Themes and Meanings

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

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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.

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.

Themes

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

Aging
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 different experiences and perspectives.

C is twenty-six and represents youth. Idealistic and free-spirited, C refuses to believe her two older aspects when they tell her what her life has in store for her. She can not believe she will one day marry a man she doesn’t love, cheat on him, and drive her only son out of the house. Even near the end she insists, ‘‘I know my best times ... haven’t happened yet. They’re to come.’’

B represents middle age, halfway between her carefree youth and the decrepitude of old age. At her age, she has gained some perspective on her life, but has become a bit jaded in the process. Still, she considers her age as the best time of her life. ‘‘This must be the happiest time,’’ she says, ‘‘half of being adult done, the rest ahead of me. Old enough to be a little wise, past being really dumb.’’

A represents the final years of life. In the first act she displays dignity despite her obvious physical and mental hardships. She exhibits prejudice and pettiness. She enjoys reminiscing about her life, yet is sometimes confused and frustrated by her inability to recall the details of some things. By the time she suffers a stroke while talking about the death of her mother, her affliction seems like an act of mercy.

The second act of the play provides a different perspective of A. As she walks around her own deathbed, musing about her life and her present condition, she is still old, but now healthy. Also, her confusion has disappeared. She reflects on a full life, a mix of joy and tragedy, successes and failures.

Gender Differences
Three Tall Women is somewhat unique in its presentation of gender differences. It is an honest, sympathetic play about women. Women in the play are multi-faceted creatures, capable of both petty jealousies and noble gestures.

The absence of male characters in the play is conspicuous. Men are only talked about, and the single male character that appears on stage, the ‘‘tall woman’s’’ son, never speaks a word. Yet the woman’s relationship with men, in particular her husband and her son, have profoundly affected her life.

Each version of the woman has a different perspective on relationships with men. C fondly remembers the handsome boy who took her virginity, and fantasizes about her future husband. She is fascinated by the sight of The Boy, her future son. Too young to realize her opinion about him will change when she gets older, she is shocked at the furious reaction of B to his appearance.

B has already met and married the man of her dreams. She affectionately calls him ‘‘the penguin,’’ and he has taught her some hard lessons about relationships. ‘‘Men cheat; men cheat a lot,’’ she informs her younger self. ‘‘We cheat less, and we cheat because we’re lonely; men cheat because they’re men.’’ The penguin never appears to defend himself, so the impression of men he leaves behind is a distinctly unfavorable one.

As the eldest of the trio, A has long since forgiven her husband and recovered from the death of her father. She even regrets her estrangement from her son. In the course of more than ninety years, she was a daughter, a wife, a mother, and a widow. From these experiences, she has gained a more tolerant and balanced perspective of the men in her life.

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