The theme of death in the plays of Edward Albee

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1974

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The thirteen plays that Edward Albee has written to date embody a single theme which enfolds and enriches other thematic offshoots. In all his plays, someone either dies, relates stories about dead persons or animals, kills someone, is killed, or is dead. Albee's forms of death range from the physical fact of someone's dying to the figurative mode of death-in-life. This study demonstrates that death permeates his plays, that Albee uses death as both fact and metaphor, and that death is the unifying theme in the thirteen plays. The opening section. Prologue, establishes that Albee's interest in the subject of death manifests itself in his adolescent writings appearing in The Choate Literary Magazine, and postulates that death is the medium through which Albee measures the quality of life. Chapter One demonstrates the pervasiveness of death in Albee's short plays. The Zoo Story (1960) deals with the impact upon Jerry of dead relatives and an attempt to kill a dog and ends with Jerry's self-engineered death that releases him from walking death and imparts an awareness of life to Peter. The Sandbox (1960), like The Death of Bessie Smith (1961), centers on the dying of characters who represent a mirror reflecting the life-flow in others. Grandma's burial and Bessie's rejection by two hospitals and subsequent death serve as condemnations of the dead still alive. The very brief Fam and Yam (1960) deals with the "death" of one generation of American playwrights and the "birth" of another. The American Dream (1961) reeks with the smell of death issuing from the disemboweled Daddy and the vacuous Mommy who are facsimiles of a dream reduced to conformity and materialism. In their insensate state, death itself is meaningless; it serves as a means to avenge themselves upon an adopted son who had the temerity to die and to threaten Grandma with the coming of the Van man. In Box-Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung-Box (1968), the eulogy for art spoken by the Voice, the dire pronouncements of death to the "capitalist pigs" uttered by Chairman Mao, the lament of the Long-Winded Lady for her dead husband and her deprived self, and the recitation of "Over the Hill to the Poor-House" by the Old Woman intermingle to make death and dying the substance of the play. Chapter Two analyzes the theme of death in Albee's adaptations. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1963), adapted from the novella by Carson McCullers, is a dual story of how a cafe came into being and died that serves as an obituary for Miss Amelia Evans whose life has been touched by death but who is herself dead to life-giving love and social intercourse. Considerably altered from James Purdy's novel of the same title, Albee's Malcolm (1966) depicts the initiation of its titular hero into a death-filled life that ends with his "murder" by the succubus, Melba. Everything in the Garden (1967), from the play by Giles Cooper, deals with the pernicious deadliness of people so devoted to money and status that murder is a logical expedient to employ to protect their interests. Chapter Three examines death in all its appearances occurring in the long plays. Through the instant abortion pills of Honey, her dead father, the story of the dead parents killed by George, the dead mother and step-mother of Martha, and the "murder" of an imaginary son, death pervades Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). On another level, death is a way of life for George and Martha and for Nick and Honey who have corrupted their humanity. Tiny Alice (1964) depicts Julian's obsession with heroic martyrdom that he infuses with sexual associations, and ends with his murder by Lawyer, a surrogate, like Miss Alice, Butler, and Cardinal, for a living human being, who had mocked Julian's search for God, sanity, and fulfilling death. In A Delicate Balance (1966), the impact of a dead son and a dead cat is indicative of atrophied spirits. For Tobias, Agnes, Claire, and Julia, death is withdrawal into an imitation of life. All Over (1971), which ends with the death of the unseen man who is husband-father-best friend-lover-patient to the other characters, reveals the death residing in the souls of the keepers of his vigil who have become cemented in their relationship to him. Epilogue, the final section in this study of Albee's drama, demonstrates that the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual varieties of death found in the plays affect both the civilization of man and his most fundamental human relationships. For Albee, spiritual death is a far worse fate than physical death. Through his adaptation of the Christian equation of love and death, however, Albee reveals that triumph over death-in-life can occur through sacrificial death. Jerry gives himself so that he and Peter might live more fully, George kills his and Martha's life-lie, the imaginary son, so that they may achieve a more honest and viable mutual relationship, and Wife exhumes her buried life and kills the portion of her self deceiving her into appearing content with a life of compromise and comfort. Man, then, is both the redeemer and the redeemed. In his plays, Albee conceives of death as an entrance into renewed life. Death, for him, is a metaphor for affirming life lived honestly, courageously, and abundantly within the mortality inherent within the human condition.

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