Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93

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? ...

(The entire section contains 5975 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Edward Albee study guide. You'll get access to all of the Edward Albee content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

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 the walls of his isolation and reach his fellow creatures is by an act of love, a sacrifice, so great that it altogether destroys the self that imprisons him, that it kills him. Albee, in recreating this theme, has used a pattern of symbolism that is an immensely expanded allusion to the story of Christ's sacrifice. But the symbolism is not outside of the story which he has to tell, which is the story of modern man and his isolation and hope for salvation. He uses the allusion to support his own story. He has chosen traditional Christian symbols, I think, not because they are tricky attention-getters, but because the sacrifice of Christ is perhaps the most effective way that the story has been told in the past. (p. 53)

Rose A. Zimbardo, "Symbolism and Naturalism in Edward Albee's 'The Zoo Story'," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1962, Hofstra University Press), April, 1962 (and reprinted in Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 45-53).

Henry Hewes

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1708

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, they offer clear evidence of Albee's commitment to extending his range as a writer. They stand as proof of his fascination with the nature of theatricality and of his determination to trace those social and psychological concerns which have provided the focus for so much American drama to their root in metaphysical anguish…. If he is to be regarded as a social critic, as a number of writers have suggested, then he is what he himself has described as "a demonic social critic," intent on establishing the connection between a collapse of social structure and the failure of nerve on an individual level. And though his work has revealed a considerable stylistic diversity, it is legitimate to talk of his central concerns in this way, for thematically there is a unity to his work which links his first Off-Broadway play to his latest Broadway offering.

His heroes have all failed in some fundamental way. They have betrayed the values to which, even now, they are capable of pledging a belated allegiance. They are liberal humanists who have allowed themselves to become detached from a reality which disturbs them and hence from those individuals who are the expression of their commitment to a vision of private and public responsibility. They have sold out; not for wealth or success, but for an untroubled existence—to preserve their own innocence. Unwilling to recognize that pain is a natural corollary of a free existence, they have blunted their moral convictions with alcohol and a sterile intellectualism, as George has done in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; or they have embraced the spurious consolation offered by religious determinism, as Julian has done in Tiny Alice; or they have simply permitted the slow disintegration of human responsibilities, as Tobias has done in A Delicate Balance. The consequence of such a drift toward moral extinction is clear enough in the apocalyptic imagery of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Box, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, and All Over. The action of the first of these takes place in a town which is pointedly called New Carthage and which is likened to two other cities destroyed by their hedonism and capitalist frenzy, Penguin Island and Gomorrah. The action of the last is concerned with the final collapse of structure in the moment of death.

Albee's work is characterized by an overwhelming sense of loss which, though doubtless rooted in the details of his own painful childhood, becomes an image, firstly, of the loss by America of the principles which had been invoked by its founders, and, secondly, of the inevitable process of deprivation which is the basis of individual existence. The problem which he sets himself is that of formulating a response to this sense of loss which involves neither a self-pitying despair nor capitulation to those facile illusions endorsed by Madison Avenue, the Church, or simply the conventional wisdom of contemporary society. The solution which he advances is essentially a New Testament compassion, a liberal commitment to the Other. That is to say, he attacks a social system which fails in its primary duty of creating a communal responsibility and presents characters who must strip themselves of all pretense if they are to survive as autonomous individuals and accept their responsibility toward other people.

Albee's work is a prophecy and a warning. Nor should the splendid articulateness of the dialogue or the brilliant wit, which is a mark of so many of his plays, be seen as detracting from the seriousness of his diagnosis. For they are themselves a part of the evidence—the means deployed by a sophisticated society to evade the pain of real communication and the menace of a world slipping towards dissolution. (pp. 6-8)

Albee has brought to the theatre not merely a magnificent command of language, a control of rhythm and tone which has never been rivaled in America, but also a sensitivity to dramatic tradition and particularly to the achievements of European dramatists, which gives his work a dimension all too often lacking in American writers…. [Though] one can indeed detect in his work elements of Ionesco's style, Strindberg's obsessive misogyny, Eliot's suburban metaphysics, and Miller's liberal angst, this is to say no more than that Albee has shown an awareness of the achievement of other writers and a commitment to examining the nature of theatrical experiment. It is surely as much a mistake to regard Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as simply a modern version of Strindberg's A Dance of Death as it is to see Tiny Alice as only a transcribed version of The Cocktail Party. The Influence is there; the voice is Albee's. The gulf between eclecticism and impersonation is the gulf between honesty and fraud, a receptive imagination and an impoverished sensibility. The Byzantine complexity of Tiny Alice, the fascinating blend of strict structure and free form in Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, and even the misguided attempt to adapt the "surreal" imagination of James Purdy all provide evidence of his refusal to limit his talent or to accept conventional notions of theatrical propriety. If Albee is not what he seemed when he first burst upon the scene at the beginning of the sixties, if he was never the absurdist he was taken to be nor the man summoned to redeem Broadway, he was in some ways much more. He was a serious artist with the courage to refuse the blandishments of the commercial theatre. He was a writer who offered genuine gifts, including a mastery of words, a musician's sense of rhythmic structure, an undeniable ability to create dramatic metaphors of compelling power, and, most important of all, a stunning integrity which permits no compromise with his artistic objectives. If this latter has at times led him into misjudgments on a considerable scale, it is also the guarantee that Albee will remain, not merely a dramatist of international reputation, but also, and in ways which early reviewers could not really appreciate, one of the mainstays of American drama over the next decade. (pp. 8-9)

C.W.E. Bigsby, in his introduction to Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby (copyright © 1975 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1975, pp. 1-9.

Rachel Blau Duplessis

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2627

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, many relationships in his plays that do not specifically conform to family models can be assimilated to them. (p. 134)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ends with a now familiar tableau of an American first family and an Albeean primal family, a tableau which reveals Martha's essential insecurity and dependence on George, and George's control and dominance of their relationship and her needs. The problems in the play are the failure of the man and the bitchiness of the woman. The problems—henpecked man, nagging wife—are constructed in stereotypes; the solutions too are envisaged in stereotypes, when George is shown to be basically stronger, smarter and more resiliant than the promiscuous and pugnacious Martha. George is returned to his position of mastery and dominance over the newly subordinate, dependent woman by "exocising" (Albee's word) all challengers and rivals to this central couple: Martha's Daddy, the college president; the couple's son, who exists by and for the coup de theatre built around him; and Nick, who functions as a rival in university workplace and as a substitute Oedipal son in Martha's dramatic affections.

The men's social function, according to the stereotypes which function at the play's end, is to be a "success," which really means to be emotionally alert and sexually potent. The woman's social function is to engage in reproduction and/or non-productive work. Both Honey and Martha had distorted these terms, by engaging in non-productive reproduction—that is, by not having children or by having a false child. The women are also supposed to help husbands be "successes" and to remain tempting and non-threatening subordinate partners in marriage. The re-establishment of these norms, banal but potent in their familiarity, is the play's object. (pp. 134-35)

[Given George's] wit and intelligence, why is he a failure? Why must we assume that wit and intelligence are associated with failure? What stopped George from "playing the game" of success—considering that he loves to play other games with Martha?… No answer is worked out within the play. We are faced with a full-blown and definitive problem, George's failure, for which there is no explanation, and whose source lies entirely out of the actions of the play. The lack of fit between problem and explanation is one place to insert a critical wedge, pry open, and see what is revealed.

Albee accounts for George's failure by noting, once, his "high moral sense" which "would even let him try to better himself."… For the weight the play puts on George's failure, this is a meager explanation, which itself hides an unexamined social law: that only low and unprincipled people win. More importantly, this "high moral sense" is not entirely ratified by the exhibition of George's malice, bitterness and nastiness in the course of the play.

A second reason Albee offers for George's failure is more promising. Daddy had prevented George from publishing an autobiographical account of a family trauma about a boy who accidentally kills both his parents…. We must accept that George's major scholarship as a historian lies in autobiography, as if the killing of parents were a historical issue…. It is striking that the man's major work in career terms is about family relations. This is, of course, deeply and hurtfully comic, but it reveals a significant pattern in Albee's world view. Nick's major work in biology is likewise "about" sex and children. This transposition from the professional world to sex and the family is further repeated in the dialogue between George and Nick, in which there is a constant shift of topic from science, technology, the university, genetic regulation—topics of public and career import to sex, women, children, and Daddy—topics of private and personal import. As we will see, throughout the play Albee takes questions of power, work, failure and success and privatizes them—giving them status and value exclusively as family issues.

Albee's women conform to the stereotypical notions of women's place: that women take care of home and children (imaginary or not) while the men take care of the rest of the world…. Mother, courtesan, consumer, sex object, wife, cook, volunteer, semi-professional, hostess—these are the dependent social roles Albee's women play. Why then are they accused of emasculating Albee's men?

Because none of his women ever tries to enter the "male" worlds outside the home … one cannot say they are emasculating because they intrude. However, they do consider whether or not the men succeed in their proper sphere. They notice and comment on the men's failure to hold up their half of the bargain, insistently remarking that the men are flops. The women are verbally abusive to the men precisely because the men do not succeed in the same stereotypical terms as do the women. So the women fail to conform to the sex role stereotypes only in their refusal to be silent about the already on-going failures of their men. They do not cause these failures; they accentuate them. (pp. 135-37)

Yet at the end of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the humiliated, weak, unsuccessful man is shown to be stronger than the brutal, emasculating woman. The family problems are solved, not be investigating their ultimate source, which lies outside the home, but by regulating family relations in a highly normative manner. George gains control over Martha by ridding the central family of all intruders and rivals to his power….

[The] male child is killed because he is too tempting to his mother—imaginatively tempting in Virginia Woolf and sexually tempting in American Dream. A powerful mother-son team disrupts the proper order of the family…. The reasons that would lead to the murder or multilation of the younger male rival are not investigated. Rather, Albee assumes them. (p. 137)

In the conclusion, George replaces the Daddy above him, subordinates the wife-child, and successfully fights a rear-guard action against his own replacement by the son(s) below. This reversal is constructed by Albee's taking questions of power, work, failure or success and privatizing them, making social issues appear exclusively as family issues, and solving them as if they were family issues. For this, the woman functions as a scapegoat.

What then is the fundamental contradiction in Albee's family plays? On one side, there is the idea that problems and clashes found in the family actually originate in the family and can be solved in the family. On the opposing side is the idea that problems and clashés expressed by the family originate outside the family and can be solved only by turning to these origins. Albee wants to put forward the first idea: his resolution and the audience's admiration alike are based on it. Yet strong indications of the second idea can be found in his work. (p. 138)

[Outside problems in Virginia Woolf] are work, careerism, science, the fall of the West; even—and Albee is reasonably serious—the problem of power politics which he feels is personified by Nikita Khrushchev. ("Nick is very much like the gentleman who used to run the Soviet Union": Albee.) The problems cited in the play are a mixed bag of undigested bits, but their very confusion is significant…. Albee is not clear where the problems lie, what to call them, or how to organize them, but Nick as a character does represent them. And there is no dialogue between George and the problems Nick represents. The scenes between them consist of sportly monologues by George. Albee gives Nick no rebuttals.

As a problem from the outside, Nick resembles the friends, Edna and Harry, in A Delicate Balance …, who have a vague terror and creep into the play's major family, accentuating its dislocations. The play asks what is to be done with them. The beginning of the resolution in Delicate Balance, as in Virginia Woolf, requires masculine dominance. (pp. 138-39)

At the climax of the play, Tobias performs a difficult aria that perfectly expresses the contradictory position of the family in Albee: either as the source of, and the cure for problems, or, because not the source of problems, not ultimately their cure. He states that the family did not ask for this invasion, acknowledging that it was not born inside the family…. However, the vague, troubling "plague" must stay within the family, because in Albee's world, it is only in the bosom of the family that the problems can be transformed and solved. "BY CHRIST, YOU'RE GOING TO STAY HERE. YOU'VE GOT THE RIGHT"…. Why the right? Again, because the family is the place where social problems are transformed to family relationships and resolved by Albee's one characteristic solution—a strong man placed unchallenged as the head, aided by a subordinate, his wife. All problems must be privatized in order to be solved.

But despite Tobias' pleading to preserve this function of the family,… the problems decide to go home anyway. If on one hand the "delicate balance" of the family has been restored by Tobias' taking—or exhibiting good faith by trying to take—a manly position, on the other hand, the delicate balance also gets restored, concurrently and necessarily, by letting the problems depart, having them slip away from the family which could not solve them. Because the family cannot solve or resolve Edna and Harry's terror, it cannot restore a "delicate balance" to society…. So the family ultimately fails, and in this play nothing takes its place.

According to Albee these existential or "outside" problems are solved only if they can be made over on the model of relationships within the family: Nick as son; Nick and Honey as children …; Edna and Harry as children; the menacing Van Man in American Dream as son …; death as an Oedipal grandson in The Sandbox. Although in Virginia Woolf there is an apparent finality about the solution that implies that the problems entering with Nick have been solved, George does not actually meet the challenge Nick poses. The problem simply understands and vanishes. However cooperative the problems are as they leave, their unmotivated exit is a clear indication that the family cannot and does not provide a real solution. Although the plays overtly state the opposite, in fact not all the problems evoked by the plays can be transposed to family relationships.

So the fundamental contradiction in Albee has to do with opposing ideas about the function and centrality of the family. Overtly the plays propose that problems and conflicts seen in the family originate in distortions of family relationships and can be solved by righting these relationships in stereotypical—even heavy-handed—ways. Covertly within the plays the opposing issue is also posed: that problems and conflicts seen in the family originate outside the family (in work, politics, society, and existence, all quite vaguely presented by Albee), and that the family is incapable of solving them. (pp. 139-40)

The resolution therefore turns on two necessarily linked evasions. Order is restored by assimilating all problems to family relationships, and curing them by re-establishing sexual stereotypes and killing (or mutilating) the rival. This solution never traces the sources of the man's failure, but rather confuses the cause of the man's failure with its effect—the dominance of the woman. This is the first evasion. Then, problems raised in the play which cannot be assimilated or transformed into family issues simply decamp, unsolved and unaccounted for at the end. This is the second evasion, which logically follows from the first. (p. 140)

Losing power over men, over career, over rivals, an Albee character will seek to gain power over women and children. The injured pride of semi-displaced persons seems to be at stake, since those people would need the almost self-congratulatory messages that their failure is not a real failure after all, and that their powerlessness can magically resurface as power in normative sexual and family relations.

The role of the middle group in modern capitalist society is very possibly reflected in the play's almost impotent angers, which are saved by the transformation of failure to "choice" and powerlessness to power, all elements of the larger solution: privatization…. [Albee] makes available a set of explanations and transformations appropriate to the needs of this group: their failure is a more heroic kind of success, involving choice or will. And the private world of family and sexual relations is still controllable. Further, Albee's play makes available a stylized matrix of vicious ripostes which gives the audience the cathartic satisfaction of total malice, without laws or norms, all at the service of a restoration of order…. The anger and nastiness of the play's dialogue is therefore an expression of the actual powerlessness and apparent power of the social group in the audience whose belligerent malaise Albee so piercingly, and even prophetically, expresses. (pp. 141-42)

The issue by the plays is who or what will control the future. Control of the future is implied in everything Nick represents: technology and science, genetic research, world political alignments, the "decline of the west." George stands with his embattled values and fights against Nick, the "dry run for the wave of the future."… Eventually, Nick leaves, chastened by George's display of mastery over Martha. Presumably, George's setting his house in order according to strict principles of family dominance will enable him to have authority in the outside world. However, it is unclear that this is so. We know that Nick-as-Oedipalson has been thwarted, but has Nick-as-career-rival really given up? So George's achievement of dominance at home may have to simply substitute for his dominance in the outside world. In any event, it is clear that Albee favors re-establishing traditional order, even without implying the larger curative effect which this restoration may have.

Following this interpretation, we can appreciate the otherwise random political and social remarks in the play. Albee's association of Nick with Nikita Krushchev, the racial slur of the "yellow bastards" who will one day take over, the alleged decline of the West, the danger which "technology" poses to George's asserted "humanism" all imply a preoccupation with threats to the existing structure of domination. The hero, as a member of the ruling sex, a citizen of the ruling country, and a professor of a ruling discipline, is not unchallenged within the play; therefore the West is declining, and civilization, which the hero claims to represent, is in danger. (p. 142)

From the "decline of the West" to the failure of the man in the workplace, social problems are evoked in Albee, and are transposed on to the family and sexual plane. By making these questions of power and work, failure and success appear exclusively as family and sexual issues, Albee can then resolve them by "righting" the relationship between Martha and George in a highly normative and conservative way: the taming of the erstwhile shrew into a docile, frightened child-woman….

[Critics] who follow Albee say that at the end of his plays illusions have been broken and "reality" recognized. In this specific case, "reality" is the conservative ideology of sex roles in the family…. (p. 144)

Rachel Blau Duplessis, "In the Bosom of the Family: Contradition and Resolution in Edward Albee," in The Minnesota Review (© 1977 The Minnesota Review), Spring, 1977, pp. 133-45.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Edward Albee Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Albee, Edward (Vol. 113)

Next

Albee, Edward (Vol. 2)