Three Tall Women

by Edward Albee

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

The action of Three Tall Women occurs during two acts set in the bedroom of A, a once-proud woman, who now, at age ninety-two, shows many of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or some related illness associated with aging. She is forgetful, suspicious, at times hostile, and given to circular conversations. Joining her in her bedroom are B, her fifty-two-year-old secretary and caretaker, and C, the twenty-six-year-old representative of A’s attorney, there to sort out some of A’s financial affairs.

A is convinced that people are trying to rob her. She has reached the point when she must dig into her principal to maintain her standard of living. She enhances her income by selling some of her jewelry but she does not live under a dark cloud of abject poverty. When she complains that she is not made of money, C, presumably in a position to know, contests the statement. A still can employ a secretary and a chauffeur, who figure tangentially in her death scene.

The only person onstage besides the three women is a young man, a “preppie.” He appears from the shadows early in the second act and sits on A’s bed, touching her hand, giving her a peck on the cheek, but saying not a word to her or to any of the others. He is the young Edward Albee, who, in actuality, had a strained relationship with his affluent adoptive mother and who, in real life, arrived in her hospital room only an hour after she died.

The three women in the play are actually a single woman at various stages of life. A is sharp-tongued, often uninhibited in what she says, and defensive, yet at times vulnerable, showing the sort of vulnerability often born of insecurity or fear. B, on the other hand, is level-headed, at times sympathetic. She serves as a buffer between the defensive A and the impatient, often intolerant C, who, through much of the play, demonstrates strenuous denial. A annoys C, who does not mask her annoyance, which is born of her subconscious realization that everyone ages and that, in time, if she lives long enough, she will evolve into A. Several times C points to A condescendingly and vows that she will not become “that,” as she impersonally puts it. Although at times she robs A of her very humanity by her statements of denial, C is frightened by her perception of what her future might portend.

During the first act, A is often irrational, her mind wandering, her conversation circular as reflected in some of her speeches: “How couldn’t he be thirty years younger than me when I’m thirty years older than he is? He’s said it over and over. Every time he comes to see me. What is today?” By the second act, however, A is considerably more rational and lucid. In her long monologue recording her premonition of her own death, her long-term memory is clear, as is often the case with those suffering from senile psychosis.

In a memorable monologue, Albee has A recount exactly the actual circumstances of the death of his own mother, of his arriving in her hospital room one hour after her death, and of his giving her what he identifies as an obligatory kiss on her forehead, strictly for the benefit of those with her when she died, her secretary and chauffeur. In this play, and in this monologue particularly, Albee achieves a personal catharsis that marks a final ending to his strained relationship with his adoptive mother.

Dramatic Devices

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The most obvious dramatic device...

(This entire section contains 332 words.)

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Albee employs inThree Tall Women is in assigning mere letters of the alphabet to the three principals in the play, who are never referred to by names. A, B, and C, in descending order of age, are representative of one person, although each has a separate identity—an aged dowager, her secretary and caretaker, and an attorney’s assistant. Assigning these women letter designations impersonalizes them. The loss of personhood that results in A’s cynicism and defensiveness is emphasized by Albee’s decision not to name his characters.

Perhaps the most startling dramatic device Albee uses occurs at the beginning of the second act. B and C are in A’s bedroom. A figure in the bed shows every sign of being dead. Before long, however, A emerges from stage left, very much alive. The figure that B and C have been looking at in the bed is a mannequin wearing a death mask that resembles A. The emergent A is more rational than she was in act 1.

Although B and C wear clothing different from what they wore in the first act, A is dressed exactly as she was at the beginning of the play. The change in clothing suggests a passage of time, but the preservation of A’s clothing implies that nothing has changed, that A’s future remains much as it was in act 1.

The dramatic unity of place here represents the confinement of a once vital woman who has turned into A at age ninety-two. The setting becomes a trap much as the confined setting in Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pb., pr. 1962) was a trap. At this point Albee also introduces The Boy into the play, reminiscent of the absent and probably fictional son of George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In both instances, audiences learn about these characters indirectly. One never appears; the other, when he appears, does not speak.

Historical Context

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Edward Albee’s plays, like his own life, have been shaped by the changing nature of American families. Albee himself was adopted at an early age by wealthy New England parents, shuffled around to various private schools until he was eighteen. Like the son in Three Tall Women, he quarreled with his mother over his homosexuality and left home; he then attended college briefly, living off a trust fund in Greenwich Village until he began his successful career as a professional playwright.

By the time he wrote Three Tall Women in 1991, he had been in a longstanding relationship with the same man for more than twenty years. Albee did not experience the ‘‘typical’’ American family life, but then, judging by the evolution of American families during his career, neither had many of his audience members.

From 1970 to 1990, the marriage age of men went from 22.5 to nearly 26 years old. At the same time, the median age for women to marry climbed from 20.6 to 24 years old. Besides marrying older, many Americans were choosing not to marry at all. During those two decades, the annual marriage rate per 1000 people in the population decreased from 10.8 to 9.1.

To further complicate and change the cherished notion of wedlock, the ‘‘no-fault’’ divorce reforms of the 1970s made divorce faster and easier. During the 1980s, one in every three marriages ended in divorce. By 1995, just over 25% of the 34.3 million families were led by single parents. In fact, more than one of every four children had divorced parents.

Moreover, the number of unmarried couples living together nearly tripled between 1970-1980, up to 1.6 million. By 1995 that number had skyrocketed to 3.7 million, and unmarried births, which accounted for only 11% of all births in America in 1970, accounted for 31% of births in 1993.

A number of explanations have been offered for the decline of the ‘‘nuclear family’’ (i.e. mother, father, sister and brother, all related and living in the same house). For one, more women than ever before were choosing to enter the workforce, and build careers before, or instead of, building families.

Also, wider acceptance of divorce also led to an increased expectation from marriage. If a man or woman was not happy in a relationship, he or she became more likely to seek divorce in order to find a more suitable match.

Variations on the nuclear family became the norm in the nineties. Single parent families, stepfamilies, childless families, communal families, and families with same sex parents became more common.

The proliferation of same sex parents were a result of more tolerant adoption laws. Still, while acceptance of homosexual lifestyles was increasing, widespread tolerance was a long way off.

While many large companies, such as IBM, acknowledge unmarried couples who live together (including homosexual and lesbian couples) by extending to them the same benefits shared by married employees, many rights and privileges were not sanctioned. No states allowed homosexual couples to legally marry, and some states had legislation that prevented homosexual couples from adopting a child who was not the biological offspring of one of the partners.

The 1990s were also the years of ‘‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’’ While the United States military still forbids homosexuality in its ranks, the application forms for military service were changed to avoid asking about sexual preference. Recruits were encouraged to be discreet about sexual matters, particularly if they were gay.

Literary Style

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Point of View One of the greatest accomplishments of Three Tall Women, according to critics, is its creative use of the narrative point of view. A story is always told from someone’s perspective, whether that person is the protagonist in the plot, an innocent bystander, a relative relating family history, or an omniscient narrator.

Rarely, however, is the narrator of a story able to confront her younger selves on the same stage at the same time. This is the clever feat of Three Tall Women.

Essentially, the play is bifurcated—it is two plays in one. The first act presents A, an elderly woman in declining health, being tended by B, her middle-aged caretaker, and C, a representative from her attorney’s office. In the second act, the three women are revealed to be on woman—the protagonist— at different stages of her life. Separately, the narrative voices of these women, representing youth, middle, and old age, are compelling and lyrical. In concert, their combined points of view sound a symphony of poignant, and universal, human experience.

Thematic Construction Most plays are built around a plot, or a story. Typically a hero, the play’s protagonist, struggles against overwhelming odds to achieve some goal— a lover or a kingdom, for example. These plays are filled with conflict, with action.

There is no real action to the plot of Three Tall Women. Instead Albee provides the play with a collection of themes, ideas his characters express that provide a context for the discussion and debate that is the real structure of the play. Each scene is driven by one of these ideas, until that idea leads into another.

At the beginning of the play, for example, age and aging are established as important ideas immediately, and the earliest discussion among the play’s ‘‘three tall women’’ is about the aging process. C argues with A over her proper age. (‘‘You’re ninety- two,’’ C insists.)

Once this situation is established it becomes the background setting for a host of other ideas in the play, and the ‘‘plot’’ progresses to the next theme: youth. There is no greater contrast to A’s struggles with age than her fond reminiscences of her youth. Though all of her memories come back to her in bits and pieces, she remembers her girlhood, riding horses, winning ribbons and prizes at shows, and her close relationship with her sister and mother.

Soon, another theme emerges: marriage. A reminisces about meeting her husband, his infidelities, and the fun they had together. Each of A’s memories provides a piece of the patchwork that is the thematic construction of Three Tall Women.


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Sources for Further Study

Brustein, Robert. “The Rehabilitation of Edward Albee.” New Republic 210 (April 4, 1994): 26-28.

Evans, Greg. “Three Tall Women.” Variety 354 (February 14, 1994): 61-62.

Gussow, Mel. Edward Albee, a Singular Journey: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Henry, William A., III. “Albee Is Back.” Time 147 (February 24, 1994): 64.

Paolucci, Anna. From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee. Wilmington, Del.: Griffon House Press, 2000.

Simon, John. “Theater.” New York 27 (December 19-26, 1994): 128-130.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Albee, Edward. ‘‘Which Theatre is the Absurd One?’’ in New York Times Magazine, February 25, 1962, pp. 30- 1, 64, 66.

Appelo, Tim. A review of Three Tall Women in the Nation, March 14, 1994, p. 355.

Bigsby, C. W. E., editor. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Brantley, Ben. A review of Three Tall Women in the New York Times, April 13, 1994.

Brustein, Robert. A review of Three Tall Women in the New Republic, April 4, 1994, p. 26.

Canby, Vincent. A review of Three Tall Women in the New York Times, February 20, 1994.

A review of Three Tall Women in the Economist, April 23, 1994, p. 91.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd, Anchor Books, 1961, p. 316.

Farr, Richard. An interview with Edward Albee in The Progressive, August, 1996, p. 39.

Helbig, Jack. A review of Three Tall Women in Booklist, April 1, 1995, p. 1372.

Henry III, William A. A review of Three Tall Women in Time, February 21, 1994, p. 64.

Kanfer, Stefan. A review of Three Tall Women in the New Leader, February 14, 1994, p. 23.

Lahr, John. A review of Three Tall Women in the New Yorker, May 16, 1994.

Samuels, Steven. An interview with Edward Albee in American Theatre, September, 1994, p. 38.

Taitte, Lawson. A review of Three Tall Women in the Dallas Morning News, September 8, 1996.

Yoffe, Emily. A profile of Edward Albee in Texas Monthly, May, 1993, p. 98.

Further Reading Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969. Amacher explains the playwright’s relationship to the Theatre of the Absurd, and attempts to establish his place in American theater during the first decade of his career.

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1982. In the second volume in this series, Edward Albee’s work is discussed alongside profiles of such American artistic notables as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

Bloom, Harold, editor. Edward Albee, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. This collection includes a dozen critical essays covering such topics as language in Albee’s plays, influences on the playwright, and the psychology of character in Albee’s work.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd, Doubleday, 1969. Esslin’s treatise provided the context for a whole new genre within American drama. Albee’s work is placed in context with Samuel Beckett Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet.

Kolin, Philip C. Conversations with Edward Albee, University Press of Mississippi, 1988. This is a wide-ranging collection of interviews with the playwright, conducted by notable playwrights, critics and actors.

Roudane, Matthew Charles. Understanding Edward Albee, University of South Carolina Press, 1987. Part of the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series, Roudane’s study analyzes Albee’s artistic output from The Zoo Story through The Man Who Had Three Arms.


Critical Essays


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