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Analysis of Edward Albee’s Plays

Though he is touted sometimes as the chief American practitioner of the absurd in drama, Edward Albee (March 12, 1928 – September 16, 2016) only rarely combines in a single work both the techniques and the philosophy associated with that movement and is seldom as unremittingly bleak and despairing an author as Beckett. Yet the influence of Eugène Ionesco’s humor and of Jean Genet’s rituals can be discerned in isolated works, as can the battle of the sexes and the voracious, emasculating female from August Strindberg, the illusion/ reality motif from Luigi Pirandello and O’Neill, and the poetic language of T. S. Eliot, Beckett, and Harold Pinter, as well as the recessive action and lack of definite resolution and closure often found in Beckett and Pinter.

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As the only avant-garde American dramatist of his generation to attain a wide measure of popular success, Albee sometimes demonstrates, especially in the plays from the first decade of his career, the rather strident and accusatory voice of the angry young man. The outlook in his later works, however, is more that of the compassionate moralist, linking him—perhaps unexpectedly—with Anton Chekhov; one of the characters in All Over, recognizing the disparity between what human beings could become and what they have settled for, even echoes the Russian master’s Madame Ranevsky when she says, “How dull our lives are.” Even in his most technically and stylistically avant-garde dramas, however, Albee remains essentially very traditional in the values he espouses, as he underlines the necessity for human contact and communion, for family ties and friendships, which provide individuals with the courage to grow and face the unknown.

Always prodding people to become more, yet, at the same time, sympathetically accepting their fear and anxiety over change, Albee has increasingly become a gentle apologist for human beings, who need one crutch after another, who need one illusion after another, so that—in a paraphrase of O’Neill’s words—they can make it through life and comfort their fears of death.

Despite a lengthy career that has, especially in its second half, been marked by more critical downs than ups, Albee has not been satisfied to rest on his successes, such as Who’s Afraid of VirginiaWoolf? nor has he been content simply to repeat the formulas that have worked for him in the past. Instead, he has continued to experiment with dramatic form, to venture into new structures and styles. In so doing, he has grown into a major voice in dramatic literature, the progress of whose career in itself reflects his overriding theme: No emotional or artistic or spiritual growth is possible without embracing the terror—and perhaps the glory—of tomorrow’s unknown, for the unknown is contemporary humanity’s only certainty. The major recurrent pattern in Albee’s plays finds his characters facing a test or a challenge to become more fully human.

In The Zoo Story, Jerry arrives at a bench in Central Park to jar Peter out of his passivity and Madison Avenue complacence; in The Death of Bessie Smith, the black blues singer arrives dying at a southern hospital only to be turned away because of racial prejudice; in Tiny Alice, Brother Julian arrives at Miss Alice’s mansion to undergo his dark night of the soul; in A Delicate Balance, Harry and Edna arrive at the home of their dearest friends to test the limits of friendship and measure the quality of Agnes and Tobias’s life; in Seascape, the lizards Leslie and Sarah come up from the sea to challenge Charlie to renewed activity and to try their own readiness for the human adventure; and in The Lady from Dubuque, the Lady and her black traveling companion arrive to ease Jo to her death and help her husband learn to let go. To effect the desired change in Peter, Jerry in The Zoo Story must first break down the barriers that hinder communication. Accomplishing this might even require deliberate cruelty, because kindness by itself may no longer be enough: Oftentimes in Albee, one character needs to hurt another before he can help, the hurt then becoming a creative rather than a destructive force.

Along with the focus on lack of communication and on a love and concern that dare to be critical, Albee consistently pursues several additional thematic emphases throughout his works. The American Dream, which comments on the decline and fall from grace of Western civilization and on the spiritual aridity of a society that lives solely by a materialistic ethic, also decries the emasculation of Daddy at the hands of Mommy; to a greater or lesser degree. The Death of Bessie Smith, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and A Delicate Balance all speak as well to what Albee sees as a disturbing reversal of gender roles (a motif he inherits from Strindberg), though Albee does become increasingly understanding of the female characters in his later works.

Several plays, among them Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, consider the delimiting effect of time on human choice and the way in which humanity’s potential for constructive change decreases as time goes on. Characters in both A Delicate Balance and Tiny Alice face the existential void, suffering the anxiety that arises over the possibility of there being a meaninglessness at the very core of existence, while characters in several others, including Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung, All Over, and The Lady from Dubuque, confront mortality as they ponder the distinction between dying (which ends) and death (which goes on) and the suffering of the survivor.

Elsewhere, particularly in Counting the Ways, Albee insists on the difficulty of ever arriving at certainty in matters of the heart, which cannot be known or proved quantitatively. Finally, in such works as Malcolm and Seascape, he explores the notion that innocence must be lost—or at least risked—before there can be any hope of achieving a paradise regained. If the mood of many Albee works is autumnal, even wintry, it is because the dramatist continually prods his audiences into questioning whether the answers that the characters put forward in response to the human dilemma—such panaceas as religion (Tiny Alice) or formulaic social rituals (All Over)—might not in themselves all be simply illusions in which human beings hide from a confrontation with the ultimate nothingness of existence. In this, he comes closer to the absurdists, though he is more positive in his holding out of salvific acts: the sacrifice to save the other that ends The Zoo Story, the gesture of communion that concludes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the affirmation of shared humanness that ends Seascape, and the merciful comforting of the survivor that concludes The Lady from Dubuque. If Albee’s characters often live a death-in-life existence, it is equally evident that human beings, God’s only metaphor- making animals, can sometimes achieve a breakthrough by coming to full consciousness of their condition and by recognizing the symbolic, allegorical, and anagogical planes of existence.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which brought Albee immediate fame as the most important American dramatist since Williams and Miller, is probably also the single most important American play of the 1960’s, the only one from that decade with any likelihood of becoming a classic work of dramatic literature. In this, his first full-length drama, Albee continues several strands from his one-act plays—including the need to hurt in order to help from The Zoo Story, the criticism of Western civilization from The American Dream, and the Strindbergian battle of the sexes from that play and The Death of Bessie Smith—while weaving in several others that become increasingly prominent in his work: excoriating wit, a concern with illusion/ reality, the structuring of action through games and game-playing (here, “Humiliate the Host,” “Hump the Hostess,” “Get the Guests,” and “Bringing Up Baby”), and a mature emphasis on the need to accept change and the potentially creative possibilities it offers. Tightly unified in time, place, and action, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? occurs in the early hours of Sunday morning in the home of George, a professor of history, and his wife, Martha, in the mythical eastern town of New Carthage.

After a party given by her father, the college president, Martha invites Nick, a young biology teacher, and his wife, Honey, back home for a nightcap. Through the ensuing confrontations and games that occasionally turn bitter and vicious, both the older and the younger couples experience a radical, regenerative transformation. George, who sees himself as a humanist who lives for the multiplicity and infinite variety that have always characterized history, immediately sets himself up against Nick, the man of science, or, better yet, of scientism, whose narrow, amoral view of inevitability— wherein every creature would be determined down to color of hair and eyes— would sound the death knell for civilization.

Like the attractive, muscular young men from The American Dream and The Sandbox, Nick is appealing on the outside but spiritually vapid within. If his ethical sense is undeveloped, even nonexistent, and his intellect sterile, he is also physically impotent when he and Martha go off to bed, though his temporary impotence should probably be regarded mainly as symbolic of the general sterility of his entire life. George apparently intends, much as Jerry had in The Zoo Story, to jar Nick out of his present condition, which involves being overly solicitous of his mousey, infantile wife. Though experiencing a false pregnancy when Nick married her, Honey, slim-hipped and unable to hold her liquor—her repeated exits to the bathroom are adroitly managed to move characters on and off the stage—is frightened of childbirth. As George detects, she has been preventing conception or aborting without Nick’s knowledge, and in this way unmanning her husband, preventing him from transmitting his genes. By the play’s end, Nick and Honey have seen the intense emptiness that can infect a marriage without children, and Honey three times cries out that she wants a child. George and Martha were unable to have children—neither will cast blame on the other for this—and so, twenty-one years earlier, they created an imaginary son, an illusion so powerful that it has become, for all intents and purposes, a reality for them.

If not intellectually weak, George, who is in fact Albee’s spokesperson in the play, does share with Nick the condition of being under the emotional and physical control of his wife. Ever since the time when Martha’s Daddy insisted that his faculty participate in an exhibition sparring match to demonstrate their readiness to fight in the war and Martha knocked George down in the huckleberry bush, she has taunted George with being a blank and a cipher. It is unlikely that he will ever succeed her father as college president—he will not even become head of the history department. Martha claims that George married her to be humiliated and that she has worn the pants in the family not by choice but because someone must be stronger in any relationship. George realizes that if he does not act decisively to change his life by taking control, the time for any possible action will have passed.

In a formulation of the evolutionary metaphor that Albee recurrently employs, George, who, like civilization, is facing a watershed, remarks that a person can descend only so many rungs on the ladder before there can be no turning back; he must stop contemplating the past and decide to “alter the future.” Martha, too, seems to want George to take hold and become more forceful; she, indeed, is openly happy when he exerts himself, as when he frightens them all with a rifle that shoots a parasol proclaiming “Bang,” in one of the absurd jokes of which Albee is fond. Martha, despite being loud and brash and vulgar, is also sensual and extremely vulnerable. She does indeed love George, who is the only man she has ever loved, and fears that someday she will go so far in belittling him that she will lose him forever. The imaginary son has served not only as a uniting force in their marriage but also as a beanbag they can toss against each other.

When George decides to kill the son whom they mutually created through an act of imagination, Martha desperately insists that he does not have the right to do this on his own, but to no avail. Even if the child, who was to have reached his twenty-first birthday and legal maturity on the day of the play, had been real, the parents would have had to let go and continue alone, facing the future with only each other. As George says, “It was time.” He kills the illusion, intoning the mass for the dead. It is Sunday morning, and Martha is still frightened of “Virginia Woolf,” of living without illusion, and of facing the unknown. “Maybe it will be better,” George tells her, for one can never be totally certain of what is to come.

Just as there can be no assurance—though all signs point in that direction—that Nick and Honey’s marriage will be firmer with a child, there can be no certainty that George and Martha’s will be better without their imaginary son, though George is now prepared to offer Martha the strength and support needed to see her through her fear. Finally, Albee seems to be saying, human beings must not only accept change but also actively embrace it for the possibilities it presents for growth. The future is always terrifying, an uncharted territory, yet if one does not walk into it, one has no other choice but death.

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Andrew Hurteau as Brother Julian and Carrie Paff as Alice in Marin Theatre Company’s staging of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice

Tiny Alice

Tiny Alice is Albee’s richest work from a philosophical point of view; it also represents his most explicit excursion into the realm of the absurd. In it, Albee addresses the problem of how human beings come to know the reality outside themselves, even questioning whether there is, finally, any reality to know. To do this, Albee builds his play around a series of dichotomies: between faith and reason, between present memory and past occurrence, and between symbol and substance.

The play opens with a scene that could almost stand on its own as a little one-act play, demonstrating Albee’s wit at its virulent best. A Lawyer and a Cardinal, old school chums and, apparently, homosexual lovers in their adolescence, attack each other verbally, revealing the venery of both civil and religious authority. The Lawyer has come as the emissary of Miss Alice, ready to bequeath to the Church one hundred million dollars a year for the next twenty years; the Cardinal’s secretary, the lay Brother Julian, will be sent to her castle to complete the transaction. For Julian, this becomes an allegorical dark night of the soul, a period when his religious faith will be tempted and tested. On the literal level, the play seems preposterous at times and even muddled; the suspicion that all this has been planned by some extortion ring, though it is unclear what they hope to gain by involving Julian, or even, perhaps, that all this is a charade devised by Julian to provide himself with an opportunity for sacrifice, is never quite dispelled.

On the metaphoric and symbolic levels, however, as a religious drama about contemporary humanity’s need to make the abstract concrete in order to have some object to worship, Tiny Alice is clear and consistent and succeeds admirably. Julian, who earlier suffered a temporary loss of sanity over the disparity between his own conception of God and the false gods that human beings create in their own image, is now undergoing a further crisis. His temptation now is to search out a personification of the Godhead in order to make the Unknowable knowable, by making it concrete through a symbol; he hopes to prove that God exists by making contact with an experiential representation of him. To represent the Deity in this manner is, however, as the Lawyer insists, to distort and diminish it so that it can be understood in human terms. Up to this point, Julian has always fought against precisely such a reduction of the divine.

The symbol that Julian now literally embraces—through a sexual consummation and marriage that is both religious and erotic—is Miss Alice, the surrogate for Tiny Alice. That God in Albee’s play is named “Tiny Alice” points, in itself, to the strange modern phenomenon of a reduced and delimited rather than an expansive deity. Instead of the real (Miss Alice) being a pale shadowing forth of the ideal form (Tiny Alice), here the symbol (Alice) is larger than what it represents, just as the mansion in which the action after scene 1 occurs is larger than its replica, exact down to the last detail, that is onstage in the library. The Lawyer insists that human beings can never worship an abstraction, for to do so always results in worshiping only the symbol and never the substance or the thing symbolized. Furthermore, he causes Julian to question whether that substance has any tangible existence: Is it only the symbol, and not the thing symbolized, that exists? If so, then Julian faces the possibility of nothingness, of there being nothing there, of there being only the finite, sense-accessible dimension in which people live and no higher order that provides meaning.

In the face of this dilemma, Brother Julian can either despair of ever knowing his God or make a leap of faith. When the financial arrangements have been completed, the Lawyer, who—like the Butler—has had Miss Alice as his mistress, shoots Julian, who has always dreamed of sacrificing himself for his faith. Martyrdom, the ultimate form of service to one’s God, always involves questions of suicidal intent, of doing, as Eliot’s hero in Murder in the Cathedral (pr., pb. 1935) knows, “the right deed for the wrong reason.” Is one dying for self, or as a totally submissive instrument of God? As Julian dies in the posture of one crucified, he demands, in a paroxysm blending sexual hysteria and religious ecstasy, that the transcendent personify itself; indeed, a shadow moves through the mansion, accompanied by an ever-increasing heartbeat and everlouder breathing, until it totally envelops the room. As Albee himself commented, two possibilities present themselves: Either the transcendent is real, and the God Tiny Alice actually manifests itself to Brother Julian at the moment of his death, or Julian’s desire for transcendence is so great that he deceives himself.

The play’s ending, while allowing for the person of faith to be confirmed in his or her belief about the spiritual reality behind the physical symbol, is at the same time disquieting in that it insists on the equally possible option that the revelation of transcendence is merely a figment of one’s imagination. What Albee may well be suggesting, then, and what brings him to the doorstep of the absurdists in this provocative work, is that there is, finally, nothing there except what human beings, through their illusions, are able to call up as a shield against the void.

A Delicate Balance

A Delicate Balance, for which Albee deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize denied him by the Advisory Board four seasons earlier for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is an autumnal play about death-in-life. A metaphysical drawing-room drama in the manner of Eliot and Graham Greene, it focuses on a well-to-do middleaged couple, Agnes and Tobias, who are forced one October weekend to assess their lives by the unexpected visit of their closest friends, Harry and Edna (characters in Albee traditionally lack surnames).

The latter couple arrives on Friday night, frightened by a sudden perception of emptiness. Having faced the existential void, they flee, terrified, to the warmth and succor of Agnes and Tobias’s home, trusting that they will discover there some shelter from meaninglessness, some proof that at least the personal values of friendship and love remain. As the stage directions imply, an audience should not measure these visitors-in-the-night against the requirements of realistic character portrayal; they function, instead, as mirror images for their hosts, who, by looking at them, are forced to confront the emotional and spiritual malaise of their own lives. Agnes’s live-in sister, the self-proclaimed alcoholic Claire—whose name suggests the clear-sightedness of this woman who stands on the sidelines and sees things as they are—understands the threat that Harry and Edna bring with them.

Agnes fears that their guests come bearing the “plague,” and Claire understands that this weekend will be spent waiting for the biopsy, for confirmation of whether some dread, terminal disease afflicts this family. Agnes not only has no desire for selfknowledge but also deliberately guards against any diagnosis of the family’s ills. As the fulcrum, she is able to maintain the family’s status quo only by keeping herself and Tobias in a condition of stasis, insulated from the currents that threaten to upset the “delicate balance” that allows them to go on without ever questioning their assumptions. A somewhat haughty though gracious woman, whose highly artificial and carefully measured language reflects the controlled pattern of her existence and her inability to tolerate or handle the unexpected, Agnes muses frequently on sex roles. A dramatic descendant of Strindberg’s male characters rather than of his female characters, she decries all of those things that have made the sexes too similar and have thus threatened the stability of the traditional family unit. From her perspective, it is the wife’s function to maintain the family after the husband has made the decisions: She only holds the reins; Tobias decides the route. It is Tobias’s house that is not in order, and only he, she says, can decide what should be done.

Tobias himself would claim that Agnes rules, but Agnes would counter that this is only his illusion. Clearly, Tobias seems to have relinquished his position of authority after the death of their son, Teddy; at that point, according to their oft-divorced daughter, Julia, now inopportunely home again after a fourth failed marriage, Tobias became a pleasant, ineffectual, gray noneminence. Undoubtedly, his insufficiencies as a father have had an adverse effect upon his daughter’s relationships with men, and although Tobias rationalizes that he did not want another son because of the potential suffering it might have caused for Agnes, he might equally have feared his own inadequacy as a role model. That Tobias lacks essential self-criticism and decisiveness is suggested by the motto he has cheerfully adopted: “We do what we can.” In other words, he takes the path of least resistance, no longer exerting himself to do more than the minimum in his personal relationships.

At one point in the play, Tobias tells a story about his cat and him—a parable similar to Jerry’s tale of the dog in The Zoo Story—which illustrates Tobias’s attitude toward having demands placed on him and being judged. Believing that the cat was accusing him of being neglectful, and resenting this assessment, he turned to hating the cat, which he finally had put to sleep in an act Claire terms the “least ugly” choice. Now, with Harry and Edna’s visit, Tobias is again having his motives and the depth of his concern measured. He realizes that if he does not respond positively to their needs, he will be tacitly admitting that his whole life, even his marriage to Agnes, has been empty. In one of the verbal arias for which Albee is justly famous, Tobias begs, even demands, that they remain, though he does not want this burden and disruption. When, despite his desperate entreaties, they insist on leaving, Agnes can calmly remark, “Come now; we can begin the day,” satisfied that the dark night of terror is safely passed. Her closing line must, however, be understood as ironic. Although it is Sunday morning, there has been no resurrection or renewal; the opportunity for salvation has been missed, and Tobias must now live on with the knowledge that he has failed, that much of his life has been a sham. As is true of the characters at the end of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956) Tobias’s tragedy is that he has come to self-knowledge too late to act upon the new recognition.

Albee’s central perception in A Delicate Balance appears to be that time diminishes the possibilities for human choice and change. Try as he might, it is now too late for Tobias to break out of the pattern, and so he is condemned to living out his days with an awareness of how little he has become because he lacks the comforting illusions of propriety and magnanimity that Agnes can call on for solace. He has seen his soul and has found it wanting, and things can never be the same again. For Tobias, in what is Albee’s most beautiful play, the “delicate balance” that everyone erects as a shelter has tipped, but not in his favor. As Agnes muses, “Time happens,” and all that remains is rust, bones, and wind. These are Albee’s hollow people for whom the dark never ends.

Seascape

If Tiny Alice and A Delicate Balance are dark plays, Seascape is a play of light, Albee’s most luminous work to date. An optimistic tone poem that won for Albee his second Pulitzer, Seascape might, indeed, profitably be seen as a reverse image of A Delicate Balance, which won for him his first. In the later play, Albee again focuses on a couple in their middle age who ask: Where do we go from here? Are change and growth still possible, or is all that remains a gradual process of physical and spiritual atrophy until death? Nearly the entire first act of Seascape—which is primarily a play of scintillating discussion rather than action—is a two-character drama, with the diametrically opposed viewpoints of Nancy and Charlie temporarily poised in a tenuous equilibrium. Nancy’s inclination is to follow the urge to ever fuller life, while Charlie is seduced by the prospect of a painless withdrawal from all purposive activity.

The “seascape” of the play’s title is the literal setting, but it is also an “escape,” for the sea lying beyond the dunes is the archetype of both life and death; if it once symbolized Charlie’s will-to-life, it now communicates his willed desire for the inertia of death or, at least, for a kind of premoral existence in which life simply passes. The shadow of Albee’s dark plays still falls over Seascape in Charlie’s initial stance as a man experiencing existential angst, terrified by the premonition of loneliness if Nancy should no longer be with him, fearful that even life itself may be only an illusion. In the face of these terrors—symbolized by the recurrent sound of the jet planes passing overhead— death beckons as a welcome release for Charlie because he has lived well. As his watchword, he chooses “we’ll see,” just another way of saying that things will be put off until they are blessedly forgotten. Nancy, on the other hand, refuses to vegetate by retreating from life and living out her remaining days in a condition equivalent to “purgatory before purgatory,” insisting instead that they “do something.” She understands that if nothing is ever ventured, nothing can be gained.

If Charlie, like Agnes in A Delicate Balance, desires stasis, a condition comfortable precisely because it is known and therefore can be controlled, Nancy will make the leap of faith into the unknown, accepting change and flux as a necessary precondition for progress and growth. Nancy accuses Charlie of a lack of “interest in imagery”; if, as Albee has frequently said, it is the metaphor-making ability that renders humanity truly human, then Charlie’s deficiency in this regard signals his diminished condition. No sooner has Nancy finished her admonition to Charlie that they “try something new” than the opportunity presents itself in the appearance of Leslie and Sarah, two great green talking lizards come up from the sea. Their arrival, a startling yet delightful coup de théâtre, raises the work to the level of parable and allegory: Leslie and Sarah, existing at some prehuman stage on the evolutionary scale, serve as recollections of what the older couple’s heritage was eons ago—as well as of what Charlie desires to become once again.

Leslie and Sarah, like Harry and Edna in A Delicate Balance, are afraid not of the prospect of dying and finding nothingness or the void but of the challenge of becoming more highly developed, which is to say more human and morally responsible creatures. Life in the sea, unterrifying because a known quantity, was also more restricted and limiting. What inspires them to seek something more are the inklings of a sense of wonder, of awe, and of a childlike enthusiasm—qualities Nancy possesses in abundance. Their choice, then, exactly parallels Charlie’s: They can make do by settling for less than a full life, or they can expand their lives qualitatively by becoming conscious of themselves as thinking and feeling beings, although that requires a willingness to experience consciously suffering as well as joy. Significantly, it is Charlie, himself afraid, who persuades Leslie and Sarah to remain up on earth rather than descend back into the deep. In the moment of convincing them, he himself undergoes a regenerative epiphany that saves him, too.

At the climactic point in Seascape, Charlie, like Jerry in The Zoo Story and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before him, gives Leslie and Sarah a “survival kit.” To accomplish this requires that he hurt them, especially Sarah. Because what separates human beings from the lower animals is precisely their consciousness of being alive, of being vulnerable, and of finally being mortal, Charlie realizes that he can help Leslie and Sarah complete their transformation from beast to human only by making them feel truly human emotions. Playing on Sarah’s fear that Leslie might someday leave her and never return, he deliberately, in an action that recalls the necessary violence of Jerry toward Peter, makes Sarah cry; that, in turn, makes Leslie so defensive and angry that he hits and chokes Charlie. Having tasted these human emotions of sorrow and wrath, Sarah and Leslie at first desire more than ever to return to the ooze, to the prehuman security of the sea. What quenches their fears is Nancy and Charlie pleading with them not to retreat, extending their hands to the younger couple in a gesture of compassion and human solidarity.

In aiding Leslie and Sarah on the mythic journey from the womb into the world that, no matter how traumatic, must in time be taken, Charlie simultaneously leaves behind his desire to escape from life and asserts once more his will to live. If Charlie is a representative Everyman, fallen prey to ennui and despair, then Leslie’s “Begin,” on which the curtain falls, is a declaration of faith, trust, and determination, uttered not only for himself and Sarah but also for all humankind, who must periodically be roused and inspired to continue their journey.

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The Man Who Had Three Arms

In The Man Who Had Three Arms, Albee abolished the fourth wall of the theater in a manner that reminded many critics of the works of Luigi Pirandello. The play’s protagonist, coyly named “Himself,” spends much of the drama lecturing to the audience. Himself claims to have been an ordinary man who aspired to little more in life than his marriage, family, and success at work until the morning he discovered a third arm growing out of his back. Seduced by his newfound celebrity, he embarks on a lucrative and highly conspicuous career, exploiting his anomalous “talent” and indulging morally challenging impulses with the seeming approval of an admiring public.

One day, however, the third arm mysterously withers away and disappears, leaving him financially bankrupt, spritiually broken and forsaken by his supporters. Coming on the heels of The Lady from Dubuque, which garnered mixed reviews and closed after only twelve performances on Broadway, and the failed adaptation of Lolita, which earned Albee some of the worst reviews of his stage career (as well as criticism by the Nabokov estate and the condemnation of several special interest groups), The Man Who Had Three Arms struck many critics as a transparently autobiographical play in which a self-pitying Albee lashed out at a public that he felt had celebrated him during his successful years, then abandoned him. Many reviewers, in fact, decried The Man Who Had Three Arms as a virtual attack on its audience. Albee concurred, noting that he agreed with Atonin Artaud that at times a dramatist must “literally draw blood.” He admitted that the drama was “an act of aggression” and “probably the most violent play I’ve written,” but he also disputed the autobiographical allusions many saw in the play.

The Man Who Had Three Arms closed after sixteen performances, capping a period that marks a low point both personally and professionally for Albee, in which it seemed his relevance and ability to enlighten as well as provoke theater audiences had, like the symbolic third arm of his protagonist, withered away to nothing.

Three Tall Women

With Three Tall Women, Albee proved that second acts are possible in a theater career. The play earned him his third Pulitzer Prize and inaugurated a revival of interest in his work that continued through the 1990’s and beyond. It is a touchstone for many themes that he has tackled in other dramas, notably the illusions people cling to to distract them from the emptiness of their lives and the disillusionment that comes as aging gradually shuts off the individual’s capacity for change and redemption.

The play also reflects a highly original melding of Albee’s influences. It is a Chekhovian play in its compassion for its characters, and might almost be seen as Albee’s rendition of Tri sestry (pr., pb. 1901, revised pb. 1904; The Three Sisters, 1920) in its treatment of three heroines who reflect with nostalgia and regret on the choices they have made in their lives. At the same time, its observations on personal decline and its minimalist staging techniques suggest the spare and despairing spirit of the plays of Beckett. The first act establishes the personalities of three distinct characters who are on stage for the entire play.

Woman A is a frail and needy woman in her early nineties. Described in the character notes as “thin, autocratic, proud,” she radiates fading glory and dominates the dialogue with memories of her life as a girl from an ordinary family who married into wealth and soon learned the self-deceiving social rituals and hypocrisies of the moneyed class. A has outlived the philandering husband she once loved by more than thirty years. She speaks proudly of her accomplishments but grows childish and petulant when her memory fails or she finds herself physically incapable of activities she could once perform. B, who “looks rather as A would have at fifty-two,” serves A as a nurse and caretaker. She is dutiful and understanding and calm to the point of seeming enigmatic. B serves as a buffer between A and C, who “looks rather as B would have at twenty-six” and who shows all the impatience and selfishness one associates with youth.

Though serving A in a vaguely legal capacity, C taunts A with the deficiencies of her age and openly expresses her exasperation with the older woman. There is no action per se in the first act, only verbal exchanges between the three women, who oscillate back and forth between heated, catty arguments with each other and conspiratorial schoolgirl confidences until A suffers an apparent stroke that brings down the curtain on first act. The seemingly naturalistic development of the play collapses in the second half when it becomes apparent that A, B, and C are actually different incarnations of the same character at different ages in her life, a nod (as some critics have suggested) to Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (pr., pb. 1958), in which an aging man labors to reconcile his current self with tape-recorded messages that reflect the person he was on several different birthdays at earlier times in his life. The emotional makeup and personalities of these three tall women are shaped by their expectations and experiences of the moment. A has come to accept that the arc of her life has gradually moved her away from the attractive fantasy of things she hoped for as a young woman—love and happiness—to the cold reality of things she settled for: financial security and social status.

B is embittered by the fresh memory (for her) of the son who despised her for her compromises and acquiescence to disappointment and who ran away from home (and who visits A and curries her favor, much to B’s dismay). C is two years younger than the woman she will be when she marries; she clings desperately to the belief that the best times of her life are all ahead of her, when in fact observations from A and B suggest that the best years of her life—the years that A and B might look back on wistfully— are soon to end. Despite the fact that these three women are the same character, each has no sympathy for the others and either resists or repudiates the person that the other is. However, though they act as if irreconcilable toward one another, the three provide one of Albee’s most elaborate character mirrorings, yielding a single sympathetic reflection of someone once young, beautiful, and full of hope whose life has devolved into a simple, seemingly pointless struggle to survive.

As in previous plays, Albee provides his characters with an illusion that serves them as a crutch for getting through life: the jewelry the three women are given by their husband. Each interprets the illusion and its significance differently, based on her different self-awareness. C, who is still beholden to the illusions of youth, cherishes her jewelry as “tangible proof . . . that we’re valuable.” B is of a more cynical frame shaped by her disillusionments and disappointments: She sees no difference between real and fake jewelry “because the fake looks as good as the real, even feels the same, and why should anybody know our business?” Virtually all of A’s jewelry is fake: Over the years, she has had to sell her real jewelry to support herself, a type of self-cannibalization that crystallizes the decline into emotional and spiritual entropy at the play’s core. In his introduction to the published edition of the play, Albee reveals that Three Tall Women grew out of his troubled relationship with his adoptive mother Frankie, whom the characters are meant to represent.

Albee himself appears in the play as the prodigal son, who is present at A’s sickbed but does not speak a line. He writes, “As she moved toward ninety, began rapidly failing both physically and mentally, I was touched by the survivor, the figure clinging to the wreckage only partly of her own making, refusing to go under.” The play thus makes an interesting bookend to The Man Who Had Three Arms, for which Albee appears to have drawn from his personal life to craft a theatrical act of revenge. With Three Tall Women he showed it was possible to draw from the same life and fashion a compassionate reflection equally devastating in its honesty.

Marriage Play

Marriage Play confines its violence to the stage, where the protagonists, a married couple named Jack and Gillian, alternate between bouts of physical abuse and scenes of tenderness and physical attraction. Jack and Gillian are in some ways reminiscent of the battling couples of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but the newer play also incorporates the sort of metaphysical speculation that marks much of Albee’s later work. Marriage Play encapsulates many of the principal themes of Albee’s dramatic career.

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The Play About the Baby

With The Play About the Baby, Albee’s career came full circle. The play reprises ideas and themes from earlier plays, albeit in a synthesis that makes it stand apart from the works from which it borrows. Its central conceit, a baby that may just be a figment of the characters’ imaginations, seems a self-conscious nod to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and is reinforced by the pairing of a younger and older couple. At the same time, the free-form absurdism of the play calls to mind Albee’s debut The Zoo Story, with its escalation to an act of dramatic provocation to shock a character out of a complacent frame of mind. Girl and Boy, the younger couple, have apparently had a baby together. Their nemeses are Man and Woman, an older couple—possibly married, possibly not—who first claim to have taken the baby, then proceed to call the baby’s very reality in question. While the young couple plead for the return of their child, the older couple taunt them with word games, false memories, and similar challenges that hinder the younger couple’s ability to prove who they are and the reality of their child.

The play ends with the couples agreeing—possibly under emotional duress, possibly faced with irrefutable proof—that there is no baby. Although very much a chamber piece, the play shows Albee at his wittiest and builds on distillations of trademark ideas in his dramas, including the notion that individual reality is shaped by needs, and the therapeutic value of an act of cruelty to save people from the illusions that focus their life.

The Goat

Albee’s award-winning The Goat is, on the surface, a comedy, but it has an underlying tone of tragedy. Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it centers on a married couple, successful upper-class New York architect Martin, who has just won the Pritzker Prize, and Stevie, his wife of more than twenty years. This couple, however, has a seventeen-year-old gay son, and the center of their conflict involves Martin’s infidelity. His infidelity is revealed during the course of a television interview. Martin explains that although he loves his wife, he fell in love while looking at property in upstate New York. When Martin shows the interviewer, his friend Ross, a photograph of his new love, Ross is shocked to see a photo of a goat—Sylvia. The second act deals, largely humorously, with Stevie’s feelings as she comes to terms with Martin’s infidelity; she is especially angry and feels unclean when she realizes that Martin had been having sex with both her and the goat for several months. She complains that he has brought her down, and as she exits, she threatens to bring him down as well.

The couple’s son, Billy, argues with his father, comparing their sexual preferences, and when they reconcile, a kiss turns sexual. When Ross walks in and sees the kiss, he expresses his disgust, and in return, Martin describes a father being sexually aroused after bouncing his baby on his lap. It is this scene rather than, as might be expected, the references to bestiality that brought shocked responses from the audience. Some critics suggest that this is because Albee’s treatment of bestiality is similar to the early treatment of homosexuality in its vagueness. In the last act, Stevie returns, dragging along the body of Sylvia. Martin is grief-stricken, able only to say “I’m sorry.” A reviewer for The New Republic noted that Albee manages to sympathetically portray Martin, the goat-lover, despite the repugnance that many people feel for those who engage in bestiality.

d2286c6db98203085da236cd6fc507d2Major Plays
The Zoo Story, pr. 1959, pb. 1960; The Death of Bessie Smith, pr., pb. 1960; The Sandbox, pr., pb. 1960; Fam and Yam, pr., pb. 1960; The American Dream, pr., pb. 1961; Bartleby, pr. 1961 (libretto, with James Hinton, Jr.; music by William Flanagan; adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”); Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, pr., pb. 1962; The Ballad of the Sad Café, pr., pb. 1963 (adaptation of Carson McCullers’s novel); Tiny Alice, pr. 1964, pb. 1965; A Delicate Balance, pr., pb. 1966; Malcolm, pr., pb. 1966 (adaptation of James Purdy’s novel Malcolm); Everything in the Garden, pr. 1967, pb. 1968 (adaptation of Giles Cooper’s play Everything in the Garden); Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, pr. 1968, pb. 1969 (2 one-acts); All Over, pr., pb. 1971; Seascape, pr., pb. 1975; Counting the Ways, pr. 1976, pb. 1977; Listening, pr., pb. 1977; The Lady from Dubuque, pr., pb. 1980; Lolita, pr. 1981, pb. 1984 (adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel); The Man Who Had Three Arms, pr., pb. 1982; Finding the Sun, pr. 1983, pb. 1994; Marriage Play, pr. 1987, pb. 1995; Three Tall Women, pr. 1991, pb. 1994; The Lorca Play, pr. 1992; Fragments: A Sit Around, pr. 1993, pb. 1995; The Play About the Baby, pr. 1998, pb. 2002; The Goat: Or, Who Is Sylvia?, pr., pb. 2002; Occupant, pr. 2002. Knock! Knock! Who’s There!? (2003). Peter & Jerry, retitled in 2009 to At Home at the Zoo (Act One: Homelife. Act Two: The Zoo Story) (2004) Me Myself and I (2007)

Bibliography
Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Bigsby, C.W. E., ed. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975.
Bottoms, Stephen J. Albee: “Who’s Afraid of VirginiaWoolf?” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Bryer, Jackson R. “Edward Albee.” In The Playwright’s Art. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
“Edward Albee.” In Playwrights at Work. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Gussow, Mel. Edward Albee: A Singular Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Kolin, Philip C., and J. Madison Davis. Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
McCarthy, Gerry. Edward Albee. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
Roudané, Matthew. Understanding Edward Albee. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
________. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Necessary Fictions, Terrifying Realities. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Wasserman, Julian, ed. Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays. Houston, Tex.: University of St. Thomas, 1983.

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Categories: Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Theatre Studies

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