Albee and Strindberg Have Bad Dreams

Whenever a play turns out to be pretentious or incomprehensible–or both–take heart. Someone will invariably explain it to you as a dream .

We will be told the piece is “just like a dream” and should be appreciated as such.

Do not reply that anyone who dreams pretentious dreams should be shot. You will be told in no uncertain terms that: a) you do not understand the complicated nature of dreams and poetic metaphor, or b) you’re an old stick-in-the-mud who knows nothing about avant-garde theater.

When this happens, do not hit anyone.

You will also be informed that the dream play that sent you fast asleep, or had you longing to be home in bed on a wintry night, should be “relaxed into” like “music” or “painting.” Be advised that the question of whether the relaxing verbal music and painterly pictures are any good does not apply, for all dreams onstage are equal.

Should the characters onstage look extraordinarily chic while walking in slow- motion, this is known as the dream-like signature and theatrical genius of Robert Wilson.

Do not point out that no one in any dream you’ve ever had has ever walked in slow-motion. But they do in Robert Wilson’s dreams and … they … have … been … doing … so … for … years … and … years … and … years … and … years.

In my circular, disconnected, dreamlike way, I’ll return to Mr. Wilson’s usual bag of artsy tricks in his somnolent production of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For the moment, Edward Albee has been on my mind, which isn’t always a good place for Edward Albee to be. Was there ever a renowned dramatist who wrote such good and awful plays as he? The dramatist of the imaginative intelligence of Three Tall Women is also the author of the bitter, self-imploding portrait of his own martyrdom in 1983’s The Man Who Had Three Arms . The new voice of American drama who blasted us with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1961 followed it with his pilloried pseudo-metaphysical abstraction Tiny Alice .

The 1964 Tiny Alice , now revived with love and heavy symbolism by Mark Lamos at The Second Stage Theatre, has always been a soupy play to explain, and no one has had a tougher time explaining it than Edward Albee. “The more Albee talked about the play, the cloudier it became,” his biographer, Mel Gussow, writes in Edward Albee: A Singular Journey , while noting that Mr. Albee told his bewildered audience in 1965 to “Sit back, let it happen to you, and take it in rather as you would a piece of music or a dream.”

There they go again! Mr. Albee has also described the play, with its dominant doll’s- house replica of Miss Alice’s mysterioso castle, as some kind of message about the confusion of illusion with reality. But let all that defensive pretension pass, if we can. Tiny Alice is the dramatist’s over-wordy morality play about Man and God, or Innocence blatantly martyred by the Religious Establishment and the forces of Evil, Greed, Political Expediency and Womanhood. In its murky essence, it’s about the sale of a pure man’s soul to the Devil via the temptress Miss Alice, who may or may not be the richest person in the world.

The five characters are called Lawyer, Cardinal, Butler, Brother Julian and Miss Alice, like Victorian emblems for Lies, Hypocrisy, Smarm, Innocence and Mother. Mr. Albee is in his Woman the Devourer mood. Philip Roth in The New York Review of Books quite famously described the play as “a homosexual daydream” in which “the celibate male [Brother Julian] is tempted and seduced by the overpowering female, only to be betrayed by the male lover and murdered by the cruel law.”

Whatever. But who–or what–Tiny Alice is has always preoccupied a number of people, including Tennessee Williams, who thought she was the all-conquering Establishment. If so, we’re one away from speculating whether Tiny Alice is really Edward Albee’s playfully camp name for God. As opposed to Tiny Tim, who played the ukelele. In which fanciful case, sweet Brother Julian is Christ in befuddled sexual hysteria.

You see the problem with dense dreams–or pseudo-mysticism? Anything goes. But despite the fine performances of Richard Thomas as Julian and the remarkable Laila Robins as Alice, the philosophical drama is still mired in its ponderous symbolism, dream play or no. “To be candid,” Harold Clurman wrote reluctantly after its premier in 1964, “the play struck me as the sort of thing a highly endowed college student might write by way of offering us a Faustian drama.”

Perhaps Edward Albee himself was ultimately closer to the mark about the renowned problem play. Mr. Gussow describes how, in 1997, the dramatist saw Mark Lamos’ first shot at Tiny Alice (which also starred Richard Thomas as Julian): “Seeing it at a preview, as a mature playwright looking back on an early work, Albee said to himself, ‘Come on, you childish, foolish young playwright fond of the sound of your own voice.'”

Robert Wilson, on the other hand, is fond of the sound of his own images. (We must listen to them, he has instructed us). His fashionable moving stage pictures are shiny, glacially stylized surfaces in which he sees his own reflection, like Narcissus. If this is a dream, it’s a recurring chic dream. We have seen it many times before. The carefully surreal tableaus, the ghostly slow-motion figures, the whiteface makeup, the sudden spastic ballets, the ritual repetitions. With Robert Wilson, all proceeds remotely, in untroubled–and untroubling–style, like a stately parade even in A Dream Play , Strindberg’s impossible drama of earthly paradise and hell.

Impossible because Dream Play has defeated the likes of Max Reinhardt, Antonin Artaud and Ingmar Bergman (who’s done three productions of it). The partnership of Robert Wilson and Strindberg was thought by some to be an inspired, natural fit. But for me, those blazing mad eyes of Strindberg’s do not fit well with superficial poses. The liberating, anguished interior life of dreams is not to be mistaken for interior design, however exquisite.

Dream Play , written in 1901 (following the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams ), tells of an extraordinary story in time and space of a Goddess who falls to earth to view how mortals live. “Human beings are to be pitied,” goes the lament. But where is the sorrow and the pity in Mr. Wilson’s tranquil stage pictures? They are nowhere in sight. No magic castle engulfed in flames, no earth, no dirt . His imposed comic relief–the milking of life-size plaster cows to cartoon noise effects–is irrelevant, a bad, sophomoric joke. Here all is sedated, banal safe dreams, little or no drama.

The ensemble from Stockholm’s Stadsteater performed the lengthy piece with admirable skill. But Mr. Wilson’s tedious, un-Strindbergian concoctions have long since been trapped in their own self-conscious style, a perfectly designed, perfectly clean, bloodless landscape. I’m reminded of the passion of Gwendolyn Brooks:

I am tired of little tight-fisted poems sitting down to

shape perfect unimportant pieces.

Poems that cough lightly–catch a sneeze.

This is the time for Big Poems

roaring up out of the sleaze,

poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood.