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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.

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. 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.

  6. 6

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

  7. 7

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

  8. 8

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

  9. 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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