Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 184
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...
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- Critical Essays
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.)
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1547
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 needn't argue with their position that our modern world is a piteous place, constipated with egocentricity and bilious with smugness. We can accept this analysis and we can cheer any sincere and well-chosen efforts taken to better it. We can question the means, however, and it is in the means that the commendable objectives of some of the avant gardists (like Albee who does not appear a nihilist) are tragically betrayed.
In these cases, and let's use Albee for an example, we can note that he neither lectures interestingly like Brecht, delights and outrages like Shaw, nor sings like O'Casey as he slings his thunderbolts into the world's teeth. He fails dismally in getting his audiences up and outside themselves. He only slaps them back into the lonely cell of ego where they must dwell unfulfilled and in spineless terror. Albee is too busy indulging in private ironies to share with the humble generosity that is inevitably present in an artist who is earnest and true. (p. 76)
Albee's theatre gives nothing. It seeks attention in return for the dry crust of a spurious mystery. A concatenation of the same non sequiturs and banalities one hears on the street are poor payment indeed for those who come to the theatre.
One must not infer, in all of this, that theatrical experimentalism is to be questioned. Only through reasonable experimentation, with the erosive testing of ideas and execution in the acid-filled retort of performance and rehearsal and subsequent criticism, through the labor pains of the innovator who has given birth to the new idea and ideal, can the old theatre regenerate itself. (p. 77)
There is a relevant point in the classic fairy-tale, The Emperor's New Clothes, in which everyone fears to cry out the obvious truth that the Emperor is bare. Everyone fears to be called stupid for failing to see the clothes which are, as a matter of fact, not there. This damnable fear is ever the protection of the faddist.
Edward Albee, brash young novice, has torn off the white veil of humility and is confidently belching in the sanctuary of art. He writes for the narrow audience, an audience far removed from the broad pastures of grassroots participation where great plays are grown. His Zoo Story, following the hysterical indictments of conformity and self-isolation contributed by some of the European avant gardists, really paves the way for a new and insidious kind of conformism—one in which personal responsibility and the inexorable obligations occasioned by man's social nature are trampled under by the new herd.
The type of freedom extolled in The Zoo Story … is a perverted concept and Albee manifests … a frightening confusion between freedom for principle as opposed to freedom as principle. The difference is crucial and marks the boundary line where responsible human liberty leaves off and the tyranny of license begins. Albee, along with the others, recognizes no such distinction and would likely ridicule the idea that "The truth will make you free."
The Death of Bessie Smith provides us with the sight of another level of Albee's mendacity. This short play, set in a small hospital of the American South, seems a murky visitation to a world of abnormality—a hooded world of psychological aberration where man's motives are never clear and clean, but ever murky, never stemming from rationality, but from a sort of blind impulse. This sort of treatment vitiates the purpose of drama which involves the operation of the volitional man in a rational framework of purpose. All the play manifests is some talent for aping down-to-earth, repetitive dialogue true to his setting. A tape recorder can do nearly as much. Poor Bessie, planted anonymously in a Philadelphia grave, is ignored, despite the play's promising title.
The Sandbox, which is rather misleadingly described as a play in one scene, reaches new heights in obscurity with a middle-aged couple popping a senile granny into a child's sandbox at the shore. The old woman finds herself mightily attracted to the Angel of Death disguised as a muscle-bound beach boy. After some nearly incoherent theatrical tradespoofs in which the scene itself is mocked, the woman apparently dies, though it's difficult to be sure. Walter Kerr has referred to this piece as a "single, oddly satisfying sigh" and given it some cautious praise, seeming to approve Albee's clever impudence. One suspects, however, that in making the evaluation, Kerr is speaking as much from the ranks of theatre buffs who can enjoy a joke now and then as he is for the critical fraternity. (pp. 77-8)
It is a sad thing to see a young man—even one as intellectually complacent and self satisfied as Albee appears to be—given … adulation so early. Adulation that allows him to evade, even within himself, the problem of self-justification. Many a potential talent has been ruined by the flush of early success, and though to this date Albee has achieved only limited production in small theatres and under one management, he has been widely lionized as the champion of the new stage form, as the beardless young prophet who will deliver our theatre from the old nasty ways.
Perhaps if he takes the trouble to master his craft, if he builds endurance for his short-winded muse, if he correlates his natural ear for modern speech to something rational and truly dramatic, he will in time become a playwright to reckon with. He may even become the theatrical Messias for which the American theatre stands waiting. (pp. 79-80)
Richard A. Duprey, "From Pilate's Chair," in his Just off the Aisle: The Ramblings of a Catholic Critic (copyright © 1962 by The Newman Press), The Newman Press, 1962, pp. 65-80.∗
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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 intuition runs beyond his intellect, and fury forms before our eyes.
But that is Edward Albee #1, the playwright writhing with great intensity toward a pattern that may never come; the writhing is the play, and as writhing it has authority. Edward Albee #2 is the passive reader on the bench, the man who doesn't want to be bothered looking into other people's lives, the creature of the cut-and-dried. In The Zoo Story the indifferent man has everything accounted for—nights and days, beliefs and rejections, what does and does not belong to the Schedule. That is why he is indifferent. He has no need to speak because his bed is made, his movements are planned, his course is foreseen. The outline of his life has a certain prefabricated animation; but he is inert, having abdicated in favor of the outline.
The resemblance between this chap and Albee the Second asserts itself in several different ways. It may turn up, as it does in Tiny Alice, when a play is so schematically conceived, so rooted in a philosophical predisposition, that the figures onstage have all they can do to keep up with the marching propositions. It is as though they had all read Mr. Albee's timetable…. (pp. 203-05)
And the Other Albee turns up, most noticeably, in his adaptations. Between original plays Mr. Albee likes to tinker with novels he admires, first Carson McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Café and then James Purdy's Malcolm. But tinkering is the strongest word that can be applied here; Mr. Albee does not feel obliged to question too deeply the novelist's appointed rounds, he does not like to interfere with the Schedule.
Malcolm is meant to record the impact of adult life upon an innocent. (p. 205)
During his journey of discovery, Malcolm has presumably played out scenes with each of these people, suffering an injury here, a shattering illumination there. But in fact he has played no scenes. As Mr. Albee has fashioned the play, Malcolm drifts—literally, on a treadmill—into one environment after another, observing relationships that are only standstill illustrations, and then drifts off again, reportedly withering along the way. But he has not entered these environments to play a role. (pp. 205-06)
No connections are made…. In some way Mr. Albee is not challenged to discover scenes, not impelled to scrape or to badger or to probe. He has accepted another man's outline for the evening—rather as though Mr. Purdy had employed him and told him to be there from eight till closing—and, like a good bourgeois and unquestioning square, he has filed everything dutifully and minded his manners. The play is written by wristwatch, composed of cursory glances to make certain no chore has been neglected; one feels that, having done the required typing, Mr. Albee, primly satisfied, has retreated behind his newspaper on The Zoo Story's park bench….
It is perfectly possible that the passive Albee, pursuing schema rather than invention for too long a time, may kill off the active Albee, the restless, eruptive, run-on interloper—though of course that would make The Zoo Story much too prophetic and ironic. Albee #1 is the man to count on and to hope for. Starting from scratch he can scratch; and that, very possibly, is his mission. (p. 206)
Walter Kerr, "Albee, Miller, Williams," in his Thirty Plays Hath November: Pain and Pleasure in the Contemporary Theater (copyright © 1963, 1966, 1969 by Walter Kerr; reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, a Division of Gulf & Western Corporation), Simon & Schuster, 1969, pp. 203-30.∗
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1670
[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 of behaviour, speech, mores, cults, myths. Again, all three plays, to a degree, brilliantly dissect certain sterile usages of speech. The Zoo Story, especially, is redolent of Pinter's concern with human isolation and the dark wastes of non or partial communication. It might be said that Albee's apparent preoccupation with an inability to beget children (in The American Dream and Virginia Woolf) as an image of sterile futility is, in itself, an 'absurdist' point of view.
But, in all this, there is not the characteristically absurdist miasma of menace, sometimes terror, the sense of unfathomable contexts behind the immediate world of the play, the implacable atmosphere of a-morality, the curiously paradoxical use of language in a 'poetic' fashion to demonstrate, often, the futility of language itself. Indeed it is in the use of language that we can find the distance from European absurdism and the closeness to Americanism. In Albee, too, is perhaps the clearest proof, if not the deepest, that the American language is not the same thing as the English language.
He is amazingly versatile in his deployment of language forms and styles, but there are two broad areas in which he excels—they occupy … extreme positions from one another. The one may be called literary/dramatic—an eloquent, rhetorical, philosophically inclined mode, the other is demotic/dramatic—in which the usages of contemporary American speech are employed with exciting variety and effect. In The Zoo Story he uses both types, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he concentrates, though not exclusively, on the second, A Delicate Balance is almost monopolized by the first. His handling of the demotic/dramatic is much surer, and the results are decidedly more dramatically and theatrically credible than his attempts in the other mode. There, echoes of Eliot, traces even of Charles Morgan and a ghostly assembling of literary forefathers petrify the drama…. (pp. 197-99)
Albee is revealed as a dramatist of stature in his use of his 'alternative' language. He owes something to Miller in his deployment of certain characteristics of American speech but, in the long run, his is a more precise and searching mode. The most obvious affinity to Miller is in the use of repetition, but the effect is different. With Miller we feel that repetition is used in order to heighten the effect of the language—to take it one degree over naturalistic statement. With Albee we are aware that the repetitions fit more closely into the matrix of characterization; indeed they are often used, as in Virginia Woolf, self-consciously by characters with that kind of brittle, conscious verbosity apparent when the scotch-on-the-rocks set has reached the cocktail hour and its tongue is becoming loose. (p. 200)
One of the most conspicuous characteristics of absurdist writing is the extent to which dialogue—often using repetition—mirrors emptiness and futility. That emptiness separates and isolates the participants in the dialogue as certainly as a thousand miles of ocean…. The emptiness is, largely, imposed upon the participants, first and foremost by the nature of existence, but also by the particular situation and by their respective personalities. The crucial factor, however, is the first one—the strong sense of a blank force beyond control.
Albee very rarely gives this impression. The gaps and emptinesses that fall between his characters when they speak habitually convey the impression that they could be filled but, more often, they are filled almost as soon as we are aware of them—not by words, but often as efficaciously in the circumstances. Albee, unlike the absurdists, is less dominated by 'mal d'existence' than beguiled by 'mal de psychologie'. His silences and gaps are filled very quickly by material which comes straight out of the personality of the participants, goaded by the situation or event. (pp. 200-01)
Albee's métier as a dramatist of society and man's self-created tensions within it, and his versatility with words are shown, too, in his remarkable manipulation of the language of situation. Again, he uses repetition, but with a very much greater sense of using a technique; at times he reminds one of the Restoration penchant for drawing attention to the very fabric of language and to the cleverness with which it is spun. Virginia Woolf, again, provides the best evidence. (p. 202)
Albee, generally, seems to be very much more deliberately conscious of the technicalities of using words and takes more delight in employing them for dramatic and theatrical effect than other twentieth-century American dramatists. He seems to have a fastidiousness in his make-up which impels him to look at and to listen to the way his countrymen speak with a rare attention to detail….
In his deployment of American speech Albee, especially in The Zoo Story and Virginia Woolf, shows that same compulsion towards the rhetorical [noticeable] … in Miller and Williams and which seems to be a characteristically American predisposition. Albee seems more aware than his colleagues of its dangers—of sentimentality and sententiousness—and he attempts to disguise these in different ways. In A Delicate Balance where he uses a sophisticated language which has the flavour of the more cerebral long speeches in A Family Reunion, he tries to moderate the effects by the occasional use of an idiomatic phrase. (p. 203)
Albee, like Miller and Williams, is at his best when he is not attempting to create a 'literary' language. The American penchant for over-dramatization, over-explicit statement, sentimentality of expression, overcomes them all when they try to invent a poetry of language. All three, but particularly Albee, succeed when they exploit the resources of American spoken speech, not when they try to make one up. This can be put in another way. When American dramatists, either consciously or unconsciously, try to achieve an English classicism they fail. When they write out of the dialect or dialects of their own American tribe, they succeed. (p. 204)
Gareth Lloyd Evans, "American Connections—O'Neill, Miller, Williams and Albee," in his The Language of Modern Drama (© Gareth Lloyd Evans, 1977), Everyman's University Library, J M Dent & Sons Ltd. 1977, pp. 177-204.∗
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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, acerb wit, and propulsion in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is here the ultimate in witless nastiness, gratuitous offensiveness, and, above all, psychological nonsense and verbal infelicity….
[Furthermore], Albee turns cancer into a sort of sick joke. Apparently privileged by the fact that she is dying, Jo is beastly to everyone…. Now, there is no need for someone doomed and in pain to be that bestial to everybody, or for everybody to tolerate and thus encourage it, but it permits Albee to practice his only skill, however moribund—insult comedy….
[After] much multidirectional animosity and nonstop imbibing …, Jo, in acute pain, is carried upstairs to bed by Sam. Forthwith, an elegant, elderly woman in a red coat arrives in the company of an elegant, middle-aged black; we don't know who they are, how they got in, and why, but they seem to know exactly what is going on and take possession of the place as the curtain falls. In Act II, Sunday morning, Sam comes down in his nightshirt … and, understandably shocked, asks the intruders who they are. The woman launches on an interminable, teasing tirade with which she evades the question, while Sam asks a dozen times, "Who are you?"—a variation, I suppose, on Twenty Questions. Then the black joins in in a game of sadistic obfuscation, until it finally dribbles out that the woman, Elizabeth, is Jo's mother, unheard from for years, and Oscar, the black, her "friend." (p. 74)
The harrowing account from Act I about the horrors of slow dying … [is] wiped out by an Elizabeth and Oscar ex machina. Everybody leaves, and Elizabeth tells Sam a dream of hers about a series of distant, silent atomic explosions. When Sam identifies this as the end of the world, Elizabeth notes they had been talking about nothing else all along.
So ends the play, and Albee's last claim to being a dramatist, and no significant part of the world. The Lady From Dubuque is a lot of desperate pretensions and last-ditch attitudinizing about nothing, borrowed for the most part from previous Albee catastrophes. Let me enumerate the strategies for streching out nothing into two acts. (1) Repetition. Roughly one fourth of the dialogue is multiple repeats, e.g.: "I suppose you should know." "I suppose I should know." "I suppose you should."… (2) Asides. After a character has spoken to another, he will repeat the same point to the audience, thus: "I like your friends. (To audience) I like his friends." About one thirteenth of the play is redundant asides. (3) Not answering simple questions. This, drawn out beyond endurance, supposedly creates suspense. (4) Irrelevant but grandiose political or metaphysical mouthings. So Marx and Engels are trotted out repeatedly…. If Albee has read even one chapter of Das Kapital, I'll eat the others. (5) Obscenity. When all else fails, bring on the four-letter words. Albee, apparently, takes this to be still daring; but, then, he is always a couple of decades behind. Which leads to (6) Ex post facto liberalism. Oscar revels in ironies at the expense of racism as if they were boldly new; they have been heard on Broadway (and elsewhere) for 30 or 40 years. (7) Running gags that, though unfunny, keep running; thus variations on "No offense!" "None taken!" pop up a half dozen times. (8) Mystification. Is Elizabeth Jo's mother, or are she and Oscar angels of death? Obviously Albee himself doesn't know; he has publicly stated that they are not, yet how else … could they get past the locks of an expensive Manhattan apartment? But mystification obviates the need for characterization, which is beyond Albee. (pp. 74-5)
One last point. Albee is sometimes described—most often by himself—as a word-wizard, a stylist. No. He shares his characters' subliteracy. (p. 75)
John Simon, "From Hunger, Not Dubuque," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 6, February 11, 1980, pp. 74-5.
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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.∗
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[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 just radiating a part of her own intense pain….
The lady from Dubuque enters only … after the guests have left and Jo and Sam have gone upstairs to bed. Her title is derived from Harold Ross's famous statement that he was not editing The New Yorker for "the little old lady in Dubuque." Albee uses it ironically, and his mysterious lady … is a figure of commanding presence…. [She] is, it seems, an angel of death, or some other instrument of mercy, who has arrived to relieve Jo of her misery.
With daylight, last night's guests return to make up. They automatically accept the fact that [the lady] is Jo's mother and tie Sam up when he impotently protests. Even Jo, half delirious with painkillers, is drawn to her, finally begging the black companion to carry her to bed, and to death. As Sam gives up his role as husband and protector, so he loses his identity. The shape of our lives, Albee is saying, is created by the needs of those around us. When those needs disappear, so, in a sense, do we. Jo's pain is physical and therefore transitory; Sam's is spiritual and therefore endless.
For almost two decades, Albee often buried his plays under metaphor and meaning, sometimes forgetting that drama, by definition, demands a clash of living characters, as well as ideas. In The Lady from Dubuque, he has returned to the style of Virginia Woolf. This is a smaller play, shorter and less emotionally demanding. But it is a major work nonetheless, and like the enigmatic lady of the title, Albee is very much in control.
Gerald Clarke, "Night Games," in Time (copyright 1980 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 115, No. 6, February 11, 1980, p. 69.
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[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 characters confront the two symbolic ones who are, I presume, minions or heralds of death.
This entrance is followed by a barrage of wisecracks and sententious utterances on a range of unrelated subjects. From this we are to gather that the main question in life is "Who am I?"; it is also asserted that when we die the world comes to an end, etc., etc. Normally I might insist that such thoughts are idle or false, but in this instance there would be no point in doing so because they emerge from a vacuum and go no-where; they float about in a virtually nonexistent context. Albee has not only lost his bearings but also cuts us off from our own, leaving us with no way to argue with him. He has created no dramatic body and therefore cannot make any dramatic or ideological statement.
Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'The Lady from Dubuque'," in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 230, No. 7, February 23, 1980, p. 221.
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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 v. Albee—where the younger accuses the older writer of plagiarism, perhaps even alienation of affection and breach of promise.
Albee certainly has breached his promise in his last 11 plays, not excepting The Lady From Dubuque. It is really quite an awful piece, drenched with those portentous religious-philosophical discharges about death and truth and illusion that have been swamping his work ever since he got the preposterous idea in his head that he was some kind of … prophet and metaphysician of our disorders. I felt acutely embarrassed for actors charged with saying things like "Everything is true … therefore nothing is true … therefore everything is true." If that is true, then they ought to stop talking altogether. Unfortunately, they don't. And the characters they are given to play are not much improvement on their dialogue.
Collected together in a living room that looks more like the first-class lounge on the SS United States are three mismatched couples who spend the opening minutes of this two-hour evening bitching at each other, when they are not looking around … for their lost identities…. [Basically, the characters] are your average run-of-the-mill Albee scorpions, and while they are depositing some diluted venom into each other's necks, the heroine (who is dying of cancer) curls up every so often in a question mark of pain and screams….
Still, Albee faking Albee is better than Albee faking Eliot, if you're measuring degrees of fakery. I found enough faint echoes of the old ripper in the play to keep my eyelids from closing—as they did … in All Over, and Albee's other boring discourses on mortality. Every so often, a little wave of energy courses through the dead electrical circuits of the work, as when a character says, "My cup runneth over," and another replies, "Right, but watch the rug." A little more of this stuff, and I might have snapped awake entirely, but Albee's heart is no more in the bickering of his couples than in the suffering of his heroine. Perhaps the ghastly reception and quick closing of this play will get him angry enough to give up the metaphysical gush and get back to his proper work—cutting the jugulars of his unfortunate American contemporaries. (p. 26)
Robert Brustein, "Self-Parody and Self-Murder" (reprinted by permission of the author; © 1980 by Robert Brustein in The New Republic), Vol. 182, No. 10, March 8, 1980, pp. 26-7.∗
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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 attempts at the Absurd, Box and Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. What marked the full-length plays, right after the realism of Virginia Woolf, was Albee's use of mysticism and death. I mean use, utilization, not inquiry or dramatization. The big words and ideas became weapons to club us into awe of the works' profundity, a conclusion that was inescapable because the works themselves were so tenuous, even silly. Allegory (All Over) and symbolism (Seascape) were also called into service, creakingly. Overall, Albee seemed compelled to write plays just to prove that he is still a playwright, and he grabbed at sonorous subjects and august methods to cloak his insufficiencies.
The bottom, so far, is reached in his latest play, The Lady From Dubuque. There is a lady from Dubuque in it, or she says she is, only so that the title could refer to Harold Ross's remark that the New Yorker wasn't edited for the little old lady from Dubuque. Which has nothing to do with the play. Which, in pertinency, lines up the new title with Virginia Woolf. Even more strained is Albee's attempt once again to place himself at the center of mysteries, though again he ends up in the center of gas.
Lady begins realistically with party games (once again!) in a living room, with Albee's latter-day salty language that offends because it's so self-consciously salted on. The realism is mechanically lightened with an ancient dramaturgic device: The actors know they are in a play, and they address the audience from time to time. Since no reason, narrative or textural, is ever adduced for the device, we soon realize that it's Albee who is addressing us, not the actors, assuring us that he is a clever-deep master of the stage. (p. 34)
Inarguably death is haunting Albee's mind. One way or another, death has figured in all his long plays since Virginia Woolf—but to no artistic end. It may be critically overwhelming but it's thematically apt to raise the name of this age's prime dramatist of mortality, Samuel Beckett. Unlike Beckett, Albee can't face death without a lot of spiritualist's hokum, let alone add to our apprehension—any kind of apprehension—of the idea….
Albee is now 52. What will become of this intelligent, valuable man? He has a third of his life left—more than that, I hope—plenty of time for another career if misconstrued pride doesn't deter him. I've long thought that he would make a first-class dramaturg … in the European tradition that is beginning to prosper at American institutional theaters—an in-house critic (Albee's writing and interviews show sharp critical acumen about everyone but himself), a literary manager and production adviser, and occasionally a director….
It's not a matter of renunciation. Why should he flatly renounce playwriting? But the evidence of the last 18 years doesn't justify Albee's investment of all his remaining life in his own plays. What a courageous act it would be for him to opt for dramaturgy. How helpful to a theater, to other writers he can advise, to the changing of a cultural pressure that is wasteful, to the fullest use of his own gifts. Will he insist instead on serving out the term to which, presumably, he has let our culture sentence him? (p. 35)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Edward Albee: All Over?" in Saturday Review (© 1980 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 6, March 15, 1980, pp. 34-5.
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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 of an adaptation.
Even enthusiastic admirers of the novel may forget the brief introduction that precedes the journal of Humbert Humbert. The manuscript has passed from Humbert to his legal counsel and subsequently to an editor after Humbert's death. Even now, certain precautions have been taken to insure that involved parties will not be identified…. This preface pretends to lift Lolita beyond the realm of fiction…. (p. 77)
Albee's Lolita opens with the appearance of "A Certain Gentlemen"—the theatrical descendant of the editor. He too introduces the pedophilic mania of Humbert and establishes a framework for Humbert's appearance, but here his resemblance to Nabokov's editor ceases. For A Certain Gentleman is a writer, an artist who claims responsibility for the creation that appears before us; he does not merely offer the work of another man. Nor does he withdraw and leave us alone with Humbert. On the contrary, he takes an active role: he remains visible throughout the evening, conspires with the other characters in Humbert's absence, and jokes with the audience during Humbert's love scenes. His presence, instead of suggesting that the story has happened (or could happen), reminds us that this version is totally fictitious, the product of his imagination; this Humbert, fantastic and remote, cannot demand confrontation and is safe, laughable, distant.
The play follows the novel's basic narrative path. (pp. 77-8)
The picaresque structure of the Nabokov novel carries us more and more deeply into the unique psychological world of Humbert, while using Humbert's passions to stand for larger, more universal human passions and obsessions. Puritanism tempers the pedophilic, moral rigor matches prurience, a black grimness of humor and purpose balances a surprising frailty. Such combinations account for much of the novel's power…. These alliances of light and dark, of universal and idiosyncratic are the crucial determinants of Humbert's character, yet these alliances are severed in Albee's adaptation.
Albee's Author embodies the moral force, the restrainer who must confound Humbert. When sensual encounters border on the graphic, the Author drops a large curtain and obscures the lovemaking, he encourages Clare Quilty's attempts to lure Lolita from Humbert; he even calls a halt to Humbert's call for pedophiliacs in the audience and curtails the graphic description of seduction. Humbert willingly relinquishes such moral restraint but thereby loses any sensitivity, sense of love, or moral presence that could deepen and enrich the character. Albee confines Humbert's obsessive passions to the sexual, and reduces his love to mere pedophilic lust.
This bifurcation of Nabokov's Humbert maims any growing moral tension. The Author and Humbert enjoy a congenial relationship. They treat Humbert's love as amusing, inevitable, perhaps even as logical, but never as obsessive or alarming; Freudian vaudeville replaces passion. Even the normally stern Author allows himself to slide into sleaze after the seduction of Lolita…. Albee's Lolita is sterile, passionless, and his protagonist is a satyr, not a sufferer.
But perhaps Albee's Lolita is not supposed to be about passions at all. Indeed, adapting Lolita for the stage has incurred a host of new problems that alone may account for such a switch in focus. In the novel, Lolita is never seen except through Humbert's eyes. Even in her most difficult moments, his epithets of passion bathe her in a beatific glow, incarnate her as a divine "nymphet"; she never vanishes from our minds. This technique of perpetual presence and its importance to the themes of obsession are more difficult, though not impossible, to achieve onstage; indeed, Lolita's stage appearances undermine our response to Humbert's passion. Embodied by an actress, Lolita attains precisely the independence of persona that Nabokov denies her. Humbert's paeans to sensuality are contradicted by the corporeal presence of a gangly, foul-mouthed girl with jutting elbows and knocking knees. Her every move strains any belief in Humbert's "light of my life, fire of my loins," and when she exits, she vanishes—totally. A tension is automatically established between Humbert's possessed perceptions of Lolita and the audience's more objective, detached ones. The commonplace Lolita cannot match the ethereal one Humbert describes; her pretensions to any eroticism beyond mere carnality become solely inventions of Humbert's. And because he is reduced to a one dimensional, amoral omnivore, she cannot really affect him by provoking any inner conflict or confusion; she can only satisfy his sexual appetite. From god-life figura, she has descended to mere creation.
This concern with creator and creation dominates Albee's play. A superstructure has been imposed on the novel, one that emphasizes the Author as figura as the Humbert-Author relationship supercedes the Humbert-Lolita one. In the play, Albee creates a surrogate presence, A Certain Gentleman. This second Author in turn creates Humbert, who in turn creates Lolita…. Such a structure holds fascinating potential on various moral, social, psychological, even theological planes.
But Albee does not carry this structure beyond its inception; there is no consistent development of ideas…. [Nothing] that Albee accomplishes in Lolita suggests any fascination, indeed any involvement, with his characters or with this new emphasis on the created and the creator. Deprived of passions and true feelings, his characters can reveal nothing about love; stripped of moral dimension, the play can neither indict nor condone social mores; tentative in its understanding of the connection between art and artist, the play cannot manipulate the distance between audience and actor or between author and play. Lolita does not have to be about Humbert's passion for Lolita, but neither can it be a work totally devoid of passion. The dramatic Author(s), in denying any passionate involvement with their creations, undercut the ultimate source of literary life and energy. Albee's Lolita is born of inertia, tedium, and it frequently discloses its parentage. This passionless center only emphasizes Albee's own lack of vital connection with the theater and compounds the problems of adaptation.
For Lolita traps as well as inspires Albee. The idea of adaptation frees Albee for his new focus; in dealing with situations and themes already created, he can more fully manipulate certain distances and structures. But Albee never demonstrates a need for using Lolita as his source; hundreds of other novels could have served his purposes just as easily. Nabokov's plot, a reaction to social attitudes of the 1950's, cannot meet certain demands of the 1980's, especially when forced into the present and stripped of its passionate underpinnings. Albee nonetheless tries to update the novel by merely adding four letter words, stale jokes about the Shah, and lame references to early morning television. Such vulgarizations cannot move Lolita into the present. Indeed, this additional profanity clearly violates Nabokov's sense of propriety and stunning verbal economy, while highlighting Albee's verbal flabbiness. "Is this a lecture?" the Author asks. "An exegesis. The briefest of exegeses," Humbert replies. Such hair-splitting demonstrates the turgid, untheatrical nature of the text. (pp. 78-9)
Ben Cameron, "Who's Afraid of Vladimir Nabokov?: Edward Albee's 'Lolita'" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Theater, Vol. 12, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 77-80.
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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, an angel of death—cum-mama who, with her black friend Oscar, takes over the house with several brilliantly executed acts of psychological terrorism…. After repeated postulations of the question "Who are you?" throughout the play (most tellingly by Elizabeth in the second act), Sam, as a result of this symbolic sacrifice, discovers who he is and learns finally that his emotional dependence on Jo was robbing him of his individuality.
If the above sounds a bit familiar, it is because much of the work borrows from past successes while it leaves the craft to stand alone and naked, an empty echo of the depth and sensitivity found in The American Dream, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Tiny Alice and A Delicate Balance. Many of the old concerns are resuscitated: the disintegration of American society, the quest for human identity in the face of inexorable technology, the call for individualism in a pluralistic and threatened society. Skeletons which have had Americans scurrying with guilt-ridden tails between their legs are flashed before us. Communism, racism, the bomb, pathologically excessive momism, consumerism and even New Jersey (which Albee seems to loathe) receive their share of attention. It would appear that in dealing with these past themes in the light of the present subject of death, Albee seeks to point to what he sees as a society in its death throes. He offers as the only alternative, the sole means for survival, a retreat into the self, a world in which trust and dependence are placed entirely in the individual self. Hence the recurring question: "Who are you?" becomes the thematic leitmotiv.
Many of the elements of an important work are clearly present. One notes immediately the classic use of ritual and symbol, the near-Aristotelian cleanliness of arrangement and the command of language so familiar to Albee's admirers. It is unfortunate for Lady from Dubuque that these do not suffice. For despite its moments of brilliance and poetry, the play is marred by an extreme self-consciousness as reflected in the dialogue, in the dredging up of old causes and personal dislikes, in the rehash of old characters and techniques and in the ill-advised use of the direct audience address, which fails miserably in this instance. But most of all it suffers from a lack of any real penetration of character or situation beyond what is needed to convey Albee's dicta. The Lady from Dubuque may be exciting theatre, but it cannot be counted among Albee's great works. To fashion one that can, he will have to abandon formulae and explore the human condition from a new, uncluttered, less didactic point of view. (pp. 473-74)
Frank P. Caltabiano, "Theatre: 'The Lady from Dubuque'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 473-74.
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"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….
Will "The Man Who Had Three Arms" be another "Virginia Woolf"? No. It's not the big play that one keeps hoping Albee will come up with, the play he needs to climb back into contention in today's theater. Neither, though, does it have the stillborn feeling of his later plays—"All Over," say. There is some juice in this one, even if it is mostly bile….
The first half of the play is a game of keep-away. The lecturer will tell us what it was like to have a third arm in a moment, but first he wants to tell us about some other things. Such as what he thinks of the morbid celebrity-hunting exorcise that his appearance represents. Such as what he thinks of our pathetic faces staring up at him. (Just kidding.) Such as what he thinks of killer lady newspaper reporters…. But first why don't we call an intermission, so I can have a drink and a cry? Ten minutes.
So far, not bad. Albee's capacity for informed scorn gives the lines real energy, and [it is] … clear that the speaker is in real pain, not just doing riffs on the bourgeoisie. Maybe we will get to the nub of the pain in the second act….
Surprisingly the story of how that third arm came and went is less vivid than the prologue. As with Philip Roth's novella about a man who turned into a female breast, it's a little hard to picture the anatomy being described….
Obviously we are supposed to take the hero's extra limb as a symbol of specialness and strangeness, not wished-for but profited from—and then disastrously lost. It is also a phallic symbol, "Old No. 3 with a will of its own," its loss a symbolic unmanning, always a threat in Albee's plays.
One admits the implications, but the image on the first level doesn't prove out as vigorously as it should, probably because Albee didn't want his audience to visualize the arm too strongly, fearing giggles or groans. Too bad he didn't take the risk. Any freshman playwright can invent a symbol. I wanted to believe in that arm.
You do believe in Albee's description of what being "celebrated" (for whatever) brings a man these days—the big bucks, the willing playmates, the reporters who think they own you—and the things it takes away, such as love. When fame recedes, the love does not necessarily reappear and this is the box [the hero] is in as the curtain falls on his lecture, howling for us to love him for himself, not for his phantom limb. "I am you!" he screams—we whom he's been belittling for two hours. Yet we pity him.
For all its problems, this play is written from the gut. It could be something of a catharsis for Albee, putting him on a more vital theatrical track than his latter dramatic essays in pseudo-Henry James prose on the failures of others to encounter reality.
Dan Sullivan, "Albee Presents 'Three Arms' in Chicago," in Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1982, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), October 24, 1982, p. 38.