The Play that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Tiny Alice

by Edward Albee
Atheneum, 208 pp., $4.50

Edward Albee
Edward Albee; drawing by David Levine

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…

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