Marriage Play

After thirty years of marriage, a man tells his wife that he is going to leave her. When she fails to respond to his outburst, he leaves the room. When he returns, he again declares that he is leaving her. When this attempt also proves unsuccessful he leaves the room, only to return and try for a third time to leave his wife. Thus begins Marriage Play, a look at the troubled marriage of Jack and Gillian. Through verbal and physical battles, the pair explore their life together and the institution of marriage.

Type: Short Play

Acts: Two

First Performance: 17 May 1987, Vienna’s English Theatre, Austria; 8 January 1992, Alley Theatre, Houston; 1 October 1993, Signature Theatre Company, New York

Plot Summary and Critical Analysis by Caitlin Filauro

Plot Summary

Marriage Play follows Jack and Gillian, a couple in their fifties, as they dissect their thirty years of marriage through reminiscing about their experiences of affection, passion, betrayal, and neglect. After Jack’s declaration that he is leaving Gillian, the couple fights both verbally and physically. Jack and Gillian, both witty and educated, go through a self-examination beyond just the downfall of their marriage, falling into an existential crisis. Marriage Play serves as a critical look at the definition of marriage and the overall purpose of our lives.

The play opens in a stereotypical suburban living room with Jack, a seemingly well-off business man, coming home from work and telling his wife Gillian that he is leaving her. Gillian does not take Jack’s declaration seriously. Jack, dissatisfied with her mocking response, leaves and comes back into the room three more times in an attempt to get the reaction he desires, only for Gillian to continue to dismiss his feelings, making Jack angry. Eventually, Jack collapses in a chair and Gillian reveals that the book she has been reading is a record she has kept of every time the couple has had sex. As she reads aloud from her “Book of Days,” as she titles it, Jack tells her that each of her entries are written in a style of different authors and poets throughout literary history, implying a lack of authenticity in her representation of their “coming together.” Gillian retorts she is unable to be herself around Jack and perhaps that is why her writing is reminiscent of other authors. The two argue back and forth, insulting and playing mind games with one another. Jack attempts to tell Gillian the moment when he realized he was dissatisfied with his life and needed a change. Gillian interrupts him, parodying his revelation at the office with a hilarious speech about how she also had a profound epiphany while working at the stove preparing dinner. Jack becomes furious and the couple engage in physical combat. They trip, claw, and strangle one another, even drawing blood. After the fight Jack and Gillian sit quiet and exhausted. They further reminiscence about their thirty years of marriage. Gillian claims that she has been the perfect wife to Jack even though she has never been enough for him. It is then revealed to the audience that Jack has had multiple affairs which were always accepted by both of them. Jack describes how in his youth he used to “glow,” but now that he is older it has been taken from him and he does not know how to handle it. Gillian then attempts to recount a time they spent in Venice, but Jack is unable to remember it, leading the audience to believe Gillian was there with another man. It is at this point in the play that Jack begins to realize the absurdity behind his existence. He claims that nothing means anything and that there is no point to love or marriage or life itself. The play ends with the couple accepting the fact that simply the act of “going on” is meaningless. Jack says once more that he is leaving, and they sit in silence as the lights go down.

Critical Analysis

Edward Albee participated in all aspects of creating the first American production of Marriage Play at the Alley Theatre in Houston on January 8th, 1992. He served as an advisor, attended rehearsals, and made multiple cuts and additions to the script as the rehearsal process was underway. In an interview with Rakesh H. Solomon, Albee discusses his rationale behind the changes he made to the script and production of the play. Albee’s explanation for his modifications offer insight to his overall theatrical aesthetic and how the performance can alter the author’s original vision. One of the major changes Albee made to the play was the title. Originally, it was meant to be called The Old One-Two and then later News From the Front. Albee eventually chose Marriage Play because he felt it stressed the play’s ambiguous ending.[1] During early rehearsals, the dialogue in which Gillian and Jack discuss a garden was much longer but by opening night was cut down to only a few short lines. In the interview, Albee reveals the reason for the cut: a scene has only two functions, to reveal a character further or to advance the action. If a scene is unable to do both of these things, it allows room for the audience to become disengaged and keep the play static. Albee felt the garden speeches didn’t pass muster. The other major revision made during the rehearsal process was the inclusion of Jack and Gillian holding hands at the end of the play. In a previous production at Vienna’s English Theatre, the two characters had ended the play sitting apart from one another. Albee explains that the reason he included the hand holding is because it becomes the only part in the play where the characters are touching each other aside from violence and that it allows for the audience to question the fate of their marriage. He notes that Marriage Play could be titled “illness of a marriage” not “death of a marriage” and felt as though it was important not to leave the audience with a definite answer.[2]

Marriage Play made its East Coast premiere at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton in February 1992. Arthur Klein published a review in The New York Times. He criticizes the language used by the two characters, noting Gillian’s use of the word “dalliances” instead of “affair” and “notions” to refer to her “Book of Days.” The semantic war between the couple does nothing more than “exasperate the preciosity” that is Edward Albee, according to Klein.[3] He goes on to discuss how the recycled character types of Albee’s plays from the 1960s take away from Marriage Play as a whole, reducing it to a reimagination of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?[4] In this case, however, Jack serves as the embodiment of animal instinct with reference to his affairs, and he demonstrates the failures in the practice of monogamy. Although Albee’s plays have often been embellished by explosive theatrics, Klein thought the actors in this production fell short and only highlighted the hollowness of excessive language through their performances. Overall, Klein says Marriage Play is Albee’s attempt to reclaim his absurdist roots by using a generally recycled theme.

In a review of Marriage Play’s New York premiere at the Signature Theatre Company in October 1993, Wilborn Hampton had similar thoughts about the play. He first comments on the opening lines. Although Jack leaving Gillian is supposed to shock the audience, Hampton says that because there is no character background or build up, the opening does not have the intended effect and the audience does not care whether Jack leaves Gillian or not. The subsequent argument does little to explain their relationship, and by the end of the play the audience feels neither sympathy nor empathy for either character. Hampton describes watching the play as similar to listening to a fight between the couple next door – there is no emotional investment. He notes Jack repeatedly talking about wanting to change his life but claims the core of these feelings is nothing more than “turgid male menopausal ruminations.”[5] He describes Albee’s dialogue as “picturesque,” but overall feels as though it lacks the energy to charge the characters and engage the audience. Both drama critics see Marriage Play as another installment of the dysfunctional marriage archetype that has appeared in an abundance of Albee’s plays. However, while the productions of the play were not well received, scholarly analysis presents Marriage Play as one of Albee’s best, dictating it as a commentary on the social convention of marriage.

Marriage Play serves as a representation of the conflict between modernism and postmodernism as well as Albee’s comment on the true authenticity that is the meaning of life.[6] Marriage Play parodies theatrical convention in the very opening of the play. Jack is forced to enter and reenter in order to begin the scene correctly. Thus, already established in the opening of the play is a thematic link between marriage and drama.[7] Everything in Jack and Gillian’s life is scripted. Jack repeatedly tells the story of his epiphany at his office desk, only to have his wife continually mock his crisis. According to Jenckes, the couple “personifies the paradigmatic shift [from modernism to postmodernism] that they are living through.”[8] Gillian represents postmodernism as she mimics the clichés that her husband uses to express his great insight into the meaninglessness of life. Jack plays the modernist husband. He is obsessed with figuring out the meaning of our being while simultaneously filled with regret over his life choices. Thus, Albee uses the play as a way to dramatize his existential ideas; that is, the central theme of lack of fulfillment is a way to confront the emptiness of modern life. Marriage Play forces readers and audience to question whether or not any sense of fulfillment or meaning is authentic or simply a false sense of comfort.

The protagonists in Marriage Play are similar to George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like the more famous couple, Jack and Gillian admire each other’s style and ability to attack one another and praise each other’s resilience and ability to take insults. The absence of the word “the” in the title makes another subtle allusion to Albee’s most famous play. It changes the meaning of the word “play” from a “script” to “games,” much like the ones that entertain George and Martha.[9] On one level, their arguments serve as a way for the couple to feel alive. It is clear that they have had a lack of affection in their marriage, and it is only now, during their verbal and physical battle, that they feel the most alive in years. Much like George and Martha, their mind games serve as an essential part for any sign of an engaged life. The passion in their marriage has not so much disappeared completely, but simply changed form. The couple fights to find a reason to continue their unsatisfactory lives. Jack’s threat to leave Gillian is not in itself authentic, but a reminder that they both need a reason to stay together.[10] At one point, Gillian says, “a good marriage . . . a useful marriage – makes individuals . . . clearly we’ve not become each other; we’ve become ourselves – I guess we have, and maybe for the first time.”[11] Here, we as readers realize why Jack has stayed all this time; he needs his marriage as a reason to go on, to give purpose to his life. The whole point of the play is to discover how one can validate one’s own existence in their own context. For Jack, his marriage provided a sense of validation. His attempt to make his ostensible mental breakdown more substantial fails simply because he “cannot announce he is leaving in a way that reveals the profundity of his recent epiphany.”[12] The end of the play is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the sense that the words spoken lead the audience to believe that Jack and Gillian’s marriage is dissolving, but the mood on stage leads us to think otherwise. Jack tells Gillian once again that he is leaving her, but the two sit, hold hands, with long moments of silence. When Gillian speaks her tone is described as “gentle” and Jack speaks with “no emotion; little boy.” The end of the play has a stage direction reading “they sit, silence; no movement.”[13] The couple will go on together, even if only to justify their existence to themselves.

Some critics have suggested that the characters of Jack and Gillian are completely unrelated to George and Martha. George and Martha have a more fulfilling marriage despite the mental abuse they put each other through. Their imaginary child provides purpose for them. It gives them a dynamic in which their marriage exists. Jack and Gillian’s marriage is a void. The couple has “no context except the playing space and the marriage is little more than a verbal construct.”[14] If anything, Gillian seems closer to Agnes from A Delicate Balance in terms of the sad-wife role. On the outside, both couples appear to be happy, wealthy suburbanites living the American Dream. However, Albee reveals their inability to confront any kind of issue, letting problems fester until they ultimately come to the surface in both plays.

Marriage Play serves as a portrait of a stereotypical, dysfunctional marriage. The names of the characters, Jack and Gillian, are a reference to the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill.” With this allusion, Albee immediately establishes the couple as an archetype from the very beginning, and this is only amplified by the setting, a suburban home on a weekday afternoon. These factors contribute to the overall realism of the play. Marriage Play is completely contemporary in the sense that by the end there is no winner in the prolonged battle of the sexes. Jack and Gillian come to a draw, intensifying the play’s realistic portrayal of a struggling marriage. Jack and Gillian’s repetition in language and action are essential to Albee’s portrayal of marriage. The constant back and forth, redoing and retrying, is central to domestic life.[15] The play’s finale is one of repetition that gives insight to both the curse and the salvation of their marriage. There is repetition in the dialogue when Jack tells Gillian he’s leaving her and there are repeated instances of long silence. These final notes in Marriage Play reveal that in Albee’s eyes, repetition and routine serve as both the torment and the comfort of life.


[1] Solomon 166.
[2] Solomon 166.
[3] Klein 1.
[4] Klein 1.
[5] Hampton 1.
[6] Jenckes 109.
[7] Zinman 114.
[8] Jenckes 108.
[9] Zinman 114.
[10] Bigsby 151.
[11] Albee 304.
[12] Schlueter 1.
[13] Albee 306.
[14] Weales.
[15] Zinman 114.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. “Marriage Play.” The Collected Plays of Edward Albee 1978-2003. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005. 252-306.

Bigsby, Christopher. “‘Better Alert than Numb’: Albee Since the Eighties.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 148-157.

Hampton, Wilborn. “Theatre in Review.” New York Times [New York] 20 October, 1993, Theatre sec.

Jenckes, Norma. “Postmodernist Tensions in Albee’s Recent Plays.” Edward Albee: A Casebook. Ed. Bruce J. Mann. New York: Routledge, 2003. 107-118.

Klein, Alvin. “Albee’s Marriage Play in East Coast Premiere.” New York Times [New York] 23 February 1992, Theatre sec.

Schlueter, June. “Marriage Play.” Studies in American Drama 1945-Present. Ed. Philip C. Kolin. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 1989. 106-108.

Solomon, Rakesh H. “Albee Stages Marriage Play: Cascading Action, Audience Taste, and Dramatic Paradox.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 164-177.

Weales, Gerald. “Marriage Play.” Commonweal Foundation. Literature Resource Center. 1992.

Zinman, Toby. Edward Albee. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

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