of, his interest in fiction as ordinary reader and as professional publisher, he finds it hard to face the harsh realities of life. His reaction to Peter's horrific tale of his landlady is to shrink away: 'It's so … unthinkable. I find it hard to believe that people such as that really are.' 'It's for reading about?' asks Jerry. He is mocking but Peter takes it seriously. 'Yes', he says.
He has to be jolted out of this inability to imagine the plight of others—'what other people need', in Jerry's phrase: Jerry's object from the start is to force him into a vital relationship. All this can be seen (and partly has to be) in psychological terms, simply as the effort of a lonely, suicidal outcast to find someone to really listen to him, and perhaps gain the impetus to finish himself off. But Albee takes pains to stress the biological and evolutionary aspects of the action. The two contrasting lives are expressed partly through their situation vis-à-vis animals. Peter is seemingly master of an orderly world where cats and two parakeets fit into a tidy scheme of things along with two daughters. The fact that he has no son and knows that he will have no more children is a flaw in the biological perfection which comes to the surface under the pressure of his encounter with Jerry. Jerry on the other hand seems unable to draw any line between the human and the animal world: dog and landlady equally rouse his loathing. We are made to think about what it is to be human by Jerry's emphasis on the hierarchy of evolution. The well-adjusted Peter is in Jerry's view no more than a vegetable: this is the insult he flings at him when goading him into defending his park bench (and by implication, of course, his way of life). The two men fight over territory like beasts—Jerry's dying scream 'must be the sound of an infuriated and fatally wounded animal'—and when Peter is at last enraged enough to fight he is paid the compliment. '… You're not really a vegetable: it's all right, you're an animal. You're an animal too'.
It is the highest term of praise the action allows, for both these characters are found imperfect in terms of the human culture they both in their different ways aspire to. Jerry is the more imaginative but he has found it impossible to establish a relationship with anyone, dog or human: hating and loving all end up as indifference. His efforts are admirable and pathetic: he is trying to climb the evolutionary ladder, one might say, when he confides in Peter, 'If you can't deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS!' But he also has to be seen as an evolutionary failure, who falls out of the system. In his death he provokes Peter into a livelier awareness of 'others': this is presented as an achievement of a kind, which takes some of the depressing futility out of his life. Whether we can place much confidence on Peter's ability to advance as a human being is another question, but he has been given the chance: it is a moment of evolutionary choice.
The next two plays I want to consider form a 'pair' in the sense that the earlier two did, offering strikingly contrasting treatments of a similar theme. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? operates within the naturalistic convention, though with a degree of stylisation which extends its possibilities. Tiny Alice on the other hand is a much more arcane piece which trumpets its symbolism from the start and indeed could hardly be interpreted on any but a symbolic level.
Yet there is one striking affinity between the two plays. In each we must be struck by the remarkably elaborate nature of the preparations for the drastic change we feel preparing from the start: in one play it is a next step in the evolution of a relationship, in the other in an individual consciousness. In each play too there is a strong element of consciously histrionic performance. Martha and George act out their most intimate feelings in bold, exaggerated form for the startled benefit of their naive audience, the younger couple who seem to understand nothing of what is really going on until the very end. And in Tiny Alice the conspirators who change Julian's life flaunt their acting ability throughout, from Miss Alice's bravura impersonation of an old woman in her first meeting with Julian to the thoroughly professional 'blocking' of the death scene from a scenario the performers evidently know by heart and have played many times. As in a permanent ensemble company, they even take it in turns to play the lead: Butler and Lawyer have no names, only functions (though Butler claims to derive his function from his name) and they both give orders to and take them from Miss Alice, whose servant/lovers they are.
What is the purpose of all this play-acting? In each play it is implied that a momentous psychic change is under way: something that has been gathering in the unconscious has reached a level of intensity that forces it out into the conscious, where it has to find theatrical form for expression, since it does not really belong in the world it has invaded. One part of the mind is acting another part, one might say.
The differences of form between the two plays relate to the difference in the balance of conscious and unconscious elements. George and Martha have a pretty shrewd understanding of their own and the other's mental processes. This 'sensitive and intelligent couple', as Albee calls them, have lived together for so long that they can interpret pretty well every move in the games they play to exorcise their daemons. They share a language rich in private jokes, quotation and allusion, as they demonstrate at the start when they come home, rather drunk, and laughing, at two in the morning and go straight into one of their double acts. 'What a dump', says Martha, looking round, and, to George:
MARTHA: … 'What a dump'! Huh? What's that from?
GEORGE: I haven't the faintest idea what …
MARTHA: Dumbbell! It's from some goddamn Bette Davis picture … some goddamn Warner Brothers epic …
GEORGE: I can't remember all the pictures that …
MARTHA: Nobody's asking you to remember every single goddamn Warner Brothers epic … just one! One single little epic! Bette Davis gets peritonitis in the end … She's got this big black fright wig she wears all through the picture and she gets peritonitis, and she's married to Joseph Cotten or something …
GEORGE: … Somebody …
MARTHA: Somebody … and she wants to go to Chicago all the time, 'cos she's in love with that actor with the scar …
George comes up with the answer: 'Chicago! It's called Chicago.' 'Good grief! Don't you know anything?' she taunts him, 'Chicago was a 'thirties musical, starring little Miss Alice Faye. Don't you know anything?' But he wins the round, taking the opening she gives him to get in a customary tart reminder of their respective ages: Chicago was probably before his time. Every conversational movement, even the effort to remember an old film, affords them opportunities for the marital argument they both understand so well. Albee points up their high degree of self-awareness by contrast with the young guests. Honey and Nick, who are at the opposite extreme, quite without self-knowledge and very much out in the cold altogether: the audience is presumably a few steps ahead of them in their struggles to catch the true drift of the caustic, funny and eliptical conversations between George and Martha.
In Tiny Alice the balance is the other way. The point here is that Julian does not understand himself. Among characters who are nothing but function, he alone has none: he is a lay brother, committed to the celibacy of a priest but without a priest's power. He is in a kind of limbo, not knowing which of his experiences are real, unlike George and Martha who know their imagined child is a fantasy (though that does not prevent them from thinking of him sometimes as real). Julian is much more confused: he is at the mercy of something he does not understand when he comes to the castle to be 'brought up' to Miss Alice. The first thing he does there, despite his conscious intention, is to confide in the Butler the traumatic tale of his six years' lapse of faith, when he had himself voluntarily committed to a mental institution. And the next is to confess to Miss Alice, at the moment of first meeting how, in that confused period, he had a sexual experience of great strangeness and intensity which he does not know whether to think of as dream, hallucination or reality. He lost his virginity, so it seemed, with a woman patient who imagined herself the immaculate Mother of God—but what she was bearing in her womb was a cancer. The dream, if such it was, is to be acted out in a new form with Miss Alice. It is as if he were meeting his own unconscious, in the romantically confused and sinister forms imposed by his imagination. The three who manage the machine (to borrow a phrase from Eliot's The Cocktail Party, a play with some obvious resemblances to Tiny Alice) make it clear enough that they in their turn are controlled from some other dimension. Miss Alice refers to herself as a 'surrogate' for the Miss Alice who resides in the model and the model itself is a perpetual reminder that the action is being conducted on more than one level. It stands there throughout, a man-sized replica of the castle, lighting up from time to time in its different rooms, following—or perhaps initiating—changes of location in the macrocosm. Albee had planned to have Julian bound to the model in the death scene; in the event he was made only to collapse against it, but the point is made, that in the end nothing but this would be left to him.
The process of effecting change is difficult, in one play because of the middle age of the characters, in the other because of immaturity. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? it seems at first as though there could be no breaking out of the fixed pattern of life George and Martha have established over many years: she is in her fifties, he is somewhat younger. Yet into their tired rituals—weariness is a feature of the proceedings—Albee artfully manages to insert growth points. Martha breaks the rules of the marital game by speaking to someone in the outside world of their fantasy son: she takes the young wife upstairs, confides in her, and then remains behind, disconcertingly, to change her clothes. George senses what this might mean. He dissuades the young couple from leaving, as they embarrassedly feel they should:
Oh no, now … you mustn't. Martha is changing … and Martha is not changing for me. Martha hasn't changed for me in years. If Martha is changing, it means we'll be here for … days.
It is the experience not of days but of years that is packed into the remaining small hours: George destroys the son who never was and perhaps in doing so frees himself from the obsessive dream or memory of a murderous relation between son and father which he tells of in the form of a story and seems to relate in some way to his own past. We cannot be sure of this, but there is a sense of relief as well as sadness in the ending. Perhaps Martha, despite all her bluster, knew at some deep level, as George does, that the change had to come. As he says, 'It was … time'. She receives the verdict with doubt and apprehension, but still, it is clear, with a readiness to move on with him to a new stage in their marriage: there has been an 'evolving' and it was necessary.
In Tiny Alice the difficulties are more obscure but are clearly to do with Julian's immaturity. At one point of his adventure, Julian muses about the possibility of avoiding experience:
What may we avoid! Not birth! Growing up? Yes. Maturing? Oh, God! Growing old, and?… yes, growing old; but not the last; merely when.
In his proud demand for abstract perfection he shrinks from life, refuses procreation (except in dreams), resists the idea of God in man's image, although it is the idea on which his Church rests. 'Don't you teach your people anything?', sneers the Lawyer to the Cardinal. He has to unlearn his certainties, learn to know, as the Lawyer says, that 'We do not know. Anything'. He has to be 'brought up' to Miss Alice: the sexual/religious punning, like everything in the play, contradicts his idea that man can separate God from nature. In embracing Alice he accepts mortality (always implicit in the beauty of the flesh) and perhaps too the mystery he rejects: at the moment when they come together, she stretches out arms enclosed in very full sleeves so that the effect is of enfolding him 'in her great wings'.
Julian's is a martyrdom of a kind. The 'agents' leave, their work done, Alice telling him she is 'the illusion', the Lawyer counselling him to resign himself to the mysteries. Like the man in the story from which Albee said the play was derived (he was imprisoned in a room inside another room), Julian is left to die by the model, unable to tell whether he is in microcosm or macrocosm. The model is a world without human figures in it and it is a horror. 'THERE IS NO ONE THERE', he calls in agony: the flesh and blood Alice is what he needs, after all. Some critics have taken this to be the moral of the piece; Julian, for them, is forcibly converted by secular evangelists who have proved to him sardonically that there is no world other than that experienced by the senses. That would be, however, to destroy the insistent ambiguity which is surely meant to convey something quite different, the necessity for symbols. As Miss Alice puts it, 'We must … represent, draw pictures, reduce or enlarge to … to what we can understand.'
And is there another dimension? In the play it is inescapable. Butler, Lawyer and Alice all assume it: the Lawyer is sarcastic about 'the mouse in the model' but he also promises Alice in the model, with 'no sarcasm', Albee says: 'You will have your Julian'. And Alice prays to the model to save the chapel when it seems in danger of burning down. 'Don't destroy!', she cries, and 'Let the resonance increase'. Though Julian cries in his agony 'THERE IS NO ONE THERE', yet as he dies we see on the empty stage lights descending the staircase of the model and 'the shadow of a great presence filling the room', while exaggerated heartbeats are heard. Audiences were inclined to rationalise these as Julian's own, but Albee has said that he expected people to think of this 'enormous' sound that engulfs Julian either as his hallucination or as the personification of an abstract force. There is no way of resolving the ambiguity. That is the painful truth Julian has to learn and the learning is an advance in maturity; he dies in the attitude of crucifixion—which in the religious imagery of the play must imply the possibility of resurrection. Though so cryptic and in many ways unpleasant and distasteful, the process has to be seen, I think, as evolution rather than catastrophic collapse.
The next play I want to consider, A Delicate Balance, draws into a new pattern threads from earlier plays. Again, as in The Zoo Story, animals are used to measure degrees of refinement in human consciousness. Tobias' story about the cat he grew to hate because it became indifferent to him tells us much about his self-mistrust: when Claire wants to convey the reality of her sordid experience as an alcoholic, she describes it as becoming more like an animal every day (to be an animal in this play is to go down in the evolutionary hierarchy). The structure resembles that of Virginia Woolf; a conversation among married couples (with complications in the form of a sister and daughter) goes on and on, with the aid of drink, through the hours of two nights, ending with breakfast, still intermixed with drinking, on the third day. As in Virginia Woolf, the talk is confessional in a thoroughgoing American style which makes one wonder how there could be anything left unrevealed, how indeed there could be any real movement or change. The play opens with Agnes confiding in Tobias her suspicion that she might one day go out of her mind and moves on to Tobias' confession to Claire that he had killed (or 'put down' as she softens it) the cat which grew to dislike him. Other more commonplace revelations come thick and fast; the whole idea of the confessional is indeed parodied in Claire's self-mocking account of how she rose to make a grand public confession at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and turned it into bathos. 'I am Claire and I am a alcoholic', she said in her little girl's voice, then sat down.
These confessions are too easy, too familiar a feature of their daylight world. Albee wants to move in on the night, that limbo where thoughts are struggling out from the unconscious and the anxieties lie deeper, are kept closer. He brings this about by a brilliant invention, the arrival of Harry and Edna, the twin couple to Agnes and Tobias, their best friends, whose lives are 'the same'. These two have left their own home because they became frightened—of what they cannot say. They can only repeat: 'WE WERE FRIGHTENED … AND THERE WAS NOTHING'. The scene of their arrival is comic in its lack of explanation and childlike suddenness, as when Edna says 'Can I go to bed now? Please?'. But they have brought into the house a disturbing sense of generalised anxiety relating to fears of darkness, nothingness and death. At the end of the play Edna articulates the unlocalised dread: '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.' Under the pressure of this unease they all experience a revelation of their limits and breaking points. Agnes brings up from the abyss a misery she was not able to voice at the start, the memory of the time when her son died and Tobias refused her another child. She lay at night pleading, 'Please? Please, Tobias? No, you wouldn't even say it out: I don't want another child, another loss'.
Through it all runs a helpless longing to be safe and at home: the much married daughter hysterically claims her girlish room: Harry and Edna settle into it, like cuckoos in the nest. Yet changes occur, despite the characters' efforts to resist them: perhaps they occur because of that. Both married couples return perforce to the single room they had given up. Agnes expressing the shy hope that it may not be simply a temporary change: an elegiac tribute is paid to the sexuality that is leaving them. Various adjustments of feeling are made among the individuals in the group and finally Tobias, by enormous effort of will, looks at himself and forces himself to come out with an honest statement to the 'best friend' who has come to him for succour:
I DON'T WANT YOU HERE!
I DON'T LOVE YOU!
BUT BY GOD … YOU STAY!
A deep obligation, running underneath all questions of personality, is faced and acknowledged under pressure of the night fears, the 'plague' that Harry and Edna have brought with them. Daylight returns, the intruders depart and Agnes is left contemplating what has happened—'They say we sleep to let the demons out'—and preparing to return to normal: 'Come now; we can begin the day'. Some critics have found this ending sentimental but there is no reason why it should have to be so taken: the tone is dry, matter-of-fact: the 'day' has its own problems, as we have seen. Beginning it again is all that can be done—yet the play makes us feel respect for the human resilience which allows for these routine adjustments.
In the plays that follow A Delicate Balance there is less room for radical changes of situation. The emphasis is on another kind of evolution, the development of finer understanding. Increasingly the characters watch and listen to each other with the sort of care and detachment described by Tobias when he tells Agnes of his reverie in the small hours: 'look at it all, reconstruct, with such … detachment, see yourself … look at it all … play it out again, watch'. The style becomes increasingly delicate and oblique as Albee moves closer to the concept of 'static' drama most famously enunciated by Maeterlinck in his plea for recognition of the dramatic interest in an old man sitting in the lamplight. Maeterlinck is indeed referred to in All Over, where the Mistress tells us that he was once a topic of conversation for her lover, the man now dying. It is an appropriate reference for a play so Maeterlinckian in its situation—waiting for death—but in the other plays too Maeterlinck is brought to mind, especially by the musicality which becomes so marked a feature of the dramatic structure. In Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968) Albee makes a point of his concern with 'the application of musical forms to dramatic structure': he explains in his introduction that he has notated the dialogue on musical lines with an exceptionally precise use of punctuation, commas, semicolons and so on, with stage directions, with devices such as capitalising and italicising.
We have to listen exceptionally hard to follow this intricate dialogue, with its mesh of half-finished allusions, quotations, ambiguous sayings, ironies and fugue-like repetitions. It seems natural that in this phase of his art Albee should produce a play for radio called simply Listening (1975). Characters at this time tend to lose their names and be represented by function, like notes in music. The Wife amusingly calls attention to this phenomenon in All Over when she demands of Mistress, 'Me! Wife! Remember?'
Box and Chairman Mao are the first two plays constructed on Albee's new musical principle. They were written separately and can be so performed, Albee says, though surely he must be right in finding them more effective when 'enmeshed'.
The action of Box involves only a view of a box, or cube, and a Voice reflecting on it: the reflections widen out into a Jungian stream-of-consciousness which opens up beyond the personal life into 'the memory of what we have not known'. Throughout runs a theme of decline and loss—in art and craft (no one could make such a box now), in social responsibility (milk deliberately spilt when children are starving), and in understanding. Continually Voice returns to the sense of direction in art and the pain it can cause by contrast with loss of direction in life: 'When art hurts. That is what to remember'. Finally human artefacts and ideas give way to a vision of the sea, with birds skimming over it and only the sound of bell buoys in the fog to remind us of human presence.
When the second play begins, the outline of the box is still visible, creating the impression that the thoughts we now hear are taking place within the other consciousness: everything flows into and out of that empty space. The leading character in Chairman Mao, the Long-Winded Lady, is haunted by a memory she cannot assimilate, of falling into the sea from the deck of an ocean liner (such as she is now travelling on) after the death of her much-loved husband. The play ends with her repetition of the questions she was asked: 'that I may have done it on purpose?… thrown myself off?' Then, in one of Albee's delicate punctuation hints, she drops the question mark, turns 'tried to kill yourself' into a statement she has to deal with herself and arrives at the sad conclusion: 'Good heavens, no: I have nothing to die for'.
With her thoughts (they are supposedly voiced to a totally silent auditor, a Minister, who gives her no comfort) are interwoven the thoughts of two others. The Old Woman also tells a sad story of family loss, but in the more distant form of a poem, Will Carleton's ballad, 'Over the Hills to the Poor-House'. And in contrast to this limited personal view of history come the vast assertions of Chairman Mao proclaiming the class war and calling for revolution. The three lines of thought are separate but occasionally touch; the Old Woman nods approvingly from time to time when Mao refers to the hard life of the poor, but she also indicates silent sympathy with the unhappiness of the upper class lady. Mao's optimistic political simplifications are both reinforced and undermined by the experiences conveyed in the women's thoughts. His thoughts are crude and bracing, providing a strong upward thrust, a necessary counterpoint to the pessimism of Voice in Box. He does indeed at one point use an image of her kind. It is not a bad but a good thing, he says, that China's six hundred million people are 'poor and blank' because poverty stimulates the desire for change and 'on a blank sheet of paper free from any marks, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written'.
Of course there is irony in this: the image of the box perpetually filling up with inherited and fresh thoughts tells us that there is no such thing as a 'blank' human character. Still, even if it is an illusion, there is a need for the dream of 'beginning again'. Even the Long-Winded Lady feels it: whimsically she pictures herself 'falling up!' and reflects that 'One never returns from a voyage the same'. There is a suggestion of an 'evolving' here, and certainly there is an antidote to the emptiness portrayed by Voice in the complex texture of consciousness woven by the voices. When they die away, the light comes up again upon the empty box and we return to the Voice's elegy, to the contemplation of the painful beauty of a partita and the mystery of those memories we did not know we had. Voice reminds us that she could recognise the sound of bell buoys in the fog though she had never seen the sea: 'Landlocked, never been, and yet the sea sounds …'. It is with the miracle of the sea that the play ends and with the sense of mysterious direction: the birds are flying all in one direction, in 'a black net', only one 'moving beneath … in the opposite way'. What may be the direction for human evolution? This is Albee's large theme. He makes it dramatically gripping through his mastery of form and his ability to interest us in the small changes and in the real lives of his people; even in the disembodied or fragmented shape which is all they have in this play, they come through as vivid personalities.
As so often, we can see in these two plays the germ of the next one. The Long-Winded Lady sees one prospect of comfort: she might be able to forget the bitter detail of her husband's last illness: perhaps it is 'all over'. The phrase provides the title for the next play, All Over (1971), which explores the impact of a death about to happen on the five people closest to the dying man. We go in and out of their thoughts and memories in a pattern of engagement and disengagement which is something they have been painfully conscious of in their past lives. The Wife has been separated from her husband for thirty years and is alienated from the Daughter, seems indeed to be on better terms with the Mistress. The Mistress, though treated as a friend, is disengaged from them all and yet it is she who can best tell them about the phases in the dying man's withdrawal from life, the 'faint shift from total engagement'. The mood is one of 'languor' and exhaustion. The stories they tell to fill in the time of waiting tend to turn on various kinds of dying, including the sort of death which is to do with feeling: the Wife tells of a woman who died when she was twenty-six, 'died in the heart that is, or in whatever portion of the brain contains the spirit'.
A paradox develops. The little life the man has left is the source from which they draw: they are fired by him: and as they talk of him and more of their past life pours out, they become deeply and bitterly engaged with each other. There are moments of understanding and of violent hostility, till at last the Wife, looking into the landscape of the future, abandons her calm and acknowledges her need to 'feel something'. 'I'm waiting to' she says, and 'I have no idea what I'm storing up. You make a lot of adjustments over the years, if only to avoid being eaten away'. The cool politeness she has observed with the Mistress drops away, she accuses her: 'You've usurped'. And though she immediately apologizes, the frustration of thirty years at last erupts. 'I LOVE MY HUSBAND', she calls out in pain and in relief: we have an impression of parched land being flooded. Then it is, as we hear the doctor saying, 'All over'. But for the people waiting everything goes on: Albee has made us feel, through the unease of their conversational adjustments, something of the effort involved in that simple 'going on': it is an achievement.
Albee has commented that after a certain age arthritis of the mind sets in and 'change becomes impossible finally.' No sign of this with him: his later plays continue to show his own capacity to 'evolve'. In Listening and Counting the Ways (1976) he interestingly applied a vaudeville method—laconic, quick-firing cross talk and scenes punctuated by signs descending from the flies or a voice counting—to very different material, creating in one play a deeply sombre, in the other a genial, high-spirited mood. Listening was written for radio: it is about the need to listen and the difficulty of doing so. In the grounds of a one-time mansion, now a mental institution, by a dried up fountain, two of the staff, a Woman and a Man, meet to explore each other—and the Girl who is the Woman's charge—through strange, intense talk, weighing words, testing nuances. The Girl has slipped half out of the human world; she reacts, we are told, like an animal, tensing and sensing her surroundings, then 'humanising' intermittently. 'You don't listen', she complains, 'Pay attention, rather, is what you don't do'. 'I listen', says the Woman, 'I can hear your pupils widen'. But she does not pay the attention the Girl needs; she and the Man abstract themselves, pursuing sexual memories they may or may not have shared, while the Girl takes her chance to find some broken glass and cut her wrists. Her last words are: 'Then … you don't listen'. She is an evolutionary failure, arousing pity and giving a dark colouring to the struggle—experienced in a bitter-sweet way by the other two—of listening to others in a fully human way.
In Counting the Ways also, a couple cross-question each other, listening hard for the implications in every reply. But this time the mood is happy, even though strains and small shocks occur. The play begins with her asking, 'Do you love me?' and ends with him answering that he does and then asking the question of her. In between, they count the ways—as in the poem from which the play takes its title, 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.' Whole phases of married life are traversed in a series of swift duologues: they count the petals of a rose, ask of each other en passant 'How many children do we have?', move into a new stage when she remarks of the roses that they should be in a vase on the table between their beds and there is a double-take before he realises the implications. 'When did that happen?' he asks, in comic anguish, and later, 'When did our lovely bed … split and become two?' 'Well, it happens sooner or later,' she says, and then, soothing him, 'May be we'll be lucky and it won't go any further'. He is left reeling from the impact of a new shock—'separate rooms'. But he picks himself up again. Despite the charming lightness of touch, the preoccupations are as serious as in Listening: all feelings are fragile and uncertain. When he asks 'Do you love me?' at the close, her 'I think I do' is a curtain line which leaves everything open: nothing can be done about the fragility of life.
The subsequent variation on the marriage theme, Seascape, opens with a similar marital cross-questioning act. Nancy and Charlie, lazing on the beach, are involved in one of Albee's typical stock-taking sequences—current state of feeling, hazy plans for the future now their children are grown up. It is the evolution of a marriage, treated in a gently, bantering naturalistic style. Then suddenly it widens out, through the alarming, only half-comic arrival of the animal couple, into a view of the whole of human evolution, seen entirely in terms of what these well-meaning intelligent but limited, groping individuals can make of it.
It is one of Albee's most touching moments when the animals achieve realisation of what it means to be human through learning of death, which must one day separate them from each other. 'I want to go back', wails Sarah, 'I don't want to stay here any more. I want to go back'. But there is no going back. The play ends with the creatures recognising this and preparing, with the aid of those of a little further on the way, to take the great evolutionary step: 'All right. Begin'.
It is a heroic assertion, unusual for our times, of faith in the capacity of human beings to learn from each other and evolve in good ways. And although nothing is more certain than that he will strike out in a different direction with other plays, this must all the same be a particularly appropriate point to conclude a discussion of Albee as the playwright of evolution.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3570
SOURCE: "Tiny Alice: The Expense of Joy in the Persistence of Mystery," in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman, The University of St. Thomas, 1983, pp. 83-92.
[In the following essay, Casper explores the enigmatic quality of the structure, themes, characters, and language of Tiny Alice, and offers his own interpretations of the play.]
When Edward Albee was asked by his publisher to provide a preface for Tiny Alice which would explain its peculiarities, he at first consented; then recanted, having decided that "the play is quite clear." Further, he declared that even more people shared his view than found his work obscure. Among the latter, however, were those daily reviewers who had the most immediate access to the Geilgud-Worth production in the Billy Rose Theater: Taubman of the Times, Kerr of the Herald-Tribune, Watts of the Daily Post, and Chapman of the Daily News. The bafflement of such otherwise friendly critics perhaps was epitomized best by contradictory reviews which appeared in Time early in 1965. The first, on January 8, referred to the play as a "tinny allegory," dependent more on mystification than mystery; more on echolalia than on eloquence; more on pretentious reprise of Nietzschean nihilism than on profound, fresh inquiry. Only one week later, the same source was at least willing, half-facetiously, to take part in the controversial deciphering of Tiny Alice by suggesting that meaning might lie dormant in such apparent clues as references to a "homosexual nightmare," Julian the Apostate, and cunning old Fury's decision in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to try poor Mouse with intent to condemn him to death for lack of anything better to do that day.
Aside from agit-prop plays, whose ideological direction is extensively detailed, most plays submit to risks of misunderstanding involved in the indirection of their argument. But Tiny Alice has continued to be considered exceptionally difficult. Even critics who have tried to admire it have shown signs of testiness, undergoing trials originating at times in their own ingenuity. Harold Clurman, one of the earliest, was willing to say that he saw an allegory in which "the pure person in our world is betrayed by all parties," themselves corrupt. "Isolated and bereft of every hope, he must die—murdered." But the result, somehow, reminded him of a Faustian drama written by "a highly endowed college student." Later and more elaborately, Anne Paolucci described Tiny Alice as "the most impressive of Albee's paradoxical affirmations of negation." To be consistent with this conclusion, she was compelled to treat the play as an intricate allegory: the three agents of Alice, for example, compose a sinister "unholy trinity" concelebrating a parodic ritual of faith; the play is an extended enactment of the smaller scale sexual-spiritual abandon/abandonment experienced by Julian in the asylum. It is a confession of despair: the Invisible Presence is, in fact, an Immense Absence. Ruby Cohn's version of the play was similarly bleak, finding its central struggle in the wilful resistance of Julian's imagination to his pronounced desire for the real. A ceremony is contrived, to wed him to reality: "and even then he tries to rearrange it into familiar appearance." In the moment of death, Julian experiences "the prototypical existential confrontation"—complete isolation; but unable to bear it, invokes Christian allusions/illusions. Presumably, according to Cohn's version, reality = death = abstraction = Tiny Alice = self-negation. In her judgment, a man of true integrity should face this Absurdity with courage, not cower as Julian does, regressing to childhood. Michael Rutenberg's decoding of Albee's allegory perceived a diabolic force bartering a billion ordinary souls for one especially sensitive and worth corrupting, even as the visible conspirators form a chorus half-sympathetic with the victim. Although Rutenberg had to admit the ambiguity of the ending, however interpreted, Julian is lost—to Nothingness; or to an Evil Deity; or to a benevolent but all-devouring God. Positive projections of the ending have been rarer, perhaps because they have been considered too naive by the critical mind. And all have ignored the possibility that any definitive reading is too narrow for Albee.
But suppose Tiny Alice resists being treated as allegory because its meaning lies in the persistence, rather than the resolution, of mystery. Suppose risk, natural to reconnoitering the previously undiscovered or unexplored, is being offered as itself the supreme reality. Suppose Tiny Alice is a tribute to finite man's terrifying instinct for infinity. The play has at least two structural elements which provide a degree of stability to dimensions otherwise often in flux: the central presence of Julian and the strategic placement of visions at the climax of each of the three acts. As visions deriving from the virginal Julian, they are, of course, suspect. Two of them are even placed offstage and can therefore readily be dismissed as hallucinations in a disturbed mind. Albee offers no clear persuasion of his own but only suggests how best to submit to the play's passions and impressions: "Brother Julian is in the same position as the audience. He's the innocent. If you see things through his eyes, you won't have any trouble at all." Or, perhaps, just the trouble appropriate to flawed and still falling man—trouble not wholly distinguishable from the gift of choice to the half-informed.
When towards the end of Act I Julian reveals to Miss Alice his principal memory of all the six hermitic years spent sealed in an asylum, he cannot declare that it was not something wholly imagined. He had withdrawn so far from external realities that what he relates could have been pure fantasy rather than fabulous consummation. Was there an introverted woman who claimed to be the Virgin Mary? Did he ejaculate in ecstatic union with her? Did she become pregnant with the Son of God as a result? Julian's doctor advises him that some hallucinations are healthy and desirable: clearly he knows the difference between mystic insight and self-delusion. He informs Julian flatly that the woman died later of cancer of the womb. Julian, however, remains stricken with wonder.
The strangeness of this tale uncorroborated by onstage enactment, in addition to Julian's own indecisiveness about its nature, authorizes the greatest possible skepticism towards the play's final moments as a prelude to any Ultimate Vision. Are faith and sanity really one, as Julian declares? Or is his final submission, his passionate utterances of faith, a sign of a man now totally mad? Earlier, in Act III, Lawyer has been completely cynical about the consolations of self-delusion: Any man will "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 right in the eye. Why not face the inevitable and call it what you have always wanted? How to come out on top, going under." According to the testimony of his own recollections, Julian has always associated sexual desire, death and union with God, in incongruous sublimation. Is that not how he sees the culmination of his life, with self-induced grace that eases the agony of the human condition? Is his vision not voided; any thought of his sanctification not sacrilegious? Are such inversions not to be expected in Alice's Wonderland; such nihilism not inevitable in an Absurdist play?
But the sweet simplicity of that conclusion fails to account for the other vision at the end of Act II, which is unquestionably of the flesh, as naked to the eye as any revelation can be and, therefore, far from hallucinatory. It is precisely the very real presence of Miss Alice which makes possible serious consideration of Tiny Alice as an argument that things visible may be evidence of things invisible. The tableau in which Miss Alice offers herself as a transparency through which Alice can be seen might easily serve as illustration for Platonic Ideals or Christian Incarnation.
That so traditional a notion could be entertained by Albee should not be disquieting. From the beginning, his plays have complained about the decline of such "ancient verities" (to use Faulkner's words) as family cohesiveness, community life, and continuity in the history of evolving civilization. The Grandmother figure in the early one-act plays represents all of these ideals—as does George, on a more intellectual plane, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Tiny Alice provides dimensions that infinitely expand the dream/hope that there is more to life than our day-to-day living may signify. One begins to feel less ill at ease with Tiny Alice the moment one releases Albee from the box of Absurdism/defeatism where his techniques—the linkage of humor and horror, the seeming cross purposes and discontinuities—invited earlier critics to imprison him. For Albee such mannerisms are, simultaneously, metaphors for the dissipation of faith in meaningfulness and untraditional measures for reinvoking, resurrecting, reconstructing traditions at their best.
Albee does distinguish—again, like Faulkner—between dead convention and living tradition, between inflexible institutions and an order of growth congenial with diversity of direction and possibility. Daddy, in The Sandbox and The American Dream, is a figure of impotence, his human tracts having been replaced by tubes. Nick, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, seems to epitomize health and youthful promise, but his proposed eugenics, a form of self-propagation, is indistinguishable from Daddy's living death. In Tiny Alice, the Church, represented by the most venal, most self-inflating aspect of the Cardinal, becomes one more Establishment mechanism for deadening human sensibilities.
Beyond its attempt to revitalize traditions of activated faith, Tiny Alice more subtly recognizes that the God-ache suffered by man is foremost an outcry to be born free but not abandoned. The play provides a continuous experience, rather than a philosophical discussion, of two profoundly permanent problems: how can man imagine the incommensurate (but we think we do), and how can man separate service from servitude (but we think we must)? Is there a discernible point beyond which the search for self in the other annihilates either that other or one's self? Can self-centeredness be transcended, yet selfhood be fulfilled? If we attempt to think of an unknowable unknown—such as God—do we delude ourselves more by conjuring anthropomorphic images or by approximating an abstraction of perfection? Do we earn an afterlife only by refusing to want one? Such are the dilemmas torturing the mind that aspires to be, become, belong and, especially, to define beyond desire.
Tiny Alice is replete with talk of serving. The Cardinal and Lawyer are, to a large extent, self-serving; so is Miss Alice, inasmuch as she finds a joy beyond pleasure in Julian's company; and even Butler often delights in comforting this unfortunate novice beyond the call of duty. Something of self is retained by all these four agents of causes/missions larger than themselves. Is this their flaw, or even in the worst of them is this some sign of grace, of a superior love that allows them a measure of freedom from complete depersonalization? Does omnipotence require impotence? In the last scenes, do not all these agents act out that love—though with varying degrees of reluctance—in their compassion for Julian? Or does their similarity lie in their failing to rise above self-pity mirrored in another's pain?
The question deepens when applied to Brother Julian himself. Early in the play he tells Butler that he committed himself to an asylum for six years because he was paralyzed by his inability to reconcile his own view of God, as creator and mover, with the popular view of God as a kind of miracle-worker on call. With Miss Alice he manages to be more open and confesses to having been impatient with God and excessively proud of his humility, as a lay brother in the pretended service of the Lord. Even now he wishes not to be forgotten for whatever services he renders; not to be unborn, in death. Miss Alice accuses him of still more ambition—negotiating martyrdom—and he admits that his unrelenting dream has been "To go bloodstained and worthy … upward." Immediately afterwards, she leads him from the ecstasy of that memory, to the sacrifice of himself, and to Alice through her own body.
Is this climatic moment of Act II the seduction of his soul or an advanced stage in its salvation? Julian wants his marriage to end in Miss Alice. It is required of him, however, that he not confuse symbol with substance, as the Cardinal regularly does. When Julian persists, despite Miss Alice's assurance that "I am the … illusion," he is executed by Lawyer. Julian feels forsaken by God as well as by those departing the scene. Finally, accepting his destiny, provided it is not eternal death, he prays in desperation: "Then Come and Show Thyself! Bride? God?" Lights move through the model/replica of the mansion; sounds approach, in rhythm with his heartbeat. Total darkness descends.
Has this entire drama been a hallucination in the mind of a recluse become catatonic? Has Julian finally married himself? Or has his role merely served as insane filter, discoloring the reality of the others? Has this, after all, been a downfall into the void? Can one reconcile Albee's candid admission that "There are some things in the play that are not clear to me" with his assertion that if one positions himself in Julian's place, the play is as clear as need be/can be?
To argue that the direct vision of Miss Alice at the end of Act II may validate the reported visions that, respectively, climax the other acts still acknowledges ambiguities enough to satisfy many an alternate version of Tiny Alice's meaning(s). Remembering Albee's bitter resentment of his abandonment two weeks after birth by his natural parents and his often unhappy childhood with his adoptive parents, one might be inclined to see as pure autobiographical projection this play about a She-God who gives life, only to demand its sacrificial return. Beyond the possibility that all this is personal complaint, problems that are more universal remain. Lawyer remarks in II, 2 that God is an abstraction which therefore can neither be understood nor worshipped; whereas Alice, "the mouse in the model," can be understood and worshipped, although it does not exist. What does existence mean, here? Does Alice have no permanent reality, no true substance, being only an exotic mask of God? Or is Alice a manifestation, a function of the Godhead, a further stage in man's adventuring towards divinity? Or is Lawyer, in his bitterness/limited knowledge, just distorting the truth? Are Lawyer, Butler and Miss Alice agents of a malignant surrogate God, and are all of them hyenas, scavengers of the dead vitals of men? Are they impure agents in prolonged process of purgation (Butler too still prefers Miss Alice to Alice) of a merciful and loving God or merely "angels of death," imperfect companions to those chosen for possible perfection? Is Alice, like the son in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, invented out of desperate human need to be part of, instead of apart from, some lasting meaning? Is Julian, secretly dedicated to his own destruction by denying that God may be gentle, courting death disguised as a demanding deity? Is his attraction to Miss Alice only a brief interlude in his inevitable marriage to darkness?
Or is this a parable of grace, one more fortunate fall? Does Brother Julian lose his celibacy but gain proper priesthood? The name "Alice" derives from the Greek word for truth. Suppose Butler (the working class) once thought he possessed her; so, more recently, did Lawyer (law makers and stewards of justice). But what single system can speak for the whole Truth? The Church (Miss Alice as "missal"?) and, certainly, individual churchmen have their own insufficiencies; there are cobwebs in the chapel. Julian himself is no chaste Adam, as his childhood fantasies prove, and he falls again—not into the flesh, which has been sanctified by the Incarnation, but into a denial that flesh is symbol rather than substance. He becomes a proper man of God, not in retreat (the asylum) but in the world, in communion. Julian has equated faith and sanity, but at last he accepts the mystery, terror and all beyond reason and historic revelation and rituals that become routine. His uncertainty becomes his cause; he makes the desperate but not despairing mystic leap. Is it implied that we are all called to be Marys whose wombs bring God into his world and the delirious world to its destinate groom? All called but few chosen? And of those chosen, even fewer who reach supreme parturition? Or is such speculation itself not pretending to provide the sort of single-system answer which the general explication set out to refute?
If one could appeal to the rest of Albee's work in this dilemma, the probability is that he would align himself with those who see Tiny Alice as a determined quest for spiritual coordinates, for opportunities to convert chance into choice and so to collaborate with life against one's own loneliness and that of others. In his first four one-act plays, Albee implied that we try to compensate for our incompleteness by neglecting the needs of others, although, ironically, the only human strength lies in mutual aid among the weak. Albee at first wrote angrily because he resisted adding to the alienation and displacement and deprivation which some of his predecessors and peers considered the human condition. Those plays, like the violent act of Jerry in The Zoo Story, were cruel blows intended kindly. The same indignation and hope for reform, though presented with less grotesque humor, persist in All Over, one of whose attendants at a wake finally recognizes how they have wasted their lives, how corpselike they are: "All we've done is think about ourselves." In The Lady from Dubuque, when the dying woman receives little solace from her husband who is over concerned with himself, she has to turn to the kindness of strangers.
The surface of such plays to the contrary, Albee has been less death than dream-haunted: by the dream of a bond beyond bondage, a love that allows privacy but not loneliness. In A Delicate Balance a plague drives one family into the house of a friend, who then must decide if they have as much right to remain as his own daughter, who wants them out. Tobias the husband delays, reminded of his own terrors by those of his friends, and when they finally leave, he knows that an opportunity to live generously and even expansively has been lost. The bonding of characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is more successful because not only is their reliance on one another renewed, but, in Nick and Honey's willingness to bear children, their passion for (re)generation is satisfied vicariously. The same sense of compatibility and continuity, the same ready submission to growth, flourishes in Seascape between different species in the same global enterprise.
Early and late, Albee's plays have sprung from a faith remote from both nihilism at one extreme and romanticism at the other. Like Eugene O'Neill before him, he knows the variety of dimensions in dreaming: they can be destructive or soporifically protective, as well as creative. The will-to-believe, therefore, has to be examined and re-examined scrupulously—man being a cunning, rationalizing animal—but that will-to-believe can be ignored or denounced only at the risk of sinking back into mindlessness.
Because of his constant attention to dreams, ultimately it is less important to argue that Albee leans toward the more positive interpretations of Tiny Alice than to recognize the implications of the play, itself, as exciting perplex. How it does not end is extremely significant. Each member of the audience is compelled to decide (those chronically passive, probably with reluctance) what the next moment after the death/descent of darkness will bring—if indeed there can even be a next moment. Tiny Alice is a dramatization of all that must remain tantalizingly beyond the mind's reach: all mysteries whose permanence we deny even as impressions of their persistence accumulate in our experience. The play solicits, proclaims, reveres man's active imagination, its thrust through symbols towards its outermost reaches, its visionary onsets.
In the end, Tiny Alice's mystery is not only unresolved but not even well-defined. Yet, as irresistibly attractive as a black hole with all the blinding consequences of its super density, that mystery is retained. What is knowledge but a holding operation, a beachhead on the immense unknown? A plenitude of possibilities about the nature of the universe and man's miniscule/magisterial parts in it arise from doubt turned back on itself before achieving a dedicated nullity. Can we imagine man's lacking an imagination; can the mind unthink itself?
Tiny Alice is no facile confirmation of faith's efficacy. Even as it celebrates the mind's urgent outreach, the continuous Adamic demand to know the whole truth, it recognizes hazards: the smallness of man adventuring into vastness. The world is full of wonder. A variety of critical responses to his play not only is to be expected by Albee and tolerated; it is, in fact, invited and essential to this theme. Only when the questions end is there reason to worry about the human cause. No phrenological head can accurately map all the compartments of man's intelligence. As a realist of the irrational, Albee knows this—knows that serious literature, like life itself, is a trial embodiment of imagined purpose.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9004
SOURCE: "'The Pitfalls of Drama': The Idea of Language in the Plays of Edward Albee," in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman, The University of St. Thomas, 1983, pp. 29-53.
[In the following essay, Wasserman surveys the significance of Albee's treatment of language in his plays.]
In response to an interviewer's question concerning the supposed lack of "realism" in his work, Edward Albee noted the implicit contradiction between the nature of drama as imitation, in the Aristotelian sense, and the expectation of realism on the part of a play's audience. The importance of this argument is that such a recognition goes far beyond the aesthetics of drama and touches upon the symbolic, that is imitative, nature of language—a problem that is frequently at the thematic heart of Albee's works. Indeed, the common thread that runs through many of his seemingly diverse plays is his characters' oft-stated concern with language and, in particular, the failures and limitations of the linguistic medium. For Albee, language is the medium or meeting ground which exists between the interior and exterior worlds of the speaker and the listener. As a playwright, he seems most interested in the function of language as a means of translating ideas into actions and in the role of language as mediator where a word, like a play, is an imitation which is a wholly independent sign, distinct and separate from that which it represents. As such, a word, like any piece of drama, is neither a pure idea of an action or event nor the event itself. In essence, the naming done by the semanticist and the storytelling practiced by the playwright are, for Albee, congruent if not identical actions.
The problematical nature of language is succinctly set forth in Seascape during an argument between Charlie and Nancy in the opening scene of the play. The practical onset of the debate is Charlie's use of the past rather than present perfect tense, and as so often happens in the works of Albee, the linguistic bartering over a particular term quickly evolves into a more general and abstract debate over the nature and function of language:
Nancy: Do you know what I'm saying?
Charlie: You're throwing it up to me; you're telling me I've had a …
Nancy: No-no-no! I'm saying what you said, what you told me. You told me, you said to me, "You've had a good life."
Charlie: (Annoyed.) Well, you have! You have had!
Nancy: (She, too.) Yes! Have had! What about that!
Charlie: What about it!
Nancy: Am not having. (Waits for reaction; gets none) Am not having? Am not having a good life?
Charlie: Well, of course!
Nancy: Then why say had? Why put it that way?
Charlie: It's a way of speaking!
Nancy: No! It's a way of thinking! I know the language and I know you. You're not careless with it, or didn't used to be. Why not go to those places in the desert and let our heads deflate, if it's all in the past? Why not just do that?
Charlie: It was a way of speaking.
Nancy: Dear God, we're here. We've served out time, Charlie and there's nothing telling us to do that, or any conditional; not any more. Well, there's the arthritis in my wrist, of course, and the eyes have known a better season, and there's always the cancer or a heart attack to think about if we're bored, but besides all these things … what is there?
Charlie: (Somewhat triste.) You're at it again.
Nancy: I am! Words are lies; they can be, and you use them, but I know what's in your gut. I told you, didn't I?
The problem, then, is that language, while it is the figurative medium through which Charlie is expressing the feelings in his "gut," is merely a symbol for those feelings and may, by nature, serve to obscure rather than to reveal them. As Nancy notes, her understanding of Charlie's meaning is intuitive rather than linguistic and is based first on her knowledge of Charlie and, second, on her understanding of the nature of language. Furthermore, an important part of the argument out of which these linguistic considerations arise is devoted to Charlie's and Nancy's discussion of their sexual fantasies, or as Nancy terms it, the problem of "when the real and the figurative come together." Remarkably, the discussion of these sexual imaginings which Nancy describes as "the sad fantasies, the substitutions, the thoughts we have" culminates in Nancy's discovery that Charlie's fantasy was to "pretend that I was me," thus again presenting the attempt to join the intangible product of the inner man with that which is experienced in the world of phenomena. Described in slightly different—though still in a combination of philosophical, linguistic and sexual terms—the same desire is expressed by The Man in Listening: "Odd, in retrospect: it's such a thing we all want—though we seldom admit it, and when we do, only part; we all wish to devour ourselves, enter ourselves, be the subject and the object all at once; we all love ourselves and wish we could." The goal is to make subject and object, idea and form, identical, and the pronouncement is immediately followed by a short interval of linguistic "bargaining" over The Man's use of the word "take."
Furthermore, the conversation containing sexual fantasies which appears at the beginning of Seascape contains a likewise significant discussion in which Charlie and Nancy compare the difference between their memories of days past and their perceptions of their less pleasant present. Finally, the opening dialogue contains Nancy's suggestion that Charlie attempt to recapture those days, or make memory and fact one, by re-enacting his childhood act of holding stones and sinking to the bottom of the sea in order to escape, if only for a moment, the chaos of the world above. This, of course, all serves as a prelude to the face to face confrontation between the humans and their reptilian counterparts. As the dialogue between the beings from, in their own words, two different dimensions might suggest, the conjunction between the real and the ideal is clearly the central theme of the play.
As the lines from Listening suggest, the playwright's concern with the relationship between idea and actuality is certainly not limited to Seascape. The same nominalistic exploration is most elaborately set forth in the abstract in Tiny Alice with its butler named "Butler," a symbolic precursor of the joining of the real and the figurative in Charlie's sexual fantasies. The originally intended title of the earlier play, "Substitute Speaker," and its use of Alice as a substitute or proxy for the "Abstract" in the marriage to Julian further suggest a connection with the "substitutions" of which Nancy speaks in the discussion of fantasy. The same theme is no less forcefully, though a good deal less obliquely, presented in the battle over "Truth and Illusion" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is there that the illusionary is made real in the imaginary son and that the real is made illusion in George's "autobiographical" novel. Thus while Albee has enjoyed a reputation as an innovator whose constant experimentation has, to some, robbed his work of a clear and consistent stylistic voice, his plays have for the most part maintained a consistency of thematic concern. Significantly, most of those concerns will be seen to be the natural outgrowths or even elaborations of the material of his first play.
In The Zoo Story, the theme of the disparity between idea and experience is again presented in regard to sexual fantasy as is seen in Jerry's description of the pornographic playing cards: "What I wanted to get at is the value difference between pornographic playing cards when you're older. It's that when you're a kid you use the cards as a substitute for a real experience, and when you're older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy." What is important here is that, whether one begins with ideas and moves toward experience or whether one moves in the opposite direction, a disparity always remains. The recognition of that disparity is the essential content of Jerry's vision. Whether the process begins with either the idea or the object, one must inevitably be, in Nancy's terms, a "substitution" for the other and therefore different in actual identity. That is why the dialogue between Charlie, Nancy, and their reptilian counterparts must inevitably fail. No matter that they are joined by a verb; subject can never be co-incidental with objects, to borrow the terminology of The Man from Listening, no matter how much we may wish it. As with Seascape, the bulk of Albee's first play comes to be an elaboration of this vision whose content is the necessary failure of communication. To be sure, the action of The Zoo Story might be described as the process of translation of Jerry's death fantasy into action, just as the presence of the sea lizards in Seascape is the externalizing of objectification of the debate between Charlie and Nancy. It is important, however, to emphasize that the phenomenalization of Jerry's fantasy is brought about through language and that Peter is, significantly enough, a publisher by profession. Indeed, the process is overtly linguistic. It is the ongoing process of definition. The play reaches its climax over the argument as to whether or not Peter is a "vegetable." In the linguistic bargaining which takes place, Peter is called upon to take action in order to deny the validity of the name which has been applied to him. When in the final twist, Peter proves himself not to be a "vegetable" but rather an "animal," society, at large, is thereby defined as a "zoo," and it is this secret definition, a linguistic riddle of identity, that is the mystery which is at the heart of the play. The play as a whole might, then, well be taken as a type of extended definition. This idea of drama as linguistic process is likewise clearly seen in the playwright's Counting the Ways, which serves as little more than an extended definition of love. Remembering that Albee has throughout his career insisted that his writing begins with the creation of characters and then progresses to placing those characters in particular situations, the playwright's work, as has just been seen in The Zoo Story, may be seen as unfolding revelations of character and identity. Keeping in mind Elizabeth's pronouncement in The Lady from Dubuque: "In the outskirts of Dubuque … I learned—though I doubt I knew I was learning it—that all of the values were relative save one … "Who am I?" All the rest is semantics—liberty, dignity, possession," those exercises seem to be essentially semantic in nature.
While this preoccupation with the process of definition is not always as center stage as it is in Counting the Ways, it is without exception present in Albee's work. Whether in the more naturalistic dialogue of Virginia Woolf or in the seeming collection of non-sequiturs of Listening, a major topic of conversation—and admittedly there is a great deal more of talking than of action in Albee's plays—is language and, in particular semantics. In its most absurdist form, this preoccupation is present in the wonderfully comic tale of the confrontation between Mommy and Mrs. Barker over the color of their hats in The American Dream, a work which Albee has described as a play about failed communication. The same play also contains such semantic considerations as the difference between a "house" and an "apartment" or between an "enema bag" and an "enema bottle" as well as a wealth of word plays on such words as "badger" and "bumble/bundle." Each of Albee's plays has a host of similar verbal offerings. Seascape, because it deals so directly with the problem of language, again provides an excellent example of the relativity of definition through its comic debate between Charlie and Leslie, the male lizard, over the proper name for the front arm/leg. In a semantic exercise which is much in keeping with the debate over the color of Mommy's hat, Charlie begins,
Charlie: When we meet we … take each other's hands, or whatever, and we … touch….
Nancy: … Let's greet each other properly, all right? (Extends her hand again.) I give you my hand, and you give me your … what is that? What is that called?
Nancy: (Indicating Leslie's right arm.) That there.
Leslie: It's called a leg, of course.
Nancy: Oh. Well, we call this an arm.
Leslie: You have four arms, I see.
Charlie: No; she has two arms. (Tiny pause.) And two legs.
Sarah: (Moves closer to examine Nancy with Leslie.) And which are the legs?
Nancy: These here. And these are the arms.
Leslie: (A little on his guard.) Why do you differentiate?
Nancy: Why do we differentiate, Charlie?
Charlie: (Quietly hysterical.) Because they're the ones with the hands on the ends of them.
Nancy: (To Leslie.) Yes.
Sarah: (As Leslie glances suspiciously at Charlie.) Go on, Leslie; do what Nancy wants you to do. (To Nancy.) What is it called?
Nancy: Shaking hands.
Charlie: Or legs.
This verbal bartering continues until the inevitable result is achieved. The sea lizard, in a fashion highly reminiscent of Peter's anger at being called a "vegetable," takes umbrage at being termed a "fish." It would seem, then, that the major thrust of Seascape may be summed up in Leslie's annoyed response to Charlie's and Nancy's inability to define the human concepts of love and emotion: "We may, or we may not, but we'll never know unless you define your terms. Honestly, the imprecision! You're so thoughtless!" For his part, Charlie at a subsequent moment retorts in kind as he demands of Nancy, "What standards are you using? How would you know?" The point of these interchanges is that the existential situation of man is that he must, by the nature of his being, attempt to define his terms and standards, although he is also, by nature, incapable of doing so. Given the playwright's interest in Japanese Noh drama as well as Charlie's use of the Rinzai Zen Koan, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?", it would appear that Albee's concept of language is essentially Zen in nature. That is, language as a temporal creation is rooted in the phenomenal while the ideas which it attempts to convey find their source in the ontological. The result of this paradox is that definitions are futile attempts to cast the infinite in the garb of the finite and are of necessity doomed to failure. Such exercises ultimately obscure more than they reveal because of a mistaken notion of their completeness and an ill-placed faith in their ability to capture completely the essence of the subject being defined. Hence, all of the semantic debates, whether over the proper names of colors or anatomical features, are always unresolvable because, by presenting only partial or relative truths, language is a means by which one may, in the playwright's own words, go to "great lengths to avoid communication…. Talk in order not to have to listen."
In all of the naming contests which occur throughout his plays, what exists is for the most part a series of futile semantic debates in which each side insists on judging and defining according to its own perceptive standards. As George wryly tells Nick in Virginia Woolf, "Every definition has its boundaries, eh?" That definitions are thus implicitly faulty is seen in Oscar's use of the qualifier "as definitions go" in The Lady from Dubuque. To be sure, the implicit doubt of the validity of definitions is the key to the play as a whole. After all, the turning point of the play is the miraculous appearance of Elizabeth, the woman who claims to be Jo's mother. In its abruptness, the appearance of Oscar and Elizabeth is much like that of Leslie and Sarah, the sea lizards. Furthermore, as with the reptiles, their appearance seems to be an objectification of what has previously been presented only in the abstract, for the audience has already been given an indirect description of Jo's mother. The dramatic tension comes from the fact that Elizabeth, in the words of Lucinda, is simply "not what [she] imagined" and is completely unknown to Sam, Jo's husband. In other words, the objectification, as with the symbolic acts of both language and drama, conforms to neither the expected nor the known. The play, like so many others by Albee, ends with the audience left in doubt about the meaning of its title. If Elizabeth is aptly described by the title/name "The Lady from Dubuque," then she is, in fact, not Jo's mother since the latter lives in New Jersey. The situation is much like that of Tiny Alice where the audience must decide whether to apply the name of the play to the visible onstage character or the offstage abstraction. In each case, the title is a name and as such a definition which is part of each and applies fully to neither with the result that the audience is left with the dilemma of how and when to apply the titular definition.
Albee's insistence on the relativity of words seems to rely heavily on the standard linguistic assertion that each speech act derives its meaning from three sources: the meaning of the word in the mind of the speaker, the meaning of the word in the mind of the listener, and, most importantly, the generally accepted meaning of the word in the speech community of which both speaker and listener are members. As has already been seen, Albee's plays can be viewed as his examinations of these complex relationships. The plays regularly take members from different speech communities, dimensions, worlds, or societies and present their attempts at forging or working out a new, common vocabulary. Even when speakers come from the same speech communities, they of necessity spend most of their time attempting to explain their private meanings. However, the lack of a common language can also be fostered in order to create an impassable gulf between characters. YAM in FAM and YAM: An Imaginary Interview reassures FAM in regard to a certain critic by saying, "… but after all, you and a man like that just don't talk the same language." Language is thus used both to include and exclude. YAM uses language to establish a communal bond between himself and FAM and at the same time to separate FAM from the community of critics.
The same linguistic exclusion is readily apparent in Virginia Woolf. When asked if he and Martha have any children, George replies to Nick, "That's for me to know and you to find out." It is "finding out" or the solving of the riddle that is, within the play, the process of definition. It is only when Nick discovers that the child whom he assumed to be real is, in fact, the product of his hosts' imaginations that even a rudimentary understanding of the dialogue can begin. It is the final revelation that assumed fact is, in reality, fiction which gives all of the previous language its meaning. Before this final revelation, Martha has already berated Nick for his limited understanding:
You always deal in appearances?… you don't see anything, do you?
You see everything but the goddamn mind; you see all the little specks and crap, but you don't see what goes on, do you?
Throughout the play, Nick deals only in the concrete while George and Martha speak the language of abstraction. True communication between Nick and his hosts is impossible, so despite the fact that Nick tells George, "I'll play the charades like you've got 'em set up…. I'll play in your language…. I'll be what you say I am," Nick is doomed to failure not merely because he is not as skillful as George at word play but because he has no understanding of either the vocabulary or the rules by which the linguistic game is played, for as George makes clear at the end of the play, the rules are definite and absolute, and there is a penalty to be exacted for their violation.
Despite the fact that it is their immediate presence which acts as the catalyst for the "fun and games" which are acted out before them, Nick and Honey are, in essence, passive observers. When they enter the action at all, they serve solely as the objects of manipulation, despite any illusions which they may have to the contrary. For the most part, they are mere sounding boards, a convenient direction in which to aim speeches made about subjects in a patois which is both unknown and unintelligible at the outset of the play. It is little wonder, then, that there is no real communication between the two couples in the course of the night's action. George and Martha have, between themselves, all of the private, mutually exclusive meanings which they assign to events in their lives as well as a mutually agreed upon vocabulary and an enforceable set of rules for its implementation. This is the source of their togetherness, their comic unity. In contrast, there exists no such bond between either George or Martha and either of their guests. When Nick attempts to converse with George, it is as though the two were attempting to converse in two mutually exclusive tongues without the aid of an interpreter. While George is aware of this fact, Nick is not, and George refuses to explain or to translate. In their linguistic exclusion from the conversations between George and Martha, Nick and Honey are, themselves, models or metaphors for the members of the audience, objectified and placed on stage. Like Nick and Honey, the members of the audience, although the "cause" or occasion of the night's performance, are placed in the positions of passive eavesdroppers to the verbal antics of their hosts. The process of the play is for the audience, as well as for the younger couple on stage, the gradual understanding of those antics and games and hence inclusion into the speech community founded by George and Martha. The play, then, is a linguistic exercise, a teaching of language or at least a forging of a common language founded on an initial act of exclusion and followed by an initiation or movement toward inclusion. The comic unity of the play, and Albee has from the outset stoutly maintained that Virginia Woolf is a comedy, is its movement from perceived disunity of George's and Martha's seeming non-sequiturs and highly eccentric speech to a perception of the unity or coherence of their speeches as we learn the semantic and lexical rules of their private tongue. This change in perception takes place when the audience ceases to be excluded from and instead becomes a part of the speech community of George and Martha. And it is important to note that this change is a change in the perception of the reality, not in the reality itself. George was, despite appearances, making "sense" all along. That is, the solving of the riddle, the catharsis, the "finding out" as George puts it, is a linguistic and phenomenal rather than an ontological matter. This is, in the last analysis, the same comic action that was the essential structure of Albee's first play, where the solving of the riddle is the passive observer's ultimate recognition that Jerry's seeming nonsequiturs concerning "the zoo" are not unintelligible ravings. Jerry's comments to Peter, like those of George to Nick, make sense and are in fact seen as truthful as soon as one understands the language in which those "ravings" are cast.
Language, then, can serve as a bridge or medium between speaker and listener but only when both parties are fully aware of its rules and nature. When either half of the equation is missing, the result from the linguist's point of view is not really true language. The point is made by Charlie who in Seascape tells Nancy that "parrots don't talk; parrots imitate." Here the linguistic principle that thought must precede the speech act is championed. The parrot does not talk because it does not think. It has no awareness of the fact that its utterances comprise human words, and most important of all, it has no understanding of their meanings, either public or private. In this sense, the parrot is like Nick in Virginia Woolf or Sam in The Lady from Dubuque who both find themselves unwilling and even unconscious participants in a repartee in which they know neither the rules nor the vocabulary. Albee's interest in the epistemological basis of speech is most clearly seen in a brief interchange from Listening:
The Girl: You don't listen.
The Woman: (As if the Man were not there.) Well, that may be.
The Girl: Pay attention, rather, is what you don't do. Listen: oh, yes; carefully, to … oh, the sound an idea makes …
The Woman: … a thought.
The Girl: No; an idea.
The Woman: As it does what?
The Girl: (Thinks about that for a split second.) Mmmmmm … as the chemical thing happens, and then the electric thing, and then the muscle; that progression. The response—that almost reflex thing, the movement, when an idea happens. (A strange little smile.) That is the way the brain works, is it not? The way it functions? Chemical, then electric, then muscle? (The woman does an "et voila!" gesture.)
The Man: (Quiet awe.) Where does it come from?
The Woman: What?
The Man: The … all that. Where does it come from?
The Woman: I haven't found out. It all begins right there: she says, "You don't listen." Every time, she says: "You don't listen."
The Man: To what!? You don't listen to what!?
The Woman: (Sotto voce.) I don't know what I don't listen to.
The Man: (Accusatory.) Yes, and do you care?
The Woman: (So reasonable.) I DON'T know.
The Man: (Snorting.) Of course not!
The Woman: (Quite brusque.) Defend the overdog once in a while, will you!? At least what you think it is. How do you know who's what!?
The Man: I don't!
The Woman: All right!
The Man: (Shrugs; throws it away.) Get behind that sentence, that's all you have to do. Find out what precedes.
The passage touches upon all the elements necessary for true linguistic communication as it follows the stages of the unconscious genesis of an idea to its establishment in the consciousness of the speaker to its final articulation and reception by a listener. As the title of the play suggests, the final stage is as important as the first. One must, to quote The Girl, not merely listen but also pay attention. A listener, then, is as important to language as a speaker; without a true listener who pays attention, language must out of necessity fail. As Albee has, himself, pointed out in several interviews. Mommy can tell Mrs. Barker, in The American Dream to take off her dress rather than her coat because no one in the room is paying any attention to what anyone else is saying. That is why the play is, according to its author, a play about the failure of communication. Significantly, the need for true communication is so great that its failure can result in madness. An important part of the "madness" of The Girl in Listening is her resentment over the fact that The Woman really doesn't "Listen." Similarly, Julian, in Tiny Alice, equates his own descent into madness with a loss of the ability to hear and comprehend language: "The periods of hallucination would be announced by a ringing in the ears, which produced, or was accompanied by, a loss of hearing. I would hear people's voices from a great distance and through the roaring of … surf. And my body would feel light, and not mine, and I would float, not glide."
If speaker and listener are essential to the linguistic process, then one must ask what is the nature of the operation which takes place between the two. To borrow a phrase from The Man in Listening, each attempts to "get behind" (that is, understand the generating idea) the sentence or public pronouncement between them. Without the kind of intuition which Nancy claims in regard to understanding what is in Charlie's "gut," one must of necessity rely on indirect means such as symbols or words which are by nature finite compromises for infinite complexities. An example of the kind of linguistic bartering that is necessary although futile is found in the description of the wrapped lunch in The American Dream:
Mommy: … And every day, when I went to school, Grandma used to wrap a box for me, and I used to take it with me to school; and when it was lunch-time, all the little boys and girls used to take out their boxes of lunch, and they weren't wrapped nicely at all, and they used to open them and eat their chicken legs and chocolate cakes; and I used to say, 'Oh, look at my lovely lunch box; it's so nicely wrapped it would break my heart to open it.' And so, I wouldn't open it.
Daddy: Because it was empty.
Mommy: Oh no. Grandma always filled it up, because she never ate the dinner she cooked the evening before; she gave me all her food for my lunch box the next day. After school, I'd take the box back to Grandma, and she'd open it and eat the chicken legs and chocolate cake that was inside. Grandma used to say, 'I love day-old cake.' That's where the expression day-old cake came from. Grandma always ate everything a day late. I used to eat all the other little boys' and girls' food at school, because they thought my lunch box was empty, and that's why I wouldn't open it. They thought I suffered from the sin of pride, and since that made them better than me, they were very generous.
The point here is that, while there is a seeming common understanding concerning the external appearance of the box, each person believed it to contain something different. In the same fashion, words which seem clear and apparent frequently have individual and sometimes antithetical, private meanings to the characters who use them within the context of the play. Thus, when Grandma in The American Dream presents the mysterious boxes around which everyone must negotiate, those boxes are in essence words, and, indeed, Grandma's most consistent complaint throughout the play concerns the way in which everyone speaks to the elderly. Words, then, are to Albee types of decorated boxes sometimes containing wonderful surprises as in the comic debates between Charlie and Leslie, or they can serve as virtual Pandora's boxes as they do in the cases of George and Martha. As FAM says in his interview with YAM, "Words; words … They're such a pleasure," and as George notes, "Martha's a devil with language: she really is."
As the case with George and Martha might suggest, the field of semantics is the arena in which the tug of war between reality and fantasy ultimately takes place. Nowhere is this made clearer than in Tiny Alice. In that play, many of Albee's concerns with the symbolic nature of language find their expression in the semantic debate over the curious relationship between the house in which Alice resides and the model which it contains. The house, it seems, was originally constructed in England and then disassembled and rebuilt in its present location. The house, therefore, is not by definition an "original" but is, rather, a "replica." Although built of the materials of the original, the replica can no more be the original than a word can be identical to the mental image which it signifies. The replica once again presents the playwright's preoccupation with the translation of ideas, persons, and objects. Translation, however, in these terms implies an absolute alteration of the item translated, for it implies a definite and distinct change from one location or state of being to another. In the midst of the replica stands a "model"—the proportionately correct although scaled down symbol which is derivative, though wholly separate from the original. It should, however, be noted that the model is subject to the vicissitudes which affect the replica and not vice versa. This is seen in the fact that while the fire is first noted in the chapel of the model it is, in fact, put out in the chapel of the replica. As in the case of the fire in the chapel, one learns about the house, the replica, by studying the model. If the model is to be exact, it must contain a model, which, in turn, must contain a model. The process must go on ad infinitum. The infinite nature of the series of reflective models required to establish the model as an exact duplicate of the replica presents an example of Xeno's paradox concerning the tortoise and the hare. Just as the hare can never in theory overtake the tortoise, so the model can never reach its goal of reduplicating either the replica or the original.
To understand the complex relationship which Albee is suggesting here, it is necessary to turn to a similar set of relationships in the later play, Listening, as The Girl describes the mysterious "blue cardboard":
Yes. Most cardboard is grey … or brown, heavier. But blue cardboard is … unusual. That would be enough, but if you see blue cardboard, tile blue, love it, want … it, and have it … then it's special. But—don't interrupt me!—Well, if you want more value from it, from the experience, and take grey cardboard, mix your colors and paint it, carefully, blue, to the edges, smooth, then it's not any blue cardboard but very special: grey cardboard taken and made blue, self-made, self-made blue—better than grey, better than the other blue, because it's self-done. Very valuable, and even looking at it is a theft; touching it, even to take it to a window to see the smooth lovely color, all blue, is a theft. Even the knowledge of it is a theft … of sorts.
The blue is the Ideal. It is not only exclusive but practically unattainable. It is the "original" in that it is an intangible, unknowable form, in the Platonic sense. The grey is the common experience or phenomenon. What is of interest here in the artifice of the cardboard painted blue, for like a word or a play it stands mid-way between an action and the idea of that action, taking its identity from both but identical to neither. The artifice is just that; it is an artifice. It is a conscious creation. It is, however, as a result of the hands of the craftsman, no longer grey and yet not quite identical to the object, for it is neither purely an emanation, in the Neo-Platonic sense, nor is it uncreate or original.
However, if both the cardboard made blue as well as the model of the replica are merely finite, imperfect imitations, one must question the very act of resorting to such forms if they, like words, must inevitably fall short of what they attempt to portray or describe. While both the discussions of the model in Tiny Alice and the cardboard in Listening present the limitations of language as a mediating instrument between the abstract and the concrete, both simultaneously present the argument for the necessity of the linguistic medium, despite its imperfect status. In both cases, the model and the artifice are the only means by which the Abstraction and its relationship to the concrete may be observed and known. Ironically, the very imperfections of language may be said to be the source of its attraction for Albee since its failure to capture completely the Abstract, as it is termed in Tiny Alice, is what renders the Abstract comprehensible to the human intellect. Language, as the "glorious imperfect," allows the imperfect to know glory if not perfection.
As the meeting ground of the abstract and the concrete, language serves to help man understand the nature of each. Without that help, man is placed in the dilemma, so common in the plays of Albee, of not being able to distinguish between illusion and reality. This problem of illusion and reality is the exact source of Julian's dilemma in Tiny Alice. Such confusion is seen in Julian's remarkable description of an hallucinatory sexual encounter. Significantly, Miss Alice responds to Julian's account of his sexual/ecstatic experience with a fellow inmate by asking, "Is the memory of something having happened the same as it having happened?" Her question as to the actual relationship between the real and the imaginary remains the problem with which Julian must grapple throughout the rest of the play, and, in fact, it is central to incidents in the lives of the characters in several other plays as well, for the hallucinatory nature of sexual union is a recurring theme in the works of Albee. The theme is made manifest in The Zoo Story in Jerry's description of his relationship with his landlady:
… and somewhere, somewhere in the back of that pea-sized brain of hers, an organ developed just enough to let her eat, drink, and emit, she has some foul parody of sexual desire. And I, Peter, am the object of her sweaty lust.
But I have found a way to keep her off. When she talks to me, when she presses herself to my body and mumbles about her room and how I should come there, I merely say: but, Love; wasn't yesterday enough for you, and the day before? Then she puzzles, she makes slits of her tiny eyes, she sways a little, and then, Peter … and it is at this moment that I think I might be doing some good in that tormented house … a simple-minded smile begins to form on her unthinkable face, and she giggles and groans as she thinks about yesterday and the day before; as she believes and relives what never happened….
For the landlady, one may indeed say that memory is the equivalent of event. Jerry's obvious distaste over the incident shows that he, like Julian, is as deeply affected by another's fantasy as if the actual events had taken place. The same problem arises in Virginia Woolf where it is not the sexual act that is fantasized but rather the product of that act, the imaginary son. In all of these cases, the best evidence points to the unreality of the events described, and yet in each case, the hallucination of the action produces the same effects as the actual event. Hallucination, then, provides a middle ground between idea and event for those who find the Ideal unattainable and the present unbearable. In Virginia Woolf, George makes a similar observation when he notes.
It's very simple…. When people can't abide things as they are, when they can't abide the present, they do one of two things … either they … either they turn to a contemplation of the past, as I have done, or they set about to … alter the future.
Julian confirms the value of such mediation when he concludes his description of his hallucinatory encounter by noting,
I was persuaded, eventually, that perhaps I was … over-concerned by hallucination; that some was inevitable, and a portion of that—even desirable.
In all three instances, Albee relies on the sexual metaphor for this commingling of illusion and reality, a metaphor commonly found in the writings of the mystics in their attempts to describe mystical union. Julian's confusion, here as well as throughout his life, is the direct result of his rejection of a middle ground, of the possible union of the Absolute and the relative which is achieved in both the made-over cardboard and the model of the replica. In the third act of the play, the other characters attempt to apprise him of this very folly:
Lawyer: (Sarcasm is gone; all is gone, save fact.) Dear Julian; we all serve, do we not? Each of us his own priesthood; publicly, some, others … within only; but we all do—what's-his-name's special trumpet, or clear lonely bell. Predestination, fate, the will of God, accident…. All swirled up in it, no matter what the name. And being man, we have invented choice, and have, indeed, gone further, and have catalogued the underpinnings of choice. But we do not know. Anything. End prologue.
Miss Alice: Tell him.
Lawyer: No Matter. We are leaving you now, Julian; agents, every one of us—going. We are leaving you … to your accomplishment: your marriage, your wife, your … special priesthood.
Julian: (Apprehension and great suspicion.) I … don't know what you're talking about.
Lawyer: (Unperturbed.) What is so amazing is the … coming together … of disparates … left-fielding, out of the most unlikely. Who would have thought, Julian? Who would have thought? You have brought us to the end of our service here. We go on; you stay.
Butler: May I begin to cover?
Miss Alice: Not Yet. (Kindly) Do you understand, Julian?
Julian: (Barely in control.) Of course not!
Miss Alice: Julian, I have tried to be … her. No; I have tried to be … what I thought she might, what might make you happy, what you might use, as a … what?
Butler: Play God; go on.
Miss Alice: We must … represent, draw pictures, reduce or enlarge to … to what we can understand.
Julian: (Sad, mild.) But I have fought against it … all my life. When they said, 'Bring the wonders down to me, closer; I cannot see them, touch; nor can I believe.' I have fought against it … all my life.
Butler: (To Miss Alice; softly.) You see? No good.
Miss Alice: (Shrugs.) I have done what I can do with it.
Julian: All my life. In and out of … confinement, fought against the symbol.
Miss Alice: Then you should be happy now.
Cardinal: Julian, it has been our desire always to serve; your sense of mission …
Lawyer: We are surrogates; our task is done now.
Miss Alice: Stay with her.
Julian: (Horror behind it; disbelieving.) Stay … with … her?
Miss Alice: Stay with her. Accept it.
Lawyer: (At the model.) Her rooms are lighted. It is warm, there is enough.
Miss Alice: Be content with it. Stay with her.
Julian: (Refusing to accept what he is hearing.) Miss Alice … I have married you.
Miss Alice: (Kind, still.) No, Julian; you have married her … through me.
Julian: (Pointing to the model.) There is nothing there! We are here! There is no one there!
Lawyer: She is there … we believe.
Julian: (To Miss Alice.) I have been with you!
Miss Alice: (Not explaining; sort of dreamy.) You have felt her warmth through me, touched her lips through my lips, held her hands, through mine, my breasts, hers, lain on her bed, through mine, wrapped yourself in her wings, your hands on the small of her back, your mouth on her hair, the voice in your ear, hers not mine, all hers; her. You are hers.
This dialogue presents the beginning of Julian's awe-filled recognition of the price exacted by his rejection of symbols, for Alice herself admits that she is merely a symbol, an imperfect attempt to represent the abstract. Everyone is, as the lawyer notes, an "agent," a representative of a thing, rather than the thing itself. The wedding itself is a symbol of mediation or union. Julian as a lay brother is himself an apt symbol of the very kind of mediation which he has spent his life trying to reject. Yet Julian's rejection of such mediation has been his distinguishing characteristic throughout the play. The true extent of Julian's dualistic vision, as well as its dire consequences, is seen in his own account of the cause of his madness:
Julian: Oh … (Pause.) I … I lost my faith. (Pause.) In God.
Butler: Ah. (Then a questioning look.)
Julian: Is there more?
Butler: Is there more?
Julian: Well, nothing … of matter. I … declined. I … shriveled into myself; a glass dome … descended, and it seemed I was out of reach, unreachable, finally unreaching, in this … paralysis, of sorts. I … put myself in a mental home.
Butler: (Curiously noncommittal.) Ah.
Julian: I could not reconcile myself to the chasm between the nature of God and the use to which man put … God.
Butler: Between your God and others', your view and theirs.
Julian: I said what I intended: (Weighs the opposites in each hand.) It is God the mover, not God the puppet; God the creator, not the God created by man.
Butler: (Almost pitying.) Six years in the loony bin of semantics?
Julian: (Slightly flustered, heat.) It is not semantics! Men create a false God in their own image, it is easier for them!… It is not….
The passage is the key to Julian's thinking as it clearly shows that to Julian the difference between the First Cause and its emanations, between an object and the perception of that object, is both real and irreconcilable. Furthermore, the movement is essentially Neo-Platonic since the contrasting movement from experience to abstraction, namely man's creation of God, is rejected out of hand. Because the distinction is real, it is not in Julian's eyes "semantic," that is, without substance. Julian then is rejecting what he believes to be the relative in favor of the Absolute.
In order to understand more fully the exact nature of Julian's rejection of the label "semantic" to describe the difference between idea and emanation, it is necessary to consider a case in which he feels that the term is appropriate:
Butler: (To Julian, pointing first to the model, then to the room.) Do you mean the model … or the replica?
Julian: I mean the … I mean … what we are in.
Butler: Ah-ha. And which is that?
Julian: That we are in?
Lawyer: (To Julian.) You are clearly not a Jesuit. (Turning.) Butler, you've put him in a clumsy trap.
Butler: (Shrugging.) I'm only a servant.
Lawyer: (To Julian, too sweetly.) You needn't accept his alternative … that since we are clearly not in a model we must be in a replica.
Butler: (Vaguely annoyed.) Why must he not accept that?
Miss Alice: Yes. Why not?
Lawyer: I said he did not need to accept the alternative. I did not say it was not valid.
Julian: (Cheerfully.) I will not accept it; the problem is only semantic.
To Julian the relationship between the model and the replica, as opposed to the relationship between God and the world, is semantic. The difference between idea and event is absolute; the differences between the various emanations of that idea are not. Language is, to Julian, part of the phenomenal. It is not, like the grey cardboard painted blue, a bridge from one realm to the other, for Julian would reject the artifice of the cardboard as an Aristotelian movement from the concrete to the abstract, since that is the movement which Julian wishes to avoid. Julian's reaction is to resolve the tension of that duality not by transcendence of the oppositions or by accepting their existence and arranging them hierarchically but rather through a complete dismissal of the phenomenal. Because Julian sees the use of symbols of a lessening of the Abstract, he rejects it out of hand. The Lawyer replies,
I have learned … Brother Julian … never to confuse the representative of a … thing with the thing itself.
In other words, the corruption of the Cardinal who is the subject of the dialogue in no way diminishes the God for which he stands. The manipulation of the symbol does not affect the idea which it represents. Again, that is why the fire, although first seen in the model, must be extinguished in the replica. The destruction of the chapel must be reflected in the model for its purpose is to reflect the replica as it is, not as it was. The fire, of course, has no effect on the original which exits only in memory and is no longer affected by events in the real world. Thus, Julian's fear that symbols constitute a lessening of the Abstract is proven to be groundless.
The lawyer, with the butler acting out the role of Julian, demonstrates the folly of the confusion under which Julian suffers:
Lawyer: But shall we tell him the whole thing? The Cardinal? What is happening?
Butler: How much can he take?
Lawyer: He is a man of God, however much he simplifies, however much he worships the symbol and not the substance.
Butler: Like everyone.
Lawyer: Like most.
Butler: Julian can't stand that; he told me so: men make God in their own image, he said. Those six years I told you about.
Lawyer: Yes. When he went into an asylum. YES.
Butler: It was—because he could not stand it, wasn't it? The use men put God to.
Lawyer: It's perfect; wonderful.
Butler: Could not reconcile.
Butler: God as older brother, scout leader, couldn't take that.
Lawyer: And still not reconciled.
Butler: Has pardoned men, I think. Is walking on the edge of an abyss, but is balancing. Can be pushed … over, back to the asylums.
Lawyer: Or over … to the Truth. (Addressing Julian, as if he were there; some thunder in the voice.) God, Julian? Yes? God? Whose God? Have you pardoned men their blasphemy, Julian? Have you forgiven them?
Butler: (Quiet echoing answers; being Julian.) No, I have not, have not really; have let them, but cannot accept.
Lawyer: Have not forgiven. No Julian. Could you ever?
Butler: (Ibid.) It is their comfort, my agony.
Lawyer: Soft God? The servant? Gingerbread God with the raisin eyes?
Butler: (Ibid.) I cannot accept it.
Lawyer: Then don't accept it, Julian.
Butler: But there is some thing. There is a true God.
Lawyer: There is an abstraction, Julian, but it cannot be understood. You cannot worship it.
Butler: (Ibid.) There is more.
Lawyer: There is Alice, Julian. That can be understood. Only the mouse in the model. Just that.
Butler: (Ibid.) There must be more.
Lawyer: The mouse. Believe it. Don't personify this abstraction, Julian, limit it, demean it. Only the mouse, the toy. And that does not exist … but is all that can be worshipped…. Cut off from it, Julian, ease yourself, ease off. No trouble now; accept it.
Butler: (Talking to Julian now.) Accept it, Julian; ease off. Worship it …
Lawyer: Accept it.
This play within a play not only makes its point in and about the abstract but goes on to provide its corroboration in fact since the butler, named Butler in another convenient merging of idea and actuality, by acting the role of Julian has not affected Julian in any real sense. The problem, as the Lawyer sets it forth, is that the Abstract is, as Julian claims, unknowable and ineffable. Julian is correct to that extent, and yet like everyone else Julian has continued to pursue that unattainable knowledge. What sets Julian apart is his refusal to accept the necessary compromise or mediation which such a paradox demands. By refusing to accept mediation which others accept, Julian has only placed the Abstract farther beyond his reach. By rejecting symbols, Julian is abandoning all that may be known of the Absolute on the non-mystical, conscious level. Julian has ultimately deceived himself into believing that he has, in fact, completely rejected the mediation of language and symbol in his striving to experience the divine. Yet to speak and think of the Absolute as Julian does or, for that matter, even to resort to the term "Absolute" is indeed a denial of the recognition of its ineffability.
It is the recognition of this self-deception which comprises the bulk of Julian's final soliloquy. Deserted and dying at the play's conclusion, Julian realizes that in marrying Miss Alice he has, as the lawyer said, unknowingly accepted the symbol as a reality, for without the symbol "THE ABSTRACTION" is too terrible to behold. Julian's final words, as if in answer to the earlier pleas of both the lawyer and the butler are, "I accept thee, Alice, for thou art come to me. God, Alice … I accept thy will." The ultimate proclamation of Julian's folly, however, comes in Julian's realization that he is facing death. Julian has imagined Death, not dying. He knows life, the phenomenal, and has imagined Death, the ontological, but he has never given any thought to dying, the act of translation, the middle ground between the two.
Significantly, in the act of dying Julian assumes the attitude of the crucified Christ, another mediator between the Abstract and the concrete. Death is the ineffable state. Dying, however, may be known and described. In the last analysis, Julian is of a kind with Albee's many other characters such as Peter and Nick who are lost in the midst of verbal exchanges of which they had no understanding. However, while Julian's dilemma is ultimately linguistic in nature, he is not merely a man who cannot understand the language in which the oblique discussions of the mysterious Alice are couched. He is, until the final lines of the play, a man who will not understand because he rejects language and symbol as an unnecessary, even unacceptable compromise. He is not able to live comfortably in a world where all Truth and, therefore, meaning are in George's words, "relative." Yet, it is the very compromise which has been at the thematic and structural centers of Albee's work from its inception, and it is the basis for the playwright's initial reaction to the interviewers' question concerning the place of realism in theatre. As he has noted in several interviews, the ultimate task of the playwright is "to turn fact into truth," and this is the compromise of both the playwright and the linguist.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3472
SOURCE: "An Interview with Edward Albee," in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1991, pp. 59-69.
[In the following interview, conducted in 1989, Albee discusses his works, his artistic approach, critical reaction to his works, American theater, the arts, and contemporary social issues.]
It was perhaps the most appropriate environment in which to interview Edward Albee: the rehearsal set for the Los Angeles production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). At center stage, a chipped wooden coffee table wobbled in front of faded green couch. Upstage right sat the play's ever-present bar, stocked with a variety of bourbon and whiskey bottles.
As the rehearsal broke up, and actors John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson exited the room, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright took a seat on the tattered sofa.
Albee was preparing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the opening leg of a tour that would take the play from the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood to Houston to London and beyond. This was the second time Albee had directed Virginia Woolf—the first being the much-heralded 1976 Broadway production with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara—and by the time the show left Southern California, it had garnered mixed reviews: an enthusiastic Newsweek announced, "the play hasn't lost its power to shock," while the lukewarm Los Angles Times complained that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "only stings us this time around, where once it stunned us."
But, then again, Albee has always had a precarious relationship with American theatre critics. Revered for such modern classics as The Zoo Story (1959), The American Dream (1961), A Delicate Balance (1966), Seascape (1975) and of course Virginia Woolf, he has also been vilified for writing Malcolm (his 1966 adaptation of James Purdy's novel), The Lady from Dubuque (1980) and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982). The critical reaction to The Man Who Had Three Arms was highly representative. After a favorable response from the public in Miami, Chicago, and during its preview engagement on Broadway, the play opened to hostile reviews and closed soon thereafter. Subsequently, it went on to win a significant award and wide accolades at the Edinburgh festival in Scotland. Such is the life of a playwright who refuses to pull any punches with his potential critics.
The following interview took place on September 19, 1989. Albee was dressed in a simple black shirt, grey pants, and black Reeboks. He had salt and pepper hair, a greying moustache, and glasses, but his otherwise extraordinarily youthful appearance belied his true age—at the time 61 years old. The soft-spoken Albee offered intense, measured responses throughout the interview, although his infamous wry and subtle humor surfaced frequently. In the background, the stage hands broke down the set while a photographer snapped photos of the playwright, who is generally considered to be the finest American dramatist of the past three decades.
[Goldman:] What are the primary ways the theatre has changed since the 1962 premier of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
[Albee:] The theatre. Define what you mean by the theatre.
Okay, the American theatre.
The American theatre. What do you mean by that?
Well, how about Broadway?
There is more interesting theatre going on in the United States than you would ever know about if you only went to Broadway theatre. I mean, the best regional theatre, the experimental theatres, the university theatres, too—very, very interesting new work. I'm absolutely convinced that Broadway could vanish from the face of the earth and the American theatre as an art form would not be hurt at all.
And Broadway has become infinitely more difficult for valuable, useful, serious plays to get produced. When we first did Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, we brought the play in and it cost $45,000 to get it open and ticket prices were $7—that was 1962. When we did a revival in '76 on Broadway, it cost $300,000 to open it, and ticket prices were up to $20. If we did it on Broadway this year, it would probably cost $800,000 or $900,000 to put it on and ticket prices would be up to $45. In the past, producers and theatre owners were more willing to take chances on tough, serious plays and bring them right onto Broadway. Now, almost always, a serious play has got to prove that it is both serious and commercial. Being serious is no longer enough.
Is this due to economic considerations?
Part of it has to do with the economics—the value of real estate, taxes, etc.—and part of it has to do with the fact that an audience that is paying $50 for a theatre ticket does not want to be hit over the head with ideas. They want entertainment.
Do you think that the influence of Hollywood has anything to do with this?
Maybe audiences want our theatre to be more like television and film. I'm convinced that our society wants less social and political engagement and more entertainment.
Is there a difference between European and American audiences?
This is a generalization, but European audiences tend to go to the theatre more regularly, are probably educated more in terms of serious theatre, and are more interested in theatre as an art form than as merely entertainment. But that's shifting—European audiences are probably getting just as lazy as some of our American audiences!
Why do you think critics often say that your work has a European feel to it?
Well, I'm not a regionalist like Tennessee Williams or Sam Shepard or David Mamet. I guess my plays seem to translate very nicely into other cultures. But they are set in America, and I'm clearly an American writer and my characters are American. But they're not regionalized, they're not that locale specific.
How have you changed as a playwright since the premier of Virginia Woolf?
Apparently, considering the fact that I run into so much trouble, I haven't changed enough.
Trouble with …?
Oh, trouble with critics, management, audiences … I suspect that I haven't accommodated the way I am supposed to. I've always just written whatever's been inside my head, whatever came naturally.
Do you think that the initial popular support of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made the critics suspicious and even hostile towards your work?
I don't know what made those who became hostile hostile. Maybe they just disliked me, disliked the instant success, or maybe it was just dismay over things I was saying.
How do you deal with the reaction to, say, The Man Who Had Three Arms, which was lambasted by the critics when it first appeared on Broadway in 1983, but which went on to win a prestigious award at the Edinburgh festival? Do you just laugh off the initial reaction?
Oh, you have to in order to protect your sanity! If you know that the work you do is good and is unintentionally or intentionally misunderstood or shot down for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work, then naturally there's nothing you can do except to just go about your business and assume that in a more rational time people will say, "Gee, I wonder why the critics behaved so irrationally about that play?"
Did this attitude take a long time to develop?
Not really. I've never been surprised by the reaction to plays of mine. I've been disappointed sometimes. Sometimes a play hasn't been allowed to reach the audience I thought it should. But if you know you've done your job properly you can't worry about it too much—you'd go crazy if you did.
What do you think about all of the talk about Los Angeles becoming the major cultural and theatrical center of the United States—and possibly the world—within the next decade or so?
When I see as many good plays coming from experimental theatre out here as I see in New York, I'll be more convinced. Though I must say I am more pleased with Los Angeles than I am with other large cities. But I still think that going to the theatre is somewhat of an unnatural occurrence out here. It is not like New York where going to the theatre is as natural as breathing.
Why is that?
I don't know! It's not a theatre town! It's a film and television town! And most actors I meet out here complain about the fact that they are really being pushed into film and television and do not have the opportunity to do live work on the stage.
Do you direct differently in Los Angeles than when you are staging a play in a theatre town?
No, I don't think so. You have to direct the play to know its intention. Trouble comes with too much accommodation. I would never cut a play of mine to make it more tolerable for an audience. You must make the assumption that an audience will come to the play and is interested in being in the theatre, interested in seeing the play, immersing themselves in it, and maybe even having a complex experience.
You've directed work by such playwrights as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and David Mamet. Do you find directing your own work easier or more difficult than directing other playwrights' work?
It's probably a little easier directing my work because I know a little more about what the playwright had in mind. I have to invent a little bit more if I'm directing somebody else's work.
What do you think about the school of thought that says a playwright shouldn't direct his own play?
Well, I don't think anybody should direct a play unless they are a competent director. I've learned how to be a competent director. Lots of playwrights have directed their own work—besides Shakespeare and Moliere. In the 20th century, Brecht, Beckett, Gelber, Anouilh, Pinter, me. Lots of us direct our own work.
What do you consider to be your greatest play?
I don't know whether any of them are great.
How about your most satisfying?
I find this is to be true with every single one that I do. As I go on I find that the next one is always more interesting than the previous. You know, it would be an awful, terrible thing to think that you've done your best work. I like to think that maybe it's three plays down the line.
Who would you cite as your májor influence outside of the theatre? For instance, I've read that you collect art.
I've been influenced by everybody, and I'd be a fool if I weren't. I don't think that anybody in the creative arts can be a well-rounded, well-informed person in the creative arts unless they're conversant in all the arts. A playwright who doesn't know painting and sculpture and classical music—especially classical music since composing music and writing for the theatre are so closely allied—and doesn't know what's going on in fiction and poetry is probably not an educated man and will put terrible limits on himself. All of the arts feed on each other, all of them influence each other, and it's very valuable and useful to know everything that you can.
Do you have a deep interest in classical music?
I wanted to be a composer when I was 13, but I didn't become one because I was incompetent. So I started studying music on the phonograph, and I would dare say that I've probably listened to—very conscientiously—more classical music than anybody who is not a composer.
You mentioned the similarity between the theatre and music, between dramatic structure and musical structure. Can you explain this to me?
Well, a string quartet is a performed piece that is heard and seen—so is a play. There are great similarities—structural similarities, psychological similarities. There are voices speaking, instruments speaking …
Does it primarily have to do with the language of the play?
No, it's in the psychology. A good piece of music has a structure which gives it a psychology, proper duration, whereas a bad piece of music doesn't end where it should—it goes on too long, ideas run out. The relationships are very complex and intertwined. A composer and a playwright use notation in very much the same way—rise, soft; fast, slow … it's a profound relationship.
Have you ever written a play with a particular piece of music in mind?
No, but I am aware sometimes when I'm writing a play that this section is a passacaglia, for example, or a theme and variation.
Can you describe the process you go through when writing a play? For instance, do you, as Pinter has said he does, begin with two characters in a room?
Doesn't everybody? Didn't Shakespeare, didn't …
Well, I don't know. Is that the germ? Or do you pick up ideas from something you read in the newspaper?
No, I've never—with the exception of Bessie Smith—never known where it came from. Everything starts coming into focus at the same time: the environment, and the characters, their relationship to each other—it just starts coming into focus.
Do you use an outline?
No. I will think about a play for quite a while before I start writing it down. The best way for me to lose interest in a play is to write it down.
You have said that the unconscious is the most efficient part of your mind. Why is that?
It must be since my conscious mind is very inefficient! I seem to come to lots of creative and dramatic conclusions which I inform myself of; so obviously I am moving from the unconscious to the conscious. I rely upon the unconscious mind for creativity just as most people do. And the conscious mind is a kind of translator.
Do you believe that there is such a thing as the perfectly made play?
In which there is nothing missing and no excess?
Oh, I've seen a few of them I think.
Care to name names?
A couple of Beckett's plays, one or two of Chekhov's … I see them now and again.
Do you still believe that, as you've once said, "a text is never dependent on performance and that no performance is as good as the performance the author saw when he wrote the play"?
I was talking about a good play. Now, a bad play … most performances are better than the play. For most good plays, the performance does not add anything to the play; it merely brings the play to its own life. You see, the better the actors you have, the closer the author's intention will be achieved. A great play is not improved by a performance, it is proved by a performance. The best actors in the world aren't going to make a Chekhov play any better than it is. Or a Beckett play. They're first rate! It's the responsibility of the actors to try to prove that they're as good as the play. In a lousy play, the actors have got to be compensated for the fact that the play is lousy.
Do you think there are many actors out there who would agree with you?
Yes. The professional and intelligent ones.
You once said 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. Do you still believe this?
What other responsibilities does the playwright have?
Oh … to write as well as he can, to tell as much of the truth as he knows—as clearly and as honestly as he knows it. Not to lie, not to deal in half-truths. You see, all art is useful. There's no point if it's merely decorative. Art tells us who we are, how we live, our consciousness … The whole concept of metaphor is so important to the human animal, and that's what art does—deals in the metaphor. And so all good art is useful! And that's why the merely decorative, the merely escapist, is a big waste of everybody's time.
But you're not a great fan of social realism are you?
The only problem I have is that it limits its scope to accommodate the problems it addresses. I had a problem with a lot of the agitprop plays that were written in the 1930s—they just weren't very good plays. I have no objection to a first-rate play of social realism. But I don't think that you can justify writing a bad play just because it deals with social realism.
Do you see yourself as a social critic or as a writer interested more in metaphysical issues, interested in penetrating, as George in Virginia Woolf says, "the bone and the marrow"?
I don't see how you separate the two.
I mean, most of my plays do deal with people in the context of relationships, which is a microcosm and a macrocosm. If the play doesn't transcend what it is specifically about, it doesn't resonate and therefore isn't any good. It's got to be about not only how these couples live, but how we live as a society.
As a playwright, what do you think are the major issues confronting America today?
Too many people don't live their own lives, they pass through their lives half-asleep. I think that's a great waste of time. Most people do not wish life to be an adventure, they wish it to be a nice, slow descent. Most people are far more interested in comfort than they are in adventure, in escape rather than engagement.
What about on a purely social level?
How—how do, how do you separate these? A society is made up of people who run their society based upon their own needs, and how they wish to participate. If we have people who do not wish to be living in an adventuresome society, we end up with reactionary know-nothing dodos, which has been happening for quite a while in this country. You can't separate the two, they're desperately related!
What are your feelings on the current war on drugs in America? Are you interested in writing about this subject?
I'm less interested in addressing specific things than I am in addressing the kind of people we are that permit certain things to happen. Now, for example, there would be no drug problem in the United States if people did not want to take drugs. Right? So, really the way to address the drug problem is to create a society in which people do not want to take drugs. The people who take drugs are the people who are affluent and the people who are very poor. Right? People with money and people without money. That seems to be the division in our society, there being no middle ground anymore; people have money, people don't have money. People are enfranchised, people are disenfranchised in this society.
You have to make the people who have the money, who do drugs on a social level, want to participate so much in their lives that they don't want the escape of the drugs. Now, the people who are poor and desperate and are using drugs because reality is too hideous to tolerate—you've got to create a society in which they don't have to live in those conditions. If you accomplish both of those things there'd be absolutely no drug problem in this country.
The drug program the Bush Administration has put forward as I see it is spending infinitely too little money on alleviating the poverty in this country. You can take care of 9/10ths of the drug problem in this country by creating a society in which you don't have so many desperate, disenfranchised minority poor. The Bush Administration gives the impression that they are much more interested in solving the drug problems of the upper middle class white kids. And it strikes me as being ultimately, if not phoney, then certainly badly misdirected.
Let me ask you this since I think it ties in to what you've just said in a roundabout way. Your characters, versus those of a playwright like O'Neill or Williams, are always aware of the illusion they are creating around themselves. They admit that they invent an illusionary life. Do you think it is sometimes better to live life as a self-inflicted illusion rather than survive the day-by-day realities of it?
Well, obviously I prefer that people not have false illusions and that they participate completely in their own lives! The majority of my plays are about people who are deluded—consciously or unconsciously, in one way or another. And I want to say "Do it!" Shake 'em. "Stop it! Do it!"
Do you have any comments or predictions about the future of theatre and your role in it?
Oh, I don't know. I'm not a crystal ball gazer.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3373
SOURCE: "What's New at the Zoo? Rereading Edward Albee's American Dream(s) and Nightmares," in Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, edited by June Schlueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989, pp. 183-91.
[In the following essay, Pearlman studies what she terms Albee's bitter, negative, and harsh treatment of women in The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and The Sandbox.]
To reread Edward Albee's one-act play The Zoo Story (1958) is to reexperience the caustic, cryptic vision of an angry playwright thirty years after the play was performed (1959), in German, in Berlin.
The Zoo Story is a two-character dialogue of male strangers, both locked in rigidly defined "male" roles, with the resonately Christian names of Jerry (Jeremiah?) and Peter, whose chance encounter on a bench in Central Park provokes a clash of dichotomous visions of power, space, and society. Jerry is an antagonizing but isolated vagrant, whose life has been, in his opinion, short-circuited, if not exploded, by women. He lives in a West Side rooming house populated by "a colored queen" in a Japanese kimono, "who always keeps his door open … when he's plucking his eyebrows," a Puerto Rican family in "the two front rooms," a "lady … on the third floor [who] … cries all the time," and a landlady who is a "fat, ugly, mean, stupid, unwashed, misanthropic, cheap, drunken bag of garbage." He is a man out of society and out of control. Peter is Albee's archetypal insider, insulated but vacuous, who "wears tweeds, smokes a pipe, carries horn-rimmed glasses," and lives in the East Seventies with "one wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets," a fifties man who predates the culture clashes and role definitions of the sixties.
The women in this play appear only through the twisted memories of Jerry or the innocent reflections of Peter. All stereotypical characterizations of women, however, do appear, and, filtered largely through the mixed-up memories of Jerry, they emerge full force, tumbling into the hostile atmosphere of Albee's anti-female universe. That has been described as the product of a homosexual tirade, an American absurdist tableau, or a fragmented conversation about the inability of humans to communicate, locked as they are in racial, social, economic, and gender no-exit zones. As in Albee's later plays, these women are powerful and pathetic, damaging or deranged, vulgar and vicious, impinging on the spaces of men with damaging regularity.
Jerry speaks first about his now dead "good old Mom" who "embarked on an adulterous turn of our southern states," the anti-earth mother as slut and alcoholic, whose "most constant companion … among others, among many others … was a Mr. Barleycorn." She is the prototypical Albee female—a symbol of betrayal, lust, and debasement—always the victimizer even when she seems helpless. The characterization is made more vicious and inexorable by its implied contrast to the usual explication of mother figure as dependable, sacrificing saint, a role usually created and then derogated by male writers. The strong implication is that she is responsible for Jerry's preoccupation with whores, the "pretty little ladies" whom he never sees "more than once" since he's "never been able to have sex with, or, how is it put?… make love to anybody more than once." And, he adds, "puberty was late … I was a h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l- … queer, queer, queer" for "eleven days … with the park superintendent's son." Mother love, in American fiction and drama frequently the source of emotionally crippled and childish or brutal heroes, is, in its absence, the genesis of a character similarly crippled who deserts his prostitutes as his mother deserted him. American literature is littered with the corpses of men who have been smothered by affection; here we are presented with the unmothered vision. "Good Old Mom" has a sister "who was given neither to sin nor the consolation of the bottle," who "did all things dourly: sleeping, eating, working, praying. She dropped dead on the stairs to her apartment … on the afternoon of my high school graduation. A terribly middle-European joke …" The untainted saint who never strays replaces the tainted sinner who always strays, but she also betrays Jerry by her emotional absence and inconvenient death. She is in attendance, but absent, and proves to be a disappointing mother figure who disappears in a dramatic and arbitrary moment, as did "Good Old Mom." The aunt is Albee's stereotypical version of the enervated, long-suffering woman as silent sufferer whose most lasting legacy is an unloved and empty male victim who feels betrayed, in different ways, by her sacrificial approach to reality. And Jerry is annoyed by her, and hostile to her memory, because her role as sacrificer and saint figure is part of his emotional powerlessness and his sense of social impotence. "Good Old Mom" and her sister are followed by the previously mentioned "lady living on the third floor, in the front." Her crying is "muffled, but … very determined. Very determined indeed," an unnamed Greek chorus of one, ostensibly helpless, because her response to life is unexplained weeping. She evokes in the reader neither pity nor pathos, nor is Jerry interested in finding out the source of her pain. In fact, her helplessness annoys him and reminds him of his own pain. But she serves as direct contrast to Jerry's central antagonist, the landlady (and her dog), "the gatekeeper[s]" of rooming house as Hell, whose trademark is vulgarity and who does not conveniently keep her pain behind closed doors. Jerry tells Peter that after "she's had her mid-afternoon pint of lemon-flavored gin she always stops me in the hall … presses her disgusting body up against me to keep me in a corner … The smell of her body and her breath … you can't imagine it." The landlady is a comic figure who lusts not only after Jerry but also after recognition, contact, and acceptance. In her daily, self-induced stupor, she cannot distinguish between reality and illusion. Jerry says that he has "found a way to keep her off. When … she presses herself to my body and mumbles about her room and how I should come there, I merely say: but, Love; wasn't yesterday enough for you, and the day before?… a simple-minded smile begins to form on her unthinkable face, and she giggles and groans as she thinks about yesterday and the day before; as she believes and relives what never happened. Then, she motions to that black monster of a dog she has, and she goes back to her room. And I am safe until our next meeting." The landlady is one of Albee's most unattractive women (she has plenty of competition for this dubious honor), and it is difficult to sympathize with her in a culture in which we are socialized to detest the licentious, out-of-control female. Actually, her out-of-control behavior is less damaging than Jerry's, but it is perceived as more detestable because it emanates from a woman.
When Jerry mixes rat poison into the hamburgers with which he tries secretly and unsuccessfully to neutralize the dog's power over him and to increase his power over the dog, the landlady turns from obnoxious aggressor to a "sniveling" antagonist who begs Jerry to "pray for the animal." The dog, which Jerry calls "malevolence with an erection," eventually recovers its former malicious state, having learned nothing about power. The landlady "recovered her thirst, in no way altered by the bowwow's deliverance." The dog returns to his previously vicious state, the landlady to her bottle, and Jerry to his nether-nether world where "neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves … the two combined … are the teaching emotion. And what is gained is loss."
The stereotypical woman as materialist and manipulator surfaces in Jerry's allusions to Peter's wife. She is unnamed, but in Jerry's eyes she is both powerful and incomplete. "… you're not going to have any more kids, are you?" says Jerry. "Is it your wife?" "That's none of your business!" Peter replies in fury, but adds: "Well, you're right. We'll have no more children." She is another woman who has failed, having produced two daughters but no sons. Peter points out that this is determined genetically, but he absorbs Jerry's accusatory point of view, although he knows that, scientifically, it is a ridiculous charge. They do have two cats. "But, that can't be your idea. No, sir. Your wife and daughters? (Peter nods his head)."
Peter's wife is in charge of one of the three demarcated spaces, or zoos, that Albee creates. She serves as zookeeper of the East Side apartment, a civilized institution of children, family, and jobs that marks the parameter of Peter's world. The landlady guards the gates of one rooming house-as-zoo that symbolizes the lonely, entrapping spaces of the societally displaced, most of whom are females or male homosexuals. The park becomes a symbolic microcosm of society as zoo, where dissimilarly caged animals, including the human variety, exist guardedly in an antagonistic state. All space delineations are limited and defined—the East Side apartment, the West Side rooming house, and the park bench over which the final, fatal fight occurs. The bench represents both safety and freedom to Peter; it is his space away from space. As he says, "… I see no reason why I should give up this bench. I sit on this bench almost every Sunday afternoon, in good weather. It's secluded here; there's never anyone sitting here, so I have it all to myself." For Jerry, the bench is initially an object of power and control ("Get off this bench, Peter; I want it"), a concrete symbol of his attempt to manipulate and dominate Peter and to become the chief zookeeper of the park as society. He sees the bench as part of his effort to make contact, to communicate, to be acknowledged at any cost. His efforts to jar Peter into acknowledging him and the encounters over the bench are replicated in his encounters with the dog. The setting changes—Jerry in the rooming house, the zoo, the park—but the common denominator of all three encounters is violence and encoded brutality. He is fierce and friendless, but there is something here that feminists who examine the silent loneliness of brutalized women will recognize—the desperate and pathetic need to be heard and to have that pain assuaged. How Jerry forces Peter to listen is part of what Emory Lewis called a "masochistic-sadistic interplay … [which reflects] a murky, homosexual milieu," with Jerry as the male partner and Peter playing the part of diffident, nonaggressive female, moving at Jerry's insistence into a smaller, more limited space (the end of the bench). Then he is trapped, defenseless, furious, and helpless. He says: "… I'm a responsible person, and I'm a GROWNUP. This is my bench, and you have no right to take it away from me." Similarly, the landlady's dog has been appropriating the space of the hallway, making Jerry into a defenseless, furious, and helpless victim.
The play ends as Jerry impales himself on his own knife that Peter is holding "with a firm arm, but far in front of him, not to attack, but to defend," and with Jerry's words: "Peter … Peter?… Peter … thank you. I came unto you (He laughs, so faintly) and you have comforted me. Dear Peter," and his final assurances to Peter that "you're not really a vegetable … you're an animal." These words have evocative New Testament and sexual overtones intertwined. The new designation was won apparently through Peter's inadvertent involvement with violence. What Jerry is saying is that Peter is no longer acting like a woman—at least an Albee woman—who deserts ship (bench), drops dead, silently weeps, or lives in a hermetic or fantasy world.
This play has often been said to be about alienation and the noncommunication that signifies the mechanized, urbanized, supposedly civilized western world. But in a feminist rereading, it is also an American absurdist work that, in its anger, displays all the usual stereotypical visions of women and enlarges the endless canon of plays, stories, and novels that agonize over the predicaments of men by further diminishing the emotional, sexual, and spiritual needs of women.
The American Dream, first performed in 1961, is a showcase for the four characters who also appear in The Sandbox (1960), a fourteen-minute sketch. Both plays are "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."
Twenty-eight years later, in 1989, American society is still not "peachy-keen," having endured, if not improved, through decades of Vietnam scar tissue, a generation of yuppies, and thirty years of ardent consumerism. America as marketplace has recently been elevated to an art form by eight years of a Washington glitzkrieg defined more by style than substance. Because it is American society in the fifties that Albee marks as "vapid, barren, and sterile … absurd and meaningless," The American Dream is both current and dated. For example, Albee would undoubtedly find plenty of material for act 2 in the hostile takeovers, Love Canals, AIDS epidemic, bridges falling down across America, insider trading scams, and drug-infested streets of the eighties to make the point again that noncommunication, artificiality, and false values are corruptive and destructive. But almost thirty years later, in a feminist rereading, it is doubtful that any audience will so blithely accept Mommy, Mrs. Barker, and Grandma, an odious triumvirate, as the matriarchal Murder, Inc. of the family and its natural legacy, society.
Mommy, who is emasculating, efficient ("I can get satisfaction, but you can't") and cruel, is Albee's bad (American) dream, reducing Daddy, with snarls and sarcasm, to pathetic impotence. She is invested by Albee with tremendous power; Daddy is divested of energy and masculinity. Daddy is vague, respectful, and boring ("I am paying attention, Mommy"), like an over-disciplined child: rich but not powerful, an unlikely specimen in the U.S.A., where money and options are natural soulmates. He has been reduced by Mommy to the role of supplicant and cipher. As Mommy announces blatantly, "I have a right to live off of you because I married you, and because I used to let you get on top of me and bump your uglies; and I have a right to all your money when you die." "And aren't you lucky all I brought with me was Grandma. A lot of women I know would have brought their whole families to live off you. All I brought was Grandma." Daddy's role now is to put up with "it" and to shut up about it.
The problem with Mommy as female victimizer figure for the eighties is that few women in the audience want or expect to earn a gold Bloomingdale's charge card for thirty years of sexual service, and there are happily few, if any, men who would make this unspeakable, if unspoken, contract. In the eighties, Mommy's exaggerated power and manipulative skills would not be wasted on an unattractive wimp like Daddy but would most probably find their natural outlet on the playing fields of Wall Street, in board rooms of America, or in Silicon Valleys coast to coast. Woman as bloodsucking vampire figure is passé, although mothers, wives, and matriarchs are still suspect.
Mrs. Barker, a hermaphroditic screamer, "the chairman [sic] of your woman's club," is presented as an amoral pimpette who delivers "bumbles." ("… I'm such a busy girl, with this committee and that committee, and the Responsible Citizens Activities I indulge in." The "bumbles," i.e., male babies, represent innocence and love and are delivered by her from the "Bye-Bye Adoption Service" to the Mommys and Daddys of America. Mrs. Barker is deeply committed, of course, like Mommy, to the unimportant non-issues—like the color of her hat. She is a veritable chargé d'affaires of the triviality and insensitivity of women à la Albee. ("What an unattractive apartment you have!", etc.) To quote Mommy, "She's a dreadful woman, you don't know her; she has dreadful taste, two dreadful children, a dreadful house, and an absolutely adorable husband who sits in a wheel chair all the time … She's just a dreadful woman, but she is chairman of our woman's club, so naturally I'm terribly fond of her."
Grandma, who is "feeble-headed" and "cries every time she goes to the johnny as it is," has spent the last twenty years of widowhood as an unpaid live-in servant to Mommy and Daddy. She is buried alive in The Sandbox and is immured in a sea of boxes in The American Dream. Grandma is a pitiful figure. ("Old people are very good at listening; old people don't like to talk; old people have colitis and lavender perfume.") She is waiting for the arrival of the imaginary "van people" for a journey to an unnamed oblivion, the natural repository of the aged in Albee's U.S.A. They are expendable, dispensable, and disposable. As she says, "Old people aren't dry enough, I suppose. My sacks are empty, the fluid in my eyeballs is all caked on the inside edges, my spine is made of sugar candy, I breathe ice … old people are gnarled and sagged and twisted into the shape of a complaint." Her life, which consists of "some old letters, a couple of regrets … Pekinese … blind at that … the television … my Sunday teeth … eighty-six years of living …," is packed in boxes in the smaller, confined spaces almost always associated with women in American literature, and the spaces get smaller and more confining as her victimization nears completion.
The three women, therefore, epitomize the worst stereotypes of American females—Mommy is the evil, all-powerful emasculator; Mrs. Barker is the déclassé, intellectually vacant instigator; and Grandma is the pathetic, ill-used, and nameless saint figure—Albee's offering of a treacherous trinity of female fates fatale.
The two men, of course, are victims, and more importantly they are innocents. ("You're the American Dream, that's what you are.") They are not party to the materialism and tawdriness that Albee is trying correctly to deride. Daddy's worst sin is that he has turned into an incompetent vegetable who "has tubes now, where he used to have tracts." This is hardly a surprising turn of events in an Albee Mommy-world dominated by an egregious stereotype, the Rambo of domesticity gone wrong. The Young Man, who represents what Albee believes America most adores—youth, beauty, and a modicum of brainpower—who will "do almost anything for money," recalls the sensory potential lost in the same way that a money-maddened, commercialized society devalues whatever cannot be arbitraged or sold short. The "bumble," we are told, had its eyes gouged metaphorically right out of its head; it cried its heart out, its eyes, heart, tongue, and hands were sacrificed, but "first, they cut off its you-know-what," and "it finally up and died." The Young Man is the twin of his castrated, blind, and adopted brother, the empty American ideal, the "bumble of joy" provided by Mrs. Barker. "I no longer," he says, "have the capacity to feel anything. I have no emotions. I have been drained, torn asunder … disemboweled … I am incomplete … I can feel nothing … And it will always be thus."
The point is that there is no mattress beneath the American dream, and the sleeper is caught in an unending nightmare of vulgarity and crassness. For many theatergoers, that part of Albee's vision may still ring true. His implicit idea, however, is that the malignancies ("I do wish I weren't surrounded by women …") that pervade the American experience stem from the confused, craven, or contemptible influence of women. Women as enemies of the Dream is merely empty bombast, an outdated, outlandish vision of an angry young man of the sixties. In a feminist rereading, Mommy, Grandma, and Mrs. Barker seem to be only overblown cartoon characters who predate what has been learned in the last twenty-eight years about the victimization of women and the pain of men. The American Dream is only a familiar, if painful, artifact of the historically long-lived vision of women as the progenitors and perpetuators of the end of Paradise and the decimators and destroyers of the potentially utopian ideal.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 965
SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 46, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 541-3.
[In the following review, Faux provides a laudatory assessment of Three Tall Women.]
Edward Albee's third Pulitzer prize-winning play Three Tall Women is a meditation on a woman's life and mortality cleverly viewed from three different stages (no pun intended) of life: youth, middle age, and old age. In the first act, a woman known only as "A," played splendidly by English actress Myra Carter, who originated the role at Vienna's English Theatre in June 1991 (see Theatre Journal, 44: 251-52), is a stately and very rich powerhouse trying to come to terms with her diminished powers—physical, mental, and emotional.
As is usual in Albee plays, what is clear is also often contradictory. A's character being no exception, she was born to a lower-middle class family, to parents who may, or may not, have been overly strict, or overly permissive. In any event, they send her to live in New York City. Her mission: To marry rich. Because A has no fortune of her own, her choices are limited, and she ends up marrying a rich, short, one-eyed man whose wit and fortune are real enough but whose social cachet is obviously yet to be determined by her. By her own account, A does her job admirably, and she and her husband end up an American version of horsey country gentry.
A is attended by a crone named B, "crone" being the only word to describe Marian Seldes' first-act performance as A's solicitous (but perhaps malicious), mostly kind (but perhaps cruel) caretaker.
Also present when the play opens is a beautiful young lawyer—C—who has come to visit in order to lecture A on her financial affairs. (She's played by Jordan Baker.) With her beauty and youth, C is incapable of either sympathy or empathy, unable to imagine that she could ever turn into a peevish, impotent old woman. She's impatient at having to listen to the reminiscences of A, even though A was once a great beauty like herself.
Act 1 ends abruptly when A suffers a stroke in mid-sentence. In a wonderful kind of reversal of fates that can only happen in the theatre, in act 2 C does become A—at a slightly insipid and narcissistic twenty-six years of age. The only surprise from her is her determination to have a little fun before she settles down to a marriage that she openly acknowledges will be more about business than love. Carter's character becomes herself about twenty years earlier, still spritely and full of a kind of wisdom that had abandoned her in act 1. Most miraculously, B is transformed into A in sumptuous middle age, a woman truly in her prime. The women spar with one another to show what really happened, or should have happened, in their lives.
If a middle-aged A had the best perspective, an elderly A is the most contemplative, the most capable of parsing out what exactly it was that she accomplished—or failed to accomplish. She no longer cares about the luxurious surroundings she's spent her entire life struggling to obtain, and in fact is no longer sure the struggle was worth it: "It's all glitter," she observes. But her young self disagrees: "No, it's tangible proof we're valued."
This is a highly personal play. In countless interviews, Albee has said he wrote it as a kind of exorcism of his adoptive mother, who, he claims, never learned to like, let alone love him. If so, he appears to have come to terms with their relationship, including how she lived her life, and even manages to be quite generous toward her—and by extension, to other women like her. While making the point that this is a world where all women are kept in one way or another, he still manages to see what it took for her to survive. "They all hated me because I was strong," A recalls. "Strong and tall."
Albee is especially empathic to the middle-aged A. In our ageist society, where a woman's power is widely viewed as declining in direct proportion to her age (and diminishing beauty), he introduces a novel idea, namely, that age fifty can be as satisfying to a woman as to a man. Age fifty really was the best time, an elegantly mid-life Marian Seldes pronounces, the only time when "you're really happy," when you "get a 360-degree view" of your life.
James Noone has designed a set that is appropriately Park Avenue WASP—heavy draperies; a small French chair; a large, well-dressed bed; lush fabrics; and small pillows laden with fringe and braid. It all implies a sort of order than cannot be invaded by the outside world—although in this play, it is indeed order, of a most personal sort, that is crumbling before our eyes. At various times, both C and B (the latter playing a middle-aged A) smooth the fringe on the same pillow. To the elderly A, though, the pillow no longer symbolizes anything. Order in her life now boils down to her daily struggle against the ravages of a weak bladder.
For a playwright who has built a career around challenging audiences with his minimalism and obscurantism, it's ironic that Albee's two most successful plays, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Three Tall Women, are his most accessible and also his most traditional, more so in their staging but also in their language and ideas. Can it be that his adoptive mother's death has freed him to confront his demons more directly than he has done in past plays? Like Tennessee Williams, the family—his family—hás always been his great subject, but rarely has he managed to write about it with so little personal rancor.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1974
SOURCE: "An Elegy for Thwarted Vision: Edward Albee's The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life," in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 143-7.
[In the following essay, Luere examines The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life, in which, he asserts, Albee presents "an elegy for an artist's thwarted vision."]
For over three decades, Edward Albee's controversial drama has kept him in the critical and public consciousness. With self-assurance, Albee has disregarded commercial pressure, experimented with dramatic form, and thrust innovative theater at his audiences. How natural, now, to find Albee evolving a play on artistic freedom. His present venture, The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life, is more than a political or social tract; it is an elegy for an artist's thwarted vision.
The play's protagonist, Federico Garcia Lorca (c. 1900–1936), was the Spanish poet-playwright executed during the Fascist reign of General Francisco Franco. With two acts, ten scenes, and pageant-like structure, Albee takes us inside the soul of a casualty. Still in progress, the play dramatizes Albee's views on the thwarting of Lorca's literary vision by state and church throughout Franco's forty-year reign. Lorca had written his "unorthodox" poetry and plays when censorship momentarily lessened with the birth of the short-lived Second Republic (proclaimed in 1931). Without being an agit-prop piece, the drama is in part a polemic on the plight of artists in a culture that restricts and censors their work. Albee gives Lorca an appeal to us to feel the pain of curbed creativity: "Do you know what it's like to be me."
Like Albee's Three Tall Women, whose script was written in 1991 but kept "in progress" until 1994, his Lorca Play will proceed to commercial venues when Albee deems it ready. The play was commissioned in 1992 by the Houston International Festival Committee for its "Centennial Celebration of Spain and the New World"; the project also entailed a trip to Spain for Albee's research on Lorca's life. Audiences applauded the Festival production for its freshness and relevance to our own culture's problems with censorship and diversity. The critics' reaction was mixed, some finding the play "timely and apt," "stirring and evocative," others hoping to view it again when Albee completes his "fleshing-out of characters and relationships."
Rather than belabor us with didactic monologues on repression, Albee uses parody to approach the parallels between Lorca's culture and our own. With Franco on stage in military uniform and the Cardinal in formal vestment, Albee's script quips, "Don't lose sight of them … it's people like that who run the world—people who define our faith, who give us our identity." Albee's lines alert us that "they" could be anywhere: "Sometimes they don't wear those uniforms; sometimes a suit and tie does them just fine; sometimes a suit and tie does them even better." Houston critics picked up on the parallels: one wrote that Franco's denunciation of Lorca's work "could have been lifted from a stump speech damning the N.E.A.'s funding of obscene and outside-the-mainstream art"; another critic echoed him, recalling "America's current art wars" in which writers had to "fend off attacks on their artistic content." Albee's action shows both Franco and the Catholic Cardinal harassing Lorca: Franco loathes his writing for its jabs at totalitarian rule, and the Cardinal threatens to excommunicate him for non-standard religious concepts.
Albee's play spans Lorca's life from childhood to sudden death. To stage the writer's hapless altercations with the church and state, a three-level set is used: the stage floor for the play's action, a mid-level with small platforms reached by stairs at either side of the stage, and, above continuing stairs, a catwalk extending across the stage. Albee places characters on levels appropriate to their relevance in the play's gruesome central conflict. General Franco and his Aide-de-Camp sit or stand on the top level Stage Left, and on the right, the Catholic Cardinal and his priest, where all sit in judgment on the thoughts, activities, and writings of the poet-playwright on the stage below. Our concentration shifts when spots go up or down on the catwalk or lower levels where Lorca, his family, and the play's ensemble actors mingle.
To give the audience a full acquaintance with his protagonist, Albee wants us "to see all of Lorca, not just the statue," to perceive him as "sad, funny, and even just plain silly," and to follow him from his youth to his death at thirty-six. For this purpose, Albee's script abandons Joseph Wood Krutch's concept of "an identifiable and continuous self" for the role of Lorca. Albee had first envisioned three actors to depict the protagonist at different ages. Even before rehearsals, the playwright's careful objectivity led him to simplify the concept to two rather than three characters—Young Lorca and Lorca-as-adult—who often must appear on stage simultaneously. At times, they appear with their family, friends and figures from Spanish culture; in other scenes, while Young Lorca remains on stage, Adult Lorca must appear to cross the world, watch the Wall Street crash, dance with Cubans, then reappear abruptly in his home environment. The dialogue Albee has written for the two Lorcas reveals the love of the earth that lies in Lorca's poems and plays. Phrases like "the taste of blood and soil in my mouth," "a rip in the skin of the earth," show Lorca's immersion in nature, his blending of "poetic imagery with primitive passions"; many lines come from the pages of Blood Wedding (1933) and Yerma (1934), dramas considered "the finest Spanish works since the Golden Age."
To acquaint us with the culture that shaped Lorca as person and artist, Albee's scenes reach toward the land and people of Spain, "the country which birthed him … and the country which killed him." In action on the set's floor level, we see Young Lorca following the plow in Granada's country side; we watch as Adult Lorca's spirited thoughts and antics upset distinguished friends and mentors like Salvador Dali and Manuel DeFalla; and we learn for ourselves that famous writers are human. Lorca meets and loses lovers, succeeds and fails with poems and plays. In the action, we also view comic and tragic scenes from Lorca's plays with actresses portraying Lola Membrives and Margarita Zirgu, famous Lorca thespians of the 1930s. Albee's dramatic choices disclose his protagonist's love of surrealism, symbolism, naturalism and his active involvement in theater and folklore.
To lift us over spans of time and space in the play's action, Albee has chosen an omniscient Narrator to stand at the set's mid-level platform and see all. With the heads of church and state high above the stage, he can get them out of our way by calling up, "You four go into limbo now," at which their space darkens until the playwright wants them back into action at an earlier (or later) chronological period. Then the Narrator will call, "You can come back now," and we move on undismayed through the years in which Franco and the Cardinal had inveighed against Lorca's artistic freedom, taken away his life, and for decades thereafter, hidden his literary legacy. At one point the Narrator may lean from his platform to point toward the boy on the first level, and reassure viewers that "The young Lorca stays with us of course … doesn't our young self always stay with us—lurk around the edges of our consciousness?" Albee's research in Spain confirmed the author's child-like nature; a Lorca letter reads, "In the depths of my being is a powerful desire to be a little child, very humble and very retiring."
Albee also uses his Narrator in droll scenes to mock the bogus ethics of the self-righteous clergy. When Act II begins, with Cardinal and Priest missing from their places near Franco and his Aide, the Narrator looks off, stage-right, and barks, "Would you two get out here, please?"; and his Aide suggests, "I think it's what they might have been doing." When the upbraided two slip in and begin to mount the stairs, we see the Cardinal "buttoning the front of his gown, followed by the Priest, pulling down the back of his gown," and we hear the Cardinal mutter, "All right! For heaven's sake." Although Albee tastefully keeps all other scenes between Cardinal and Priest (and between Lorca and his acknowledged intimates) tightly restrained rather than emotionally flamboyant, here he lets us smile very mildly at the hypocrisy of the church's ban on diversity.
To deride the states' brutal drive for conformity, Albee gives Franco and his Aide street-and-gutter-level language. When Franco offers asinine excuses for eliminating dissenters, Albee lets him brag coarsely that after he "saved the country from itself," there were "some people [who] just didn't make the cut, if you catch my drift … weren't worth talking about anymore…." When the Narrator objects, "Oh, I see … so Lorca's name vanished, eh?… his poems taken out of print," Franco replies, "Yeah, like that. He wasn't worth the trouble … Who cares? Commie faggot!"
It was Lorca's theater work that deviated most pointedly from the state's main-line precepts. Albee's script sets up inescapable parallels, albeit unlabeled by Albee, with his own plight in the 1960s when a Pulitzer committee rejected Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for supposedly offensive language and content. The criticism and publicity that Albee received at the time, though similarly unfair and damaging, proved less irrevocable, eventually, than the censorship Lorca faced for his unique dramas. In The Lorca Story, Albee has an actor refer to a news report that charged Lorca with "perverting the peasants" through staged displays "of shameful promiscuity … of free love," and with "obedience to the dictates of Jewish Marxism, free love, and communism." Albee's Franco explicitly names the actors "atheists" and "homosexuals." Historically, Lorca had become active in the group to revive the "rancid and stagnant" Spanish theater from its "dead reproductions of the classics and escapist junk"; he preferred "theater for the people, about them." His insistence that theater "should immerse itself in the problems assailing humanity" resembles Albee's own drive for fresh and useful theater in the early 1960s. From start to finish, Albee's through-line for The Lorca Play is that Lorca's haunting, idealistic vision for theater was political poison for him in a Fascist country that subordinated the individual—creative artist or not—to the combined will of church and state.
To mock the inescapable outcome of church and state collusion, Albee gives amusing scenes with the Cardinal toadying to the overbearing egoism of Franco. Albee's dialogue lets Franco boast to the Cardinal, "My mother was a saint!", to which the Cardinal mumbles only, "She was?" But Franco quickly insists, "You don't think my mother was a saint?" The fawning Cardinal replies, "I do, I do … if you say she was a saint, she was a saint!" At another spot, Albee ridicules the church's subservience to the state by forcing Franco to overhear the Narrator's jest, "There's talk of making Isabella a Saint … shows you what a few good works can do!" (In Spain's early years, Isabella is said to have ordered her country's gypsies, Jews, and Arabs, "Convert or be killed!")
To end this requiem on the thwarting of Lorca's vision by political pressures, Albee chooses as his backdrop a full-sized canvas facsimile of Goya's "Executions of the Third of May." His choice broadens the relevance of Lorca's execution. Goya's canvas displays a group of Madrilenos facing a firing squad, with one young man flinging up his arms in opposition to the soldiers. Conceivably, the man could have cried out "This isn't fair!" By creating on stage a mirror of the Goya masterpiece, Albee dramatizes Spain's tragic loss: a lifetime of productivity from a literary giant. This finale confirms Albee's grasp of art and history, and heaps philosophical weight onto artists' protests against the narrowness of political and social repression—"This isn't fair."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540
SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 799-80.
[In the following review, Hutchings examines Three Tall Women, comparing it to works by Samuel Beckett.]
Identified only as B and C, two of the three tall women of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama are engaged in a deathwatch for the third, the ninety-two-year-old, bedridden, bitingly sarcastic A. B, according to Albee's production notes, "looks rather as A would have at 52," while C "looks rather as B would have at 26." In the first act the three are distinctly separate characters, generationally different but sometimes overcoming their mutual incomprehensions. The second act, however, perpetrates an intriguing, Pirandellolike change: the three generations represented on stage are no longer three separate people in the room at one time but one person at three separate ages in her life. As in the first act, though from an entirely different and newly subjective perspective, the women's interactions and mutual interrogations mingle past and present, youth and age, memory and desire.
Albee's three-page introduction provides particularly candid insights into his personal animus—in both senses of that word. The character of A is based on
… my adoptive mother, whom I knew from infancy … until her death over sixty years later…. We had managed to make each other very unhappy over the years…. 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 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.
Nevertheless, he insists, the play is neither a "revenge play" nor a search for "self-catharsis."
With its relatively static dramatic form, its thanatopsic subject matter, and some of its specific imagery, Three Tall Women has strong affinities with a number of Samuel Beckett's shorter plays. The second act's poignant juxtaposition of past and present selves resembles Krapp's Last Tape, though Albee depicts them as physical presences on stage rather than as a technologically evoked absence—and each can interrogate the others. The voices of Beckett's That Time are similarly identified as A, B, and C and are all the single character's own, coming from three distinct points in the darkness; the presence of the women for the deathwatch also suggests, in varying ways, Footfalls, Rockaby, and Come and Go. After much weeping (which Beckett's characters never do) and after talk of "going on" (that most familiar Beckettian refrain), A, dying, attains "the point where you can think about yourself in the third person without being crazy"—as in Beckett's Not 1. In the final speech of Albee's play, A concludes that life's "happiest moment" is "coming to the end of it [her own existence]"—attaining (perhaps) the oblivion for which, futilely, many of Beckett's characters yearn.
With its realistic set of "a 'wealthy' bedroom" rather than the ominous darkness of the Beckettian void, with characters of a specific and privileged social class, Three Tall Women domesticates the dramatic territories that Beckett so relentlessly, evocatively, and innovatively explored. They have now been made accessible and—in every sense—plain.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623
SOURCE: "The Habit and the Hatred," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4880, October 11, 1996, p. 23.
[In the following excerpt of a review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Campbell surveys the history of the play.]
It is worth remembering, while enduring the three-and-a-half hour comic nightmare of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that the play emerged from the Theatre of the Absurd. Albee's early one-acters, such as Zoo Story and The American Dream (in which a couple have gruesomely disposed of one of their sons in order to fit the picture of the American way of life), suggested a line of inheritance from Adamov and Ionesco. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, written in 1961 and first performed in the following year, was a departure: a well-made play, with a domestic setting, replete with wider references from the "world of ideas", particularly relating to science and civilization. In spite of its surface naturalism, however, the underlying spirit of this play draws on the farcical despair of Albee's dramatic mentors as much as his earlier work. It is the Theatre of the Absurd brought to your own fireside. In George and Martha's perfectly plausible living-room, where the young and innocent guests (innocent until now, that is) are introduced to the party games, Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests and Hump the Hostess, things get so mad and bad that the audience thinks they cannot get worse—whereupon they do.
The ghost of childhood dominates Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is, of course, the play about bringing up the baby that doesn't exist—the "son" on whom Martha dotes and about whom she insists on boasting to the guests. The younger couple, Nick and Honey, have problems of their own, what with hysterical pregnancies and induced miscarriages. Yet each of the four principals is trapped in childhood, unable to grow up. The playwright has pursued variations on this theme ever since, from The American Dream (1960), where the child doesn't exist because it has been cut to pieces, to Three Tall Women (1991), a semi-autobiographical work with a dominant non-speaking part given to a young man who is seated by the bedside of his estranged, now dying, mother. Albee's latest, according to the programme for this production, is actually called The Play about the Baby.
Who's Afraid … is also, less happily, the play about Western Civilization. The war between George and Martha rages side by side with another, between George, the professor of history, and the new-generation biology teacher Nick, whose personal and professional vigour greatly interest Martha. There can be few people who have left a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? talking about its allusions to Spengler and Anatole France's novel Penguin Island (1908), a proto-Brave New World fantasy in which science would rule over human choice (for which read: Nick will rule over George). This perennially topical theme seems tired and affected in the play, as do further intended enlargements of the couples' discontents, signalled by the fact that George and Martha share Christian names with the first American President and his wife, and that the campus on which the men teach is called "New Carthage".
It is, rather, as a portrait of a marriage that Who's Afraid … has secured a place in the modern repertoire….
It is unusual for a play's success to be measured against a cinematic version, but so it is with productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which are inevitably compared to Mike Nichols's 1966 film, with its famed performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Though it makes good viewing, the film relied on a truncated and altered script, with an added outdoors sequence, which fails to entrap the audience in the long night's journey into day of a good theatrical production.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 260
Campos, Carlos. "The Role of Beyond the Forest in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Literature/Film Quarterly 22, No. 3 (1994): 170-3.
Studies the significance of the film Beyond the Forest in terms of character, theme, and plot.
Herr, Denise Dick. "The Tophet at New Carthage: Setting in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" English Language Notes XXXIII, No. 1 (September 1995): 63-71.
Discusses the degree to which the ancient city of Carthage and classical myths inform the setting of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Kerjan, Liliane. "Pure and Simple: The Recent Plays of Edward Albee." In New Essays on American Drama, edited by Gilbert Debusscher and Henry I. Schvey, pp. 99-108. Atlanta, GA, and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989.
Examines The Lady from Dubuque, Listening, and Counting the Ways.
Luere, Jeane. A review of Sand. Theatre Journal 46, No. 4 (December 1994): 543-44.
A favorable assessment of Sand.
Roth, Philip. "The Play That Dare Not Speak Its Name." New York Review of Books 4, No. 2 (25 February 1965): 4.
Highly negative assessment of Tiny Alice.
Sterling, Eric. "Albee's Satirization of Societal Sterility in America." Studies in Contemporary Satire 14 (1987): 30-9.
Delineates Albee's negative portrayal of American society in The Zoo Story and The American Dream.
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