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Critical Essay by Robert Brustein
SOURCE: "The Rehabilitation of Edward Albee," in Dumbocracy in America: Studies in the Theatre of Guilt, 1987–1994, Ivan R. Dee, 1994, pp. 204-9.
In the following excerpt, Brustein responds favorably to Three Tall Women, which he characterizes as "a mature piece of writing."
A number of years ago, while praising Edward Albee's much-reviled stage adaptation of Lolita, I commented on the startling reverses in the fortunes of this once lionized American dramatist: "The crunching noises the press pack makes while savaging his recent plays are in startling contrast to the slavering sounds they once made in licking his earlier ones…. If each man kills the thing he loves, then each critic kills the thing he hypes … brutalizing the very celebrity he has created."
I was generalizing not only from Albee's career but from that of Miller, Williams, and Inge, for although I had often depreciated works by these playwrights myself, it struck me as unseemly that mainstream reviewers were displaying such fickleness toward their favorite Broadway sons. This may sound territorial, but it's not. Readers expect highbrow critics to express dissent about an overinflated dramatic work, but it is an entirely different matter when those with the power to close a show become so savage and dismissive in their judgments. If it is a function of the weekly critic to try to correct taste, it is the function of the daily critic to guide theatregoers, not to trash careers or demolish reputations.
Fortunately, Albee's stubborn streak has kept him writing in the face of continual disappointment, a persistence he shares with a number of other artists battered by the New York press (Arthur Miller, David Rabe, Arthur Kopit, Christopher Durang, Philip Glass, and so on). I call this fortunate because Albee has a vein of genuine talent buried in the fool's gold, and, as I wrote then, there was always a hope, provided he was not discouraged from playwriting, that this would appear again in a world of some consequence. That work has now arrived in Three Tall Women (Vineyard Theatre), and I am happy to join his other former detractors in saluting Albee's accomplishment.
Three Tall Women is a mature piece of writing, clearly autobiographical, in which Albee seems to be coming to terms not only with a socialite foster parent he once satirized in past plays but with his own advancing age. Three women are discovered in a sumptuously appointed bedroom decorated with Louis Quatorze furniture, a rare carpet, and a parquet floor. They are called A, B, and C, which suggests a Beckett influence, though on the surface the play appears to be a drawing-room comedy in the style of A. R. Gurney. The oldest of the women is an imperious rich invalid (A) who appears hobbling on a cane, her left arm in a sling. She is attended by a middle-aged companion (B), an angular woman with a caustic tongue and a humped back, and a young politically correct lawyer (C) who has come to discuss A's business affairs.
The first of the two acts examines some scratchy transactions among this symbiotic trio, consisting of A's recollections (clearly not in tranquility) and the shocked reactions of her companions. A has turned sour and abrupt in old age, and there are traces of Albee's celebrated talent for invective in her rage against life. Her spine has collapsed, she has broken her arm in a fall, and now the bone has disintegrated around the pins. Likely to wet herself when she rises from a chair ("A sort of greeting to the day—the cortex out of sync with the sphincter"), she is inordinately preoccupied with the aging process—"downhill from sixteen on for all of us." She even wants to indoctrinate children with the awareness that they're dying from the moment they're born, and anyone who thinks she's healthy, as C does, had better just wait.
In short, A is an entirely vicious old wretch, with a volatile tongue and a narrow mind, but it is a tribute to the writing and the acting that she gradually wins our affections. Although prejudiced against "kikes," "niggers," "wops," and "fairies" (among them her own son), she is a model of vitality and directness when compared with the humor-impaired liberal democrat C, who protests A's intolerance. A remembers a past of supreme emptiness, of horse shows, dances, and loveless affairs, and particularly of the time her husband once advanced upon her with a bracelet dangling from his erect penis ("I can't do that," she said, "and his peepee got soft, and the bracelet fell into my lap"). That arid marriage, and the son who brings her chocolates but doesn't love her ("He loves his boys"), represent memories that can bring her to tears. They also bring A to a stroke at the end of the first act, as she freezes in mid-sentence describing her deepest family secrets.
Act II begins with A lying in bed under an oxygen mask. By this time B has been transformed from a sardonic hunch-backed factotum, slouching toward Bethlehem like Igor or Richard III, into a stately middle-aged matron in pearls, while C has become an elegant debutante in pink chiffon. Before long they are surprisingly joined by A, newly rejuvenated (the figure in the bed is a dummy), and the play shifts gears into a story of one woman at three different moments in time (A at ninety, B at fifty-two, and C at twenty-six). Just as B has shed her hump and C her primness, A has lost her feebleness. All three share the same history, the same child, the same sexual experiences, but A and B are united against C in their hatred of illusions. They warn C that her future will be one of deception and infidelity: "Men cheat a lot. We cheat less, but we cheat because we're lonely. Men cheat because they're men."
The prodigal child, now a young man carrying flowers, returns to sit by the bedside of his dying mother ("his dry lips on my dry cheeks"), silent and forlorn. None of the women will forgive him, nor will they forgive each other. A dislikes C, and C refuses to become A, while B bursts out bitterly against "parents, teachers, all of you, you lie, you never tell us things change." The inevitability of change is responsible for the obscenities of sickness, pain, old age, and death, but A, having accepted her fate, affirms that "the happiest moment is coming to the end of it." Taking a deep breath, she allows the action and her life to stop.
Beckett was the first dramatist to condense the past and present lives of a character into a single dramatic action, and Krapp's Last Tape is a play to which Three Tall Women owes a deep spiritual debt (it was also the companion piece to Albee's first New York production, The Zoo Story, in 1960). Beckett compressed youth and age through the device of a tape recorder; Albee uses doppelgangers; but both plays evoke the same kind of existential poignance…. Most of us have encountered horrible old women like A, fuming over their pain and helplessness. It is Albee's personal and professional triumph to have made such a woman fully human. His late career is beginning to resemble O'Neill's, another dramatist who wrote his greatest plays after having been rejected and abandoned by the culture. Happily, unlike O'Neill, he may not have to wait for death to rehabilitate him.
This section contains 1,241 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)