Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

Tiny Alice first opened in New York in 1964 and soon appeared, with the inclusion of material that had been deleted for the stage, in book form. Albee’s publisher asked him to provide a preface to the published play. Albee instead wrote an Author’s Note in which he explained that many had hoped that he would clarify ‘‘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.’’ Despite Albee’s affirmative words, many contemporary audiences and critics were unsure what to make of Tiny Alice or what the play, in fact, meant. Within a month after its opening, the play had already garnered a mass of reviews, many enthusiastic, that awarded kudos to Albee for his literary technique, language, and audacity. The controversy over Tiny Alice, however, which continues to the present day, had begun. Contradictory statements— often in the same review—were rampant. Theater critics ran the gamut of calling Albee’s work ‘‘a masterpiece’’ that ‘‘established Albee as the most distinguished American playwright to date’’ to ‘‘pretentious’’ and ‘‘willfully obscure’’ to ‘‘a set trap that has no bait.’’ The reviewer for Newsweek, for example, while admitting that Tiny Alice was a ‘‘thoroughly confused play,’’ also found that it contained unique ‘‘scenes that break down the walls of reticence and safety . . . [of] the commercial theater.’’

One element that many reviews had in common was a noticeable refusal to attempt to explicate the drama they had witnessed. Henry Hewes, writing for the Saturday Review, was a notable exception. Hewes openly interpreted action and character in the play and even boldly stated what he believed to be misinterpretations on the part of other reviewers. In the same issue of Saturday Review was a psychiatrist’s ‘‘look’’ at Tiny Alice by Abraham N. Franzblau. Franzblau asserted that the reason viewers were so ‘‘disturbed,’’ ‘‘puzzled,’’ and ‘‘fascinated’’ by the play, simultaneously, was that ‘‘Albee penetrates the superficial layers of our conscious personality and, using the mysterious escalators of the unconscious, reaches the citadels of our private certainties and shoots them full of questions marks.’’

Reviewers certainly understood that Albee raised issues of the nature of faith and evil, but they immediately engaged in controversial debates over the play’s meaning. Some reviewers contended that it was an allegory. Others advised to look for deeply embedded clues, such oblique references to homosexuality as Julian the Apostate and even Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Albee biographer and scholar Richard E. Amacher wrote in his study of the author, Edward Albee, that the play was ‘‘subjected to a confusion of interpretation by the critics’’ because they ‘‘refused to accept it on its own surrealistic terms.’’

Certainly, the body of Albee’s work up to the production of Tiny Alice included works that challenged the audience with authorial messages about social relationships, the connection between love and aggression, loss and isolation, illusion and reality, and the concept of God. In the words of Leonard Casper, writing in 1983—almost twenty years after the play was first staged—‘‘Tiny Alice has continued to be considered exceptionally difficult.’’

Scholars have often looked at the play as an allegory. Harold Clurman was one of the earliest critics to make a definitive statement about Tiny Alice; he was cited in Caspar’s ‘‘Tiny Alice: The Expense of Joy in the Persistence of Mystery,’’ as calling it an allegory in which ‘‘the pure person in our world is betrayed by all parties,’’ who are themselves corrupt. ‘‘Isolated and bereft of every hope, he must die—murdered.’’ Later, Anne Paolucci, again cited in Caspar, worked out a more intricate allegory in which Butler, Cardinal, and lawyer compose an unholy trinity who act out a parodic ritual of faith. Michael Rutenberg (cited in Caspar) saw the play as an allegory of diabolic forces eager to trade a billion ordinary souls for one soul who is particularly sensitive—and thus worth corrupting.

Other critics have focused on specific aspects of the play. Leonard Casper denied the play was an allegory at all, contending that Tiny Alice resists such treatment ‘‘because its meaning lies in the persistence, rather than the resolution, of mystery.’’ Ruby Cohn called it a ‘‘modern mystery play’’ in which the mystery is twofold: the mystery of what is happening on stage, and the mystery of what happens in the ‘‘realm of ultimate reality.’’ Julian N. Wasserman focused on Albee’s use of language in Tiny Alice and how this illustrates the confusion of illusion and reality. For instance, Wasserman equated Julian’s descent into madness with his loss of the ability to hear and comprehend language. Katharine Worth asserted that the play ‘‘trumpets its symbolism from the start and indeed could hardly be interpreted on any but a symbolic level’’ and that the players in the drama are play-acting in order to achieve a significant ‘‘psychic change.’’ Other critics have even proposed that the whole play takes place in Julian’s mind.

More recently Foster Hirsch proposed an interpretation of Tiny Alice as a ‘‘multi-focus drama, which is at once a busy religious allegory about one man’s loss and recovery of faith; a satire on the worldliness, the corruption, and greed of the Church; a parable about appearance and reality, the symbol and the substance, the abstract and the concrete; a morality play about man’s inevitable defeat in reaching for the Platonic Ideal.’’ Hirsch’s reading of the play is perhaps most in keeping with Casper’s assertions that the prevailing body of criticism about the play ‘‘ignored the possibility that any definitive reading is too narrow for Albee.’’

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Critical Context


Essays and Criticism