Winner of numerous awards and acclaim, Edward Albee is a unique voice of the American theatre, standing with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as a pillar of 20th-Century American drama.
Writing in his obituary in the New York Times, Bruce Weber states that Albee is ‘widely considered the foremost American playwright of his generation, whose psychologically astute and piercing dramas explored the contentiousness of intimacy, the gap between self-delusion and truth and roiling desperation beneath the façade of contemporary life.’
Albee was born March 12, 1928 but was put up for adoption within the second week of his life. His adoptive father was Reed A Albee, the heir of a fortune made from his family’s success in running vaudeville companies. Reed was a well-known adulterer and was barely at home. His mother Frances was little better. A socialite who was Reed’s third wife, she would prove to be a rotten maternal figure for Albee but a wonderful muse: aspects of her would pop up in many of his plays.
Albee knew he wanted to be a writer and that he was gay by the time he was a teenager. As staunch conservatives, his parents strongly disapproved. In speaking about them in an interview with Charlie Rose, Albee said ‘I think they wanted somebody who would be a corporate thug of some sort, or perhaps a doctor or lawyer or something respectable…They didn’t want a writer on their hands. Good God, no.’ He would also claim that his family gave him money instead of love.
After numerous arguments, Albee left home and ended up in Greenwich Village. He would befriend many different artists and take odd jobs for financial support. During this time he dabbled in many forms of writing, having only a few poems published without any major success. He showed his work to many in his circle, including the American playwright Thornton Wilder, who recommended that he write plays: whether he saw something or simply didn’t think his poetry held muster is unknown.
Nearing the age of 30, Albee ‘borrowed’ a typewriter from his employer to write a play. Taking less than three weeks, the result was his first major work: The Zoo Story. He struggled to get an American production but managed to secure its world premiere in Berlin. The play would finally perform in New York, first as a one-off staged reading at the Actors Studio (where Norman Mailer declared it the best one-act he’d ever seen) and then Off-Broadway—Albee is credited by many as helping launch the New York Off-Broadway movement. Albee would write several other one-acts, all receiving mixed reviews but putting him firmly on the radar of playwrights to watch.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, arguably his greatest work, opened on Broadway in 1962. The play won multiple awards and ran for nearly two years. In an interview, Albee said the spark for the play came from a desire to look at ‘the destructive forces of various falsities in relationships.’
It courted controversy. For such an iconic play, the initial reviews were rather mixed, some loving the play but others comparing it to a cesspool with its ‘vulgar’ depictions of marriage, sex and language.
The film version premiered in 1966 and would receive similar notices: a mixture of acclaim and condemnation. The film won many awards, but its frank language also stirred up controversy. The film pleasantly surprised Albee: he was glad that it mostly kept his script and that its director had an appreciation for film and the story.
Time was cruel to Albee after Virginia Woolf. While he had a few successes, including the plays A Delicate Balance and Seascapes, the following years would see failure upon failure, with many of his plays quickly closing. Albee also turned to alcohol, causing even more friction personally and professionally.
After the death of his father, contact with his mother proved mostly cool: she struggled with his artisan life and refused to accept his homosexuality. When his mother died, Albee learned that she’d written him out of her will—a final slight. However, Albee used his mother and her death as the catalyst to write Three Tall Women—the play that would secure him a professional third act of new success and acclaim. He would remain active, seeing revivals of his major work and writing more award-winning plays.
He would significantly slow down with the death of his partner of 32 years, Jonathan Thomas, in 2005. Albee himself died on September 16, 2016.
© Michael Cox