Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399
Tiny Alice is a metaphysical dramatization of the nature and the function of truth and illusion in the individual’s search for God and for self-definition. To Edward Albee, it is essential that the seeker address the internal alienation as well as the social dysfunction apparently integral to the process. Julian, the seeker, cannot reconcile his abstract perception of God with humankind’s God-image—that is, a God in man’s likeness. Therefore, he first questions his own sanity and then the sanity of society.
Critical commentary on both the initial production and the playscript has been divided. Negative production reviews call Tiny Alice insignificant, adolescent, unresolved, and incoherent. Positive analyses, however, have been equally eloquent in describing the play as substantial, penetrating, perceptive, and terrifying. Dramatic criticism also reflects a broad range of thematic analyses. Tiny Alice has been reduced to a tale of homosexual suicide or of psychotic hallucination. Other critics emphasize its abstract spiritual symbolism as a dramatic consideration of human isolation, a search for salvation, or a confrontation with the reality of death. Albee himself has explained Tiny Alice as a simple morality play to be experienced by the unconscious rather than filtered through preconditioned, conscious beliefs. Nevertheless, the majority of published criticism concerns itself with unravelling the dramatic action.
Julian, the protagonist, embodies the fragmentation between the individual and society’s institutions as well as that within the individual self. The Cardinal, representative of organized religion, and the Lawyer, symbol of civil authority, sacrifice Julian to attain their ulterior goals. Both rationalize their culpability. Through these two characters, Albee indicts the destructive potential of institutionalized thought and action. Furthermore, as he seeks interaction with his God, Julian initially contributes to his own victimization by creating a delusive wall of religio-sexual hysteria. In the final minutes of Tiny Alice, however, Julian is able to relinquish his defense against what he has perceived as God’s abandonment. Albee graphically dramatizes that, despite prefabricated functions, each individual is an isolate existing among isolates, subject to self-delusion and the betrayal of others in his search for meaning. Nevertheless, moments of actual communication, person to person and person to God, must occur for the human spirit to survive. A moment of recognition, a rare culmination of an individual’s life focus—achieved only when one is willing to give his life for that single moment—is humanity’s redemption.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1173
Illusion and Reality
Julian is torn between conflicting desires for truth and illusion. He claims to respect only that which is real, but at the same time, he is drawn to the world of his imagination. He wants to worship God in the abstract form and he rails against those people who create God in their own image for their own purpose. This incompatibility of illusion and reality caused him to lose his faith, and thus his sanity, forcing him into the asylum. While in the asylum, he experienced even greater confusion about what was real and what was illusion. To the present day, he is never sure whether or not the sexual experience that he remembers did happen. When he tells Miss Alice about this, she wonders, ‘‘Is the memory of something having happened the same as it having happened?’’ vocally illustrating the sometimes unavoidable merging of illusion and reality. Julian’s leave-taking of the asylum also illustrates this principle: he was persuaded that hallucination was inevitable and even desirable.
By the end of the play, however, Julian has been thrown into such a state of confusion that he questions whether he was actually sane during the time he spent in the asylum. He cannot accept Miss Alice’s assertion that she, not Alice, is the illusion. He realizes that he has ‘‘given up everything . . . For hallucination.’’ He declares his intention to return to the asylum, his ‘‘refuge . . . in the world, from all the demons waking,’’ at which point Lawyer shoots him. In his dying soliloquy, Julian becomes enmeshed in his debate between truth and reality. Earlier, while looking at the model he had shouted, ‘‘THERE IS NOTHING THERE!,’’ but now, even while continuing to deny the physical representation of the abstract, he calls for Alice-God to come to him, and he begins to hear heartbeats and breathing that grows increasingly louder. These sounds continue after his death. Albee has said that he intended the audience to think of these sounds as either Julian’s hallucination or as the personification of an abstract force. Either way, Julian is submitting to an illusion instead of the reality—the pure abstraction of God—that he claimed he wanted.
The mutable nature of illusion and reality is underscored by many other elements in the play. Miss Alice convincingly appears as an old woman— it takes only a face mask and a wig to turn a young beauty into a crone. Cardinal also demonstrates that how something or someone appears is not fixed. He speaks in the royal ‘‘we,’’ but excited about the amount of money Miss Alice is going to give to the Church, he slips into the more informal ‘‘I.’’ The model, which has the power to signify what happens in the mansion, is another example of the overlap between illusion and reality. What happens in the model happens in the mansion, such as the fire in the chapel. ‘‘It is exact,’’ says Butler, but that is not true, for in the model Alice resides and in the mansion Miss Alice, Butler, and Lawyer reside. Further, he and Julian question whether the model is an accurate model of the mansion—does it have a model within the model? Trying to answer this question would prove the impossibility of discerning with utter certainty the distinction between illusion and reality, for if the model is an accurate replica of the mansion, the smaller models within would extend into infinity.
God and Faith
Julian’s primary struggle has centered on the limits of his faith. He is a lay person, thus, in Butler’s words, Julian is ‘‘of the cloth but [he has] . . . not taken it.’’ This position indicates Julian’s indecision and his inability to accept the humanmade institution of religion. Alone with Butler again, he clarifies his position: he fled to the asylum because he had lost his faith in God. He could not accept that humans made God into a ‘‘false God in their own image.’’ Julian’s rejection of this representation shows his distaste for making God into a symbol for worship; instead, he thinks, people should merely worship God. Julian says of the asylum, ‘‘I did not go there to look for my faith, but because it had left me.’’ His faith and his sanity, ‘‘they are one and the same.’’ The implication is that without his faith, he is insane, so in leaving the asylum, he was affirming his faith. However, one significant change took place during the asylum: he came to accept that hallucinations were inevitable and not the mark of insanity.
The idea of faith arises again at the end of the play. Faced with Lawyer, Butler, Miss Alice, and Cardinal, all of whom want him to stay with Alice— all of whom want him to accept the representation of God—Julian says he is unable to do so. Lawyer tells him to accept this ‘‘act of faith.’’ Cardinal seconds Lawyer’s suggestion, declaring it to be ‘‘God’s will.’’ Julian visibly recoils at this suggestion. Having fought so hard to regain his faith, he knows that acknowledging Alice as the personification of God will leave him empty.
Tiny Alice ripples with both heterosexual and homosexual energy. The opening scene of the play, acted out between Cardinal and Lawyer, is filled with hostility, yet it makes numerous references to sexual tensions that have existed over the years between the men. Lawyer speaks of the ‘‘obeisance’’ that he used to demand from Cardinal, who in turn reminds his enemy that Lawyer’s nickname, Hyena, derived from the animal’s habit of eating its prey through the anus. Lawyer counters by implying in a manner that is ‘‘too offhand’’ that Cardinal may have sexual relations with other cardinals. Lawyer muses on the ‘‘vaunted celibacy’’ of priests. When he was young, he and Cardinal attended a Catholic boys’ school where ‘‘everyone diddled everyone else,’’ and they naturally assumed that the priests did the same. The homosexual tension extends beyond these men. Lawyer calls Butler ‘‘Darling’’ and ‘‘Dearest.’’ Butler, too, when he kisses Julian goodbye on the forehead gives him ‘‘not a quick kiss.’’ Julian describes his attraction to a Welsh stableman with hairy hands.
Despite his vow of celibacy, Julian has numerous and intense sexual fantasies for both men and women. His description of his hallucination of his sexual encounter with the fellow patient is vivid, mimicking orgasm, but it is not as sexually evocative as his homosexual fantasies. In his dreams of martyrdom, the entrance of the gladiator’s fork is simultaneous with his sexual mounting by the lion. He relishes the ‘‘bathing’’ of his groin with his own blood and the press of the lion’s belly, which changes into the gladiator’s belly, against him. While retelling this fantasy, Julian works himself into a trancelike state which ends in him giving himself to Miss Alice, who opens her gown wide so he can enter within ‘‘the great wings.’’ Thus, he has transforms his homosexual fantasies into heterosexual carnal desire.