The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee
Edited by Stephen Bottoms
London: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
XXI-263 p. ISBN-13 978-0-521-83455-1 hardback.
Reviewed by Geneviève Chevallier
In accordance with the format of Cambridge Companions, this edition on Edward Albee is composed of a selection of essays by some of the most notorious critics on the American playwright. After a note on the contributors, an updated chronology of Albee’s biography and works initiates the book. The editor of the book, Stephen Bottoms introduces Albee’s position in the history of American drama, on the threshold between mainstream great figures (O’Neill, Williams, Miller) and the postmodern stage. To help define it, Bottoms conveniently divides Albee’s career into three major periods, the first culminating with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962, the second as the subsequent dark seventies, possibly to do with too much formalism and intellectualism, and his return on the stage in the eighties, up to the present, with shorter works which have gained him renewed attention. Bottoms closes the introduction with a short assessment of the essays that follow, arranged in the chronological order of the plays discussed.
The first essay in the collection is one by Philip C. Kolin, entitled “Albee’s early one-act plays: ‘A new American playwright from whom much is to be expected’.” Focusing principally on the analyses of The Zoo Story, Fam and Yam, The Sandbox, The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith, Kolin shows them as emblems of social protest against the myth of the American Dream, voiced through the aesthetics of the beat generation and absurdist drama, “dismantling conventions.”
Matthew Roudané’s analysis of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf first underlines the metaphysical dimension of the play. Like the previous essay, it assesses the play in the context of America’s political climate of the sixties. The subtitle to the essay “Toward the marrow,” taken up from a cue in the play, suggests the need to go beyond appearances, where many critics have only seen hollowness. But Roudané also points at Albee’s experiment with theatricality and audience perception, concluding that Albee is “a mythmaker who deconstructs myths.”
John M. Clum’s “‘Withered age and stale custom’: Marriage, diminution, and sex in Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, and Finding the Sun” confronts Albee’s own issues about sexuality with the feeling of frustration central to what Clum terms Albee’s “marriage plays,” in which he shows love to be just a simulacrum.
Thomas P. Adler has a close look at Albee’s Pulitzer prized plays, A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women, exploring their thematic coherence, as they show the same concern with such motifs as communication and lack of communication, reality and illusion, motion and stasis, which he compares with Beckett’s representation of similar motifs.
The following essay by Brenda Murphy approaches “Albee’s threnodies”, the series of plays Albee wrote in the 60s and 70s, which explore the process of dying. Box-Mao-Box, All Over, The Lady from Dubuque and Three Tall Women are the plays considered. While Murphy shows how these plays echo Albee’s personal experience—such as his relationship to his mother, in Three Tall Women—she analyses how the distinction Albee himself draws between dying and death compels the characters to a waiting which becomes central to the plays.
While the previous papers, representing about one third of the book, dealt essentially with the themes of the plays, Gerry McCarthy, in “Minding the Play: Thought and Feeling in Albee’s ‘Hermetic Works’,” is, as the title suggests, more interested in the modes of writing and representing, insisting on Albee’s desire to experiment with drama, and viewing the plays as compositions, in a constant reflection on how to represent, as exemplified by the analysis of the musical structure of the counterpoint in such plays as Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung or The Play About the Baby.
The editor’s approach in “Albee’s monster children: adaptations and confrontations” is also to do with an insistence on Albee’s manipulation of form and content and use of theatricality. The plays discussed here are in fact adaptations, but Stephen Bottoms insists that it doesn’t make them the least creative. Bottoms shows what these plays, originally from different authors, have in common, which may have attracted Albee: the “adoption,” as he says, of a character by the others, and the deviations of some characters from the sexual norm. The adaptations underline a refocusing of concern, typical in the Ballad of the Sad Café or Lolita. In the first of these two for example, Bottoms shows how Albee’s staging makes of Amelia a more immediate character, while developing on the sexual passion between Macy and Amelia more than was done by McCullers. Although Lolita was an absolute failure on stage, the author of the essay shows how Albee aptly transposed Nabokov’s novel to the stage, in particular through the use of location, with the suggestion of a turntable stage (unfortunately left out in the 1981 production) to enable multiple changes in scene settings. The addition of “a certain gentleman” among the characters, commenting upon Humbert’s actions, might be seen, Bottoms writes, as a hybrid of Nabokov and Albee, maintaining a distance on the play’s events, and possibly preventing the spectator from identifying with Humbert the way some readers of Nabokov have done, missing “Nabokov’s subtextual critique of [Humbert’s] destructive illusions.” The play, self-derisive as it is, is in fact very much in the spirit of the overtly self-reflexive novel.
The next play discussed, though it is not an adaptation this time, is The Man Who Had Three Arms, which enables Albee to involve the audience yet further into the action, as the play is “composed almost entirely as a rambling verbal assault on its audience.” Bottoms suggests that it did not simply give Albee the opportunity to tell of “his disgust at an unappreciative world” the way he himself was experiencing it, as he does not merely prove highly critical of American culture but also extremely witty, though as such definitely making the audience very uncomfortable, faced as they were with “a social-satirical dimension […] set within and against the context of broader, existential questions.”
The following article, “‘Better alert than numb’: Albee since the eighties,” by Christopher Bigsby, is equally comprehensive. Bigsby first analyses Finding the Sun, a play which was first performed in 1983, but withheld from the New York stage because Albee felt it to be too similar to Tina Howe’s Disturbances which had been produced little before. Bigsby describes the play’s characters as they express their inner truths, in what appears as a drawing of “the parabola of existence, from innocence through anxiety to a growing alarm as time runs out and the body runs down.” Yet, Albee’s aim eventually seems to be the expression of the necessity of living. The characters of Marriage Play similarly use language in order to keep themselves alive. There is that necessity on the part of Albee to make sure that one has been fully aware of one’s being alive; Bigsby makes us understand that Albee’s necessity to write plays is like the ritual enacted by his characters “as a reminder that they need to have a reason to continue,” characters who “need to sustain a sense of themselves within a conspiracy against the eclipse of meaning.” We might hear a Beckettian echo in this, but Bigsby carries on suggesting that “Albee is not Beckett,” because he retains a resistant spirit. Bigsby also opposes Albee’s characters’ awareness of the stories they need to tell to the lies of Williams, Miller or O’Neill’s self-deceived characters.
The theatricality involved in the plays underlines the fact that Albee is not seeking realism. This is made still more obvious in such a play as Fragments, written in 1993, and in which theatre is “the point of reference.” Here too, Bigsby recalls to mind Arthur Millers’ Mr. Peters’ Connections—a later play in fact, since it was written in 1998, but also one in which the subject is constantly questioned, in a fragmented world with a fragmented language. However, Bigsby again insists that Albee’s central motif is to do with the belief in life’s “awful futility” paired with “amazing wonder.” He then underlines Albee’s use of language to the point of “taking precedence over character in any conventional sense.” Bigsby eventually describes two of Albee’s latest plays, The Play About the Baby, first staged in London in 1998, and Occupant, completed in 2002, and concludes on the constant themes in Albee’s plays, telling of the urgency to connect and embrace life beyond the absurd.
Rakesh H. Solomon’s article is entitled “Albee stages Marriage Play: Cascading action, audience taste, and dramatic paradox,” and is indeed principally concerned with Albee as a director, underlining the necessities for textual revisions when staging a play, as is revealed in the eight pages of transcript of his conversation with Albee about the latter’s work as both playwright and director. Along the interview, Albee comments upon his choices and necessity to take into account different stages, actors and audiences. It is interestingly echoed by the conversation between Albee and Bottoms that ends this collection of essays.
In “ ‘Playing the cloud circuit’: Albee’s vaudeville show,” Linda Ben-Zvi underlines the features of vaudeville to be found in Albee’s plays. Albee’s attraction to the form of the vaudeville might be traced back to the model of his adoptive grandfather who had established a vaudeville circuit around the country, in the twenties. Ben-Zvi demonstrates that Albee’s plays show the same unsettling, disorienting effect as that to be found in the vaudeville aesthetic. The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are taken as typical examples of it. Ben-Zvi insists on the use that vaudeville makes of language, as she quotes from the numerous jokes in the texts or shows the importance of delivery, address to the audience for intimacy, digressions, arrangements in the form of tableaux vivants and other typical tricks. Ben-Zvi shows how such aspects are woven into the plays of Albee’s “dark period,” between the sixties and the eighties, Counting the Ways, Finding the Sun, Marriage Play and The Play about the Baby. She concludes that she sees the use of vaudeville as the vehicle of Albee’s concern with how man relies on illusion to cope with life.
The following paper is an analysis of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Albee’s latest play at the time this book was edited, by J. Ellen Gainor. Again it is a violent, bestial, American family, which is shown only to better question the false normative values of modern civilization and man’s alienation from nature. Accounts of various performances of the play underline Albee’s treatment of this in the form of a modern tragedy.
The last piece is by Ruby Cohn, and serves both as a reflection on Albee’s pleasure with words, as well as an introduction to the last pages, which reproduce the editor’s interview with Edward Albee. Ruby Cohn quotes at length from various plays to show Albee’s “verbal pyrothechnics,” based on semantics as much as rhythms and sounds, a love of words which the characters themselves underline as they comment upon their own use of language.
Finally, Stephen Bottoms’ interview of Albee is intended as some sort of assessment of Albee’s career past and future, with questions about his conception of his plays. His comments upon his plays and what he is after interestingly complement the analyses carried out by the authors of the preceding essays. Albee certainly makes clear what his philosophy of life is. Very useful too is what he says about his plays in performance and his relationship with actors, which comes to a more general assessment on the training of actors, and eventually on playwrights past and future.
The great interest of this book rests in the variety of essays focused on different plays, each essay first giving a clear view of the plot of the selected play or plays, which enables the common reader to have pleasure in reading the following analyses, giving a close view of each from yet different perspectives. The chronological option chosen in considering the plays eventually reflects quite aptly the evolution in the playwright’s approach of the stage, which is made clear in the final interview.