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Beyond Absurdity: Albee's Awareness of Audience in Tiny Alice RICHARD M. COE • CLASSICALLY, theatre of the absurd was a Negation. As typified by the plays of Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet written in the 50's, it attacked conventional modes of perception and expression in order to negate the conceptions which formed and were signified by those modes. Like surrealism , its first goal was to destroy an outmoded vision of reality. Thus, as seemed to befit a theatre of negation, it utilized satire, paradox and surrealistic allegory. The absurdist playwright eschewed any mimicking of surface reality lest he seem to imply its validity - as Sartre writes of Genet, "in order to be sure of never making proper use of appearance [he] wants his fancies, at two or three stages of derealization, to reveal themselves in their nothingness."l Consequently, absurdist plays usually related only allegorically to the audience's reality. Herein lay the major weakness of theatre of the absurd, the paradoxical flaw of the theatre of paradox: its inaccessibility. Only those intellectuals , like the Parisians who nurtured it, who were already familiar with its messages seemed capable of understanding. Conventional audiences were and are unable to relate the satirically grotesque characters of the absurdist allegories to themselves; the plays, therefore, fail to deliver their metaphysical message. They may succeed at the box office if they are sufficiently funny and theatrical, but they don't succeed in communicating to audiences untrained in the interpretation of allegory and symbolism . As William Oliver points out, 371 372 RICHARD M. COE The popular audience does not necessarily perceive that this drama concerns itself with a serious and meaningful judgment on our lives .... An absurdist drama should be successful insofar as it awakens us to its subject: our own absurdity .... The question is whether or not this can be done effectively in the theatre in terms of abstractions and dehumanizations.2 Despite statements like Irma's at the end of The Balcony ("You must now go home, where everything - you can be quite sure - will be even falser than here"), the ordinary bourgeois theatregoer does not identify with the customers of a fantastical brothel or a couple of bums like Didi and Gogo. Insofar as theatre of the absurd has, "even unintentionally, implied through its devices and language that absurdity is a condition of dementia, delusions, and phantasmagoria - it is misrepresenting its subject."3 At its best, this theatre allegorically acts out the great mystery of our time, the traumatic conflict between human desire to comprehend the universe and our apparent inability to do so. It is for this reason that Martin Esslin can write, "In expressing the tragic sense of loss at the disappearance of ultimate certainties, the Theatre of the Absurd, by a strange paradox, is also a symptom of what probably comes nearest to being a genuine religious quest in our age."4 Unfortunately, however, the theatre of the absurd is virtually a ritual for initiates only. Edward Albee, who consistently insists that his plays are "quite clear," epitomizes first the problem and then various attempts to overcome it. His importance lies partially in his attempts to discover dramatic forms which would make absurdity accessible to the general audience , attempts which eventually led him away from allegorical mystery and towards a more political realism. Two of Albee's early one-acters, The Sandbox and The American Dream, operate via standard absurdist allegory; technically they are reminiscent , if not directly imitative, of Ionesco, especially of The Bald Soprano. In this mode, as Esslin says of absurdist drama generally, suspense is maintained by the audience's wondering not so much "What is going to happen next?" as "What does the action of the play represent?" It is "a theatre of situation as against a theatre of events in sequence and therefore it uses a language based on patterns of concrete images rather than argument and discursive speech."5 In his other early plays, Albee uses realistic, virtually naturalistic, techniques. The major absurdist themes are present: the failure of verbal communication; the falsity of apparent reality; the inability of human beings to discern meaning in the world or purpose in their lives. But Albee...


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pp. 371-383
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