Edward Albee Albee, Edward (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albee, Edward 1928–

Albee is an American dramatist whose best plays rank among the finest in contemporary theater. The problem of human communication in a world of increasing callousness is a recurrent concern in his works, notably The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee's plays are noted for their powerful language and reveal a fine sense of dramatic tension. He was twice the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama and has also written fiction and poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Rose A. Zimbardo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Somewhat startling is the realization that Albee's are traditional Christian symbols which, despite their modern dress, retain their original significance—or, more precisely, express their original significance in modern terms. The relationship between traditional symbol and naturalistic dialogue, situation and setting is, however, never forced, as it so often is in, say, a Williams' play. (p. 45)

What Albee has written in The Zoo Story is a modern Morality play. The theme is the centuries old one of human isolation and salvation through sacrifice. Man in his natural state is alone, a prisoner of Self. If he succumbs to fear he enforces his isolation in denying it. Pretending that he is not alone, he surrounds himself with things and ideas that bolster the barrier between himself and all other creatures. The good man first takes stock of himself. Once he has understood his condition, realized his animality and the limitations imposed upon him by Self, he is driven to prove his kinship with all other things and creatures, "with a bed, with a cockroach, with a mirror…." (The progression that Jerry describes is Platonic.) In proving this kinship he is extending his boundaries, defying Self, proving his humanity, since the kinship of all nature can be recognized only by the animal who has within him a spark of divinity. He finds at last, if he has been completely truthful in his search, that the only way in which he can smash...

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Henry Hewes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Just as Mr. Albee used the name Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to suggest that the character was related to Nikita Khrushchev and was therefore an exponent of a totalitarian society, so he occasionally enriches moments in Tiny Alice with verbal puzzles. For instance, Julian will paraphrase the words of Jesus, but to interpret Julian as Jesus would be carrying the analogy further than the author intended. On a more realistic level, the playwright reminds us that most religious people relate themselves to Christ in their hallucinations. And he also believes that Julian is like many religiously dedicated people in being subconsciously motivated by sexual repression. (pp. 100-01)

[The] ending may seem more negative than was intended…. [The] sound of heartbeats and heavy breathing as the doors open have been widely misinterpreted as being those of an increasingly terrified Julian, whereas they are meant to belong to whatever comes through the door…. While the author intended the ending to be terrifying, he also wished to leave the audience with two possibilities for Julian: total hallucination or the personification of the abstraction. (pp. 101-02)

[The] playwright wishes the audience would come to Tiny Alice with fewer preconceptions, to experience the play as we experience music. "If you are not a trained musician," he says, "you intuit the structure of the piece by osmosis." Thus, as an author, he is most concerned with construction and with getting the play's musical rhythms right, and he is convinced that if he does this honestly and well, people will respond to the play even if they are confused about it or dislike what they think it says. "What matters is not whether the play coincides with how a critic thinks it should be written, or what a critic thinks of what it says," argues Mr. Albee. "What a critic should tell his reader is how effectively he thinks the play has said whatever it chooses to say."…

[I wonder] if Mr. Albee would have been pleased if someone had called Tiny Alice "a play that unfolds with great skill, whatever the hell it is choosing to say." (p. 105)

Henry Hewes, "The 'Tiny Alice' Caper," in Saturday Review (© 1965 by Saturday Review Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 30, 1965 (and reprinted in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 99-104).

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albee is progressing. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was about the emptiness that surrounds and threatens to swallow our relationships; Tiny Alice was about the void lurking behind our deepest beliefs; now, A Delicate Balance is about the nothingness, the bare nothingness of it all—it is a play about nothing…. [The] nothingness—perhaps more accurately nothingness—of Albee's play is petty, self-indulgent, stationary. Albee's nothing is as dull as anything. (p. 96)

I am tired of this mythical "meaningless world" when the playwright fails to create or suggest any outer world (one isolated reference to income taxes might as well have been to Chinese calligraphy), and when he neglects to indicate what meaningfulness might have been before it got mislaid. This posturing play abounds in the cocktail-party profundities and family-reunion soundings that bloated up Eliot's drama, but at least Eliot was, however flatfootedly, after some sort of myth or metaphysic. (pp. 97-8)

Albee is in love with language, which sets him above your average playwright who does not even realize that language exists, but, for all that, Albee's love affair is sadly one-sided….

But there is a much more profound insensitivity to language at work here, and the more painful since Albee (as he did in Tiny Alice) has one of his characters apologize for his alleged articulateness. But Albee's "articulateness" is either self-conscious poeticism, "When the daylight comes, comes order with it," or long, syntactically overburdened sentences and paragraphs, or putative shockers…. (p. 98)

What, one wonders, was the real motive behind A Delicate Balance? I, for one, still believe in Albee's perceptiveness and even in his talent (he did, after all, write The Zoo Story and Virginia Woolf); why would he hurtle into such utter pointlessness? It occurs to me that, at least since Virginia Woolf, Albee's plays and adaptations have been viewed by many as dealing overtly or covertly with homosexual matters; Albee may have resolved here to write a play reeking with heterosexuality. (p. 99)

John Simon, "'A Delicate Balance'" (1966–67), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975, pp. 96-9.

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Albee's All Over is about the dying of some unnamed and unclassified great man behind a screen in his living room, while in front of the screen his wife, mistress, son, daughter, lawyer, doctor and nurse talk, wrangle, and have an occasional tantrum. The play is so eventless, point-less, and, above all, lifeless that it could actually have been improved by being turned around on its axis. Then, at least, we could have witnessed some hemorrhages, bladder discharges, oscultations, injections, perhaps a death rattle—none of them my idea of drama, but all positively enlivening compared to what we do get.

The anonymous characters this side of the screen, i.e., the supposedly living, have, with the possible exception of the mistress, no more personality than they have names. (pp. 323-24)

The play, I repeat, is about nothing. There is no plot, no problem, no conflict, no character. The dramatis personae are a set of attitudes, and their talk is made up mostly of digressions: about parents and grandparents, gardens and travels, dreams and childhood recollections. And when one of these humanoid nebulae launches on yet another irrelevant reminiscence of an even hazier ancestor, it is like watching a gas being superseded by a vacuum. That leaves language. But language (as opposed to snide or lacerating repartee) is what Albee has always been deficient in—and I don't mean anything as simple as incorrect usage, though there is that too, as when "verbal" is used in the sense of "oral." I mean that this language huffs and puffs and bloats itself up to be poetic, doubles up and contorts itself out of any resemblance to human syntax in order to be distinctive, and sounds in one character's mouth almost exactly as in another's. (p. 324)

Having in his last few plays thoroughly de-dramatized life, Albee now succeeds in taking the dramatic sting out of death. If All Over is anything, it is an argument for euthanasia: had the unseen hero been put to sleep before the writing of the play, the audience would not have been put to sleep—or to the torture—for two hours. (p. 325)

John Simon, "'All Over'" (1971), in his: Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975, pp. 323-26.

C.W.E. Bigsby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Few playwrights can have been so frequently and mischievously misunderstood, misrepresented, overpraised, denigrated, and precipitately dismissed [as Edward Albee]. Canonized after the performance of his first play, The Zoo Story [produced Off-Broadway], he found himself in swift succession billed as America's most promising playwright, leading dramatist, and then, with astonishing suddenness, a "one-hit" writer with nothing to his credit but an ersatz masterpiece patched together from the achievements of other writers. The progression was essentially that suggested by George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, "better, best, bested." (p. 1)

To read the bulk of criticism that Albee's work has inspired is to discover the depths to which abstruse pedantry and the Ph.D. industry can go. And, worse still, a number of sizable red-herrings have been dragged across the path of audience and reader alike by those who wish to see his work as an expression of a particular dramatic movement or pathological condition. (p. 2)

There is no doubt that the Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? provided the basis for Albee's amazing popular reputation; less obviously, but equally certainly, it was also the primary reason for the suspicion with which some reviewers and critics approached his work. For there was a sense in which the move to Broadway seemed a betrayal of the nascent values of Off-Broadway—a confession that he was a mere entertainer with a talent for simulating seriousness…. Yet Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is by no means conventional Broadway fare. The single claustrophobic set, the excoriating language, the disconcerting emotional and theatrical power, were remote from the usually bland products of the Great White Way. And Albee's decision to use some of the profits from the production to encourage new American dramatists merely underlined his continuing concern with experiment.

The success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? established Albee's reputation around the world, and the curious assaults on the play as epitomizing some presumed decadence either in the state of the American theatre or in his personal sensibility only served to promote considerable interest in him by the media. He became a public figure,… in other words, the Famous American Playwright, whom he had satirized in an early sketch. And now, public and reviewers alike expected him to repeat his early success. His failure to do so lead to a curious sense of betrayal in the minds of some people, as the man singled out to take on the burden formerly carried by O'Neill, Miller, and Williams began an apparently eccentric series of experiments which seemed ill-adapted to one now widely regarded as a Broadway writer. The truth was that Albee has remained at heart a product of Off-Broadway, claiming the same freedom to experiment and, indeed, fail, which is the special strength of that theatre. The difficulty is that he continues to offer his plays to a Broadway audience who, even given their tolerance for anything which can be officially ratified as "art," find his refusal to repeat the formula of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? increasingly perverse. The animus directed at Albee in recent years thus comes, at least in part, from his failure to realize expectations formed by his first Broadway success as well as, partly, from genuine failures of craft and slackness of artistic control.

What he in fact chose to do was to alternate new works of his own with adaptations of the work of Carson McCullers, James Purdy, and Giles Cooper respectively. But while the choice of these particular works (The Ballad of the Sad Café, Malcolm, Everything in the Garden) was entirely explicable in terms of his own thematic concerns, the decision to lend his talents to such a project was not. He had early voiced a suspicion of the whole process of adaptation which has, unfortunately, proved more than justified by his own efforts in that direction. (pp. 4-6)

His original plays tell a different story. Though all of them are, I think, flawed in some important respect,...

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Rachel Blau Duplessis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albee transforms social "problems" for which no solution is offered into sexual and family strife, problems for which he has readily available solutions….

Two prominent problems resolved by the ending of Virginia Woolf concern the bitch goddess, who is tamed, and the non-existent child, who is "killed." Martha is a brilliantly constructed and dramatically sufficient portrait of the stereotypical emasculating woman. The missing male child is doubly non-existent, for he is first imaginary and at the end of the play he is also dead. It is no secret that parent-child and husband-wife relationships figure importantly in Albee's world, although Albee is squeamish about recognizing this. In fact,...

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