The Lady from Dubuque

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1979

After being the dominant American playwright of the 1960’s, Edward Albee’s production in the following decade consisted of only two full-length dramas, All Over (1971) and Seascape (1975), and two one act plays, Counting the Ways and Listening (both 1977), none of which is really comparable, either artistically or commercially, with his earlier successes (although Albee did receive his second Pulitzer Prize for Seascape). To begin the decade of the 1980’s, Albee has offered a new full-length play, The Lady from Dubuque. Given his sparse recent efforts and the thematic experimentation evident in those works, one might expect it to indicate new directions, concerns, techniques, and insights.

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This experimentation, however, is not evident. For better or for worse—rather, for better and for worse—The Lady from Dubuque is a thoroughly typical Albee play, almost a synthesis of his earlier methods and themes. On the positive side, it is theatrically exciting, the timing and pacing are adroit, the characters are vivid and animated, if not complex or always convincing, the dialogue is sharp, potent, biting, clever, and occasionally beautiful, and the emotional climaxes are explosive. On the negative side, however, like so much of Albee’s post-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? work, The Lady from Dubuque is never quite in focus, either intellectually or emotionally. The relationship between the action of the play and the intellectual substructure that supports it seems needlessly ambiguous, perhaps even duplicitous.

Like All Over, The Lady from Dubuque explores the meanings and effects that a dying character has on those surrounding him / her. Yet, unlike the earlier play, the focal character in this essay on mortality is not hidden behind a hospital screen to expire out of sight, but is kept in the midst of things. Early in the play, during a game of “Twenty Questions,” Jo, a dark, slight suburban wife, tells her husband, the other partiers, and the audience, that “Your name is Sam, and this is your house, and I am your wife, and I am dying. ...” Die she does throughout the play, a little bit at a time, painfully, bitterly, sarcastically, and, finally, gently.

This juxtaposition of the party game with the dying throes of the play’s heroine establishes the very uneasy, ambiguous context of the play. The group activity is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Two couples visit Sam and Jo to drink, talk, and play party games. They seem to be old friends who have done this sort of thing for years, yet they treat one another with unrelieved disdain. “Where else,” says Fred, the most unpleasant of the unpleasant crew, “can you come in this cold world, week after week, as regular as patchwork, and be guaranteed ridicule and contempt?” The dynamics of the group are puzzling and unnerving. Is the steady stream of bitter vituperation that Jo heaps on her guests a reaction to her illness or was she always a bitch? Is the constant barrage of sophisticated hostility among the guests likewise a defensive reaction to Jo’s pending demise or has this been the group’s style from the beginning? There is no way the reader or audience member can know.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the brutal, manipulative games played by the two couples had a purpose and direction that was gradually revealed in the course of the play. Although undeniably unorthodox and neurotic, George, Martha, Nick, and Honey do eventually emerge as believable, understandable human beings. No such design is evident in The Lady from Dubuque; it is extremely unlikely that anyone would actually behave in real life the way the characters do in this play. The guests are at best types: Fred is the crude, bigoted, loudmouth lush; Carol, his girl friend, the “dumb floozie”; Edgar, the painfully “niceguy” that nobody can stand; Lucinda, his pitifully mediocre, ordinary wife. Jo and Sam are perhaps more real, yet their personalities are fixed by her illness: she is the bitter, dying wife, he the sympathetic, but increasingly helpless husband. Thus, if we must accept the characters and action of The Lady from Dubuque exclusively as “realistic melodrama,” we must judge it a somewhat disjointed and unconvincing failure.

Such a facile judgment, however, slights at least half of the play. Despite its realistic surface, there are numerous clues planted throughout the first act to warn us against taking the action too literally. Most importantly, the characters not only talk to one another, but also directly to the audience. Albee states very precisely how this is to be done in a long “Performance Note” that precedes the text: “It is of utmost importance that the actors make it clear that it is not they, but the characters, who are aware of the presence of the audience.”

At first, this direct contact with the audience seems like a quirky device, a bit of theatricality inserted into the play for its own sake, with little relation to the action. Nothing that is said to the audience is important in terms of plot, characterization, or theme. For the most part, the asides simply repeat, directly to the audience, what the character has already said to the cast. By the end of the first act, however, Albee’s strategy becomes clear. The asides have been necessary to undermine the play’s realism and prepare the audience for the thoroughly unrealistic element that will dominate the remainder of the work, the appearance of the “Lady from Dubuque.”

The inspiration for the character, as well as the title of the play, comes from the famous facetious remark made by Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker, that he did not edit his magazine for “the lady from Dubuque.” Albee’s lady—called Elizabeth in the text for reasons never made clear—is, of course, the antithesis of Ross’s archetypal mid-Western matron. She is beautiful, elegant, sophisticated, and extremely articulate; she arrives in the company of an equally elegant, handsome, worldly black man named Oscar. When they confront Sam in Act Two, the morning after the party, Elizabeth insists that she is Jo’s mother, come to her daughter in her hour of need. Sam denies this vehemently and it does seem most unlikely, especially since Jo’s mother had been described in the first act as an “old lady with pink hair” who lived in New Jersey. Almost a fourth of the act is devoted to Sam’s insistent, progressively distraught questioning of Elizabeth and her evasive, ironic, provocative responses, fortified by Oscar’s jocular, increasingly menacing asides. Sam is further frustrated when his previous night’s guests return and, except for the “dumb brunette” Carol, accept Elizabeth’s claims. When Sam’s frustrations provoke him to physical action, Oscar subdues him easily and Fred ties him up. Sam’s final puzzlement / humiliation comes when Jo enters, extremely disoriented, and not only accepts Elizabeth as “mother,” but also ignores Sam and is finally carried to bed, presumably to finish dying, by Oscar.

Thus, although Jo’s death is the focal event of the play and Elizabeth’s visit is ostensibly to her, it is Sam who emerges as the primary character in the play. His reactions to the mysterious visitors give the drama both its movement and its meaning. Whatever is to be learned in the play is learned by Sam and, through him, by the audience.

Sam’s development in the second act roughly corresponds to the “typical” behavior pattern exhibited by those facing terminal illness, either their own or that of an extremely close loved one. He begins with puzzlement and simple denial of the “reality” of Elizabeth and Oscar. He demands that they go away and, when that fails, he pleads. This leads to an attempt at “bribery” (“Take whatever you want. Take the stereo; take the television; there are three of them, take ’em all”), followed by active hostility, anger, loss of control, and violence. When these fail, helplessness, deflation, and quiet despair set in.Bye-bye; bye-bye. (A silence. Finally, SAM rushes from his chair, over to JO. ELIZABETH gestures OSCAR not to interrupt. SAM kneels by JO, grabs her by the shoulders, shakes her. We see that SHE is rubber. OSCAR watches from his position on the stairs. ELIZABETH stays where SHE was standing with CAROL). SAM (Tears; choking; loss; fury; tenderness) Do you want this? Hunh? (Shakes her) Is this what you want!? Yes!? ELIZABETH (Level; gentle) Of course she wants it. Just ... let her go. SAM (Shakes her) Because if this is what you want, I’m not any part of it; you’ve locked me out. I ... I don’t exist. I ... I don’t exist. Just ... tell me. (JO manages to look at him, puts her hands to his face, cups it) JO (Explaining; gently) Please ... just let me die? (SAM pulls away, stares at her, wracked with sobs. To the audience; explaining) Just let me die ... please?

Through all of his denial and hostility, we get the feeling that Sam really knows who Elizabeth and Oscar are and why they have come to the house. At the end, after Oscar has taken Jo away, there is a kind of reconciliation to the inevitable. Elizabeth ministers to Sam by telling a story about the end of the world. He listens like a little boy before a mother figure (as Jo had earlier). The final vision of death is as a gentle release: “No time to be afraid?” “No! No time! Everything done before you know it.”

Elizabeth—or Elizabeth and Oscar together—would seem, then, to be symbolic of death. Perhaps she represents the “gentle” side of death—cessation of pain, peace, resolution, return to the “bosom” of nature—while Oscar, a “dark angel,” suggests its violence, harshness, and finality. Both Albee and Alan Schneider, director of the Broadway production, however, have denied such an interpretation, while refusing to confirm an alternate view. Yet, if Elizabeth and Oscar are not symbols, what could they possibly be? Jo’s real mother and her paramour? A kooky couple that travels around spooking terminal patients and their families?

This is the kind of apparently contrived ambiguity that has plagued Albee’s work since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When Samuel Beckett denies that he knows who Godot is, we believe him, because the play is clearly about “waiting,” not Godot, and the identity of Godot is all the more provocative for being unknowable. We feel that Albee knows who Elizabeth and Oscar are, however, and is simply not telling. It seem like willful cleverness rather than metaphysical ambiguity.

This criticism may be too harsh: the problem may be less a matter of duplicity than of artistic indecision. Perhaps the difficulties in The Lady from Dubuque lie in the conflict between Albee’s desire to present a realistic view of people caught in a tragic situation and his inclination to dramatize abstract ideas about Death, Reconciliation, and Meaning. These two objectives are not necessarily antithetical, but in The Lady from Dubuque they clash, as they have clashed in a number of Albee’s later plays. All of Albee’s successful plays have either been straightforwardly realistic (Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance), or honestly symbolic (The American Dream, The Sandbox, Seascape). When he has tried to mix the two approaches in a single play, as in Tiny Alice or All Over, the results have been, at best, provocative confusion, and at worst, pretentious mannerism. The Lady from Dubuque escapes the excesses of these previous plays, but the realistic / symbolic split still prevents the play from achieving its dramatic or thematic potential. What could have been Albee’s most potent work in two decades is, rather, an intermittently powerful, occasionally provocative, ultimately disappointing play. In this theatrically barren time, however, even flawed Albee stands out.

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