Combining Absurdist Drama with Realism

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1994

As much as anything else, the popular success of Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Three Tall Women can be attributed to the fickleness of American scholars and theater reviewers.

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As numerous articles and interviews pointed out during the show’s lengthy New York run, Albee was once the darling of the American Theater scene. In the early 1960s he was hailed as the next Eugene O’Neill and was considered a literary genius of the age.

He quickly fell out of favor, however, and for more than twenty years his plays received only lukewarm, or even hostile response from New York reviewers. Albee found work teaching and directing, while he continued to write plays.

What changed? What great cultural upheaval or fundamental shift in Albee’s writing style suddenly made Three Tall Women more palatable than two decades of near misses? The playwright himself was hesitant to hazard a guess.

"Three Tall Women is the first play [of mine] that has gotten almost unanimously favorable press in the United States," Albee told American Theatre, "But I didn’t expect it to, necessarily. I think of my plays as a continuing pattern of me writing. I don’t think I’ve written a bad play or a good play; I don’t think in those terms."

It is precisely Albee’s unwillingness to think in conventional terms, to create a ‘‘good’’ play or a ‘‘bad’’ play based on current cultural standards, that has set him at loggerheads with American critics. Ironically, it is also his insistence on defining his own terms that has led him to be one of the most influential (though not most produced) American playwrights of the twentieth century.

While fickle reviewers like Stefan Kanfer in the New Leader asked, ‘‘Whatever happened to Edward Albee?’’ artistic allies like Lawrence Sacharow, the director of the American premiere of Three Tall Women, insist the playwright has been toiling away at the same kind of work—his own—throughout his career, whether it was popular or not. ‘‘There’s a perfectly logical through-line from The Zoo Story to here,’’ Sacharow told the Dallas Morning News.

That through-line, which is quite apparent in Three Tall Women, is a combination of styles: Albee’s unique blend of absurdist elements and American realism, mixed with characters, themes and dialogue that are distinctly ‘‘Albee-esque.’’

In a 1962 essay for New York Times Magazine titled ‘‘Which Theatre is the Absurd One?’’ Albee defended his style of writing plays, insisting that ‘‘The avant-garde theatre is fun; it is free-swinging, bold, iconoclastic and often wildly, wildly funny. If you will approach it with childlike innocence-putting your standard responses aside ... if you will approach it on its own terms, I think you will be in for a liberating surprise.’’

He was reacting to reviewers who already, so early in his professional career, had begun categorizing and criticizing him according to how well his plays fit in with typical Broadway fare, which for most of the twentieth century has meant realism in every aspect of production.

While many of America’s best-known playwrights have experimented with form and style, by and large their most popular plays have contained plots, characters, settings and themes that are realistic. Eugene O’Neill penned Expressionistic dramas like The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, but he is mainly remembered for his realistic plays like Desire Under the Elms and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Likewise Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller dabbled in experimental styles of writing, but both achieved their greatest successes with more recognizably realistic plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Death of a Salesman.

Albee, on the other hand, found his initial success Off -Broadway with short, quirky one-acts...

(The entire section contains 4899 words.)

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