Remembering the Greats - Edward Albee

Edward Albee once claimed to be writing the same play his whole life. He could not be more correct. All of his plays have central themes tying them together, all different variations on the same idea. Particularly in American Dream, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,  and The Play About the Baby, all three plays are essentially the same play. They are all centered around a dysfunctional couple interacting with the youth, they all involve games and verbal battles, and are commentaries on modern American life and marriage. Albee plays with language and creates shockingly violent scenes with nothing but the power of words. There is very little physical action but the language more than accounts for it. Amongst all of his plays are three recurring themes, Identity and imagination, young vs old/innocence vs experience, and modern American family life.

            It's a sad fact that I know more George and Marthas then I do Lucy and Rickys. The world of Edward Albee is bitter and painful. In fact, pain is a must, according to the Man, “if you have no wounds how can you know that you're alive?”. George and Martha, I believe, are the couple in the most pain together. Spending their afternoons playing games and insulting each other, they have nothing to live for but their hatred of the other. While there is some real emotion there (and exposed in the end), they cover their emotions with games, especially toying with a younger couple. In Albee's plays, the older and more experienced seem to relish in hurting the young and innocence. George and Martha torment Nick and Honey, trying to expose the darker truths of love and marriage. The Man and the Woman want the girl and the boy to feel pain, to live and be prepared for the pains of married love. Mommy and Daddy physically mutilate a baby the same way the older couples verbally mutilate their younger counterparts. Notably, Grandma is not as violent. It is only the middle-aged characters that feel the need to hurt others. The naivete of the more innocent couples seems to irritate the older couples, and it bothers them so much that feel the need to hurt others. Misery loves company, especially in the plays of Edward Albee.

            No one can be sure of anything in an Edward Albee play. The very idea of identity is thrown aside as characters can't even remember if they had a baby. As Grandma warns us “Be careful, be very careful. What I told you may not be true.” None of the characters in any of these plays are trust worthy, and the concept of what is and isn't real is continuously thread throughout his plays.  In a conversation with George and Marta, Nick says that he can't tell “when you people are lying, or what”, to which George and Martha respond “You're damned right! You're not supposed to”. That comment may even be a wider message to the audience, does it really matter if we can tell the difference between truth and illusion? George insists that no, it doesn't matter, “but we must carry on as though we did”. What is and isn't real does not matter, it only matters what we feel as that's the only thing that's real to us. A nonexistent son causes George and Martha all the same trouble as a real son, does it really matter if he exists if he affects them just the same? The Young Man is the exact opposite of this notion. He very clearly exists, but has no feeling and affects no one. He is everything on the outside and nothing on the inside. He may as well not exist as he's just a husk of a human being. He is as real as George and Martha's son, after all, “What's true and what isn't is a tricky business.” Albee finds truth through fiction, and sometimes, the unreal can be most truthful thing there is.

            Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Play About the Baby are tied incredibly close together. For one, they are both plays about babies (or lack thereof), and portray an old and a young couple. The Play About the Baby could even be read as either a prequel or sequel to Virginia Woolf, the two are that similar. Perhaps they Boy and the Girl are George and Martha, imagining their baby before he grows up and gets killed later. Or maybe the Man and the Woman are George and Martha, moving on and sharing their trying to break the illusions of others. In both plays the reality of the baby is questioned. As the Man orders everyone to “pay attention”, he notes that “what's true and isn't true is a tricky business” (10), just as Martha notes that George “[doesn't] know the difference” between “truth and illusion.” George responds with “No, but we must carry on as though we did.” This is one key difference between the two plays, when the characters acknowledge what is and isn't real. In Virginia Woolf, George and Martha know that the baby isn't real, they just play vicious games with each other and with their “son”. The secret, rather, is for Nick, Honey and the audience. In About the Baby the couple believes the boy is really there, but the Man and the Woman continue to question its existence. While the audience writes them off as crazy, they end up ultimately correct (but it is still a surprise). In one play, the existence of the child is never questioned, while in the other, the questioning is a central aspect of the play, with the man even asking “What is a Baby?”

            Albee's plays are difficult to define as “tragedies” or “comedies”, even with the loosest definitions of those terms. There is no structure, no arc, the plays simply exist, more Beckett than Shakespeare. Like Chekhov, they could played as either tragedies or comedies, however unlike Chekhov's Tragicomedy, Albee's humor does not stem from the inherent humor within tragedy. Albee's tragic and comedic moments stand apart, isolated with no effect on either side. It is not black comedy, the plays aren't funny because they're simply so tragic. Albee's humor does not come from tragedy, rather it comes from wordplay and absurdity, unrelated to the inherent sadness. In fact, the humor comes from its seemingly isolated position. I believe that Albee's plays are theatre of the absurd It's the absurdity that makes it funny, something as crazy and and unbelievable as mutilating a baby because it didn't satisfy. A girl shouting “Get hard” is unexpected, even more unexpected is a completely normal reaction. Seeing Martha brutalize George is unexpected behavior for a couple, and that unpredictability makes the audience laugh. In addition, the humor stems from silliness and wordplay. The situations are most serious, (difficulty in bearing children, broken relationships) yet they are told through jokes and wordplay, such as spoonerisms. As the Man says, “O what a wangled teb we weave”. While he might be correct and they might weave a wangled teb, it's funny, it's unexpected. “Bumble of Joy,” “Burgen,” It's that juxtaposition of silliness and absurdity with a tragic event that makes it funny. It's a couple berating each other so violently that the only recourse is to laugh at each other. It's when George accepts Martha’s vitriol and when he doesn't react when she leaves to go sleep with Nick. It's that juxtaposition of humor and tragedy that forces and audience to laugh, as well as those unexpected responses to absurd and tragic situations.

            So much could be said over whether or not Albee's plays are tragedies. Ultimately, it depends on the audience and what they view as a positive ending. While Chekhov plays depend on the direction, Albee plays depend on what the audience values. If they value happiness, then Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is very much a tragedy. The couples exit broken and miserable, perhaps unable to ever fix themselves for quite some time. If they value hope and truth, then it can be a very positive play. Many believe that George does the two of them a favor by killing off their son. By breaking that illusion, George is severing their last ties, giving them room to build anew. They were clearly miserable before, so George is just (somewhat cruelly) ending their misery. The ending can be seen as a happy ending, they hold each other and sing, and Martha finally confesses that she's afraid of Virginia Woolf (truth and self-awareness). Now that they have no one, they can finally have each other. Yet there is a third, somewhat depressing, interpretation of events that sees this play as asserting the impossibility of happiness. No matter what they do they cannot end up happy. They didn't do anything wrong nor did they do anything right, they simply existed and are therefor cursed. George and Martha are essentially damned if they do, damned if they don't. It's cyclical, as it's said in The Play About the Baby, “I can take the pain and loss later...but not now.” George and Martha are essentially the product of that thought, continuously pushing off the pain for later. That can't last forever, and George is finally taking the pain now, for the both of him. It's like tearing off a Band-Aid. It's the eternal question of a broken relationship, what should I do to make myself less unhappy? Will breaking up hurt more than staying together? Some see Albee as saying it doesn't matter, either way will result in pain.

            The line between tragedy and comedy are blurred even further when comparing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to the Play about the Baby. The plays are quite similar, but they can be read so differently. The Play About the Baby is definitely much faster. It's Vriginia Woolf's vaudevillian cousin, moving at a quicker pace and getting more and more absurd. It's arguably more comedic, with more jokes and silly moments. The audience will certainly be laughing more, but that does not necessarily make it a comedy, nor does it make Virginia Woolf, while heavy, a tragedy. The ending of About the Baby is, in my opinion, much more depressing. George and Martha sever off their last tie and have put themselves on the path to recovery. No recovery seems evident for the Boy and the Girl. Even worse, this is the first tragedy to strike them, not the last. While George and Martha are finally done, the Boy and Girl have only just begun their lives and are only awaiting a crueler world. The play may be more fun and lighthearted, yet the ending is haunting. Is a tragedy simply a sad story? Is it a story where the characters end up worse off than they did before? Or is it something more than that? Edward Albee blurs those lines.

            The difficulty in analyzing Albee's plays is that you can't simply look at how the characters end up. The characters are so broken and fragile that they carry heavy meaning behind them. It is enough to look at what happens to the characters, rather you must see what it means for the characters to end up the way they do. I personally believe that The American Dream is a tragedy because everyone ends up happy. It's hollow, soulless, and incredibly depressing despite the fact that everyone is “satisfied”. The entire idea of satisfaction brings up so many questions. As a result of mutilating the Young Man's twin brother, Mommy and Daddy are now left with soulless husk of a person, and they're happy about it. As far as Mommy and Daddy now, Grandma was taken by the “van man”, who they made up, and they recover so quickly. They fill that void with the Young Man, whose own story is tragic, and live happily ever after. The fact that they live happily after that, however, is incredibly depressing.  In The Play About the Baby, the Man remarks that he cries in movies in which “Good things happen to good people,” coming from “a troubling sense of what should be rather than what is”. While the Mommy and Daddy are certainly not good people, Albee plays with that same “troubling sense,” to create his unique brand of tragicomedy. The audience does not want the play to end happily, no one is rooting for Mommy, no one wants to see her “satisfied”. This is America, Albee seems to say, this is the American Dream. Grandma even calls the Young Man “American Dream”. He is completely superficial, yet he is the ideal of Mommy and Daddy. He is attractive but has no heart, cannot feel, cannot complain, and has “only syntax around me.” The American Dream is the same as this broken individual, and Albee even explores that in his other works. Beautiful on the outside with it's white picket fences and loving couples, the American Dream falls apart under further scrutiny, just like the Young Man. If the Young Man is the metaphorical portrayal of the American Dream, then George and Martha are the literal portayal. They are as broken on the outside as the Young Man is on the inside. Albee puts American marriage under a microscope and pulls out all of this violence hatred hidden behind the white picket fences. These couples fall in love with the idea of love itself, not each other. They long for an ideal that they can't have, and the reality of the situation is wrought with pain. As Honey peels the label off of the bottle, Albee is peeling the label off the American Dream in that same scene, pulling back the final curtain and showing a relationship at its rawest and most hurt moment. The Boy and the Girl unconvincingly make a case for their love, arguing that “we're happy, we love each other....we have a baby” (29).  They love each other because they're supposed to, because they have a baby, that's the way things go. The Man and the Woman try to warn them of the pain ahead, but believe themselves that pain is good, that you need a scar to “know who you are” (35). George and Martha don't even have a baby, they're the American Dream collapsed. They too fell for an ideal but that ideal fail them and they're left with nothing but contempt and games to torment each other with. Regardless of definitions of “tragedy” and “comedy”, Albee's criticisms are both hilarious and strikingly depressing. Albee lures the audience in with silly language and absurd situations and leaves them haunted with a bleak condemnation of American life.