Who Was Edward Albee?
Playwright Edward Albee's early popular one-act plays, including The Zoo Story (1959), established him as a critic of American values. He was best known for his first full-length play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), a Tony Award-winning production which also became a 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Albee received Pulitzer Prizes for A Delicate Balance (1966), Seascape (1972) and Three Tall Women (1994), among a host of other accolades.
Edward Franklin Albee was born Edward Harvey in Virginia on March 12, 1928. His mother was Louise Harvey and little is known about his father. He was adopted at 18 days old by Reed and Francis Albee, who gave him their family name. His parents owned and showed saddle horses, and for a time his father helped run a chain of successful family-owned vaudeville theaters. Although he had a privileged childhood, Edward felt alienated from his conservative parents, with whom he felt little connection.
After bouncing around various private schools and attending a military academy, he enrolled at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut for a time before eventually breaking away from his adoptive family in the late 1940s and finding a community in the vibrant artists circle living in Greenwich Village. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Albee spoke about the break with his family: “I think they wanted somebody who would be a corporate thug of some sort, or perhaps a doctor or lawyer or something respectable,” he said. “They didn’t want a writer on their hands. Good God, no.”
Albee worked a variety of jobs and lived off some inheritance money while he began experimenting with various writing styles. In the 1950s, he became friends with fellow writers, painters and musicians including playwright William Inge and composers David Diamond, Aaron Copland and William Flanagan, who became his lover in the 1950s.
Early Career and 'The Zoo Story'
Albee wrote short stories, poetry and an unpublished novel, but didn't find his voice until he wrote plays. Critics and audience took notice of his work with the debut of his existential one-act play The Zoo Story, which he wrote on a typewriter from the Western Union office where he worked, according to the biography Edward Albee: A Singular Journey by Mel Gussow.
The play about an intense encounter between two strangers on a park bench in New York City had its premiere in Berlin, Germany in 1959, where it was well-received. It opened at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in 1960, and energized the Off-Broadway theater community. Albee said he wanted to challenge audiences to feel uncomfortable. “I want the audience to run out of the theater — but to come back and see the play again,” he said.
He wrote three more one-act plays that were well-received Off-Broadway: The Sandbox (1959), The Death of Bessie Smith (1959) and The American Dream (1961).
'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
Albee made his Broadway debut in 1962 with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a more than three-hour-long play about the existentially fraught relationship between a middle-aged professor George and his wife Martha, who pull a couple of invited guests into their dysfunction in a night of alcohol-fueled confrontations. Some critics were horrified by the raw emotions on stage, others found it revelatory. The production was a major hit, winning the Tony Award for Best Play. A jury also awarded it the Pulitzer Prize, but the Pulitzer advisory board rejected their recommendation.
Decades later, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is considered a modern theater classic. Various award-winning Broadway revivals have been staged including a 1976 production starring Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazarra; a 2005 production starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin; and a 2010 production starring Amy Morton and Tracy Letts.
Pulitzer Prize Awards and 'Three Tall Women'
Over five decades, Albee crafted more than two dozen plays, including adaptations of other authors' work including The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1963), based on a Carson McCullers' novella: Malcolm (1965), based on a James Purdy novel; and Lolita (1981), based on the Vladimir Nabokov classic.
Albee is the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes, having won the award in 1967 for A Delicate Balance, a dark comedy about an unhappy affluent family, and in 1975 for Seascape, an existential meeting of an elderly couple and two evolved anthropomorphic lizards. A Delicate Balance became another work brought to the big screen in a 1973 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield.
For a period, Albee struggled with alcoholism and did not write a successful play for many years. His plays, including The Lady from Dubuque (1980) and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983), were flops.
Albee returned to critical acclaim in the 1990s with his play Three Tall Women, an exploration of his feelings about his mother through three women portrayed at different stages of their life. In 1994, he received his third Pulitzer Prize for the play.
He continued to write into the 2000s with works including The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? (2002) about a marriage that falls apart when the husband falls in love with a goat; Occupant (2001) a postmortem interview with sculptor Louise Nevelson; and Me, Myself, & I (2007) an absurdist take on a mother's relationship with her twin sons.
The playwright spoke about his body of work in a 1991 interview in the New York Times: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done,” he said. “I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die."
Personal Life and Foundation
Albee said he knew he was gay by the time he was 8 years old. After his relationship with William Flanagan, he became involved with fellow playwright Terrence McNally for more than six years in the 1960s. In 1971, he began a decades-long relationship with sculptor Jonathan Thomas. Thomas died from cancer in 2005
In 1967, the playwright established the Edward F. Albee Foundation, which allows writers and visual artists to have a retreat in Montauk on Long Island in New York. Albee received an array of honors for his work including being the recipient of Kennedy Honors (1996), the National Medal of the Arts (1996) and a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award (2005).
Stretching My Mind, a collection of his essays, was published in 2005.
Death and Legacy
After suffering a short illness, Albee died at his home in Montauk, New York, on September 16, 2016 at the age of 88. He was remembered as one of the foremost playwrights of his generation, known for his distinctive use of language while challenging audiences to examine the suffering caused by conventional, artificial social traditions. “He invented a new language — the first authentically new voice in theater since Tennessee Williams,” Terrence McNally told the Los Angeles Times after Albee's death. “He created a sound world. He was a sculptor of words.”
The New York Times critic Ben Brantley once wrote about Albee's contribution to the theater world: “Mr. Albee has unsparingly considered subjects outside the average theatergoer’s comfort zone: the capacity for sadism and violence within American society; the fluidness of human identity; the dangerous irrationality of sexual attraction and, always, the irrefutable presence of death.”
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