Edward Albee | Critical Essay by Leonard Casper

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Edward Albee.
This section contains 3,531 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Leonard Casper

Critical Essay by Leonard Casper

SOURCE: "Tiny Alice: The Expense of Joy in the Persistence of Mystery," in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman, The University of St. Thomas, 1983, pp. 83-92.

In the following essay, Casper explores the enigmatic quality of the structure, themes, characters, and language of Tiny Alice, and offers his own interpretations of the play.

When Edward Albee was asked by his publisher to provide a preface for Tiny Alice which would explain its peculiarities, he at first consented; then recanted, having decided that "the play is quite clear." Further, he declared that even more people shared his view than found his work obscure. Among the latter, however, were those daily reviewers who had the most immediate access to the Geilgud-Worth production in the Billy Rose Theater: Taubman of the Times, Kerr of the Herald-Tribune, Watts of the Daily Post, and Chapman of the Daily News. The bafflement of such otherwise friendly critics perhaps was epitomized best by contradictory reviews which appeared in Time early in 1965. The first, on January 8, referred to the play as a "tinny allegory," dependent more on mystification than mystery; more on echolalia than on eloquence; more on pretentious reprise of Nietzschean nihilism than on profound, fresh inquiry. Only one week later, the same source was at least willing, half-facetiously, to take part in the controversial deciphering of Tiny Alice by suggesting that meaning might lie dormant in such apparent clues as references to a "homosexual nightmare," Julian the Apostate, and cunning old Fury's decision in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to try poor Mouse with intent to condemn him to death for lack of anything better to do that day.

Aside from agit-prop plays, whose ideological direction is extensively detailed, most plays submit to risks of misunderstanding involved in the indirection of their argument. But Tiny Alice has continued to be considered exceptionally difficult. Even critics who have tried to admire it have shown signs of testiness, undergoing trials originating at times in their own ingenuity. Harold Clurman, one of the earliest, was willing to say that he saw an allegory in which "the pure person in our world is betrayed by all parties," themselves corrupt. "Isolated and bereft of every hope, he must die—murdered." But the result, somehow, reminded him of a Faustian drama written by "a highly endowed college student." Later and more elaborately, Anne Paolucci described Tiny Alice as "the most impressive of Albee's paradoxical affirmations of negation." To be consistent with this conclusion, she was compelled to treat the play as an intricate allegory: the three agents of Alice, for example, compose a sinister "unholy trinity" concelebrating a parodic ritual of faith; the play is an extended enactment of the smaller scale sexual-spiritual abandon/abandonment experienced by Julian in the asylum. It is a confession of despair: the Invisible Presence is, in fact, an Immense Absence. Ruby Cohn's version of the play was similarly bleak, finding its central struggle in the wilful resistance of Julian's imagination to his pronounced desire for the real. A ceremony is contrived, to wed him to reality: "and even then he tries to rearrange it into familiar appearance." In the moment of death, Julian experiences "the prototypical existential confrontation"—complete isolation; but unable to bear it, invokes Christian allusions/illusions. Presumably, according to Cohn's version, reality = death = abstraction = Tiny Alice = self-negation. In her judgment, a man of true integrity should face this Absurdity with courage, not cower as Julian does, regressing to childhood. Michael Rutenberg's decoding of Albee's allegory perceived a diabolic force bartering a billion ordinary souls for one especially sensitive and worth corrupting, even as the visible conspirators form a chorus half-sympathetic with the victim. Although Rutenberg had to admit the ambiguity of the ending, however interpreted, Julian is lost—to Nothingness; or to an Evil Deity; or to a benevolent but all-devouring God. Positive projections of the ending have been rarer, perhaps because they have been considered too naive by the critical mind. And all have ignored the possibility that any definitive reading is too narrow for Albee.

But suppose Tiny Alice resists being treated as allegory because its meaning lies in the persistence, rather than the resolution, of mystery. Suppose risk, natural to reconnoitering the previously undiscovered or unexplored, is being offered as itself the supreme reality. Suppose Tiny Alice is a tribute to finite man's terrifying instinct for infinity. The play has at least two structural elements which provide a degree of stability to dimensions otherwise often in flux: the central presence of Julian and the strategic placement of visions at the climax of each of the three acts. As visions deriving from the virginal Julian, they are, of course, suspect. Two of them are even placed offstage and can therefore readily be dismissed as hallucinations in a disturbed mind. Albee offers no clear persuasion of his own but only suggests how best to submit to the play's passions and impressions: "Brother Julian is in the same position as the audience. He's the innocent. If you see things through his eyes, you won't have any trouble at all." Or, perhaps, just the trouble appropriate to flawed and still falling man—trouble not wholly distinguishable from the gift of choice to the half-informed.

When towards the end of Act I Julian reveals to Miss Alice his principal memory of all the six hermitic years spent sealed in an asylum, he cannot declare that it was not something wholly imagined. He had withdrawn so far from external realities that what he relates could have been pure fantasy rather than fabulous consummation. Was there an introverted woman who claimed to be the Virgin Mary? Did he ejaculate in ecstatic union with her? Did she become pregnant with the Son of God as a result? Julian's doctor advises him that some hallucinations are healthy and desirable: clearly he knows the difference between mystic insight and self-delusion. He informs Julian flatly that the woman died later of cancer of the womb. Julian, however, remains stricken with wonder.

The strangeness of this tale uncorroborated by onstage enactment, in addition to Julian's own indecisiveness about its nature, authorizes the greatest possible skepticism towards the play's final moments as a prelude to any Ultimate Vision. Are faith and sanity really one, as Julian declares? Or is his final submission, his passionate utterances of faith, a sign of a man now totally mad? Earlier, in Act III, Lawyer has been completely cynical about the consolations of self-delusion: Any man will "take what he gets for … what he wishes it to be. AH, it is what I have always wanted, he'll say, looking terror and betrayal right in the eye. Why not face the inevitable and call it what you have always wanted? How to come out on top, going under." According to the testimony of his own recollections, Julian has always associated sexual desire, death and union with God, in incongruous sublimation. Is that not how he sees the culmination of his life, with self-induced grace that eases the agony of the human condition? Is his vision not voided; any thought of his sanctification not sacrilegious? Are such inversions not to be expected in Alice's Wonderland; such nihilism not inevitable in an Absurdist play?

But the sweet simplicity of that conclusion fails to account for the other vision at the end of Act II, which is unquestionably of the flesh, as naked to the eye as any revelation can be and, therefore, far from hallucinatory. It is precisely the very real presence of Miss Alice which makes possible serious consideration of Tiny Alice as an argument that things visible may be evidence of things invisible. The tableau in which Miss Alice offers herself as a transparency through which Alice can be seen might easily serve as illustration for Platonic Ideals or Christian Incarnation.

That so traditional a notion could be entertained by Albee should not be disquieting. From the beginning, his plays have complained about the decline of such "ancient verities" (to use Faulkner's words) as family cohesiveness, community life, and continuity in the history of evolving civilization. The Grandmother figure in the early one-act plays represents all of these ideals—as does George, on a more intellectual plane, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Tiny Alice provides dimensions that infinitely expand the dream/hope that there is more to life than our day-to-day living may signify. One begins to feel less ill at ease with Tiny Alice the moment one releases Albee from the box of Absurdism/defeatism where his techniques—the linkage of humor and horror, the seeming cross purposes and discontinuities—invited earlier critics to imprison him. For Albee such mannerisms are, simultaneously, metaphors for the dissipation of faith in meaningfulness and untraditional measures for reinvoking, resurrecting, reconstructing traditions at their best.

Albee does distinguish—again, like Faulkner—between dead convention and living tradition, between inflexible institutions and an order of growth congenial with diversity of direction and possibility. Daddy, in The Sandbox and The American Dream, is a figure of impotence, his human tracts having been replaced by tubes. Nick, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, seems to epitomize health and youthful promise, but his proposed eugenics, a form of self-propagation, is indistinguishable from Daddy's living death. In Tiny Alice, the Church, represented by the most venal, most self-inflating aspect of the Cardinal, becomes one more Establishment mechanism for deadening human sensibilities.

Beyond its attempt to revitalize traditions of activated faith, Tiny Alice more subtly recognizes that the God-ache suffered by man is foremost an outcry to be born free but not abandoned. The play provides a continuous experience, rather than a philosophical discussion, of two profoundly permanent problems: how can man imagine the incommensurate (but we think we do), and how can man separate service from servitude (but we think we must)? Is there a discernible point beyond which the search for self in the other annihilates either that other or one's self? Can self-centeredness be transcended, yet selfhood be fulfilled? If we attempt to think of an unknowable unknown—such as God—do we delude ourselves more by conjuring anthropomorphic images or by approximating an abstraction of perfection? Do we earn an afterlife only by refusing to want one? Such are the dilemmas torturing the mind that aspires to be, become, belong and, especially, to define beyond desire.

Tiny Alice is replete with talk of serving. The Cardinal and Lawyer are, to a large extent, self-serving; so is Miss Alice, inasmuch as she finds a joy beyond pleasure in Julian's company; and even Butler often delights in comforting this unfortunate novice beyond the call of duty. Something of self is retained by all these four agents of causes/missions larger than themselves. Is this their flaw, or even in the worst of them is this some sign of grace, of a superior love that allows them a measure of freedom from complete depersonalization? Does omnipotence require impotence? In the last scenes, do not all these agents act out that love—though with varying degrees of reluctance—in their compassion for Julian? Or does their similarity lie in their failing to rise above self-pity mirrored in another's pain?

The question deepens when applied to Brother Julian himself. Early in the play he tells Butler that he committed himself to an asylum for six years because he was paralyzed by his inability to reconcile his own view of God, as creator and mover, with the popular view of God as a kind of miracle-worker on call. With Miss Alice he manages to be more open and confesses to having been impatient with God and excessively proud of his humility, as a lay brother in the pretended service of the Lord. Even now he wishes not to be forgotten for whatever services he renders; not to be unborn, in death. Miss Alice accuses him of still more ambition—negotiating martyrdom—and he admits that his unrelenting dream has been "To go bloodstained and worthy … upward." Immediately afterwards, she leads him from the ecstasy of that memory, to the sacrifice of himself, and to Alice through her own body.

Is this climatic moment of Act II the seduction of his soul or an advanced stage in its salvation? Julian wants his marriage to end in Miss Alice. It is required of him, however, that he not confuse symbol with substance, as the Cardinal regularly does. When Julian persists, despite Miss Alice's assurance that "I am the … illusion," he is executed by Lawyer. Julian feels forsaken by God as well as by those departing the scene. Finally, accepting his destiny, provided it is not eternal death, he prays in desperation: "Then Come and Show Thyself! Bride? God?" Lights move through the model/replica of the mansion; sounds approach, in rhythm with his heartbeat. Total darkness descends.

Has this entire drama been a hallucination in the mind of a recluse become catatonic? Has Julian finally married himself? Or has his role merely served as insane filter, discoloring the reality of the others? Has this, after all, been a downfall into the void? Can one reconcile Albee's candid admission that "There are some things in the play that are not clear to me" with his assertion that if one positions himself in Julian's place, the play is as clear as need be/can be?

To argue that the direct vision of Miss Alice at the end of Act II may validate the reported visions that, respectively, climax the other acts still acknowledges ambiguities enough to satisfy many an alternate version of Tiny Alice's meaning(s). Remembering Albee's bitter resentment of his abandonment two weeks after birth by his natural parents and his often unhappy childhood with his adoptive parents, one might be inclined to see as pure autobiographical projection this play about a She-God who gives life, only to demand its sacrificial return. Beyond the possibility that all this is personal complaint, problems that are more universal remain. Lawyer remarks in II, 2 that God is an abstraction which therefore can neither be understood nor worshipped; whereas Alice, "the mouse in the model," can be understood and worshipped, although it does not exist. What does existence mean, here? Does Alice have no permanent reality, no true substance, being only an exotic mask of God? Or is Alice a manifestation, a function of the Godhead, a further stage in man's adventuring towards divinity? Or is Lawyer, in his bitterness/limited knowledge, just distorting the truth? Are Lawyer, Butler and Miss Alice agents of a malignant surrogate God, and are all of them hyenas, scavengers of the dead vitals of men? Are they impure agents in prolonged process of purgation (Butler too still prefers Miss Alice to Alice) of a merciful and loving God or merely "angels of death," imperfect companions to those chosen for possible perfection? Is Alice, like the son in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, invented out of desperate human need to be part of, instead of apart from, some lasting meaning? Is Julian, secretly dedicated to his own destruction by denying that God may be gentle, courting death disguised as a demanding deity? Is his attraction to Miss Alice only a brief interlude in his inevitable marriage to darkness?

Or is this a parable of grace, one more fortunate fall? Does Brother Julian lose his celibacy but gain proper priesthood? The name "Alice" derives from the Greek word for truth. Suppose Butler (the working class) once thought he possessed her; so, more recently, did Lawyer (law makers and stewards of justice). But what single system can speak for the whole Truth? The Church (Miss Alice as "missal"?) and, certainly, individual churchmen have their own insufficiencies; there are cobwebs in the chapel. Julian himself is no chaste Adam, as his childhood fantasies prove, and he falls again—not into the flesh, which has been sanctified by the Incarnation, but into a denial that flesh is symbol rather than substance. He becomes a proper man of God, not in retreat (the asylum) but in the world, in communion. Julian has equated faith and sanity, but at last he accepts the mystery, terror and all beyond reason and historic revelation and rituals that become routine. His uncertainty becomes his cause; he makes the desperate but not despairing mystic leap. Is it implied that we are all called to be Marys whose wombs bring God into his world and the delirious world to its destinate groom? All called but few chosen? And of those chosen, even fewer who reach supreme parturition? Or is such speculation itself not pretending to provide the sort of single-system answer which the general explication set out to refute?

If one could appeal to the rest of Albee's work in this dilemma, the probability is that he would align himself with those who see Tiny Alice as a determined quest for spiritual coordinates, for opportunities to convert chance into choice and so to collaborate with life against one's own loneliness and that of others. In his first four one-act plays, Albee implied that we try to compensate for our incompleteness by neglecting the needs of others, although, ironically, the only human strength lies in mutual aid among the weak. Albee at first wrote angrily because he resisted adding to the alienation and displacement and deprivation which some of his predecessors and peers considered the human condition. Those plays, like the violent act of Jerry in The Zoo Story, were cruel blows intended kindly. The same indignation and hope for reform, though presented with less grotesque humor, persist in All Over, one of whose attendants at a wake finally recognizes how they have wasted their lives, how corpselike they are: "All we've done is think about ourselves." In The Lady from Dubuque, when the dying woman receives little solace from her husband who is over concerned with himself, she has to turn to the kindness of strangers.

The surface of such plays to the contrary, Albee has been less death than dream-haunted: by the dream of a bond beyond bondage, a love that allows privacy but not loneliness. In A Delicate Balance a plague drives one family into the house of a friend, who then must decide if they have as much right to remain as his own daughter, who wants them out. Tobias the husband delays, reminded of his own terrors by those of his friends, and when they finally leave, he knows that an opportunity to live generously and even expansively has been lost. The bonding of characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is more successful because not only is their reliance on one another renewed, but, in Nick and Honey's willingness to bear children, their passion for (re)generation is satisfied vicariously. The same sense of compatibility and continuity, the same ready submission to growth, flourishes in Seascape between different species in the same global enterprise.

Early and late, Albee's plays have sprung from a faith remote from both nihilism at one extreme and romanticism at the other. Like Eugene O'Neill before him, he knows the variety of dimensions in dreaming: they can be destructive or soporifically protective, as well as creative. The will-to-believe, therefore, has to be examined and re-examined scrupulously—man being a cunning, rationalizing animal—but that will-to-believe can be ignored or denounced only at the risk of sinking back into mindlessness.

Because of his constant attention to dreams, ultimately it is less important to argue that Albee leans toward the more positive interpretations of Tiny Alice than to recognize the implications of the play, itself, as exciting perplex. How it does not end is extremely significant. Each member of the audience is compelled to decide (those chronically passive, probably with reluctance) what the next moment after the death/descent of darkness will bring—if indeed there can even be a next moment. Tiny Alice is a dramatization of all that must remain tantalizingly beyond the mind's reach: all mysteries whose permanence we deny even as impressions of their persistence accumulate in our experience. The play solicits, proclaims, reveres man's active imagination, its thrust through symbols towards its outermost reaches, its visionary onsets.

In the end, Tiny Alice's mystery is not only unresolved but not even well-defined. Yet, as irresistibly attractive as a black hole with all the blinding consequences of its super density, that mystery is retained. What is knowledge but a holding operation, a beachhead on the immense unknown? A plenitude of possibilities about the nature of the universe and man's miniscule/magisterial parts in it arise from doubt turned back on itself before achieving a dedicated nullity. Can we imagine man's lacking an imagination; can the mind unthink itself?

Tiny Alice is no facile confirmation of faith's efficacy. Even as it celebrates the mind's urgent outreach, the continuous Adamic demand to know the whole truth, it recognizes hazards: the smallness of man adventuring into vastness. The world is full of wonder. A variety of critical responses to his play not only is to be expected by Albee and tolerated; it is, in fact, invited and essential to this theme. Only when the questions end is there reason to worry about the human cause. No phrenological head can accurately map all the compartments of man's intelligence. As a realist of the irrational, Albee knows this—knows that serious literature, like life itself, is a trial embodiment of imagined purpose.

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