Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008
14 Pages, Grade: 1,3
2 The selection of the plays
3 The ideal of the white American nuclear family of the 1950’s and 1960’s
4 Aspects of family displayed in Edward Albee’s plays
4.1 Dealing with elderly people
4.2 Meaning of a child for a marriage
4.3 The Husband-Wife-Relationship
4.4 The depiction of Women
The American dramatist Edward Albee is going to celebrate his 80th birthday these days. In his life he observed several decades of American society as well as changes in attitudes and values of the American population. In almost all of his plays Edward Albee looks at the American family and its various manifestations, criticises it, mocks it, and reveals its dishonesty. His plays frequently contain “the figure of the child which ranges from that of the adopted infant, real or imagined baby, young man, dead child, imaginary person, to that of grown-up homosexual son” (Cristian 1). The figure of the child is often understood as “the alter ego” of Edward Albee (Cristian 6).
Shortly afterwards his birth on March 12 1928 Albee was adopted by a wealthy couple, Reed Albee, a serial adulterer, and his third wife, Francis Albee, a former model. The family was part of the New York high society and tried to bring up their son to be a respectable constituent of this community. Edward Albee sensed early that he was not the couple’s biological son. He experienced several conflicts with his parents who disapproved of his lifestyle, interests, sexual orientation and acquaintances. After some years at various prestigious boarding schools and colleges, Albee finally and abruptly left home and broke ties with his adoptive parents in 1949.
Albee took employment as runner in an advertising agency, sales clerk in a music shop, bookseller-assistant, waiter in convenience restaurant and telegram deliverer for Western Union. His various occupations not only allowed him to write but through his jobs he was able to observe quite a number of different people and lifestyles. In an interview about his plays and the assumed analogousness of his plays he said: “You must remember I’ve been watching and listening to a great number of people for a long time. Absorbing things, I suppose.” (Flanagan 8). He not only observed other people but also his experiences influenced his plays strongly. Albee seems to have observed especially families and the relationships between the members of families as well as the traditional but also slowly breaking image of husband and wife.
The purpose of this term paper is to analyse the picture of the white American family in Albee’s The Sandbox (1959) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) in contrast to the prevailing ideal of the white nuclear family of the 1950s and 1960s and to ask to what extent his characters fulfil this ideal.
At first, this prevailing ideal of family is described shortly. Afterwards the aspects of dealing with elderly people will be looked at, followed by the examination of the meaning of a child for a marriage. Following, the relationship of husband and wife in a marriage will be looked at. These three themes are meant to stand representatively for family structures that Albee considers in his plays.
Edward Albee wrote many plays dealing with dysfunctional families and a selection of two of his plays to consider in this paper had to be made.
The Sandbox (1959) was chosen because Albee considers it his most perfect play (Flanagan 31). Originally Albee indented his one-act play The Sandbox as a prelude for his drama The American Dream (1959) which features identical characters (Braem 61). Observers repeatedly affirmed that Mommy and Daddy display Albee’s adoptive parents, especially Francis Albee who was as commanding and imposing as Mommy as well as “imperious, demanding, and unloving” (Braem 64; Edemariam 2). After leaving his home in 1949, Albee stayed only in contact with his maternal grandmother who frequently visited him and to whom he dedicated The Sandbox.
Albee’s perhaps best known and most successful play is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962). Among many other interesting interpretations the play centres around the absence of children in a marriage and the meaning of offspring for an ideal relationship. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is as well “a pre-eminent classic of maritial feud” (Schunck 195). According to Aida Edemariam friends of Edward Albee recognised “the brilliant, snappish dialogue, the matching of insult and retort” of the drunken brawls between George and Martha were inspired by the “alcohol-fuelled relationship” between Albee and his then-partner William Flanagan (2004). But nevertheless Albee regards his play “as a valid examination of heterosexual life” (Flanagan 13).
Edward Albee repeatedly said that he wants to “instruct people a little bit more about the responsibilities of consciousness” and that he writes because he doesn’t like what he sees to “hold a mirror up to people”(Interview with the Academy of Achievement 2005; Edemariam 2004).
With his plays The Sandbox and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee criticizes the ideal of the white nuclear family of the 1950s and 1960s. Silvia Englert draws a lively picture of life in these times in her book Cowboys, Gott und Coca Cola:
“Some call the fifties ‘Golden Fifties’. After long years of crisis prosperity dominates the US: economy hums, stimulated by domestic consumption. The boys get home from war, marry and buy with their army compensation small houses in the suburbs with well-kept lawn and white picket fence – symbols of the ideal world of the white middle class. The women stay at home, have children and fill their houses with the newest domestic appliances and at least one TV set. In front of the door parks a big road cruiser … “ (Englert 142).
Role patterns of men and women and their function within society were unlike today’s. In 1950, seventy per cent of all American households consisted of a male earner, a housewife and at least one underage child. To draw a comparison, in 1994 this figure had fallen to only six per cent (Murswieck 617).
In consequence of the GI Bill of Rights legislation from 1944, former soldiers who had served in the Second World War got the opportunity to attend higher education which helped them to rise the social ladder up into the middle class (Tindall/Shi 1099). The post-war economic expansion had led to an increase in occupation and income rates as well as to a baby boom which is why the population grew by 40 million people between 1946 and 1964 (Murswieck 605).
With the new wealth the growing white middle class moved to the suburbs where there were spacious homes, better education for the children, a feeling of greater security and lesser racial mixture of the population (Tindall/Shi 1105). Tindall and Shi described the uniformity of white suburbian life as having “encouraged uniformity, as people felt a need for companionship, and a new sense of belonging as they moved into new communities of strangers” (1107). So lifestyles became more uniform and conform. Television and advertising further proclaimed the ideal American family and appropriate husband-wife-relationships with shows like Father Knows Best or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (Museum of Broadcast Communications).
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