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These Illusions Are Real

Albee made domesticity, marriage, and family history as wild as an avant-garde happening and as richly significant as a Brechtian epic. When Goldman alleged that “he treats hetero- sexuals viciously,” and blamed this on homosexual perversity, he was really just noticing Albee’s achievement in doing what serious art does: making the familiar strange. By turning his gay man’s eye on heterosexual marriage and his orphan’s eye on family dynamics, Albee created an original angle of vision from which audiences could see afresh the customary life of the household. Far from being the result of an ugly distorting bitterness, this in fact allowed him to achieve something that is extremely rare in domestic drama: an unsentimental tenderness.

Albee’s angry attacks on the mainstream American family in plays like The American Dream have not worn too well, and there is, at this distance, an unattractive smugness to their assumptions of superiority over the stereotypical Mommy and Daddy of middle America who systematically shatter their adopted child. Yet it is this very anger that, in Virginia Woolf, allows Martha and George to grope their way toward hope. The merci-less precision with which Albee has dissected their relationship permits them a hard-won possibility of mutual understanding and makes the play, paradoxically, one of the few con-vincing portrayals of married love in twentieth-century theater.

2.

That Albee was attacked so relentlessly for his finest achievements and labeled a fraud for his most truthful work is not a mere biographical misfortune. The attacks seem to have encouraged a kind of defiance that pushed Albee away from his most fruitful ground. That there was, from the beginning of his career, a certain desire for martyrdom in his professional makeup is evident in a short play written in 1959 and intriguingly excluded from the Collected Plays. Fam and Yam is a short dialogue between a Famous American Playwright (William Inge) and a Young American Playwright (Albee). It reeks of condescension toward the older dramatist and oozes the arrogance of cocksure youth. The Albee figure, Yam (“an intense, bony young man”), announces his list of enemies: “The theatre owners, the producers, the backers, the theatre parties, the unions, the critics, the directors, and the playwrights themselves.” While some or all of those groups might well deserve excoriation, it does seem rather a sweeping declaration of war, and when Yam denounces people who go to the theater in organized groups as “pin-heads,” the banal contemptuousness is as palpable as it is obnoxious.

This temptation to pose as a lone genius surrounded by fools who have prostituted their talents is a common affliction of angry young artists and it need not have mattered in Albee’s case were it not for other factors. Yet just as Albee suffered prejudice and misunderstanding from his detractors, he was also, perhaps more dangerously, a victim of some of his supporters. The Zoo Story, largely for accidental reasons, had its world première at the Schiller Theater in Berlin and its existentialist concerns encouraged a perception of Albee as a member of the European avant-garde, a trans-atlantic Beckett or Ionesco. On the strength of The Zoo Story and The American Dream, Martin Esslin in his influential 1961 book recruited Albee into the theatre of the absurd, his immediately illuminating but ultimately misleading category of dramatists who noticed that God didn’t seem to be around town anymore.

By contrast, in the same year, the astute American critic and producer Harold Clurman, reviewing The American Dream, suggested that “Albee’s talent…lies closer to realism than perhaps he knows” and warned him that

abstraction becomes decoration when it loses touch with its roots in concrete individual experience; and the word “decoration” is just as appropriate where the abstraction is satirically fierce as where it is beguiling…. It is as easy to make a stereotype from a critical and rebellious abstraction as from a conformist one.6

Reading Albee’s early plays now, it is all too clear that Clurman was right, not just in his instinct for where the young dramatist’s talent really lay, but also in his anxiety about the dangers that a taste for abstraction and stereotype might present to that talent. Albee’s recruitment into the theater of the absurd encouraged precisely the kind of abstract decoration that Clurman had warned against, and the prestige of obscurity in the mid-1960s meant that this tendency was indulged even on Broadway where, in what now seems an incomprehensible folly, Tiny Alice, one of the worst plays ever written by a great playwright, was staged in 1964.

Tiny Alice is perverse on a number of levels. It was written, or at least finished, with John Gielgud, who was about sixty years old, in mind for the central character, but the Gielgud role is that of a young, naive, and probably virginal lay brother. Gielgud was also a magnificent but rather conservative classical actor and, according to Alan Schneider, who directed the première of Tiny Alice, was “baffled by the play itself [and] totally puzzled by the character he was supposed to play.”7

He wasn’t the only one. Schneider himself, who was steeped in the nonnaturalistic theater of Beckett and Pinter, subsequently confessed that “what that work was specifically saying, or how to make whatever it was saying clear, none of us was entirely sure—including, I believe Edward.” Samuel Beckett wrote to Schneider, who had sent him the script, that “I didn’t much like it when I read it. But too tired and stupid perhaps to get it, shall have another go.”8 It seems safe to suggest that a play that made Samuel Beckett feel stupid is either fantastically clever or immensely silly. Tiny Alice, which, after a sharp and intriguing opening scene between a lawyer and a cardinal, descends into a tedious and at times preposterous contemplation of the ineffability of God, is certainly closer to the latter quality than the former.

The problem with Tiny Alice, however, was not that it was exceptionally bad. Most good playwrights are highly ambitious and their ambition inevitably leads to the odd disaster. In the intellectual climate of the mid-1960s, however, and with the self-justifying notion that Albee was really a European experimentalist who could not be understood by crass Americans, Tiny Alice was raised up as a cross on which Albee enacted his artistic martyrdom at the hands of the philistines. What should have been written off as a mistake to be learned from became instead a manifesto from which Albee was reluctant to retreat. The obvious truth that Albee’s is an individual and idiosyncratic American voice was obscured by his image as a European absurdist on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

Looking back, I find it hard to understand how Albee could have been mistaken for a fellow traveler of Ionesco, Beckett, or Pinter. He is much less funny than any of them, and his characteristic humor is an elegant wit rather than the deadpan mordancy of Beckett or the wild clowning of Ionesco. His vision is not of a world abandoned by God but of the yearning for a certainty that is assumed to exist somewhere behind the façade. Philosophically, Albee’s work is Platonist. He sees the reality that is presented on stage as the illusory shadow of an ultimate truth. The heavy-handed setup of Tiny Alice, with the stage dominated by a large doll’s-house model of the house in which most of the action takes place, is an analogue of Plato’s cave. The notion of love as articulated by the Narrator in Albee’s deft and chastely poignant adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café contains the same idea of an unreachable truth behind appearances:

though the outward facts of love are often sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that no one can know what really takes place in the soul of the lover himself. So, who but God can be the final judge of any love?

The idea of an ersatz existence, a substitute life, haunts Albee’s plays. Jerry in The Zoo Story considers

the value difference between pornographic playing cards when you’re a kid, and pornographic playing cards when you’re older. It’s that when you’re a kid you use the cards as a substitute for a real experience, and when you’re older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy.

In his introduction to the original published version of The American Dream, Albee called the play

an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and fatuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy keen.

Agnes in A Delicate Balance talks of “the gradual demise of intensity, the private preoccupations, the substitutions.”

This search for “real values” is utterly American. The assumption that there is a natural way of life that has been lost through the corruptions of phony sophistication stretches back to the beginnings of American culture before the Revolution and is visible in Jefferson and Jackson, in Thoreau and Whitman, in the hippies of the 1960s and the rhetoric of present-day conservatives. In Albee’s work it is linked to the feeling that contemporary America is a worn-down, entropic version of a vigorous past. There is a mock-apocalyptic tone to much of Virginia Woolf. The town where the action unfolds is called New Carthage and George, who is not a history professor for nothing, jokes that he went to school “during the Punic Wars.” He also refers to the town as Gomorrah and as Anatole France’s doomed Penguin Island. At the end of the second act, he reads aloud from Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West: “And the west,…burdened with a morality too rigid to accommodate itself to the swing of events, must…eventually… fall.” Elsewhere, the authentic is located in the past. In both The Sandbox and The American Dream, it is only the figure of the grandmother who retains some kind of vitality and freedom.

3.

Ultimately, it is this characteristically American turn of mind that makes Albee such an important playwright and, at times, such a frustrating one. In the third act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the straight-laced Nick accuses his host and hostess, the acerbic and anarchic George and Martha, of being crazy. Martha, in reply, puts on an Irish accent and says “Awww, ‘tis the refuge we take when the unreality of the world weighs too heavy on our tiny heads.” The obvious parody of Eugene O’Neill is affectionate but telling. Albee, who seemed a radically disruptive force when he first arrived in the American theater, is now more obvious as a force for continuity. He matters not just as the writer of a handful of superb plays, but as a dramatist who solidified a fragile American tradition by entering into an imaginative dialogue with O’Neill. For all the strained attempts to locate himself within a European context defined by Beckett, Pinter, and, less obviously, by James Joyce, The Zoo Story is his version of The Iceman Cometh and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is his Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Albee attended the première of The Iceman Cometh in 1946, and has said that he “probably became a playwright as much as anything to refute that whole argument of O’Neill, expressed most forcefully in The Iceman Cometh.”9 That argument is played out by O’Neill through Hickey, who informs a bar full of alcoholic dreamers that salvation lies in the sloughing off of illusions and fantasies and becoming “free now to be yourselves, without having to feel remorse or guilt, or lie to yourselves about reforming tomorrow.” O’Neill’s play suggests, to the contrary, that life without illusions is unbearable and that the search for absolute truth leads to the kind of madness in which Hickey murders his wife.

The Zoo Story replays The Iceman Cometh with a contrasting economy of form and an entirely opposite conclusion. Where Hickey is a version of Satan, his avatar in The Zoo Story, Jerry, is a kind of Christ. Jerry commits, as Hickey does, an act of appalling violence, but he does so as a martyr and a savior who sacrifices himself so that Peter might be awakened from the slumber of comfortable banality and embrace raw existence. Just as The Zoo Story reverses the drift of The Iceman Cometh, Virginia Woolf turns Long Day’s Journey on its head. The latter ends with Mary Tyrone, lost in reveries of her innocent Catholic girlhood, reinventing the dreams that keep her alive. Virginia Woolf, by contrast, ends with the possibility of renewal because the couple’s illusion of the nonexist-ent child has been shattered. Its last words are Martha’s simple statement of her existence: “I…am…George… I…am.”

Yet Albee’s difficulty in building on the success of Virginia Woolf was that he himself had trouble believing in the existence of Martha or any other character in his plays. The search for the authentic behind the illusory, for the real values behind the false ones, is at odds with the essential nature of the theater. The act of staging a play involves a willingness to confound any rigid distinction between what is real and what is not, between pretense and authenticity. A good play is a rigorously accurate charade, an illusion that has the shape and heft of reality and that is therefore, in its own way, true. Part of what makes Albee such a quintessentially American figure is that there is somewhere at the back of his mind a Puritan disdain for this confusing trickery. He has trouble accepting the element of charlatanism that is a necessary component of a theatrical imagination. The irony of his work has always been that when he stands firm against theater’s playful deceptions, he is prey to phony abstractions. When he gives in and lets go, he has the authentic ring of greatness.

  1. 6

    Clurman’s review is republished in The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (MacMillan, 1974), pp. 109–111.

  2. 7

    Alan Schneider, Entrances: An American Director’s Journey (Viking, 1986), p. 346.

  3. 8

    No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider, edited by Maurice Harmon (Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 181.

  4. 9

    In a 1981 interview with Mark Anderson and Earl Ingersoll, republished in Conversations with Edward Albee, edited by Philip C. Kolin (University Press of Mississippi, 1988), p. 170.

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