Sex, Lies and Edward Albee

By Ray Schultz

In 1967, I bought a hardcover copy of Edward Albee’s play, A Delicate Balance in Boston, and with great anticipation started reading it on a train to Rhode Island. Unfortunately, my copy was misprinted and several pages transposed. I had to jump from page 4 to 48, double back to 16 and then move forward to page 28. But I did, and formed a lifelong admiration for the prose and humor. So what if it took a little work?

I mention this because A Delicate Balance is enjoying a revival on Broadway, featuring Glenn Close in the role of the matriarch Agnes. The play itself has gotten mostly good reviews, despite some misgivings about the production.

In 1966, critic Walter Kerr panned the play, complaining that hollowness is “offered to us on an elegantly lacquered empty platter the moment the curtain goes up.” Harry and Edna, best friends of the Agnes and Tobias, show up on their doorstep, suffering from an undefined terror: Kerr found it an unconvincing device. He was also put off by the ornate language.

But Kerr missed the comedy in the situation. Agnes’ and Tobias’ 36 year-old daughter also returns from her fourth marital debacle. People are crowding like they do in the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. How will the seemingly dominant Agnes and the ineffectual Tobias maintain their balance?

Yes, it’s talky, but the talk is bathed in acid. At one point, Tobias asks Agnes if she should apologize to her alcoholic sister Claire for something she said to her.

AGNES:

 I have spent my adult life apologizing for her; I will not double my humiliation by apologizing to her.

Moments later, it’s Claire who seems contrite.

CLAIRE:

 I must apologize, Agnes; I’m…very sorry.

 AGNES:

 But what are you sorry for, Claire?

 CLAIRE:

 I apologize that my nature is such to bring out in you the full force of your brutality.

In the end, the play examines the rights and obligations of friends and family. And it is truly moving as the wealthy but clueless Wasp couple grapples with these issues and others.

Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1967, A Delicate Balance never got its critical due until it was revived on Broadway in 1996 with Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch, and ran longer than it had in 1966-67. And this was all too typical for Albee.

Which is why I’ve long thought that the narrative of Albee’s career should be altered. Conventional wisdom has it that he lost his way after the early success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that ferocious drama, and that his writing became self-conscious. Flop followed flop, until he couldn’t get arrested on Broadway. Then, as the story goes, he came back in his 60s with Three Tall Women, about his adoptive mother. It opened in Vienna, then snuck into New York for a long run. Honors were heaped on him, including his third Pulitzer.

It’s a nice myth, but based too much on box office success. In his heyday, Albee was dismissed by critics, and savaged by homophobes who argued that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, perhaps his most famous play, was written about four gay men, not two heterosexual couples.

Yet Albee was a protean author, coming out with roughly a play a year, maybe more. He wrote experimental plays like Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, chamber pieces like Counting the Ways, adaptations like The Ballad of the Sad Café (from the novel by Carson McCullers), and major dramas that should have been more celebrated in their time—and later were.

Take All Over, which lasted for only 40 performances in 1971 A powerful man is dying, and the family holds a death watch. The wife and the mistress establish a strange rapport, even as the wife dismisses her son and daughter.

WIFE:

 You’ve neither of you had children, thank God, children that I’ve known of.

 I hope you never marry…either of you!

 Let the line end where it is…at its zenith.

Then there’s The Lady from Dubuque, an even more powerful look at the end of life, that ran for 12 performances in 1980. As Jo nears her demise from cancer, we realize what an impossible position her husband Sam is in, especially when Elizabeth, the Lady from Dubuque (the Angel of Death?) arrives to ease Jo’s way out.

SAM:

Do you want this? Hunh?

 Is this what you want!? Yes!?

 …Because if this is what you want, I’m not any part of it; you’ve locked me out. I…don’t exist. I…I don’t exist. Just…just tell me.

As you can see, I’ve long been a member of the Edward Albee fan club. In fact, it started when I read his first play, The Zoo Story, in The Evergreen Review.

Adopted when he was 18 days old by a rich but cold Larchmont family (“They bought me. They paid $113.33”), Albee left home at 18 and found his calling in Greenwich Village. He didn’t see his adoptive mother for 17 years.

That indeed led to one of his best and most personal plays: Three Tall Women. Critic Linda Winer called it “a devastating look at a certain kind of woman’s life to the end.”

In the second act, as the 92 year-old woman lays there dying, three versions of her younger self compare the stages of life. The youngest, C, age 26, learns more than she wants about her future. I’ll never become you—either of you. But she will. And she will find that Prince Charming has the morals of a sewer rat, and that their son has quit the family: He packed up his attitudes and he left! At some point, C. and B. discuss what they think are the happiest moments. A., the eldest, brings them up short.

You’re both such children. The happiest moment of all? Really? The happiest moment? Coming to the end of it, I think, 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.

Yes, that’s the happiest moment: When it’s all done. When we stop. When we can stop.

Not that Edward Albee has: He’s still writing at 86.

 

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