Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fair And a Delicate Balance-d?

While my fellow bloggers are linking to the LA Weekly interview with Edward Albee, I thought I would provide a link to 2004 New York Review of Books article written on the release of the first volume of Albee's Collected Plays.

The LA Weekly article has this presentation of a certain time in Albee's career:

Albee’s maintained a continuing attraction to the Theater of the Absurd (first revealed in his 1959 one-act Zoo Story, about a drifter who acts out his own murder, with the “help” of an upper-class editor). His growing disinclination to write plays with walls and couches, and his emulation of dramatists and poets such as Samuel Beckett, kept The New York Times’ drama critic, Walter Kerr, at a
critical distance from a series of plays written by Albee. Kerr was partly responsible for relegating Albee’s works toward European and university stages.

Well, the NYRB piece provides a different lens through which we can view this picture:

Tiny Alice is perverse on a number of levels. It was written, or at least finished, with John Gielgud, who was about sixty years old, in mind for the central character, but the Gielgud role is that of a young, naive, and probably virginal lay brother. Gielgud was also a magnificent but rather conservative classical actor and, according to Alan Schneider, who directed the première of Tiny Alice, was "baffled by the play itself [and] totally puzzled by the character he was supposed to play."

He wasn't the only one. Schneider himself, who was steeped in the
nonnaturalistic theater of Beckett and Pinter, subsequently confessed that "what that work was specifically saying, or how to make whatever it was saying clear, none of us was entirely sure—including, I believe Edward." Samuel Beckett wrote to Schneider, who had sent him the script, that "I didn't much like it when I read it. But too tired and stupid perhaps to get it, shall have another go." It seems safe to suggest that a play that made Samuel Beckett feel stupid is either fantastically clever or immensely silly.
Tiny Alice, which, after a sharp and intriguing opening scene between a lawyer and a cardinal, descends into a tedious and at times preposterous contemplation of the ineffability of God, is certainly closer to the latter quality than the former.

The problem with
Tiny Alice, however, was not that it was exceptionally bad. Most good playwrights are highly ambitious and their ambition inevitably leads to the odd disaster. In the intellectual climate of the mid-1960s, however, and with the self-justifying notion that Albee was really a European experimentalist who could not be understood by crass Americans, Tiny Alice was raised up as a cross on which Albee enacted his artistic martyrdom at the hands of the philistines. What should have been written off as a mistake to be learned from became instead a manifesto from which Albee was reluctant to retreat. The obvious truth that Albee's is an individual and idiosyncratic American voice was obscured by his image as a European absurdist on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

The article is well worth a read, and by the way, it is highly complimentary to Albee as a playwright. Most of the interesting stuff in the LA Weekly article is Albee's ability to frame the economic situation regarding theatre.

Regards to Tiny Alice, the question still rages among Albee enthusiasts. Was it a great play, just misunderstood? A 1998 production appeared to have gone a long way towards critically restoring it, at least on this side of the pond.

Ben Brantley, writing in the NYTimes said this:

No less a critic than Philip Roth dismissed her as the warped product of ''a homosexual daydream.'' And even arty theatergoers who swooned over mystifying foreign films like ''Last Year at Marienbad'' were indignant that a fine American playwright like Edward Albee would create such a baffling character in such a ponderous play. How dare he try to foist ''Tiny Alice,'' which featured an eminent cast led by John Gielgud and Irene Worth, upon savvy Broadway audiences?

A third of a century later, the stone throwers aren't looking so savvy.
Alice is back in New York, in Mark Lamos's ripping new revival at the Second Stage Theater, and -- guess what? -- she turns out to be a lot of fun.

Other critics agreed. And, in fact, this gels with Albee's way of always framing avant-gard theatre as a "good time."

Perhaps Beckett was just tired.


David Cote said...

I'm coming in a little later here, but I just want to say that Tiny Alice blew me away when I read it. In some ways, I consider it the first truly postmodern play of the American theater. Although Zoo Story inspired a generation of young writers to become downtown absurdists, Tiny Alice probably just baffled more than it inspired. But it's like Albee channelling Pirandello and Ionesco and his own particular slant. I reviewed it in 2000:

YS said...

Hi David,

Thanks for responding. I thought the writer of NYRB review was thoughtful, but, like you point out, it seems that the play has been redeemed as of late.