Edward Albee's Domestic Animals

After a Flurry of Productions, a Critical Look at an American Master

Albee's impressive comic instinct (no American playwright writes domestic combat with the same linguistic vigor) has always been at odds with his shaky philosophical ambition. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is memorable not for the phony symbolic significance larded onto Martha and George (as the archetypal American couple or harbingers of Western civilization's decay), but for the robust wit and ferocity with which they tear into each other. Second Stage's recent revival of Tiny Alice (1964), Albee's ponderous foray into metaphysics, only confirmed the long-held critical verdict of "metafuzzical." Andy Warhol's opinion of the play, "I liked it because it was so empty," captures the central Albee paradox: His plays command attention not because of their profound depths but because of the extraordinary vitality of their surfaces.

This is not to accuse Albee of superficiality. (If only that were the case sometimes!) It's just that his work registers more on the theatrical than intellectual level. The Play About the Baby mattered less for its diagrammatically played-out moral ("If you have no wounds, how can you know you're alive?") than for the vamping, vampire-like monologues Albee composed for his brilliant co-stars, Marian Seldes and Brian Murray. Veteran actors like Rosemary Harris (appearing in June in the Roundabout's revival of All Over, Albee's neglected 1971 chamber play) understand better than any critic the priceless frisson of his lancing dialogue, not to mention the way he raises quotidian conflicts to household earthquakes.

What distinguishes the best of the so-called Absurdist playwrights (Beckett, Pinter, Genet) is their ability to create dramatic images whose dense metaphorical power resists conclusive interpretation. This isn't Albee's strength. His most fully realized work, Three Tall Women (1991), suggests that the secret of his theatrical effectiveness (and hence wisdom) lies in the battering of cruelty and kindness—or what Jerry in The Zoo Story (1959) calls "the teaching emotions." Writing in the grinding teeth of loss, Albee ingeniously constructs a fictionalized portrait of his adoptive mother—arrogant, bitter, irreparably wounded by life, yet unrelenting in her futile struggle not to succumb to weakness. In short, a woman whose zestful, at times even repugnant, contradictions augment awareness of the proximity of our most intense and seemingly disparate feelings.

illustration: Jack Black

Unlike The Goat, we are not detoured from the human aftermath by editorializing and grand gestures. Instead we coddle and cringe with the old woman's two female assistants (who later become her alter egos), while we witness her bereaved son silently expend his grief over her stricken body. Here Albee, who like the Young Man in The American Dream has had difficulty in seeing others "with pity, with affection . . . with anything but . . . a cool disinterest," uses his own conflicted suffering to traverse the autistic boundary that separates us—human or otherwise—from not only each other but ourselves. The hidden depths are transposed to the surface, and finally we're given a glimpse of the real heartbreaking terror we've been fighting all along.

Albee's recent work may have reverted to more detached manipulations, but The Goat has within its sitcom numbness a few patches of tenderness that could only emerge from a heart ripened by the sense of loss permeating Three Tall Women. Fortunately, this elder statesman of the American theater is in prolific form—an auspicious sign that the future might contain more than just the old annihilating gusto.

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