Combining Absurdist Drama with Realism

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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.

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 like The Zoo Story (1959) and The American Dream (1961). Thereafter, despite plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf(1962) that stylistically approached the realism of O’Neill, Williams, and Miller, Albee’s work was conveniently associated with writers of a new non-realistic movement, ‘‘absurdism.’’

Critic Martin Esslin popularized ‘‘absurdism’’ as a label in his 1961 study The Theatre of the Absurd. Esslin used the term to describe experimental plays produced mainly by European authors from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s. These writers—Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet among them—were influenced by the existential philosophy of artists like Jean Paul Sartre, who famously argued that human beings are ‘‘condemned to be free.’’ They sought to show their audiences how irrational and unjust the world could be.

To achieve their goals, absurdists produced plays that consciously countered traditional expectations of plot, character, language, and logic through a variety of anti-realistic techniques. For example, time and place were often unimportant and unknown. Plots in these plays did not necessarily develop through a series of cause-and-effect events. Instead, actions and dialogue often centered around themes or a particular mood. This thematic construction is often circular, with plots ending where they began.

Since communication through language was viewed as a rational tool (in an irrational world), absurdists often parodied language, and demonstrated how inadequate it was when actually trying to describe the human experience. Any attempts to improve the human condition in absurdist drama typically prove futile, or even comical in a dark way.

Some of the most famous absurdist plays include Genet’s The Balcony (1956), Ionesco’s The Chairs (1952) and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which is credited with introducing the absurdist movement to America in 1953.

Albee has employed the characteristics of absurdism throughout his career. As Jack Helbig noted in a review of Three Tall Women for Booklist, ‘‘Albee’s best plays have always walked a line between heightened realism and dark comedy. Even his most surreal works are populated with characters who wouldn’t seem out of place in real life.’’

This is certainly true of Three Tall Women, a play that contains many of the techniques of absurdism. The ‘‘plot’’ of Three Tall Women, for example, does not arise out of a series of cause-and-effect actions. There is, in fact, no clear ‘‘protagonist’’ seeking some kind of realistic goal. There is only an old woman, dying and attended by her caretaker and attorney, who later transform into aspects of her younger self. Instead of actions, the story centers on themes—youth and age, innocence and experience, sex, love, and disillusionment.

Like the absurdists, Albee also experiments with language as a means of revealing deeper, hidden meanings, and suggesting the irrationality of existence. With the character of A, he is able to blend realism with theatricality. A’s mental faculties are deteriorating along with her physical func tions, so she might be expected to act unexpectedly. Her sound is the sound of ‘‘half-naturalistic, wholly calculated incipient-Alzheimer’s talk,’’ as Tim Appelo pointed out in the Nation.

On a realistic level, this provides a reasonable excuse for A’s overt bigotry and childish pranks. Stylistically, it also allows for the play’s many monologues, soliloquies, and moments when the characters directly address the audience.

One of the most recognizable traits of absurdist writing is its nebulous treatment of character identities, time, and place, all of which are elusive in Three Tall Women. Ionesco’s plays are peopled with vague characters like ‘‘The Professor,’’ ‘‘The Pupil,’’ and ‘‘The Maid.’’ Beckett chose to christen his characters with nonsense names like ‘‘Hamm,’’ ‘‘Clov,’’ and ‘‘Nagg.’’

Albee, who has included figures as generic as ‘‘The Man’’ and ‘‘The Woman’’ in other plays, achieved an even more basic cast of characters in Three Tall Women by dubbing the ladies, simply, ‘‘A,’’ ‘‘B,’’ and ‘‘C.’’ Decisions such as this, however, cannot be made lightly, or without thought for the larger concerns of the play.

As Albee told a group of his students at the University of Houston (reported in the Texas Monthly), ‘‘Lack of resolution is not necessarily good. The difference between interesting ambiguity and unintentional ambiguity is very important. Ambiguity demands as much control as anything else does.’’ Just as ambiguous in Three Tall Women is the time and place of the play’s action. There is a specific location—a ‘‘wealthy’’ bedroom—reproduced on the stage, but the world outside is a mystery. The larger ‘‘place’’ of the play is never known, nor is it particularly important.

Most of the play, after all, takes place in the past, and is described rather than portrayed by the ‘‘three tall women’’ of the play’s title. Time becomes even more malleable in the hands of the characters themselves.

At the beginning of the play, A cannot decide if she is ninety-one or ninety-two years old. As she lays on her deathbed throughout the second act, B and C become separate aspects of A at different points in her life, and through the imagination of a dying woman nearly a century of experience is viewed simultaneously, through three separate prisms of experience.

Drawing a parallel to his absurdist predecessors, Robert Brustein noted in the New Republic, ‘‘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 ... Beckett compressed youth and age through the device of a tape recorder, Albee uses doppelgangers; but both plays evoke the same kind of existential poignance.’’

An ‘‘existential poignance’’ is what has driven some reviewers and theatergoers away from absurdist drama. Many found the approach of the absurdists to be unnecessarily depressing, and wondered (often aloud) why someone would go to such lengths to even write about such feelings. Esslin, however, found a very different motive at work. In The Theatre of the Absurd he suggests:

Ultimately, a phenomenon like the Theatre of the Absurd does not reflect despair or a return to dark irrational forces but expresses modern man’s endeavor to come to terms with the world in which he lives. It attempts to make him face up to the human condition as it really is, to free him from illusions that are bound to cause constant maladjustment and disappointment... Today, when death and old age are increasingly concealed behind euphemisms and comforting baby talk, and life is threatened with being smothered in the mass consumption of hypnotic mechanized vulgarity, the need to confront man with the reality of his situation is greater than ever. For the dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its senselessness; to accept it freely, without fear, without illusions— and to laugh at it.’’

Albee agrees. In an interview with The Progressive, he told Richard Farr, ‘‘I’ve found that any play which isn’t close to laughter in the dark is very tedious. And conversely, even the purest comedy, if it isn’t just telling jokes, has got to be tied to reality in some way. I think a play should do one of two things, and ideally both: It should change our perceptions about ourselves and about consciousness, and it should also broaden the possibilities of dra ma. If it can do both, that’s wonderful. But it’s certainly got to do one of the two.’’

The success of Three Tall Women may signal a play that has managed to do both—change our perceptions and broaden the scope of our drama. By combining traditionally absurdist techniques with a realistic situation, and infusing the whole with his own unique approach to language and age-old themes, Albee managed to convince his reviewers and audiences to once again approach him on his own terms, which is the only way he will write.

‘‘You learn from people who’ve come before you and who have done wonderful things,’’ Albee admits, ‘‘The trick is to take the influences and make them so completely you that nobody realizes that you’re doing anything else but your own work.’’

Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Glenn is a Ph.D. specializing in theatre history and literature.

Review of Three Tall Women

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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 funereal 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 welladjusted 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 heavyhanded 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 twentyfour- 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 lowestcommon- 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?

Source: Tim Appelo. Review of Three Tall Women in the Nation, March 14, 1994, pp. 355–56.

Review of Three Tall Women

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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, 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 talentless 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 infi- delities 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 halfway 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.

Source: Jeane Luere. Review of Three Tall Women in Theatre Journal, Vol. 44, no. 2, May, 1992, pp. 251–52.

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