you visit Albeeland, expect the unexpected. Sea creatures may engage
you in conversation, friends may
drop in and then move in, and if a stranger joins you on a park
bench, beware: the encounter may end in murder. The fascination
of a play by Edward Albee is that its unexpected quirkiness is viewed
as ordinary and everyday.
In 2007 Edward
Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque” was revived at
the Haymarket Theatre in London with Maggie Smith in the title role
as a mysterious stranger who arrives in the midst of a social gathering
to be welcomed by the hostess, who is dying. Michael Billington
of The Guardian pronounced it “a metaphor for a dying civilization”
in which the stranger, who may be the angel of death, claims, “We’re
too bewildered to survive.”
Later that same
year “Peter and Jerry” by Mr. Albee premiered at the
Second Stage in New York. “Homelife,” act one, explores
the relationship of Peter, the buttoned-up middle-class business
man and his wife Ann. Act two is Albee’s first play, “The
Zoo Story,” in which Peter and Jerry dispute the right to
a bench in Central Park, with dire results.
Albee disappeared from sight a few years ago, only to make a comeback
with a vengeance. Within
two years, three of his plays premiered in New York, plus one revival,
and two were introduced to London. His new play “The Play about
the Baby,” enjoyed a good run in New York, and two new ones opened:
“The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” and “The Occupant.”
“Tiny Alice,” was revived off Broadway and London welcomed
the U.K. premiere of two of his one-acts, ”Finding the Sun” and
of Albee’s early life is as well known as that of Oliver Twist,
for critics see the persistence of a baby, real or fictional, as
a reflection of his abandonment by his natural parents immediately
after his birth on March 12, 1928.
Two weeks later, Edward
was adopted by the wealthy Albees of Larchmont, New York.
Reid Albee, like his father, Edward, for whom the playwright
is named, headed a chain of profitable vaudeville theaters. Albee has said that “Three Tall Women” is about his mother,
Frances, and Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma in “The American Dream” may
have been inspired by his family as well.
youngster, Albee was expelled from three expensive prep schools
and a military academy, finally attending and graduating from Choate
in Connecticut, where his writing was encouraged and published in
the school’s literary magazine.
After a year and a half at Trinity College in Connecticut,
he was asked to leave at the age of twenty-one.
He left home as well, never to return.
had a monthly income from a trust fund established by his grandmother,
he worked at a number of odd jobs, and in 1958, as, he says, “a
sort of thirtieth birthday present to myself,” he wrote “The Zoo
Story” in three weeks, on a battered typewriter in his Greenwich
Village walk-up, on paper borrowed from the Western Union office
where he was working as a messenger.
New York producers rejected it, so it was first produced
in Berlin at the Schiller Theater, on a double bill with
Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Since then “The Zoo Story,”
has been presented all over the world.
In Central Park
near the zoo, two men meet and contest their right to a bench.
Buttoned-up Peter is from the affluent East Side: “A man
in his early forties, neither fat nor gaunt, neither handsome nor
homely.” He acts as
a foil for unkempt, talkative Jerry, from the West Side, whose monologue
suggests that he is emotionally and mentally in crisis.
As their confrontation mounts to conflict, Jerry tells his
story. Abandoned and buffeted by life, ignored, he is planning an
act that will bring him recognition.
Their verbal conflict becomes physical:
Jerry produces a knife, which Peter takes to defend himself.
As he holds it before him, Jerry impales himself upon it.
“I was always delivering telegrams to people living in rooming
houses,” Albee explains. I
met all those people in the play in rooming houses.
Jerry, the hero, is still around.
He changes his shape from year to year.”
In “The American Dream”(1960), wealthy Mommy and Daddy have lost
a son, and the Young Man who arrives might be a replacement, or
he might be their fictionalized van man who materializes to take
Grandma away. The same
characters turn up in the fourteen-minute “The Sandbox” “in a situation
different than, but related to, their predicament in the longer
play,” explains Albee. “They seem happy out of doors. . .
and I hope they will not be distressed back in a stuffy apartment
in ‘The American Dream.’”
of Virginia Woolf?”(1962) is Albee’s best-known and most frequently
performed work. It
exemplifies the style that is distinctly Albee’s, ironic, witty,
incisive dialogue and a plot that implies more than it says.
Often the characters are personified abstractions rather
than individuals, like Mommy and Daddy in “The American Dream” or
Man and Woman in “The Play about the Baby.”
At other times they are painfully real, like Jerry in “The
Zoo Story” or Martha and George in “Virginia Woolf.”
The title (originally “The Exorcism”) comes from the song
Martha sings; at first it was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,”
from the Disney animation of the three little pigs, but the Disney
studio withheld permission, so Albee changed the words but retained
the tune. The award-winning
film version (1966) starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,
directed by Mike Nichols.
A mature couple,
Martha and George, a college professor, are visited by a novice
professor Nick and his wife Honey after a faculty party.
Somewhat drunk and certainly uninhibited, Martha taunts George,
he returns her insults, and the young couple are drawn into a game-playing
in the bitter exchanges between George and Martha is the information
that they once had a baby, who died. Albee says the baby is fictitious,
but that the one in “The Play about the Baby” is real. This work
is like a distillation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
It is even stronger, being more abstract, as if honed down
to become sharper in its effect.
A mature couple, Man and Woman, arrive as a young couple,
Boy and Girl, are joyously celebrating the arrival of their baby. The older couple (Marian Seldes and Brian Murray in the New
York premiere) are well-dressed, urbane, and witty.
It soon becomes
clear that although they are entertaining, they are not to be trusted,
for they admit to lying, and the Man is given to addressing the
audience (“Pay attention to this.
What’s true and what isn’t is a tricky business, no?”). They
announce that they have come for the baby.
The attractive, frolicsome young couple have no defenses
against the older, experienced ones who have weathered the trials
of the world. Although
the young ones plead for more time, the Man declares, “Time’s up.”
They take the baby. The Man unrolls its blanket to reveal
that it is empty, and the young pair must console themselves that
the baby never existed, although it is heard crying at the end.
mystified critics and audiences alike when it opened on Broadway
in December 1964. When
it was revived off Broadway in the 2000-01 season, it was welcomed. The first producers of
“Tiny Alice” arranged a press conference for Albee to explain
the play, and his remarks were published.
“I suppose ‘Tiny Alice’ is an examination of how much false
illusion we need to get through life,” stated the playwright
“It is also an examination of the difference between the
abstraction of God and the god we make in our own image, the personification.
. . .It’s an examination of the relationship between sexual hysteria
and religious ecstasy.”
Julian is a
lay brother who has not become a priest because he cannot reconcile
his idea of God with that of others who create “the god we make
in our own image.” Sent
by his cardinal to negotiate a huge donation from Miss Alice, who
lives in a castle, he is met by her butler and her lawyer, as worldly
as the cardinal. The furnishings include an exact replica of the
castle itself, even down to the lighted areas and movements observed.
In the most extraordinary example (so far) of Albee’s theme
of innocence defeated by experience, Julian marries the seductive
Miss Alice only to discover, as he dies, that he has married her
replica, Tiny Alice, who resides in the duplicate castle.
The play suggests another constant theme in Albee’s works,
that of illusion versus reality.
Sun” (1983) is a dark comedy about couples on a sunny Long Island
beach peopled by the privileged.
Daniel and Benjamin were once lovers who still long to be
together, although they are now married to Abigail and Cordelia.
Neither marriage is going well. One wife is on edge, aware
of her husband’s former homosexual attachment, and the other complacently
accepting the situation. Just as the sun suddenly disappears, so
does an engaging teenager, Albee’s recurrent “lost son,” giving
the play’s title a double meaning. In the impressive Royal National
Theatre production of the 1987 “Marriage Play,” Jack (Bill Peterson)
and Gillian (Sheila Gish) have been married thirty years, despite
various infidelities. When
Jack enters one evening after work to announce he is leaving, Gillian
fails to make the desired response, so he repeats the entrance and
announcement – again and again.
Their witty exchanges mount to blows and a resolution that
marriage suits them better than the alternative.
In 1996 a revival
of “A Delicate Balance”(1966) won three Tony awards. In this Pinteresque
work, friends Edna and Harry arrive at the home of Agnes and Tobias
and gradually assume control of the household, displacing their
daughter Julia. Julia’s
(lost) brother had died in their childhood, and she is insecure
and unstable. Finally snapping at the thought that Edna and Harry have usurped
her place in her parents’ affections, she takes her father’s pistol
and repeats over and over, “get them out of here.”
The fear that motivated their friends’ visit spreads, but
the delicate balance, fed by illusions, is preserved in the marriage
of Agnes and Tobias.
Balance,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, was revived recently in the
West End in London with Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins as the female
leads. Anthony Page,
who directed, also directed the Albee one-acts at the National Theatre.
There is an excellent film of this play, made in 1973, directed
by Tony Richardson, with an all-star cast: Katharine Hepburn, Paul
Scofield, Kate Reid, Joseph Cotten, Lee Remick, and Betsy Blair.
Pulitzer Prize was awarded to “Seascape,” a story about a retired
couple on vacation who meet a pair of sea lizards at the beach.
Nancy and Charlie have just finished their picnic, and are
discussing how they will spend their time now their children are
grown. Nancy, the optimist,
wants to travel and see everything.
Charlie just wants to relax.
Suddenly they encounter two anthropomorphic sea lizards,
Sarah and Leslie. Charlie
is defensive; Sarah beckons.
Soon the couples are conversing and explaining their lives
to each other; despite conflict, they finally come to understand
“The Lady from
Dubuque”(1980) is a fable in which the title character represents
death, another of Albee’s recurrent themes.
An earlier play, “All Over”(1971) concerns a dying man and
those who gather around his bed waiting for him to expire.
In “The Lady,” dying Jo and her husband Sam are the central
couple, compared and contrasted to their friends who gather for
an evening of game-playing: Fred and Carol, Lucinda and Edgar, and
Elizabeth and Oscar, who could be messengers of death, come for
Jo. Although she dies
physically, the others are living spiritually dead, wasted lives.
"Three Tall Women” (1991) which Albee says is based on his
mother, combines a deep understanding of its characters -- who may
be the same woman at three different stages of her life -- a gift
for pointed and witty dialogue, and a plot that implies as much
as is stated, all characteristic of Albee at his best.
It earned the New York Drama Critics award for Best Play,
as well as a third Pulitzer Prize for the playwright, a number equaled
only by Eugene O’Neill. Albee
states that his plays “confront being alive and how to behave with
the awareness of death. Every
one of my plays is an act of optimism because I make the assumption
that it is possible to communicate with other people.” Albee’s latest
plays to appear in New York in 2002 are new works.
“The Occupant” concerns the life of sculptor Louise Nevelson,
played by Anne Bancroft. The
playwright and Ms. Nevelson, who died in 1988, were friends, and
their conversations and friendship form the narrative, which concerns
her marriage and subsequent abandonment of her husband and child,
as well as her creative years.
Ms. Bancroft comments of the play: “It’s about a woman fighting
the traditions and conventions she was forced into in order to find
her own path in life.”
“The Goat, or
Who Is Sylvia” with Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl, concerns a
successful fifty-year-old architect who is faced with the dilemma
of admitting to his wife and son that he is involved in an extra-marital
relationship that could ruin his marriage, his career, and his life.