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/ Albee’s Gothic: The Resonances of Cliche Paul Witherington The clear popular success of Tiny Alice and the smoke raised by critical analyses of that play constitute extremes that exaggerate the Albee situation, but illuminate, in doing so, our mixed reaction to the other plays. The choice of attitudes toward Tiny Alice seems limited at times to that of the thrilled audiences in New York, San Francisco, and London, or that of tedious scholarly legerdemain. Or the cloud of contempt: Susan Sontag writes of Albee’s “sensationalism masking as cultural expose,”1and Martin Gottfried writes of the play’s “drowning in holy water over its head.”2 But Gottfried goes on to admit the dra­ matic power of Tiny Alice, and an earlier comment on the play’s lim­ itations suggests a solution to his divided reaction and to our dilemma: “His [Albee’s] discussion of philosophical material is hampered by a weakness of vocabulary, a propensity for exaggeration and an interest in the popular rather than the classical.”3 Gottfried assumes an Albee trying unsuccessfully to write like Yeats, or even Arthur Miller. But suppose we take Albee at his word—in his preface that denies the need for a preface—that Tiny Alice is “quite clear.” Then we can start from a position that Albee’s restricted vo­ cabulary, exaggeration, and popularization are deliberate, and that what most audiences sense in the play has somehow evaded most cri­ tics. We are led in Tiny Alice and in all of Albee’s plays to consider a popular form and language with great theatrical power and yet con­ fusing anti-intellectual undercurrents. That form and language are those of modem Gothic literature, and they are the factors behind our mixed reaction. For the Gothic, like Frankenstein’smonster, has always suffered from being overly popular and critically misinterpreted. That Gothic is a concept broader than the melodramatic chase and ravishment novels of the late eighteenth century has been amply demonstrated by Leslie Fiedler and Irving Malin4 who have traced its Americanization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its en­ durance as a popular form can be verified by visiting the collection of contemporary Gothic paperbacks in almost any bookstore. Devendra P. Varma’s The Gothic Flame is an eloquent plea for readmitting the traditional Gothic to scholarly consideration, and although he does not 151 152 Comparative Drama deal with modern American works, his definition of Gothic allows us to cross the gap not only between traditional and modern, but between serious and popular. Traditional Gothic, as Varma describes it, was a revolt against the Age of Reason, against the decline of religion and the increase of ma­ terialism. It celebrated “the beckoning shadows of a more intimate and mystical interpretation of life.”5 On the one hand, Gothic restored a sense of the numinous, and on the other it correlated strongly with the emotional expressions of a revolutionary scene, linking “the Terrors of the French Revolution and the Novel of Terror in England.”6 Varma might be describing the modern mood with its reactions against the “establishment,” its almost paradoxical insistence on inner experience and outer involvement, and above all the linkings of cults of religious experience and cults of terror, as during the Inquisition—the rise of pop Satanism and the do-it-yourself bomb. The setting, action, and imagery of contemporary Gothic reveal that it may be described as a reactionary form arising when social institutions are in a process of decline, but when the feeling of individ­ ual possibilities is in ferment through the rediscovery of mysterious forces within. The fact that Gothic is generated in the shadow of society’s ruins may explain the clichéd forms and language that appall many literary critics. If there are structural similarities between myth and metaphor, as Howard Nemerov recently notes,7 one can posit a similar relationship between the clichés of Gothic forms and language. Cliché of form or language appears to be a defensive and even deterministic residue— myth or metaphor stripped of its possibilities and rendered somewhat paranoic. Gothic forms, often haunted by werewolves and vampires— that is, the “undead”—are the narrative equivalent of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 151-165
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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