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The Play that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Tiny Alice

by Edward Albee
Atheneum, 208 pp., $4.50

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee attempted to move beyond the narrowness of his personal interests by having his characters speculate from time to time upon the metaphysical and historical implications of their predicament. In Tiny Alice, the metaphysics, such as they are, appear to be Albee’s deepest concern—and no doubt about it, he wants his concerns to seem deep. But this new play isn’t about the problems of faith-and-doubt or appearance-and-reality, any more than Virginia Woolf was about “the Decline of the West”; mostly, when the characters in Tiny Alice suffer over epistomology, they are really suffering the consequences of human deceit, subterfuge, and hypocrisy. Albee sees in human nature very much what Maupassant did, only he wants to talk about it like Plato. In this way he not only distorts his observations, but subverts his own powers, for it is not the riddles of philosophy that bring his talent to life, but the ways of cruelty and humiliation. Like Virginia Woolf, Tiny Alice is about the triumph of a strong woman over a weak man.

The disaster of the play, however—its tediousness, its pretentiousness, its galling sophistication, its gratuitous and easy symbolizing, its ghastly pansy rhetoric and repartee—all of this can be traced to his own unwillingness or inability to put its real subject at the center of the action. An article on the theater page of The New York Times indicates that Albee is distressed by the search that has begun for the meaning of the play; the Times also reports that he is amused by it, as well. When they expect him to become miserable they don’t say; soon, I would think. For despair, not archness, is usually what settles over a writer unable to invent characters and an action and a tone appropriate to his feelings and convictions. Why Tiny Alice is so unconvincing, so remote, so obviously a sham—so much the kind of play that makes you want to rise from your seat and shout, “Baloney”—is that its surface is an attempt to disguise the subject on the one hand, and to falsify its significance on the other. All that talk about illusion and reality may even be the compulsive chattering of a dramatist who at some level senses that he is trapped in a lie.

What we are supposed to be witnessing is the destruction of a lay brother, sent by the Cardinal to whom he is secretary, to take care of the “odds and ends” arising out of a donation to the Church of two billion dollars. The gift is to be made in hundred-million-dollar installments over a twenty-year period by a Miss Alice; the wealthiest woman in the world, she lives in a castle with her butler and her lawyer, each of whom has been her lover. On a table in the library of the castle stands a huge model of the castle itself; deep within the replica, we are eventually encouraged to believe, resides the goddess Alice, whose earthly emissary, or priestess, or cardinal, is the millionairess, Miss Alice. In the name of, for the sake of, Alice, Miss Alice sets out in her filmy gown to seduce Brother Julian; once that is accomplished, a wedding is arranged, presided over by the Cardinal. At this point Miss Alice promptly deserts Julian—leaving him to Alice, she says; the Cardinal turns his back on what he knows is coming and takes the first hundred million; and the lawyer shoots the bridegroom, who dies with his arms outstretched, moaning at the end, “I accept thee, Alice, for thou art come to me. God, Alice…I accept thy will.”

None of this means anything because Albee does not make the invention whole or necessary. The play strings together incidents of no moral or intellectual consequence, and where the inconsistencies, oversights, and lapses occur, the playwright justifies them by chalking them up to the illusory nature of human existence. It is as though Shakespeare, having failed to settle in his own mind whether Desdemona did or did not sleep with Cassio—and consequently leaving the matter unsettled in the play—later explains his own failure of imagination by announcing to the press that we can never penetrate reality to get to the truth. The world of Tiny Alice is mysterious because Albee cannot get it to cohere. To begin with, the donation of two billion dollars to the church is irrelevant to the story of Julian’s destruction—what the money will mean to the church doesn’t enter his mind. In fact, though he is sent to the castle to make arrangements for the gift, not a word is said of the money until the Cardinal appears at the end to pick up the cash, and then we learn that Church lawyers have been working out the essentials of the deal ou the side. And why does the Cardinal want the money? Hold on to your hats. Though he dresses like a prince of the Lord, he is really greedy!

Least convincing of all is what should be the most convincing—Tiny Alice Herself, and the replica, or altar, in which her spirit resides. The implications of a Woman-God, her nature, her character, and her design, are never revealed; but is this because they are beyond human comprehension, or beyond the playwright’s imagination? Though his God is mysterious, certainly the Cardinal could discuss Him with some conviction and intelligence (and ought to, of course, instead of appearing as a pompous operator). Why can’t Miss Alice or the lawyer discuss theirs? Why don’t they answer the questions that are put to them? There is, after all, a difference between the idea that life is a dream and a predilection to being dreamy about life. But withholding information is Albee’s favorite means of mystifying the audience; the trouble comes from confusing a technique of dramaturgy, and a primitive one at that, with an insight into the nature of things.

Butler: This place [the real castle] was in England.

Miss Alice: Yes, it was! Every stone, marked and shipped.

Julian: Oh, I had thought it was a replica.

Lawyer: Oh no; that would have been too simple. Though it is a replica…in its way.

Julian: Of?

Lawyer: (Points to model) Of that. (Julian laughs; the lawyer says) Ah well.

But instead of getting him off the hook with “Ah well,” why doesn’t Albee press the lawyer a little? Why doesn’t Julian inquire further? For a lay brother who is, as he so piously says, “deeply” interested in the reality of things, how little persistence there is in Julian’s curiosity; how like a child he is in the answers he accepts to the most baffling mysteries that surround him. Indeed when Albee begins to see Julian as a man who walks around acting like a small boy in a huge house full of big bad grownups, he is able to put together two or three minutes of dialogue that is at least emotionally true. To the delights and dangers of the Oedipal triangle (boy in skirts, mother in negligee, father with pistol) Albee’s imagination instantly quickens; but unfortunately by presenting Julian as a befuddled boy, he only further befuddles the audience about those metaphysical problems that are supposed to be so anguishing to Julian as a man. For instance, when a fire miraculously breaks out in the chapel of the castle and in the chapel of the replica, one would imagine that Julian, with his deep interest in reality, would see the matter somewhat further along than he does in this exchange:

Julian: Miss Alice? Why, why did it happen that way—in both dimensions?

Miss Alice: (Her arms out) Help me.

Julian: Will you…tell me anything?

Miss Alice: I don’t know anything.

Julian: But you were…

Miss Alice: I don’t know anything.

Julian: Very well.

That is the last we hear of the fire. But how did it happen? And why? I know I am asking questions about the kind of magical moment that qualifies a play for the Howard Taubman Repertory Theater for Sheer Theater, but I would like to know who this Alice is that she can and will cause such miracles of nature. Might not Julian, a lay brother, who has the ear of a Cardinal, rush out to tell him of this strange occurrence? But then the Cardinal exists, really, only as another figure to betray and humiliate poor Julian, the baffled little boy. As a Cardinal, he is of no interest to Albee, who seems to have introduced the Catholic Church into the play so that he can have some of the men dressed up in gowns on the one hand, and indulge his cynicism on the other; he does nothing to bring into collision the recognizable world of the Church and its system of beliefs, with the world that is unfamiliar to both Julian and the audience, the world of Tiny Alice. Such a confrontation would, of course, have made it necessary to invent the mysteries of a Woman-God and the way of life that is a consequence of her existence and her power. But Albee is simply not capable of making this play into a work of philosophical or religious originality, and probably not too interested either. The movement of the play is not towards a confrontation of ideas; it is finally concerned with evoking a single emotion—pity for poor Julian. In the end the playwright likens him to Jesus Christ—and all because he has had to suffer the martyrdom of heterosexual love.

Tiny Alice is a homosexual day-dream in which the celibate male is tempted and seduced by the overpowering female, only to be betrayed by the male lover and murdered by the cruel law, or in this instance, cruel lawyer. It has as much to do with Christ’s Passion as a little girl’s dreaming about being a princess locked in a tower has to do with the fate of Mary Stuart. Unlike Genet, who dramatizes the fact of fantasying in Our Lady of the Flowers, Albee would lead us to believe that his fantasy has significance altogether removed from the dread or the desire which inspired it; consequently, the attitudes he takes towards his material are unfailingly inappropriate. His subject is emasculation—as was Strindberg’s in The Father, a play I mention because its themes, treated openly and directly, and necessarily connected in the action, are the very ones that Albee has so vulgarized and sentimentalized in Tiny Alice: male weakness, female strength, and the limits of human knowledge. How long before a play is produced on Broadway in which the homosexual hero is presented as a homosexual, and not disguised as an angst-ridden priest, or an angry Negro, or an aging actress; or worst of all, Everyman?

Letters

Tiny Alice April 8, 1965

Tiny Alice April 8, 1965

Tiny Alice April 8, 1965

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