Edward Albee (1928-2016)
Art is to put us in touch with our greater possibilities.
We begin this essay by comparing Edward Albee’s experience to Siddhartha Gautama who became Buddha (The Awakened One). Buddha lived 2,500 years ago. He lived a sheltered life in his father’s palace until he was a young man married with a child. His father wanted to mold him into his heir and the ruler of a northern Indian kingdom, in other words, a wealthy prince. However, an artificial existence insulated from reality was not for him—he wanted to answer the First Great Question—Where am I?
Edward Albee was an adopted child, and it was his wealthy adoptive mother who wanted to mold him into a respectable member of New York society, a wealthy prince of the social elite. Albee, like Siddhartha was: “Brought up in an atmosphere of great affluence.”[i] As Siddhartha had fled into the real world of Indian society, Albee fled to Greenwich Village, the real world (for him at least) of American society.
After practicing so-called “austerities” for six years, Siddhartha had an insight while meditating—he discovered the First Noble Truth: Life is suffering. He was able to further define the causes of suffering and the way to end suffering. He had discovered the nature of transcendent reality. Edward Albee’s insights were much more modest but related nevertheless to the nature of human suffering within the world of the American upper classes. The causes of suffering in both worlds, the world of Siddhartha and Albee’s world, stemmed from the same fundamental cause—human unconsciousness or lack of awareness.
Albee discovered the ubiquitous false self and revealed what he observed in his work. The New York Times critic, Bruce Weber characterizes Albee’s work and his ability to see deeply into the human condition: “But it stands as representative, too, an early example of the heightened naturalism he often ventured into, an expression of the viewpoint that self-interest is a universal, urgent, irresistible and poisonous agent in modern life—‘There’s nobody doesn’t want something,’ as one of his characters said—that Mr. Albee would illustrate again and again with characteristically pointed eloquence.”[ii]
Albee also found the courage to look fearlessly at the P-B context containing the American false self. “Mr. Albee has unsparingly considered subjects outside the comfort zone: the capacity for sadism and violence within American society; the fluidness of human identity; the dangerous irrationality of sexual attraction and, always, the irrefutable presence of death.”[iii]
The dysfunction underlying the American community was seen by Albee as a composite of the self-destructive behavior of the individual. “Mr. Albee explained himself as a kind of herald, perhaps a modern Cassandra warning the theatergoer of inevitable personal calamity.”[iv] In 2004, he told the Guardian, “That’s the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people.”[v]
It is interesting to connect Albee to his contemporaries who were dealing with the same themes, namely, human suffering due to the lack of awareness: the Americans Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill and the Europeans, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Director/manager of Germinal Stage Denver, Ed Baierlein, describes Albee’s plays: “Although they may seem at first glance to be realistic, the surreal nature of Albee’s plays is never far from the surface.”[vi]
To understand Albee we must briefly place him in the context of the broader American and European narrative. Surrealism in The American Heritage Dictionary is defined as “A 20th-century literary and artistic movement that attempts to express the workings of the subconscious by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of subject matter.” And as “Having an oddly dreamlike or unreal quality.” The psychological theories of Freud and Jung at the turn of the century influenced all aspects of artistic expression including the theatre.
Surrealistic is not a bad characterization of not only contemporary American behavior but of all human behavior throughout human history. Surrealistic in the sense that human beings, being unconscious, live as if in a dream-world, where their behavior does not make sense given the nature of the reality that contains them. In short, humanity lives in P-A but we behave as if we live in P-B.
In Albee’s plays his character’s behaviors can at times seem absurd just as human behavior in general is inappropriate given the nature of reality. In Albee’s own words, he saw human beings behaving as if they were living in denial, in a “fiction.” Albee describes his work as “an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”[vii]
Again, like, many of our artist/prophets, Albee sees the danger of living in an illusory paradigm which drives self-destructive human behavior. A Delicate Balance, like his other plays can act as a wake-up call for humanity to stop the lies, denial and secrets that mesmerize us into thinking that everything is “peachy-keen.” The first step is to admit that “life is suffering.” From that honest expression of the experience of reality we can begin the journey beyond the unnecessary and unsustainable paradigm of human suffering. Albee’s art was just such an honest expression of what he experienced.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen
Some would say theatre of the absurd evolved to accommodate playwrights who wanted to deal with the kinds of themes suggested by Leonard Cohen’s song lyrics. Most of us find more than a little irony in our day-to-day lives. What does our suffering mean? How can we embrace such a life when opiates seem like a better solution? If we like our doses of reality in the theatre, then we cannot find a more fearless and focused playwright than Edward Albee.
[i] Baierlein, Ed. A Delicate Balance. Germinal Stage Denver, February 3, 2006.
[ii] Weber, Bruce. “Edward Albee, Trenchant Playwright of Desperate Era, Dies at 88.” The New York Times. September 18, 2016, page 23.
[vi] Baierlein, op. cit.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.