The Play

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Tiny Alice opens in the Cardinal’s outside garden. Although the Lawyer wishes to discuss business, the Cardinal insists upon recalling their school days, through which the characters establish their mutual antagonism. At the Cardinal’s prompting, the Lawyer reveals that his employer, Miss Alice, wishes to give the Church $100 million immediately and the identical sum annually for two decades; the Cardinal’s private secretary, Brother Julian, is to finalize the details. The Cardinal agrees to the terms, and the Lawyer exits. The first scene ends with the Cardinal alone onstage talking to his caged cardinals.

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In scene 2, in the library of Miss Alice’s castle, an imposing model of the mansion dominates the set. Until the Lawyer’s entrance, Julian and Butler discuss the workmanship of the model and the mansion itself as well as the coincidence of Butler’s name and function being the same. To the Lawyer’s questions regarding the six years of his life not covered by the dossier, Julian refuses an answer; he further objects to the Lawyer’s antagonism toward the Cardinal. The Lawyer responds that he has learned to distinguish between reality and representation. After the Lawyer’s exit, Julian does admit to Butler that during his missing six years he had signed himself into a mental institution because he could not integrate his own perception of God with that of other men. Julian believes that his faith and his sanity are synonymous.

Scene 3, in Miss Alice’s tower sitting room, presents the Lawyer and Miss Alice acting out a charade in which Miss Alice appears to be a crotchety, somewhat deaf old woman. Alone with Julian, Miss Alice briefly continues the charade before revealing herself to be an attractive young woman. Miss Alice establishes that Butler was once her lover, that the Lawyer is her current lover (with whom she is bored), and that she is not Catholic. To her query about his absent six years, Julian responds simply that after his faith had abandoned him he institutionalized himself. Nevertheless, Julian is unable to answer with certainty Miss Alice’s question regarding his sexual experience. Instead, he graphically describes his hallucinatory period during which he may have had intercourse with a fellow inmate who believed herself to be the Virgin Mary, and who subsequently died of uterine cancer. After responding that she, too, has a secret, Miss Alice returns to the business of her donation. Act 1 ends with the Lawyer and Miss Alice’s conspiratorial agreement that nothing indestructible appears to block their plan.

Act 2 begins in the library with the Lawyer’s sexual advances to Miss Alice, who with abhorrence catalogs his faults. Butler enters with an analysis of the wine cellar’s deteriorating condition. After Julian’s entrance, the characters move to a metaphysical discussion of the mansion as a replica of the model and the model as a replica of the mansion. Julian interrupts the quarrel developing between Miss Alice and the Lawyer to point out that the chapel in the model is on fire. Butler, a bewildered Julian, and the Lawyer rush to extinguish the fire in the castle’s chapel. Alone, Miss Alice delivers a soliloquy that alternates between prayer and introspection. Julian, still confused, returns to report that the floorboards under the marble altar have given way. Miss Alice and Julian exchange expressions of fear.

The Lawyer and Butler, in the library, open scene 2 with the revelation that Julian and Miss Alice have drawn closer since Julian’s move to the mansion. With the Lawyer as the Cardinal and Butler as the Lawyer, the two characters role-play the Lawyer’s next visit, disclosing the full conditions of the donation to the Cardinal. Butler suggests that the Cardinal officiate at Julian and Miss Alice’s wedding, and the Lawyer enigmatically corrects “Miss Alice” to “Alice.” The Lawyer and Butler resume the role-playing with Butler now acting as Julian, precariously balancing on the edge of sanity. The Lawyer instructs “Julian” to accept the abstraction that is Alice, “the mouse in the model.” The role-playing ended, the Lawyer and Butler resolve to visit the Cardinal. The Lawyer’s direct reassurance to the model that Julian will soon belong to it concludes scene 2.

Scene 3, the seduction scene between Miss Alice and Julian in Miss Alice’s sitting room, is the turning point of Tiny Alice. The two characters have returned from horseback riding. Changing offstage into a black negligee with winged sleeves, Miss Alice recognizes that Julian onstage is describing his childhood riding experiences in repressed sexual terms. As Miss Alice circles and touches him, Julian describes his religio-sexual fantasies of martyrdom. Miss Alice tells Julian three times to marry her but then tells him it is “Alice” who desires his sacrifice. With her back to the audience, Miss Alice enfolds Julian, who kneels as Miss Alice ends act and scene with the direct address that Julian will be Alice’s.

Act 3 brings the five characters together in the library after the wedding ceremony. Butler enters first, carrying furniture covers, hurriedly followed by Julian in secular clothing. Julian confides that he feels lost and alone. In need of reassurance, Julian asks if Butler is his friend; Butler answers affirmatively but qualifies it by adding that Julian may not always believe so. Butler then asks Julian if he is indeed dedicated to “reality” rather than “appearance.” Julian confirms that he is. As Butler exits to get the champagne, the Cardinal enters and blesses Julian with veiled warnings to accept God’s will. When the Lawyer enters, Julian excuses himself to find his wife. The Lawyer verifies the truth of the benefactory agreement in response to the Cardinal’s question and reinforces its importance by removing a pistol from the reading table drawer to shoot Julian if he does not acquiesce. Julian enters just before Butler is heard offstage forcing a protesting Miss Alice into the library.

Miss Alice insists that the Lawyer begin the ceremony of Alice. Julian is gradually isolated, both physically and emotionally, by the other characters as Butler serves the champagne—moving first toward, then away from, Julian to serve the other characters first. The Lawyer initiates the toasts, during which Julian’s discomfort increases each time Miss Alice’s response acknowledges Alice. Rooms in the model light with the Lawyer’s toasts. After the Lawyer suggests that the conspirators leave, Miss Alice demands that the Lawyer answer Julian’s distressed questions. When the Lawyer’s explanation does not clarify the situation, however, Miss Alice explains that she has simply functioned as the representative of Alice, the abstraction in the model. Julian refuses to accept this situation, despite all four characters’ urgings, and decides to return to the asylum. Consequently, the Lawyer shoots Julian, who falls in front of the model. The Lawyer offers the Cardinal the briefcase of legal papers documenting the grant. In production, the Cardinal exits with the briefcase; in the published script, the Cardinal refuses the briefcase and exits.

Miss Alice cradles Julian as Butler covers furniture and he and the Lawyer discuss a poem that the Lawyer had written in school. Propping himself against the model, Julian commands Miss Alice to leave, and the Lawyer follows her. Butler remains to kiss Julian on the forehead before exiting. Julian alternates remembrances of a serious boyhood accident with appeals for help to anyone who may be listening behind the closed library door and to God, whom he believes has forgotten him. In mid-soliloquy, however, Julian’s pleas to God become pleas to Alice, whom he wishes to join him. Even so, Julian is startled to see the lights in the model’s chapel extinguish and begin moving toward the library as an almost subliminal heartbeat accompanied by rhythmic breathing that becomes audible first to the audience and then to Julian. The lights descend, and the sounds strengthen. Julian, backed against the model, extends his arms as a shadow slowly darkens the stage. The sounds overwhelm Julian, who accepts Alice/God and dies. Three heartbeats, followed by a brief silence, precede a slow fade; at blackout, the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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Tiny Alice, a play directed at the unconscious, is replete with techniques designed to keep its audience off balance, unable to operate easily from conventional belief systems. Albee’s intensely powerful, compact dialogue (paced by ellipses) mirrors mutable realities through parallel, seemingly unrelated, conversations that intertwine to form a dramatic coherence. Verbal irony underscores the humor of humankind’s condition as all five characters deliver lines unexpected for their roles. The Cardinal’s and the Lawyer’s venomous attacks upon each other in the opening scene immediately set a surprisingly combative tone for two professionals in a business meeting. Miss Alice’s charade as a crone is certainly idiosyncratic. Butler’s lines are appropriate to his character and to his role as chorus but not to his function as a butler. Julian is uncertain about his actual sexual experiences but is compelling in his bizarre fantasies of martyrdom. In effect, the dialogue is true but startling.

Equally startling are the recurrent covert psychological manipulations for control among the Lawyer, Miss Alice, and Butler. The dramatic ambiguity concerning who is actually dominant shifts too rapidly for resolution, thereby accentuating the theme that the tragedies of the human situation result from humanity’s fearful grasping for transient power over others. Consequently, destructive motivations supersede compassion and genuine communication.

Albee’s use of dramatic and situational irony reinforces the shifting illusions and realities of Tiny Alice. Butler, Miss Alice’s former lover, is now her butler. The Lawyer, denigrated by the Cardinal in their youth, now controls the Cardinal’s actions but is abhorred by his current lover, Miss Alice. Miss Alice, who once feared growing old, now fears endlessly repeating the same cycle and never aging. Julian, who has dedicated his life in lay service to his abstract God, rejects the abstraction he has married by vowing to return to the asylum. Nevertheless, the audience is aware that he cannot return, that he must be sacrificed to complete the ceremony of Alice. In fact, the audience’s involvement in Julian’s acceptance of Alice through the movement of lights and the sounds of heartbeats and breathing is itself ironic because the audience is aware of these effects before Julian is; therefore, the audience members themselves become participants in what is either Julian’s salvation or his dying hallucination.

Edward Albee’s aural and visual symbolism is the crucial dramatic device in Tiny Alice. From the characters’ discussions of the model and the replica to the Lawyer’s use of the word “dimension” in describing the characters’ life changes, the ambiguity of reality and illusion is repeatedly examined. Stream-of-consciousness soliloquies by Miss Alice and Julian offer glimpses into the unconscious associations a mind in crisis can create. The model itself is a visual symbol of interchangeable realities (or perhaps the single constant reality) just as Miss Alice, the physical being, is the representative of the real abstraction. Similarly, the foreshadowing of the deteriorated wine cellar and the chapel fire strengthens the later symbolism of Miss Alice and Julian’s Pietà—the scene where their pose represents The Virgin Mary mourning the crucified Jesus—as well as that of Butler’s lingering kiss of peace.

By the final fade of stage lights, Albee has transformed conventional concrete reality into the reality of the unconscious. Nevertheless, he leaves resolution of the ultimate ambiguity to each individual. Having experienced Julian’s faith and his sanity as synonymous, the theater participants must now face the fundamental question: Are they and Julian hopelessly insane, betrayed and abandoned by humankind and God, or have they relinquished themselves to the consummate union?

Historical Context

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The Sixties
The 1960s was a decade that ushered in great change in the United States. The decade began with voters electing John F. Kennedy as president. At that time, he was the youngest man ever to hold the office, and he brought a spirit of youth and hope to the nation. After his assassination, Kennedy was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson, whose administration effected great change in tax cuts, civil rights, and the war on poverty. By the middle of the decade, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had been passed, which barred discrimination and led to a mass registration of African American voters in the South, respectively.

Many young people rebelled against mainstream America. These members of the counterculture questioned conformity and societal institutions, such as churches. The enrollment in college courses in religion grew dramatically as students searched for alternative answers. The women’s movement also experienced a widespread revival, which forced the government to reconsider women’s rights.

Changes in Religious Expression
In 1962, Pope John XXIII attended the Second Vatican Council to discuss what would become historical changes to Church practices. The pope and the other delegates decided that mass should be performed in local languages instead of in Latin. Laypeople also began to acquire a larger role in determining Church affairs.

The U.S. Supreme Court also handed down a historic decision in response to Engel v. Vitale. The Court’s decision brought an end to religious worship in public schools. In 1962, twenty-four states either permitted or required school prayer, but the Supreme Court stated that special time designated for prayer violated citizens’ First Amendment right to freedom of religion. This decision sparked widespread controversy. In the ensuing years, there were 144 proposed constitutional amendments to allow prayer and Bible reading in school; none of them passed. However, the Court’s decision seemed to reflect the growing consensus of the American population that religion was losing its influence on American life; a poll conducted in 1969 showed that 70 percent of the respondents agreed with such a statement.

The Art World
Drama and dramatists have moved to the forefront of the arts. Tennessee Williams, Archibald McLeish, Frank Gilroy, and Edward Albee were among the most respected playwrights of the period. Plays by these writers and others were performed regularly on college campuses and by amateur theater groups throughout the country. Unconventional theater also grew in popularity. Plays such as ‘‘Hair,’’ about members of the counterculture living under the cloud of the Vietnam War generally opened off-Broadway, but many became enormous hits.

In literature, novels that had previously been censored were becoming hits in the bookstores. D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were published in inexpensive paperback editions. College students studied novels that had previously been considered too risqué, such as James Baldwin’s Another Country, which featured a homosexual character. Other authors portrayed their heroes as victims of an inhumane, insane, and authoritarian society. Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, which takes places against a mad backdrop of war, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, whose protagonist was an inmate in an insane asylum, were popular novels that were made into movies.

Literary Style

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Symbolism
Of the five characters, three bear the title of their profession. Lawyer, Miss Alice’s lawyer, represents civil law, and Cardinal, a cardinal in the Catholic Church, represents divine law. Instead of standing for justice and God’s love, respectively, each man symbolizes the perversion of power and hypocrisy. Cardinal acts as Julian’s pimp, willingly selling his secretary to Miss Alice and her cohorts. The papers transferring the money are signed on the day of the wedding. ‘‘[T]he grant is accomplished;’’ Cardinal tells Julian, ‘‘through your marriage . . . your service.’’ Lawyer arranges for this transaction, obtaining a human under the guise of making a donation. As Cardinal points out, though, Lawyer was a ‘‘cheat in your examinations, a liar in all things of any matter.’’ Further, the two men are made increasingly powerful through Miss Alice’s money, a symbol here of corruption. Butler, whose actual name signifies his position, is frequently seen serving wine, which is the Christian metaphor for blood. Julian has a symbolic profession. He is a lay brother—of the cloth but not fully a priest. In his relationship with Miss Alice, Julian escapes this celibacy without priesthood and unknowingly replaces it with priesthood without celibacy—a position denied by the Church.

The model house is the most important symbol in the play. The house in which Tiny Alice lives— where Julian will join her—is sealed tightly. In this respect, it is like the ‘‘glass dome’’ that ‘‘descended’’ on Julian before he entered the asylum. The sealed world of the model also represents the unrealistic world Julian has tried to create for himself since then. He had sought safety in the Church but that institution turns out to be his greatest enemy. The model, which captivates Julian, ends in symbolizing his death.

Imagery
Religious imagery abounds in the play. After Lawyer has shot Julian, Miss Alice takes him in her arms so that ‘‘they create something of a Pieta.’’ Julian dies with his arms wide spread, forming himself into a figure suggests that suggests Jesus on the cross. Cardinal’s cardinals cause him and Lawyer to reference Saint Francis and also draw improbable likenesses between these men and the saint. Both Cardinal and Lawyer also engage in nonsense talk to the birds, demonstrating a more tender side but one that never reveals itself to humanity.

This vulnerability is echoed in other images of birds throughout the play. Miss Alice’s gown has arms that resemble great wings to enfold Julian. Alternately, Julian is described as Lawyer and Miss Alice as a ‘‘bird of prey,’’ ‘‘a drab fledgling,’’ and a ‘‘little bird, pecking away.’’ Like a bird, he is trapped in a cage, ready to be destroyed by Alice. For her part, Alice has been first compared to a mouse in Lawyer’s effort to demean God, and then she has been likened to a hungry cat, one ready to dally with and destroy her prey.

Allegory
Many readers have perceived Tiny Alice as an allegory. An allegory is a narrative technique in which characters representing objects or abstract ideas are used to convey a message, which is most often moral, religious, or ethical. Julian represents pureness in the world; that pureness is murdered by the impurities in the world, which are represented by the other characters. On a more complex level, Butler, Cardinal, and Lawyer have been seen as forming an ‘‘unholy trinity’’ who pervert traditional religious faith. In the final scene, each man becomes his function. Cardinal serves the greed of the Church, not the souls it is supposed to care for. Lawyer efficiently finishes negotiations of the unholy barter in front of Julian’s dying eyes, attempting to give the 2 billion to Cardinal. Butler completes his last task of service for Julian, fetching a cushion to place behind his back. And Julian, the layperson, the nonpriest who still practices celibacy, becomes a priest wed to Alice—he becomes a son of God despite the shaking of his faith.

Setting
The setting is significant in its very indistinctness. Time and place are not specified in the play. The sums of money talked about are in the millions and billions but no currency is named. The only references to the outside world come as inconsequential details: the temperature in Cardinal’s garden is 96 degrees; the port that Julian drinks was bottled in 1806; Miss Alice’s mansion was brought over stone by stone from England. The generality of these facts gives the play a universal quality, reinforcing the idea that what happens in the play could happen anywhere and to anyone. At the end of the play, as well, Miss Alice makes specific yet vague references to future plans. She, Lawyer, and Butler will move to ‘‘the city’’ before they embark on ‘‘the train trip south.’’ They will have a ‘‘house on the ocean’’ and a Rolls Royce that takes them ‘‘twice weekly into the shopping strip.’’ Clearly, the three agents of Alice have enacted this drama before and will do so again. They will use the same props to lure their prey: wealth, beauty, and mystery.

Theater of the Absurd
The Theater of the Absurd was a post-World War II dramatic trend characterized by radical theatrical innovations. In these works, nontraditional characterizations, plots, and stage sets reveal a meaningless universe in which human values are irrelevant. Absurdist drama features a vision of bewildered and anxious humanity struggling to find a purpose. Traditional aspects of support, such as religion and society, have often collapsed. By the mid-1960s, many absurdist innovations had been absorbed into mainstream theater.

Some critics find Tiny Alice an absurdist drama. Albee first was categorized with the major absurdist playwrights—Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter—after the staging of his first play, Zoo Story. Like these European absurdists, Albee has also tried to dramatize the reality of humanity’s condition. Albee differs from them in that he focuses on the illusions that screen humans from reality instead of on life’s alogical absurdity. Julian, for example, uses his belief in God to shield him from the hypocrisy of religion and his own repressed sexuality.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: In 1965, advanced degrees in theology are awarded to 1,739 Americans, out of a total U.S. population of close to 194 million.

1990s: In 1996, advanced degrees in theology are awarded to 8,479 Americans, out of a total U.S. population of close to 266 million.

1960s: By the end of the decade, there are 145 institutions conferring degrees in legal studies. In 1970, 14,916 L.L.B. or J.D. degrees are awarded to students.

1990s: By the middle of the decade, there are 183 institutions conferring degrees in legal studies. In 1996, 39,828 L.L.B. or J.D. degrees are awarded to students.

1960s: In 1965, a bit over $12 million (in 1965 dollars) is donated to charities. Individuals donate about $9.3 million of this sum. Close to $6 million is given to religious interests.

1990s: In 1997, almost $144 billion (in 1997 dollars) is donated to charities. Individuals donate just over $109 billion. In 1995, 31.5 percent of American households give some money to charity. Just over 15 percent donate more than $1,000. Forty-eight percent of people give money to religious interests, and the average donation is $868.

1960s: In 1965, 24.9 percent of American households have an income of $10,000 or higher.

1990s: In 1997, 18.4 percent of American households have and income of $75,000 or higher.

1960s: In 1965, there are just over 46 million American members of the Roman Catholic Church, which is about 24 percent of the U.S. population.

1990s: In 1998, 27 percent of the American population are Roman Catholic. Forty percent of all Americans attend church or synagogue each week.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Albee, Edward, Author’s Note, in Tiny Alice, Atheneum, 1965.

Amacher, Richard, Edward Albee, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

Casper, Leonard, ‘‘Tiny Alice: The Expense of Joy in the Persistence of Mystery,’’ in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman, University of St. Thomas, 1983, pp. 83-92.

Cohn, Ruby, article, in American Writers, Vol. 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974, pp. 71-96.

Franzblau, Abraham N., ‘‘A Psychiatrist Looks at Tiny Alice,’’ in Saturday Review, January 30, 1965, p. 39.

Hewes, Henry, review and discussion of Tiny Alice, in Saturday Review, January 30, 1965, p. 38.

Review of Tiny Alice, in Newsweek, January, 1, 1965, p. 75.

Wasserman, Julian, ‘‘‘The Pitfalls of Drama’: The Idea of Language in the Plays of Edward Albee,’’ in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman, University of St. Thomas, 1983, pp. 29-53.

Worth, Katharine, ‘‘Edward Albee: Playwright of Evolution,’’ in Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, Max Hueber Verlag, 1981, pp. 33–53.

Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, ed., Edward Albee, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. This is a collection of critical essays on Albee’s most significant plays.

Gussow, Mel, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey: A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

Sources for Further Study

Amacher, Richard E. “Critics Are Downgrading Audience’s Taste and Have Obfuscated Simple Tiny Alice.” Dramatists Guild Quarterly 2 (Spring, 1963): 9-14.

Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Dukore, Bernard F. “Tiny Albee.” Drama Survey 5 (Spring, 1966): 60-66.

Kolin, Philip C. Conversations with Edward Albee. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1988.

Markus, Thomas B. “Tiny Alice and Tragic Catharsis.” Educational Theatre Journal 17 (October, 1965): 225-233.

Posts, Robert M. “Salvation or Damnation: Death in the Plays of Edward Albee.” American Drama, Spring, 1993, 32-49.

Rutenberg, Michael E. Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest. New York: DBS, 1969.

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