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Critical Essay by Julian N. Wasserman
SOURCE: "'The Pitfalls of Drama': The Idea of Language in the Plays of Edward Albee," in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman, The University of St. Thomas, 1983, pp. 29-53.
In the following essay, Wasserman surveys the significance of Albee's treatment of language in his plays.
In response to an interviewer's question concerning the supposed lack of "realism" in his work, Edward Albee noted the implicit contradiction between the nature of drama as imitation, in the Aristotelian sense, and the expectation of realism on the part of a play's audience. The importance of this argument is that such a recognition goes far beyond the aesthetics of drama and touches upon the symbolic, that is imitative, nature of language—a problem that is frequently at the thematic heart of Albee's works. Indeed, the common thread that runs through many of his seemingly diverse plays is his characters' oft-stated concern with language and, in particular, the failures and limitations of the linguistic medium. For Albee, language is the medium or meeting ground which exists between the interior and exterior worlds of the speaker and the listener. As a playwright, he seems most interested in the function of language as a means of translating ideas into actions and in the role of language as mediator where a word, like a play, is an imitation which is a wholly independent sign, distinct and separate from that which it represents. As such, a word, like any piece of drama, is neither a pure idea of an action or event nor the event itself. In essence, the naming done by the semanticist and the storytelling practiced by the playwright are, for Albee, congruent if not identical actions.
The problematical nature of language is succinctly set forth in Seascape during an argument between Charlie and Nancy in the opening scene of the play. The practical onset of the debate is Charlie's use of the past rather than present perfect tense, and as so often happens in the works of Albee, the linguistic bartering over a particular term quickly evolves into a more general and abstract debate over the nature and function of language:
Nancy: Do you know what I'm saying?
Charlie: You're throwing it up to me; you're telling me I've had a …
Nancy: No-no-no! I'm saying what you said, what you told me. You told me, you said to me, "You've had a good life."
Charlie: (Annoyed.) Well, you have! You have had!
Nancy: (She, too.) Yes! Have had! What about that!
Charlie: What about it!
Nancy: Am not having. (Waits for reaction; gets none) Am not having? Am not having a good life?
Charlie: Well, of course!
Nancy: Then why say had? Why put it that way?
Charlie: It's a way of speaking!
Nancy: No! It's a way of thinking! I know the language and I know you. You're not careless with it, or didn't used to be. Why not go to those places in the desert and let our heads deflate, if it's all in the past? Why not just do that?
Charlie: It was a way of speaking.
Nancy: Dear God, we're here. We've served out time, Charlie and there's nothing telling us to do that, or any conditional; not any more. Well, there's the arthritis in my wrist, of course, and the eyes have known a better season, and there's always the cancer or a heart attack to think about if we're bored, but besides all these things … what is there?
Charlie: (Somewhat triste.) You're at it again.
Nancy: I am! Words are lies; they can be, and you use them, but I know what's in your gut. I told you, didn't I?
The problem, then, is that language, while it is the figurative medium through which Charlie is expressing the feelings in his "gut," is merely a symbol for those feelings and may, by nature, serve to obscure rather than to reveal them. As Nancy notes, her understanding of Charlie's meaning is intuitive rather than linguistic and is based first on her knowledge of Charlie and, second, on her understanding of the nature of language. Furthermore, an important part of the argument out of which these linguistic considerations arise is devoted to Charlie's and Nancy's discussion of their sexual fantasies, or as Nancy terms it, the problem of "when the real and the figurative come together." Remarkably, the discussion of these sexual imaginings which Nancy describes as "the sad fantasies, the substitutions, the thoughts we have" culminates in Nancy's discovery that Charlie's fantasy was to "pretend that I was me," thus again presenting the attempt to join the intangible product of the inner man with that which is experienced in the world of phenomena. Described in slightly different—though still in a combination of philosophical, linguistic and sexual terms—the same desire is expressed by The Man in Listening: "Odd, in retrospect: it's such a thing we all want—though we seldom admit it, and when we do, only part; we all wish to devour ourselves, enter ourselves, be the subject and the object all at once; we all love ourselves and wish we could." The goal is to make subject and object, idea and form, identical, and the pronouncement is immediately followed by a short interval of linguistic "bargaining" over The Man's use of the word "take."
Furthermore, the conversation containing sexual fantasies which appears at the beginning of Seascape contains a likewise significant discussion in which Charlie and Nancy compare the difference between their memories of days past and their perceptions of their less pleasant present. Finally, the opening dialogue contains Nancy's suggestion that Charlie attempt to recapture those days, or make memory and fact one, by re-enacting his childhood act of holding stones and sinking to the bottom of the sea in order to escape, if only for a moment, the chaos of the world above. This, of course, all serves as a prelude to the face to face confrontation between the humans and their reptilian counterparts. As the dialogue between the beings from, in their own words, two different dimensions might suggest, the conjunction between the real and the ideal is clearly the central theme of the play.
As the lines from Listening suggest, the playwright's concern with the relationship between idea and actuality is certainly not limited to Seascape. The same nominalistic exploration is most elaborately set forth in the abstract in Tiny Alice with its butler named "Butler," a symbolic precursor of the joining of the real and the figurative in Charlie's sexual fantasies. The originally intended title of the earlier play, "Substitute Speaker," and its use of Alice as a substitute or proxy for the "Abstract" in the marriage to Julian further suggest a connection with the "substitutions" of which Nancy speaks in the discussion of fantasy. The same theme is no less forcefully, though a good deal less obliquely, presented in the battle over "Truth and Illusion" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is there that the illusionary is made real in the imaginary son and that the real is made illusion in George's "autobiographical" novel. Thus while Albee has enjoyed a reputation as an innovator whose constant experimentation has, to some, robbed his work of a clear and consistent stylistic voice, his plays have for the most part maintained a consistency of thematic concern. Significantly, most of those concerns will be seen to be the natural outgrowths or even elaborations of the material of his first play.
In The Zoo Story, the theme of the disparity between idea and experience is again presented in regard to sexual fantasy as is seen in Jerry's description of the pornographic playing cards: "What I wanted to get at is the value difference between pornographic playing cards when you're older. It's that when you're a kid you use the cards as a substitute for a real experience, and when you're older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy." What is important here is that, whether one begins with ideas and moves toward experience or whether one moves in the opposite direction, a disparity always remains. The recognition of that disparity is the essential content of Jerry's vision. Whether the process begins with either the idea or the object, one must inevitably be, in Nancy's terms, a "substitution" for the other and therefore different in actual identity. That is why the dialogue between Charlie, Nancy, and their reptilian counterparts must inevitably fail. No matter that they are joined by a verb; subject can never be co-incidental with objects, to borrow the terminology of The Man from Listening, no matter how much we may wish it. As with Seascape, the bulk of Albee's first play comes to be an elaboration of this vision whose content is the necessary failure of communication. To be sure, the action of The Zoo Story might be described as the process of translation of Jerry's death fantasy into action, just as the presence of the sea lizards in Seascape is the externalizing of objectification of the debate between Charlie and Nancy. It is important, however, to emphasize that the phenomenalization of Jerry's fantasy is brought about through language and that Peter is, significantly enough, a publisher by profession. Indeed, the process is overtly linguistic. It is the ongoing process of definition. The play reaches its climax over the argument as to whether or not Peter is a "vegetable." In the linguistic bargaining which takes place, Peter is called upon to take action in order to deny the validity of the name which has been applied to him. When in the final twist, Peter proves himself not to be a "vegetable" but rather an "animal," society, at large, is thereby defined as a "zoo," and it is this secret definition, a linguistic riddle of identity, that is the mystery which is at the heart of the play. The play as a whole might, then, well be taken as a type of extended definition. This idea of drama as linguistic process is likewise clearly seen in the playwright's Counting the Ways, which serves as little more than an extended definition of love. Remembering that Albee has throughout his career insisted that his writing begins with the creation of characters and then progresses to placing those characters in particular situations, the playwright's work, as has just been seen in The Zoo Story, may be seen as unfolding revelations of character and identity. Keeping in mind Elizabeth's pronouncement in The Lady from Dubuque: "In the outskirts of Dubuque … I learned—though I doubt I knew I was learning it—that all of the values were relative save one … "Who am I?" All the rest is semantics—liberty, dignity, possession," those exercises seem to be essentially semantic in nature.
While this preoccupation with the process of definition is not always as center stage as it is in Counting the Ways, it is without exception present in Albee's work. Whether in the more naturalistic dialogue of Virginia Woolf or in the seeming collection of non-sequiturs of Listening, a major topic of conversation—and admittedly there is a great deal more of talking than of action in Albee's plays—is language and, in particular semantics. In its most absurdist form, this preoccupation is present in the wonderfully comic tale of the confrontation between Mommy and Mrs. Barker over the color of their hats in The American Dream, a work which Albee has described as a play about failed communication. The same play also contains such semantic considerations as the difference between a "house" and an "apartment" or between an "enema bag" and an "enema bottle" as well as a wealth of word plays on such words as "badger" and "bumble/bundle." Each of Albee's plays has a host of similar verbal offerings. Seascape, because it deals so directly with the problem of language, again provides an excellent example of the relativity of definition through its comic debate between Charlie and Leslie, the male lizard, over the proper name for the front arm/leg. In a semantic exercise which is much in keeping with the debate over the color of Mommy's hat, Charlie begins,
Charlie: When we meet we … take each other's hands, or whatever, and we … touch….
Nancy: … Let's greet each other properly, all right? (Extends her hand again.) I give you my hand, and you give me your … what is that? What is that called?
Nancy: (Indicating Leslie's right arm.) That there.
Leslie: It's called a leg, of course.
Nancy: Oh. Well, we call this an arm.
Leslie: You have four arms, I see.
Charlie: No; she has two arms. (Tiny pause.) And two legs.
Sarah: (Moves closer to examine Nancy with Leslie.) And which are the legs?
Nancy: These here. And these are the arms.
Leslie: (A little on his guard.) Why do you differentiate?
Nancy: Why do we differentiate, Charlie?
Charlie: (Quietly hysterical.) Because they're the ones with the hands on the ends of them.
Nancy: (To Leslie.) Yes.
Sarah: (As Leslie glances suspiciously at Charlie.) Go on, Leslie; do what Nancy wants you to do. (To Nancy.) What is it called?
Nancy: Shaking hands.
Charlie: Or legs.
This verbal bartering continues until the inevitable result is achieved. The sea lizard, in a fashion highly reminiscent of Peter's anger at being called a "vegetable," takes umbrage at being termed a "fish." It would seem, then, that the major thrust of Seascape may be summed up in Leslie's annoyed response to Charlie's and Nancy's inability to define the human concepts of love and emotion: "We may, or we may not, but we'll never know unless you define your terms. Honestly, the imprecision! You're so thoughtless!" For his part, Charlie at a subsequent moment retorts in kind as he demands of Nancy, "What standards are you using? How would you know?" The point of these interchanges is that the existential situation of man is that he must, by the nature of his being, attempt to define his terms and standards, although he is also, by nature, incapable of doing so. Given the playwright's interest in Japanese Noh drama as well as Charlie's use of the Rinzai Zen Koan, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?", it would appear that Albee's concept of language is essentially Zen in nature. That is, language as a temporal creation is rooted in the phenomenal while the ideas which it attempts to convey find their source in the ontological. The result of this paradox is that definitions are futile attempts to cast the infinite in the garb of the finite and are of necessity doomed to failure. Such exercises ultimately obscure more than they reveal because of a mistaken notion of their completeness and an ill-placed faith in their ability to capture completely the essence of the subject being defined. Hence, all of the semantic debates, whether over the proper names of colors or anatomical features, are always unresolvable because, by presenting only partial or relative truths, language is a means by which one may, in the playwright's own words, go to "great lengths to avoid communication…. Talk in order not to have to listen."
In all of the naming contests which occur throughout his plays, what exists is for the most part a series of futile semantic debates in which each side insists on judging and defining according to its own perceptive standards. As George wryly tells Nick in Virginia Woolf, "Every definition has its boundaries, eh?" That definitions are thus implicitly faulty is seen in Oscar's use of the qualifier "as definitions go" in The Lady from Dubuque. To be sure, the implicit doubt of the validity of definitions is the key to the play as a whole. After all, the turning point of the play is the miraculous appearance of Elizabeth, the woman who claims to be Jo's mother. In its abruptness, the appearance of Oscar and Elizabeth is much like that of Leslie and Sarah, the sea lizards. Furthermore, as with the reptiles, their appearance seems to be an objectification of what has previously been presented only in the abstract, for the audience has already been given an indirect description of Jo's mother. The dramatic tension comes from the fact that Elizabeth, in the words of Lucinda, is simply "not what [she] imagined" and is completely unknown to Sam, Jo's husband. In other words, the objectification, as with the symbolic acts of both language and drama, conforms to neither the expected nor the known. The play, like so many others by Albee, ends with the audience left in doubt about the meaning of its title. If Elizabeth is aptly described by the title/name "The Lady from Dubuque," then she is, in fact, not Jo's mother since the latter lives in New Jersey. The situation is much like that of Tiny Alice where the audience must decide whether to apply the name of the play to the visible onstage character or the offstage abstraction. In each case, the title is a name and as such a definition which is part of each and applies fully to neither with the result that the audience is left with the dilemma of how and when to apply the titular definition.
Albee's insistence on the relativity of words seems to rely heavily on the standard linguistic assertion that each speech act derives its meaning from three sources: the meaning of the word in the mind of the speaker, the meaning of the word in the mind of the listener, and, most importantly, the generally accepted meaning of the word in the speech community of which both speaker and listener are members. As has already been seen, Albee's plays can be viewed as his examinations of these complex relationships. The plays regularly take members from different speech communities, dimensions, worlds, or societies and present their attempts at forging or working out a new, common vocabulary. Even when speakers come from the same speech communities, they of necessity spend most of their time attempting to explain their private meanings. However, the lack of a common language can also be fostered in order to create an impassable gulf between characters. YAM in FAM and YAM: An Imaginary Interview reassures FAM in regard to a certain critic by saying, "… but after all, you and a man like that just don't talk the same language." Language is thus used both to include and exclude. YAM uses language to establish a communal bond between himself and FAM and at the same time to separate FAM from the community of critics.
The same linguistic exclusion is readily apparent in Virginia Woolf. When asked if he and Martha have any children, George replies to Nick, "That's for me to know and you to find out." It is "finding out" or the solving of the riddle that is, within the play, the process of definition. It is only when Nick discovers that the child whom he assumed to be real is, in fact, the product of his hosts' imaginations that even a rudimentary understanding of the dialogue can begin. It is the final revelation that assumed fact is, in reality, fiction which gives all of the previous language its meaning. Before this final revelation, Martha has already berated Nick for his limited understanding:
You always deal in appearances?… you don't see anything, do you?
You see everything but the goddamn mind; you see all the little specks and crap, but you don't see what goes on, do you?
Throughout the play, Nick deals only in the concrete while George and Martha speak the language of abstraction. True communication between Nick and his hosts is impossible, so despite the fact that Nick tells George, "I'll play the charades like you've got 'em set up…. I'll play in your language…. I'll be what you say I am," Nick is doomed to failure not merely because he is not as skillful as George at word play but because he has no understanding of either the vocabulary or the rules by which the linguistic game is played, for as George makes clear at the end of the play, the rules are definite and absolute, and there is a penalty to be exacted for their violation.
Despite the fact that it is their immediate presence which acts as the catalyst for the "fun and games" which are acted out before them, Nick and Honey are, in essence, passive observers. When they enter the action at all, they serve solely as the objects of manipulation, despite any illusions which they may have to the contrary. For the most part, they are mere sounding boards, a convenient direction in which to aim speeches made about subjects in a patois which is both unknown and unintelligible at the outset of the play. It is little wonder, then, that there is no real communication between the two couples in the course of the night's action. George and Martha have, between themselves, all of the private, mutually exclusive meanings which they assign to events in their lives as well as a mutually agreed upon vocabulary and an enforceable set of rules for its implementation. This is the source of their togetherness, their comic unity. In contrast, there exists no such bond between either George or Martha and either of their guests. When Nick attempts to converse with George, it is as though the two were attempting to converse in two mutually exclusive tongues without the aid of an interpreter. While George is aware of this fact, Nick is not, and George refuses to explain or to translate. In their linguistic exclusion from the conversations between George and Martha, Nick and Honey are, themselves, models or metaphors for the members of the audience, objectified and placed on stage. Like Nick and Honey, the members of the audience, although the "cause" or occasion of the night's performance, are placed in the positions of passive eavesdroppers to the verbal antics of their hosts. The process of the play is for the audience, as well as for the younger couple on stage, the gradual understanding of those antics and games and hence inclusion into the speech community founded by George and Martha. The play, then, is a linguistic exercise, a teaching of language or at least a forging of a common language founded on an initial act of exclusion and followed by an initiation or movement toward inclusion. The comic unity of the play, and Albee has from the outset stoutly maintained that Virginia Woolf is a comedy, is its movement from perceived disunity of George's and Martha's seeming non-sequiturs and highly eccentric speech to a perception of the unity or coherence of their speeches as we learn the semantic and lexical rules of their private tongue. This change in perception takes place when the audience ceases to be excluded from and instead becomes a part of the speech community of George and Martha. And it is important to note that this change is a change in the perception of the reality, not in the reality itself. George was, despite appearances, making "sense" all along. That is, the solving of the riddle, the catharsis, the "finding out" as George puts it, is a linguistic and phenomenal rather than an ontological matter. This is, in the last analysis, the same comic action that was the essential structure of Albee's first play, where the solving of the riddle is the passive observer's ultimate recognition that Jerry's seeming nonsequiturs concerning "the zoo" are not unintelligible ravings. Jerry's comments to Peter, like those of George to Nick, make sense and are in fact seen as truthful as soon as one understands the language in which those "ravings" are cast.
Language, then, can serve as a bridge or medium between speaker and listener but only when both parties are fully aware of its rules and nature. When either half of the equation is missing, the result from the linguist's point of view is not really true language. The point is made by Charlie who in Seascape tells Nancy that "parrots don't talk; parrots imitate." Here the linguistic principle that thought must precede the speech act is championed. The parrot does not talk because it does not think. It has no awareness of the fact that its utterances comprise human words, and most important of all, it has no understanding of their meanings, either public or private. In this sense, the parrot is like Nick in Virginia Woolf or Sam in The Lady from Dubuque who both find themselves unwilling and even unconscious participants in a repartee in which they know neither the rules nor the vocabulary. Albee's interest in the epistemological basis of speech is most clearly seen in a brief interchange from Listening:
The Girl: You don't listen.
The Woman: (As if the Man were not there.) Well, that may be.
The Girl: Pay attention, rather, is what you don't do. Listen: oh, yes; carefully, to … oh, the sound an idea makes …
The Woman: … a thought.
The Girl: No; an idea.
The Woman: As it does what?
The Girl: (Thinks about that for a split second.) Mmmmmm … as the chemical thing happens, and then the electric thing, and then the muscle; that progression. The response—that almost reflex thing, the movement, when an idea happens. (A strange little smile.) That is the way the brain works, is it not? The way it functions? Chemical, then electric, then muscle? (The woman does an "et voila!" gesture.)
The Man: (Quiet awe.) Where does it come from?
The Woman: What?
The Man: The … all that. Where does it come from?
The Woman: I haven't found out. It all begins right there: she says, "You don't listen." Every time, she says: "You don't listen."
The Man: To what!? You don't listen to what!?
The Woman: (Sotto voce.) I don't know what I don't listen to.
The Man: (Accusatory.) Yes, and do you care?
The Woman: (So reasonable.) I DON'T know.
The Man: (Snorting.) Of course not!
The Woman: (Quite brusque.) Defend the overdog once in a while, will you!? At least what you think it is. How do you know who's what!?
The Man: I don't!
The Woman: All right!
The Man: (Shrugs; throws it away.) Get behind that sentence, that's all you have to do. Find out what precedes.
The passage touches upon all the elements necessary for true linguistic communication as it follows the stages of the unconscious genesis of an idea to its establishment in the consciousness of the speaker to its final articulation and reception by a listener. As the title of the play suggests, the final stage is as important as the first. One must, to quote The Girl, not merely listen but also pay attention. A listener, then, is as important to language as a speaker; without a true listener who pays attention, language must out of necessity fail. As Albee has, himself, pointed out in several interviews. Mommy can tell Mrs. Barker, in The American Dream to take off her dress rather than her coat because no one in the room is paying any attention to what anyone else is saying. That is why the play is, according to its author, a play about the failure of communication. Significantly, the need for true communication is so great that its failure can result in madness. An important part of the "madness" of The Girl in Listening is her resentment over the fact that The Woman really doesn't "Listen." Similarly, Julian, in Tiny Alice, equates his own descent into madness with a loss of the ability to hear and comprehend language: "The periods of hallucination would be announced by a ringing in the ears, which produced, or was accompanied by, a loss of hearing. I would hear people's voices from a great distance and through the roaring of … surf. And my body would feel light, and not mine, and I would float, not glide."
If speaker and listener are essential to the linguistic process, then one must ask what is the nature of the operation which takes place between the two. To borrow a phrase from The Man in Listening, each attempts to "get behind" (that is, understand the generating idea) the sentence or public pronouncement between them. Without the kind of intuition which Nancy claims in regard to understanding what is in Charlie's "gut," one must of necessity rely on indirect means such as symbols or words which are by nature finite compromises for infinite complexities. An example of the kind of linguistic bartering that is necessary although futile is found in the description of the wrapped lunch in The American Dream:
Mommy: … And every day, when I went to school, Grandma used to wrap a box for me, and I used to take it with me to school; and when it was lunch-time, all the little boys and girls used to take out their boxes of lunch, and they weren't wrapped nicely at all, and they used to open them and eat their chicken legs and chocolate cakes; and I used to say, 'Oh, look at my lovely lunch box; it's so nicely wrapped it would break my heart to open it.' And so, I wouldn't open it.
Daddy: Because it was empty.
Mommy: Oh no. Grandma always filled it up, because she never ate the dinner she cooked the evening before; she gave me all her food for my lunch box the next day. After school, I'd take the box back to Grandma, and she'd open it and eat the chicken legs and chocolate cake that was inside. Grandma used to say, 'I love day-old cake.' That's where the expression day-old cake came from. Grandma always ate everything a day late. I used to eat all the other little boys' and girls' food at school, because they thought my lunch box was empty, and that's why I wouldn't open it. They thought I suffered from the sin of pride, and since that made them better than me, they were very generous.
The point here is that, while there is a seeming common understanding concerning the external appearance of the box, each person believed it to contain something different. In the same fashion, words which seem clear and apparent frequently have individual and sometimes antithetical, private meanings to the characters who use them within the context of the play. Thus, when Grandma in The American Dream presents the mysterious boxes around which everyone must negotiate, those boxes are in essence words, and, indeed, Grandma's most consistent complaint throughout the play concerns the way in which everyone speaks to the elderly. Words, then, are to Albee types of decorated boxes sometimes containing wonderful surprises as in the comic debates between Charlie and Leslie, or they can serve as virtual Pandora's boxes as they do in the cases of George and Martha. As FAM says in his interview with YAM, "Words; words … They're such a pleasure," and as George notes, "Martha's a devil with language: she really is."
As the case with George and Martha might suggest, the field of semantics is the arena in which the tug of war between reality and fantasy ultimately takes place. Nowhere is this made clearer than in Tiny Alice. In that play, many of Albee's concerns with the symbolic nature of language find their expression in the semantic debate over the curious relationship between the house in which Alice resides and the model which it contains. The house, it seems, was originally constructed in England and then disassembled and rebuilt in its present location. The house, therefore, is not by definition an "original" but is, rather, a "replica." Although built of the materials of the original, the replica can no more be the original than a word can be identical to the mental image which it signifies. The replica once again presents the playwright's preoccupation with the translation of ideas, persons, and objects. Translation, however, in these terms implies an absolute alteration of the item translated, for it implies a definite and distinct change from one location or state of being to another. In the midst of the replica stands a "model"—the proportionately correct although scaled down symbol which is derivative, though wholly separate from the original. It should, however, be noted that the model is subject to the vicissitudes which affect the replica and not vice versa. This is seen in the fact that while the fire is first noted in the chapel of the model it is, in fact, put out in the chapel of the replica. As in the case of the fire in the chapel, one learns about the house, the replica, by studying the model. If the model is to be exact, it must contain a model, which, in turn, must contain a model. The process must go on ad infinitum. The infinite nature of the series of reflective models required to establish the model as an exact duplicate of the replica presents an example of Xeno's paradox concerning the tortoise and the hare. Just as the hare can never in theory overtake the tortoise, so the model can never reach its goal of reduplicating either the replica or the original.
To understand the complex relationship which Albee is suggesting here, it is necessary to turn to a similar set of relationships in the later play, Listening, as The Girl describes the mysterious "blue cardboard":
Yes. Most cardboard is grey … or brown, heavier. But blue cardboard is … unusual. That would be enough, but if you see blue cardboard, tile blue, love it, want … it, and have it … then it's special. But—don't interrupt me!—Well, if you want more value from it, from the experience, and take grey cardboard, mix your colors and paint it, carefully, blue, to the edges, smooth, then it's not any blue cardboard but very special: grey cardboard taken and made blue, self-made, self-made blue—better than grey, better than the other blue, because it's self-done. Very valuable, and even looking at it is a theft; touching it, even to take it to a window to see the smooth lovely color, all blue, is a theft. Even the knowledge of it is a theft … of sorts.
The blue is the Ideal. It is not only exclusive but practically unattainable. It is the "original" in that it is an intangible, unknowable form, in the Platonic sense. The grey is the common experience or phenomenon. What is of interest here in the artifice of the cardboard painted blue, for like a word or a play it stands mid-way between an action and the idea of that action, taking its identity from both but identical to neither. The artifice is just that; it is an artifice. It is a conscious creation. It is, however, as a result of the hands of the craftsman, no longer grey and yet not quite identical to the object, for it is neither purely an emanation, in the Neo-Platonic sense, nor is it uncreate or original.
However, if both the cardboard made blue as well as the model of the replica are merely finite, imperfect imitations, one must question the very act of resorting to such forms if they, like words, must inevitably fall short of what they attempt to portray or describe. While both the discussions of the model in Tiny Alice and the cardboard in Listening present the limitations of language as a mediating instrument between the abstract and the concrete, both simultaneously present the argument for the necessity of the linguistic medium, despite its imperfect status. In both cases, the model and the artifice are the only means by which the Abstraction and its relationship to the concrete may be observed and known. Ironically, the very imperfections of language may be said to be the source of its attraction for Albee since its failure to capture completely the Abstract, as it is termed in Tiny Alice, is what renders the Abstract comprehensible to the human intellect. Language, as the "glorious imperfect," allows the imperfect to know glory if not perfection.
As the meeting ground of the abstract and the concrete, language serves to help man understand the nature of each. Without that help, man is placed in the dilemma, so common in the plays of Albee, of not being able to distinguish between illusion and reality. This problem of illusion and reality is the exact source of Julian's dilemma in Tiny Alice. Such confusion is seen in Julian's remarkable description of an hallucinatory sexual encounter. Significantly, Miss Alice responds to Julian's account of his sexual/ecstatic experience with a fellow inmate by asking, "Is the memory of something having happened the same as it having happened?" Her question as to the actual relationship between the real and the imaginary remains the problem with which Julian must grapple throughout the rest of the play, and, in fact, it is central to incidents in the lives of the characters in several other plays as well, for the hallucinatory nature of sexual union is a recurring theme in the works of Albee. The theme is made manifest in The Zoo Story in Jerry's description of his relationship with his landlady:
… and somewhere, somewhere in the back of that pea-sized brain of hers, an organ developed just enough to let her eat, drink, and emit, she has some foul parody of sexual desire. And I, Peter, am the object of her sweaty lust.
But I have found a way to keep her off. When she talks to me, when she presses herself to my body and mumbles about her room and how I should come there, I merely say: but, Love; wasn't yesterday enough for you, and the day before? Then she puzzles, she makes slits of her tiny eyes, she sways a little, and then, Peter … and it is at this moment that I think I might be doing some good in that tormented house … a simple-minded smile begins to form on her unthinkable face, and she giggles and groans as she thinks about yesterday and the day before; as she believes and relives what never happened….
For the landlady, one may indeed say that memory is the equivalent of event. Jerry's obvious distaste over the incident shows that he, like Julian, is as deeply affected by another's fantasy as if the actual events had taken place. The same problem arises in Virginia Woolf where it is not the sexual act that is fantasized but rather the product of that act, the imaginary son. In all of these cases, the best evidence points to the unreality of the events described, and yet in each case, the hallucination of the action produces the same effects as the actual event. Hallucination, then, provides a middle ground between idea and event for those who find the Ideal unattainable and the present unbearable. In Virginia Woolf, George makes a similar observation when he notes.
It's very simple…. When people can't abide things as they are, when they can't abide the present, they do one of two things … either they … either they turn to a contemplation of the past, as I have done, or they set about to … alter the future.
Julian confirms the value of such mediation when he concludes his description of his hallucinatory encounter by noting,
I was persuaded, eventually, that perhaps I was … over-concerned by hallucination; that some was inevitable, and a portion of that—even desirable.
In all three instances, Albee relies on the sexual metaphor for this commingling of illusion and reality, a metaphor commonly found in the writings of the mystics in their attempts to describe mystical union. Julian's confusion, here as well as throughout his life, is the direct result of his rejection of a middle ground, of the possible union of the Absolute and the relative which is achieved in both the made-over cardboard and the model of the replica. In the third act of the play, the other characters attempt to apprise him of this very folly:
Lawyer: (Sarcasm is gone; all is gone, save fact.) Dear Julian; we all serve, do we not? Each of us his own priesthood; publicly, some, others … within only; but we all do—what's-his-name's special trumpet, or clear lonely bell. Predestination, fate, the will of God, accident…. All swirled up in it, no matter what the name. And being man, we have invented choice, and have, indeed, gone further, and have catalogued the underpinnings of choice. But we do not know. Anything. End prologue.
Miss Alice: Tell him.
Lawyer: No Matter. We are leaving you now, Julian; agents, every one of us—going. We are leaving you … to your accomplishment: your marriage, your wife, your … special priesthood.
Julian: (Apprehension and great suspicion.) I … don't know what you're talking about.
Lawyer: (Unperturbed.) What is so amazing is the … coming together … of disparates … left-fielding, out of the most unlikely. Who would have thought, Julian? Who would have thought? You have brought us to the end of our service here. We go on; you stay.
Butler: May I begin to cover?
Miss Alice: Not Yet. (Kindly) Do you understand, Julian?
Julian: (Barely in control.) Of course not!
Miss Alice: Julian, I have tried to be … her. No; I have tried to be … what I thought she might, what might make you happy, what you might use, as a … what?
Butler: Play God; go on.
Miss Alice: We must … represent, draw pictures, reduce or enlarge to … to what we can understand.
Julian: (Sad, mild.) But I have fought against it … all my life. When they said, 'Bring the wonders down to me, closer; I cannot see them, touch; nor can I believe.' I have fought against it … all my life.
Butler: (To Miss Alice; softly.) You see? No good.
Miss Alice: (Shrugs.) I have done what I can do with it.
Julian: All my life. In and out of … confinement, fought against the symbol.
Miss Alice: Then you should be happy now.
Cardinal: Julian, it has been our desire always to serve; your sense of mission …
Lawyer: We are surrogates; our task is done now.
Miss Alice: Stay with her.
Julian: (Horror behind it; disbelieving.) Stay … with … her?
Miss Alice: Stay with her. Accept it.
Lawyer: (At the model.) Her rooms are lighted. It is warm, there is enough.
Miss Alice: Be content with it. Stay with her.
Julian: (Refusing to accept what he is hearing.) Miss Alice … I have married you.
Miss Alice: (Kind, still.) No, Julian; you have married her … through me.
Julian: (Pointing to the model.) There is nothing there! We are here! There is no one there!
Lawyer: She is there … we believe.
Julian: (To Miss Alice.) I have been with you!
Miss Alice: (Not explaining; sort of dreamy.) You have felt her warmth through me, touched her lips through my lips, held her hands, through mine, my breasts, hers, lain on her bed, through mine, wrapped yourself in her wings, your hands on the small of her back, your mouth on her hair, the voice in your ear, hers not mine, all hers; her. You are hers.
This dialogue presents the beginning of Julian's awe-filled recognition of the price exacted by his rejection of symbols, for Alice herself admits that she is merely a symbol, an imperfect attempt to represent the abstract. Everyone is, as the lawyer notes, an "agent," a representative of a thing, rather than the thing itself. The wedding itself is a symbol of mediation or union. Julian as a lay brother is himself an apt symbol of the very kind of mediation which he has spent his life trying to reject. Yet Julian's rejection of such mediation has been his distinguishing characteristic throughout the play. The true extent of Julian's dualistic vision, as well as its dire consequences, is seen in his own account of the cause of his madness:
Julian: Oh … (Pause.) I … I lost my faith. (Pause.) In God.
Butler: Ah. (Then a questioning look.)
Julian: Is there more?
Butler: Is there more?
Julian: Well, nothing … of matter. I … declined. I … shriveled into myself; a glass dome … descended, and it seemed I was out of reach, unreachable, finally unreaching, in this … paralysis, of sorts. I … put myself in a mental home.
Butler: (Curiously noncommittal.) Ah.
Julian: I could not reconcile myself to the chasm between the nature of God and the use to which man put … God.
Butler: Between your God and others', your view and theirs.
Julian: I said what I intended: (Weighs the opposites in each hand.) It is God the mover, not God the puppet; God the creator, not the God created by man.
Butler: (Almost pitying.) Six years in the loony bin of semantics?
Julian: (Slightly flustered, heat.) It is not semantics! Men create a false God in their own image, it is easier for them!… It is not….
The passage is the key to Julian's thinking as it clearly shows that to Julian the difference between the First Cause and its emanations, between an object and the perception of that object, is both real and irreconcilable. Furthermore, the movement is essentially Neo-Platonic since the contrasting movement from experience to abstraction, namely man's creation of God, is rejected out of hand. Because the distinction is real, it is not in Julian's eyes "semantic," that is, without substance. Julian then is rejecting what he believes to be the relative in favor of the Absolute.
In order to understand more fully the exact nature of Julian's rejection of the label "semantic" to describe the difference between idea and emanation, it is necessary to consider a case in which he feels that the term is appropriate:
Butler: (To Julian, pointing first to the model, then to the room.) Do you mean the model … or the replica?
Julian: I mean the … I mean … what we are in.
Butler: Ah-ha. And which is that?
Julian: That we are in?
Lawyer: (To Julian.) You are clearly not a Jesuit. (Turning.) Butler, you've put him in a clumsy trap.
Butler: (Shrugging.) I'm only a servant.
Lawyer: (To Julian, too sweetly.) You needn't accept his alternative … that since we are clearly not in a model we must be in a replica.
Butler: (Vaguely annoyed.) Why must he not accept that?
Miss Alice: Yes. Why not?
Lawyer: I said he did not need to accept the alternative. I did not say it was not valid.
Julian: (Cheerfully.) I will not accept it; the problem is only semantic.
To Julian the relationship between the model and the replica, as opposed to the relationship between God and the world, is semantic. The difference between idea and event is absolute; the differences between the various emanations of that idea are not. Language is, to Julian, part of the phenomenal. It is not, like the grey cardboard painted blue, a bridge from one realm to the other, for Julian would reject the artifice of the cardboard as an Aristotelian movement from the concrete to the abstract, since that is the movement which Julian wishes to avoid. Julian's reaction is to resolve the tension of that duality not by transcendence of the oppositions or by accepting their existence and arranging them hierarchically but rather through a complete dismissal of the phenomenal. Because Julian sees the use of symbols of a lessening of the Abstract, he rejects it out of hand. The Lawyer replies,
I have learned … Brother Julian … never to confuse the representative of a … thing with the thing itself.
In other words, the corruption of the Cardinal who is the subject of the dialogue in no way diminishes the God for which he stands. The manipulation of the symbol does not affect the idea which it represents. Again, that is why the fire, although first seen in the model, must be extinguished in the replica. The destruction of the chapel must be reflected in the model for its purpose is to reflect the replica as it is, not as it was. The fire, of course, has no effect on the original which exits only in memory and is no longer affected by events in the real world. Thus, Julian's fear that symbols constitute a lessening of the Abstract is proven to be groundless.
The lawyer, with the butler acting out the role of Julian, demonstrates the folly of the confusion under which Julian suffers:
Lawyer: But shall we tell him the whole thing? The Cardinal? What is happening?
Butler: How much can he take?
Lawyer: He is a man of God, however much he simplifies, however much he worships the symbol and not the substance.
Butler: Like everyone.
Lawyer: Like most.
Butler: Julian can't stand that; he told me so: men make God in their own image, he said. Those six years I told you about.
Lawyer: Yes. When he went into an asylum. YES.
Butler: It was—because he could not stand it, wasn't it? The use men put God to.
Lawyer: It's perfect; wonderful.
Butler: Could not reconcile.
Butler: God as older brother, scout leader, couldn't take that.
Lawyer: And still not reconciled.
Butler: Has pardoned men, I think. Is walking on the edge of an abyss, but is balancing. Can be pushed … over, back to the asylums.
Lawyer: Or over … to the Truth. (Addressing Julian, as if he were there; some thunder in the voice.) God, Julian? Yes? God? Whose God? Have you pardoned men their blasphemy, Julian? Have you forgiven them?
Butler: (Quiet echoing answers; being Julian.) No, I have not, have not really; have let them, but cannot accept.
Lawyer: Have not forgiven. No Julian. Could you ever?
Butler: (Ibid.) It is their comfort, my agony.
Lawyer: Soft God? The servant? Gingerbread God with the raisin eyes?
Butler: (Ibid.) I cannot accept it.
Lawyer: Then don't accept it, Julian.
Butler: But there is some thing. There is a true God.
Lawyer: There is an abstraction, Julian, but it cannot be understood. You cannot worship it.
Butler: (Ibid.) There is more.
Lawyer: There is Alice, Julian. That can be understood. Only the mouse in the model. Just that.
Butler: (Ibid.) There must be more.
Lawyer: The mouse. Believe it. Don't personify this abstraction, Julian, limit it, demean it. Only the mouse, the toy. And that does not exist … but is all that can be worshipped…. Cut off from it, Julian, ease yourself, ease off. No trouble now; accept it.
Butler: (Talking to Julian now.) Accept it, Julian; ease off. Worship it …
Lawyer: Accept it.
This play within a play not only makes its point in and about the abstract but goes on to provide its corroboration in fact since the butler, named Butler in another convenient merging of idea and actuality, by acting the role of Julian has not affected Julian in any real sense. The problem, as the Lawyer sets it forth, is that the Abstract is, as Julian claims, unknowable and ineffable. Julian is correct to that extent, and yet like everyone else Julian has continued to pursue that unattainable knowledge. What sets Julian apart is his refusal to accept the necessary compromise or mediation which such a paradox demands. By refusing to accept mediation which others accept, Julian has only placed the Abstract farther beyond his reach. By rejecting symbols, Julian is abandoning all that may be known of the Absolute on the non-mystical, conscious level. Julian has ultimately deceived himself into believing that he has, in fact, completely rejected the mediation of language and symbol in his striving to experience the divine. Yet to speak and think of the Absolute as Julian does or, for that matter, even to resort to the term "Absolute" is indeed a denial of the recognition of its ineffability.
It is the recognition of this self-deception which comprises the bulk of Julian's final soliloquy. Deserted and dying at the play's conclusion, Julian realizes that in marrying Miss Alice he has, as the lawyer said, unknowingly accepted the symbol as a reality, for without the symbol "THE ABSTRACTION" is too terrible to behold. Julian's final words, as if in answer to the earlier pleas of both the lawyer and the butler are, "I accept thee, Alice, for thou art come to me. God, Alice … I accept thy will." The ultimate proclamation of Julian's folly, however, comes in Julian's realization that he is facing death. Julian has imagined Death, not dying. He knows life, the phenomenal, and has imagined Death, the ontological, but he has never given any thought to dying, the act of translation, the middle ground between the two.
Significantly, in the act of dying Julian assumes the attitude of the crucified Christ, another mediator between the Abstract and the concrete. Death is the ineffable state. Dying, however, may be known and described. In the last analysis, Julian is of a kind with Albee's many other characters such as Peter and Nick who are lost in the midst of verbal exchanges of which they had no understanding. However, while Julian's dilemma is ultimately linguistic in nature, he is not merely a man who cannot understand the language in which the oblique discussions of the mysterious Alice are couched. He is, until the final lines of the play, a man who will not understand because he rejects language and symbol as an unnecessary, even unacceptable compromise. He is not able to live comfortably in a world where all Truth and, therefore, meaning are in George's words, "relative." Yet, it is the very compromise which has been at the thematic and structural centers of Albee's work from its inception, and it is the basis for the playwright's initial reaction to the interviewers' question concerning the place of realism in theatre. As he has noted in several interviews, the ultimate task of the playwright is "to turn fact into truth," and this is the compromise of both the playwright and the linguist.
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