Counting the Ways

In a series of blackout sketches, “He” and “She” probe into the nature of their love for one another. Long married, but aware that time has wrought changes in their relationship, the two spar and thrust at each other in exchanges and reminiscences which are sometimes lighthearted, sometimes poignant, sometimes almost brutal. In the end a mosaic of experience is constructed, illuminating the nature of human love and pointing up the gathering indifference that can beset those who have been perhaps too long and too closely aligned in the sharing of years.

In the introduction to the second volume of The Collected Plays of Edward Albee, Albee explains the history of the play:

Counting the Ways was composed to be done with Listening – before it – as a nicely varied evening. It has proved to be far more popular by itself, at least without Listening. It was performed most recently, in New York City, very successfully on a bill with, and following, three short plays by Beckett. Perhaps what I have written is a “curtain lower” rather than the curtain raiser I had supposed.

Albee, Edward. Introduction. The Collected Plays of Edward Albee. Vol. 2. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005. 8.

Type: Short Play

Acts: One

First Performance: 6 December 1976, National Theater, London; 28 January 1977, Hartford Stage Company, Hartford, CT.; 5 November 1993, Signature Theatre Company, New York

Plot Summary and Critical Analysis by Meghan Cathcart

Plot Summary

Edward Albee’s Counting the Ways was first performed on January 28, 1977, in Connecticut by The Hartford Stage Company. The action takes place in a bare living room with a small table, two chairs, and two archways framing the stage. In twenty-one short scenes, “a series of skits, separated by blackouts […] to transform banality by means of clever theatrical artifice.”[1] Counting the Ways is compacted into one act with frequent entrances and exits between scenes. This heart-wrenching vaudeville explores the marriage of two characters, He and She, in analogy to Elizabeth Barrett’s Sonnet XLIII from which Albee takes his title (“How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways”). After being married for twenty years, She is unsure whether her husband, He, still loves her. “Do you love me?” She asks him in the first scene, trying to reassure herself of their mutual commitment. He hesitates, questions why, then eventually replies with “of course.”[2]

Trying to understand their purpose as a married couple, He and She find themselves avoiding the ongoing question “Do you love me?” throughout their journey of life. She remains anxious during the play, and at times is very explicit about her emotions. In Scene Three, She randomly begins a rant about their sexual relationship and aggressively states, “Do you suppose stuffing it in me for you fat and flabby is something I enjoy?”[3] During this scene, Albee explicitly states in the stage directions that He is nowhere around and She is talking in the direction of the doorway. The following scene opens with He asking what “love in the afternoon” means,[4] which is carried into the next few scenes where She clarifies that this quotation means sex in the afternoon. He is dumbfounded: “Really? That’s what they mean? Sex in the afternoon? Love means sex?”[5] He’s reaction suggests that the meaning of sex is irrelevant to the meaning of love, highlighting and avoiding the preceding question, “Do you love me?”

In Scene Seven, He is alone with a rose, picking the petals off one by one. While He destroys the rose, He repeats to himself the traditional lover’s game, “she loves me, she loves me not,”[6] until He becomes conscious of the audience. Rather than expose the result of the lover’s game to those watching, He eats the remainder of the rose. Albee again employs flower imagery when he mentions dandelions in Scene Ten. He is onstage talking to himself, trying to understand the purpose of blowing off the dried seeds as a child. He cannot seem to remember why he picked and blew the dandelions in the first place; however, He asks himself “was it for love?”[7] He repeats the question to himself multiple times, then at one point says the query louder for She to hear. When She walks onstage, He notices her presence and softly states the question again; She does not respond.

She begins to reminisce about her youth by reflecting on her previous relationships. She mentions the night of her prom by describing her date as someone who “could have kept it some distance […] but a corsage which [he placed on me], was a chance for a feel.”[8] He appears from stage right and demands his shirts. She continues to reminisce about the boy at prom, paying no attention to He. Both characters become too involved with their own whims, avoiding the needs of the other. Intrigued by his own statement, “thousands have lived without love, but none without shirts,”[9] He repeats himself once more, hoping to get She’s attention to discuss the statement further. When She continues to ignore him, He directs his attention to the audience where He as the actor improvises a monologue, suggesting this statement is relevant to his own life. The scene ends with She yelling about the flowers and suggesting they should be put on the table, “between their beds.”[10] At this moment, it becomes apparent that the married couple is no longer sleeping in the same bed. This separation is rather difficult for He to grasp. He cannot seem to understand when this happened; however, She makes it very clear that it did and she “does not wish to discuss it.”[11] The issue of separate beds becomes more concrete in Scene Fourteen. She is fully accepting of this situation; however, He is rather distraught and refers to the separate beds as a corpse.[12]

The last scene, Twenty-One, is opened by She asking, “if you love me… how do you know you love me?” Still not able to give her a genuine answer, He replies with a chuckle and says, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways?”[13] Before they exit the stage, She asks him whether he cheats on her a lot; He compliments She for wording her question so precisely. He replies, “No; I don’t.”[14] With the possibility of his unfaithfulness, She’s tone becomes noncommittal. He then states that he truly does love her, even though it may not seem that way. He asks She the question “do you love me?” and She responds, “I think I do.”[15] The curtain falls on the ambiguous answer to their questions about their love.

Critical Analysis

Counting the Ways is a comic but also thought-provoking vaudeville that highlights the intellectual marriage between He and She, specifically by their unusual speech and actions. Albee omits scenery and plot from the play; however, he strengthens the story by having the characters address the audience in a relatable manner. In an interview with Albee, Bruce Mann highlights the unusual and interesting risks Albee takes when writing plays that allow characters to break the fourth wall. “Not only do the characters talk to the audience, but at one point the actors talk to the audience as themselves, and then go back talking to the audience as characters.”[16] However, Linda Ben-Zvi argues the characters’ recognition of the audience as one of the many flaws they represent, by acknowledging the scene when He and She speak to the audience and try to identify themselves: “…improvising stories about their personal lives. After a bit, they take up their roles once more […] indicat[ing] that what is being staged is an act.”[17] Their attempt at convincing the audience of their happiness as a couple “doesn’t quite work,” Clive Barnes mentions in his review. It is obvious to more than one critic that He and She cannot identify themselves as anything more than strangers who live in the same house but in separate beds.

Philip Kolin examines the relationship of He and She, recognizing their “failed communication”[18] even after twenty years of marriage. Kolin acknowledges the parody of their marriage by reflecting on what they lack, similar to Barnes’ observation that the characters’ lack of intimacy is evident in their “querulous voices echoing in the queasy uncertainty of the contemporary heart.” In other words, as Mel Gussow describes it, He and She are in constant battle, “quiz[ing] one another on love and death.”[19] The reference to death is clearly displayed in Scene Fourteen, symbolizing He and She’s relationship as one that has no more room to grow. She mentions they are fortunate that it has not gone any further than sleeping in separate beds, and that “these things happen.” She acknowledges their next step is separate rooms which He does not approve of. “And those beds! They’re not wide, those beds; they’re single; they’re for a solitary, or for a corpse,”[20] implying their beds are as tiny as a grave. There is an immediate blackout following this scene which highlights that lack of intimacy within their marriage. Foster Hirsch considers how language limits the characters’ ability to accept the reality of their marriage by drawing attention to their frequent exits, creating the effect of quick snapshots. The constant exits represent the marriage between He and She by identifying how the married couple avoids communication.

Ben-Zvi observes this vaudeville structure by describing the characters’ “movements [as] precise and spare [and] timed for comic effect. [The characters’] words [are] often addressed to the other’s retreating or absent figure, or thrown out directly to the audience.”[21] This also relates to the idea of blackouts by explaining how the characters are unable to confront each other face to face; however, when their partner is absent or when addressing the audience, the characters are able to speak with ease. These quick scenes draw great attention to the question of the status of their love, never actually establishing a definitive answer. Albee gives the characters the opportunity to answer the question more than once; however, they cannot seem to respond without hesitation. Rather than explore their marriage to fix their difficulties, He and She lack the desire and commitment to do so.

In the essay, “The Ways of Losing Heart,” Philip Kolin writes, “Albee intentionally burlesques the form and substance of such romantic comedies. His lovers are neither young nor idealistic; [however], the games they play are based on traditional love tests, which for them are either absurd or have no meaning.”[22] Barnes argues that the characters have realistic tensions, yet when the actors speak as themselves rather than their characters, “it clearly shows the way the playwright’s mind is moving.” Albee intentionally creates this play as abstract by breaking the fourth wall and incorporating fragmented scenes. Later in his review Barnes states that He and She’s dialogue and action establish “just the right ugly loveliness,” creating an oxymoron to express the lack of meaning to their relationship.

From the beginning of Counting The Ways, it is apparent that this long married couple is slowly losing themselves within their own marriage. Barbara Horn discusses the absurdity of the play in her book by putting the meaning of love into perspective. He and She realize the lack of affection they show by highlighting how difficult it is to “count the ways that one loves.”[23] The love that He and She show for one another is obscure, making it difficult for the audience to understand their true feelings. Toby Zinman highlights the marriage of the characters by focusing on the separation of their bed and how their relationship resembles “deterioration – both physical[ly] and conjugal[ly].”[24] Kolin touches on this subject as well by describing their love as a “great deal of distance [which] lies between those affairs of the heart and the present life.”[25] Here Kolin acknowledges the obvious emotional distance between the two characters by highlighting what the characters are feeling compared to what they show on stage.

The reality of their marriage does not lie far from the petals fallen from He’s fingertips, slowly wilting away, then all at once. “The rose gesture, simultaneously, a genuinely romantic offering and a parody of it: a parody is not an inversion, but a falling off of meaning.”[26] Zinman highlights an aspect of He and She’s relationship by drawing attention to what a rose represents. Roses symbolize love and romance; however, Albee mocks the romance aspect of the rose by allowing He to play the game of ‘she loves me, she loves me not.’ The shedding of a rose symbolizes the end of life, or end of love. The image of the petals displayed on the ground is similar to the marriage of He and She. The relationship between the two characters encourages the audience to view their marriage as two separate images: one that is willing to begin again and one that will end. “The gap between the two images is filled by longing as well as by cynicism.”[27] Zinman suggests that once roses shed their petals, the only way to revive them is by carefully replanting them or simply starting over. When comparing a marriage to a petal that is lying on the ground, separation can only be resolved when both people make the effort to do something. Ironically enough, a single rose is only capable of living for ten years. When united together as a married couple, that single rose became two, adding another ten years to their marriage. Needless to say, He and She have not made the commitment to replant their marriage after twenty years, identifying their twenty-first anniversary, Scene Twenty-One, as the celebration of their lifeless marriage.


[1] Hirsch 90.
[2] Albee 523.
[3] Albee 525.
[4] Albee 526.
[5] Albee 526.
[6] Albee 529.
[7] Albee 533.
[8] Albee 535.
[9] Albee 537.
[10] Albee 538.
[11] Albee 539.
[12] Albee 543.
[13] Albee 552.
[14] Albee 553.
[15] Albee 554.
[16] Mann 136.
[17] Ben-Zvi 188.
[18] Kolin 126.
[19] Gussow 295.
[20] Albee 543.
[21] Ben-Zvi 187.
[22] Kolin 123.
[23] Horn 48.
[24] Zinman 93.
[25] Kolin 127.
[26] Zinman 97.
[27] Zinman 97.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. “Counting the Ways.” The Collected Plays of Edward Albee. Vol. 2. 1966-1977. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005. 598-554. Print.

Barnes, Clive. “Stage: Double Bill by Albee.” Rev. of Counting the Ways, by Edward Albee. The New York Times 4 April 1977. Web 11 Apr. 2016.

Ben-Zvi, Linda Ben. “Playing the Cloud Circuit.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 186-189. Print.

Gussow, Mel. Edward Albee: A Singular Journey. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.

Hirsch, Foster. Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee? Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts Book Company. Print.

Horn, Barbara Lee. Edward Albee: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Kolin, Philip. “Edward Albee’s Counting the Ways: The Ways of Losing Heart.” Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays. Houston, TX: University of St. Thomas, 1983. 121-140. Print.

Mann, Bruce J. “Interview with Edward Albee.” Edward Albee: A Casebook. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003. 136-137. Print.

Zinman, Toby. Edward Albee. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.

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