Three Tall Women

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 2000
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 8. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 17
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Three Tall Women

EDWARD ALBEE 1991

Critics have noted autobiographical elements in several of Albee’s plays, particularly Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) and A Delicate Balance (1966). By his own admission, however, Three Tall Women is Albee’s most intentionally autobiographical work to date.

The protagonist of the play, a compelling woman of more than ninety years old, reflects on her life with a mixture of shame, pleasure, regret, and satisfaction. She recalls the fun of her childhood and her marriage, when she had an overwhelming optimism for her future. Yet she bitterly recalls the negative events that resulted in regret: her husband’s extramarital affairs, the death of her husband, and the estrangement of her gay son.

The woman’s relationship with her son is the clearest indication that Albee was working through some troubled memories of his own in Three Tall Women. The playwright was raised by conservative New England foster parents who disproved of his homosexuality. Like the son in his play, he left home at eighteen. Albee admitted to the Economist that the play “was a kind of exorcism. And I didn’t end up any more fond of the woman after I finished it than when I started it.”

Besides exorcising some personal demons with the play, Albee regained some respect among New York theater critics. Many critics despaired that the playwright, who showed such promise during the 1960s and 1970s, had dried up creatively. In fact, Page 200  |  Top of ArticleThree Tall Women was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1994, as well as the Drama Critics Circle, Lucille Lortel, and Outer Critics Circle awards for best play.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Born in 1928, Albee was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee, a wealthy couple involved in the theater. He was a precocious writer, composing poetry at the age of six and a play at twelve. As a teenager, he left home when his parents disapproved of his sexual preference; this confrontation would appear later in his plays, in particular Three Tall Women.

Albee’s first one-act play, The Zoo Story, (1958), garnered comparisons with the works of Tennessee Williams and Eugene Ionesco. Subsequent works such as The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), The Sandbox (1960), and The American Dream (1962) earned Albee a place among the top avant-garde writers of the day.

Without doubt, Albee’s best-known work is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962). In this three-act drama, a middle-aged, hard-drinking couple argues and complains about their miserable lives. Critics suggested autobiographical motives in Albee’s depiction of George and Martha, the feuding husband and wife, and welcomed the play as an invigorating exploration of the troubled lives of American families. The play was turned into a film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1966. That same year, Albee earned the first of three Pulitzer Prizes for A Delicate Balance.

During the 1970s and 1980s, he produced a string of notable failures that included Box and Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung (1969), All Over (1971), and The Lady from Dubuque (1980). The only play during this period that received a generally favorable response was Seascape, for which he won a second Pulitzer Prize in 1975.

While his plays remained popular on university stages and in regional theaters around the country, Albee seemed like a professional outcast. During this time he continued to write, and taught the craft of playwriting at the University of Houston in Texas. Then, in the early 1990s, he earned his third Pulitzer Prize as well as widespread critical and popular acclaim for Three Tall Women. In 1993 the Signature Theatre in Manhattan devoted an entire season to Albee’s plays.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts for his distinguished career. Critic Robert Brustein noted in The New Republic, “His late career is beginning to resemble O’Neill’s, another dramatist who wrote his greatest plays after having been rejected and abandoned by the culture. Happily, unlike O’Neill, he may not have to wait for death to rehabilitate him.”

PLOT SUMMARY

Act I

At the beginning of Three Tall Women, three ladies—generically named A, B, and C—are sitting around a wealthy, extravagantly decorated bedroom.

A is an elderly woman who insists that she is ninety-one years old. A young, bright woman, C is the lawyer for A’s estate. She disagrees, and claims that A is actually ninety-two. B, who seems to be A’s caretaker, is fifty-two years old and attempts to mediate the dispute. These are the three tall women of the play’s title.

In spite of B’s objections and A’s protestations, C will not relent. She can’t understand why A would lie about one year of her life. “I can imagine taking off ten—or trying to,” C admits. “Though more probably seven, or five—good and tricky—but one!? Taking off one year? What kind of vanity is that? Their dispute is the beginning of a complicated gap between age and experience that grows wider, and more poignant, as the play progresses.

B accompanies A to the bathroom, then returns to the room to talk with C alone. B explains how difficult A’s life has become. She can no longer control some of her bodily functions. For example, she wets the bed; yet, stubborn as she is, A refuses to wear a diaper or take other precautions. B is philosophical regarding A’s predicament. “It’s downhill from sixteen on! For all of us!” she reminds C.

A returns from the bathroom, cranky and demanding. She takes her favorite chair back from C, asks for her pillows, and makes herself comfortable. Then she begins what may be a daily routine: she reminisces about her life when she was young, pretty, and popular. This continues for the remainder Page 201  |  Top of Articleof Act I—A recalls stories from her youth, while B and C listen, comment, and learn from her experience.

As A chronicles her life as a young girl she is occasionally confused, but her demeanor remains dignified. Initially, C needles her for her petty prejudices and forgetfulness, but the women seem to bond during the conversation.

Just as A begins to tell B and C about an affair she once had as a young lady, she realizes she must go to the bathroom again. B helps her off, then returns to the room alone to talk with C about A’s declining health. A broke her arm when she fell, and as a result of the break, the bone is disintegrating. The doctors want to remove it, but A will not let them.

The sound of crashing glass from the bathroom disturbs their conversation. Apparently A occasionally plays foolish pranks. On a whim, she has broken a glass in the bathroom sink, and B must now play the stern disciplinarian. She scolds A for her childish behavior. A returns to the bedroom.

C is trying to straighten out A’s bank account and get all her bills paid, but A misplaces important paperwork and forgets to sign checks. C realizes that A is mistrustful of everyone around her.

Occasionally, A complains that “he never comes to see me.” B explains to C that she is referring to her son, who visits infrequently. A rails that her son doesn’t love her but “he loves his boys, those boys he has,” suggesting the reason her son is not around is that he is gay, and his mother’s intolerance has driven him away.

As A prepares for her nap, she remembers taking care of her own mother when she was dying. In the middle of her story, she freezes suddenly. C thinks she has died, but B recognizes that the old woman has had a stroke. They exit to call A’s son and her doctor.

Act II

At the beginning of Act II, A is on her deathbed. B and C are nearby, discussing her condition. Then another A enters, looking perfectly healthy, without even a sling on her arm.

“Any change?” she asks. “Ho, we’re... just as we were; no change.” With B’s response, it becomes obvious that, in an odd turn of events, A,


Edward Albee

Edward Albee

B, and C are now aspects of the same person, at different times of life. While A is the elderly version of this eccentric, anonymous woman, B is the same woman at fifty-two, and C is the protagonist at twenty-six.

Act II is comprised of a series of monologues from these three versions of the protagonist at three different stages of her life. As each woman speaks in turn, she provides different perspectives and descriptions of key events in her life.

Whatever the event, each aspect of this woman views it differently because of her age and experience. C seems more innocent and adventurous, while B is a bit stodgy and unforgiving. A has the perspective of age, and no longer worries much about the opinion of others. At no time are the differences among these characters more pronounced than when their son—known as The Boy—actually appears, visiting his sick mother on her deathbed.

The Boy appears just as he was the day he ran away. When he arrives, B is enraged and screams at him to leave.

Since the three versions of the tall woman exist only as figments of the old women’s imagination, however, The Boy cannot see nor hear the three women, only his mother on her deathbed.

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Meanwhile, C is amazed at the sight of her future child, while A is touched he has come back to see her, even though it is almost too late.

As The Boy sits near his dying mother’s bed, A, B, and C continue their rambling personal history. She chronicles the death of her husband from prostate cancer. None of the individual aspects of this unique woman seem to fit together; none of the versions like each other. A resents C’s youth, B thinks A and C are foolish, and C can’t stand the thought of becoming A or B.

Near the end, each woman focuses on the happiest time of her life. C assumes the best is yet to come. She is very optimistic about her future.

B enjoys her time of life, with “half of being adult done, the rest ahead of me. Old enough to be a little wise, past being really dumb.”

A believes the same thing. “The happiest moment? Coming to the end of it, I think,” says A. For her, the final detachment from life—right before death—signals maturity, comfort and peace. “That’s the happiest moment,” A insists in the final lines of the play, “When it’s all done. When we can stop.”

CHARACTERS

A

A is the “tall woman” of the play’s title. As the elder version of B and C, A is an intriguing blend of contradictions. In the first act, while she is being cared for by B and C, she is alternately childish and dignified, panic-stricken and stoic.

A’s narrative is punctuated by crude, bigoted comments. The Italian man her sister married was “a wop.” The domestic servants she knew as a girl “knew their place; they were polite, and well-behaved; none of those uppity niggers, the city ones.”

A’s intolerance has proven especially harmful in her relationship with her homosexual son. She found his lifestyle and sexual preferences abhorrent, and he left home because of her attitude. For twenty years they did not see one another, and she ultimately regrets it.

In the second act, Albee provides sympathetic glimpses of A. As she watches herself dying, she interacts with her two younger selves and earns at least grudging respect and admiration for her long life. Through her character, Albee seems to suggest that old age provides unique insight into the human condition, and prepares us for death. “That’s the happiest moment,” says A in the final words of the play. “When it’s all done. When we can stop. When we can stop.”

B

B turns out to be two different characters. During the first act, she is A’s live-in caretaker. In this role, she is a servant to the older woman, helping her eat, dress, move around, and go to the bathroom. She also functions as a buffer between A and C, the youngest of the women. While C finds A’s antics pathetic and ridiculous, B is more sympathetic.

In the second act, B is the “tall woman” at fifty-two years old. She is able to reflect on the first half of her life with some measure of objectivity. She urges C to accept life’s vicissitudes and unfairness. While C is idealistic and A is resigned, B is cynical. For instance, although her marriage is an unhappy one, she is pragmatic; she settles for the financial security in lieu of sexual fidelity.

In spite of her problems, however, she insists middle-age is the best age to be. “This must be the happiest time,” she tells A, C and the audience, “half of being adult done, the rest ahead of me. Old enough to be a little wise, past being really dumb.”

The Boy

The Boy is the “tall woman’s” estranged son. He is discussed during the first act, but doesn’t appear until the second act. Even then, it is only for a short time; he sits at her bedside after her stroke and never says a word.

From A and B, the audience learns that the boy is gay, and his mother did not approve of his sexuality or his lifestyle. During an argument while he was still a teenager, his mother threatened to throw him out of the house. Feeling rejected and betrayed, he left on his own accord. The two were estranged for twenty years.

C

In the first act, C functions as a representative of A’s lawyer, visiting on business. It seems that A has not been signing all her checks and paying all her bills, and C has come to put her accounts in proper order.

Despite her professional role, she is harshly critical of A’s personality. She argues with A about Page 203  |  Top of Articleher real age, mocks her for her faulty memory, and is offended by her bigoted remarks.

By the end of the first act, though, she begins to change her tone. Watching A struggle with simple tasks, such as going to the bathroom, inspires sympathy for her situation. When A has her stroke, C seems genuinely concerned for her.

In the second act, C is the “tall woman” in the prime of her youth. She is young and quite idealistic. She does not want to accept her future as told by A and B; she cannot believe she would marry a man she does not love and drive away her son.

While A is the voice of experience and B is a cynic, C is Hope personified. Despite all she is told about the dangers that lie ahead for her, she insists, “I know my best times... haven’t happened yet. They’re to come. Aren’t they?”

THEMES

Aging

The characters in Three Tall Women provide insights into a universal theme: the human aging process. By depicting a woman at three different stages of her life, Albee cleverly juxtaposes three very different experiences and perspectives.

C is twenty-six and represents youth. Idealistic and free-spirited, C refuses to believe her two older aspects when they tell her what her life has in store for her. She can not believe she will one day marry a man she doesn’t love, cheat on him, and drive her only son out of the house. Even near the end she insists, “I know my best times... haven’t happened yet. They’re to come.”

B represents middle age, halfway between her carefree youth and the decrepitude of old age. At her age, she has gained some perspective on her life, but has become a bit jaded in the process. Still, she considers her age as the best time of her life. “This must be the happiest time,” she says, “half of being adult done, the rest ahead of me. Old enough to be a little wise, past being really dumb.”

A represents the final years of life. In the first act she displays dignity despite her obvious physical and mental hardships. She exhibits prejudice and pettiness. She enjoys reminiscing about her life, yet is sometimes confused and frustrated by her inability to recall the details of some things. By the time she suffers a stroke while talking about the death of her mother, her affliction seems like an act of mercy.

The second act of the play provides a different perspective of A. As she walks around her own deathbed, musing about her life and her present condition, she is still old, but now healthy. Also, her confusion has disappeared. She reflects on a full life, a mix of joy and tragedy, successes and failures.

Gender Differences

Three Tall Women is somewhat unique in its presentation of gender differences. It is an honest, sympathetic play about women. Women in the play are multi-faceted creatures, capable of both petty jealousies and noble gestures.

The absence of male characters in the play is conspicuous. Men are only talked about, and the single male character that appears on stage, the “tall woman’s” son, never speaks a word. Yet the woman’s relationship with men, in particular her husband and her son, have profoundly affected her life.

Each version of the woman has a different perspective on relationships with men. C fondly remembers the handsome boy who took her virginity, and fantasizes about her future husband. She is fascinated by the sight of The Boy, her future son. Too young to realize her opinion about him will change when she gets older, she is shocked at the furious reaction of B to his appearance.

B has already met and married the man of her dreams. She affectionately calls him “the penguin,” and he has taught her some hard lessons about relationships. “Men cheat; men cheat a lot,” she informs her younger self. “We cheat less, and we cheat because we’re lonely; men cheat because they’re men.” The penguin never appears to defend himself, so the impression of men he leaves behind is a distinctly unfavorable one.

As the eldest of the trio, A has long since forgiven her husband and recovered from the death of her father. She even regrets her estrangement from her son. In the course of more than ninety years, she was a daughter, a wife, a mother, and a widow. From these experiences, she has gained a more tolerant and balanced perspective of the men in her life.

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • One of the strongest themes in Three Tall Women is the way an individual’s perspective on aging changes as he or she gets older. This theme is often found in poetry as well, particularly in the work of the English Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. Read William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1804) or selections from William Blake’s collection of poetry, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). Contrast the portrayal of childhood and adulthood expressed by Albee, Wordsworth and Blake. In what ways are they different? How has the passage of time affected the way people view age and experience?
  • The protagonist’s life was largely shaped by her childhood in the early part of the century. Research the “Jazz Age” of America in the 1920s. Describe what life was like for the wealthy in the larger cities on the East Coast and compare it with today. Also, compare the opportunities available to women at that time with today. How have things changed for women?
  • When C learns how her life has turned out, she is very surprised. Write an outline of your personal goals in life. Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten? In fifty? Try to include as many details as you can. Then write a completely different plan that would make you just as happy. Change your career, your relationships, and your lifestyle. How can you accomplish each of your two projected lives? What elements of your plans are things you can control, and which are those you cannot?
  • How are men portrayed in the play? Consider her first love, her husband, and her son. Are these portrayals fair? Give reasons for your answer.
  • The “tall woman” and her son have a confrontation about his friends, his sexual orientation, and his lifestyle. As a result, they do not speak to each other for twenty years. What could they have done differently to avoid this estrangement? Write a scene in which the two characters meet again after twenty years.

STYLE

Point of View

One of the greatest accomplishments of Three Tall Women, according to critics, is its creative use of the narrative point of view. A story is always told from someone’s perspective, whether that person is the protagonist in the plot, an innocent bystander, a relative relating family history, or an omniscient narrator.

Rarely, however, is the narrator of a story able to confront her younger selves on the same stage at the same time. This is the clever feat of Three Tall Women.

Essentially, the play is bifurcated—it is two plays in one. The first act presents A, an elderly woman in declining health, being tended by B, her middle-aged caretaker, and C, a representative from her attorney’s office. In the second act, the three women are revealed to be on woman—the protagonist—at different stages of her life. Separately, the narrative voices of these women, representing youth, middle, and old age, are compelling and lyrical. In concert, their combined points of view sound a symphony of poignant, and universal, human experience.

Thematic Construction

Most plays are built around a plot, or a story. Typically a hero, the play’s protagonist, struggles against overwhelming odds to achieve some goal—a lover or a kingdom, for example. These plays are filled with conflict, with action.

There is no real action to the plot of Three Tall Women. Instead Albee provides the play with a

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Samantha Bond, Sara Kestelman, and Maggie Smith as the three different versions of the same woman depicted in Albees play

Samantha Bond, Sara Kestelman, and Maggie Smith as the three different versions of the same woman depicted in Albee’s play

collection of themes, ideas his characters express that provide a context for the discussion and debate that is the real structure of the play. Each scene is driven by one of these ideas, until that idea leads into another.

At the beginning of the play, for example, age and aging are established as important ideas immediately, and the earliest discussion among the play’s “three tall women” is about the aging process. C argues with A over her proper age. (“You’re nine-ty-two,” C insists.)

Once this situation is established it becomes the background setting for a host of other ideas in the play, and the “plot” progresses to the next theme: youth. There is no greater contrast to A’s struggles with age than her fond reminiscences of her youth. Though all of her memories come back to her in bits and pieces, she remembers her girlhood, riding horses, winning ribbons and prizes at shows, and her close relationship with her sister and mother.

Soon, another theme emerges: marriage. A reminisces about meeting her husband, his infidelities, and the fun they had together. Each of A’s Page 206  |  Top of Articlememories provides a piece of the patchwork that is the thematic construction of Three Tall Women.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Edward Albee’s plays, like his own life, have been shaped by the changing nature of American families. Albee himself was adopted at an early age by wealthy New England parents, shuffled around to various private schools until he was eighteen. Like the son in Three Tall Women, he quarreled with his mother over his homosexuality and left home; he then attended college briefly, living off a trust fund in Greenwich Village until he began his successful career as a professional playwright.

By the time he wrote Three Tall Women in 1991, he had been in a longstanding relationship with the same man for more than twenty years. Albee did not experience the “typical” American family life, but then, judging by the evolution of American families during his career, neither had many of his audience members.

From 1970 to 1990, the marriage age of men went from 22.5 to nearly 26 years old. At the same time, the median age for women to marry climbed from 20.6 to 24 years old. Besides marrying older, many Americans were choosing not to marry at all. During those two decades, the annual marriage rate per 1000 people in the population decreased from 10.8 to 9.1.

To further complicate and change the cherished notion of wedlock, the “no-fault” divorce reforms of the 1970s made divorce faster and easier. During the 1980s, one in every three marriages ended in divorce. By 1995, just over 25% of the 34.3 million families were led by single parents. In fact, more than one of every four children had divorced parents.

Moreover, the number of unmarried couples living together nearly tripled between 1970-1980, up to 1.6 million. By 1995 that number had skyrocketed to 3.7 million, and unmarried births, which accounted for only 11% of all births in America in 1970, accounted for 31 % of births in 1993.

A number of explanations have been offered for the decline of the “nuclear family” (i.e. mother, father, sister and brother, all related and living in the same house). For one, more women than ever before were choosing to enter the workforce, and build careers before, or instead of, building families.

Also, wider acceptance of divorce also led to an increased expectation from marriage. If a man or woman was not happy in a relationship, he or she became more likely to seek divorce in order to find a more suitable match.

Variations on the nuclear family became the norm in the nineties. Single parent families, stepfamilies, childless families, communal families, and families with same sex parents became more common.

The proliferation of same sex parents were a result of more tolerant adoption laws. Still, while acceptance of homosexual lifestyles was increasing, widespread tolerance was a long way off.

While many large companies, such as IBM, acknowledge unmarried couples who live together (including homosexual and lesbian couples) by extending to them the same benefits shared by married employees, many rights and privileges were not sanctioned. No states allowed homosexual couples to legally marry, and some states had legislation that prevented homosexual couples from adopting a child who was not the biological offspring of one of the partners.

The 1990s were also the years of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” While the United States military still forbids homosexuality in its ranks, the application forms for military service were changed to avoid asking about sexual preference. Recruits were encouraged to be discreet about sexual matters, particularly if they were gay.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Most of the critics who reviewed Three Tall Women when it appeared in Off-Broadway in 1994 were enthusiastic about the play. Moreover, they seemed relieved that he had finally produced another play that had wide popular and critical appeal. As a writer for the Economist declared, “after a long dry spell for American drama, relieved by successful imports from London, New York has a good, homemade play at last.”

Several reviewers, including the New Republic’s Robert Brustein, noted Albee’s personal stake in the play.” Three Tall Women is a mature piece of writing,” Brustein judged, “clearly autobiographical, in which Albee seems to be coming to terms not Page 207  |  Top of Articleonly with a socialite foster parent he once satirized in past plays, but with his own advancing age.”

William A. Henry III concurred. In a review in Time, “Albee is exorcising his own demons in having the dowager deny her homosexual son.”

In the New Yorker, John Lahr contended, “The last great gift a parent gives to a child is his or her own death, and the energy underneath Three Tall Women is the exhilaration of a writer calling it quits with the past.”

Critics maintained that much of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play’s appeal seems to lie in the unique interaction as three separate aspects of the same woman. “Albee’s plays have always walked a line between heightened realism and dark comedy,” Jack Helbig wrote in Booklist. Even his most surreal works are populated with characters who wouldn’t seem out of place in real life.” In Three Tall Women, Helbig continued, the trio of characters are able to provide unique insight into one woman’s life because of their separate perspectives—a feat that can’t be accomplished in simple, realistic drama.

The character of A is the focal point of the play. As Tim Apello suggested in the Nation, “Albee has this little problem as a dramatist: He abhors plots. But just as one realizes, with mounting irritation, that A’s colorful fragmented vignettes will never cohere into a single structured picture—nobody cracks Albee’s mosaic code—the author saves the play with a big switch in the second act. The three actresses fuse into one contrapuntally evoked character, A through the ages.”

Still, A is an unlikely dramatic hero, and as Brustein pointed out, it took a feat of adept artistic skill to make her sympathetic. “A is an entirely vicious old wretch,” Brustein asserted, “with a volatile tongue and a narrow mind, but it is a tribute to the writing and the acting that she gradually wins our affections. Although prejudiced against ‘kikes’, ‘niggers’, ‘wops’ and ‘fairies’ (among them her own son), she is a model of vitality and directness when compared with the humor-impaired liberal C, who protests her intolerance.”

Albee’s writing in Three Tall Women drew comparisons to a wide variety of other authors. Appelo observed,” Three Tall Women cops a bit of the puckish bleakness of Beckett (the sole dramatist Albee has claimed utterly to admire), and a bit of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but the grief and affection seem distant, glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope. It’s O’Neill without guild, and with much less galumphing verbal rhythms.”

In addition, Brustein suggested that the characters in the play suggest “a Beckett influence, though on the surface the play appears to be a drawing-room comedy in the style of A. R. Gurney.”

In spite of the play’s insight into the human condition, its autobiographical perspective, and roundly recognized appeal, a handful of reviewers took exception with the relentlessness with which Albee pursues his themes. “Three Tall Women... is by no means an entirely successful play,” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times. “It makes its points so blatantly and repeats them so often that one perversely longs for a bit more of the cryptic obliquity that is Mr. Albee’s signature.”

Another Times critic, Vincent Canby, maintained: “Three Tall Women initially seems to be about the process of dying and death itself, though that’s not the full story. It’s more about the inevitable changes effected by time and circumstances, about the accumulation of events that can shape a character and that are so many they eventually become meaningless. It doesn’t help that at no one of her three ages is A a very interesting woman. She’s bossy and gauche as young C, bitter and tired as B and self-absorbed as old A.”

A few disgruntled critics took an historical approach to criticizing the playwright, and wondered aloud where his talents had been hidden for so long. “Whatever happened to Edward Albee?” Stefan Kanfer sarcastically asked in the New Leader.

Kanfer actually found several things to praise about Albee’s play, but in the final analysis asserted: “If this were 1962, Three Tall Women would herald the arrival of a playwright as promising as David Ives. One could hardly wait to see his next production. But we have been through all that with Albee, and this elegant minor effort gives very little reason to cheer. After years of commercial and esthetic disappointments, Edward Albee is once again Off-Off-Broadway. Like so many of his characters through the decades, he is going out the way he came in.”

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CRITICISM

Lane A. Glenn

Lane A. Glenn is a Ph.D. specializing in theatre history and literature. In this essay he examines how Edward Albee combines elements of absurdist drama with realism in Three Tall Women.

As much as anything else, the popular success of Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Three Tall Women can be attributed to the fickleness of American scholars and theater reviewers. As numerous articles and interviews pointed out during the show’s lengthy New York run, Albee was once the darling of the American Theater scene. In the early 1960s he was hailed as the next Eugene O’Neill and was considered a literary genius of the age.

He quickly fell out of favor, however, and for more than twenty years his plays received only lukewarm, or even hostile response from New York reviewers. Albee found work teaching and directing, while he continued to write plays.

What changed? What great cultural upheaval or fundamental shift in Albee’s writing style suddenly made Three Tall Women more palatable than two decades of near misses? The playwright himself was hesitant to hazard a guess.

“Three Tall Women is the first play [of mine] that has gotten almost unanimously favorable press in the United States,” Albee told American Theatre, But I didn’t expect it to, necessarily. I think of my plays as a continuing pattern of me writing. I don’t think I’ve written a bad play or a good play; I don’t think in those terms.”

It is precisely Albee’s unwillingness to think in conventional terms, to create a “good” play or a “bad” play based on current cultural standards, that has set him at loggerheads with American critics. Ironically, it is also his insistence on defining his own terms that has led him to be one of the most influential (though not most produced) American playwrights of the twentieth century.

While fickle reviewers like Stefan Kanfer in the New Leader asked, “Whatever happened to Edward Albee?” artistic allies like Lawrence Sacharow, the director of the American premiere of Three Tall Women, insist the playwright has been toiling away at the same kind of work—his own—throughout his career, whether it was popular or not. “There’s a perfectly logical through-line from The Zoo Story to here,” Sacharow told the Dallas Morning News.

That through-line, which is quite apparent in Three Tall Women, is a combination of styles: Albee’s unique blend of absurdist elements and American realism, mixed with characters, themes and dialogue that are distinctly “Albee-esque.”

In a 1962 essay for New York Times Magazine titled “Which Theatre is the Absurd One?” Albee defended his style of writing plays, insisting that “The avant-garde theatre is fun; it is free-swinging, bold, iconoclastic and often wildly, wildly funny. If you will approach it with childlike innocence-putting your standard responses aside... if you will approach it on its own terms, I think you will be in for a liberating surprise.”

He was reacting to reviewers who already, so early in his professional career, had begun categorizing and criticizing him according to how well his plays fit in with typical Broadway fare, which for most of the twentieth century has meant realism in every aspect of production.

While many of America’s best-known playwrights have experimented with form and style, by and large their most popular plays have contained plots, characters, settings and themes that are realistic. Eugene O’Neill penned Expressionistic dramas like The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, but he is mainly remembered for his realistic plays like Desire Under the Elms and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Likewise, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller dabbled in experimental styles of writing, but both achieved their greatest successes with more recognizably realistic plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Death of a Salesman.

Albee, on the other hand, found his initial success Off-Broadway with short, quirky one-acts like The Zoo Story (1959) and The American Dream (1961). Thereafter, despite plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) that stylistically approached the realism of O’Neill, Williams, and Miller, Albee’s work was conveniently associated with writers of a new non-realistic movement, “absurdism.”

Critic Martin Esslin popularized “absurdism” as a label in his 1961 study The Theatre of the Absurd. Esslin used the term to describe experimental plays produced mainly by European authors from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s. These

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • In a career spanning four decades, Edward Albee has written more than twenty plays. Two of his most popular remain the 1958 one-act play The Zoo Story, and the award-winning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, (1962) which also became a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
  • The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous 1922 portrait of America’s Jazz Age. The novel’s protagonist, the self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, is considered the embodiment of American ambition in the early part of this century.
  • Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1944) is a “dream play” featuring the character of Amanda Wingfield, a woman who lives in a St. Louis tenement with her two children: Laura, a shy young woman; and her brother Tom, a poet who supports the family by working in a warehouse.
  • Longer life expectancy, health issues, age discrimination, and retirement concerns are just a few of the topics discussed in Aging and Old Age (1996) by Richard A. Posner or Aging America (1992) by Karen A. Conner.

writers—Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet among them—were influenced by the existential philosophy of artists like Jean Paul Sartre, who famously argued that human beings are “condemned to be free.” They sought to show their audiences how irrational and unjust the world could be.

To achieve their goals, absurdists produced plays that consciously countered traditional expectations of plot, character, language, and logic through a variety of anti-realistic techniques. For example, time and place were often unimportant and unknown. Plots in these plays did not necessarily develop through a series of cause-and-effect events. Instead, actions and dialogue often centered around themes or a particular mood. This thematic construction is often circular, with plots ending where they began.

Since communication through language was viewed as a rational tool (in an irrational world), absurdists often parodied language, and demonstrated how inadequate it was when actually trying to describe the human experience. Any attempts to improve the human condition in absurdist drama typically prove futile, or even comical in a dark way.

Some of the most famous absurdist plays include Genet’s The Balcony (1956), Ionesco’s The Chairs (1952) and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which is credited with introducing the absurdist movement to America in 1953.

Albee has employed the characteristics of ab-surdism throughout his career. As Jack Helbig noted in a review of Three Tall Women for Booklist, “Albee’s best plays have always walked a line between heightened realism and dark comedy. Even his most surreal works are populated with characters who wouldn’t seem out of place in real life.” This is certainly true of Three Tall Women, a play that contains many of the techniques of absurdism.

The “plot” of Three Tall Women, for example, does not arise out of a series of cause-and-effect actions. There is, in fact, no clear “protagonist” seeking some kind of realistic goal. There is only an old woman, dying and attended by her caretaker and attorney, who later transform into aspects of her younger self. Instead of actions, the story centers on themes—youth and age, innocence and experience, sex, love, and disillusionment.

Like the absurdists, Albee also experiments with language as a means of revealing deeper, hidden meanings, and suggesting the irrationality of existence. With the character of A, he is able to blend realism with theatricality. A’s mental faculties are deteriorating along with her physical functions,

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“THE SUCCESS OF THREE TALL WOMEN MAY SIGNAL A PLAY THAT HAS MANAGED TO CHANGE OUR PERCEPTIONS AND BROADEN THE COPE OF OUR DRAMA”

so she might be expected to act unexpectedly. Her sound is the sound of “half-naturalistic, wholly calculated incipient-Alzheimer’s talk,” as Tim Appelo pointed out in the Nation.

On a realistic level, this provides a reasonable excuse for A’s overt bigotry and childish pranks. Stylistically, it also allows for the play’s many monologues, soliloquies, and moments when the characters directly address the audience.

One of the most recognizable traits of absurdist writing is its nebulous treatment of character identities, time, and place, all of which are elusive in Three Tall Women. Ionesco’s plays are peopled with vague characters like “The Professor,” “The Pupil,” and “The Maid.” Beckett chose to christen his characters with nonsense names like “Hamm,” “Clov,” and “Nagg.”

Albee, who has included figures as generic as “The Man” and “The Woman” in other plays, achieved an even more basic cast of characters in Three Tall Women by dubbing the ladies, simply, “A,” “B,” and “C.” Decisions such as this, however, cannot be made lightly, or without thought for the larger concerns of the play.

As Albee told a group of his students at the University of Houston (reported in the Texas Monthly), “Lack of resolution is not necessarily good. The difference between interesting ambiguity and unintentional ambiguity is very important. Ambiguity demands as much control as anything else does.”

Just as ambiguous in Three Tall Women is the time and place of the play’s action. There is a specific location—a “wealthy” bedroom—reproduced on the stage, but the world outside is a mystery. The larger “place” of the play is never known, nor is it particularly important.

Most of the play, after all, takes place in the past, and is described rather than portrayed by the “three tall women” of the play’s title. Time becomes even more malleable in the hands of the characters themselves.

At the beginning of the play, A cannot decide if she is ninety-one or ninety-two years old. As she lays on her deathbed throughout the second act, B and C become separate aspects of A at different points in her life, and through the imagination of a dying woman nearly a century of experience is viewed simultaneously, through three separate prisms of experience.

Drawing a parallel to his absurdist predecessors, Robert Brustein noted in the New Republic, “Beckett was the first dramatist to condense the past and present lives of a character into a single dramatic action, and Krapp ’s Last Tape is a play to which Three Tall Women owes a deep spiritual debt... Beckett compressed youth and age through the device of a tape recorder, Albee uses doppelgangers; but both plays evoke the same kind of existential poignance.”

An “existential poignance” is what has driven some reviewers and theatergoers away from absurdist drama. Many found the approach of the absurdists to be unnecessarily depressing, and wondered (often aloud) why someone would go to such lengths to even write about such feelings. Esslin, however, found a very different motive at work. In The Theatre of the Absurd he suggests:

Ultimately, a phenomenon like the Theatre of the Absurd does not reflect despair or a return to dark irrational forces but expresses modern man’s endeavor to come to terms with the world in which he lives. It attempts to make him face up to the human condition as it really is, to free him from illusions that are bound to cause constant maladjustment and disappointment... Today, when death and old age are increasingly concealed behind euphemisms and comforting baby talk, and life is threatened with being smothered in the mass consumption of hypnotic mechanized vulgarity, the need to confront man with the reality of his situation is greater than ever. For the dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its senselessness; to accept it freely, without fear, without illusions—and to laugh at it.”

Albee agrees. In an interview with The Progressive, he told Richard Fair, “I’ve found that any play which isn’t close to laughter in the dark is very tedious. And conversely, even the purest comedy, if it isn’t just telling jokes, has got to be tied to reality in some way. I think a play should do one of two things, and ideally both: It should change our perceptions about ourselves and about consciousness, and it should also broaden the possibilities of drama. Page 211  |  Top of ArticleIf it can do both, that’s wonderful. But it’s certainly got to do one of the two.”

The success of Three Tall Women may signal a play that has managed to do both—change our perceptions and broaden the scope of our drama. By combining traditionally absurdist techniques with a realistic situation, and infusing the whole with his own unique approach to language and age-old themes, Albee managed to convince his reviewers and audiences to once again approach him on his own terms, which is the only way he will write.

“You learn from people who’ve come before you and who have done wonderful things,” Albee admits, “The trick is to take the influences and make them so completely you that nobody realizes that you’re doing anything else but your own work.”

Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Tim Appelo

Calling Three Tall Women a return to form, Appelo praises the playwright for being “back in tune with his times.”

Photos reveal Edward Albee to be stricken with the Dick Clark Syndrome: an inexplicable impervious-ness to physical decay. Instead, time has taken its toll on his festering reputation.

But I’m thrilled to report that Albee the artist lives. The Vineyard Theater production of his 1991 play Three Tall Women, his first big New York premiere in over a decade, should help reverse his audience’s exodus. No more the noisy young shockmeister pop star, now Albee plays unplugged, still singing, softly, his bitter old themes of domes-tic-cum-cosmic discord. Rod Stewart unplugged is a lazy disgrace, Clapton a drab craftsman, but Albee is more like Neil Young: chastened by age, sad where once he soared, yet still quavering on.

Three Tall Women is largely a portrait of Albee’s late, very estranged adoptive mother at 92, though the character querulously insists she’s 91. (In a 1966 Paris Review interview, Albee querulously insisted he was 37; the interviewer reminded him he’d be 38 when the piece was published.) James Noone’s set neatly conveys the old woman’s luxe past and funereal future: A central floral painting is flanked by floral wallpaper, floral prints, floral lace curtains, a bed with floral pillows and a blighted floral rug worn down to atoms.

So is the wraithlike heroine, but there’s a death dance of semisenescent reminiscence left in the old

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“MUCH OF THE VALUE OF THREE TALL WOMEN IS THE LIGHT IT SHEDS ON ALBEE’S LIFE AND OTHER WORK”

gal yet. Myra Carter is, as the young people say, awesome in the role of A, the nonagenarian mom. Her phrasing of Albee’s half-naturalistic, wholly calculated incipient-Alzheimer’s talk is impeccable; her voice dwindles to an Edith Evans warble, ascends to a helium keening, erupts abruptly into lacerating sobs as required. Her moods, too, are musical—her memories lark and plunge. We’re eager and grateful for each vivid bit of that past recaptured: her debutante milieu; her runty, randy groom; horseback riding; riding her horse’s groom in the stables as she screams in sexual triumph. (Some of these memories are voiced by other actors, whom I’ll introduce shortly.) Three Tall Women cops a bit of the puckish bleakness of Beckett (the sole dramatist Albee has claimed utterly to admire), and a bit of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but the grief and affection seem distant, glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope. It’s O’Neill without guilt, and with much less galumphing verbal rhythms. “Eventually he lets me talk about when he was a little boy,” says A of her son’s visits—Michael Rhodes plays the wordless role well enough—“but he never has an opinion on that; he doesn’t seem to have an opinion on much of anything that has to do with us, with me.” Creepily remote, Albee has predicted that he won’t think much about his mom now that he’s devoted a play to explicating her life. But I’ll bet he didn’t keep mum with Ma in real life: This is the guy of whom Richard Burton wrote, “A week with him would be a lifetime.”

Old A is reproved by young C (Jordan Baker), a B-school type trying to get A’s finances in order. The role is as thin as the pinstripes on C’s suit, and Baker is way the hell the spindliest actor in the show. Twenty-six-year-old C is reproved by B (Marian Seldes), A’s 52-year-old caretaker. As dazzling a talent as Carter, Seldes is earthy and spectral, not by turns but at once. Hunched like a sardonic question mark, she moderates the conflict between the old and young women, but she’s openly on the old bat’s side. She’s like Mrs. Danvers on Prozac—still Page 212  |  Top of Articlemean and weird, but detached, sourly entertained by life as if watching it from beyond, a well-adjusted shade. Her sly arched-brow amusement reminds me of Ian McKellen; her marvelously odd hand gestures remind me of Thai opera, except that I can’t comprehend Thai opera, while her gestures clearly underline the dialogue. Many lovely ensemble moments seem centered on her hands, as if she were conducting. (Though Lawrence Sacharow’s direction must have been superb, Ingmar Bergman was probably right to say that Albee’s best plays can do without a director, just as chamber music doesn’t require a dictatorial baton. The man is a composer, just as he wanted to be at age 11.)

Albee has this little problem as a dramatist: He abhors plots. But just as one realizes, with mounting irritation, that A’s colorful fragmented vignettes will never cohere into a single structured picture—nobody cracks Albee’s mosaic code—the author saves the play with a big switch in the second act. The three actresses fuse into one contrapuntally evoked character, A through the ages. It’s played wonderfully (even Baker gets better), like a close basketball game going down to the wire. While the finale is a characteristic letdown (Albee favors inconclusive conclusions), by then the play has wandered around A’s life long enough to give us a satisfying sense of her.

Mysteriously, we get very little sense of her relationship with her son, just a sketchy recounted encounter or two. I wanted more on this relationship, and fewer of the life lessons the play overbearingly urges upon us: “It’s downhill from 16 on for all of us... stroke, cancer... walking off a curb into a 60-mile-an-hour wall... slit your throat.... All that blood on the Chinese rug. My, my.” You can get deeper philosophical insights from Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends Network. Yet even when Albee says something stupid, he says it in cadences of great and practiced beauty. The wisdom that eludes him in platitudes (“[Women] cheat because we’re lonely; men cheat because they’re men”) he expresses better in drama: the anecdote of the pricey bracelet A’s fellatio-craving husband proffers upon his angry penis is funny and scary, a lightning glimpse of a nightmare marriage.

I freely admit that much of the value of Three Tall Women is the light it sheds on Albee’s life and other work. He has described TTW as an “exorcism.” The original title of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was The Exorcism, which was retained as the title of the third act, and TTW makes me wonder whether critics haven’t been misinterpreting his masterpiece all these years, focusing on George and Martha as archetypal man and wife (or, in a popular interpretation that infuriates Albee, as a gay couple in hetero drag. I don’t see what difference it makes, nor why Albee sternly forbids all-male productions of the show). What gets exorcised—killed off—in Woolf is the imaginary kid. In TTW, the kid kills off the memory of his mom. What if George and Martha are “really” Edward and his ever-bickering mother, who needled him cruelly about his adoption and never forgave his desertion? In any case, the heroine A of TTW is a kind of combination of the Liz Taylor and Sandy Dennis characters in Woolf: alternately a snarly and simpering, sickly fake mother, yet admirably defiant of the unmitigated insult of old age. From the first-act debate about a classic actress (Bette Davis in the case of Woolf, Norma Shearer in TTW) to the last act’s rather heavy-handed stripping away of bourgeois illusions (who has them anymore?), the plays seem parallel, sister dramas reaching out to each other across the intervening wastes and oases of Albee’s career.

Why is such a self-conscious iconoclast so annoyingly moralistic? Albee is the third-generation namesake of a top vaudeville impresario who got started with a revolting attraction: a twenty-four-ounce preemie advertised as “small enough to fit in a milk bottle.” The child’s name was Baby Alice. Does this have something to do with his reviled abstract play Tiny Alice ? Edward Albee I ran a theatrical enterprise so bluenosed it blacklisted the actors it ruthlessly enslaved if they so much as uttered the words “son of a gun” on any of its nationwide stages. Having authored five “son of a bitch’s” in Woolf alone, Edward Albee III was the Tom Paine of the dirty-speech movement in American theater, though he was more besides. Maybe there’s an in-joke in his Alice, and a secret triumph in its commercial oblivion: the horribly lowest-common-denominator entertainment answered by a work of arrogant mandarin incomprehensibility, spurned by the ignorant masses.

With the entirely intelligible Three Tall Women, Albee is evidently mature enough not to crave our hatred. Maybe he doesn’t even hate his mother anymore. What’s more, he’s back in tune with his times. In the three tall women’s last-ditch attempt to define the nature of happiness, Seldes’s B muses that her position at 52 is ideal: “Enough shit gone through to have a sense of the shit that’s ahead, but way past sitting and. playing in it. This has to be the happiest time.” Shit happens—in a day when the Page 213  |  Top of Articlenation’s leading dramatic characters are Beavis and Butthead, what moral could be more modish than that?

Source: Tim Appelo. Review of Three Tall Women in the Nation, March 14, 1994, pp. 355–56.

Jeane Luere

While critical of the playwright’s neglect in the area of plot, Luere praises Albee ’s play as his strongest in years.

Receptive audiences at Vienna’s English Theatre, which in the past has been host to Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, Lanford Wilson, are hailing the new Edward Albee offering, giving the play’s three-in-one heroine emotional precedence over men and women in his previous dramas. In stirring anecdotes, the eldest third of Albee’s strong composite heroine, a ninety-year-old with a prodigal son, divulges her prejudices, her attitudes and insights on the lack of substance in the upper crust into which she has married. The two other onstage characters, materializations of her self before childbirth and at middle age, hear the older component bemoan her husband’s and friends’ lack of backbone or moral fibre. Regrettably, her disillusion has led her to replace the legendary milkman or back seat of a car with the family’s groom and stable.

As in previous plays, the author is more concerned with characters and situations than with problems and their trite resolution. Albee’s power to generate real characters is legendary; and his delicate drawing of this newest one, a tall mother whose indiscretions alienate her son, may show the author’s intellectual sympathy for her, quelling critics’ sporadic hints at anti-female strains in earlier work. However, Albee’s mother-image in Three Tall Women, drawn with wit and truth, is itself more palatable than the insight into life which the play dramatizes. Albee’s new work warns that in a land where the populace is obsessed with self-fulfillment and determined to be happy, what must cease at once is our perpetuation of our offsprings’ notion that in life we get what we want, that parents and the world at large are perfect caregivers—or even caregivers at all. Rather, in the words of Albee’s aged mother-composite, we must prepare the world’s young for the actualities of a life in which “surcease or a series of surceases” is our only joy. Truth is our only salvation. So long as we hide from our children the sad truth of our imperfections and our mutability, we must expect the tragic splits that rend mothers and children.

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“IN THREE TALL WOMEN ALBEE MOVES FROM HIS DEMONS TOWARD JOY, SURCEASE, AND DEATH”

Officiously, critics in the 1970s and 1980s often chided Edward Albee for drawing homosexual characters, like those in his Tiny Alice, too subtly, forming them implicitly rather than explicitly. With Three Tall Women, the upbraiders may be silenced. Albee’s newest male character, a defiant son who, in his forties, returns to kiss his bedfast mother’s hands and face—and who materializes on the stage as the youth who had packed his “attitudes” and left twenty years earlier—is strikingly portrayed by Howard Weatherall. The nature of the son evolves in frank phrases from the lips of his mother, delivered with chagrin by Myra Carter, who refers to her son and his friends as “he and his boys” and who laments, “He doesn’t love me, he loves those boys he has!” Yet, in the mother’s dotage, the son brings special gifts of candied orange peel and freesia and sees to happy outings for her.

New York critics who in 1983 misinterpreted the talentless former freak in Albee’s Man Who Had Three Arms as an intimate revelation of the author’s self may infer the present drama to be another little masochistic exercise, making amends for his “attitudes” as a teenager. If the play’s authorial intention is a coming to terms with self, Weatherall’s sincerity in the role of the son makes viewers long for their own second chance to reconcile with an aged parent as honestly as this character does.

The play’s form is as convoluted as one expects from Albee. Here he intrigues us with the work’s structure, forces us to figure out which of two worlds he is drawing us into—the totally naturalistic world of Act One, whose three tall women are a law clerk, a ninety-year-old mother and her nurse, or the presentationally-staged world of act two where a maternal, mystical identity falls to each actress.

The playwright’s penchant for puzzles unsettles even deeply-moved audiences who crowd the sold-out theatre. Rapt viewers may lose the beauty and tension of Albee’s language for those precious minutes they need to solve the problem of which Page 214  |  Top of Articleworld confronts them on stage. Yet critics’ complaints about structure are not so indicative of a play’s merit as the sentiment (as opposed to sentimentality) that an audience credits in the play. Albee’s long-time obsession with the orchestration of emotions and with theatrical effectiveness culminates here. Audiences applaud how effectively the playwright has rendered the mother’s guilt for infidelities and for failing to remain the pedestal-figure her son perceived her to be in his babyhood. Even so, the play’s structure may need a touch of the author’s clever directorial hand before moving from Vienna—a site Albee has called “off-off-Broadway”—to New York.

The cast’s delivery of the emotion in Albee’s language and in his subtext is cuttingly valid, particularly in act 2 when the actresses unfold the life of the mother at ages 26, 52, and 90. Carter is an electric presence on stage as the oldest maternal figure, and voices each bit of Albee’s dialogue so piquantly that what might have been, with a lesser actress, rambly and senile chatter about a lecherous father-in-law, a frigid sister, and deceased friends, instead etches the mother’s character just as finely as brush strokes create an amorphous WOLS leaf. Thus we feel the tension of the mother-character who suffers from her own infirmities. She won’t admit that she can no longer manage her finances, or that she is partner to her son’s long disaffection. Her resentment of male infidelity, her isolation by friends’ deaths, her guilt at indiscretions—each is a theme from earlier Albee works like his miniature American tragedy, The Sandbox, or his Pulitzer prize drama Delicate Balance, themes broadened and surging with life in Three Tall Women.

Representing the demanding and expectant youth of the mother, Cynthia Bassham is at once innocent and sophisticated. Bassham, who last year made indelible the naivete of Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, sashays in a sleek gown as a Bergdorf-Goodman fashion model who climbs the social ladder when she marries into wealth. Later, Bassham’s character, with haunted voice and mein, recoils at the prospect of living her life without joy. The actress’s expressive face is proud and stubborn in act 2 as she innocently balks at hints of what may be slated for her life; and her face is livid in act 2 when she sees the actualities descend upon her.

Kathleen Butler, who triumphed in Albee’s 1987’s Marriage Play as a disenchanted wife who would rather be hit than left, now creates a more put-upon figure as the shrewder, middle span of Albee’s composite mother. With humour the actress conveys the play’s authorial discernments on the sad consistency of life—that with a doctor’s firm slap and a hard first breath a baby comes in, and at the end, with a harder breath goes out. With strength and gravity, Butler demonstrates that a son’s sulks and attitudes may freeze mother-love for a spell no matter how desperately she wants to forgive him. Later, with conviction, Butler shines as her mid-life character announces that, though her life has been crammed with hurt, she has now climbed the hill from which one can look back halfway and ahead halfway—in Albee’s phrase, “the only time we have a three hundred and sixty degree view!”

After a painful search for serenity with the materialized components of her selves, Albee’s ultimate mother-image realizes that joy lies not in the events of our lives but in surcease when each of her conflicts ends. Alone, at the mercy of caregivers and her own infirmities, she rejoices in the surcease of anxiety over real or imagined results of her actions or misjudgments of the past. In Three Tall Women Albee moves from his demons toward joy, surcease, and death; perhaps now he will write for us of love instead of disillusion.

Source: Jeane Luere. Review of Three Tall Women in Theatre Journal, Vol. 44, no. 2, May, 1992, pp. 251–52.

SOURCES

Albee, Edward. “Which Theatre is the Absurd One?” in New York Times Magazine, February 25, 1962, pp. 30-1,64,66.

Appelo, Tim. A review of Three Tall Women in the Nation, March 14, 1994, p. 355.

Bigsby, C. W. E., editor. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Brantley, Ben. A review of Three Tall Women in the New York Times, April 13, 1994.

Brustein, Robert. A review of Three Tall Women in the New Republic, April 4, 1994, p. 26.

Canby, Vincent. A review of Three Tall Women in the New York Times, February 20, 1994.

A review of Three Tall Women in the Economist, April 23, 1994, p. 91.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd, Anchor Books, 1961, p. 316.

Farr, Richard. An interview with Edward Albee in The Progressive, August, 1996, p. 39.

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Helbig, Jack. A review of Three Tall Women in Booklist, April 1, 1995, p. 1372.

Henry III, William A. A review of Three Tall Women in Time, February 21, 1994, p. 64.

Kanfer, Stefan. A review of Three Tall Women in the New Leader, February 14, 1994, p. 23.

Lahr, John. A review of Three Tall Women in the New Yorker, May 16, 1994.

Samuels, Steven. An interview with Edward Albee in American Theatre, September, 1994, p. 38.

Taitte, Lawson. A review of Three Tall Women in the Dallas Morning News, September 8, 1996.

Yoffe, Emily. A profile of Edward Albee in Texas Monthly, May, 1993, p. 98.

FURTHER READING

Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969.

Amacher explains the playwright’s relationship to the Theatre of the Absurd, and attempts to establish his place in American theater during the first decade of his career.

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

In the second volume in this series, Edward Albee’s work is discussed alongside profiles of such American artistic notables as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

Bloom, Harold, editor. Edward Albee, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

This collection includes a dozen critical essays covering such topics as language in Albee’s plays, influences on the playwright, and the psychology of character in Albee’s work.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd, Doubleday, 1969.

Esslin’s treatise provided the context for a whole new genre within American drama. Albee’s work is placed in context with Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet.

Kolin, Philip C. Conversations with Edward Albee, University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

This is a wide-ranging collection of interviews with the playwright, conducted by notable playwrights, critics and actors.

Roudane, Matthew Charles. Understanding Edward Albee, University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Part of the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series, Roudane’s study analyzes Albee’s artistic output from The Zoo Story through The Man Who Had Three Arms.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Three Tall Women." Drama for Students, edited by David M. Galens, vol. 8, Gale, 2000, pp. 199-215. Gale Ebooks, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2693300023%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D67075db4. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693300023

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  • Absurdity
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 208-211
  • Aging
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 203
  • Ambiguity
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 210
  • Ajax: 1, 3, 5, 7-8, 11
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 201-203
  • Divorce
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 206
  • Bus Stop: 60, 62
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 199-200
      • 8: 207-211
  • Family Life
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 206
  • Gender Differences
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 203
  • Homosexuality
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 199
      • 8: 206-207
  • Marriage
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 205-206
  • Narration
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 204
  • Old Age
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 200-201
      • 8: 204
  • Plot
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 204-205
  • Realism
    • Three Tall Women
      • 8: 208-209