Standing on a crowded New York City bus in my late twenties, I overheard the schoolgirl seated near me say to her equally young companion, “Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Today–decades later–the memory makes me smile, but it no longer makes me gasp. Last week I was back in the city that never sleeps to see what I could see, and among the best of the best was seeing the great Glenda Jackson in the new Broadway play Three Tall Women. If you’re a millennial, you might be scratching your head. Glenda who?
Glenda Jackson is no braggart. If she were, she could easily brag about the two Oscars and the Golden Globe she won for Best Actress, she could opine about her two Emmys and the many other awards she received here in the States and in her native England. Her name still not ringing any bells? Ms. Jackson is eighty-one. Ancient to a millennial but probably not to your average 70-year-old hoping to cross the finish line at age 100. Lo and behold, age–what it looks and feels like from three different points on the foot race to The End–is what this Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Edward Albee is all about.
If you saw the list of Pulitzer winners announced earlier this week, naturally Albee’s name wasn’t on it. He died in 2016 at the moving-on-up age of eighty-eight, but he won three Pulitzers, including the one for Three Tall Women in 1994. Despite that honor, the play never made it as far as Broadway–until now. And yet, Three Tall Women and the Pulitzer he received for it helped revitalize Albee’s career after a string of critical and commercial flops. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was his most iconic play, but Three Tall Women was his most autobiographical–and he had his mother to thank for it (sort of.) Oh, what a piece of work she was! Her son, however, is considered one of the finest playwrights of his generation.
Three Tall Women opens in the elegant bedroom of a 92 year-old widow. Her broken arm’s in a sling, and she’s being looked after by her middle-aged caregiver and the attractive young female lawyer who’s been sent to straighten out the financial affairs she’s been ignoring. The widow commands, reminisces, complains and rebukes. The other two women do their best to mollify her or sometimes they thrust and parry, depending on how exasperated they are. It’s a harsh but comic portrayal of physical aging, memory loss, fear of death, and a certain kind of courage. Act II is where the true genius of the playwright shows itself. The women have changed clothes. They’re all wearing pretty dresses and the widow’s arm is no longer in a sling, but they’re in the same bedroom. It takes a few minutes, but you soon realize the “three tall women” are in fact the same tall woman at different stages of her life–26, 52, 92.
The young woman, unsettled in life and love, looks forward to what she’s sure will be a wonderful future and wonders, what will be the best time of my life? The middle-aged woman has lived through many disappointments, but she’s still strong and thinks she’ll have the stamina to get herself through old age. She’s a cynic, but prefers her 360-degree view. The old woman is staring at impending death but feels this is the best time: life will stop and she won’t have to worry about anything anymore. Sounds grim, but somehow it isn’t. Unless, of course, you’re twenty-six.
Albee’s mother died in 1989 in her early nineties. A few years later he wrote the play, which he described as more “exorcism” than revenge. Albee was adopted by well-to-do parents who raised him in a suburb of New York City, but they gave him little time and disapproved of his desire to become a writer. He floundered through four high schools and was expelled from college for failing to go to class. He moved to Greenwich Village and, at thirty, wrote and sold his first play. His career was off and running, but he’d been estranged from his parents for about ten years. The fact that he was gay was the other thing they didn’t like about him. It was only after his father’s death that Albee reconciled with his mother. She shared stories about her life and went to his plays, but they never grew close emotionally. At the end of her life, she decided to cut him out of her will–again. Fortunately for him, he didn’t need the money. (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the play, followed by the movie, took care of that.) But he did want another hit play. Like his mother, the main character in the play is tall–a shop girl who caught the eye of a dapper short man with money. She moved up in the world, her husband cheated on her, she emasculated him, and they had a son who turned out to be gay. And so art imitates life.
British actresses like Judi Dench (M to Daniel Craig’s James Bond) and Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey), both 83, are contemporaries of Glenda Jackson but more widely known at present. They’ve had long careers on stage and screen. Unlike Ms. Jackson, they didn’t quit acting for 23 years to serve in Parliament. To serve her constituents well, Glenda Jackson felt she couldn’t do both. In 2016, she returned unencumbered to the theatre, but not just to any role. She played Lear–the King himself–for a limited run at the Old Vic in London, and she received rave reviews and a couple of major awards. And after that, Broadway and Three Tall Women came calling.
The standing ovation was a spontaneous combustion the night I saw the play. Every single one of us in the audience jumped to our feet at the same moment, as if choreographed. We were cheering and applauding all three actresses–all magnificent in their parts–but the combustion was all for Glenda Jackson. At 81, how does she remember all those lines? How does she enunciate her words so clearly? And with such expression? Where does she get the energy to play such a formidable woman for almost two hours non-stop? (There’s no intermission.)
Glenda Jackson is still relevant. The play is still relevant.
The young schoolgirl who knew about Paul McCartney but was clueless about a band called the Beatles? She’s probably entering early middle age right now, and life undoubtedly looks different to her. I hope she laughs at her younger self. I hope she’s happy in the present and looking forward to growing old. Not to feeling old, but to living long enough to make some attitude adjustments.
In a televised interview in 1994, Edward Albee said his job as a playwright was “to make people pay more attention to the things they should be paying attention to.”
“I don’t mind people having false illusions as long as they know that they’re false. If people want to kid themselves, it’s important that they know that they’re kidding themselves. Life is too short to take the middle ground.” Edward Albee