Three Tall Women and Two Short Ones

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I recently attended the wonderful revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, with Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, which just finished its Broadway run. Through sheer luck I have seen three versions of this terrific play with stellar actresses in the role of “A,” the most senior of the three women: the cold and elegant Marian Seldes in 1994, Maggie Smith, arch, hilarious and appalling, in 1995, and most recently the ferocious Glenda Jackson, at times moving and sad and mostly very, very scary.

It is well known that Mr. Albee wrote the play about his own mother, a socialite who, with her wealthy husband, adopted Mr. Albee as an infant. It was a corrosive relationship, and in various interviews over decades Mr. Albee described a frigid and uncaring environment in which much was expected but almost nothing, beyond material comfort, was given. As an incipient writer and openly gay man, Mr. Albee left as soon as he could, but the legacy of furor can be seen in the many unhappy women who populate his plays.

Having recently lost my own mother, I have thought much about this relationship and the extreme power that our parents, especially our mothers, have over us. It speaks volumes that Mr. Albee could write with such bravado and skill, and even some compassion, about the monstrous woman who had control of his early life and yet, as attested in interviews, still not find it at all cathartic. He wrote over and over again about death, dying, unhappiness, regret, inability or unwillingness to communicate, and a gulf between people, especially husbands and wives and parents and children, confronting the audience with terror and unpleasantness in a blaring wake-up call. He wrote, he drank, he was unpleasant to people and caustic to critics.

And yet. I know several people who knew Mr. Albee personally, and several more who worked with him on productions. All report a loyal friend and generous colleague. For more than 35 years he lived happily with his partner, until that man’s death. Despite Mr. Albee’s personal demons, he had a work ethic that allowed him to continue writing and producing through decades, listening to his own voice, ignoring public outcry and critical savaging. So the tall woman did not damage him to the point of paralysis. Perhaps the nannies and teachers along the way contributed to Mr. Albee’s own deep talent, and helped him to become the writer that we know.

My mother’s role in my life was equally looming, in both positive and negative ways. Much of what I deeply love in life, creativity, appreciation of beauty and the natural world, craft, came from her. Much of my anxiety and sense of insufficiency also came from her. She was a short woman, without much formal education, “poor but clean.” She married up, to a rising young executive, and was thereafter constantly thrust into situations for which she was unprepared. I remember her fuming anger at being cut by better dressed and better educated women, wives of my father’s colleagues, who pointedly noticed that she did not play bridge or wore last year’s colors. She taught herself unceasingly, traveling with my father and bravely blooming wherever she was planted. She always managed to have fun, but there was an underlying sense of rage in her, of not being quite good enough. Conflict between us arose almost always from her expectations of me, which were impossible to fulfill.

And yet. I loved her. I miss her every day. She was warm and she tried, and I feel sorrow that for a long time I did not understand her struggle. Despite the disharmony, when I knit or weave or spin or garden or sing, teach myself something new, appreciate a new place, I am celebrating her legacy. The short woman who was my mother continues to cast both sunlight and shadow, just as certainly as Mr. Albee’s tall woman did for him. The chiaroscuro of a mother’s power, love or lack of it, is a life companion to be reckoned with, exorcized, accepted, rejected or embraced, but it cannot be ignored. It surely makes us who we are.

©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2018. Reuse with permission.3TW