Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

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Most of the critics who reviewed Three Tall Women when it appeared in Off-Broadway in 1994 were enthusiastic about the play. Moreover, they seemed relieved that he had finally produced another play that had wide popular and critical appeal. As a writer for the Economist declared, ‘‘after a long dry spell for American drama, relieved by successful imports from London, New York has a good, homemade play at last.’’

Several reviewers, including the New Republic’s Robert Brustein, noted Albee’s personal stake in the play. ’’Three Tall Women is a mature piece of writing,’’ Brustein judged, ‘‘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.’’

William A. Henry III concurred. In a review in Time, ‘‘Albee is exorcising his own demons in having the dowager deny her homosexual son.’’

In the New Yorker, John Lahr contended, ‘‘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.’’

Critics maintained that much of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play’s appeal seems to lie in the unique interaction as three separate aspects of the same woman. ‘‘Albee’s plays have always walked a line between heightened realism and dark comedy,’’ Jack Helbig wrote in Booklist. Even his most surreal works are populated with characters who wouldn’t seem out of place in real life.’’ In Three Tall Women, Helbig continued, the trio of characters are able to provide unique insight into one woman’s life because of their separate perspectives— a feat that can’t be accomplished in simple, realistic drama.

The character of A is the focal point of the play. As Tim Apello suggested in the Nation, ‘‘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.’’

Still, A is an unlikely dramatic hero, and as Brustein pointed out, it took a feat of adept artistic skill to make her sympathetic. ‘‘A is an entirely vicious old wretch,’’ Brustein asserted, ‘‘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.’’

Albee’s writing in Three Tall Women drew comparisons to a wide variety of other authors. Appelo observed, ’’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 guild, and with much less galumphing verbal rhythms.’’

In addition, Brustein suggested that the characters in the play suggest ‘‘a Beckett influence, though on the surface the play appears to be a drawingroom comedy in the style of A. R. Gurney.’’

In spite of the play’s insight into the human condition, its autobiographical perspective, and roundly recognized appeal, a handful of reviewers took exception with the relentlessness with which Albee pursues his themes. ’’Three Tall Women ... is by no means an entirely successful play,’’ Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times. ‘‘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.’’

Another Times critic, Vincent Canby, maintained: ‘‘Three Tall Women initially seems to be about the process of dying and death itself, though that’s not the full story. It’s more about the inevitable changes effected by time and circumstances, about the accumulation of events that can shape a character and that are so many they eventually become meaningless. It doesn’t help that at no one of her three ages is A a very interesting woman. She’s bossy and gauche as young C, bitter and tired as B and self-absorbed as old A.’’

A few disgruntled critics took an historical approach to criticizing the playwright, and wondered aloud where his talents had been hidden for so long. ‘‘Whatever happened to Edward Albee?’’ Stefan Kanfer sarcastically asked in the New Leader.

Kanfer actually found several things to praise about Albee’s play, but in the final analysis asserted: ‘‘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.’’

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