When Edward Albee, who has died aged eighty-eight, wrote a play, it was usually a wilful provocation that arguably came from deep within his own experience. While best known for the dramatic explosion of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which seeped into popular consciousness by way of Mike Nicholls' film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Albee was anything but a one-trick-pony.
This was evident in his three decade-spanning Pulitzer Prize wins, for A Delicate Balance in 1967, Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1994. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had been initially selected by the 1962 drama jury, but was over-ruled by the Pulitzer advisory committee, who opted not to make any drama award that year. Given that the play won a Tony and ran on Broadway for over a year prior to the film version, one suspects Albee wasn't overly concerned, as he kept his distance from the theatrical establishment his work rubbed up against over the next fifty years with varying degrees of commercial success.
Albee would go on to win another Tony in 2002 for The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, a play about a man who was having a love affair with a farm animal, spoke volumes about Albee's taboo-busting audaciousness as well as his willingness to put his reputation on the line in the face of shocked audiences and more than one critical mauling.
“If Attila the Hun were alive today,” Albee said in 1988, “he'd be a drama critic.”
Edward Franklin Albee III was born in Virginia. Little is known about his father, who deserted his mother, Louise Harvey, who put her child up for adoption when he was two weeks old. After being placed in the care of wealthy vaudeville theatre owner Reed A Albee and his socialite wife Frances, Albee grew up in affluent Westchester County in New York. It was arguably this early sense of displacement, both from his blood parents and the family that adopted him, that would define the fractured relationships contained within Albee's work, as well as giving him an artistic temperament that didn't fit in with the world of guardians who expected him to become what Albee described in a TV interview as a “corporate thug.”
Albee said he wrote his first play aged fourteen, a three-act work that was thrown out by his mother. After being expelled from several schools, Albee decamped to the then bohemian Greenwich Village, where he would visit the theatre and moved in a social set that included composer Aaron Copeland William Flanagan, who would become his lover. Albee says he realised he was gay when a child, although he avoided being defined as a gay writer throughout his career, thirty-five years of which were spent with sculptor Jonathan Thomas prior to his death in 2005.
Albee tried writing prose and poetry before attempting drama. He burst onto the theatre scene in 1959 with The Zoo Story, a troubling two-hander about a man who approaches another man who is reading on a bench in Central Park. The play, which Albee wrote in two and a half weeks, was first seen in Berlin in a double bill with Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape before opening at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village as part of a then fledgling off-Broadway scene.
The Zoo Story's sense of disaffection chimed with the times, and other one-act works The Sandbox (1959), The Death of Bessie Smith (1959) and The American Dream (1960) followed. Then came Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a ferociously hyper-real study of destructive relationships within an all-American academic backdrop In a programme note for the Almeida Theatre's 1996 production, Albee wrote how the play had “hung about my neck like a shining medal of some sort.”
A Delicate Balance (1965) won Albee his first Pulitzer, while All Over (1971), was directed on Broadway by John Gielgud. There were flops, including Albee's stage version of Truman Capote's novel, Breakfast At Tiffany's, though further successes came with Three Tall Women (1990-91). In his final years, he wrote Me, Myself and I in 2007, and wrote a first act for The Zoo Story in 2009.
In an interview with the Herald in 2010 prior to a production of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? at the Traverse Theatre, Albee talked of how “London audiences and British audiences are more intelligent” than those on Broadway shocked by his work. Of the play itself, he was typically unforthcoming, stating that “I write my plays to find out why I'm writing them. I'm not didactic, but there are several things in my plays that I hope genuinely want to make people think. Escapist entertainment isn't good enough. There are several things here, about suicide, about sexual responses, that you really want the audience to take away with them and think about, and make them think that maybe they should grow up. But the thing to understand about the goat in this play is that it isn't a metaphor. You can't f*** a metaphor.”
Albee understood his own work with a gravity that he felt was sometimes missed.
“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 in a 1991 interview with the New York Times. “I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”
Throughout his career as a dramatic provocateur, Albee understood the importance of kicking against the pricks. As he explained to the Herald in 2010, “I'm a writer, and that's the only drive I have for doing what I do, to keep on being provocative and to keep on asking questions.”
The Herald, September 19th 2016