Edward Albee Albee, Edward (Vol. 25) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Albee 1928–

American dramatist and screenwriter.

With his first play, The Zoo Story, Albee established himself as an avant-garde dramatist with great potential. His succeeding works, The Death of Bessie Smith and The American Dream, remained off-Broadway, but contributed to his growing reputation as one of the leading American figures in absurdist theater. With the Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee received international recognition.

Albee's work addresses the problem of effective intimate communication in a world of increasing personal remoteness and emotional callousness. Critics have praised Albee's ability to use common speech and idiom to generate dramatic tension. In his later plays, however, such as Tiny Alice and Seascape, the language has been heard as rather artificially elaborate and formal. Albee's recent play, The Lady from Dubuque, disappointed many critics by its unfocussed meaning. This new play, however, does employ the cocktail party setting, verbal asperity, and violence which contributed to the power of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7.)

Richard A. Duprey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is incredible to consider that on the basis of four plays, one little more than a fragment, Edward Albee, the enfant terrible of America's avant garde, is being seriously considered in many quarters as a genuinely important playwright. The same critics and theorists who deny Thornton Wilder his legitimate right to be called a great playwright because he has written so little are ready to canonize young Albee as the greatest thing in modern drama.

This neatly tailored young man, who sounds quite rational and even personable, writes like a bomb-carrying anarchist. Without benefit of beret and red armband he seems to be principal among the new iconoclasts in our theatre. This group, claiming some inspiration from lonesco, causing many a theatre-goer to shake his head in helpless bewilderment, seek, it seems, to shake the contemporary theatre to its roots, to put mystery back on a stage that has become enamored of fact and completely captivated by obvious formulae—a theatre which to them has become ossified.

The idea, on the surface, sounds quite commendable. Our American theatre has certainly been guilty of a narcissism that has disgusted many of its patrons and practitioners. Inbred, obsessed with its own fancied significance, prudently unoriginal and technique-ridden, it is overdue for the guillotine of meaningful revolt.

There is little doubt that the American theatre needs change and there's little doubt that such change will be forthcoming…. But then, we mustn't be too precipitous in praising just any change, for the theatre is the art of man, the art through which he most triumphantly asserts his humanity, his ration-ality, his glorious birthright of free will, and the wondrous circumstances of his creation. The avant gardist, in his eagerness for change, in his fever for the joyous madness of demolition, does not offer this. He does not promise us that any such great theatre will arise from the ashes of the old. Instead he offers a collage of marginal comprehensibility, a collection of carefully collated contemporary inanities, devoid of order or any hint that beyond mystery's dark veil an unchanging truth may lie hidden. He offers only incongruity, the perverse and bizarre, and the unexpected. He offers no hint of a criteria for normalcy. (pp. 74-5)

Undoubtedly the avant gardist, and Albee here provides a fortunate case in point, has an axe to grind. He is original—terrifically original—and in his originality, extreme as it may often be, lies his strength. Nevertheless, it is difficult to peer through the smokescreen of paradox to see whether or not he really has something to say. In the theatre the audience doesn't bother to comprehend unless the playwright, within the generally accepted and known conventions of the stage, says what he has to say in a reasonably overt manner. No audience can sit happily guessing as to what the playwright means. (pp. 75-6)

Peculiarly enough, the avant gardist talks about man's failure to communicate. He notes the lack of love and understanding in the world and he stands up and howls dismally that men are horrible walled islands shut up within themselves, fated never to break loose from their bleak isolation. The terrible pair in The Zoo Story talking at each other instead of with each other, never genuinely touching each other in communication, likely embody this point of view as clearly as anything Albee has written….

The avant gardist despairs of the modern theatre's technique and it is at this point we can scream derision at the precocious band who would level our theatre and render it a grotesque playground of their own devising. One...

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Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are two Edward Albees, and they are both in The Zoo Story. in The Zoo Story, you will remember, a quiet man who is minding his own business, merely reading his newspaper on a park bench, is accosted by an unkempt, garrulous, desperately contemporary fellow who is determined to make contact at any cost. The neatnik on the bench is evasive; the beatnik circling him is fiercely direct. At play's end, the passive figure has killed the challenging one; the intruder has arranged things that way as a last resort. (p. 203)

Edward Albee #1 is the invader, the unsettler of other men's tidy little worlds, the unexpected noise on a summer day, the uninvited improviser. Not having been asked to speak, not having been offered any sort of subject for conversation, he bridles, invents, mocks, lashes out.

In this mood he can start from nowhere and in no time make a scene. Virginia Woolf, for instance, lunges forward for two long acts, emptying its lungs violently, without our having the least notion of the true nature of the quarrel. Its energy is boundless and gratuitous…. We do not understand why Martha and George behave so savagely toward one another, certainly not before the last act and, strictly speaking, not even then. But the savagery nourishes our need to be engaged as it does theirs. It is a felt presence, like heat slowly filling a cold room and imperceptibly altering the disposition we make of our bodies. We were numb; we don't know why the heat was turned on; but we are anything but numb now.

So long as Mr. Albee is forcing to the surface something that seems not to have been preshaped, so long as he is prodding for response like the aggressor in the park, he is free with his tongue and adroit with his whip. Practically speaking, it would appear that his creative imagination snaps to attention whenever there is no ready-made scene to be played. He may be concealing his ultimate intention, and so forced to feint; perhaps sometimes he does not even have one. But if the situation is open or even empty, and if two people can be persuaded to walk out onto the stage, he instinctively knows what to do. He makes the two people scratch at one another to see what may peel off. Inside a mystery at least malice may be real, and with malice there is thrust and counterthrust, evasive action and headlong action, heads and shins cracking together. If no relationship exists, Mr. Albee will make one. His unleashed...

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Gareth Lloyd Evans

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] most brilliantly effective user of the American language in drama is Edward Albee. He has achieved as much fame in England as have Miller and Williams. In his case there might seem to be a special relationship with European drama for he has frequently been dubbed an 'absurd' dramatist. The claim of his alleged affiliation to this essentially European cult was based largely on the play The Zoo Story. On the evidence, however, of a more substantial and longer work—Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—the claim seems to have an uncertain validity.

Absurdism, in so far as it relates to drama, has two main aspects—the point of view expressed in and by the play, and the method and means of expression. (p. 196)

The language of an 'absurd' play is just as distinctive as the vision which one senses or observes in it. Indeed what marks off Pinter, Ionesco, Beckett, in particular, from their nonabsurdist colleagues is the amount of attention the language they use demands (because of its uniqueness) from the playgoer and the critic. To a very high degree, the language is the focus of the vision. To try and separate meaning and speech in an absurd play is to enter far into misrepresentation or into bafflement. In absurd drama language is used poetically, in the sense that however much it may seem to be a naturalistic version of real speech, closer examination shows that it is using the resources of poetry, to a degree. (p. 197)

An absurd play is … an image of human existence. It uses the sense-data provided by the so-called everyday world … but, in the long run, the spatial boundaries of an absurd play are not to be found in 'real' life, but in an inexplicable universe and a relentless eternity.

Edward Albee, in The Zoo Story, seems to partake of some of the characteristics of absurdism. The language is apparently inconsequential at times; the relationships are unsure or inexplicable; motivations both for speech and action seem governed less by rational processes than by a meaningless spontaneous reflex, the 'meaning' is elusive and, like so many absurd plays, there is 'no beginning, no middle, no end'.

This seems a formidable collection of evidence, but it may be suggested that, qualitatively, it is spurious. Almost every item seems too mechanically arrived at, contrived by a 'clever' writer. All the figures are correct, but the answer is not the right one. There are two main reasons for placing doubt on the claim for Albee's absurdism.

The first is the absence of the characteristic absurdist vision. This is absent from all of his plays, including the chief candidate for acceptance—The Zoo Story. In that play the frenzy, the change of mood, the menace, seem to be less an attribute of character than an exercise of quixotic theatricality. Apart from this, we find ourselves eventually wondering whether this sort of episode happens often in Central Park—in other words the play is less an image than a brilliant piece of quasi-naturalistic guignol.

The second arises from the degree of 'naturalism' which is present in Albee's plays and which, finally, separates him from the absurdists. Both the degree and its extent is rooted in Albee's sensitive, almost nervy feeling for contemporary American society. He is a superb demonstrator and explicator of certain aspects of Americanism. In order to align him with Pinter we would have to say that in Pinter we find the best mirror of certain aspects of British society today—and nothing else.

It is Albee's commitment to a surgical analysis of certain aspects of American society which debars him from acceptance as a complete and pure absurd dramatist. It is easy to see why he has been associated with these dramatists, because some details of attitude which he takes up towards his society are reminiscent of the typical absurdist vision. The American Dream, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, in particular, exhibit the meaninglessness of certain habits...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In All Over, Edward Albee wrote about a man dying offstage; in The Lady From Dubuque, he writes about a woman dying more or less onstage. Otherwise, there is not much difference: All Over was the worst play about dying until Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box; The Lady From Dubuque is the worst play about dying since The Shadow Box. It is also one of the worst plays about anything, ever.

Jo is dying of cancer as her valiant husband, Sam, stands lovingly by…. [Much of the first act covers] that heavily worked-over Albee territory, the closed-circuit bitchery he steadfastly puts into the mouths of his married and unmarried couples…. What had some freshness,...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If it should prove to be the case that I like Edward Albee's new play, "The Lady from Dubuque,"… less well than other people do, one reason may be that the play is of a sort that I find particularly unsympathetic. Mr. Albee's intentions and my prejudices confront each other with an immediacy that has, if nothing else, the virtue of appropriateness, for in Albee's oeuvre a confrontation, usually within the bonds of a formally affectionate relationship, soon leads to collision, out of which a pinch of painful truth is expected to emerge. In the present instance, the truth I think I see emerging can be stated as a dictum: Plays that begin in a naturalistic vein risk losing credibility and the interest of their audiences if at the halfway mark they suddenly introduce characters who turn out to be personifications of states of mind or conditions of existence …, not unlike Sloth and Gluttony in some medieval morality play. I resent the insertion into a play about real people—about people, that is, whom we have been invited to pay attention to because they share with us the burden of being human—of creatures who pretend, for reasons that they may or may not consent to reveal, to be of our species but who are, we gradually perceive, embodiments of Death, or Life-in-Death, or one of a hundred other tiresome hand-me-down literary abstractions. Death is the harshest fact we know, not to be mitigated for us by the presence of superior Others from Out There; my intelligence, as well as my good nature, is taken advantage of when death is depicted as a creaky knight in armor, or a nice old man in a tree, or (who knows?) a lady from Dubuque who is neither a lady nor from Dubuque. (p. 63)

Brendan Gill, "Out There and Down Here," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV. No. 52, February 11, 1980, pp. 63-5.∗

Gerald Clarke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Every line of The Lady from Dubuque] bears the name of Edward Albee. It is not only fine theater, savagely funny and affecting. But it is also his best work since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nearly 18 long years ago. The curtain rises on that familiar Albee landscape, a living room late on a Saturday night. Three young couples have been playing Twenty Questions, or, more accurately, Who Am I? Sam, the host,… is up, and though everybody else is tired of the game, he refuses to quit. He wants an answer. His wife Jo … stops him, however, with a game of her own. One by one she tells their friends exactly who and what they are…. But everyone forgives Jo because she is visibly dying of cancer and is...

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Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Lady From Dubuque] baffled me. It begins with a party of friends who play games around the hostess, a dying woman whose malignancy is matched by the festering poison which issues from the hostile stupidity of her (and her husband's) guests. Such a group … could never be collected in one room and could never remain together for more than a few moments after the initial exchange of insults. Are these people supposed to represent our middle class? Are we to take them as "real" people or as gargoyles inspired by a sickened imagination?

And then after a long scene of random venom, two mysterious figures—a gracious "lady from Dubuque" and a cultivated black man—enter. The supposedly real...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whenever I review a play by Edward Albee, I worry about the distribution of his royalties. He has such a perfect gift for theatrical mimicry that I begin to imagine August Strindberg, Eugene O'Neill, and T. S. Eliot rising from their graves to demand for their estates a proper share of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Tiny Alice, and A Delicate Balance. Even living authors like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Harold Pinter might be contemplating a case against Albee, not so much for expropriating their plots and characters as for borrowing their styles. In his latest play, The Lady From Dubuque,… the playwright has gone to an unusual source—namely himself. I can see a lawsuit coming—Albee...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fate has not been kind to Edward Albee. I don't mean only the bitterness of early success and subsequent decline, though that's hard enough. Worse: He was born into a culture that—so he seems to think—will not let him change professions, that insists on his continuing to write plays long after he has dried up….

Look at Albee's career since its peak, which I take to be Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, produced 18 years ago. Three adaptations, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Malcolm, and Everything in the Garden, all deplorable…. Then Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, All Over, and Seascape, a long torpid decline interrupted only briefly by a pair of short, passable...

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Ben Cameron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Evaluating Edward Albee's Lolita solely on the basis of injustices done to the Nabokov novel is a disservice to the play; such evaluation misses Albee's larger, more theatrical intent. The drama at best uses the novel as a departure point, adopts its narrative framework, exploits certain of its verbal and visual images. Albee unsuccessfully attempts something more ambitious than mere adaptation; his departures from the novel are calculated to facilitate his own theatrical and spiritual sensibility. Comparing the play and the novel makes such a sensibility manifestly clear. The Nabokov book should be examined to illuminate Albee's work; it should not be used as a sacrosanct standard by which to judge the quality...

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Frank P. Caltabiano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

American playwrights and screenwriters seem to have run out of timely issues and borrowed subjects and, since the late seventies, to have hit upon one which the great world dramatists have treated for centuries with greater insight and less arrogance and glibness: death. With The Lady from Dubuque Edward Albee takes his place among a cadre of recent Americans who have focused on this ultimate of passage rites.

Sam and his wife Jo, a victim of some terminal form of cancer, give parties for and play parlor games with a seemingly masochistic group of friends. The play opens during one such gathering. (p. 473)

The second act focuses on the appearance of the mysterious Elizabeth,...

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Dan Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Man Who Had Three Arms," is about a man who had three arms.

That is to say a man who once had three arms, the extra having gradually sprouted from his back in midlife, like an angel's wing or a unicorn's horn or a late-blooming talent, bringing him fame, fortune and appearances on all the talk shows.

But as unexpectedly as his new limb grew, it shrank and when the man went back to having two arms again nobody wanted to interview him on TV any more. There was, however, still the Midwest lecture circuit: afternoon talks to blue-haired ladies thrilled to meet even the formerly famous.

Albee's play takes the form of such a lecture….


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