Three Tall Women

As an imperious, acerbic old woman lies dying, she is tended by two other women and visited by a young man.

Type: Full Length Play

Acts: Two

First Performance: June 14, 1991; Vienna’s English Theatre

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Albee’s third Pulitzer Prize), 1994. New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1994.

Nominations: Drama Desk Award Outstanding Play, 1994.

Plot Summary and Critical Analysis by Ashley Gallagher

Plot Summary

At the start of Three Tall Women it is afternoon in the bedroom of a wealthy, old woman at the onset of Three Tall Women.  Albee describes her as “thin, autocratic, proud, as together as the ravages of time will allow.  Nails scarlet, hair nicely done, wears makeup.  Lovely nightgown and dressing gown.”[1]  In the bedroom the audience views not just the old woman but two other women.  Ben Brantley of the New York Times elucidates the characters of the old woman, identified in the script simply as A, as well as characters B and C: “Mr. Albee baldly sets these characters up as representatives of three ages of woman. C [a representative from A’s law firm] embodies all the intolerance and the conviction of immortality of youth, and is impatient with the old woman’s meanderings. The caretaker [B], in turn, is impatient with C’s impatience and given to sharp-tongued reminders that A represents C’s future.”[2]  From the first moments of the play, A asserts herself as a cantankerous force that both B and C must assuage.  In fact, during rehearsals for the Vienna premiere, Albee directed Myra Carter, the actress playing A who also had known Albee’s mother, to ensure that the audience “‘got to really hate her.’”[3]  Then, just as quickly as A takes C to task regarding her age, A declares, “I want to go.”[4]  B helps A to the bathroom then admits to C that A wets her bed every morning, an act B observes as “a kind of greeting to the day.”[5]  A’s evident deterioration leads B to explain to C her pedagogy of mortality: “Start in young; make ‘em aware they’ve got only a little time.  Make ‘em aware they’re dying from the minute they’re alive.”[6]

A soon returns wondering: “Will he come today?  Is today the day he comes?”  However, her absent-mindedness about her son’s visit swiftly crescendos: “He never comes to see me, and when he does he never stays.  (A sudden shift in tone to hatred.) I’ll fix him; I’ll fix all of ‘em.”[7]  After the mention of her difficult relationship with “he,” meaning her son, A transitions into expounding on her early life (or what she remembers of it).  When C attempts to correct A, B tells C to “Let it be,” making it obvious that A’s reminiscing, though lengthy, is flawed.[8]  Another trip to the bathroom sends A offstage again, but not without some distress over the pain in her arm, held together by pins.  When A reenters, B and C bring up her financial issues.  A then launches into a diatribe about her mistrust of people: “They all rob you blind if you so much as turn your back on them.  All of them!”[9]  Then, just as quickly as one topic begins, A again moves on to another one: being molded into a respectable young lady by her “[s]trict, but fair” mother.[10]  However, while A became an affluent society wife, her sister became a drunkard who was later forced to marry.

Although A has been afforded the pleasures associated with a well-to-do husband, she insists that her life has not been an easy one.  While at one time she had family and friends around her, now, she reflects: “I don’t have any friends anymore; most of them are dead, and the ones aren’t dead are dying, and the ones aren’t dying have moved away or I don’t see anymore.”[11]  Despite the, at times, burdensome nature of her family including but not limited to caring for her drunk sister and ill mother and husband, A takes pride in her perseverance: “I think they all hated me, because I was strong, because I had to be.”[12]  With this realization, A suffers a massive stroke, leaving her unresponsive.

Act II reveals a mannequin lying in the bed with “a life mask of the actress playing A—wearing exact, same costume as on A in Act One.  We must believe it to be A.”  While her masked twin remains in bed, the actress playing A appears in a “lovely, lavender dress.”[13]  A enters the act as B and C are discussing death and C’s refusal to acknowledge its looming presence.  Enraged by what A and B have become, C vehemently argues: “I will not become…that!” while pointing to A’s bedridden likeness.[14]  In this moment, the audience begins to see that A, B, and C are really all the same person at different stages of her life: 26, 52, and 92.  A and B begin to chide C about her calculated encounters with men.  However, C insists that though she had not been celibate, she is still “a good girl,” and so A, B, and C recall the “beautiful” boy to whom she lost her virginity.[15]  It is at this point that C questions why she will ultimately marry her future husband, nicknamed the “penguin,” especially since A and B have more than hinted at infidelity and discontentment.[16]  A also shares that they have a son and, just then, a young man appears in the doorway.  Once of legal age, the son left home, not to return for over twenty years when he hears that his mother has suffered a heart attack.  When he reenters her life, A comments, “[w]e’re strangers; we’re curious about each other; we leave it at that.”[17]  B, on the other hand, explodes: “He left!!  He packed up his attitudes and he left!!  And I never want to see him again.  (To him.)  Go away!!  (Angry, humiliated, tears.)[18]  C, too, finds herself angry and confused over how she will evolve into B and A.

At the conclusion of the play, the three women wonder what the happiest moment in life is.  While C believes all of her happiest times are still ahead, B thinks that it is the middle of life, during which one can look both back and forward all at once, that brings the most joy.”[19]  To A, the happiest moment is yet to come, for in that moment no one will expect her to continue being brave and soldiering on through adversity.  A finally concludes, “That’s the happiest moment.  (A looks to C and B, puts her hand out, takes theirs.)  When it’s all done.  When we stop.  When we can stop.”[20]  Thus, the fading stage lights signify the end to not only the play but also to the old woman’s life.

Critical Analysis

Three Tall Women, winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize, reinvigorated Albee’s career partly due to its unique structure but also due to its autobiographical, or biographical, as Albee has argued, nature.  Albee directed the first performances of the play in Vienna followed by Lawrence Sacharow in New York.  Albee reflects on his inspiration for Three Tall Women: “I knew I did not want to write a revenge piece—could not honestly do so, for I felt no need for revenge.  We had managed to make each other very unhappy over the years, but I was past all that, though I think she was not.  I harbor no ill will toward her; it is true I did not like her much, could not abide her prejudices, her loathings, her paranoias, but I did admire her pride, her sense of self.  As she moved toward ninety, began rapidly failing both physically and mentally, I was touched by the survivor, the figure clinging to the wreckage only partly of her own making, refusing to go under.”[21]  Albee further attributes his absorption in this particular play to being “fascinated by the horror and sadness I was (re)creating.”[22]  As Mann asserts, Three Tall Women should be classified as an autobiographical drama in which “[w]hat we see on stage is really a mental landscape at the roots of his imagination where his sense of self was born.”[23]  Mann observes that this propensity to write autobiographical dramas is a common practice amongst middle-aged playwrights such as O’Neill and Williams.  Despite the evidence linking Three Tall Women to Albee’s life, specifically his adoptive mother, Frances Albee, Solomon remarks that “Albee downplayed the autobiographical aspects of the play, so that the actors would not feel inhibited in his presence…. When questions turned to details of his life, he usually dismissed them by suggesting that all plays, after all, are autobiographical.”[24]  Indeed, one can see similarities between A and other women in Albee’s plays such as Agnes in A Delicate Balance.  Ultimately, Mann argues that Albee’s Three Tall Women is an attempt to “reconnect with his mother and renew his sense of self.”[25]  Mann further writes, ““In Three Tall Women, Albee solves the problem.  He uses the play to understand his mother, thereby freeing himself from her hurtful treatment.  This liberation allows him to develop a stronger ‘autonomous’ self and resolve his crisis.  He creates a character in her image—an imperious, vain, and fragile figure in her nineties—and in the first act, he looks at her from the outside.  In the second act, he transforms the actresses into his mother’s younger, middle-aged, and older selves so he can explore why she became such a bitter woman.”[26]  As such, each character in Three Tall Women acts as an integral part of Albee’s self rejuvenation.

While A is the odious culmination of B’s and C’s life experiences, B, fifty-two, has realized that “[l]ife has not turned out the way she expected; she has had to fight on too many fronts—her husband’s affairs, his jealous in-laws, her rebellious son.”[27]  Marian Seldes, who played B in the New York premiere of Three Tall Women, commented, “if I thought of [Albee], I knew how to play this woman.  I wore a tweed skirt, a blouse and sweater.  By the time we opened at the Vineyard Theatre in New York, I made sure that the tweed was a dark brown, the blouse green and the sweater large like a man’s.  I had seen Edward in variations of that color combination for years.[28]  What propels not only B’s but also France Albee’s deep depression is their concern for their “social identit[ies]; [they] cannot see beyond it and [do] not realize that this limits [them] and makes [them] unhappy.”[29]  This profound unhappiness ultimately materializes in A whom Albee described as “‘a woman we don’t like very much in Act One and get to like a little better in Act Two.’”[30]

Although Albee denies consciously writing Three Tall Women as a way to achieve self-catharsis, Sacharow likens the play to the catharsis found in Greek dramas such as the story of Agamemnon’s murder of his and Clytemnestra’s daughter, Iphigenia.[31]  Sacharow’s reference to the loss of a child connects to the role of the son.  Zinman writes of the son, “The son’s role—by logical assumption Albee’s self-portrait—is most remarkable for its silence; he has written no lines for himself.  But since this is the boy his mother remembers when he left home (not the age he would have been by the time his mother was ninety-one), the character can exist only as a memory, a wish, an imagining of his mother’s dying mind in act 2 as she, in effect, forces the young man to act out the grief she longs to make him feel.”[32]  The strength of the son’s resemblance to Albee was perhaps best illustrated during a rehearsal for the New York premiere.  Michael Rhodes, the actor scheduled to play the Young Man, was unavailable; Sacharow, asked Albee if he would fill in as the character.  Immediately, Sacharow noticed, “[i]t provide[d] a shock of energy for the cast to say those lines to Edward sitting in the chair.”[33]  Albee’s onstage presence provided the cast with the singular opportunity of facing the real life character inspiration.  Ultimately, Mann concludes that in keeping the character silent, Albee “realizes he has grown far beyond the young man on stage” and assumes a metastance perspective.[34]  Albee’s objective perspective is also reflected in A’s viewpoint in the final scene of the play: “…she must acknowledge the deficiencies and limitations of herself at earlier ages. By staging multiple identities, by splitting or tripling the single consciousness…Albee can show how C changed into B and B into A, how A is the sum of C and B.”[35]  Therefore, as Albee attempted to view his mother in an unprejudiced way, so to do A, B, and C begin to see themselves for who they truly are at the end of their life.

Two years after Three Tall Women won the Pulitzer Prize, Seldes interviewed Albee at Lincoln Center about his process as a playwright.  During the course of their conversation, Albee remarked, “Once I finished writing Three Tall Women I am hard pressed to think of an instant when I have thought about the woman who is the source of that play.”  Seldes then suggested the word “exorcism” which they both agreed upon as the most gratifying end result of Albee’s deeply personal, biographical work.[36]


[1] Albee, Three Tall Women ix.
[2] Brantley.
[3] Solomon 166.
[4] Albee, Three Tall Women 11.
[5] Albee, Three Tall Women 12.
[6] Albee, Three Tall Women 14.
[7] Albee, Three Tall Women 19.
[8] Albee, Three Tall Women 23.
[9] Albee, Three Tall Women 33.
[10] Albee, Three Tall Women 23.
[11] Albee, Three Tall Women 40.
[12] Albee, Three Tall Women 60.
[13] Albee, Three Tall Women 63.
[14] Albee, Three Tall Women 69.
[15] Albee, Three Tall Women 73, 74.
[16] Albee, Three Tall Women 82.
[17] Albee, Three Tall Women 91.
[18] Albee, Three Tall Women 92.
[19] Albee, Three Tall Women 100.
[20] Albee, Three Tall Women 110.
[21] Albee, Stretching My Mind 166-167.
[22] Albee, Stretching My Mind 167.
[23] Mann 6.
[24] Solomon 174.
[25] Mann 9.
[26] Mann 9.
[27] Mann 11.
[28] Seldes.
[29] Mann 12.
[30] Sacharow 120.
[31] Sacharow 127-128.
[32] Zinman 124.
[33] Sacharow 127-128.
[34] Mann 13, 14.
[35] Adler 85.
[36] Albee Interview.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. “[Interview with Edward Albee].” Interview by Marian Seldes. Dir. Betty L. Corwin. Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, New York. 1996. Videocassette.

—. Stretching My Mind. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005. Print.

—. Three Tall Women. New York: Plume, 2004. Print.

Adler, Thomas P. “Albee’s ½: The Pulitzer plays.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee.

Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2006. Web. 31 July 2013.

Brantley, Ben. “Review/Theater: Three Tall Women; Albee Conjures Up Three Ages of

Woman.” New York Times 14 February 1994, late ed., sec. C: 13. Web. 28 July 2013.

Mann, Bruce J. “Three Tall Women: Return to the Muses.” Edward Albee: A Casebook. Ed.

Bruce J. Mann..New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Sacharow, Lawrence. “Directing Three Tall Women..” Edward Albee: A Casebook. Ed.

Bruce J. Mann..New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Seldes, Marian. “Albee and Me.” American Theatre 13.7 (1996): 24. Literary Reference Center.

Web. 29 July 2013.

Solomon, Rakesh H. Albee in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. Print.

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

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