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May 19, 2006

David Womersley on what the Greeks would have made of the miseries endured by Edward Albee's three tall women: Three Tall Women - Edward Albee

Posted by David Womersley

Edward Albee's Three Tall Women
directed by Irena Brown
Oxford Playhouse Production

Oxford Playhouse, Oxford
27th April 13th May 2006

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
16th - 20th May 2006

Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge
23rd - 27th May 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews the Oxford Playhouse's production of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.

With Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1963) Edward Albee crowned himself as the laureate of marital hatred. Three Tall Women, written nearly thirty years later, deepens and generalises Albee's imaginative tenure of the terrain of domestic misery, and in particular of the sufferings some undeservedly inflicted by men, others of their own and arguably unnecessary creation undergone by women.

Three Tall Women is a play in two acts. Act One, composed in the mode of naturalism, is set in the bedroom of "A", an aged, rambling and incontinent widow of wealth, who is attended by "B", a long-suffering companion of middle years, and who is being visited by "C", a young female lawyer from the firm which looks after A's affairs. The act ends with A suffering a stroke on stage.

Act Two, in which the mode switches sharply away from the naturalistic, shares the same set with Act One: a bed occupies centre-stage, in which is enthroned a body representing the afflicted A, and which is in due course visited by a silent "Boy" her penitent son. However, around this bed stalk the same three actresses we have met in Act One, but now liberated from their initial parts. In Act Two they represent possibly three stages youth, middle age, senility in the life of the stroke victim on the bed, or more ambitiously perhaps three stages in the life of women in general. When the play is carried by actresses as accomplished as those in the Oxford Playhouse production Marjorie Yates, Diane Fletcher and Anna-Louise Plowman the transition from Act One to Act Two is charged with emotional force, as a dive deep below the social surface to an underlying drama of paradigms.

Albee has been frank about the biographical roots of this play. He was adopted at two weeks by Reed and Frances Albee, a rich Washington couple whose wealth was drawn from the theatre. Frances Albee was, we are told, a very tall woman, much taller and younger than her husband. She and her adopted son quarrelled furiously, and a rift of more than twenty years was only patched up during the final two decades of her life. Albee then imagined that their relationship had been made good, only to discover at the reading of the will that he had recently been written out as both executor and principal heir. The woman, it seems, was not to be appeased.

Is A then Frances Albee, and is Three Tall Women an act of dramatic revenge carried out by an embittered son? Albee himself has both acknowledged and put to one side the possibility of direct equivalence:

I knew I did not want to write a revenge piece could not honestly do so, for I felt no need for revenge. We had managed to make each other very unhappy over the years, but I was past all that, though I think she was not. I harbour no ill-will towards her; it is true I did not like her much, could not abide her prejudices, her loathings, her paranoias, but I did admire her pride, her sense of self. As she moved toward ninety, began rapidly failing both physically and mentally, I was touched by the survivor, the figure clinging to the wreckage only partly of her own making, refusing to go under . . . Very few people who met my adoptive mother in the last twenty years of her life could abide her, while many people who have seen my play find her fascinating. Heavens, what have I done?
Albee's mock dismay at apparently having extenuated the unabidable in Three Tall Women temporarily masks, of course, his genuine achievement in this play, that of escaping from his own concerns by transmuting them into drama.

What, then, does Three Tall Women suggest about the predicament of women in twentieth-century America? It finds consolation nowhere: husbands, children, wealth are all metamorphosed from blessings into curses. Marriage is a scene of sexual humiliation, then estrangement, devoid of genuine intimacy. Adultery is undertaken as revenge for the adultery inflicted, and stimulates only to acts of cruelty and cowardice. Children leave home, their attentions become perfunctory, and once again the impulse to punish and humiliate (on both sides) rises to be uppermost. Possession of riches produces only the fear of theft. Men are the source of women's misery, although not for the expected reasons the world of Three Tall Women is no rampant phallocracy, as A recalls that her husband possessed very modest physical endowments.

In Act Two B explains that women cheat in order to get back at their cheating husbands, and when asked why men cheat, can say only "Men cheat because they are men." That the play not only has nothing to say about male psychology, but writes the whole subject off as inscrutable or unconstruable, restricts its sensitive account of the passions and problems of women's lot to the status of description, rather than analytical understanding.

The play ends with a debate between the three actresses about what is the best period of life. A is given the last word, and proclaims with a fitting resonance that "the best is when it ends" (an audacious conclusion, in that to an unsympathetic audience it could court the mocking rejoinder of "Too true!"). As a statement about human happiness, it recalls the dangerous knowledge which Nietzsche thought lay at the root of all Greek tragedy, namely the realisation that the best is not only not to be, but never to have been, which Midas wrung from Silenus, the companion of Dionysos, when he questioned him as to man's greatest good:

Ephemeral wretch, begotten by accident and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it would be your greatest boon not to hear? What would be best for you is quite beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best is to die soon.
So to bring to mind the great drama of antiquity deepens and places Albee's play. Behind it stands the perennial ethical tradition of Western drama. But, at the same time, it is impossible not to realise that the essentially domestic miseries of Albee's three tall women would barely register on the moral pulse of the Greeks. For the ancient world's enlarged and exhilarating sense of all that thwarts the human desire for happiness, Albee substitutes something slightly shrunken and even, at bottom, sentimental. It is a stacking of the dramatic deck from which even a production as stylish and impressive as that of the Oxford Playhouse cannot in the end distract us.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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