When I was a teenager, I was crazy for Edward Albee. And I still love his work. In fact, I understand it a lot better than I did as a teen. Albee writes a lot about the aging process and the ways that people mature. The best example of this — and I would say his best play — is Three Tall Women. The first act involves a rich old woman who is dying. There is middle-aged woman who cares for her. And finally, there is a young woman — a lawyer who has come by to get some business matters taken care of. In the second act, the three actors become instances of the dying woman at those three times in her life. It is a remarkable and compelling way to tell her story.
More important, however, we get to see how the woman changes over time. The young woman is actually quite annoying in her moral certainty that she would never do things that the other women are telling her that she will, in fact, do. There is no one so slappable as a person who thinks themselves moral when they have never been tested. I know this is a very pessimistic look at life. But I can’t say that it isn’t entirely accurate. What’s interesting is that the woman is the very worst that we see from the pampered rich. So she has no real empathy for others. But see is at least able to accept who she is as she gets older.
It was only quite recently that I realized that what Albee does in Three Tall Women, he does in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’ve never liked that play as much as some of his others. Largely, I think, it is because the people are all so horrible and yet it is realistic. But like much of his work, I think it is best after one has grown up a bit and seen what happens to people.
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? we see two couples — both intellectual. The older man is George, a history professor; the younger man is Nick, a biology professor. George and his wife Martha have reached that sad point that I see in a lot of old relationships where they can only connect by abusing each other. Nick and his wife Honey are certainly past the infatuation phase of their relationship, but they haven’t gotten to the point of thinking abuse is a substitute for affection. But what’s remarkable — and horrific — is just how easily George and Martha are able to to entangle Nick and Honey in their sick games.
What is clear is that we could visit Nick and Honey in twenty years and we would find George and Martha. The implication is that the younger couple is as infertile as the older couple. So even if they don’t make up a fake son as George and Martha did, Nick and Honey will find some other mechanism by which they can avoid dealing with the reality of living in a marriage neither of them desires. And we know that mechanism will be negative and will reach out beyond them to poison others.
Albee was already 30 years old when he wrote his first play, The Zoo Story. He was in his mid-30s when he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And he was in his sixties when he wrote Three Tall Women. I think that in itself is telling. Even at 30, one begins to get a clue of the ways our engagement with the world changes. And Albee has always understood how systemic these things are. Even in The Zoo Story, Peter and Jerry are entirely products of their environments. Peter living in a squalid tenement is Jerry; Jerry with an upper-middle class upbringing and a college degree is Peter. You could say the same thing about Seascape — although obviously we are talking about different species, which makes the point especially clear.
I think that is what Albee is most focused on when he does his best work: the way that the environment manipulates us regardless of how we try to resist. This isn’t always the case. In lesser plays like Tiny Alice and The American Dream, I’m not sure that even he knows what he is trying to say. But the more real the characters are, the more they seem trapped by the circumstances that brought them into being. In this way Albee is anti-Romantic. There is no classical tragedy because the characters aren’t in control. They are just reactions to the stimuli of their environments.