Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621

Albee, in the play’s introduction, acknowledges the drama’s autobiographical elements:I knew my subject—my adoptive mother, whom I knew from my infancy . . . until her death over sixty years later. . . . I harbor no ill-will toward her; 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.

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Although he says that in her last twenty years almost no one could abide his mother, in the play, he captures the qualities in her that he grudgingly admires, although he does not evade those qualities that he found repugnant.

Although it concentrates on death and dying, Three Tall Women is thematically about the inevitable changes that take place in humans as they age. Albee’s three women are concerned with what they know, how they know it, and when they knew it. Albee gives each woman a lengthy monologue in which she considers when she was happiest in life. The responses to this question pose another clear question: Do people learn from their experiences?

It is clear that the once hopeful woman C has turned into a cynical, hardened, embittered crone. C represents what A once was, but in her denial that she will ever become like A, one realizes that she is already headed irretrievably in that direction. The intermediate stage, represented by B, hovers between the two extremes, but there is no escaping the inevitability of the sort of change that has transformed C into the old woman whom Albee presents.

The silent son, who appears in the second act, is nonjudgmental. He is present only to witness an event, the death of a mother for whom he has no deep feeling. He reveals through his facial expressions a degree of compassion but no real love for this old woman who lies on her bed in the final hours of her life. Her life has been devoid of love and now is filled with the pervasive self-deprecation that accounts for her cynicism.

There are no winners among the characters in Three Tall Women. Time is the only winner, and its booty is an unhappy one. As Albee portrays it, time chips away at one’s personhood and robs people of their dignity, passages that are reflected in A’s weakened physical condition, in the broken arm that her surgeon wants to amputate, in her incontinence, and in her utter dependence upon others. This once strong woman, who rode horses and managed a household, has now almost reverted to infancy, unable to care for herself. Her suspicions are the product of her fear that she will outlive her resources, although, according to C’s comments about A’s financial situation, this fear is unrealistic. Her deeper concern is merely her progressive fear of losing her independence. In the end, as A concludes her monologue about what was the happiest moment of her life, she proclaims, “Yes; I know! (To the audience) I was talking about . . . what: coming to the end of it, yes. So. There it is. You asked after all. That’s the happiest moment. (A looks to C and B, puts her hand out, takes theirs) When it’s all done. When we stop. When we can stop.”

At this point in the play, Albee brings about a catharsis in his audiences and causes those who see the play to sympathize with A, Albee’s real-life adoptive mother, Frankie, for whom, according to Albee’s own statement, few people had any abiding sympathy. If the play helped Albee achieve a personal catharsis, a peace with a troubled past, it led many people in his audiences to their own similar personal catharses.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608

The characters in Three Tall Women provide insights into a universal theme: the human aging process. By depicting a woman at three different stages of her life, Albee cleverly juxtaposes three very...

(The entire section contains 1229 words.)

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