I find it hard to distinguish between my self-disgust and my disgust with others,” wrote Edward Albee in his 1983 play The Man Who Had Three Arms. The sentiment, or confession, is delivered by the title character as he reflects on his curious, but temporary, life as a celebrated freak. Years ago, he suddenly discovered an arm growing out of his back, then used it to launch himself to fame and riches before the arm gradually subsided and disappeared, leaving him a miserable and ordinary ex-freak. The character, identified only as “Himself” in the text, continues

. . . and I worry about that; I really, truly do. I mean, I’m a nice person or at least I used to be. It occurs to me: look here, old man, you really ought to be able to distinguish between self-disgust and your disgust with others. Give it a good try! Don’t mix ’em up like that. I mean, you have no trouble with pity—you can tell self-pity from the Christlike a mile away—well, a hundred yards.

Albee, who died September 16 aged eighty-eight, was, The New York Times had it, the successor to Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller—the signature American playwright of his era. By contrast, in The Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout less fulsomely pointed out that Albee was the author of one great play. Can both The Times and The Journal be correct? I think it probable that they are, albeit with a polite suggestion that Teachout was very slightly off: Albee wrote one and one-half great plays.

Albee wrote one and one-half great plays.

As a human being, Albee was tormented, but as an artist blessed, by the cold fact of his having been rejected by two mothers. His first mother, Louise Harvey, put him up for adoption when he was two weeks old, and Frances (Cotter) Albee, who raised him along with her husband Reed, was by all accounts distant. When the family disposed of young Edward by sending him away to boarding school and camp, “He responded by conceiving of himself as completely separate from his family,” The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar wrote in 2005. Albee was a study in detachment, a being in a void.

In 1998’s The Play About the Baby, the central character relates in a monologue that at a social occasion, he was chatting with two ladies named Jo and Lu.

. . . and I turned to introduce them to the older woman standing next to me, and I looked at her, and I knew she was familiar, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember who she was, and I said, “Jo, Lu, this is . . . this is . . .” and Jo laughed and said, “We know your mother, dear.”

Suspiciously exact, and, as it turns out, the incident did occur in Albee’s life. The history of gay dramatists’ relations with their mothers does not lack for revealing anecdotes. Stephen Sondheim, according to his fellow Broadway writer Arthur Laurents, as quoted in Meryle Secrest’s biography Stephen Sondheim, once gave this response when asked about his mother Foxy: “She’s the same,” adding after a pause, “Oh, I forgot. She died.” Tennessee Williams once said his mother appeared in all of his plays, directly inspiring the histrionic Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, and noted of his mother that “underlying hysteria gave her great eloquence. I still find her totally mystifying—and frightening. It’s best we stay away from our mothers.”

Twice having lost a mother, Albee gained a third source of alienation by having been a gay man born in 1928. We might count him quadruply alienated if we count the standard-issue painful burden of the intellectual class, that stratum that finds suffering in the knowledge that one must exist on the same plane as mortals of no especial refinement. As a teen, Albee was thrown out of Valley Forge Military Academy, then after graduating from Choate was expelled again, from Trinity College in Hartford. His parents disapproved strongly of his sexuality, so he turned away: After moving to Greenwich Village he went seventeen years without seeing his mother, and never saw his father again. When he entered playwriting, he was primed to cause trouble, and did. His best play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which debuted when the author was thirty-four, should have won the Pulitzer, but didn’t, after a scandalized advisory board rejected the jury’s recommendation, called the piece insufficiently “uplifting,” cited sexual permissiveness and rough language, and opted not to issue an award in the drama category at all. Two jurors resigned in protest.

This moment, in 1963, would prove to be one of the final murmurs of dissent issued by the guardians of standards in culture before they laid down their arms and bowed to the barbarians clamoring for admission to the castle. Who’s Afraid contained bits of profanity that today we would be unsurprised to come across on any cable-TV drama—although, in that first production, Albee obligingly changed “bullshit” to “nuts” and “shit” to “hell” or “crap.” Yet the play was too raw for an age when gentility was an esteemed virtue. Twoscore years later, Albee’s play in defense of a man’s sexual obsession with a farm animal, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, was greeted with rapture and amusement and showered with awards such as the Tony for Best Play. Albee’s hunger for shock and outrage became a Broadway staple; as Albee’s career matured, shattering taboos, especially sexual ones, began to interest critics, then obsess them, then swamp most other concerns. The audience, hesitantly then enthusiastically, followed. “Transgressive” became a term, maybe the term, of praise.

“Transgressive” became a term, maybe the term, of praise.

Albee represented an advance over O’Neill and Miller: O’Neill located at the heart of the American Dream brokenness and self-
deception, while Miller found moral rot. Albee, though, despite actually writing a play called The American Dream (1961), had little interest in writing about his country, in socioeconomic divisions, in politics, in making a statement about who we are. (In the play, the American Dream turns out to be a pretty male prostitute.) With a few uncharacteristic exceptions (such as the 1960 plea for racial tolerance The Death of Bessie Smith), his work uses political questions only for fleeting expressions of group identity. Billy, the son in The Goat, tells his father that his parents are “as splendid as you can get,” adding that “you’re smart, and fair, and you have a sense of humor—both of you, and . . . and you’re Democrats. You are Democrats, aren’t you?” (ellipsis in original). In Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1966), a character tosses out the line “Republicans, as dull as ever,” in a play otherwise void of any political charge whatsoever. Decades later Albee changed the line to “Republicans, as brutal as ever.” So which is it—dull or despotic? No matter. The point is: Republicans bad. Obviously. Always. This is a pose, not a position.

Liberated from any desire to correct and admonish America, Albee zeroed in on internal turmoil, of a specific and theatrical kind. Informed by European formal experimentation, Albee was one among the vanguard of American dramatists (Thornton Wilder, the man who suggested to Albee that he write plays, was another) who nudged Broadway drama away from naturalism and into adventurous new territory, meanwhile helping to crystallize a conception of off-Broadway as a proving ground for bold techniques. Albee grew increasingly fond of giving his characters non-specific, categorical names: Boy, Man, Girl, Woman (the four dramatis personae in The Play About the Baby); He, She (Counting the Ways, 1977); Daddy, Mommy (The American Dream). Instead of informing us, early on, who the characters are, why they are there and what they want, or at least what their problems are, Albee might keep us guessing about all of these details throughout, even unto the final curtain. Instead of minimizing artifice, his plays would luxuriate in it: in Seascape (1975), which won Albee his second Pulitzer, one of the two married couples who discuss relationships in an uncomfortable social encounter on the beach turn out to be lizards. In a curious way his more abstract pieces were both timeless and dated. They’re timeless because they eschew references to any particular moment or culture but deal in more elemental and universal areas such as anxiety about the durability of relationships or the bitterness of aging. Yet they’re dated because all this mid-century European daring, which seemed mischievously to turn up the heat on a cultural pot that would boil over in the late 1960s, grew gradually into an irritating affectation that theater largely abandoned, ruling that naturalism was more satisfying, less confusing, and certainly more commercial.

Albee further differentiated himself from O’Neill and Miller with his verbal élan. O’Neill was never funny, especially when he tried to be, and Miller no doubt thought the inducement of laughter to be frivolous. Done well, though, as in the indelible Mike Nichols 1966 film version, Who’s Afraid is coruscatingly funny, and so to a certain extent are Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story (1959), and A Delicate Balance, a rehash of Who’s Afraid (a guest couple in another couple’s home, verbal intimidation, a child who may or may not ever have existed, lots of alcohol) that earned Albee a make-good Pulitzer in 1967. There is even some verbal flash in The Man Who Had Three Arms, a notorious flop that lasted sixteen performances on Broadway in 1983 (“It isn’t a play,” declared Frank Rich in the Times, “It’s a temper tantrum in two acts”). Albee brought the wordplay of the musical theater back to serious drama, but sharpened it to a lethal point and doused it with curare.

Albee brought the wordplay of the musical theater back to serious drama.

Yet to wound interested him more than to delight, and many of his plays devolve into haranguing. Whence all of this venom? And where was its leavening grace? Not in Albee. To be blunt, having been born a literal bastard he grew into a figurative one. In interviews, he would castigate critics for being too thick to understand his work, though if no one understands your message, even those with a high tolerance for the abstract and the challenging, it is just possible that you haven’t communicated it clearly enough. Those who knew him describe a man who existed in a cloud of resentment, a spiky sense of having been wronged that was strangely at odds with his public acclaim—three Pulitzers and two Tonys plus a career achievement award. Even among fellow professionals, he was remarkably callous: “He can direct as though teaching cows to speak,” wrote The New Yorker’s MacFarquhar. The teasing torment of George and especially Martha in Who’s Afraid, which took its title from a phrase Albee spotted scrawled in soap on the mirror over a gay bar, has a surprising basis in reality: Albee and his then-partner Richard Flanagan, a composer, would play twisted parlor games on unsuspecting friends invited over for the evening. The pair of them, both drunks (on one evening “booze safari,” they consumed twenty-one martinis each), would stage tableaux: one would pretend to catch the other in an act of sexual infidelity and the pair would enact a heated argument in front of the cringing, bewildered guest. Obituaries delicately filed all of this rage and misbehavior under the euphemism “passionate,” showing once again that the press was more ally than enemy to Albee.

On stage that contumely became electric in Who’s Afraid, which is frequently revived and stands as one of the finest plays of its era. Unlike Albee’s poor, bewildered houseguests, we’re in on the dark humor, the playfulness of the savagery, and it succeeds dazzlingly. The piece unites Albee’s interests: in calling family a humbug, in verbal dexterity, and in juxtaposing the staid, polite, and middlebrow (the hapless houseguests Honey and Nick) with the ferociously logorrheic, brazen destructive force, in this case both George and Martha, the hosts who alternate in raining teases and torment upon the unsuspecting.

Weighing the work as a whole, Albee’s favorite type is easily spotted—he or she is the central, destabilizing character who controls the direction of events. This personage is profane, irreverent, scandalous, boorish, self-loathing, outrageous, seductive, usually drunk, invariably grandiose, and probably dangerous. Though a habitual fabulist, the person is also a bringer of scabrous truths—a mad prophet, a holy fool. He’s Jerry in The Zoo Story—the shabby rooming-house resident who approaches a contented upper-middle-class burgher on a bench in Central Park, tells him a horrifying story about poisoning a dog, and commits a suicide that looks like a murder by tricking the naif into holding a knife upon which Jerry impales himself. She’s Claire, the alcoholic, acerbic younger sister of a married woman in A Delicate Balance who scandalizes a department store clerk by asking for a topless bathing suit, then incessantly nudges her sister and brother-in-law toward a chaotic evening while lying flat on the floor of their living room with a beaker of brandy. He is the Man in The Play About the Baby, the scabrous, sinister, and mysterious presence who rips through the cocoon of sexual and familial harmony around the happy young parents of a newborn and declares that either there is no baby or there never was one. He is, transparently, Himself in The Man Who Had Three Arms, chiefly an angry plea given by an embittered has-been that awkwardly thudded upon the stage when its author was also long past his prime. Viewers understandably failed sometimes to see the humor in the lava; Albee was publicly battling his demons, and his demons were winning. His contempt became his cage.

Albee was publicly battling his demons, and his demons were winning.

By 1991, Albee’s career had disintegrated so badly that his next play premiered in what might be called Really Quite Far Off-Broadway: Vienna. Yet it would prove to be the play that rescued him, proved he could do something other than spew venom. It won him his third Pulitzer Prize. The 1989 death of his mother, who measured six feet from crown to toe, inspired him at last to step outside himself, to consider how others existed, endured, even suffered, and sometimes thrived. Three Tall Women imagined, in its breathtaking second act, a conversation among A, B and, C—respectively, the same lady at ages ninety, fifty-two, and twenty-six. Periodically they speak with frustration and disappointment of their gay son, The Boy, who, in penance for the many screeds delivered by authorial stand-ins in previous works, appears but does not speak.

In Three Tall Women, the elegant conceit initially inspires banter—what would you ask of your older self? How would you belittle your younger self? But the conversation turns deep, even profound, and theatrical in the best sense. C, forward-looking and eager, anticipates learning to ride, marrying for love. The older two, hardened by experience, their mistakes made, deride her naivety: “I’ll never become you—either of you,” she says, but the tragedy is that she already has. C looks forward to getting a diamond engagement ring; A, who long since lost the man who gave it to her—cancer—sold it to pay the bills. This upsets C: “It’s tangible proof . . . that we’re valuable . . . that we’re valued” (ellipses in original). Replies A, “Well, it’s gone; all the glitter’s gone.” And what does it matter anyway? The play culminates with the characters discussing what period in life is the happiest one. Is it middle age, with its placid stasis? Is it youth, with all its novelty and adventure? No, A avers: In fact it is the final stage, “when all the waves cause the greatest woes to subside, leaving breathing space, time to concentrate on the greatest woe of all—that blessed one—the end of it.” It took the death of a woman on whom he had turned his back to unlock the inspiration for Albee’s most poignant, most sympathetic work. If only Albee had been able to write with such humanity throughout his career.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 3, on page 36
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