remembering Theatre

Out there on the edge

Albee’s scarring 1962 comedy ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ portrayed the venomous vulgarity of human relationships.

Albee’s scarring 1962 comedy ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ portrayed the venomous vulgarity of human relationships.   | Photo Credit: CHESTER HIGGINGS JR.

Edward Albee portrayed the raw nerve-endings of a generation that conjured the glory of American triumph. Till the end, he hung on to the existential philosophy of man as a conscious being

Edward Albee died last Friday. When I remember him, I can only think of him as a swashbuckling, rugged and handsome man, fascinatingly disturbing and aggressively combative. He had no other tools but words to confront the spectator with ways of perceiving violence, grief and despair in a decadent world. And till the end, he did not stop asking questions.

The world he lived in was phony and deceitful provoking him to use theatre as a wake-up call to a nation with its delusive seclusion that brought a sense of smugness and detachment from the trauma of the two wars experienced in Europe. He challenged bourgeois assumptions and attitudes with his candid and yet sharp-tongued humour with a glib and sentimental idiom bordering on clichés. Albee was the first dramatist across the Atlantic who began to show the futility and absurdity of human condition to his countrymen who lived under the misapprehension of the great American dream. To the iconoclastic Albee, the mood of optimism and progress in America was fiction; drama became ‘fact distilled into truth’. It was a medium that through experiments in the technique of ‘defamiliarisation’ and fragmentation could shake people out of their self-righteousness. “Most people want tidy, frivolous stuff,” Albee argued, “so they can go home and not worry about what they’ve seen.” Plays, he argued, are acts of protest meant to change people.

It was fantasy coalescing with reality, an innovative theatre that gave birth to characters who resembled people Albee knew. In addition, it reflected traits that were an extension of his own personality imbued as it was with a sense of the outrageous that he saw in the entire prickly social order of the post-war era that he was out of tune with. And if the American audience walked out of his plays, he would be successful in achieving his purpose of making people uncomfortable in facing the pain and suffering of daily existence. “I want the audience to run out of the theater — but to come back and see the play again,” he said. The conflict, the depredation, the discomfiture was literally hurled at the audience as seen in the caustic and venomous vulgarity of human relationship depicted through the tragedy of the young couple, George and his drunken wife Martha, in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, a scarring comedy that goes “so deep under the skin that it becomes practically intolerable.”

With the performance of his first play, ‘The Zoo Story’, Albee began his career at the age of 30, widely regarded as the logical continuation of the enigma and the despondency of the Absurd Theatre of Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov and Genet to whom he always acknowledged his debt as an avant-garde playwright. He successfully bridged the gap between American drama and its European counterpart that had already proclaimed the idea of the existential crisis faced by man. Death, suicide, despair became the underpinnings of his drama. It was existential for the reason that every dimension of thought or feeling is of value and you need the courage to live it. You see this boldness in his personal life as a homosexual discarded by his step-parents but untroubled by it. He was the quintessential liberal, way ahead of his time, defying expectations and refusing to define any difference between gays and straights as problems of life are common to both. “Sexual proclivities,” he argued, “have nothing to do with his art.”

Having lived through the ravages of the two wars, he portrayed the raw nerve-endings of his generation that conjured the glory of American triumph. The matchless smell of humanity provoked him to raise a glass to his generation’s celebrated contradictions, capturing the highs and lows, the Sisyphean tragedy and the raucous comedy of an existence at its most tasteless and yet eventful best. Drama became for him an agency not only of human thought and behaviour but a medium through which it could redeem itself by pushing the boundaries of acceptance, taking one to the precipice of the social and cultural norm and then throwing you over the cliff into the chasm of emptiness and despair.

It is a moment in contemporary history when man is transfixed and has nowhere to turn. Isn’t that what we all do? Theatre to Albee is a catharsis essential in a world where darker sides of sadism in marriage, raising children and asking ourselves about the nature of our identity, and the unquestionable presence of death, need to be confronted. To the last day that he lived, Albee hung on to this credo and to the existential philosophy of man as a conscious being.

I am saddened to know of his passing. It is a strong feeling with many of us that living writers dear to us would go on forever. Their passing leaves behind an emptiness in the intellectual world where we have received so much so warmly and generously from those who, like Coleridge, taught us that “deep thinking is attainable only by deep feeling.” Or, that you cannot possibly go through life without happiness and without misery.

Shelley Walia is professor and fellow, Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 3:26:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/Out-there-on-the-edge/article14644194.ece

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