"London is such an irresistible place—like walking in a cemetery."
- J.P. Donleavy
In the opinion of Playwright Edward Albee, his colleagues are of three types: "The strictly commercial hack, the self-destructive avant-gardist to whom failure is success, and the man who writes the kind of play he has to write." Two young American writers last week established themselves in the third category.
In London, Novelist J. P. (The Ginger Man) Donleavy saw the West End première of his first successful play, Fairy Tales of New York; and off Broadway in Manhattan, Albee himself staged an impressive one-acter, The American Dream, following up the promise of The Zoo Story, which has been running in eight European countries and for more than a year off Broadway. While the two new works were in some ways mere sketches satirizing over-familiar targets from momism to materialism, they were free of dreary ideological protest and teeming with talent.
Juice From Joyce. In outline, Donleavy's Fairy Tales consist of four caricatures: a funeral parlor, where a hearty undertaker ministers to the bereaved with a hip flask, admonishes, "Be a sport"; a gymnasium, where an Irish coach worries aloud about his virility ("If I'm a homosexual, how could I have six kids?"); an office, where an oleaginous personnel director seeks "ideas of a red-blooded nature as opposed to weird"; and a restaurant, where a headwaiter refuses to serve a man wearing peach-colored shoes, then kowtows when the man returns barefoot but in top hat and tails.
Lifting this hodgepodge above caricature is the poignant tale of the hero, a guileless idealist named, with Bunyan simplicity, Cornelius Christian. Returning to New York after a long "civilizing" stay in Europe, Cornelius finds himself at the undertaker's to bury his beloved wife, at the employment office because he desperately needs work; thus bite and hilarity merge with allegory of heart and truth. To Observer Critic Kenneth Tynan, Fairy Tales was "rather like a program of vintage Chaplin two-reelers . . . Benchley, had he lived, would have rejoiced."
Others have found elements of Saroyan and Beckett in Donleavy, have compared him to Nathanael West as a satirist. But his work also has the original stamp of The Ginger Man, a juicy, Joycean gathering of wild Irish rosebuds that has been a U.S. and British bestseller in expurgated editions—but not expurgated enough to prevent pulpit denunciations. Born 34 years ago in Brooklyn, the sad-faced, black-bearded author bounced around and out of several New York prep schools, went to his parents' native Ireland to study at Trinity College. Majoring in microbiology, wenching, pub crawling and street fighting, Mike Donleavy became "close enemies" with Brendan Behan, quit school to paint, farm and write. Today he is an expatriate living with his English wife and two children in Britain ("London is such an irresistible place—like walking in a cemetery"), sometimes seems less "ginger man" than Perelman. Privately relishing the fame and good life he professionally demolishes, Donleavy calls himself "an introvert man writing extravert words, not angry about a thing." Says he, half joking, half serious: "If there's a sickness in American life, it's lack of materialism. We ought to pay more attention to getting our money's worth."
Farce From lonesco. The anger in Albee's The American Dream is less restrained, although the one-hour work begins as a sort of surrealistic situation comedy about a prosperous bourgeois family. The dialogue is a wildly hilarious melange of clichés, inanities and redundancies. Vacuous, tyrannical Mommy harangues intimidated, impotent Daddy, and both berate semi-senile Grandma, whom they threaten to send off to a nursing home. Then in comes a clubwoman who doesn't know who she is or why she is there. Says Mommy: "Won't you sit down, would you like a cigarette and a drink, and would you like to cross your legs? . . . Would you like to take off your dress?" Clubwoman: "Don't mind if I do;" and she does. Thus the farcical incongruities, sometimes suggesting an American Ionesco, bounce along until late in the play, when the mood abruptly becomes somber, and caricature gives way to somewhat heavy-handed symbolism. A muscle-bound young man, destined to be adopted by the family to replace his twin (whom they just happen to have dismembered), makes his entrance. He is, he announces, "insultingly good-looking in a typically American way." But he is also an incomplete man, incapable of any feeling, and will do anything "if there is money in it." He is, in the author's angry view, what is left of The American Dream.
Despite such onstage bitterness, personally Albee seems as unangry as Donleavy. Adopted 32 years ago as a two-week-old infant by Reed Albee, a member of the famed family that founded and managed the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, he grew up around the theater. Before long he moved to Greenwich Village to stay. After spending his nights writing "750 pages of the world's worst trilogy," he quit his last odd job—Western Union messenger—three years ago to become a playwright. His first effort, The Zoo Story, an affecting work about the failure of communication between a lonely outcast and a smug square, had its première in Berlin, where it was hailed as "the Götterdämmerung of the gutter." Albee has since turned out four more one-act works, is currently working up from one-acters toward full-length drama by writing a two-act play that seems unlikely ever to appear on a midtown marquee. Its title: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?