I read with some sadness the other day that Western Union has dispatched its last telegram. After 150 years the universal language of dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash has gone silent. It is ironic that, in the same week, we here at Puget Sound heard a talk from Edward Albee, who, in 1958, made the strategic decision to give up a career as a Western Union messenger and turn to more literary writing. It was a good career move: He eventually produced more than two dozen deeply moving and highly acclaimed plays. Albee’s challenging messages to us in those penetrating and humane works will last far longer than the century and a half lifespan enjoyed by the cryptic language of the remarkable invention of the telegraph.
Albee’s plays sometimes emulate and even transcend the telegraph in their inventiveness, in the cogency of their language, in the wit and sharpness of the dialog they employ, in the condition of puzzlement and bewilderment they can invoke. They surprise and shock and delight and disturb, as only a telegram heretofore could.
None of us who have overheard the discomforting dialog between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can forget how filled it is with emotion, anger, irony, and, somehow, revelation about our entanglements with each other, with our dreams, and with our failures. It is a searing play that takes place on a New England college campus, a play in which one can find, however uncomfortably, a disturbing reflection of ourselves—not just those of us who are professors, like its central characters, but any of us who have aspirations and imaginations and who have also experienced disappointments, who have loved and also hated deeply, who have hoped and have also despaired.
In addition to his work for the stage, Professor Albee has admirably and generously dedicated his life to sharing his talent in the classroom. He was a distinguished professor of theater at the University of Houston from 1989 to 2003. Prior to that he taught at a New England college called Brandeis University, where I happen to have received my M.A. and Ph.D. in English and American literature a while back. I regret to say, Professor Albee had already left Brandeis before I could take a class from him. But many of my former teachers there were convinced that the New England college setting for Virginia Woolf was Brandeis, and they could tell me who George and Martha were, and who Nick and Honey were, and what was on the agenda for that faculty meeting that took place on the night prior to the play’s events set at George and Martha’s house.
Before he was a professor, before he was a dramatist, and before he was even a Western Union messenger boy, Albee was a student at another New England college—Trinity College in Connecticut. He only stayed there for a year because of some disagreements about mandatory chapel, as I understand it. I was on the faculty at Trinity College for 13 years, as many of you know, prior to coming to Puget Sound. However, as was true at Brandeis, I arrived there after Albee had left. It is worth noting that all of my colleagues at Trinity were convinced that the New England college setting for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was Trinity, and they could tell me who George and Martha really were, and who Nick and Honey really were, and what was on the agenda for the Trinity faculty meeting that took place on the night prior to the events at George and Martha’s house.
At Brandeis and at Trinity they were both wrong, of course, in trying to read the plays as allegories for a particular place. And they were also both quite right, because we all can see ourselves in the play; we see a world we know displayed before us as unattractive and uncomfortable and cruel, and as vacuous and as artificial as it might be. We look into the dark mirror of our own reality and get the message as surely as if the young Edward Albee had rung the doorbell and delivered us a telegram.