"From Delicate Absence to Presence: The Child in Edward Albee’s Alternating Families" by Réka M. Cristian
Réka M. Cristian is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Edward Albee’s plays present a specific world of ironic domesticity through the figure of the child which ranges from that of the adopted infant, real or imagined baby, young man, dead child, imaginary person, to that of grown-up homosexual son. According to Anne Paolucci Albee is a playwright who builds his characters from his own character, that is, he constructs “from the inside out” (5), and remodels the figure of the child who is alienated in and from the domestic, private world of American nuclear families. Regarding his themes and concerns, C.W.E. Bigsby considers Albee “a post-nuclear writer” (125). While for the critic the term “post-nuclear” clearly designates the post-war period in American drama, we can consider Albee as “post-nuclear” in a wider sense. On the one hand, because he lives in the post-war era and depicts the symbolic disintegration of the American nuclear family and the state of domestic affairs in the context of the period’s excessively consumerist society. Albee questions the frames of what the nuclear family was meant to represent: the indestructible unity of powerful fathers, beautiful, dutiful, loving mothers, and wise, nice children, and presents ironic alternatives to this idyllic domestic structure. On the other hand, in a period when criticism refuses to link art and life, the playwright consciously employs a considerable amount of personal stories that function as critical intertexts. In this sense, Albee is both a post-nuclear writer and commentator of his own works because his alternating families set in critical motion a variety of almost obsessive autobiographical elements. The aim of this essay is to map through these structural changes of the American post-nuclear family in a selection of Albee’s plays. The Sandbox (1960) and Three Tall Women (1991) present the child and the family in an explicitly personal perspective. The American Dream (1961) and A Delicate Balance (1966) discuss problematic family relationships. Finding the Sun (1983), The Play About the Baby (1998), and The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (2002) depict the changing figure of the child ranging from that of a baby to the openly gay son.
The following analysis is going to examine the construction of the child’s identity in Albee’s alternating families with the help of the homograph theory and of the dramatic blindspot. According to Lee Edelman, the homograph posits a significant difference within figures that “appear to be the same” (12-13). Homographesis is the process of double inscription, the issue of the same-and-different, in which one hides and uncovers a figure, character, etc. under the guise of a similar one. The homograph is, as Edelman claims, a double operation of “codifying identities,” which shows the difference within the same structure (17). In other words, it is the relation to a context which seems to validate one denotation over the other. In Albee’s dramas this is primarily the issue of homosexuality in the realm of the compulsory heterosexuality of the traditional, nuclear family. The “difference” in this case builds the identity of the child in variant forms within the seemingly same social arrangement, the family. The homograph of the dramas is here connected with the figure of the playwright. His family tabooed Albee’s homosexuality, a trauma concluded in his expulsion from the parental house and in the simultaneous rejection of him as a member of the (nuclear) Albee family. The child figures of Albee cover and uncover this traumatic experience and posit the autobiographical homograph as an alternative critical perspective―the rebirth of the author―that provides a more complex understanding of the dramas. Albee’s families depict alternative figures in an act of homographesis. This act exposes a metonymic shift as far as the child character is concerned. The trope of the child supplies the most important internal difference to the same family framework; it encodes and decodes the issue of homosexuality in Albee’s works and places this issue at the core of domestic relations. The dramatic blindspot is the concept I use for a character in a play that represents the visible part of the unsaid, the repressed, the unheimlich, the unfamiliar, strange figure who is the most important key to the understanding of the plot, in other words, it is the homographed character. This person―repeated under different forms similar to an isomorph combination―is usually absent, however, all characters refer to it directly or indirectly. In Albee’s dramas the dramatic blindspot is the figure of the child (Cristian 121-26, 152-58).
In the latest (1999) and most comprehensive biography of the playwright, Mel Gussow unveils the most important autobiographical aspects of Albee’s works. Although the Gussow biography refers to a variety of persons (Sophocles, Noël Coward, Eugene O’Neill, August Strindberg, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Anton Chekhov, Luigi Pirandello, Thornton Wilder, W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, James Thurber, Burr Tillstrom) that have influenced Albee’s literary world―some have been also named in the previous Wasserman interviews with the playwright―there are still a great number of plays that refer back to family members and relationships as inspiration and source material for many plays. Personal experience is intrinsically built through the trope of the child in the world of Albee’s plots and characters. His self-portrait in Gussow’s book, which is similar to the one unfolding in the “Preface” to Three Tall Women, depicts a person that has always participated in an act of artistic “schizophrenia” when creating his works.
I also think of myself as a bit of an observer, not a removed observer, a clinical observer so that one can make valid and objective decisions about things. It ties in with the ability to participate in something and at the same time observe oneself participating. It’s a sort of schizophrenic thing a lot of writers have. I can be involved in an intensely personal moment of my life and I can also observe myself participating in it. (qtd. in Gussow 19-20)
The intricate relationships of personal references culminate in a multifaceted Albee family. As Enikő Bollobás points out, Albee’s parent-child connections are the type of liaisons always saturated with painful conflicts (753). It is perhaps due also to these relationships that the playwright has been termed as a writer of the American absurd. What is striking in Albee’s dramatized families is the issue of lack, mostly the lack of child or children. The fact that the author himself was an adopted child made him feel like an interloper, a transient person, one who remained longing for unattainable family relations. This wish has been creatively turned into fiction. In talking about the subject of his identity as an adopted child Albee finds vital connections between his life and his identity as a playwright with the world of his dramas and vice versa. In the 1999 biography Gussow writes that Albee “used to care about it [his natural parents]” (403), but when he discovered that he “was a writer,” (43) he managed to find out who he was through his plays.
Memory Plays: Young Men and Tall Women, Sons and Mothers
There are two Albee plays that have been considered until now to be explicitly autobiographical. One is The Sandbox, a cameo tribute to the author’s maternal grandmother, and Three Tall Women, which was “conceived” as an act of reconcilliation with his adoptive mother, Frances (Frankie) Albee. It was written for and about his maternal Grandma Cotter, “a crotchety, very amusing woman,” who considerably “brightened Albee’s childhood” (Gussow 135). She was his “natural ally” (135) against Albee’s mother, her own daughter. Grandma Cotter was thus his closest relative with whom he formed a lasting and profound attachment; she was like a real parent to the young author. The estranged parents did not tell Albee of Grandma’s death in 1959, which entailed that he was not present at her funeral either. Later he transposed his personal farewell into a short drama under the subtitle “A brief play in memory of my grandmother (1876-1959).” William Flanagan, Albee’s mentor and companion at the time provided the background music for this short drama.
The characters of The Sandbox include a crude Mommy and a hen-pecked Daddy, who are just about to do away with a sympathetic Grandma. The old lady is taken away and is soon to die in a place that is described as a “bare stage” containing a “large child’s sandbox with a toy pail and shovel” (8), which suggests both a playground for children and a cemetery for the old. The “sandbox” connotes the sentimentally vacuous “uninhabitable” (Gussow 30) house of the rich Albees where the playwright grew up and learned to play and where Grandma Cotter died. The couple does not seem to have any children. Grandma is the third member of the family. She is placed in an infantile sandbox, her voice is a “cross between a baby’s laugh and cry” (11). The context of the play suggests that the sandbox here symbolizes both the cradle and the coffin while the baby sounds coming from the old body stand for birth and death. The figure of the child in this play is a symbolic one, called the Young Man. He is “doing calesthetics,” (9) a series of movements that recall “the beating and the fluttering of wings” (9) which suggest that this character is “the Angel of Death” (9). Grandma calls him “honey” (15) because the Young Man has no proper name. He is an actor who does not even know his name because “they haven’t given” him one yet, “they” being the impersonal construct of “the studio” (15), an artificial domain that replaces the domestic one. The “studio” alludes to and what is more, recalls the chain of over four hundred theaters and the Vaudeville Manager’s Association owned and run by the Albee family that adopted the playwright (Gussow 22-23). Grandma therefore acknowledges that he is an “actor” (15) who’s “got that […] Got a quality” (20). The Young Man, similar to Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) is “good-looking, well built” (8). He gives Grandma in The Sandbox the final tender touch, a farewell: “The Young Man bends over, kisses Grandma gently on her forehead” (20). As a final sign of grandmaternal affection Grandma responds in a manner in which Mommy would never have responded to him: “Well… that was very nice, dear…” (20). The Sandbox presents a family in disintegration: Mommy and Daddy get rid of Grandma and with her, of their possible child, who, in a paradoxical turn, is represented by the figure of the Young Man.
In the “Introduction” to Three Tall Women, Albee confessed that it took him all his life to write the play (i). The “schizophrenic ability” (iii) of both writing-the-lived and living is emphasized here. In this case it is the lack of love in his relationship with his adoptive mother―and the lack of his biological mother―that become converted in the textual form of his dramas. Brenda Murphy claimed that this play is “scrupulously honest” (106). The scene of act 2 in Three Tall Women always moves the playwright. This is, according to Gussow, when “the son, Albee’s surrogate, comes onstage and sits by the bedside of his mother” (17). In the “Introduction” to this most personal play one reads that the drama coincides with Albee’s “first awareness of consciousness,” (i) which has been finally and explicitly recorded. “I translated fact into fiction” (iii) Albee claimed. The memory game of the dialogues and the remembering(s) that are implied in Three Tall Women attempt to regress to a primal state of grace, to the figure of a biological mother the playwright himself has never known. Frankie (Frances) Albee Loring Cotter was a “mannequin,” (24), a “very tall woman” (Gussow 25), who loved money, clothes and horseriding. This play places in symbolic opposition the masculine, powerful figure of an adoptive mother with that of the mother as a caring, loving person.
Three Tall Women is a family drama and an exorcist play. The character A and her unnamed husband, who likes only tall women stand for Reed Albee and Frances (Frankie) Albee. The son of A not only bears the trademark of the playwright Albee but is closely identified with him. Bigsby draws attention to the fact that the silent young man, who is the fourth figure in the play, is “plainly Albee, observing, present yet not a full player in a drama in which the old woman is the primary actor, staging her death as she has her life” (149). There is a special monologue in the play, which is given by B, who is in fact a younger version of the central figure, A. As Mária Kurdi suggests, the women in _Three Tall Women_―like the characters A, B, C in Samuel Beckett’s _That Time_―are centered around a specific dramaturgy that “explores the multiplication of their respective characters” (155) where the “notion of the different and same” are intertwined in order to enact the “continuities and discontinuities” (161) of the self. The self is materialized here in a less homogenous character, namely in A, who is the product of Albee’s reconciling attempt to put together the fragmented memories of his adoptive mother, which resulted in a memory play similar to The Sandbox. The character B recalls an episode of lovemaking she had with a groom in a stable stall (94), an affair that her son (the Young Man) discovered. The (in)direct reference to A/Frankie is made clear, since Frankie herself was a horsewoman and Albee said that this scene was his own literary wish-fulfillment (qtd. in Gussow 28). Albee liked to think that his mother had a liasion with the groom. The truth was that the playwright himself “was in love with the groom’s son” (qtd. in Gussow 28). This can be counted as one of the early signs of homosexuality, which Albee, like Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert or Tennessee Williams, later projected into the literary realm of famous women characters, and which constitute the essential background for the dramatic blindspot of his works. Foster Hirsch observed that “homosexual imagery and character types are represented indirectly in Albee’s plays” while one of his “many screens as a writer is the one he erects between himself and the subject of homosexuality” (118-19).
The child figure of Three Tall Women is the silent Young Man, or the Boy, who is 23 years old and wears a preppy dress. This character is described by C, who is the younger version of B and A. In act 2 the Young Man appears as “the son” who is “how nice, how handsome, how very…” (89). The sentence is not finished, nor is the characterization finalized and the image of the Young Man fades into silence. A and B cannot forgive the Young Man. They “play the game” (91) but “never forgive him” (92) because he “never belonged” (92). They reject his homosexuality, and accordingly, taboo the subject. The Young Man does not talk, and he does not even utter a word, his presence is only physical, not verbal. Bigsby sees here another autobiographical connection between the figure of the Young Man and the playwright:
No wonder, then that the young man never speaks. There is nothing he can say that will interest her […]. It was, presumably, why the young Albee had left home. His parents had no interest in granting him autonomy. That came when he sat down to write a play in which what he had seen and heard was reshaped into a drama in which he could finally speak the woman who effectively silenced him. (150)
The figure of the Young Man appears also in The American Dream and in The Sandbox. He is a recurring character in varied forms: Teddy in A Delicate Balance, Fergus in Finding the Sun, or YAM (Young American Playwright vs. Famous American Playwright) in FAM and YAM (1960). In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he is the enigmatic, fictional son of Martha and George.
The cold emotional encounters depicted in Three Tall Women recall Albee’s unbalanced relationship with his mother. In act 1 A says that “he loves his boys, those boys he has” and that he “doesn’t love me and I don’t know if I love him” (59). This was the situation with Frances Albee, who never accepted her son’s homosexuality. He ran away from home and came back only to pay formal visits when Frances Albee was old and ill. According to the playwright she, unfortunately, had never had a tender word for her son and even disinherited him in the end (Gussow 342). Frances Albee died without any sign of affection towards the child who was longing for it. The verbal games of love and hate within family relationships are textually encoded on the basis of the dramatist’s own experiences, and focus mainly on family matters or are anchored in domestic realms. The figure of Frances haunts Albee’s plots. She is present as A in Three Tall Women, Mommy in The Sandbox and in The American Dream, Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she is embodied in the character of Agnes in A Delicate Balance, of Edmee in Finding the Sun, of the old Woman in The Play About the Baby, and Stevie in The Goat or Who is Sylvia?.
Families and Dreams: The Delicate Absence of Balances
A Delicate Balance is a family play that “draws deeply” from Albee’s memories “of life in Larchmont […] from his second childhood home, the Hommocks, the house that his parents moved to after the death of his maternal grandmother” (Gussow 254). The dramatic family consists of Tobias and Agnes, who are married and have a daughter, Julia. They were inspired by real persons, Frances and Reed Albee and by Frances’s sister Jane (254), who was an alcoholic. In A Delicate Balance, Claire is Agnes’s alcoholic sister who lives with Tobias and Agnes. Julia―recalls Albee’s cousin, Barbara, another adopted child (254)―has just arrived home from yet another of her mismatched marriages. Harry and Edna are old friends of Tobias and Agnes. They have the same name as Harry and Edna Winston, the neighbours and business friends of the Albees (Gussow 26). According to the playwright the choice of these two names was based on the fact that these people would have been “the last people” his own parents “would have taken in” because of his mother’s casual prejudices and “in particular her anti-Semitism, because the Winstons were Jewish” (qtd. in Gussow 40). In the drama Harry and Edna bring into the house of Tobias and Agnes a sense of fright that will ultimately inhabit most characters of the play. Harry and Edna depart from the house after a night of exorcisms similar to the “Walpurgisnacht” and “Exorcisms” in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Following Martha’s and George’s verbal fights over an imaginary child in Who’s Afraid Nick and Honey, the guests, also leave but the “who’s afraid” game continues to a certain extent in A Delicate Balance, a play built on the pattern of the characters’ arrival and departure.
The first and most significant departure in the play was “performed” by Tobias’ and Agnes’ son, Teddy, who died young. He is the actual catalyst of the pain, fright and emotional terror in the house. His death is embedded in mystery and he is only seldom mentioned. The mishap of Tobias’ and Agnes’ inability to communicate lies buried in the loss of their dead child, Teddy, who is the dramatic blindspot of the play (Cristian 210). The figure of Teddy is echoed in Julia’s marriage with Charlie, who seems to be what Teddy could have been, “a fag” (Albee 49). Tobias does not want to have any more children because he is afraid of losing them as he had lost Teddy. The life of Tobias and Agnes is since then “sad, disgusted” love “racked with guilt” (88-89).
The sense of failure produced by Teddy’s absence is repetitively echoed in the failed and infertile marriages of Julia. Tobias, as the head of the family is, according to his wife, the only person who could have “pushed” Julia back into the matrix of compulsory family romance. He fails in this regard, too. Julia will instead remain with her parents and remind them of the void Teddy left behind in their house. What is repressed in the house of Agnes and Tobias is not named in the house of their friends, Harry and Edna. The most intimate moments of friendship between Tobias and Harry are symbolically connected with the dead Teddy, who is suggested to have become gay. In the house of their friends, the couple Harry and Edna are sharing a sense of fright of unknown origin. The taboo subject of homosexuality, the unsaid desires, the lack of love and communication are not stated by Edna or by Harry, all they know is that they “got scared” and―as Martha in the final part of _Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?_―they are afraid of this unsaid, undefined thing (37-39).
By the end of A Delicate Balance, as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, all the characters know what they are afraid of. Agnes explains this in terms of the invisible realm of the “darkness” which is analogous to the issue of the dramatic blindspot in the drama. Teddy embodies the terror of love and hate. All the characters, directly or indirectly, define themselves in terms of this enigmatic child figure. Teddy, the dead gay son makes it possible for them “to let the demons out” (108) and stands as point of reference for all family members who try to live out their dreams and nightmares. In a creative process of “some transference” (Gussow 263) Teddy in A Delicate Balance represents the young Albee, who left the house of his parents when it turned out that he was gay and never returned, that is, symbolically died. Julia is a replacement, a homograph-character who accumulates other persons’ attitudes, she is the “referred” one (Albee qtd. in Gussow 262) in the absence of Teddy. The symbolic connection between Julia and Teddy in a “kind of twindom” (263) is one that repeats a similar sibling relationship in The American Dream.
The characters in The American Dream replicate those in The Sandbox and are “filled with references to scenes from Albee’s life” (Gussow 141). The basic family consists of Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma. There is also a secondary character, Mrs. Barker. The dramatic blindspot of the play is the issue of a child that is adopted, killed and later replaced by its twin brother. The plot of The American Dream is rooted in the desire of Mommy and Daddy to have a child they call―like Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and later the characters from _The Play About the Baby_―the “bumble of joy” (46). The couple is “sad.” They are childless and they blame each other for this. However, they agree on “purchasing” an offspring. Therefore, the ironically named Mommy and Daddy “buy” and adopt―as Albee adapts his adopted-child memories here―a baby from an agency with the help of a saleswoman, Mrs. Barker. After the purchase of the child they find that it does not live up to their expectations, therefore they literally dismember him in order to adapt him to their needs. Since the baby boy does not change as a result of their desperate attempts, the couple mutilate the child to death, after which, as good consumers, they ask for a better replacement.
The procedure of adoption as purchase, and the figure of the adopted child can be connected here with the playwright’s own adoption. On March 12, 1928 the New York Alice Chapin Adoption Nursery placed an eighteen days baby (the young playwright) with Reed A. Albee and Frances C. Albee, who bought the “tiny […] little twig of a thing” for $133.30, that represented the cost of “professional services” (Albee qtd. in Gussow 22). As a result, Edward Franklin Albee III became part of an “old American family” (23) whose members were not satisfied with him after he grew up. The feeling about his adoption was to become “one of the most important factors” (Gussow 22) in the author’s life and this traumatic episode paved the way for his most well-known dramas, especially The American Dream, Three Tall Women, The Sandbox and The Play About the Baby. The Young Man here as the alter ego of the playwright is “an image which recurs” (Bigsby 129) throughout Albee’s dramatic work.
While waiting for their consumerist “satisfaction,” the would-be parents of The American Dream symbolically repeat the scene of the child-purchase and invent a fictional “van man.” This fictive character is supposed to take Grandma away if she does not behave the way Mommy and Daddy want her to. “There is no van man,” Mommy says, “we made him up” (58) as the “little bugger” (48) was made up in Who’s Afraid. The invention of the van man is the couple’s renewed attempt to have a child in the family. This new character is the Young Man, whom Grandma takes for the van man and who, at the end, surprises Mommy and Daddy with his appearance. He is “almost insultingly good-looking in a typically American way” (51) who “ought to be in the movies” (51) like the angelic Young Man in The Sandbox or the young playwright to whom, according to a 1945 photograph of Albee, Gussow refers as an “ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical out-of-the-way young man” (65). The Young Man in this drama is “the American Dream” impersonated and certainly not the “van man” the couple thought of. However, this character bears a striking resemblance to the dead child, who is the dramatic blindspot of the drama. Even Mommy realizes that he has “something familiar” (53, 60) about him. The Young Man is a homograph that encodes narcissistic love under the guise of fraternal love, he is the same-but-different child of the drama:
YOUNG MAN. … My mother died the night that I was born, and I never knew my father, I doubt that my mother did. But, I wasn’t alone, because lying with me… in the placenta … there was someone else … my brother … my twin… But we were separated when we were still very young, my brother, my twin and I … inasmuch as you can separate one being. We were torn apart … thrown to opposite ends of the continent … I suffered losses … that I can’t explain. A fall from grace … a departure of innocence … loss … loss. (54)
The Young Man goes through the same traumatic experience as the couple’s purchased child. Being twins, they are identical. He knows that he had a twin brother and feels his lost brother’s traumas. According to Gussow Albee was also often concerned about the question of his possible or probable siblings. He even thought of the idea of having—similarly to Thornton Wilder—an identical twin, who was “stillborn” (Gussow 22-23). The twins in The American Dream are not stillborn, one of them dies and the other is spiritually dismembered when his twin brother is mutilated. While the adopted baby was made literally “incomplete,” the one that replaces him becomes figuratively “incomplete.” He is finally invited by Grandma to join the family she leaves. The Young Man, who looks like the American icon of beauty, becomes the American Dream boy that will brighten the life of Mommy and Daddy in a parody of the consumerist society in this drama about “social inanities” (Cohn 11) and surreal families.
Lost and Found: Post-nuclear Babies and Sons
The Play About the Baby is a chamber play that deals with recurring obsessions about parenthood by focusing primarily on the issue of the baby. According to critics, this drama “recapitulates themes” (Bigsby 152) from Albee’s early works, and “evokes favorite motifs in a different style” (Gussow 397). As Ruby Cohn observed, this play, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, erodes “pernicious family pieties” (229). The plot centers on a baby whose existence is, “to say the least, problematic” (Bigsby 152). An elder couple, Woman and Man complement the characters Girl and Boy, who seem(ed) to have a baby that disappears by the end. They remind one of other Albee couples: Martha-George and Honey-Nick, Agnes-Tobias and Edna-Harry, or repeat the pattern of Albee’s Mommies and Daddies. Girl and Boy, as well as Woman and Man―all generalizing names that denote only the gender of the characters in a strict heterosexual matrix―depict post-nuclear couples who are not necessarily married, unlike Mommy and Daddy. This suggests that in this play the institution of marriage and family is represented through either real or fake parenthood. The very concept of family as such is validated here with the existence of the child regardless of its sex. It is Woman and Man who are the most conspicuous in this visibly painful hide-and-seek game of emotional terrorism and it is Man and Woman whose relationship stabilizes by the end while the relationship between Girl and Boy becomes destabilized. Woman and Man prove to be mature, while Girl and Boy, despite their bodily development, are pushed into a regressive process. The play interrogates issues of biological and social parenting, the tropes of paternity and maternity that are “derived from Albee’s lifelong obsession with the meaning of parenting” (Gussow 309). As Gussow claims, the impetus for writing The Play About the Baby might have been the playwright’s “own curiosity about his birth and adoption” (309).
The baby is real even if it is not made visible because Girl has given birth to it. In an interview Albee affirms the child’s existence: “We see its blanket. She’s nursing a blanket. She’s not crazy. And she has mother’s milk, so obviously she’s had a baby” (qtd. in Gussow 398). What seems to be reality for a character is absurd for an other, unless the absurd turns real. Woman and Man turn real into absurd and steal the baby of Girl and Boy, a deed they deny by negating the very existence of the baby. The baby constitutes the dramatic blindspot of the play and is the homograph character that encodes both the issues of birth (“baby”) and adoption (“nothing”).
GIRL. WHERE IS THE BABY?! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH THE BABY? MAN. What baby? (Silence) WOMAN. Yes, what baby? (Tableau). (28)
The play is a disturbing account “about life” (de la Tour qtd. in Gussow 398). Life for the young characters is reality, as they perceive it in their bodies. However, as Albee claims “reality is determined by one’s need” and therefore Girl and Boy “realize they cannot take the pain and loss of having a baby, so it ceases to be real” (Albee qtd. in Gussow 398). The final touch of the child’s mystery is provided by Man, the wizard figure of the play who decides about the existence of the baby like George in Who’s Afraid.
MAN. Ladies and Gentlemen! See what we have here! The baby bundle! The old bundle of baby! (Throws it up in the air, catches it, Girl screams) […] (To Boy and Girl) I know what I‘m doing …. The old baby bundle―treasure of treasures, light of our lives, purpose―they say―of all the fucking, all the … well, all the everything. Now the really good part, the part we’ve all been waiting for! (He takes the bundle, snaps it open, displays both sides, we see there is nothing there.) […] You see? Nothing! No baby! Nothing! (Girl goes to blanket, Man gives it to her, she searches it, cuddles it, weeps. To Girl) You see? Nothing. (48)
If in Who’s Afraid Albee was advocating “the exorcism of the non-existent child” (qtd. in Rutenberg 231), in The Play About the Baby he manages to transform the exorcism of the two young characters’ reality into absurdity, in a burlesque battle over a baby whose gender remains a secret. Woman and Man decide that the “brave” and “wise” (50) Girl has no baby. They advise the young to learn from “wounds” (50). Boy finally acknowledges, too, that there is “[N]o baby” (51). The young couple remains questionably traumatized while the elder one leaves the stage and the play ends in a denial of the Girl’s and Boy’s baby in an atmosphere of almost tragic sacrifice. However, Girl hopes to have another baby “maybe later” when they “are older” (50). The plot of this drama might suggest―beside the game of illusion and reality―a possible adoption that happens after the baby’s kidnapping. The dramatic blindspot is the figure of the baby, who is homographed into the “wound.” In this sense The Play About the Baby echoes the theme of the purchased and adopted child in The American Dream, and also the playwright’s adoption―as a baby―by the Albee couple (Gussow 22). The figure of the baby is real and fictional at the same time like that of an adopted child with unclear origins. In talking about the fictional son of Martha and George in Who’s Afraid Albee says that “the fantasy child can be just as real as any real child” (qtd. in Rutenberg 230) and, indeed, this is the issue also in The Play About the Baby, Albee’s other tour de force in the exorcism of the child figure.
Finding the Sun tracks down the progressive trajectory of the sun, a development followed by a group of characters on a beach. These characters, mostly couples, unveil their hidden stories and seem able to survive only by finding the sun that symbolizes life. The play consists of a polyphony of voices and stories. The characters have equally genuine stories to tell and their telling and acting culminate when the sun is at the zenith. In “Better Alert than Numb” Christopher Bigsby remarked that this play is about the “parabola of experience, from innocence through anxiety to a growing alarm as time runs out and the body runs down” (149). Abigail and Benjamin are recently married like Cordelia and Daniel. Both couples encounter difficulties in their marriage, because Benjamin and Daniel were once intimately “involved” (11). Edmee and Fergus, a mother and her son have also a problematic relationship because she is a possessive mother. Gertrude and Henden are an elderly married couple. Gertrude has skin cancer and Henden is dying. All have stories to tell before the sun disappears. Their stories are all related to some extent to the queer story of Benjamin and Daniel. The individual stories of the characters tend to converge into a common plot, which is “finding the sun.” The trope of the sun comes to materialize in the figure of Fergus, the son of Edmee, who is, by virtue of age, the only genuine child character in the drama and the dramatic blindspot to whom all relate. The stories of the characters unfold as the sun ascends on the horizon. The sun suddenly disappears and returns only when Fergus vanishes, that is the sun returns in a ritualistic exchange for the death of the son.
The youngest character, Fergus, is in search of his identity while the oldest character, Henden, is the one who sheds light on alternative ways of being. The setting and situation in this play allude to a similar context in The Sandbox. In Finding the Sun Henden is taking the role of Grandma, and Fergus becomes the Angel of Death, that is, the Young Man. Fergus, who is the protagonist of the play, finds out about the secret of Benjamin and Daniel from Henden, Daniel’s father. The play entails the homographed story and the characters of two men, who are bound in heterosexual relations during the plot time of the drama. Benjamin and Daniel perform a homographed subplot while being married to women. The sixteen-year-old Fergus is, in virtue of his dramatic function, the blindspot character. He is a “blond, handsome, healthy kid” with a “swimmer’s body” (4) and resembles the young Albee, who was also a blond child and loved swimming (Gussow 41). Fergus―whose name is linked with the trope of the sun in the Celtic mythology of the Fenian Cycle and whose name in Gaelic (Fearghus) means “man-ability”―is in search of his own sun-ray on the beach and through this symbolic act, like the playwright in his own plays, is in search of his own identity. He tells Henden―similarly to the Young Man in _The American Dream_―that he is incomplete because he has never been in love with anyone. Edmee, the stylish matron takes excessive care of him. She is the warding mother who has an enigmatic name recalling the doubling of the nickname of the playwright: Ed and the reflexive, narcissistic me (Ed + [me]e). Edward (Harvey) was the name that the playwright’s biological mother had given him and it remained a strong bondage “continuing to link to his otherwise unknown past” (Gussow 22, 343). Fergus and Edmee in the play mirror each other. Edmee explains her identification with her son, a relationship concluding in an obsessive attachment on the part of the mother, a human connection that reflects the inversion of the mother-child relationship present in almost all dramas of Albee:
EDMEE. Well, now, to answer your question―your pry, to be more accurate, about Fergus. What he is to me is too much. He is my son―he is: real mother, real son. And since my husband died―his father―he has been the “man” in my life, so to speak … There is, I think―there may be―an attachment transcends the usual, the socially admitted, that is, by which I mean: given the provocation, Fergus would be me in a moment. A mother knows these things and even admits knowing them … Sometimes. He doesn’t know it, or, if he does sense it, is polite or shrewd enough to pretend he does not. (15)
Because of the excessive identification with his mother as discussed above, Fergus is the most complex figure of the play and he is the “son” that all other characters seem to care most about. Fergus is a handsome, healthy “kid” with an uncertain identity in all regards―similar to the Young Man in The American Dream, The Sandbox and _Three Tall Women_―a narcissistic personality who, like the playwright, willingly-unwillingly relates himself to the figure of a strong maternal figure.
The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? is the playwright’s most recent play that deals with love as a profoundly disturbing subject. As in The Marriage Play (1987) there is a couple, Stevie and Martin, who find themselves in marital crisis. Martin, a 50-year-old architect has an extramarital affair with a goat, “a shameless livestock hussy called Sylvia” (McNulty 2002). Martin and Stevie have a gay son, Billy, who is a synthesis of the author’s previous child figures. If Three Tall Women was intended to be an act of peacemaking of the playwright with his adoptive mother, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? is a literary gesture of reconciliation with both his parents. In this regard, the later play overcomes the painful issue of surrogate parenting and moulds this topic into an acceptance of parenting and parents. The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? works like a wish-fulfillment in terms of autobiographical traumas. It boils down the painful issues of adoption and the rejection of homosexuality into the existence of a real child, a gay figure who finally becomes accepted by its family, like Billy in the play. However tensed the situation in their home, Billy is content because the parents accept him as he is.
BILLY. […] I have been living with two people about as splendid as you can get; that I’d been born to other people, it couldn’t have been any better. […] You two guys are about as good as they come. You’re smart, and fair, and you have a sense of humor […] you’ve figured out that raising a kid does not include making him into a carbon copy of you, that you’re letting me think you are putting up with me being gay far better than you probably really are. (100)
The Goat or Who is Sylvia? portrays a seemingly basic American family: a mother, a father and a gay boy. The couple had raised the child and they are “putting up” (100) with him being gay “far better” (100) than they show, far better “than a lot of Moms and Dads have” (100) or far better than Albee’s parents did. The relationship between Billy and his parents seems to be a loving one but the institution of marriage is not stable any more. On the one hand, Billy truly loves Stevie, his mother, and at the end he also shows sincere signs of affection towards Martin, his father, despite their frequent quarrels. On the other hand, Stevie and Martin love their child in their own manner but succeed in hurting him through their marital fights. They consider the child as an almost necessary accessory, an appendix to their marriage and accordingly, reduce him, from time to time, to the level of an eight-year-old child. However, they never reject him as Albee’s other couples. Billy is with his parents most of the time, and like Claire in A Delicate Balance, he participates in watching the verbal fights of his parents. The sexual identity of the child does not convey any visible problem in this drama. He is a separate entity within the confinement of the domestic space. Unlike most of the previous child figures of Albee, he finds acceptance within his family. The couple produces the domestic problem that goes far beyond the issue of the child. The blindspot of this drama is Sylvia, the goat. “She” (63) is homographing here―instead of gay characters―the issue of (universal) love as such, regardless of its object. The other play with a questionmark in its title, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, works with the similar trope of love. This often goes beyond the figure of the child despite the fact that it seems to be the focal point of the couple’s (and frequently of the reader’s) interest. J. Ellen Gainor remarked that Albee’s plays mirrored a perennial concern with the dysfunctional family (203). However, it is The Goat with which Albee challenges one to radically rethink the categories of dominant or hetero-normativity (213).
The Goat or Who is Sylvia? is a sophisticated domestic play with Strindbergian dramaturgy, where each character tries to outwit the other in an “increasingly annoying game of semantic hairsplitting” (McNulty). The renewed verbal murders of Albee lead to the exorcism of the love object, a goat. The goat is finally sacrificed and brought home by the revengeful Stevie. The family’s delicate balance is re-established. Billy and Stevie, son and mother, in a seemingly strong union here―like the Young Man and C at the end of _Three Tall Women_― finally reconcile with Martin but the question of the nature of love within and outside the family still remains to be solved. The cruelty and kindness game that appears here was foretold by Jerry in Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story (1959). The domestic realm in The Goat or Who is Sylvia? reformulates the nuclear structure of Albee’s dramatic family through finely tuned, delicately balanced love-hate ties that manage to transcend gender issues.
The plays of Albee discussed above have a solid autobiographical basis, a core on which the dramatic blindspot and the homographesis are mostly built on. However anachronistic it might sound, the reading of drama through autobiography calls for the “rebirth of the author.” In contemporary criticism where feminist, queer, gay, lesbian, as well as postcolonial theories point out the distinctive importance of the identity and name of the author, it would be intellectual ignorance not to use the abundance of creative links between a (still living) author and his/her texts, a strategy that greatly helps the reader/spectator to develop a more detailed understanding of literary works. Albee’s plays are linked by a basic theme which is human relations within the family, with special regard to the figure of the child who bears an “ironic self-referentiality” (Bigsby 153). The Sandbox and Three Tall Women portray the figure of the Young Man who is prominent among the gay characters of Albee’s families. The playwright took the “people of his imagination” (Gussow 403) and portrayed (himself as) the Young Man. Among the suggested gay characters is the absent Teddy from A Delicate Balance, the twin brother of the Young Man in The American Dream, Fergus in Finding the Sun, and Billy in The Goat or Who is Sylvia?. The Play About the Baby tackles the issue of parenthood and adoption through the figure of a baby with unspecified gender. The family here is dismembered with the child’s origin rendered unclear.
Mommy and Daddy in The Sandbox and in The American Dream, Agnes and Tobias in A Delicate Balance, Woman and Man, together with Girl and Boy in The Play About the Baby, Gertrude and Henden in Finding the Sun, and Stevie and Martin in The Goat or Who is Sylvia? constitute basic family constructs for Albee. In a ritualized transaction they symbolically stand for the characters of his adoptive parents. The female characters that are mostly based on the figure of Albee’s adoptive mother are “strong-willed,” “dominant” ones “whose lives are inextricably linked with that of their mates” (Gussow 403). In many of Albee’s dramas the couple function is more important than the parental role, in most cases wives and husbands “take precedence over mothers and fathers” (Gussow 403) and engage in adulterous liaisons. The American, urban family model comes under a serious textual scrutiny in the plays of Albee where the “prognosis for progeny is as dire as it is compelling” because whatever the form, parents “maim their children” (Gussow 403) consciously or unconsciously. The above-mentioned plays take the figure of the child in Albee’s alternating families and make it the subject of an “exemplary performance by one generation for the benefit of another” (Bigsby 153). The traditional structure of a nuclear family (heterosexual matrix: parents and young children) is challenged and converted into alternating forms of post-nuclear family structures: the couple with an adopted, narcissistic adult in The American Dream, the couple, their married, grown-up daughter, and a sibling-in-law in A Delicate Balance, bisexual couples and single parents in Finding the Sun, childless old and young couples in The Play About the Baby, and solitary individuals in The Goat or Who is Sylvia?.
“I found out who I was through my plays” (qtd. in Gussow 403), Albee claims. And indeed, an identity quest is structured in his dramas, mainly through the figure of the child and the trope of the family, culminating in the issue of adoption and surrogate parenting in tandem with gender issues concerning the child. It is this context in which Albee moulds his own character through the dramatic blindspot, in acts of autobiographical same-and-different homographesis, and it is in these plays that he becomes both “his own invention” (Gussow 16) and his own critic. The playwright goes even further in symbolically counting his existence from the existence of his first drama. At the root of a myth perpetuated by Albee himself―an adopted child who could hardly know anything about his birth―is “that he was born at the age of thirty, when, just before his birthday, he sat down […] and wrote his first play, The Zoo Story, as a present to himself (Gussow 18; emphasis added). By inserting his existence into his texts Albee further validates the autobiographical link with his dramatic figures. The post-nuclear dramatic family model in Albee’s plays―where the parent-couple and the figure of the child are important structural currencies―corresponds to Albee’s own family. Reed, Frances, and Edward are grafted on the alternating trios of Mommies, Daddies and alternative children. What adds to the playwright’s ironic family context is that the date of birth of Edward Albee (March 12, 1928) as the adopted child of the Albee couple corresponds to the date of the couple’s marriage (March 12, 1925). It was also the month of March, the third month of the year, when, in the third year of their marriage, the Albee couple started the adoption process of the third member of the family, who was named Edward F. Albee III. and became later Edward Albee, the playwright, who challenged the nuclear trio of the basic American family in his dramas.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Dr. Mária Kurdi for her most useful comments made to this paper.
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