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Critical Essay by Katharine Worth
SOURCE: "Edward Albee: Playwright of Evolution," in Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, Max Hueber Verlag München, 1981, pp. 33-53.
In the following essay, Worth examines Albee's treatment of evolution in his plays.
Albee is a playwright whose great distinctiveness is peculiarly hard to name and define. He has been claimed for the Absurdists and linked with Ionesco on the strength of his early plays, The Zoo Story (1958) and The American Dream (1960); comparisons with Strindberg have been prompted by his relish for comic/ferocious sex battles, as in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1961); and his use of polite social rituals to convey psychological malaise has called up thoughts of T. S. Eliot and Noel Coward. He has strong affinities with some of his American predecessors, notably with the O'Neill of Dynamo and Welded, and with Thornton Wilder, who has the same feeling for the poignant brevity of human life and the rapid passing of generations. In The Long Christmas Dinner Wilder represents this by an accelerated ageing process: as the members of the family join and leave the endless Christmas dinner, they put on wigs from time to time to indicate their movement from one generation to another. Albee's use of a wig in Tiny Alice (1964) to conceal the youth of Miss Alice and then as adornment on a phrenological head, as Julian dies, makes a similar suggestion of instability and mortal change. At the end of that same play the Butler goes round the room placing dust covers over the furniture, a prelude to Julian's death. We could hardly fail to think of Endgame at such a moment—and Albee, no less than other major modern playwrights, shows his awareness of Beckett in many subtle echoes of this kind.
To be aware of these affinities and resemblances is not of course to diminish Albee. On the contrary, whatever he takes he distils into a style which is entirely his own: no American playwright has a more distinctive voice. Its special quality comes partly from its ease in moving between an intellectual and an aggressively physical mode. Albee's characters usually belong to a well-to-do, educated middle class: typical is the Long Winded Lady in Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968), described as 'very average and upper middle class. Nothing exotic, nothing strange'. We might question how 'average' she is in her reading tastes—Trollope and Henry James—but my point is that this cultivated, literate lady is the sort of person Albee favours. He is the most intellectual and literary of American playwrights. But he combines the cerebral with an extraordinary emphasis on the physical. His characters talk with often outrageous candour about their sexual and bodily activities: we are never allowed to forget that we live in an animal world. His plays are full of animals, from the dogs, cats and parakeets of The Zoo Story, the 'little zoo', as Jerry mockingly describes them, to the talking lizards in Seascape (1975) who come on to land to join with a human couple in a symposium on the nature of human beings and animals. Like Jerry in The Zoo Story Albee seems inspired by the desire 'to find out more about the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other, and with people too'. He often uses people's relations with animals to measure their relation with each other and he can give a terrifying impression of the thin line dividing one world from the other, as when in All Over (1971) the Wife and Mistress relapse into animal fury, driving the newsmen out of the room, or in the same play, a woman who has had a mental collapse is said to have been sent 'spinning back into the animal brain'.
The seemingly comfortable position of his characters, their sophistication and self-consciousness, are useful to Albee, partly because he can quite naturally enrich the dialogue with the widely ranging cultural references and quotations his theme requires, partly because it allows him to 'disturb' his characters in interesting ways. Disturbance is above all Albee's theme, or as I am calling it 'evolution'. And it is that aspect of his drama I want to examine in this essay. He is an expert in contriving shocks and explosions to break up surfaces, façades, carapaces, and in so doing create new lines of direction. With increasingly fine instruments, as his art develops, he records what happens after these disturbances. Fine degrees of change, as well as spectacular ones, are recorded with the exactitude of a seismograph: it may be a collapse, as in Listening (1975) or a cataclysmic upheaval as in Tiny Alice, or a series of small adjustments resulting in the restoration of the status quo along with an almost imperceptible change as in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance. Albee himself sometimes talks so as to suggest his evolutionary interests. The American Dream, he said, was a 'stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen'. The word 'slipping', so interestingly unexpected, surely suggests the sort of geophysical associations which underlie the intricate movements of Albee's dramatic action: earthquakes, tidal erosions, continents adrift.
When he was asked in 1968 what was the subject of his new play. Albee said he supposed it was about evolution. The play, Seascape, does indeed give an impression of the great stretch of human evolution, opening with the noise of jet planes screeching over the beach and ending, in one of Albee's most endearing and poignant scenes, with the creatures who have just come out of the sea contemplating their next movement:
NANCY: You'll have to come back … sooner or later. You don't have any choice. Don't you know that? You'll have to come back up.
LESLIE: (Sad smile) Do we?
LESLIE: Do we have to?
LESLIE: Do we have to?
NANCY: (Timid) We could help you, please?
LESLIE: (Anger and doubt) How?
CHARLIE: (Sad, shy) Take you by the hand? You've got to do it—sooner or later.
NANCY: (Shy) We could help you. (Leslie pauses; descends a step down the dune; crouches; stares at them)
LESLIE: (Straight) All right. Begin.
There is a wonderful ring to this 'begin'. It has some of the heroic quality of the evolutionary drama of Shaw which is bound to come to mind when one contemplates Albee's absorbed interest in human development. Shaw's 'metabiological pentateuch', Back to Methuselah, begins in the Garden of Eden and ends with a scene showing how human beings have extended their life span indefinitely, and have become wise enough to win the approval of the Life Force: 'And because these infants that call themselves ancients are reaching out towards that [i.e. wisdom], I will have patience with them still: though I know well that when they attain it they shall become one with me and supersede me …'. This last play in the pentateuch is called 'As Far as though can Reach'. Albee's characters indulge a great deal in this kind of thinking, stretching their minds to contemplate the future of the race as well as their own. The conversation of Charlie and Nancy in Seascape—touching on everything from jet planes and world travel to sex, ageing, mortality and the meaning of things—is only one of many such dialogues where the characters' probing of themselves and each other opens up speculation on society and human life in general. Albee is often thought of as a pessimistic playwright, and certainly he depicts some pessimistic moods and situations, but there is a kind of Shavian optimism all the same in the spirited energy his characters bring to the contemplation of their own lives and to the puzzle of the world.
Albee's characters do not have much prospect of becoming supermen, like the Ancients of Back to Methuselah, but in their anything-but Arcadian world they do succeed in making readjustments which change their own lives and may, he sometimes seems to hint, be contributing, if almost imperceptibly, to evolutionary change on a grander scale. Of course he is more interested in the dark undergrowth of his characters' psychology than Shaw; despite their wit and comic stylisations, his plays are often nearer to the tragic mood of O'Neill, the other American who shares with Albee and Shaw a preoccupation with the mysteries of evolution.
At its strongest, their urge to dramatise these mysteries drives them all into more or less fantastic modes which allow the non-human elements in the universe a vital role in the proceedings. Shaw has his talking snake in the Garden of Eden scene of Back to Methuselah, and in Too True to be Good the audience is addressed by a disgruntled microbe which, we are told, resembles a human being but in substance suggests 'a luminous jelly with a visible skeleton of short black rods'. O'Neill ends The Hairy Ape with a deathly encounter between man and ape in the zoo (anticipations here of The Zoo Story) and in Dynamo makes a destructive Mother Goddess out of electrical machinery. Similarly, Albee puts microcosm and macrocosm on stage in Tiny Alice and in Seascape brings out of the sea the creatures with unequivocal tails who identify themselves with such charming absurdity as Leslie and Sarah.
The function of Shaw's microbe is to draw attention to the wrong-headedness of human beings, the doctors, patients and fussy mothers who infect innocent microbes with measles and spoil their own lives by the unhealthy way they live them. Once the patient is set free from her genteel domestic prison by the anarchic Burglar her whole way of thinking changes totally, a change Shaw expresses through an instant physical change: in one scene a querulous girl wrapped up in blankets; in the next a beautiful animal, with hard, glistening muscles. The rebellious daughter eventually evolves to the point where she can accept her mother on terms which give them both an exhilarating new freedom. In the extraordinary last scene where one character after another is shown taking stock of his or her past life and making a choice for the future, the Elderly Lady announces her decision to change herself, move on to a different phase of evolution: 'The world is not a bit like what they said it was. I wasn't a bit like what they said I ought to be. I thought I had to pretend. And I needn't have pretended at all'.
This is very much the kind of activity Albee's characters are engaged in, a struggle to recognise what the world really is, what they really are and then to survive and evolve in the light of the knowledge they acquire or have thrust upon them. The aim is harder to realise in Albee's world than in Shaw's. Albee has in much higher degree a modern sense of the instability of the self, its lack of control over the deep movements of the psyche. There is certainly an abundance of strong-willed characters on his stage: we are always aware of the desperate will behind the 'fun and games' played out by Martha and George and the more deadly charades constructed by the unholy trio in Tiny Alice. But we are constantly aware too of the world beneath the will: the biological instincts, the subconscious, the many unknown forces that drive the human individual and the strange universe he finds himself in, along with all those animals. There is a much less strong illusion of mind controlling events than in the evolutionary comedy of Shaw or the evolutionary tragedy of O'Neill. The latter's battling characters often feel themselves driven in ways they cannot understand but they never really lose their heroic will: they retain a sense of purpose and meaning even when they are defeated, perhaps then most of all. Yet all three playwrights are linked by their fascination with the notion of tides sweeping men on to some unknown future and with their function as humans in a world which seems in a way better adjusted to animals, vegetables and inorganic elements. 'It was a great mistake, my being born a man', muses O'Neill's Edmund Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night, 'I would have been much more successful as a sea-gull or a fish'; while Shaw's Ancients in Back to Methuselah are steadily approaching the time when they will transmute themselves into a vortex of pure intelligence. One of the adolescents (newly born from an egg) puts the question, 'But if life is thought, can you live without a head?' 'Not now perhaps', replies the He-Ancient, 'But prehistoric men thought they could not live without tails. I can live without a tail. Why should I not live without a head?' The newly born then unwittingly helps to make the point by her innocent question, 'What is a tail?'; drawing from the Ancient a declaration of his evolutionary faith. The tail was a habit, no more, of which the human ancestors managed to cure themselves, and that is what must now happen with the whole body, the 'machinery of flesh and blood' which, he says, 'imprisons us on this petty planet and forbids us to range through the stars': men must free themselves from that tyranny and become the masters of matter, not its slaves.
Shaw plays with the evolutionary theme in witty argument, O'Neill uses it to fuel the tragic endeavours of his characters to rise above themselves and acquire heroic status. Albee incorporates it into the small change of life. The accidental, physical side of things looms much larger in his plays than in those of the other two: we hear more about the ordinary vicissitudes of the body, the 'machinery of flesh and blood'; in its various phases, health and illness, sexual excitement and frustration, need for procreation and disappointment in it, ageing and dying. Albee has really made himself the playwright of ageing: he studies with fascination the evolution of personality from one phase of life to another. He is interested in transitions and in the fineness of the line between different states of mind: between the vegetable and the animal, between real calm and the sinister quietness of malaise which is so often, in his plays, the stillness before the earthquake or the exhaustion following the after-shock when the troubled substance settles down again. He is acutely aware of the fragile equilibrium of the mind; no accident that one of his plays is called A Delicate Balance. His characters have this awareness too: they fear madness or question whether they are hallucinated. Often they really are 'disturbed' in the common modern sense of being mentally unstable or ill, liable to break down altogether as a result of some clinical condition, like the suicidal girl in Listening.
They also, however, need to be disturbed. The games they play, the social strategies they devise, are a form of self-protection but also a means—perhaps unconscious—of galvanising themselves into the new situations which almost always seem of impasse. Like O'Neill's Dion Anthony in The Great God Brown, Albee is interested in the sort of doubt and disturbance which enters into the system, a germ which 'wriggles like a question mark of insecurity, in [the] blood, because it's part of the creative life…'.
In this drama of 'evolvings', death plays a major role. No playwright has paid more attention to the business of dying or to death as an ordinary part of life. In the early plays the deaths tend to be outrageous and symbolic; Grandma's playful exit with the Angel of Death in The Sandbox (1959), the ritual shooting of Julian in Tiny Alice. But in the later plays the focus is on more commonplace and quiet forms of dying, often protracted so that we are obliged to see this too as process, part of life's movement. 'Is he dead?' asks the Wife in All Over, as they sit and wait for the man to die (on stage but out of view). The Mistress refuses the expression, quoting the man himself on the inappropriateness of the verb to be to a state of non-being: 'one could be dying or have died … but could not … be … dead'. Language itself insists on death becoming an activity.
There are many different kinds of active death on Albee's stage. All Over shows us one kind. The dying man is in one way peculiarly helpless; until they brought him home from hospital he had been hooked up to a machine and was totally dependent on it for life. Looking at him, his wife conceived the strange fantasy that he had become part of the machine and that the machine had become organic, 'an octopus: the body of the beast, the tentacles electric controls, recorders, modulators, breath and heart and brain waves…'. For a moment it seemed to her that 'he was keeping it … functioning. Tubes and wires'. The image is painful and shocking but it keeps the man not only in life but powerfully so. And it is a true image, for by the power of his personality he has brought these characters together and holds them to him with the tentacles of feeling; memory, grief, hostility, desire. They are 'hooked up' to him, as one critic has said, as irresistibly as he to the machine.
Though his dying is so active and we can tell that he will continue to inhabit the minds on the stage, the man ceases to breathe at the close of All Over. Other kinds of death on Albee's stage are more metaphorical, deaths which contribute to the making of lives. As one of the characters says, 'Goodness, we all died when we were thirty once'. There is the little death of sexual consummation, the death of feelings, the deaths of the selves discarded in moving from one stage of life to the next. Albee shows us some bleak 'little deaths' but his characters pick themselves up and begin again; 'Well, we can exist with anything, or without. There's little that we need to have to go on … evolving'.
I want now to look at some of the methods Albee uses to show these 'evolvings', drawing on plays from different phases of his own evolution as a playwright.
Perhaps one of the most striking features of the early plays is Albee's youthful amazement at the difficulty of shaking people up, at their imperviousness to new thoughts or anything that might disturb their self-satisfaction. Along with this goes a profound feeling for the sense of loss and uncertainty which can be experienced in human relationships, especially the parent/child relationship. It is hard to avoid thinking of his own situation as an adopted child who has admitted to antagonistic feelings towards the natural parents who abandoned him at two weeks old. His achievement is to take up the personal distress into the dramatic structure of plays like The American Dream and use it to humanise the surrealist caricatures through which he satirises bourgeois complacency. What emerges in the end is a moment of good change, an 'evolving'. I want now to look at the working out of these changes in the first of his plays.
The satire in The Sandbox and The American Dream—the two plays in which Mommy, Daddy and Grandma figure—begins by being very funny, though with the touch of nightmare the theme of imperviousness requires. Mommy is the epitome of self-satisfaction. To poor browbeaten Daddy's choral comment 'That's the way things are today; you just can't get satisfaction; you just try', she replies with triumph, 'Well, I got satisfaction' and we can see she does. She dismisses anything likely to disturb her with the simple 'I won't think about it' and ruthlessly stamps on anyone who does not conform with her chosen way, as she has done, we are told in The American Dream, with the adopted child, 'the bumble of joy'. The horrific account of the dismemberment and castration of this child which is given by Grandma to the Young Man who appears out of the blue is the moment when the derisive glee aroused by the Ionesco-like stereotypes, Mommy, Daddy and Mrs. Barker, turns into something more human and more deeply disturbing. What Grandma describes, in her dry, laconic style, as a far-off fabulous event, is felt by the Young Man as a real nightmare, somehow associated with his lost twin, or perhaps, other self: without knowing how it happened, he has felt himself drained, emasculated and hollow. Grandma and the Young Man are victims of Mommy and this remains the Young Man's function: physically perfect but inwardly hollow he is absorbed into the family as their American Dream. But Grandma has another role to play. She enlists his aid in her escape plan, and gathers together all her boxes, full of memories and dreams, and walks out on them, reappearing on the side of the stage, unseen by the dreadful family, to tell the audience:
Well, I guess that just about wraps it up, I mean, for better or worse, this is a comedy, and I don't think we'd better go any further. No, definitely not. So, let's leave things as they are right now … while everybody's happy … while everybody's got what he wants … or everybody's got what he thinks he wants. Good night, dears.
What everybody thinks he wants is not perhaps what he would really want if he could be brought to understanding of himself, so Grandma implies. To be left with Mommy can be no happy ending for the Young Man, nor is there much prospect of happiness for Mommy with the 'clean-cut', midwest farm boy type, almost insultingly good-looking in a typically American way, as he detachedly describes himself. As for Grandma's exit, critics have been inclined to see this as a way of representing her death: reacting like the social worker, muddled Mrs. Barker, they feel incredulous about the possibility of a departure for a new life at her age: 'But old people don't go anywhere; they're either taken places, or put places.' Albee, however, corrects that view. Grandma dies, perhaps, but not in the usual sense: rather, he says, she moves 'out of the death within life situation that everybody else in the play was in'. She takes her boxes with her, loaded with the past—'eighty six years of living … some sounds … a few images'—but she has a lively sense of the future too, as her delighted reaction to the handsome young man suggests. 'Well, now, aren't you a breath of fresh air!', she says, and 'Yup … yup. You know, if I were about a hundred and fifty years younger I could go for you'. 'Yes, I imagine so', he spiritlessly replies, pointing up the sad difference between the young man who has become fixed in a deadly stereotype and the old lady who is still, despite all expectations, 'evolving'.
Evolution is a more painful matter in The Zoo Story. The complacent bourgeois here is not a monstrous caricature like Mommy, but a mild, well-mannered, believable man who attracts considerable sympathy for the plight he finds himself in: accosted while enjoying a quiet read, on a bench in Central Park on Sunday afternoon, by a youthful version of the Ancient Mariner looking for someone to listen to his story. The unwelcome apparition begins without preamble, MISTER, I'VE BEEN TO THE ZOO' and then proceeds to force on his reluctant auditor elaborate stories about squalid encounters with his landlady who pesters him with her 'foul parody of sexual desire' and with her dog, a 'black monster of a beast'.
Jerry is an alarming figure, sardonic and intense. When he says later in the play, as he drives Peter on, 'I'm crazy, you bastard,' we must wonder whether it is not in fact so. In the end he kills himself in a peculiarly whimsical way, forcing the unfortunate Peter to defend his place on the bench by thrusting a knife into his hand as a weapon, and then running on to it. Yet his is the perspective that triumphs. Though Jerry is clearly in a process of breakdown, it is equally clear that Peter is too undisturbed. He shares something with Mommy after all: despite, or because of, his interest in fiction as ordinary reader and as professional publisher, he finds it hard to face the harsh realities of life. His reaction to Peter's horrific tale of his landlady is to shrink away: 'It's so … unthinkable. I find it hard to believe that people such as that really are.' 'It's for reading about?' asks Jerry. He is mocking but Peter takes it seriously. 'Yes', he says.
He has to be jolted out of this inability to imagine the plight of others—'what other people need', in Jerry's phrase: Jerry's object from the start is to force him into a vital relationship. All this can be seen (and partly has to be) in psychological terms, simply as the effort of a lonely, suicidal outcast to find someone to really listen to him, and perhaps gain the impetus to finish himself off. But Albee takes pains to stress the biological and evolutionary aspects of the action. The two contrasting lives are expressed partly through their situation vis-à-vis animals. Peter is seemingly master of an orderly world where cats and two parakeets fit into a tidy scheme of things along with two daughters. The fact that he has no son and knows that he will have no more children is a flaw in the biological perfection which comes to the surface under the pressure of his encounter with Jerry. Jerry on the other hand seems unable to draw any line between the human and the animal world: dog and landlady equally rouse his loathing. We are made to think about what it is to be human by Jerry's emphasis on the hierarchy of evolution. The well-adjusted Peter is in Jerry's view no more than a vegetable: this is the insult he flings at him when goading him into defending his park bench (and by implication, of course, his way of life). The two men fight over territory like beasts—Jerry's dying scream 'must be the sound of an infuriated and fatally wounded animal'—and when Peter is at last enraged enough to fight he is paid the compliment. '… You're not really a vegetable: it's all right, you're an animal. You're an animal too'.
It is the highest term of praise the action allows, for both these characters are found imperfect in terms of the human culture they both in their different ways aspire to. Jerry is the more imaginative but he has found it impossible to establish a relationship with anyone, dog or human: hating and loving all end up as indifference. His efforts are admirable and pathetic: he is trying to climb the evolutionary ladder, one might say, when he confides in Peter, 'If you can't deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS!' But he also has to be seen as an evolutionary failure, who falls out of the system. In his death he provokes Peter into a livelier awareness of 'others': this is presented as an achievement of a kind, which takes some of the depressing futility out of his life. Whether we can place much confidence on Peter's ability to advance as a human being is another question, but he has been given the chance: it is a moment of evolutionary choice.
The next two plays I want to consider form a 'pair' in the sense that the earlier two did, offering strikingly contrasting treatments of a similar theme. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? operates within the naturalistic convention, though with a degree of stylisation which extends its possibilities. Tiny Alice on the other hand is a much more arcane piece which trumpets its symbolism from the start and indeed could hardly be interpreted on any but a symbolic level.
Yet there is one striking affinity between the two plays. In each we must be struck by the remarkably elaborate nature of the preparations for the drastic change we feel preparing from the start: in one play it is a next step in the evolution of a relationship, in the other in an individual consciousness. In each play too there is a strong element of consciously histrionic performance. Martha and George act out their most intimate feelings in bold, exaggerated form for the startled benefit of their naive audience, the younger couple who seem to understand nothing of what is really going on until the very end. And in Tiny Alice the conspirators who change Julian's life flaunt their acting ability throughout, from Miss Alice's bravura impersonation of an old woman in her first meeting with Julian to the thoroughly professional 'blocking' of the death scene from a scenario the performers evidently know by heart and have played many times. As in a permanent ensemble company, they even take it in turns to play the lead: Butler and Lawyer have no names, only functions (though Butler claims to derive his function from his name) and they both give orders to and take them from Miss Alice, whose servant/lovers they are.
What is the purpose of all this play-acting? In each play it is implied that a momentous psychic change is under way: something that has been gathering in the unconscious has reached a level of intensity that forces it out into the conscious, where it has to find theatrical form for expression, since it does not really belong in the world it has invaded. One part of the mind is acting another part, one might say.
The differences of form between the two plays relate to the difference in the balance of conscious and unconscious elements. George and Martha have a pretty shrewd understanding of their own and the other's mental processes. This 'sensitive and intelligent couple', as Albee calls them, have lived together for so long that they can interpret pretty well every move in the games they play to exorcise their daemons. They share a language rich in private jokes, quotation and allusion, as they demonstrate at the start when they come home, rather drunk, and laughing, at two in the morning and go straight into one of their double acts. 'What a dump', says Martha, looking round, and, to George:
MARTHA: … 'What a dump'! Huh? What's that from?
GEORGE: I haven't the faintest idea what …
MARTHA: Dumbbell! It's from some goddamn Bette Davis picture … some goddamn Warner Brothers epic …
GEORGE: I can't remember all the pictures that …
MARTHA: Nobody's asking you to remember every single goddamn Warner Brothers epic … just one! One single little epic! Bette Davis gets peritonitis in the end … She's got this big black fright wig she wears all through the picture and she gets peritonitis, and she's married to Joseph Cotten or something …
GEORGE: … Somebody …
MARTHA: Somebody … and she wants to go to Chicago all the time, 'cos she's in love with that actor with the scar …
George comes up with the answer: 'Chicago! It's called Chicago.' 'Good grief! Don't you know anything?' she taunts him, 'Chicago was a 'thirties musical, starring little Miss Alice Faye. Don't you know anything?' But he wins the round, taking the opening she gives him to get in a customary tart reminder of their respective ages: Chicago was probably before his time. Every conversational movement, even the effort to remember an old film, affords them opportunities for the marital argument they both understand so well. Albee points up their high degree of self-awareness by contrast with the young guests. Honey and Nick, who are at the opposite extreme, quite without self-knowledge and very much out in the cold altogether: the audience is presumably a few steps ahead of them in their struggles to catch the true drift of the caustic, funny and eliptical conversations between George and Martha.
In Tiny Alice the balance is the other way. The point here is that Julian does not understand himself. Among characters who are nothing but function, he alone has none: he is a lay brother, committed to the celibacy of a priest but without a priest's power. He is in a kind of limbo, not knowing which of his experiences are real, unlike George and Martha who know their imagined child is a fantasy (though that does not prevent them from thinking of him sometimes as real). Julian is much more confused: he is at the mercy of something he does not understand when he comes to the castle to be 'brought up' to Miss Alice. The first thing he does there, despite his conscious intention, is to confide in the Butler the traumatic tale of his six years' lapse of faith, when he had himself voluntarily committed to a mental institution. And the next is to confess to Miss Alice, at the moment of first meeting how, in that confused period, he had a sexual experience of great strangeness and intensity which he does not know whether to think of as dream, hallucination or reality. He lost his virginity, so it seemed, with a woman patient who imagined herself the immaculate Mother of God—but what she was bearing in her womb was a cancer. The dream, if such it was, is to be acted out in a new form with Miss Alice. It is as if he were meeting his own unconscious, in the romantically confused and sinister forms imposed by his imagination. The three who manage the machine (to borrow a phrase from Eliot's The Cocktail Party, a play with some obvious resemblances to Tiny Alice) make it clear enough that they in their turn are controlled from some other dimension. Miss Alice refers to herself as a 'surrogate' for the Miss Alice who resides in the model and the model itself is a perpetual reminder that the action is being conducted on more than one level. It stands there throughout, a man-sized replica of the castle, lighting up from time to time in its different rooms, following—or perhaps initiating—changes of location in the macrocosm. Albee had planned to have Julian bound to the model in the death scene; in the event he was made only to collapse against it, but the point is made, that in the end nothing but this would be left to him.
The process of effecting change is difficult, in one play because of the middle age of the characters, in the other because of immaturity. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? it seems at first as though there could be no breaking out of the fixed pattern of life George and Martha have established over many years: she is in her fifties, he is somewhat younger. Yet into their tired rituals—weariness is a feature of the proceedings—Albee artfully manages to insert growth points. Martha breaks the rules of the marital game by speaking to someone in the outside world of their fantasy son: she takes the young wife upstairs, confides in her, and then remains behind, disconcertingly, to change her clothes. George senses what this might mean. He dissuades the young couple from leaving, as they embarrassedly feel they should:
Oh no, now … you mustn't. Martha is changing … and Martha is not changing for me. Martha hasn't changed for me in years. If Martha is changing, it means we'll be here for … days.
It is the experience not of days but of years that is packed into the remaining small hours: George destroys the son who never was and perhaps in doing so frees himself from the obsessive dream or memory of a murderous relation between son and father which he tells of in the form of a story and seems to relate in some way to his own past. We cannot be sure of this, but there is a sense of relief as well as sadness in the ending. Perhaps Martha, despite all her bluster, knew at some deep level, as George does, that the change had to come. As he says, 'It was … time'. She receives the verdict with doubt and apprehension, but still, it is clear, with a readiness to move on with him to a new stage in their marriage: there has been an 'evolving' and it was necessary.
In Tiny Alice the difficulties are more obscure but are clearly to do with Julian's immaturity. At one point of his adventure, Julian muses about the possibility of avoiding experience:
What may we avoid! Not birth! Growing up? Yes. Maturing? Oh, God! Growing old, and?… yes, growing old; but not the last; merely when.
In his proud demand for abstract perfection he shrinks from life, refuses procreation (except in dreams), resists the idea of God in man's image, although it is the idea on which his Church rests. 'Don't you teach your people anything?', sneers the Lawyer to the Cardinal. He has to unlearn his certainties, learn to know, as the Lawyer says, that 'We do not know. Anything'. He has to be 'brought up' to Miss Alice: the sexual/religious punning, like everything in the play, contradicts his idea that man can separate God from nature. In embracing Alice he accepts mortality (always implicit in the beauty of the flesh) and perhaps too the mystery he rejects: at the moment when they come together, she stretches out arms enclosed in very full sleeves so that the effect is of enfolding him 'in her great wings'.
Julian's is a martyrdom of a kind. The 'agents' leave, their work done, Alice telling him she is 'the illusion', the Lawyer counselling him to resign himself to the mysteries. Like the man in the story from which Albee said the play was derived (he was imprisoned in a room inside another room), Julian is left to die by the model, unable to tell whether he is in microcosm or macrocosm. The model is a world without human figures in it and it is a horror. 'THERE IS NO ONE THERE', he calls in agony: the flesh and blood Alice is what he needs, after all. Some critics have taken this to be the moral of the piece; Julian, for them, is forcibly converted by secular evangelists who have proved to him sardonically that there is no world other than that experienced by the senses. That would be, however, to destroy the insistent ambiguity which is surely meant to convey something quite different, the necessity for symbols. As Miss Alice puts it, 'We must … represent, draw pictures, reduce or enlarge to … to what we can understand.'
And is there another dimension? In the play it is inescapable. Butler, Lawyer and Alice all assume it: the Lawyer is sarcastic about 'the mouse in the model' but he also promises Alice in the model, with 'no sarcasm', Albee says: 'You will have your Julian'. And Alice prays to the model to save the chapel when it seems in danger of burning down. 'Don't destroy!', she cries, and 'Let the resonance increase'. Though Julian cries in his agony 'THERE IS NO ONE THERE', yet as he dies we see on the empty stage lights descending the staircase of the model and 'the shadow of a great presence filling the room', while exaggerated heartbeats are heard. Audiences were inclined to rationalise these as Julian's own, but Albee has said that he expected people to think of this 'enormous' sound that engulfs Julian either as his hallucination or as the personification of an abstract force. There is no way of resolving the ambiguity. That is the painful truth Julian has to learn and the learning is an advance in maturity; he dies in the attitude of crucifixion—which in the religious imagery of the play must imply the possibility of resurrection. Though so cryptic and in many ways unpleasant and distasteful, the process has to be seen, I think, as evolution rather than catastrophic collapse.
The next play I want to consider, A Delicate Balance, draws into a new pattern threads from earlier plays. Again, as in The Zoo Story, animals are used to measure degrees of refinement in human consciousness. Tobias' story about the cat he grew to hate because it became indifferent to him tells us much about his self-mistrust: when Claire wants to convey the reality of her sordid experience as an alcoholic, she describes it as becoming more like an animal every day (to be an animal in this play is to go down in the evolutionary hierarchy). The structure resembles that of Virginia Woolf; a conversation among married couples (with complications in the form of a sister and daughter) goes on and on, with the aid of drink, through the hours of two nights, ending with breakfast, still intermixed with drinking, on the third day. As in Virginia Woolf, the talk is confessional in a thoroughgoing American style which makes one wonder how there could be anything left unrevealed, how indeed there could be any real movement or change. The play opens with Agnes confiding in Tobias her suspicion that she might one day go out of her mind and moves on to Tobias' confession to Claire that he had killed (or 'put down' as she softens it) the cat which grew to dislike him. Other more commonplace revelations come thick and fast; the whole idea of the confessional is indeed parodied in Claire's self-mocking account of how she rose to make a grand public confession at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and turned it into bathos. 'I am Claire and I am a alcoholic', she said in her little girl's voice, then sat down.
These confessions are too easy, too familiar a feature of their daylight world. Albee wants to move in on the night, that limbo where thoughts are struggling out from the unconscious and the anxieties lie deeper, are kept closer. He brings this about by a brilliant invention, the arrival of Harry and Edna, the twin couple to Agnes and Tobias, their best friends, whose lives are 'the same'. These two have left their own home because they became frightened—of what they cannot say. They can only repeat: 'WE WERE FRIGHTENED … AND THERE WAS NOTHING'. The scene of their arrival is comic in its lack of explanation and childlike suddenness, as when Edna says 'Can I go to bed now? Please?'. But they have brought into the house a disturbing sense of generalised anxiety relating to fears of darkness, nothingness and death. At the end of the play Edna articulates the unlocalised dread: 'It's sad to come to the end of it, isn't it, nearly the end, so much more of it gone by … than left.' Under the pressure of this unease they all experience a revelation of their limits and breaking points. Agnes brings up from the abyss a misery she was not able to voice at the start, the memory of the time when her son died and Tobias refused her another child. She lay at night pleading, 'Please? Please, Tobias? No, you wouldn't even say it out: I don't want another child, another loss'.
Through it all runs a helpless longing to be safe and at home: the much married daughter hysterically claims her girlish room: Harry and Edna settle into it, like cuckoos in the nest. Yet changes occur, despite the characters' efforts to resist them: perhaps they occur because of that. Both married couples return perforce to the single room they had given up. Agnes expressing the shy hope that it may not be simply a temporary change: an elegiac tribute is paid to the sexuality that is leaving them. Various adjustments of feeling are made among the individuals in the group and finally Tobias, by enormous effort of will, looks at himself and forces himself to come out with an honest statement to the 'best friend' who has come to him for succour:
I DON'T WANT YOU HERE!
I DON'T LOVE YOU!
BUT BY GOD … YOU STAY!
A deep obligation, running underneath all questions of personality, is faced and acknowledged under pressure of the night fears, the 'plague' that Harry and Edna have brought with them. Daylight returns, the intruders depart and Agnes is left contemplating what has happened—'They say we sleep to let the demons out'—and preparing to return to normal: 'Come now; we can begin the day'. Some critics have found this ending sentimental but there is no reason why it should have to be so taken: the tone is dry, matter-of-fact: the 'day' has its own problems, as we have seen. Beginning it again is all that can be done—yet the play makes us feel respect for the human resilience which allows for these routine adjustments.
In the plays that follow A Delicate Balance there is less room for radical changes of situation. The emphasis is on another kind of evolution, the development of finer understanding. Increasingly the characters watch and listen to each other with the sort of care and detachment described by Tobias when he tells Agnes of his reverie in the small hours: 'look at it all, reconstruct, with such … detachment, see yourself … look at it all … play it out again, watch'. The style becomes increasingly delicate and oblique as Albee moves closer to the concept of 'static' drama most famously enunciated by Maeterlinck in his plea for recognition of the dramatic interest in an old man sitting in the lamplight. Maeterlinck is indeed referred to in All Over, where the Mistress tells us that he was once a topic of conversation for her lover, the man now dying. It is an appropriate reference for a play so Maeterlinckian in its situation—waiting for death—but in the other plays too Maeterlinck is brought to mind, especially by the musicality which becomes so marked a feature of the dramatic structure. In Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968) Albee makes a point of his concern with 'the application of musical forms to dramatic structure': he explains in his introduction that he has notated the dialogue on musical lines with an exceptionally precise use of punctuation, commas, semicolons and so on, with stage directions, with devices such as capitalising and italicising.
We have to listen exceptionally hard to follow this intricate dialogue, with its mesh of half-finished allusions, quotations, ambiguous sayings, ironies and fugue-like repetitions. It seems natural that in this phase of his art Albee should produce a play for radio called simply Listening (1975). Characters at this time tend to lose their names and be represented by function, like notes in music. The Wife amusingly calls attention to this phenomenon in All Over when she demands of Mistress, 'Me! Wife! Remember?'
Box and Chairman Mao are the first two plays constructed on Albee's new musical principle. They were written separately and can be so performed, Albee says, though surely he must be right in finding them more effective when 'enmeshed'.
The action of Box involves only a view of a box, or cube, and a Voice reflecting on it: the reflections widen out into a Jungian stream-of-consciousness which opens up beyond the personal life into 'the memory of what we have not known'. Throughout runs a theme of decline and loss—in art and craft (no one could make such a box now), in social responsibility (milk deliberately spilt when children are starving), and in understanding. Continually Voice returns to the sense of direction in art and the pain it can cause by contrast with loss of direction in life: 'When art hurts. That is what to remember'. Finally human artefacts and ideas give way to a vision of the sea, with birds skimming over it and only the sound of bell buoys in the fog to remind us of human presence.
When the second play begins, the outline of the box is still visible, creating the impression that the thoughts we now hear are taking place within the other consciousness: everything flows into and out of that empty space. The leading character in Chairman Mao, the Long-Winded Lady, is haunted by a memory she cannot assimilate, of falling into the sea from the deck of an ocean liner (such as she is now travelling on) after the death of her much-loved husband. The play ends with her repetition of the questions she was asked: 'that I may have done it on purpose?… thrown myself off?' Then, in one of Albee's delicate punctuation hints, she drops the question mark, turns 'tried to kill yourself' into a statement she has to deal with herself and arrives at the sad conclusion: 'Good heavens, no: I have nothing to die for'.
With her thoughts (they are supposedly voiced to a totally silent auditor, a Minister, who gives her no comfort) are interwoven the thoughts of two others. The Old Woman also tells a sad story of family loss, but in the more distant form of a poem, Will Carleton's ballad, 'Over the Hills to the Poor-House'. And in contrast to this limited personal view of history come the vast assertions of Chairman Mao proclaiming the class war and calling for revolution. The three lines of thought are separate but occasionally touch; the Old Woman nods approvingly from time to time when Mao refers to the hard life of the poor, but she also indicates silent sympathy with the unhappiness of the upper class lady. Mao's optimistic political simplifications are both reinforced and undermined by the experiences conveyed in the women's thoughts. His thoughts are crude and bracing, providing a strong upward thrust, a necessary counterpoint to the pessimism of Voice in Box. He does indeed at one point use an image of her kind. It is not a bad but a good thing, he says, that China's six hundred million people are 'poor and blank' because poverty stimulates the desire for change and 'on a blank sheet of paper free from any marks, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written'.
Of course there is irony in this: the image of the box perpetually filling up with inherited and fresh thoughts tells us that there is no such thing as a 'blank' human character. Still, even if it is an illusion, there is a need for the dream of 'beginning again'. Even the Long-Winded Lady feels it: whimsically she pictures herself 'falling up!' and reflects that 'One never returns from a voyage the same'. There is a suggestion of an 'evolving' here, and certainly there is an antidote to the emptiness portrayed by Voice in the complex texture of consciousness woven by the voices. When they die away, the light comes up again upon the empty box and we return to the Voice's elegy, to the contemplation of the painful beauty of a partita and the mystery of those memories we did not know we had. Voice reminds us that she could recognise the sound of bell buoys in the fog though she had never seen the sea: 'Landlocked, never been, and yet the sea sounds …'. It is with the miracle of the sea that the play ends and with the sense of mysterious direction: the birds are flying all in one direction, in 'a black net', only one 'moving beneath … in the opposite way'. What may be the direction for human evolution? This is Albee's large theme. He makes it dramatically gripping through his mastery of form and his ability to interest us in the small changes and in the real lives of his people; even in the disembodied or fragmented shape which is all they have in this play, they come through as vivid personalities.
As so often, we can see in these two plays the germ of the next one. The Long-Winded Lady sees one prospect of comfort: she might be able to forget the bitter detail of her husband's last illness: perhaps it is 'all over'. The phrase provides the title for the next play, All Over (1971), which explores the impact of a death about to happen on the five people closest to the dying man. We go in and out of their thoughts and memories in a pattern of engagement and disengagement which is something they have been painfully conscious of in their past lives. The Wife has been separated from her husband for thirty years and is alienated from the Daughter, seems indeed to be on better terms with the Mistress. The Mistress, though treated as a friend, is disengaged from them all and yet it is she who can best tell them about the phases in the dying man's withdrawal from life, the 'faint shift from total engagement'. The mood is one of 'languor' and exhaustion. The stories they tell to fill in the time of waiting tend to turn on various kinds of dying, including the sort of death which is to do with feeling: the Wife tells of a woman who died when she was twenty-six, 'died in the heart that is, or in whatever portion of the brain contains the spirit'.
A paradox develops. The little life the man has left is the source from which they draw: they are fired by him: and as they talk of him and more of their past life pours out, they become deeply and bitterly engaged with each other. There are moments of understanding and of violent hostility, till at last the Wife, looking into the landscape of the future, abandons her calm and acknowledges her need to 'feel something'. 'I'm waiting to' she says, and 'I have no idea what I'm storing up. You make a lot of adjustments over the years, if only to avoid being eaten away'. The cool politeness she has observed with the Mistress drops away, she accuses her: 'You've usurped'. And though she immediately apologizes, the frustration of thirty years at last erupts. 'I LOVE MY HUSBAND', she calls out in pain and in relief: we have an impression of parched land being flooded. Then it is, as we hear the doctor saying, 'All over'. But for the people waiting everything goes on: Albee has made us feel, through the unease of their conversational adjustments, something of the effort involved in that simple 'going on': it is an achievement.
Albee has commented that after a certain age arthritis of the mind sets in and 'change becomes impossible finally.' No sign of this with him: his later plays continue to show his own capacity to 'evolve'. In Listening and Counting the Ways (1976) he interestingly applied a vaudeville method—laconic, quick-firing cross talk and scenes punctuated by signs descending from the flies or a voice counting—to very different material, creating in one play a deeply sombre, in the other a genial, high-spirited mood. Listening was written for radio: it is about the need to listen and the difficulty of doing so. In the grounds of a one-time mansion, now a mental institution, by a dried up fountain, two of the staff, a Woman and a Man, meet to explore each other—and the Girl who is the Woman's charge—through strange, intense talk, weighing words, testing nuances. The Girl has slipped half out of the human world; she reacts, we are told, like an animal, tensing and sensing her surroundings, then 'humanising' intermittently. 'You don't listen', she complains, 'Pay attention, rather, is what you don't do'. 'I listen', says the Woman, 'I can hear your pupils widen'. But she does not pay the attention the Girl needs; she and the Man abstract themselves, pursuing sexual memories they may or may not have shared, while the Girl takes her chance to find some broken glass and cut her wrists. Her last words are: 'Then … you don't listen'. She is an evolutionary failure, arousing pity and giving a dark colouring to the struggle—experienced in a bitter-sweet way by the other two—of listening to others in a fully human way.
In Counting the Ways also, a couple cross-question each other, listening hard for the implications in every reply. But this time the mood is happy, even though strains and small shocks occur. The play begins with her asking, 'Do you love me?' and ends with him answering that he does and then asking the question of her. In between, they count the ways—as in the poem from which the play takes its title, 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.' Whole phases of married life are traversed in a series of swift duologues: they count the petals of a rose, ask of each other en passant 'How many children do we have?', move into a new stage when she remarks of the roses that they should be in a vase on the table between their beds and there is a double-take before he realises the implications. 'When did that happen?' he asks, in comic anguish, and later, 'When did our lovely bed … split and become two?' 'Well, it happens sooner or later,' she says, and then, soothing him, 'May be we'll be lucky and it won't go any further'. He is left reeling from the impact of a new shock—'separate rooms'. But he picks himself up again. Despite the charming lightness of touch, the preoccupations are as serious as in Listening: all feelings are fragile and uncertain. When he asks 'Do you love me?' at the close, her 'I think I do' is a curtain line which leaves everything open: nothing can be done about the fragility of life.
The subsequent variation on the marriage theme, Seascape, opens with a similar marital cross-questioning act. Nancy and Charlie, lazing on the beach, are involved in one of Albee's typical stock-taking sequences—current state of feeling, hazy plans for the future now their children are grown up. It is the evolution of a marriage, treated in a gently, bantering naturalistic style. Then suddenly it widens out, through the alarming, only half-comic arrival of the animal couple, into a view of the whole of human evolution, seen entirely in terms of what these well-meaning intelligent but limited, groping individuals can make of it.
It is one of Albee's most touching moments when the animals achieve realisation of what it means to be human through learning of death, which must one day separate them from each other. 'I want to go back', wails Sarah, 'I don't want to stay here any more. I want to go back'. But there is no going back. The play ends with the creatures recognising this and preparing, with the aid of those of a little further on the way, to take the great evolutionary step: 'All right. Begin'.
It is a heroic assertion, unusual for our times, of faith in the capacity of human beings to learn from each other and evolve in good ways. And although nothing is more certain than that he will strike out in a different direction with other plays, this must all the same be a particularly appropriate point to conclude a discussion of Albee as the playwright of evolution.
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