Three Tall Women

by Edward Albee

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Three Tall Women

Three Tall Women premiered on 14 June 1991 at the English Theatre in Vienna, in a production directed by Albee. It debuted in America on 27 January 1994 at the Vineyard Theatre, New York. Douglas Aibel was the Artistic Director and Jon Nakagawa was the Managing director for this first U.S. staging. The play begins with a meeting between an elderly woman in her nineties known as A, her middle-aged caretaker 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' shortcom ings. The first act ends as A suffers a stroke, and in subse quent scenes Albee departs from a strictly realistic plot, having all three characters appear as various manifestations of A at different times during her life. The play concerns stereotypes and familial ties, and is considered largely autobiographical; in his introduction to the published version of the play, Albee has stated that the character A was based on his mother, and the relationship between parent and playwright mirrors that of A and her homosexual son.


Several reviewers have accorded Three Tall Women qualified approval, noting several shortcomings in the play; nevertheless, it has earned Albee his third Pulitzer Prize. Ben Brantley has found the play obvious but has admired its "affecting emotional core." Stefan Kanfer has labeled the play "elegant" but has judged it a decidedly "minor effort." Other critics, including John Simon, Robert Brustein, and John Lahr, have been enthusiastic in their appreciation of the drama. Lahr has called Three Tall Women "a wary act of reconciliation, whose pathos and poetry are a testament to the bond, however attenuated, between child and parent." A recurring theme in commentary on the play has been its relation to Albee's other works. Tim Appelo has noted several similarities between Three Tall Women and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. These two works, he has declared, "seem parallel, sister dramas reaching out to each other across the intervening wastes and oases of Albee's career." Marian Faux, too, has seen similarities between the two plays and has detected a characteristic concern with family conflict. William Hutchings, however, has observed affinities between Three Tall Women and works by Samuel Beckett, judging Albee's the lesser effort. August W. Staub has placed the play in a wider context, assessing it in terms of classical Greek views of life and art. He has concluded that Three Tall Women "is at once very ancient and completely contemporary, so contemporary, in fact, that it might well be called one of the great summation moments of 20th century theatre."

Production Reviews

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Ben Brantley (review date 14 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee Conjures Up Three Ages of Women," in The New York Times, 14 February 1994, pp. C13,C16.

[In the review below, Brantley expresses several reservations about Three Tall Women, but concedes that "there is an undeniably affecting emotional core and a shimmeringly black sense of humor" to the play.]

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...

(This entire section contains 8986 words.)

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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 caretaker, 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 relationship 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. And one could do without such leaden touches as Ms. Seldes's choral repetition of the phrase "And so it goes."

All that said, there is an undeniably affecting emotional core and a shimmeringly black sense of humor, dazzlingly interpreted by the bold, inventive performances of Ms. Carter and Ms. Seldes. (Ms. Baker is unable to make much of the relatively thankless role of uncomprehending youth.)

In the first act, in particular, Ms. Carter is sublime. Alternately imperious, coquettish and infantilely mawkish, she captures the flame of exasperated willfulness that still burns in this woman, as she pursues her evanescent memories like a bloodhound.

Ms. Seldes is just as impressive, though in an utterly different, audaciously stylized way. As the caretaker in the first act, she has a sly, gremlin-like crouch and a delivery that slices the air. Like Mr. Albee himself, her character sees the grotesque universal joke in the old woman's situation. (The scene in which she pantomimes stealing the household silver, in response to suspicious questions from the old woman, is priceless.) In the second act, she trenchantly conveys the barbed, elegant worldliness of A at 52 as well as the swelling repository of anger behind it.

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. And the evening holds the considerable added benefit of two of the most riveting performances in town.

Stefan Kanfer (review date 14-28 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Time—and Again," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXVII, No. 2,14-28 February 1994, pp. 22-3.

[In the review below, Kanfer affords Three Tall Women qualified approval, considering it an "elegant minor efforf."]

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 ar-rival 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.

John Simon (review date 28 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Trifurcating Mom," in New York Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 9, 28 February 1994, pp. 118-19.

[In this review, Simon expresses pleasant surprise at the quality of Three Tall Women. If the device of three actors depicting different ages of the same character is a "gimmick, " he declares, "it is an inspired one. "]

Few playwrights have had such a spectacular rise and fall as Edward Albee. The celebrated author of The Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? turned into the execrated perpetrator of The Lady From Dubuque and The Man Who Had Three Arms, and landed somewhere between obloquy and oblivion. If someone had told me how good his Three Tall Women (1991) is, I wouldn't have believed him; I hardly believed my own eyes and ears.

The play is said to concern Albee's mother, but that is almost as irrelevant as that he was an adopted child who subsequently became estranged from his family. At most one could say that this allowed him both a special closeness to his protagonist and a certain distance, both of which he has turned to good advantage. In Act One, he views his nonagenarian heroine, A, from the outside, dispassionately. In Act Two, as she lies dying, he creates her passionately from the inside. From the outside, A is a bit of a pain both to B, her hired companion, and to C, the woman lawyer whom B has called in to straighten out A's finances. From the inside, Albee splits the woman into three selves—the young, the middle-aged, and the old (the actress playing C becoming the first of these; the one playing B, the second)—and brings them on in a three-way conversation to sort out the salient facts about her life and other lives intertwined with hers.

If this is a gimmick, it is an inspired one; the change of perspective is no more unsettling than reversing a reversible raincoat, and much more rewarding. Because B and C become different persons in the process, a double perspective operates for them, too: The tough, cynical C becomes the 26-year-old, naïve A, a woman sexually and existentially confused as marriage beckons; the hunched-over and subservient yet also saucy companion, B, becomes the fiftyish A, at the height of her rich woman's powers but also confronted with the setbacks a mediocre marriage and aging flesh are heir to. As for A, she is now no longer the dotty crone, a nuisance in her dotage, but the shrewd old lady with many a penetrating insight. And all this is played out against the background of … but no, I must leave room for surprise.

If you think I have revealed too much as is, I ask how else I could have conveyed the canniness and multivalence of Albee's construction. I do not share Albee's worldview—a kind of scurrilous bonhomie or amused contempt that sometimes parts to reveal better and worse things behind it—but no one can question its personal validity and dramatic efficacy. Especially noteworthy is the author's ability to keep the three women in Act Two both different and identical, the markedly diverse phases of the unmistakably same being. The three tall women of Act One become one tall woman in quirky triplicate, but in both acts, the tallness is not merely physical. Even senile or servile, stooped with age or inferior rank, these women retain proud vestiges of a shady, ambiguous grandeur.

What Albee has wrestled down here is his self-contradictory tendency toward attitudinizing hauteur and lowdown nastiness; to the extent that rudiments of both are still there, they have been polished and domesticated: There is no longer the freakish feel of a keyboard being played only at its two extremities. And he has been staunchly supported by his director and cast. Lawrence Sacharow moves his three women around as much as decently possible, avoiding both statically talking heads and arbitrary, gratuitous choreography. B's crouch in Act One may seem a bit B-movieish, but it works, and the use of the few but good props is telling.

As A, Myra Carter is A-l in my book. She prattles on or zeroes in with equal command, and negotiates the terrain from Alzheimer's to zippiness with roguishly sportive ease, even when lightning U-turns are required. As B—indeed, as both Bs—Marian Seldes gives the performance of her lifetime: There is spice to her obsequiousness, bite to her throwaway lines, bemusement in her self-possession. As C—or the two Cs—Jordan Baker is not quite in the same league, but more or less holds her own. These three are not a crowd; they are a company.

Tim Appelo (review date 14 March 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in The Nation, Vol. 258, No. 10, 14 March 1994, pp. 355-56.

[In the following admiring assessment, Appelo finds several parallels between Three Tall Women and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?]

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 un-plugged, 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 inter-viewer 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 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 les-sons 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 everbickering 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)

SOURCE: "The Rehabilitation of Edward Albee," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 14, 4 April 1994, pp. 26-8.

[In the following, Brustein offers a laudatory review of Three Tall Women. "Most of us have encountered horrible old women like A, " he notes; "It is Albee's personal and professional triumph to have made such a woman fully human. "]

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 lionized Amer ican 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 (Vineyard Theater), 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. Lawrence Sacharow's direction reinforces this mood, shaping performances of considerable grace.

Myra Carter as the aged A combines the classic calm of Gladys Cooper with the snappish temper of Bette Davis. She can move from meanness to winsomeness and back again in nothing flat. (When C, coolly played by Jordan Baker, accidentally hurts A's shoulder, Carter throws her a look of such ferocity I expected the younger actress to shatter.) Marian Seldes, angular and inscrutable as B, her hands thrust deeply into her cardigan, plays the part as if she is continually tasting something bitter, screaming "Bad Girl!" when A breaks a glass in the sink. 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.

John Lahr (review date 16 May 1994)

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

[In the highly favorable review below, Lahr declares Three Tall Women "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 performances 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 peepee 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 (S ame): 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.

Richard Hornby (review date Autumn 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, Autumn 1994, pp. 434-35.

[In the mixed review below, Hornby judges Three Tall Women overwritten and "sluggish, " but a "fairly good play " nonetheless.]

Edward Albee's latest play, Three Tall Women, won the Pulitzer and three other major prizes, plus the hearts and minds of almost every critic in New York except me. It is, in fact, a fairly good play, but suffers from the excessive narrative that, although beautifully written, makes so much of Albee's late work sluggish. The central figure is a wealthy, nameless widow aged ninety-two, incontinent and senile, with a painful broken arm that will not heal. In contrast to her decrepit condition, her surroundings are lavish—in the Promenade Theatre production, the setting, designed by James Noone, was a gorgeous, French-style bedroom, with patterned blue silk wallpaper, parquet floors, and an Oriental carpet.

The old woman, identified in the program only as "A," is attended by a paid companion, a restless grumbler identified as "B," played by Marian Seldes as bony, angular, and twisted, with an evil grin on her face, a nightmarish, Strindbergian figure. "C," a young woman lawyer, has arrived to try to take charge of A's financial affairs; unsigned checks and unpaid bills have piled up. The old woman babbles of her youth; the companion smiles and complains; the lawyer makes snide comments.

After an hour of these three decidedly unpleasant tall women, I was ready to leave, but Albee was setting us up. At the end of Act 1, the old woman has a stroke; Act 2 consists of her fantasies as she is dying. She imagines herself as holding a conversation among herself as a young woman in her twenties, a middle-aged matron in her fifties, and as her ancient, dying self. The two younger women are played, in her dream, by C and B, respectively. Reexamining her life through the wrong end of the telescope gives it a pattern, a meaning, though it is in fact a story of betrayal, alienation, and physical suffering. Her husband, whom she married for money, turned out to be a philanderer; she had an affair with a stableman in revenge, and then got the man fired. The husband died a lingering death from prostate cancer (reiterating the theme of gross physicality in the midst of affluence). Her son became completely alienated from her. The arguments in Act 2 are on a different plane from the bickering in Act 1 : What is the best age of life? What is the happiest moment? What does it all mean? The emotional coldness that has characterized her personality is finally transfigured, into art.

Myra Carter was superb as the ninety-two-year-old, a large and demanding role that would tax even a young person. Jordan Baker was convincing as the lawyer, but was hampered by a shrill voice and muscular tension around her mouth. Marian Seldes, as mentioned, gave a potent performance as the twisted companion, made all the more impressive by her transformation into an elegant matron in a fifties Dior dress in Act 2. The costumes, by Muriel Stockdale, were quietly impressive, while Lawrence Sacharow's direction was brisk and polished.

Marian Faux (review date December 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 46, No. 4, December 1994, pp. 541-43.

[In this evaluation of Three Tall Women, Faux observes that "the familyhis familyhas always been [Albee's] great subject, but rarely has he managed to write about it with so little personal rancor. "]

Edward Albee's third Pulitzer prize-winning play Three Tall Women is a meditation on a woman's life and mortality cleverly viewed from three different stages (no pun intended) of life: youth, middle age, and old age. In the first act, a woman known only as "A," played splendidly by English actress Myra Carter, who originated the role at Vienna's English Theatre in June 1991 (see Theatre Journal, 44: 251-52), is a stately and very rich powerhouse trying to come to terms with her diminished powers—physical, mental, and emotional.

As is usual in Albee plays, what is clear is also often contradictory. A's character being no exception, she was born to a lower-middle class family, to parents who may, or may not, have been overly strict, or overly permissive. In any event, they send her to live in New York City. Her mission: To marry rich. Because A has no fortune of her own, her choices are limited, and she ends up marrying a rich, short, one-eyed man whose wit and fortune are real enough but whose social cachet is obviously yet to be determined by her. By her own account, A does her job admirably, and she and her husband end up an American version of horsey country gentry.

A is attended by a crone named B, "crone" being the only word to describe Marian Seldes' first-act performance as A's solicitous (but perhaps malicious), mostly kind (but perhaps cruel) caretaker.

Also present when the play opens is a beautiful young lawyer—C—who has come to visit in order to lecture A on her financial affairs. (She's played by Jordan Baker.) With her beauty and youth, C is incapable of either sympathy or empathy, unable to imagine that she could ever turn into a peevish, impotent old woman. She's impatient at having to listen to the reminiscences of A, even though A was once a great beauty like herself.

Act 1 ends abruptly when A suffers a stroke in mid-sentence. In a wonderful kind of reversal of fates that can only happen in the theatre, in act 2 C does become A—at a slightly insipid and narcissistic twenty-six years of age. The only surprise from her is her determination to have a little fun before she settles down to a marriage that she openly acknowledges will be more about business than love. Carter's character becomes herself about twenty years earlier, still spritely and full of a kind of wisdom that had abandoned her in act 1. Most miraculously, B is transformed into A in sumptuous middle age, a woman truly in her prime. The women spar with one another to show what really happened, or should have happened, in their lives.

If a middle-aged A had the best perspective, an elderly A is the most contemplative, the most capable of parsing out what exactly it was that she accomplished—or railed to accomplish. She no longer cares about the luxurious surroundings she's spent her entire life struggling to obtain, and in fact is no longer sure the struggle was worth it: "It's all glitter," she observes. But her young self disagrees: "No, it's tangible proof we're valued."

This is a highly personal play. In countless interviews, Albee has said he wrote it as a kind of exorcism of his adoptive mother, who, he claims, never learned to like, let alone love him. If so, he appears to have come to terms with their relationship, including how she lived her life, and even man-ages to be quite generous toward her—and by extension, to other women like her. While making the point that this is a world where all women are kept in one way or another, he still manages to see what it took for her to survive. "They all hated me because I was strong," A recalls. "Strong and tall."

Albee is especially empathic to the middle-aged A. In our ageist society, where a woman's power is widely viewed as declining in direct proportion to her age (and diminishing beauty), he introduces a novel idea, namely, that age fifty can be as satisfying to a woman as to a man. Age fifty really was the best time, an elegantly mid-life Marian Seldes pronounces, the only time when "you're really happy," when you "get a 360-degree view" of your life.

James Noone has designed a set that is appropriately Park Avenue WASP—heavy draperies; a small French chair; a large, well-dressed bed; lush fabrics; and small pillows laden with fringe and braid. It all implies a sort of order than cannot be invaded by the outside world—although in this play, it is indeed order, of a most personal sort, that is crumbling before our eyes. At various times, both C and B (the latter playing a middle-aged A) smooth the fringe on the same pillow. To the elderly A, though, the pillow no longer symbolizes anything. Order in her life now boils down to her daily struggle against the ravages of a weak bladder.

For a playwright who has built a career around challenging audiences with his minimalism and obscurantism, it's ironic that Albee's two most successful plays, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Three Tall Women, are his most accessible and also his most traditional, more so in their staging but also in their language and ideas. Can it be that his adoptive mother's death has freed him to confront his demons more directly than he has done in past plays? Like Tennessee Williams, the family—his family—has always been his great subject, but rarely has he managed to write about it with so little personal rancor.

Critical Commentary

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William Hutchings (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn 1995, pp. 799-800.

[In the following evaluation of the published version of Three Tall Women, Hutchings observes numerous similarities between the play and works by Samuel Beckett. Albee 's drama, the critic complains, "domesticates the dramatic territories that Beckett so relentlessly, evocatively, and innovatively explored. They have now been made accessible andin every senseplain. "]

Identified only as B and C, two of the three tall women of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama are engaged in a deathwatch for the third, the ninety-two-year-old, bedridden, bitingly sarcastic A. B, according to Albee's production notes, "looks rather as A would have at 52," while C "looks rather as B would have at 26." In the first act the three are distinctly separate characters, generationally different but sometimes overcoming their mutual incomprehensions. The second act, however, perpetrates an intriguing, Pirandello-like change: the three generations represented on stage are no longer three separate people in the room at one time but one person at three separate ages in her life. As in the first act, though from an entirely different and newly subjective perspective, the women's interactions and mutual interrogations mingle past and present, youth and age, memory and desire.

Albee's three-page introduction provides particularly candid insights into his personal animus—in both senses of that word. The character of A is based on

… my adoptive mother, whom I knew from infancy … until her death over sixty years later.… We had managed to make each other very unhappy over the years.… It is true I did not like her much, could not abide her prejudices, her loathings, her paranoias, but I did admire her pride, her sense of self. As she moved toward ninety, began failing both physically and mentally, I was touched by the survivor, the figure clinging to the wreckage only partly of her own making, refusing to go under.

Nevertheless, he insists, the play is neither a "revenge play" nor a search for "self-catharsis."

With its relatively static dramatic form, its thanatopsic subject matter, and some of its specific imagery, Three Tall Women has strong affinities with a number of Samuel Beckett's shorter plays. The second act's poignant juxtaposition of past and present selves resembles Krapp 's Last Tape, though Albee depicts them as physical presences on stage rather than as a technologically evoked absence—and each can interrogate the others. The voices of Beckett's ThatTime are similarly identified as A, B, and C and are all the single character's own, coming from three distinct points in the darkness; the presence of the women for the deathwatch also suggests, in varying ways, Footfalls, Rockaby, and Come and Go. After much weeping (which Beckett's characters never do) and after talk of "going on" (that most familiar Beckettian refrain), A, dying, attains "the point where you can think about yourself in the third person without being crazy"—as in Beckett's Not I. In the final speech of Albee's play, A concludes that life's "happiest moment" is "coming to the end of it [her own existence]"—attaining (perhaps) the oblivion for which, futilely, many of Beckett's characters yearn.

With its realistic set of "a 'wealthy' bedroom" rather than the ominous darkness of the Beckettian void, with characters of a specific and privileged social class, Three Tall Women domesticates the dramatic territories that Beckett so relentlessly, evocatively, and innovatively explored. They have now been made accessible and—in every sense—plain.

August W. Staub (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Public and Private Thought: The Enthymeme of Death in Albee's Three Tall Women," in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Vol. XII, No. 1, Fall 1997, pp. 149-58.

[In the essay below, Staub examines Albee 's dilemma in presenting the act of dying in Three Tall Women. "Stated simply, " he observes, "Albee's problem … is how, in a completely public art such as theatre, can the single most intimate and private act of an individual's life be presented for public consideration? "]

The issue of the public and the private is especially poignant in our culture because, even as we contemporaries are defined by our privacies, we are driven by our politics to find means of presenting those privacies in public. Twentieth-century culture displays a history of seeking boundary crossings between the signifier and the signified, between the sign shared by the public and the event in its privacy. Jacques Lacan argues in "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious" that metaphor is the agent that crosses the bar which divides the signified from the signifier (515).

The intense sentimentalism of Lacan's observation appeals to those of us in the arts, for we see it as a triumph of poetry over science. But the burden of this paper is to differ with Lacan and to argue that both science and poetry speak in the same manner in our culture and that manner is by way of public, not private, thought. In this regard, I am most interested in the function of theatre as an ideal medium for public thought.1

I do not mean by public thought a formal system of logic, but rather a mental process shared by a given civic order. This mental process was called the enthymeme by Aristotle some 2,500 years ago. I want to explore the enthymeme as it operated in ancient Greek culture, and as it operates today, especially in the theatre and especially in contemporary treatments of death and dying such as Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.

In the Poetics, Aristotle lists dianoia as one of the six elements of structure. The term may perhaps be translated as "thought," but Aristotle gives no definition. Instead he refers us to his work on rhetoric, to which he says the issue of thought properly belongs (Poetics, XIX, 2). In the Rhetoric, Aristotle makes clear immediately that rhetoric is a type of thinking the counterpart of dialectic (Book I, 1) but it is not concerned with what seems logical to an individual but what seems logical to a given class (Book I, 2). That is, rhetoric is concerned with public thinking, phronesis, or the practical thought processes common to a given civic order. As such, rhetoric is characterized by the enthymeme, a thought process used by the group, as opposed to formal logic or the syllogism (Staub, "Rhetoric and Poetic" 5).

Because Aristotle gives no further definition, the traditional assumption has been that the enthymeme is some sort of faulty syllogism, but of late new rhetoricians have taken issue with such an assumption.2 As Eugene Garver declares in his recent and illuminating study of Rhetoric, we cannot define the enthymeme as a syllogism with defective or probable premises or with a missing premise (Garver 150). The enthymeme is not poor or secondary logic but, as Garver observes, the process of thought employed by a civic intelligence.

Since the whole thrust of classical Greek culture was the perfection of civic life, it is not surprising that Aristotle felt no compulsion to defend the value of the enthymeme or to engage in lengthy definition. Of its nature he says only that it must not employ long chains of reasoning or it will lose clarity nor should it include every link else it fall into prolixity (Rhetoric, Book II, 22).

But there is considerably more to the enthymeme than brevity. To understand its complexity, we must see the enthymeme as suasion in action, and to do that we must go to the only complete surviving examples of public life in ancient Greece: the dramenon of the city-wide festivals, frequently cited by Aristotle himself. Unquestionably, in Greek theatre the method was to present public figures (Kings, Queens, Potentates, Gods) thinking and acting publicly to encourage a public thought process in the spectators. Greek plays are clearly events of the civic assembly, organized around a chorus which represents the civic order of the play, and presented at public festivals before spectators who are only too aware of each other's presence in a sunlit and open seeing place. Indeed, the very seeing-place itself is crucial to all Greek thinking, for as Charles Segal and others point out: "The Greeks are a race of spectators." To see a thing is to understand that thing. "The Greek word theoria implies the same identification of knowledge with vision as that expressed in the common verb to know, oida, taken from the root vid—to see (The Greeks 193).

Moreover, the dramas were the first public events in which myth was used enthymemeically, as a rational device for a public assemblage. Of course, the epic preceded the drama and the rhapsode was also presenting myth in a public assemblage. But the art of the rhapsode is one based on example, a string of examples, not upon an enthymeme. Indeed, Aristotle clearly differentiates in the Rhetoric between the enthymeme and the example (Book II, 19-20). The essential difference lies in the dynamics of the thought process. The enthymeme, particularly in drama, entails twisting ideas together in a non-linear action; reasoning from example, as in the epic, requires a linear procedure and thus a longer chain of reasoning, the very thing Aristotle cautions against in rhetorical argument. Indeed, the Greeks recognized the difference between linear thought—logos—and the more supple and more active and twisted practical thought—metis (Detienne and Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society), a difference which today might be drawn between binary choices and a more fluid quantum suasion.

The maker of a dramenon was a transition agent. On the one hand, he was a logo-graphien: a writer of stories engaged in the structuring of narratives, but unlike the epic maker, his narratives were for the sighted and therefore immediately-knowing group. Dramas are for spectators not audiences, and as a consequence they are enthymemic and mythic. As with any myth, they are to be grasped as a thing-in-action which serves as a singular proof of its own validity because it is seen to be. Indeed, as Aristotle points out, it is the mythos that is the soul of the dramenon just as the enthymeme is the soul of rhetoric. It is my contention that the two are the same and that the mythos of drama may be called the dramatic enthymeme.

What is the nature of the dramatic mythos that makes it identical with the rhetorical enthymeme? Like the rhetorical enthymeme, dramatic mythos begins close to the point of suasion so that its action will not be obscure and, like the rhetorical enthymeme, it does not fill in all the links so that it may be brief. But most important of all, the dramatic enthymeme is always a trope, in the true Greek sense of the word as a full turn about.3That is, the dramaticenthymeme always presents two or more actions turned-in upon them-selves. This turning-in is the stasis (Aristotle also uses the term peripetia or turn around). The most common meaning for the term stasis is civil war, and like war the dramatic stasis is not a fixed point, as it will become in Roman thought, but a collection of agonistic energies (dynamos), a dynamic event which holds in tension the actions of the prostasis and that of the exstasis (ecstasy) so that the entire movement may be seen altogether, just as we currently perceive the universe in quantum terms. That is why it is appropriate to call the dramatic enthymeme a trope—a turning-upon or twisting about. All mythoi in drama are so constructed.

Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter is finally twisted together with his own sacrifice by Clytemnestra. Indeed, the very peripetia which entwines the two killings is a public and entirely visual event—Agamemnon's removing of some sort of foot gear and his treading barefoot on some sort of sacred carpet. It was a very public spectacle of great potency to be grasped by the civic intelligence of the assembled Greek spectators. We sense that some powerful energy is at work, but it is no longer convincing to us. It is not ourenthymeme, but theirs.

"In the twining or braiding together of the existing assumptions of a given cultural group the suasion of the enthymeme occurs" (Staub 8). On the simplest metaphorical or metonymic level we can see the enthymeme at work in such a phrase as "Richard the Lionhearted," an enthymeme in which we literally argue that a particular English king was brave because we, as a group, have twisted together his name, the part of his body considered to be the source of such emotions, and the image of a lion. This is a brief but extremely complex trope which calls for considerable mental agility.

But a culture which knew not lions would draw no conclusion from the joining of Richard's heart with a lion. That group could not nor should not be considered unintelligent because they were not affected by a particular trope. On the other hand, we should be cautious in assuming that tropes are faulty or simplistic thought. They may well be classified as the highest order of thought, even though they depend upon a civic and not a singular intelligence.

Indeed, it is precisely because troping, the fundamental enthymeme, is so complex and agile, exactly because it involves the apprehension and joining of energy and motion in its very structure, that it must grow out of a public and civic intelligence. Consider the complicated web of entwined events which make up the stunning and disturbing enthymeme known as Oedipus Tyrannus. First, there is the act of abandoning the infant to prevent his murdering his father, enfolded with the action of the grown son fleeing his home to escape his murdering his father, twisted with the action of his inadvertently killing his father, entwined with his unwittingly marrying his mother and having children by her, children who are his own brothers and sisters. This whole trope is enmeshed within itself even as the narrative of the dramenon begins so that it is an active helix turning endlessly upon itself, imploding throughout the short play. Indeed, the most significant event of the dramenon proper is the stasis or civil war between Oedipus and Jocasta in which she realizes that public shame is inevitable and commits suicide. Following his vision of his dead mother, Oedipus explodes the stasis into a public ecstasy of sorrow. The final suasive twist by which the whole trope is displayed is Oedipus' embracing of his own siblings as his children. The poet's intent is that the spectators are persuaded to pity and terror, because they see the final explosion of the complicated trope which they knew from their cultural assumptions could not forever implode. This logic of implosion-explosion, of tension and release, is the logic of the trope. Moreover, tropic logic consists in equal parts of past—and therefore—proven events entwined with present actions forming a single complex presented in a see-able whole movement.

The great achievement of the Greek dramatic poets, what raises them above the epic poet in the estimation of Aristotle, is the fashioning of the dramatic trope—the twisting together of images in an implosion-explosion turn-about—which is the very essence of public thought. That creation depends in great part on the facility of sight and therefore is especially the province of theatre—the art of the seeing place.

The Greek achievement was to last for centuries, even to our present time. Among the more telling of modern variations on the dramatic trope are found in the sciences: the Special Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. As John Casti in his delightful little study, Paradigms Lost, points out, Einstein introduced the idea that there is no such thing as an objective, observer-independent event (418), that is, one to be understood as linear. In short, the Special Theory of Relativity argued that understanding the universe was an enthymemic act, and moreover, since time and space were braided together in a single trope, that the enthymeme was a dramatic one.

Quantum Mechanics goes one step further in offering all of reality as an interchangeable braid: an enthymeme in which we may untangle the braid—to see it as wave or particle—as we wish, depending upon our way of seeing. Indeed, in John Cramer's special concept of Transactional Interpretation, the very act of observing is a complex dramatic trope in which the light of the past as it comes to us from a very distant star reaching into the present is "met half-way" as it were, by the agonistic light emanating from our eyes reaching back into the past (Casti 465). Thus we not only see the past, but at a certain point-of-turn-around, we see into the past just as the past sees into us. In an extraordinary way, Cramer's transactional interpretation restates the ancient Greek view of vision in which the rays sent forth by an object combine with the rays sent forth from the observer's eyes so that an image is constructed between the two. Talk about a quantum universe!

I bring this long argument now to an especially contemporary moment in the theatre: Edward Albee's 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Three Tall Women. Here is a work centered on the event of one woman's death. In its structure, it is at once very ancient and completely contemporary, so contemporary, in fact that it might well be called one of the great summation moments of 20th century theatre. Three Tall Women could not have been written before the theatre had been won for the enthymeme known as Realism, nor before the breakthrough of the Expressionists into the inner vision of the consciousness, what Carol Mavor calls "the gaze of the invisible, a sensate gaze from inside the body" (82). Nor could Three Tall Women have been written before Einstein's concepts of relativity, nor before Quantum Mechanics, nor before the fluidity of cinema, nor even before the outrageous manipulation of time in the theatre by such postmoderns as Caryl Churchill.

This is not to argue that Three Tall Women is not a completely original work. It is indeed, but it is a work of the theatre of its times and a work of a seeing and public art. Three Tall Women is also an ancient work, for it clearly invokes one of humanity's oldest myths, that of the triple goddess in her trinity of girl, nymph and hag. In its ancient guise, Three Tall Women makes it clear that it intends to be an enthymeme not a syllogism, for its subject matter can only be understood enthymemically.

Stated simply, Albee's problem in Three Tall Women is how, in a completely public art such as theatre, can the single most intimate and private act of an individual's life be presented for public consideration? His solution is embedded in the late 20th century. He chooses, without apology or explanation, the contemporary enthymemes of science. In the first act of Albee's drama, we meet three women: one ancient, rich and garrulous; a second, her middle-aged nurse-companion; a third, a comely young lawyer come to advise on financial matters. The three women, gathered in the old woman's boudoir, are presented "realistically," as in a Chekhov play, a Newtonian universe, a recognized syllogism. The burden of the first act is the old woman's reminiscences and confessions, interspersed with her bouts with various incontinencies, and the growing antagonisms of the younger women in dealing with her frailties. The act ends with the old woman suffering a seizure, the logical conclusion of the syllogism.

In Act Two we return to the boudoir to find the old woman in bed, face covered with an oxygen mask, tubes running from her body to life support machines: the standard external medical image of dying in our times. The two younger women enter and begin a conversation which seems somehow less real than in Act One. Their dress is more formal, their movements more dance-like. Presently, the old woman, beautifully gowned, joins them, and we realize that we are not dealing with three women but one, that the stricken woman in bed and the three women are actually the many in the one twisted together in a single event: death. We realize this because we see it as a whole in action before us.

The three women begin a pas de troi of words and move ment that is literally a dance of death in which all time is held together by the woman's several agonistic forces. The past now projects itself into the present; the present reaches back to meet the past. The old woman speaks of an ugly death; the young woman cries out, "Stop it!" "Grow up," says the old woman, as if to a naughty child. "She will," smiles the middle aged woman indulgently. "She does," she adds knowingly (Albee 34). With this interchange the audience is moved subtly from the Newtonian universe to the Einsteinian. What follows are a series of Cramer transactional interpretations. The young woman tells the other two to "Stay out of my life," and even pleads with the audience, "Don't listen to them. They don't know me" (35). This remark elicits sarcastic responses from the other two. The young woman, simply identified as C in the play, goes on to describe a sexual encounter and summarizes by saying, "… I'm a good girl. The boy who took me was a good boy." The middle-aged woman known as B replies, "Oh, yes. He was." A, the old woman, says, "Yes? He was?"

B. You remember

A. ( Laughs) Well, it was a while ago.

B. But you do remember?

A. Oh, yes, I remember him. He was …

B.… Sweet and handsome; no, not handsome: beautiful. He was beautiful.

A. (To B) He was; yes.

B. (To A and herself) Yes.


Here is a Quantum Universe in which the audience may still measure as they wish: wave or particle. The above conversation can be understood as two actual older women filling in the pastel memories of a young friend. But the conversation also sets the measuring devices of the remainder of the play in which each of the women reach back and forth across time to transactually interpret the same memories. Take the following exchange as recalls of a night of love:

C. I'm not that kind of girl … Yes you are, he said; you 're that kind of girl.

B. And I was, and my God, it was wonderful.

A. It hurt! (Afterthought to B) Didn't it?

B. (Admonishing) Oh, … well, a little.

C. You're that kind of girl and I guess I was.


We are, by now, pitched headlong by Albee into the most suasive enthymeme of our science oriented culture. The audience is persuaded to enter the private moment of death and to think about that most private moment publicly in the prevailing fashion of the civic order of the late 20th century. Nor is it my experience that there is the least hesitation on the part of the audience. When I saw the play in New York, the attendees were seized with delight at the prospect of being able to think together with the dying character about the moment of death. This phenomenon was brought on, I am convinced by Albee's ability to turn the audience into spectators, so that they could see his very point before them.

During Act One, there was in the theatre the formal reserve that audiences of Realistic plays have towards the characters. They listened to the familiar enthymemes of late 19th-century Realism. But when Albee turns the full dramatic trope by using the old woman's seizure to convert the agony of the three women into the civil war (stasis) of a single woman, the spectators are energized and ready to see and think creatively. Now a private death is made public, becomes their thinking about death. And when the old woman sheds herself of life, the spectators, in catharsis, share in that shedding.

Albee's achievement is to bring to us a contemporary enthymeme fashioned about what Lewis Carroll calls the after-time (Alice in Wonderland 164), that time of "remembering remembering" (Albee 53) after childhood or after life is lived to its fullest. And like Carroll, Albee does it as simply and as profoundly as A-B-C. Indeed throughout Act Two, these three aspects of the Albee female share the past among them as if they were serving a gourmet meal with all the complex seasonings of life. We see them perform a medieval dance of death, but also hear them in an ancient Greek symposium. They share lost loves and found loves, lost parents and even a lost son. And we all think their thoughts as participants in the dying process. Near the end of the dance, the following exchange seems to pull the argument tightly together.

B. Does that tell you a little something about change? Does that tell you what you want to know?

C. (Pause; softly) Yes. Thank you. (Silence)

A. (Curious) You want some more?

C. No, thank you.

B. I shouldn't think so.

A. Yes, you do. You want some more.

C. (Trying to be polite) I said, no, thank you.

A. That doesn't cut any ice around here. (Points to B) How you got to her is one thing; how you got to me is another. How do you put it … that thing there. (Points to "A ")


Phillipe Aries paraphrases St. Ignatius in pointing out that one conclusion is that death is no more than the means of living well (301). Albee's dying woman rephrases Ignatius for our times when she finally realizes that death is the release of all the inner vision, all the antagonism of being an individual. Death is when we contemporary, highly subjective creatures come "to the point where you can think about yourself in the third person without being crazy" (54). With this realization, we turn-about once more, end the civil war of dying, and return to the logic of the first act. As A says: "That's the happiest moment. When it's all done. When we stop. When we can stop." (55). The three women join hands. The agon is ended. We see the solitary dead woman in her bed, but we also see the triple woman as a cohesive whole, a logical unit. The enthymeme is over. Persuasion is apparent. Catharsis is won.


1I discuss the issue of public thought in great detail in "Rhetoric and Poetic: The Enthymeme and the Invention of Troping in Ancient Greek Drama," Theatre Symposium (Tuscalusca, Alabama: U of Alabama P, 1997).

2Led by the work of Kenneth Burke (A Rhetoric of Motives, 1958), the new rhetoric movement has done much to reclaim the importance of rhetoric as something deeper than mere decorative language. Some recent basic works of the new rhetoricians include E. L. Bowie's The Importance of Sophists (New Haven: Yale UP, 1982); B. Vicker's Defense of Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988); J. Fernandez's Persuasions and Performances (Bloomington, Illinois: U of Illinois P, 1986); and The Social Uses of Metaphor: Essays in the Anthropology of Rhetoric, ed. J. C. Crocker and J. D. Sapir (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1977).

3We tend to take the Roman and Renaissance rhetoricians' definition of trope as any figure of speech. The Greek word trope meant a sudden and highly contested turn-about, as when one side in battle suddenly turns and flees. The weapons and other items of value discarded by the defeated and fleeing army thus become trophies. Drama as a stasis (civil war), an agon (struggle) would, by its very nature, be structured tropically. And the chorus, the most public element of the dramemnon, would dance the double trope of strophe (a step against one's motion) and antistrophe (another turn-about step against the strophe).

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. Three Tall Women. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1994.

——. Three Tall Women. Produced at the Promenade Theatre, New York, 1994-96. Directed by Lawrence Sacharow, featuring Myra Carter as A, Marian Seldes as B, Jordon Baker as C, and Michael Rhodes as The Boy.

Aries, Phillipe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Aristotle. The Art of Poetry. Trans. Philip Wheelwright. New York: Odyssey Press, Inc., 1951.

——. The Rhetoric. Trans. Lane Cooper. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1921.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Meridian, 1964.

Casti, John L. Paradigms Lost. New York: Avon Books, 1989.

Detienne, Marcel and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Society and Culture. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Garver, Eugene. Aristotle's Rhetoric: An Art of Character. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966.

Mavor, Carol. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. Raleigh, NC: Duke UP, 1995.

Staub, August. "Rhetoric and Poetic: The Enthymeme and the Invention of Troping in Ancient Greek Drama," Theatre Symposium. Tuscalusa, AL: U of Alabama P, 1997.

Vernant, Jean Pierre, ed. The Greeks. Trans. Charles Lamber and Teresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Further Reading

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Henry, William A., III. "Albee is Back." Time 143, No. (21 February 1994): 64.

Highly favorable review that calls Three Tall Women "a spellbinder."

King, Robert L. "Eastern Regionals." The North American Review 281, No. 2 (March-April 1996): 44-8.

Includes a review of a production of Three Tall Women at Stage West. King contends that the play is "basically a-social; the character relationships are not human ones. Its metaphysics are a-moral, self-centered existentialism."

Kroll, Jack. "Trinity of Women." Newsweek CXXIII, No. 8 (21 February 1994): 62.

Review that considers Three Tall Women one of Albee's best works.

Luere, Jeane. A review of Three Tall Women. Theatre Journal 44,No. 2 (May 1992): 251-52.

Assessment of the production of Three Tall Women at the English Theatre in Vienna, observing that in this work "Albee moves from his demons toward joy, surcease, and death."

Richards, David. "Critical Winds Shift for Albee, a Master of the Steady Course." The New York Times (13 April 1994): C 15, 19.

Article that incorporates comments by Albee on winning the Pulitzer Prize for Three Tall Women and the autobiographical basis of the play.


Essays and Criticism