Edward Albee Albee, Edward (Vol. 86) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Albee Three Tall Women

Award: Pulitzer Prize for Drama and New York Drama Critics Circle Award

(Full name Edward Franklin Albee III) Born in 1928, Albee is an American playwright, scriptwriter, poet, and short story writer.

For further information on Albee's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 13, 25, and 53.

Three Tall Women (1991), Albee's third work to win a Pulitzer Prize, begins with a meeting between an elderly woman in her nineties known as A, her middle-aged care-taker B, and a young lawyer named C who has come to help A settle her affairs. As the three women interact, each becomes aware of and impatient with the others' shortcomings: the narrow-minded A, lamenting her advancing years, is in poor health and feels betrayed by family members; B is frustrated by her employer's numerous demands; and C, somewhat naive and temperamental, is shocked by what she considers the older women's vulgarity, prejudices, and lack of tolerance. The first act ends as A suffers a stroke, and in subsequent scenes Albee departs from a strictly linear plot, having all three characters appear as various manifestations of A at different times during her life. Through this use of multiple perspectives, Albee addresses various stereotypes associated with youth, middle age, and old age, and meditates on such issues as the evolving nature of personal identity, the emotional and intellectual ramifications of the aging process, and the relationship between past, present, and future. Familial ties are also central to Three Tall Women, which focuses in part on A's turbulent relationship with her homosexual son, and the play, described by Albee as a form of "exorcism," is considered largely autobiographical—the character A was based on Albee's mother and the relationship between parent and playwright mirrors that of A and her son. Critical reaction to Three Tall Women has been generally positive. Although commentators have consistently identified C as the weakest character in the play, they have lauded A and B as well-defined portraits and praised Albee's focus on universal concerns. Many critics have additionally asserted that Three Tall Women is the most successful work Albee has written in years, rivalling such classics as The Zoo Story (1959), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and Seascape (1975); they also note that due to its autobiographical content Three Tall Women offers invaluable insights into Albee's life and career. John Lahr observed: "Far from being an act of revenge or special pleading, the play is a wary act of recon-ciliation, whose pathos and poetry are a testament to the bond, however attenuated, between child and parent. Three Tall Women bears witness to the son's sad wish to be loved, but with this liberating difference: the child is now finally in control of the parent's destiny, instead of the parent's being in control of the child's."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Zoo Story (drama) 1959
The Death of Bessie Smith (drama) 1960
Fam and Yam (drama) 1960
The Sandbox (drama) 1960
The American Dream (drama) 1961
Bartleby [adaptor; from the short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" by Herman Melville] (opera) 1961
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (drama) 1962
The Ballad of the Sad Café [adaptor; from the novella by Carson McCullers] (drama) 1963
Tiny Alice (drama) 1964
A Delicate Balance (drama) 1966
Malcolm [adaptor; from the novel by James Purdy] (drama) 1966
Everything in the Garden [adaptor; from the drama by Giles Cooper] (drama) 1967
Box (drama) 1968
Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (drama) 1968
All Over (drama) 1971
Seascape (drama) 1975
Counting the Ways: A Vaudeville (drama) 1977
Listening: A Chamber Play (drama) 1977
The Lady from Dubuque (drama) 1980
Lolita [adaptor; from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov] (drama) 1981
Finding the Sun (drama) 1983
The Man Who Had Three Arms (drama) 1983
Marriage Play (drama) 1987
Three Tall Women (drama) 1991
Fragments: A Concerto Grosso (drama) 1993

∗This work was first produced as a radio play.

Jeane Luere (review date May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2, May, 1992, pp. 251-52.

[In the following review of a production of Three Tall Women directed by Albee, Luere offers praise for the play, comparing it to Albee's previous works and noting his focus on family, guilt, love, and identity.]

Receptive audiences at Vienna's English Theatre, which in the past has been host to Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, Lanford Wilson, are hailing the new Edward Albee offering [Three Tall Women], giving the play's three-in-one heroine emotional precedence over men and women in his previous dramas. In stirring anecdotes, the eldest third of Albee's strong composite heroine, a ninety-year-old with a prodigal son, divulges her prejudices, her attitudes and insights on the lack of substance in the upper crust into which she has married. The two other onstage characters, materializations of her self before childbirth and at middle age, hear the older component bemoan her husband's and friends' lack of backbone or moral fibre. Regrettably, her disillusion has led her to replace the legendary milkman or back seat of a car with the family's groom and stable.

As in previous plays, the author is more concerned with characters and situations than with problems and their trite resolution. Albee's power to generate real characters is legendary; and his delicate drawing of this newest one, a tall mother whose indiscretions alienate her son, may show the author's intellectual sympathy for her, quelling critics' sporadic hints at anti-female strains in earlier work. However, Albee's mother-image in Three Tall Women, drawn with wit and truth, is itself more palatable than the insight into life which the play dramatizes. Albee's new work warns that in a land where the populace is obsessed with self-fulfillment and determined to be happy, what must cease at once is our perpetuation of our offsprings' notion that in life we get what we want, that parents and the world at large are perfect caregivers—or even caregivers at all. Rather, in the words of Albee's aged mother-composite, we must prepare the world's young for the actualities of a life in which "surcease or a series of surceases" is our only joy. Truth is our only salvation. So long as we hide from our children the sad truth of our imperfections and our mutability, we must expect the tragic splits that rend mothers and children.

Officiously, critics in the 1970s and 1980s often chided Edward Albee for drawing homosexual characters, like those in his Tiny Alice, too subtly, forming them implicitly rather than explicitly. With Three Tall Women, the upbraiders may be silenced. Albee's newest male character, a defiant son who, in his forties, returns to kiss his bedfast mother's hands and face—and who materializes on the stage as the youth who had packed his "attitudes" and left twenty years earlier—is strikingly portrayed by Howard Weatherall. The nature of the son evolves in frank phrases from the lips of his mother, delivered with chagrin by Myra Carter, who refers to her son and his friends as "he and his boys" and who laments, "He doesn't love me, he loves those boys he has!" Yet, in the mother's dotage, the son brings special gifts of candied orange peel and...

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Ben Brantley (review date 14 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee Conjures Up Three Ages of Women," in The New York Times, February 14, 1994, pp. C13, C16.

[In the following excerpt, Brantley comments on Albee's treatment of life, death, aging, identity, and personal experience in Three Tall Women.]

The woman identified simply as A in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, the startlingly personal work that is receiving its New York premiere at the Vineyard Theater, shares many of the linguistic and psychological traits common to characters in Mr. Albee's more abstract plays. She is given to questing reiteration of certain phrases that take on different shadings in the repetition; she shifts disjunctively...

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Stefan Kanfer (review date 14-28 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Time—and Again," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXVII, No. 2, February 14-28, 1994, pp. 22-3.

[Kanfer is an American novelist, playwright, short story writer, essayist, scriptwriter, and critic. In the excerpt below, he offers a mixed review of Three Tall Women, arguing that "this elegant minor effort gives very little reason to cheer" and lacks the qualities that characterize Albee's best works.]

Whatever happened to Edward Albee? The young playwright of the early '60s, he began his career with small but auspicious Off-Broadway efforts like The American Dream and The Sandbox, both about the sorrow and bitterness of old age. His first...

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Michael Feingold (review date 1 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Albeecentric," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXIX, No. 9, March 1, 1994, pp. 83, 86.

[Feingold is an American critic and translator. In the following excerpt, he assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Three Tall Women.]

Every writer knows that the hardest task in writing is to find your center. Once you're there, words, thoughts, events, characters, ideas, whatever, will flow freely. And the results, after some contemplation, will be far easier to shape and polish than if you had forced them. The hard part is getting to that sacred place at the core of your being from which all literary blessings flow.

On this count, the renaissance of Edward...

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Tim Appelo (review date 14 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 258, No. 10, March 14, 1994, pp. 355-56.

[Appelo frequently writes for Entertainment Weekly. In the review below, he favorably assesses Three Tall Women and discusses the insight it gives into Albee's life and works.]

Photos reveal Edward Albee to be stricken with the Dick Clark Syndrome: an inexplicable imperviousness to physical decay. Instead, time has taken its toll on his festering reputation.

But I'm thrilled to report that Albee the artist lives. The Vineyard Theater production of his 1991 play Three Tall Women, his first big New York premiere in...

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Robert Brustein (review date 4 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rehabilitation of Edward Albee," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 14, April 4, 1994, pp. 26, 28.

[Brustein is an American educator, critic, and actor who frequently writes about drama. In the highly positive review below, he discusses Albee's focus on the past and present in Three Tall Women, praising it as "a mature piece of writing."]

A number of years ago, while praising Edward Albee's much reviled stage adaptation of Lolita, I commented on the startling reverses in the fortunes of this once ionized American dramatist: "The crunching noises the press pack makes while savaging his recent plays are in startling contrast to the slavering...

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David Richards (essay date 13 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Critical Winds Shift for Albee, A Master of the Steady Course," in The New York Times, April 13, 1994, pp. C15, C19.

[In the article below, based in part on a conversation with Albee, Richards provides a brief overview of Albee's career, relates the playwright's reaction to winning the Pulitzer, and discusses the autobiographical basis of Three Tall Women.]

For Edward Albee, the long exile is over.

Hailed more than 30 years ago for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but dismissed in the 1970's and 80's for what was perceived as his increasingly abstract style, he won a third Pulitzer Prize yesterday, for Three Tall Women, and...

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John Lahr (review date 16 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sons and Mothers," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 13, May 16, 1994, pp. 102-05.

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Henry, William A., III. "Albee Is Back." Time 143, No. 8 (21 February 1994): 64.

Highly laudatory review of Three Tall Women. Henry asserts: "Out of the simplest and most familiar material—a woman of 90-plus years coping with the infirmities and confusions of the moment and looking back on a life of gothic excess—Albee fashions a spellbinder."

Kroll, Jack. "Trinity of Women." Newsweek CXXIII, No. 8 (21 February 1994): 62.

Offers a favorable assessment of Three Tall Women, calling it one of Albee's best works.


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