Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645
Tiny Alice was first staged at the Billy Rose Theater on December 29, 1964, and it ran for 167 performances. It starred Sir John Gielgud, Irene Worth, William Hutt, Eric Berry, and John Heffernan; Alan Schneider directed. Tiny Alice provoked a fury of critical responses at its premiere, ranging from “brilliant” to “sophomoric.” Most critics, as well as the performers involved, confessed to not understanding the play and called it a metaphysical muddle. One reviewer dismissed it as a Faustian drama written by a highly endowed college student. Subsequent revivals of the work have aroused the same acrimonious response.
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Albee, in introductory remarks to the published text in 1965, kept the controversy alive by writing:It has been the expressed hope of many that I would write a preface to the published text of Tiny Alice, clarifying obscure points in the play—explaining my intention, in other words. I have decided against creating such a guide because I find—after reading the play over—that I share the view of even more people: that the play is quite clear.
What is clear is that Albee did not include Tiny Alice as an important or representative work when he published Selected Plays of Edward Albee in 1987.
Despite its confusing allegorical structure, Tiny Alice has more of a plot coherence than most of Albee’s other plays. Miss Alice is the world’s richest woman; she will donate two billion dollars to the Catholic Church if the cardinal’s secretary, lay Brother Julian, will be sent to her for further instructions. Brother Julian is a strange individual, dedicated to service in the Church; however, he spent six years of his life in a mental institution. In time, Miss Alice seduces him into marriage, and that sacrament, blessed by the Church, proves to be his undoing. He discovers that Miss Alice is a sham and is the personification of Tiny Alice, who lives inside a model house that is an exact replica of the real mansion. The play ends with Julian dying, alone and abandoned by everyone as he faces death.
The play is written in three acts; unlike The Zoo Story, which opens weakly and then builds in dramatic intensity, Tiny Alice has a strong first scene. It begins with the cardinal and the lawyer (church and state) crisply discussing the monetary gift to be bestowed on the Church by Miss Alice. Unfortunately, the high level of tension introduced cannot be maintained in later scenes, as they are minor characters in the play. Later the audience is introduced to Brother Julian and Miss Alice, and it is their star-crossed union that forms the centerpiece of the action.
Albee again brings in his familiar themes of aloneness, isolation, and the illusions to which people desperately cling. He also is concerned with the abandonment of one’s faith and the relationship between sexual and religious ecstasies. Brother Julian, for example, spent six years in a mental institution because his faith left him. While there, he may or may not have had a hallucinatory sexual experience with a demented woman who believed she was the Virgin Mary. Miss Alice seduces Julian through her deeds rather than with words. Near the end of the play, having rejected him, she cradles the dying Julian in a pietà embrace.
Albee doubtless meant the model with Tiny Alice inside to represent a Platonic symbol of the bright world of ideals that people carry inside their minds. For Albee, Julian’s confusion and penance at the end of the play give him absolution and a state of grace. Julian has examined his conscience, abandoned his delusions, and will make the necessary sacrifice to God and Tiny Alice. His acceptance of death finally releases Julian from a lifetime of doubt and gives him insight into himself. Albee makes it clear that Julian’s illusory faith has finally been stripped away.