The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The most obvious dramatic device Albee employs in Three 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

(Drama for Students)

Edward Albee’s plays, like his own life, have been shaped by the changing nature of American families. Albee himself was adopted...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Samantha Bond, Sara Kestelman, and Maggie Smith Published by Gale Cengage

Point of View
One of the greatest accomplishments of Three Tall Women, according to critics, is its creative...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

One of the strongest themes in Three Tall Women is the way an individual’s perspective on aging changes as he or she gets older....

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

In a career spanning four decades Edward Albee has written more than twenty plays. Two of his most popular...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

Albee, Edward. ‘‘Which Theatre is the Absurd One?’’ in New York Times Magazine, February 25,...

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