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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


Edward Albee

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To purchase Lolita

Title: Lolita
Author: Edward Albee
Genre: Drama
Written: 1981
Length: 92 pages
Availability: Lolita - US
  • Based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Lolita
  • First performed in New York on 19 March 1981, in a production directed by Frank Dunlop, starring Donald Sutherland, Ian Richardson, and Blanche Baker

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Our Assessment:

C : unconvincing adaptation, lacking both the book's sense of humour and of tragedy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 25/3/1981 John Beaufort
Newsweek . 30/3/1981 Jack Kroll
NY Daily News . 20/3/1981 Douglas Watt
NY Post . 20/3/1981 Clive Barnes
The New York Times . 29/3/1981 Walter Kerr
The New Yorker . 30/3/1981 Brendan Gill
Wall St. Journal . 31/3/1981 (Edwin Wilson)
The Washington Post . 20/3/1981 James Lardner

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nabokov himself isn't there. Only Edward Albee is there, only Edward Albee can help. But Edward Albee won't. He's given up real playwriting and, at the Atkinson, only seems happy when he can play idly with stage artifices - narrators, for instance -- like so many toys. (...) If the paucity of acted-out scenes keeps Lolita from taking on anything like dramatic tension and shape, the few private meetings that are provided by Mr. Albee tend to be quickly destroyed by a farcical level of performing that is gross rather than wittily grotesque." - Walter Kerr, The New York Times

  • "As it further turns out, the institution of sex is one of the minor victims of this production's battery of offenses to life and art -- a fast hit-and-run on the road to the real bloodbath. The casualty list should probably begin with the memory of Vladimir Nabokov and the related memory of Lolita (.....) Instead of the novel's confusing blend of innocence and worldliness, this Lolita is a malicious, thoroughly '80s caricature of American adolecence, expressing trendy sentiments far removed from the spirit of the book." - James Lardner, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Edard Albee's Lolita tries to adapt Nabokov's novel for the stage: the story of Humbert Humbert's passion for the nymphet Dolores 'Lolita' Haze, what he is willing to do to get her, their tempestuous relationship, and what happens when he loses her.
       To present the material Albee adds another character: called 'A Certain Gentleman', he is a narrator of sorts who accompanies Humbert Humbert through the story, commenting, moving things along. A Certain Gentleman introduces himself to the audience in a scene-setting prologue as an author of sorts -- the author, in fact, of what they are seeing now, acknowledging Humbert to be "a creation of my mind" (albeit one that has gotten a bit out of hand). A Certain Gentleman, in other words, is Albee ... sort of, and Nabokov too (but he's also a character in the play, the creator of the character who isn't quite a puppet in his hands).
       It's here, of course, that Albee has made his first and greatest mistake -- the fatal one, in fact. He opts to emphasise artifice, to remind the audience they are watching a play and that Humbert Humbert is a mere invention. (He never lets them forget it either, as A Certain Gentleman sticks to Humbert throughout the play, almost like a shadow -- quite literally the author who just can't let go.) Nabokov's Lolita also begins with an introduction -- but one that insists on the veracity of the story (and that is offered by an authority, not some vague 'certain gentleman').
       Albee's approach perhaps could be justified -- if he presented artifice as convincingly (or easily) as Nabokov. But he doesn't. (Albee himself seems to have doubts about A Certain Gentleman: "Ignore him; do your very best to ignore him. He is parenthetical", Humbert tells the audience -- but then Albee himself doesn't allow for that.)
       The Lolita story unfolds familiarly, but in the shorter space Humbert's insinuating himself into to the Haze household and then his conquest of Lolita aren't nearly as effective. The loss, the search, and even the resolution similarly pale beside the original (a comparison that is perhaps unfair but inevitable).
       There are occasional exchanges that Albee manages well -- some clever dialogue, and a few exchanges that get at the heart of the matters -- but these don't appear consistently enough. There's also an annoying tendency to try cleverness -- Albee can't match Nabokov's sense of language and very specific type of wordplay, but he still tries for imitation rather than playing to his own strengths. Nabokov book-titles, for example, are dropped in conversation; apparently that's meant to pass for cleverness (and, given everything else in the play, it almost does).
       There's also no escaping that Albee appears to find Humbert's obsession extremely distasteful. Nabokov allowed Humbert to tell his own story, and as shocking as Humbert's desires are they seem authentic and convincing. Nabokov wasn't approving, but at least understanding; Albee isn't.
       The presentation of the play -- with a considerable amount addressed straight to the audience, and the odd middleman that is A Certain Gentleman -- isn't entirely bad. Albee certainly has some sense of theatre, even if the pacing and presentation seems a bit uneven (but it's a hard tale to compress on the stage).

       Albee's Lolita was a famous Broadway flop -- despite starring Donald Sutherland as Humbert and Ian Richardson as A Certain Gentleman (though Albee apparently had ... issues with Sutherland). It's not often revived and, one imagines, can't be easily staged, the character of Lolita being almost impossible to cast adequately. But audiences are far better advised to stick to the novel, in any case.

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Lolita: Reviews: Lolita: Edward Albee: Lolita under review at the complete review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Edward Albee (1928-2016) was a leading American playwright.

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