Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

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,...

(The entire section contains 10451 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

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

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

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 156

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)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1367

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 freesia and sees to happy outings for her.

New York critics who in 1983 misinterpreted the talent-less former freak in Albee's Man Who Had Three Arms as an intimate revelation of the author's self may infer the present drama to be another little masochistic exercise, making amends for his "attitudes" as a teenager. If the play's authorial intention is a coming to terms with self, Weatherall's sincerity in the role of the son makes viewers long for their own second chance to reconcile with an aged parent as honestly as this character does.

The play's form is as convoluted as one expects from Albee. Here he intrigues us with the work's structure, forces us to figure out which of two worlds he is drawing us into—the totally naturalistic world of Act One, whose three tall women are a law clerk, a ninety-year-old mother and her nurse, or the presentationally-staged world of act two where a maternal, mystical identity falls to each actress.

The playwright's penchant for puzzles unsettles even deeply-moved audiences who crowd the sold-out theatre. Rapt viewers may lose the beauty and tension of Albee's language for those precious minutes they need to solve the problem of which world confronts them on stage. Yet critics' complaints about structure are not so indicative of a play's merit as the sentiment (as opposed to sentimentality) that an audience credits in the play. Albee's long-time obsession with the orchestration of emotions and with theatrical effectiveness culminates here. Audiences applaud how effectively the playwright has rendered the mother's guilt for infidelities and for failing to remain the pedestal-figure her son perceived her to be in his babyhood. Even so, the play's structure may need a touch of the author's clever directorial hand before moving from Vienna—a site Albee has called "off-off-Broadway"—to New York.

The cast's delivery of the emotion in Albee's language and in his subtext is cuttingly valid, particularly in act 2 when the actresses unfold the life of the mother at ages 26, 52, and 90. Carter is an electric presence on stage as the oldest maternal figure, and voices each bit of Albee's dialogue so piquantly that what might have been, with a lesser actress, rambly and senile chatter about a lecherous father-in-law, a frigid sister, and deceased friends, instead etches the mother's character just as finely as brush strokes create an amorphous WOLS leaf. Thus we feel the tension of the mother-character who suffers from her own infirmities. She won't admit that she can no longer manage her finances, or that she is partner to her son's long disaffection. Her resentment of male infidelity, her isolation by friends' deaths, her guilt at indiscretions—each is a theme from earlier Albee works like his miniature American tragedy, The Sandbox, or his Pulitzer prize drama Delicate Balance, themes broadened and surging with life in Three Tall Women.

Representing the demanding and expectant youth of the mother, Cynthia Bassham is at once innocent and sophisticated. Bassham, who last year made indelible the naivete of Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, sashays in a sleek gown as a Bergdorf-Goodman fashion model who climbs the social ladder when she marries into wealth. Later, Bassham's character, with haunted voice and mein, recoils at the prospect of living her life without joy. The actress's expressive face is proud and stubborn in act 2 as she innocently balks at hints of what may be slated for her life; and her face is livid in act 2 when she sees the actualities descend upon her.

Kathleen Butler, who triumphed in Albee's 1987's Marriage Play as a disenchanted wife who would rather be hit than left, now creates a more put-upon figure as the shrewder, middle span of Albee's composite mother. With humour the actress conveys the play's authorial discernments on the sad consistency of life—that with a doctor's firm slap and a hard first breath a baby comes in, and at the end, with a harder breath goes out. With strength and gravity, Butler demonstrates that a son's sulks and attitudes may freeze mother-love for a spell no matter how desperately she wants to forgive him. Later, with conviction, Butler shines as her mid-life character announces that, though her life has been crammed with hurt, she has now climbed the hill from which one can look back half-way and ahead halfway—in Albee's phrase, "the only time we have a three hundred and sixty degree view!"

After a painful search for serenity with the materialized components of her selves, Albee's ultimate mother-image realizes that joy lies not in the events of our lives but in surcease when each of her conflicts ends. Alone, at the mercy of caregivers and her own infirmities, she rejoices in the surcease of anxiety over real or imagined results of her actions or misjudgments of the past. In Three Tall Women Albee moves from his demons toward joy, surcease, and death; perhaps now he will write for us of love instead of disillusion.

Ben Brantley (review date 14 February 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

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 between arrogant complacency and fearful disorientation; and her memory slides and stumbles like a neophyte skater. "I can't remember what I can't remember," she says.

But A is a woman whose speech patterns are not merely stylized representations of Mr. Albee's enduring obsessions with the elusiveness of personality and its self-deceptions. There is a purely naturalistic reason for her behavior. Played with virtuosic reversals of mood by the superb Myra Carter, A is a 92-year-old woman (or is it 91, as she insists?) who is on the threshold of death. And the way she talks is rooted in the very familiar struggle of the aged with encroaching senility.

Her presence reinforces what has always been implicit in the playwright's works: life must be defined by the inescapable proximity of death. As one character states, children should be made "aware they're dying from the moment they're born."

Three Tall Women, which is basically an anatomy of one life, is by no means an entirely, successful play. Cleanly directed by Lawrence Sacharow, it makes its points so blatantly and repeats them so often that one perversely longs for a bit more of the cryptic obliquity that is Mr. Albee's signature.

But it is often a truly moving work. Mr. Albee has admitted in interviews that it was directly inspired by his own adoptive mother, a domineering, Amazonian woman. And the details of A's life, including her ambitious marriage to a wealthy man and her warring relationship with her recalcitrant son, seem to tally with what we know of Mr. Albee's family history. He has described the writing of the play as "an exorcism." And one can see in A the roots of the controlling women who abound in the rest of his oeuvre.

The members of the play's speaking cast are indeed three tall women, whose roles, if not necessarily their functions, change in the play's two acts. (There is, very significantly, an additional wordless part, that of the prodigal son, played by Michael Rhodes, who arrives in the second act after his mother has a stroke.) Set in a bedroom (designed by James Noone) whose conventional but lavish appointments bespeak an insulating affluence, the play devotes its first half to dialogue among the aged A; B, her 52-year-old acerbic but empathetic caretaker (Marian Seldes), and C (Jordan Baker), a brashly confident 26-year-old from A's lawyer's office who has come to discuss finances.

Mr. Albee baldly sets these characters up as representatives of three ages of woman. C embodies all the intolerance and the conviction of immortality of youth, and is impatient with the old woman's meanderings. The care-taker, in turn, is impatient with C's impatience and given to sharp-tongued reminders that A represents C's future. (In this sense, she is a sort of stand-in for Mr. Albee, as playwright, not as son.) And throughout all this, A fades between past and present.

In the second act, a body with an oxygen mask, representing A, is found lying on the bed. The three actresses return, now as A at different phases in her life. Although this allows Mr. Albee to create a more complete and reflective biography of A, particularly involving her thorny relation-ship with her son, the symbolic triangle remains much the same, with the youngest woman shouting at the oldest, "I will not become you!"

There are some eloquently made statements in this act about the vantage points afforded by different ages, particularly on the subject of sexuality. Unfortunately, the revelations built around the reasons for A's son's leaving home have less than their intended dramatic impact….

Ultimately, it appears that in working through autobiographical material, Mr. Albee has felt the need to be as carefully lucid and precise as possible. Though it seems unfair to accuse a playwright of excessive obviousness when he has so often been critically browbeaten for just the opposite, the play does suffer from didacticism and overstatement.

Nonetheless, Three Tall Women remains essential viewing for anyone interested in the forces that have shaped this influential writer.

Stefan Kanfer (review date 14-28 February 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 843

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 full-length work, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963), focused on ambition and self-deception, dazzled Broadway audiences, won critics' awards, and announced the arrival of a major talent. Albee went on to earn two Pulitzer prizes (for A Delicate Balance and Seascape) and to write many original plays, plus adaptations of other people's writings (including Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita).

His reward for all this industry has been a latter-day neglect. Too many of Albee's major works have failed on the main stem, and lesser plays have not prospered Off-Broadway. Who remembers The Lady from Dubuque, The Man Who Had Three Arms, Finding the Sun? Although they are included in some anthologies of the American theater, an entire generation now regards the 65-year-old playwright as a supernova, a star that burned out long ago. The production of Three Tall Women at the Vineyard Theater may help to correct that impression—but just barely.

Here again is the once-famous amalgam of bitchiness and poignance. A rich and self-centered nonagenarian (Myra Carter) is failing rapidly. Known only as A, she is attended by B (Marian Seldes), a grim middle-aged factotum, and by C (Jordan Baker), an attractive young lawyer who is there to straighten the old lady's tangled finances. Act I concerns A's infirmities and incontinence, as she rails against her weak bones and failing memory. B variously prods and pampers her, while C is the observer. Shocked and horrified at the trials of senescence, she wonders whether A is being mistreated or merely handled with the firmness she deserves.

For A is a collection of resentments and prejudices. Blacks are niggers. Jews are to be used but never trusted. Homosexuals, including her son ("He just packed up his attitude and left me"), are referred to contemptuously. Through the years, she suspected every servant of pilfering. Without any evidence, B is included in that disgraceful company.

Like her two listeners, A was a tall woman (although age has made her bones shrink a little). Her late husband was a small man with a glass eye and a lot of money. He is fondly recalled—but not as fondly as the horse trainer who seduced her and, of course, had to be fired after a month of furtive adultery. "I had a good deal," she explains. "I couldn't endanger my situation." A's testimony is more than C can bear. There is no way, she vows, that she will come to this sort of end. But she has spoken too soon and too late.

In Act II, as A lies on her deathbed, B and C are revealed as something far different from their first appearances. They are not individuals after all; they are, rather, the former selves of A, at the ages of 52 and 26. Time is annihilated, and the three tall women interact. The young one, C, is full of romantic expectations, whirling on a dance floor, speculating about a series of beaux, planning a vibrant and happy life. B is the older and wiser one, having compromised her dreams for decades of imprisoning security. A is a kind of Queen Lear, having outlived her friends and become estranged from her only child. When he returns, The Boy (Michael Rhodes) can simply sit wordlessly at her bedside, his body language pronouncing the elegy for the mother he can neither leave nor love.

Under Lawrence Sacharow's subtle direction, the trio of actresses find every possible nuance in the text. Baker moves easily from terror to radiance and back again; Seldes gives the play its gravitas; and Carter manages to be querulous and comic in the same short breath, dropping her voice an octave to confide a secret, then rising to an eerie cackle as she recalls her husband's indiscretions and her own sexual misadventures. James Noone's bedroom set is merely functional, but Muriel Stockdale's costumes amount to a fifth character, commenting on the passages of time and the alterations of personality.

If this were 1962, Three Tall Women would herald the arrival of a playwright as promising as David Ives. One could hardly wait to see his next production. But we have been through all that with Albee, and this elegant minor effort gives very little reason to cheer. After years of commercial and esthetic disappointments, Edward Albee is once again Off-Off-Broadway. Like so many of his characters through the decades, he is going out the way he came in.

Michael Feingold (review date 1 March 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

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 Albee is one of the happiest events in the history of American playwriting. After the era of forced writing that brought us treats like Counting the Ways and The Man Who Had Three Arms, and the era of self-imposed exile when he no longer cared to face the critical attacks such plays provoked, we have two newish Albee plays [being produced this season], one 11 years old (Finding the Sun) and one written within the last four (Three Tall Women). Both are alive, peopled, fresh, funny, a little harrowing, and tangibly authentic—the good qualities of Albee's exciting early plays. They come from the center; far from offering critical analysis or captious reservations, the press should probably sponsor parades….

[Perfect] in its fairness is the full-length Three Tall Women, clearly Albee's all-out attempt to do justice to Mommy. [Like his 1960 work, The Sandbox, this too] is a death scene: The ailing, cantankerous heroine is flanked by her weary, stooped, middle-aged companion and a blankly helpless young newcomer from her lawyer's office. Power games, medical details, and recriminations ensue, leading to an apparent stroke. In Act II, the women appear as three aspects of the stroke victim, now helpless under an oxygen mask: her young, middle-aged, and old selves. The handsome Young Man, suffering mutely at her bedside, is no cartooned Angel of Death, but her son as he looked the day he left the house for good.

In this act, the middle-aged self dominates: Marian Seldes, who's had self-effacing, galumphing fun as the first act's humble companion, comes into her own, commanding the stage, head high, with fierce, grand-manner gestures, flanked—and sometimes outflanked—by Myra Carter's slyly stagy, astringent undercutting as the old woman. The staginess is in the character; you see how Albee might have gotten his theatrical instinct from this woman, with her calculated tantrums and high-handed tyrannizing.

The mother's story, as the three women relay it to each other, not without dispute, is the story of a tall beauty brought low—by her need to succeed in a society where women are ancillary, by the contrast between her modest upbringing and her married wealth, by rivalry with her prettier but less stable sister, by increasing frustration with husband and family, by failure to overcome inhibitions taught in an earlier age, finally by old age and illness. The author's love and hate, denial and acceptance, of this complex woman whirl around the room, almost visibly, while his mute spokesman onstage sits motionless, holding the hand of her almost-corpse.

Three Tall Women's fullness as writing makes it a big achievement, with only one minor flaw: The first act, which is really a prologue to the substantive second, goes on slightly too long, and should probably lose some of its repetitions.

Tim Appelo (review date 14 March 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1503

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 over a decade, should help reverse his audience's exodus. No more the noisy young shockmeister pop star, now Albee plays unplugged, still singing, softly, his bitter old themes of domestic-cum-cosmic discord. Rod Stewart unplugged is a lazy disgrace, Clapton a drab craftsman, but Albee is more like Neil Young: chastened by age, sad where once he soared, yet still quavering on.

Three Tall Women is largely a portrait of Albee's late, very estranged adoptive mother at 92, though the character querulously insists she's 91. (In a 1966 Paris Review interview, Albee querulously insisted he was 37; the interviewer reminded him he'd be 38 when the piece was published.) James Noone's set neatly conveys the old woman's luxe past and funeral future: A central floral painting is flanked by floral wallpaper, floral prints, floral lace curtains, a bed with floral pillows and a blighted floral rug worn down to atoms.

So is the wraithlike heroine, but there's a death dance of semisenescent reminiscence left in the old gal yet. Myra Carter is, as the young people say, awesome in the role of A, the nonagenarian mom. Her phrasing of Albee's half-naturalistic, wholly calculated incipient-Alzheimer's talk is impeccable; her voice dwindles to an Edith Evans warble, ascends to a helium keening, erupts abruptly into lacerating sobs as required. Her moods, too, are musical—her memories lark and plunge. We're eager and grateful for each vivid bit of that past recaptured: her debutante milieu; her runty, randy groom; horseback riding; riding her horse's groom in the stables as she screams in sexual triumph. (Some of these memories are voiced by other actors, whom I'll introduce shortly.) Three Tall Women cops a bit of the puckish bleakness of Beckett (the sole dramatist Albee has claimed utterly to admire), and a bit of Long Day's Journey Into Night, but the grief and affection seem distant, glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope. It's O'Neill without guilt, and with much less galumphing verbal rhythms. "Eventually he lets me talk about when he was a little boy," says A of her son's visits—Michael Rhodes plays the wordless role well enough—"but he never has an opinion on that; he doesn't seem to have an opinion on much of anything that has to do with us, with me." Creepily remote, Albee has predicted that he won't think much about his mom now that he's devoted a play to explicating her life. But I'll bet he didn't keep mum with Ma in real life: This is the guy of whom Richard Burton wrote, "A week with him would be a lifetime."

Old A is reproved by young C (Jordan Baker), a B-school type trying to get A's finances in order. The role is as thin as the pinstripes on C's suit, and Baker is way the hell the spindliest actor in the show. Twenty-six-year-old C is reproved by B (Marian Seldes), A's 52-year-old caretaker. As dazzling a talent as Carter, Seldes is earthy and spectral, not by turns but at once. Hunched like a sardonic question mark, she moderates the conflict between the old and young women, but she's openly on the old bat's side. She's like Mrs. Danvers on Prozac—still mean and weird, but detached, sourly entertained by life as if watching it from beyond, a well-adjusted shade. Her sly arched-brow amusement reminds me of Ian McKellen; her marvelously odd hand gestures remind me of Thai opera, except that I can't comprehend Thai opera, while her gestures clearly underline the dialogue. Many lovely ensemble moments seem centered on her hands, as if she were conducting. (Though Lawrence Sacharow's direction must have been superb, Ingmar Bergman was probably right to say that Albee's best plays can do without a director, just as chamber music doesn't require a dictatorial baton. The man is a composer, just as he wanted to be at age 11.)

Albee has this little problem as a dramatist: He abhors plots. But just as one realizes, with mounting irritation, that A's colorful fragmented vignettes will never cohere into a single structured picture—nobody cracks Albee's mosaic code—the author saves the play with a big switch in the second act. The three actresses fuse into one contrapuntally evoked character, A through the ages. It's played wonderfully (even Baker gets better), like a close basketball game going down to the wire. While the finale is a characteristic letdown (Albee favors inconclusive conclusions), by then the play has wandered around A's life long enough to give us a satisfying sense of her.

Mysteriously, we get very little sense of her relationship with her son, just a sketchy recounted encounter or two. I wanted more on this relationship, and fewer of the life lessons the play overbearingly urges upon us: "It's downhill from 16 on for all of us … stroke, cancer … walking off a curb into a 60-mile-an-hour wall … slit your throat…. All that blood on the Chinese rug. My, my." You can get deeper philosophical insights from Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network. Yet even when Albee says something stupid, he says it in cadences of great and practiced beauty. The wisdom that eludes him in platitudes ("[Women] cheat because we're lonely; men cheat because they're men") he expresses better in drama: the anecdote of the pricey bracelet A's fellatio-craving husband proffers upon his angry penis is funny and scary, a lightning glimpse of a nightmare marriage.

I freely admit that much of the value of Three Tall Women is the light it sheds on Albee's life and other work. He has described TTW as an "exorcism." The original title of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was The Exorcism, which was retained as the title of the third act, and TTW makes me wonder whether critics haven't been misinterpreting his masterpiece all these years, focusing on George and Martha as archetypal man and wife (or, in a popular interpretation that infuriates Albee, as a gay couple in hetero drag. I don't see what difference it makes, nor why Albee sternly forbids all-male productions of the show). What gets exorcised—killed off—in Woolf is the imaginary kid. In TTW, the kid kills off the memory of his mom. What if George and Martha are "really" Edward and his ever-bickering mother, who needled him cruelly about his adoption and never forgave his desertion? In any case, the heroine A of TTW is a kind of combination of the Liz Taylor and Sandy Dennis characters in Woolf: alternately a snarly and simpering, sickly fake mother, yet admirably defiant of the unmitigated insult of old age. From the first-act debate about a classic actress (Bette Davis in the case of Woolf, Norma Shearer in TTW) to the last act's rather heavy-handed stripping away of bourgeois illusions (who has them anymore?), the plays seem parallel, sister dramas reaching out to each other across the intervening wastes and oases of Albee's career.

Why is such a self-conscious iconoclast so annoyingly moralistic? Albee is the third-generation namesake of a top vaudeville impresario who got started with a revolting attraction: a twenty-four-ounce preemie advertised as "small enough to fit in a milk bottle." The child's name was Baby Alice. Does this have something to do with his reviled abstract play Tiny Alice? Edward Albee I ran a theatrical enterprise so bluenosed it blacklisted the actors it ruthlessly enslaved if they so much as uttered the words "son of a gun" on any of its nationwide stages. Having authored five "son of a bitch's" in Woolf alone, Edward Albee III was the Tom Paine of the dirty-speech movement in American theater, though he was more besides. Maybe there's an in-joke in his Alice, and a secret triumph in its commercial oblivion: the horribly lowest-common-denominator entertainment answered by a work of arrogant mandarin incomprehensibility, spurned by the ignorant masses.

With the entirely intelligible Three Tall Women, Albee is evidently mature enough not to crave our hatred. Maybe he doesn't even hate his mother anymore. What's more, he's back in tune with his times. In the three tall women's last-ditch attempt to define the nature of happiness, Seldes's B muses that her position at 52 is ideal: "Enough shit gone through to have a sense of the shit that's ahead, but way past sitting and playing in it. This has to be the happiest time." Shit happens—in a day when the nation's leading dramatic characters are Beavis and Butthead, what moral could be more modish than that?

Robert Brustein (review date 4 April 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1252

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 sounds they once made in licking his earlier ones…. If each man kills the thing he loves, then each critic kills the thing he hypes … brutalizing the very celebrity he has created."

I was generalizing not only from Albee's career, but from that of Miller, Williams and Inge, for although I had often depreciated works by these playwrights myself, it struck me as unseemly that mainstream reviewers were displaying such fickleness toward their favorite Broadway icons. This may sound territorial, but it's not. Readers expect more intellectual critics to express dissent about an overinflated dramatic work, but it is an entirely different matter when those with the power to close a show become so savage and dismissive in their judgments. If it is a function of the weekly critic to try to correct taste, it is the function of the daily critic to guide theatergoers, not to trash careers or demolish reputations.

Fortunately, Albee's stubborn streak has kept him writing in the face of continual disappointment, a persistence he shares with a number of other artists battered by the New York press (Arthur Miller, David Rabe, Arthur Kopit, Christopher Durang, Philip Glass, etc.). I call this fortunate because Albee has a vein of genuine talent buried in the fool's gold, and there was always a hope, provided he was not discouraged from playwriting, that this would appear again in a work of some consequence. That work has now arrived in Three Tall Women, and I am happy to join his other former detractors in saluting Albee's accomplishment.

Three Tall Women is a mature piece of writing, clearly autobiographical, in which Albee seems to be coming to terms not only with a socialite foster parent he once satirized in past plays, but with his own advancing age. Three women are discovered in a sumptuously appointed bedroom decorated with Louis Quatorze furniture, a rare carpet and a parquet floor. They are called A, B and C, which suggests a Beckett influence, though on the surface the play appears to be a drawing-room comedy in the style of A. R. Gurney. The oldest of the women (known as A) is an imperious, rich invalid who appears hobbling on a cane, her left arm in a sling. She is attended by a middle-aged companion (B), who is an angular woman with a caustic tongue and a humped back, and a young, politically correct lawyer (C), who has come to discuss A's business affairs.

The first of the two acts examines some scratchy transactions among this symbiotic trio, consisting of A's recollections (clearly not in tranquility) and the shocked reactions of her companions. A has turned sour and abrupt in old age, and there are traces of Albee's celebrated talent for invective in her rage against life. Her spine has collapsed, she has broken her arm in a fall and now the bone has disintegrated around the pins. Likely to wet herself when she rises from a chair ("A sort of greeting to the day—the cortex out of sync with the sphincter"), she is inordinately preoccupied with the aging process—"downhill from 16 on for all of us." She even wants to indoctrinate children with the awareness that they're dying from the moment they're born, and that anyone who thinks she's healthy, as C does, had better just wait.

In short, A is an entirely vicious old wretch, with a volatile tongue and a narrow mind, but it is a tribute to the writing and the acting that she gradually wins our affections. Although prejudiced against "kikes," "niggers," "wops" and "fairies" (among them her own son), she is a model of vitality and directness when compared with the humor-impaired liberal C, who protests her intolerance. A remembers a past of supreme emptiness, of horse shows, dances and loveless affairs, and she remembers the time her husband advanced upon her with a bracelet dangling from his erect penis ("I can't do that," she said, "and his peepee got soft, and the bracelet fell into my lap"). That arid marriage, and the son who brings her chocolates but doesn't love her ("He loves his boys"), represent memories that can bring A to tears. They also bring her to a stroke at the end of the first act, as she freezes in midsentence describing her deepest family secrets.

The second act begins with A lying in bed under an oxygen mask. By this time B has been transformed from a sardonic, hunchbacked factotum, slouching toward Bethlehem like Igor or Richard III, into a stately matron in pearls, while C has become an elegant debutante in pink chiffon. Before long they are surprisingly joined by A, newly rejuvenated (the figure in the bed is a dummy), and the play shifts gears into a story of one woman at three different moments in time (A at 90, B at 52 and C at 26). Just as B has shed her hump and C her primness, A has lost her feebleness. All three share the same history, the same child, the same sexual experiences, but A and B are united against C in their hatred of illusions. They warn C that her future will be one of deception and infidelity: "Men cheat a lot. We cheat less, but we cheat because we're lonely. Men cheat because they're men."

The prodigal child, now a young man carrying flowers, returns to sit by the bedside of his dying mother ("his dry lips on my dry cheeks"), silent and forlorn. None of the women will forgive him, nor will they forgive each other. A dislikes C and C refuses to become A, while B bursts out bitterly against "parents, teachers, all of you, you lie, you never tell us things change." The inevitability of change is responsible for the obscenities of sickness, pain, old age and death, but A, having accepted her fate, affirms that "the happiest moment is coming to the end of it." Taking a deep breath, she allows the action and her life to stop.

Beckett was the first dramatist to condense the past and present lives of a character into a single dramatic action, and Krapp's Last Tape is a play to which Three Tall Women owes a deep spiritual debt. (It was also the companion piece to Albee's first New York production, The Zoo Story, in 1960.) Beckett compressed youth and age through the device of a tape recorder, Albee uses doppelgängers; but both plays evoke the same kind of existential poignance….

Most of us have encountered horrible old women like A, fuming over their pain and helplessness. It is Albee's personal and professional triumph to have made such a woman fully human. His late career is beginning to resemble O'Neill's, another dramatist who wrote his greatest plays after having been rejected and abandoned by the culture. Happily, unlike O'Neill, he may not have to wait for death to rehabilitate him.

David Richards (essay date 13 April 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1265

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 reclaimed his position as one of America's leading dramatists.

"I suppose I will be very warm and cuddly and pleased with myself for a while," he said by telephone from Texas, where he is teaching a course in play writing at the University of Houston. "I never counted on it. I think you should always be surprised by awards and prizes, since you're always surprised when you don't get them."

Until recently, Mr. Albee had not had a new play produced in New York since The Man Who Had Three Arms was clobbered by the critics in 1983. The last of his dramas to receive a generally favorable reception was Seascape in 1975. Also a recipient of the Pulitzer, it nonetheless closed after 65 performances. While Europe has continued to pay him homage over the years—Three Tall Women had its premiere at the American Theater in Vienna in 1991—only academia and a few regional theaters have offered him respect and a refuge in the United States.

"You can't let that eat at you," Mr. Albee said. "If you really thought that you were old-fashioned, you could get glum about it. But there is not always a great relationship between popularity and excellence. If you know that, you can never be owned by public opinion or critical response. You just have to make the assumption you're doing good work and go on doing it. Of course, there are the little dolls you stick pins in privately."

Even if Broadway remains aloof, it has been a turnabout year for the 66-year-old playwright, who won his first Pulitzer in 1967 for A Delicate Balance. Off Off Broadway, the Signature Theater Company, which devotes its entire season to the works of a single author, has given New York premieres to five Albee plays, among them Marriage Play, a 1987 drama; Finding the Sun, a long 1983 one-act, and Fragments, his latest work. And in February, the Vineyard Theater Company, an Off Broadway group, staged Three Tall Women. Reviewers were so enthusiastic and business so brisk that the production moved earlier this month to the Promenade Theater.

Overtly biographical, Three Tall Women deals with the death of Mr. Albee's mother, a one-time department-store mannequin named Frances Cotter, who married Reed Albee, heir to the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville houses. The playwright, an adopted child, had a stormy relationship with the striking but headstrong woman before she threw him out of the family's Westchester County home when he was 18.

In the first act, she appears as a senile 92-year-old dowager, attended by her 52-year-old secretary and her 26-year-old lawyer. Failing fast, she suffers a severe stroke. In the second act, even though an inert body lies on the bed, the elderly woman is back on her feet. Lively and coherent, she enters into a three-way conversation with the lawyer and the secretary, who now embody her at 26 and 52. This way, Mr. Albee explained in an interview with The New York Times in 1991, she gets to do something not afforded the rest of us: talk with herself at different stages of her life and explore her own evolution.

"The play is a kind of exorcism," he said, "I didn't end up any more fond of the woman after I finished it than when I started. But it allowed me to come to terms with the long unpleasant life she led and develop a little respect for her independence. She was destructive, but she had lots of reasons to be. It's there on the stage, all the good stuff and the bad stuff. I just tried to examine it, sort it out, be objective about it. I couldn't have written the play while she was alive."

Asked what she might have thought of Three Tall Women, Mr. Albee said: "She probably would have claimed she didn't know what it was about. She went to see The American Dream and pretended she had no idea it was about the way she treated my grandmother. She had such misplaced pride. I think she was slowly going broke at the end. Stuff kept disappearing. Jewelry. Things, I think she was selling it, unless people were stealing her blind. But she wouldn't tell anyone."

"When she died, she cut me out of her will," he continued. "The church she never went to, the hospital and some other charities got her money. She left me change, as we say. She could never come to terms with my nature, my sexuality, wouldn't think of discussing it with me. We never reconciled."

Yet, as he chronicles in the play, he regularly brought bouquets of freesia, her favorite flower, to her bedside while she lay in a coma. "Sometimes she would smile," he said, "Sometimes she didn't."

If the difficult and domineering woman has inspired one of Mr. Albee's strongest plays in decades, she may also have given him the resilience to bear up under the years of critical disfavor. "Well, she was a tough old bird and you learn at your parents' knees," he admitted. "One thing I don't do is go around feeling sorry for myself. Maybe because I was an orphan and didn't fit in, I had to create my own identity. As an orphan, you don't have forebears. You're the first person who ever lived, in a way."

Mr. Albee said the low points over the last two decades have had less to do with the chilly reception of his plays than with the deaths of his longtime producers, Richard Barr and Charles Woodward; the director Alan Schneider, and the set designer William Ritman. "Here I am, only 66, and everybody I started out working with is dead," he said, "They were all mentors."

Although the jurors proposed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, still Mr. Albee's best-known work, for the 1963 Pulitzer, the board ignored the recommendation and refused to grant the prize at all that year. The vituperative play about marital infighting was thought shocking at the time and contributed to the enduring misconception that Mr. Albee was an American Strindberg.

"I guess I was mostly bemused by the fact that you could have the award taken away from you," Mr. Albee said, "I wasn't irritated. But I didn't like it four years later when A Delicate Balance got the award and people said it was nothing but a sop to make up for Virginia Woolf. There are always types like that. Anyway, I thought The Man Who Had Three Arms was a worthy play. So what do I know?"

His Pulitzer yesterday put Mr. Albee in the rarefied company of Robert E. Sherwood, also a three-time winner, and Eugene O'Neill, who still heads the pack with four, although the fourth award was bestowed on him posthumously for Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Reminded that he had already bettered Tennessee Williams, who was the recipient of two Pulitzers, Mr. Albee thought for a while and then said graciously, "Maybe Tennessee didn't get as many Pulitzers as he deserved."

John Lahr (review date 16 May 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2089

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

[Lahr is an award-winning American critic, nonfiction writer, playwright, novelist, biographer, and editor. In the following excerpt, he lauds Three Tall Women as "a wary act of reconciliation, whose pathos and poetry are a testament to the bond, however attenuated, between child and parent."]

For one terrible moment at the beginning of Three Tall Women, the pretension that has sunk so many of Edward Albee's theatrical vehicles in his middle years looms menacingly on the horizon. "It's downhill from sixteen on," says one of the women, a middle-aged character called B, who takes care of a rich, imperious, senile old bird called A and is herself a connoisseur of collapse. She goes on, "I'd like to see children learn it—have a six-year-old say 'I'm dying' and know what it means." But then, as we and the old lady settle into the demented fog of her remembering and forgetting, it becomes apparent that Albee has found his way back to the sour and passionate straight talking of his early, best plays.

The last great gift a parent gives to a child is his or her own death, and the energy underneath Three Tall Women is the exhilaration of a writer calling it quits with the past—specifically, the rueful standoff between Albee and his mother, the late Frances Cotter Albee, who adopted him only to kick him out of the family home, at eighteen, for his homosexual shenanigans and later to cut him out of her sizable will. The play has earned Albee, who is sixty-six, his third (and most deserved) Pulitzer Prize, but the writer's real victory is a psychological one—honoring the ambiguity of "the long unpleasant life she led" while keeping her memory vividly alive. Far from being an act of revenge or special pleading, the play is a wary act of reconciliation, 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. Here, in a set whose Empire furniture, mahogany parquet, flocked blue bedroom wallpaper, and resplendent silver tea service emphasize the iconography of privilege, and not the clutter of decline, sits the ninety-two-year-old A, a fragile, white-haired replica of Albee's mother. A is a spoiled, petulant, demanding, bigoted, manipulative old bat. "I'll fix him" she says of her absent son, her quicksilver emotions veering suddenly from tears to a hatred that includes B and a twenty-something female lawyer, C. "I'll fix all of 'em. They all think they can treat me like this. You all think you can get away with anything." A's transparent impotence makes the once horrible hectoring now merely laughable. But she is still a potent amalgam of dyspepsia and decrepitude. A former beauty (Albee's mother was briefly a model), A was protected first by the fortune of a face and then by a fortune. Her narcissism and her isolation are spectacular. "You take people as friends and you spend time at it, you put effort in, and it doesn't matter if you don't like them anymore—who likes anybody anymore?—you've put in all that time, and what right do they have to … to …" she says, her thoughts, like her life, evaporating disconcertingly before her eyes.

Act I paints the landscape of A's old age—the humiliations of incontinence, memory loss, confusion, and regret—and is dominated by the huge, heroic performance of Myra Carter. Ms. Carter, who is sixty-four and is new to me, gives one of the finest performance I've ever seen on the New York stage—an enormous feat of memory, energy, and observation. "I've shrunk!" she says, overwhelmed by the confusions, real and imagined, that beset her. "I'm not tall! I used to be so tall! Why have I shrunk?" Carter hits every vowel and consonant of Albee's words, filling each one with lucid thought and wonderful music. She growls, squawks, cackles, whimpers, rages through the torrent of emotion and memory that's called out of her by the two interlocutors. A's life turns out to have been a series of punishing losses: a sister who became a drunk; a mother who, when she moved into her daughter's home, became an enemy; a son who became a stranger; a husband who became first a philanderer and then a victim of cancer. Carter's face is still beautiful, and it lights up intermittently with childlike delight, even sweetness, which reminds us of the charm that A's former good looks exerted on the world, and mitigates the emptiness of the frivolous life she describes. "I was … well, I was naked; I didn't have a stitch, except I had on all my jewelry. I hadn't taken off my jewelry," A says, giggling, about a crucial episode of her early marriage, when "his pee-pee was all hard, and … and hanging on it was a new bracelet." Her husband wants a sexual favor that the well-mannered A can't and won't perform. She continues, "Well, it started to go soft, and the bracelet slid off, and it fell into my lap. I was naked; deep into my lap. 'Keep it,' he said and he turned and he walked out of my dressing room." She weeps at the memory, which sounds the first note of her husband's emotional retreat.

The ballast to A's dementia is provided by B, the droll and delightful Marian Seldes, who moves like a slow loris around the stage, her shoulders hunched as if lumbered with the weight of both her own and A's boredom with old age. "And so it goes" is her recurring catchphrase, which announces the giddy zone of resignation and detachment that she inhabits. "In the morning, when she wakes up she wets—a kind of greeting to the day, I suppose," she tells C, translating her irritation into little dollops of snideness to make it bearable. "The sphincter and the cortex not in synch. Never during the night, but as she wakes." B exists to register the old woman's existential anguish; and the inflexible C is there to broadcast moral horror. Albee is less successful with C, who is meant to be callow but—in the first act, at least—is just a poorly written prig. A lawyer sorting out A's unpaid bills, C (played by Jordan Baker) behaves more like an intemperate and insensitive teen-ager than like an employee. A, who is full of antique phrases like "Don't you get fresh," is also full of the ancient bigotries of her class. These draw implausible reactions from C. A's recollection of Irving Thalberg as "a real smart little Jew" prompts C's dopey outrage: "I'm a democrat." And, later, when A talks about "colored help" knowing their place ("none of those uppity niggers, the city ones"), C explodes in dismay, "Oh, Jesus Christ!" Her tone soon becomes predictable, and the character loses a purchase on the audience's imagination, which is focussed on A and on what she sees, at the end of Act I, as her inheritance of hate. "I think they all hated me, because I was strong, because I had to be," A says, rationalizing her self-involvement. "Sis hated me; Ma hated me; all those others, they hated me." She goes strangely silent after the speech. And Albee brings the curtain down with B and C realizing that their employer has had a stroke.

In Act II, by an ingenious coup de théâtre, Three Tall Women expands from a parental cameo to a vista of decline. At curtain rise, A is still collapsed in bed but now has an oxygen mask over her face. B and C seem to have dressed up for their bedside vigil in period high fashion—B in pearls and an elegant gray frock with a full, pleated fifties skirt, and C in a layered ankle-length cream chiffon dress that evokes the twenties. Then, as B and C bicker about death, and the conversation drifts to the absence of a living will and why A didn't write one, A herself, in an elegant lavender dress, walks in from the wings. "I was going to but then I forgot, or it slipped my mind, or something," she says. The moment is electrifying. The body in the bed turns out to be a mannequin. In this theatrical filip, Albee goes from a familiar external reality to a bold interior one. B and C are now projections of A, who speaks rationally for the duration of the play, responding from different stages of her life. Albee's wonderful invention allows him both to incarnate A's narcissism and to lift the play from characterization to meditation. What we get is a kind of Cubist stage picture, where the characters are fragments of a single self. The device is at its most eloquent when the son appears, in preppy clothes and clasping freesias, to sit by his comatose mother in a dumb show of devotion. The characters circle him:

C (Wonder): I have children?

B (None too pleasant): We have one; we have a boy.

A (Same): Yes, we do. I have a son.

B (Seeing him, sneering): Well, fancy seeing you again. (Sudden, and enraged, into his face) Get out of my house!

In this terrifying and terrible moment, the son doesn't react. In fact, he never speaks. B, the voice the son heard when he was growing up, berates him as "filthy," but A, from the distance of her dotage, begs for tolerance. "He came back; he never loved me, he never loved us, but he came back. Let him alone," she says, adding later, "Twenty-plus years? That's a long enough sulk—on both sides." Lawrence Sacharow, the director, stages these lines impeccably and with awful authenticity. The boy's muteness is a metaphor for the inconsolable gap between parent and child. It's also another of Albee's brilliant dramatic maneuvers: the child is forever outside the narcissistic parental embrace—seen but not heard.

The son's leave-taking ("He packed up his attitudes and he left," B says) is just one of a litany of losses that A and her former selves pick over in this fugue of hope and hurt. Inevitably, the play becomes a dance of A's defensiveness, as her psyche struggles to idealize itself. "I … will … not … become … you. I will not. I … I deny you," C says to A, who, in turn, is unrepentant and rejects their versions of life: "I'm here, and I deny you all; I deny every one of you." In this landscape of loneliness and heartache, C, at the finale, asks about the happy times. "I know my best times—what is it? happiest?—haven't happened yet. They're to come," she says. "Aren't they? Please?" B can't agree, preferring her own middle age: "It's the only time you get a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view—see in all directions. Wow! What a view!" But A has the final say, which is pitched, sardonically, like the happy ending of a Restoration play, with the characters joining hands to face the audience. With B and C on either side of her, A speaks her notion of the happiest moment in life. "When we stop. When we can stop," she says, and, as they together breathe and exhale for the last time, the lights fade to black. At the beginning of this gorgeous final speech, A catches herself lying about her age—a sweet vanity that Albee pays off with a joke. "Give a girl a break," she says to B. And that, finally, is what Albee's Three Tall Women does for his mother. The mute young man in the play can now, in his own middle age, give her the gift of his words, and make something beautiful and enduring about both her privilege and her neglect.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 7, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 174


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.

Weber, Bruce. "On Stage, and Off." The New York Times (15 April 1994): C2.

Relates events surrounding the decision to award Albee the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the merits of the other nominees.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Edward Albee Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Albee, Edward (Vol. 3)


Albee, Edward (Vol. 9)