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These Illusions Are Real

1.

You are an adolescent boy, struggling with all the clumsiness and uncertainty of that awkward age. In the wide world of America, the heady atmosphere of wartime has gone to the nation’s head. The energy of danger is pulsing through the dancehalls and surfing on the radio waves, taking its defining shape in the sexy, sophisticated, blue-collar glamour of Frank Sinatra. You, however, are a poor little rich boy, an adopted son imprisoned in a private boarding school at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, whose starchy pretense at being a military academy merely underlines its distance from the real world war that is raging in Europe and Asia.

Home in New York on vacation, you are staying with your wealthy parents in their fabulous Park Avenue apartment. Your mother makes you take her two French poodles for a walk. So there you are, a boy in a silly uniform being led along by two fey dogs, praying for the ground to open up and swallow you, when the worst imaginable thing happens. As you are passing the Liberty music store on Madison Avenue, the door opens and a dapper man comes out. Frank Sinatra takes a look at you and gives you a withering look that you will never forget. “He saw me standing there in my military school outfit with those poodles,” Edward Albee told his biographer Mel Gussow. “I’ve never seen a stranger expression on anyone’s face.”1

Though Gussow mentions this incident only in passing in his highly revealing biography, it is hard not to see it as a kind of absurd, parodic epiphany. If, as he suggests in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce became an artist when he encountered a young girl on the shores of Dublin Bay and “her image… passed into his soul for ever,” Sinatra’s contemptuous glance seems to have taken up permanent residence in Edward Albee’s soul. The muses who arranged that chance encounter ensured that whatever else he might do as a writer in later life, he would never, ever, be uncool again. However bitterly he might be attacked by critics, however bewildered he might sometimes leave his audiences, Albee ensured that the one thing he could never be accused of is smug conformity. That determination is the source of both his successes and his failures, of his courage and integrity as well as of his perversity and willful obscurity. Depending on which particular grain he is going against, he has created either remarkable dramatic images of families and relationships or, in Seascape, giant lizards discussing evolution on Montauk beach.

The impulse to avoid the obvious at all costs has produced a body of work so uneven that Albee’s is the most unstable of contemporary dramatic reputations. On the one hand, he is rightly recognized as one of the key figures in twentieth-century American drama, a peer of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard and a dramatist of exemplary courage, ambition, and resilience. On the other, the ratio of success to failure in his work is lower than that of his fellow members of that exalted elite, and the swings in his standing have been far more extreme. The road from outraged denunciation to official celebration is, of course, the familiar freeway of contemporary culture, and at one level Albee’s reputation may seem to have traveled the usual route. In 1961, George W. Bush’s grandfather Prescott Bush denounced Albee’s “filthy” first play, The Zoo Story, on the Senate floor. Thirty-five years later, Bill Clinton presented him with a Kennedy Center Honor and told him that “in your rebellion, the American theater was reborn.”

In reality, however, Albee’s standing as a major dramatist has been extraordinarily insecure, with a slow descent from the acclaim that greeted Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 toward the nadir of The Man Who Had Three Arms twenty years later and then a sharp rise in 1994 when Three Tall Women opened off-Broadway. Even now, the division of critical opinion is such that one recent work, The Play About the Baby, which premièred in New York in 2001, was seen by Ben Brantley in The New York Times as an accomplished and important work, by John Simon in New York magazine as outrageously bad (“This so-called play isn’t merely awful; it’s offal”), and by Robert Brustein in The New Republic as a mixture of both (“three parts charlatanism, two parts pretension, and one part genius”).

Critics differ all the time, but no other major playwright with a career of almost half a century behind him so consistently evokes such viscerally opposed reactions. To understand why this should be so, it is necessary to acknowledge Albee as a playwright whose power depends almost entirely on the scale of the forces to which he is opposed. When his need to be a nonconformist pits him against large and imposing institutions, he is a searing writer. When he can find nothing important to oppose, he seeks the necessary distance from convention in formal trickery and a confusion of artistic freedom with self-indulgence.

One aspect of Albee’s capacity to evoke something very like hatred in critics is easily understood but also, in the climate of the early twenty-first century, easily forgotten. He was one of the first important dramatists to be publicly perceived from the start of his career as a homosexual. The most obvious source both of Albee’s successes and of a certain kind of critical rage against him is that he is a gay man who is deeply interested in heterosexuality and an adopted child who is haunted by ideas of family. In each of these matters, he has access to an authentic unconventionality, a point of view that is both utterly natural and at a sharp angle to what was regarded as normal in the late 1950s when he began to write plays. His most suc-cessful longer plays (Albee rightly despises the term “full-length” and its implication that a perfectly constructed one-act play is somehow incomplete)—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, and Three Tall Women—drawing as they do on his perspective as a gay man and an adopted child, achieve the contrariness of an outsider looking in. Elsewhere, when he changes the subject, he has to generate a different, less convincing kind of awkwardness by defying his audience’s desire for a play to be comprehensible.

If it seems clear now that Albee’s sexuality and family circumstances gave him a critical distance from clichéd notions of American domesticity, this great strength was initially seen as a great failing. Simple prejudice did his reputation serious harm. It is hard now to recall the depth and persistence of the feeling that Albee was really a fraud, disguising homosexual male characters as women, and thus producing a hateful misogynistic parody of heterosexual love, marriage, and the family. In 1965, writing in these pages about Tiny Alice, Philip Roth accused Albee of dressing up a gay fantasy as a metaphysical drama and asked, “How long before a play is produced on Broadway in which the homosexual hero is presented as a homosexual…?”2 In 1966, Stanley Kaufmann wrote an essay in The New York Times under the heading “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” accusing Albee, together with Tennessee Williams and William Inge, of producing a “badly distorted picture of American women, marriage and society” because they were creating a “two-sex version of the one-sex experience.”3

In his influential 1969 book The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, William Goldman, apropos of Albee’s adaptation of Giles Cooper’s Everything in the Garden, wrote that the play suggested that “all wives are whores,” that “all husbands are panderers,” and that “the only wisdom lies with bachelors and young boys.” This, he argued, made a play ostensibly about a heterosexual couple in fact “as clear a statement of the homosexual mystique as one could hope to find.”4 Goldman claimed that Albee, like other gay playwrights, “writes boy-girl relationships when he really means boy-boy relationships; he understands boy-boy relationships but is forced to write them as boy-girl.” Because this allegedly made him bitter and twisted, “he treats heterosexuals viciously.”

On the surface, there may be a tiny fragment of truth in these claims. Albee told his biographer, Mel Gussow, for example, that some of the linguistic fisticuffs in which the married couple George and Martha continually engage in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? drew on the sparring of himself and his long-term lover William Flanagan. All playwrights, however, recycle snatches of dialogue from real life, using the sounds and rhythms of remembered speech to create the illusion of a character. Very few are especially particular about where they find them or into whose mouths they put them. The idea, moreover, that Albee’s female characters are really disguised men has been rendered ridiculous time and again by the evidence of performance. Albee has written wonderfully for women. His best work, from the early short plays The Death of Bessie Smith and The Sandbox to the exquisite Three Tall Women, is dominated by strong female roles. Any writer whose work could inspire great acting from Elizabeth Taylor, as Albee’s does in the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has to be interested in women as more than ciphers for “boy-boy relationships.”

Even where there is a discernible connection between what happens in Albee’s plays and their author’s sexuality, it has a decidedly positive bearing on the work. His first play, the short and explosively intense two-hander The Zoo Story, might well have been no more than a formulaic expression of modish existential angst were it not for the basic realism of the situation. The action—one man engaging the interest of another on a park bench in Central Park—makes a simple kind of sense, and its credible immediacy provides a firm grounding for the baroque energy of Albee’s language. If the verbal sparring between George and Martha in Virginia Woolf is indeed based on the word games that Albee once played with his lover, that means merely that Albee was able to invest it with a vigorous sense of life that allows even the wilder flights of rhetorical fancy to take off from observable reality. If the images of childlessness and imaginary children that haunt that play and some of Albee’s later work are rooted in lived experience, that may be one of the reasons for their profound poignancy. Far from being the cause of a perceived fraudulence in Albee’s plays, his homosexuality, when it matters at all, lends an emotional truthfulness to his characters and situations.

The attacks damaged Albee, however. His great gift is for domestic drama, for imagining the home as an epic battlefield in which large psychic, moral, and linguistic forces engage and collide. At a time when plays of family life and sexual relationships were mired in cliché and the theater was becoming an arena for political and philosophical debate, he, Tennessee Williams, and Harold Pinter, separately and in very different ways, reclaimed domestic space for serious drama. With Virginia Woolf, Albee took a recognizable middle-class home, of the kind that would be familiar to Broadway audiences and mainstream moviegoers, and a neat cast of two heterosexual couples and bombarded them with large emotions, unreliable narratives, apocalyptic fears, and political and historical subtexts. The play has all the effervescent tension of a great sonnet: a contained and limited form is packed to, but not beyond, bursting point. Even on the page, and even after more than forty years, it still crackles with volatile energy. Both A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women,5 though very different in form and mood, have the same broad feeling of an acute, severe, and troubled intelligence directed at the institutions of family and marriage, and achieve the same union of clarity and ferocity.

  1. 1

    Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 52.

  2. 2

    The Play That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” The New York Review, February 25, 1965.

  3. 3

    The New York Times, January 23, 1966.

  4. 4

    William Goldman, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (Harcourt, Brace, 1969), pp. 234–240.

  5. 5

    Neither is included in the first volume of the Collected Plays, which con-tains The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox, The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice, and Albee’s adaptations of The Ballad of the Sad Café and Malcolm.

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