All Commentary
Saturday, September 17, 2016

Edward Albee’s Lessons for Life

He was uncanny in his capacity to put the complexity of the individual mind on full display.


For whatever reason, I watched “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” – starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – more than a dozen times before I became a teenager. There wasn’t much on television in those days, and it so happened that when Mom would let me and my brother stay up, this was the kind of late-night, very adult fare the network showed.

What a ghastly, unproductive, pointless, demoralizing little world we are shown.We were too young to understand much of the deeper meaning of the terrifying psychological drama. But watching adults be vicious to each other, watching their lives fall apart in the course of one drunken evening, was the kind of decadence we craved. We couldn’t look away. I’m certain now that had my parents known what we were watching, they would have been livid.

The author of this play, Edward Albee, has died at the age of 88, and it causes me to reflect on the lessons of this story. There are really only four players: a burned-out English teacher and his restless wife, and a new faculty member and his new wife. When the play opens, everyone has already had too much to drink. A faculty party becomes the after party at the older professor’s home, and the anger, resentment, and disgruntlement of a failed career and a failed marriage play out in front of the guests.

Yes, it is extremely bitter material, and it gets progressively worse in each scene. The resentment devolves into cruelty, betrayal, and the most bizarre fantasy game in which a pretend son the couple never had gets killed off in violent retribution for an act of brazen infidelity. The movie ends with the seemingly doomed marriage seeing a possible new start, symbolized by the rising sun visible from the front window of this town.

Here is Albee’s nightmare: a system that disregards the complexities of authentic human life.The implicit critique of academia here is withering. What a ghastly, unproductive, pointless, demoralizing little world we are shown. The English professor never achieved the title of department head and his wife, whose father is a campus bigshot, can never stop criticizing him for it. “Well, it’s just too bad about you…. You didn’t do anything. You never do.” But the professor is used to this kind of abuse and withdraws into his private world of literature, history, poetry, and deep and unrelenting regret at the state of the world.

He is said not to be ambitious, but why should he be? Gaining the title of full professor or becoming department head is not the same thing as achievement. From his perspective, it would only mean jumping through hoops, and he had no interest in doing so. His wife only knew the academic life, in this one dumpy little town, and so her personal pathologies were never corrected by exposure to more – exposure to something real, productive, exciting. So she dug ever deeper into this tiny and isolated bubble in which nothing of any significance ever happens.

Where the genius shines in this play and film is in the impossibly deep exploration of the personal lives of four people. We see how small turns of fate lead to deep scarring on the heart and soul, robbing a person of optimism and innocence and marring the capacity for trust and love. We are shown how intimacy between two people can turn from mutual support to mutual slow-motion destruction, that is, how affection can so easily turn to abuse, as one person’s capacity to crawl into the brain of another can always be used as a form of spiritual violence. Albee shows us the full horror of what psychological retribution can look like and just how destructive of hope it can become.

Albee’s perception into the microcosm of the individual mind proves this much: none of us can never fully know the motivations of another. We can never fully access their pains, sufferings, slights they’ve endured, and no one outside of the microcosm of even a four-person society can access the necessary information to make sense of why and how it works or does not work.

In Albee’s world, the torments of life are only solved by individuals and those affected by them. Their complexity is so rich and varied that no institution or system or planner could ever hope to understand much less gain the necessary knowledge to improve it.

At one point in the play, the older professor accuses the young one of plotting to destroy the world.

I read somewhere that science fiction is not really fiction at all. That you rearrange my genes so that everyone will be like everyone else. I suspect we shall not have much music or painting. But we’ll have a civilization of sublime young men much like yourself. Cultures and races will vanish. The ants will take over the world.

Here is Albee’s nightmare: a system that disregards the complexities of authentic human life. You might have already guessed that I consider Albee’s contribution to be Hayekian at its root, reminding us that human beings do not function like organisms we study in the natural sciences. That we are creatures who think, plan, create, plot, scheme, love, hate, experience long-lasting emotional wreckage, seek revenge, and long for healing implies this much: we must have the freedom to act and shape our own destinies.

The results will never be right but they will always evolve, and sometimes, if we try very hard, we can find contentment or even peace. And this is enough. This is more than any presumptuous, conceited, and puffed-up plan for world order ever achieved.