Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?
Edward Albee was considered the chief playwright of the Theater of the Absurd when his first successful one-act experimental plays emerged. The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox, and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung were all released during Albee's thirties between 1959 and 1968 (Artists 1-2). Edward Albee
was born in the nation's capitol on March 12, 1928, and his career has brought him three Pulitzer Prizes over four decades, the first for A Delicate Balance in 1966 and the most recent in 1994 for Three Tall Women. While Albee's original works established him as a leading voice in America's Theater of the Absurd, his more mature plays were representative of traditional playwrights like Eugene O'Neill and August Strindberg.
Unlike many successful writers, the childhood of Albee was not one of deprivation. On the contrary, Albee was adopted at the age of two weeks by a millionaire family. From that point on he knew a life of wealth and privilege. He resided with his family in Westchester, New York. His childhood experience
was quite remote from that of many writers who knew squalor and deprivation. As one magazine article
said regarding his childhood years, "It was a time of servants, tutors, riding lessons, winters in Miami, summers sailing on the Sound: there was a Rolls Royce to bring him, smuggled in lap robes, to matinees in the city; an inexhaustible wardrobe housed in a closet as big as a room. Albee has never made any explicit comments about the happiness of his childhood. His father was believed, however, to be dominated by his wife, who was considerably younger than her husband and an avid athlete" (Biography 1). His grandfather was one of the major figures in the development of the razzmatazz of American show-business and the owner of a famous chain of vaudeville theaters. Albee was named after him and this lineage gave him a great deal of exposure to plays and theater people at a young age. Albee was not very adept at schoolwork though he showed promise as a writer from a young age. He dropped out of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, after a year and a half to pursue a writing career full time in New York. However, while at Trinity, Albee did gain theater experience by playing a variety of characters in plays produced by the college drama department. Albee's success did not come overnight despite his literary promise and his high-profile contacts in the theater. Instead, he labored at odd jobs for nearly a decade before his "breakthrough" came upon the publication of The Zoo Story, a one-act play modeled on the Theater of the Absurd ala playwrights like Beckett, Genet and Pinter. The play was astonishingly accomplished for a first effort but Albee had to be convinced to try his hand at writing plays, "Originally his writing efforts focused on poetry and fiction until Thornton Wilder encouraged him to try playwrighting" (Artists 1).
There are some who feel that Albee never achieved the level of talent displayed in The Zoo Story, except for the plays Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And A Delicate Balance. These works display more traditional influences and the influence of O'Neill is readily apparent in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nonetheless, Albee was hailed immediately as the great new American dramatist and some critics contend that his wayward poetic writing may have been an intentional attempt by the writer to deflate his overvalued literary reputation. Both Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance are representative of the themes and characterization that represent Albee's more traditional works. Albee's plays commonly deal with themes revolving around questions of illusion versus reality, possession versus communion and they also portray violence as an aspect of love. Domination versus submission is also a common element of Albee's works. When it comes to characterization, most of Albee's characters are portrayed as desperate individuals who play cruel psychological games.
However, they are often manipulated as much as they manipulate and as destructive as they are destroyed. Where women are concerned, Albee generally portrays women as domineering emotional vampires, perhaps best characterized by Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
American producers were not initially keen on Albee's brand of satire and examination of values, so The Zoo Story was first produced in Berlin. While Albee was considered the leading American exponent of the Theater of the Absurd, his particular worldview did not encompass the belief common to the leaders of the movement, "The leaders of this movement were concerned with the human struggle to come to terms with the reality of a senseless world. Albee essentially established the American version of absurdist theater with his stinging critique of popular culture that he felt reflected a dangerous complacency in the American theater. However, unlike his European counterparts Albee does not believe that man is at hopeless odds to change his world" (Artists 1).
One of Albee's main targets of attack in his works was the American dream. A Delicate Balance is a wide-awake answer to the American dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, considered by many to be Albee's masterpiece, is pure social satire and a scathing attack on the American dream. The play was startling when it first emerged because McCarthyism and blacklisting had resulted in stilling the voices of social criticism in the American theater. Albee's reception among critics has been hot and cold over the decades and many feel his best plays were his first five. However, a recent play, Three Tall Women, won nearly unanimous praise from American reviewers in addition to winning Albee his third Pulitzer Prize. Albee has learned to develop an indifferent tolerance to reaction to his plays over the years. As he said in a recent interview, "I think of my plays as a continuing pattern of me writing. I don't think I've written a bad play or a good play; I don't think in those terms. This is Edward Albee's next play. And I'm interested in finding out if there is a relationship between my view of it and anybody else's. Yes is better than no. But I don't get a swelled head from these things. I don't allow crucifixion in the press to destroy me, and I'm certainly not going to allow acclaim to destroy me either" (Yes 2).
Albee's contribution to the American theater extend much further than his role as the writer of some of America's most acclaimed dramas. He has also produced and directed plays and has worked diligently to provide performance outlets for new plays. Albee made what was considered a brilliant adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café based on the Carson McCullers novela. He also adapted James Purdy's Malcolm and Everything in the Garden from a play by Giles Cooper. The playwright also produced a stage adaptation of Nabakov's Lolita in the early 1980s. For his lifetime of accomplishments, Edward Albee received the 1996 Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1997 was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton (Edward 1). Albee's works did more than shock critics and audiences, they helped change the nature of drama in the American theater, a point that was recognized during the Kennedy Center Honors Ceremony in 1996, "Edward Albee burst onto the American theatrical scene in the late 1950s with a variety of plays that detailed the agonies and disillusionment of that decade and the transition from the placid Eisenhower years to the turbulent 1960s. Albee's plays, with their intensity, their grappling with modern themes, and their experiments in form, startled critics and audiences alike while changing the landscape of American drama (Edward 1).
Albee was known to have a close relationship with his family members, in particular his maternal grandmother to whom he dedicated the short play The Sandbox. Albee is praised among the theater community not only for his works as playwright, director and producer but also because of the fact he has worked tirelessly to promote new talent and techniques in American theater. In recent interviews Albee has attempted to explain his works as naturalistic in addition to complaining about the deterioration of serious theater in America, "All of my plays are stylized, to one extent or another, but all drama is artifice. Within those parameters, all of my plays are absolutely naturalistic. Some are less what the audience expects than others, which is my definition of stylization. Sure they have, but theater's always been a minority participation, like the string quartet. Fewer people pay attention to serious theater-forget the dross on Broadway. It's making theater an obscenely esoteric form" Yes 2). Albee continues to be an important voice in American theater at the age of 70. He devotes a great deal of his time and energy to promoting serious theater and drama on the American stage. He believes that audiences are not filled with imbeciles but all too often they are given few choices between levels of mediocrity. He continues to create and work toward projects that give them a better choice. He remains today one of America's most celebrated and influential playwrights and a true friend of the American theater. As to his own outlook on life, the comments of the dramatist in a recent interview might sum it up, "I find irony in everything" (Yes 3).
Artists Repertory Theater: Edward Albee. http://www.artistsrep.org/bios/edward_albee.html, Sept. 29, 1999: 1-2.
Biographical sketch of Edward Albee. http://tqd.advanced.org/2847/authors/albee.htm, Sept. 29, 1999: 1.
Edward Albee. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~art/albee2.html, Sept. 29, 1999: 1.
Yes is better than no: Interview with Edward Albee. http://hipp.gator.net/3tallalbeeinterview.html, Sept. 29, 1999: 1-3.