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Death of Bessie Smith


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A: Edward Albee Pf: 1960, Berlin; 1961, New York Pb: 1960 G: Drama in 8 scenes S: Hospital and other locations, Memphis, Tennessee, 1937 C: 5m, 2fTwo stories alternate. In one, Jack, the black driver and friend of the blues singer Bessie Smith, is stopping with her in Memphis on their way north to a big engagement in New York. He drinks, and they have a crash, but are refused admission to the ironically named Mercy Hospital, because they are black. In the other story, a Nurse at another hospital displays the racist attitudes that she has inherited from her irascible old Father. She reminds a black Orderly that his people have no right to aspire towards assimilation with the whites. She is willingly wooed by a young liberal-minded Intern, but recognizes that they cannot marry at this stage in his career and dominates him cruelly. The Intern dreams of achieving something more than treating the mayor's piles, perhaps of joining the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In the final scene, the stories converge: Jack pleads with the Intern to treat Bessie, while the Nurse tries to turn him away. The Intern goes out to Bessie but discovers that she has already died. The Nurse is furious over the Intern's behaviour and begins to ‘sing and laugh at the same time’, ‘almost like keening’. The Intern slaps her hard.

A: Edward Albee Pf: 1960, Berlin; 1961, New York Pb: 1960 G: Drama in 8 scenes S: Hospital and other locations, Memphis, Tennessee, 1937 C: 5m, 2f

It is tempting to see this as a play purely about race (especially as only the ‘victims’ Bessie and Jack have names). However, as Albee wrote: ‘I am not concerned with politics…but I have a dislike of waste…stagnation.’ As with the complacent middle-class figure in The Zoo Story, Albee ‘has a sense of urgency’ about the failure of humanity to communicate and to recognize its own spirituality. By letting the ‘Empress of the Blues’ die so callously, white America shows it has lost its humanity.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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Edward Albee (b. 1928) American dramatist


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