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Edward Albee, 88; Pulitzer-winning playwright of modern masterpieces

🕐 11 min read

Edward Albee, one of the most innovative playwrights of his generationwhose raw, unnerving dramas — and even the few comedies – scraped at the veneer of American success and happiness, died Sept. 16 at his home in Montauk, New York. He was 88.

Jakob Holder, executive director of the Edward F. Albee Foundation, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause. Albee had no immediate survivors.

The length of his career and the force of his best works earned Albee a place in the first rank of 20th-century American playwrights, alongside Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Only O’Neill won more Pulitzer Prizes — four to Albee’s three, for the plays “A Delicate Balance,” “Seascape” and “Three Tall Women.”

His most enduring, produced and analyzed work was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It is now widely regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century American theater. The play was an effort, he once said, to dig “so deep under the skin that it becomes practically intolerable.” Indeed, it showed marriage as a blood sport.

A drama interspersed with corrosive comedy, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” charts a single blistering night with a history professor named George and his boozy wife, Martha, and the young couple they ensnare in their destructive, often vulgar role-playing. Drunkenness, profanity as brickbats, ferreting out secrets and using them to wound — all were part of what in the play were called “fun and games.”

The play, Albee once said, was about “the ways we get through life” and spoke to “living life without illusions.” The verbal attacks among the two main characters were spectacular and venomous, stirring outrage among more conservative critics and theatergoers but winning plaudits from many powerful reviewers for its discomforting, even shocking vitality.

The critic Stanley Kauffmann called it “the best American play of the last decade and a violently candid one.”

The initial Broadway run, starring Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen, ran from 1962 to 1964 and won the Tony Award for best play. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” established Albee, then 34, as an astringent heir to O’Neill.

“Albee’s importance can’t be overstated,” said Matthew C. Roudane, professor of English at Georgia State University and an expert on playwrights. Albee’s “powerful, angry satiric voice” reinvigorated a Broadway that had been defined by the dramatic works of O’Neill, Miller and Williams, Roudane said.

Albee was wary of labels. “[T]hey can be facile and can lead to non-think on the part of the public,” he wrote in a 1962 New York Times essay. Yet his influences included Anton Chekhov and Williams for their nuanced characters and baseline melancholy, and he generally accepted being associated with the absurdist theater.

“The avant-garde theatre is fun; it is free-swinging, bold, iconoclastic and often wildly, wildly funny,” he wrote in the Times essay, championing experiment. Albee was featured in Martin Esslin’s seminal 1961 study, “The Theatre of the Absurd,” and when Eugène Ionesco died in 1994, Albee penned an appreciation, identifying the author of “The Bald Soprano” and “Rhinoceros” as an obvious influence on his own early plays and writing, “What a hard act to follow!”

“He was always an experimental writer, always out there on the edge,” Roudane said, noting that Albee once called the Broadway audience “such placid cows.”

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1963, when the 14-member advisory board split over the play (some were shocked by the frank, abusive language) and ignored the Pulitzer jury’s enthusiastic recommendation. No award was given, and the two jurors — respected drama critics and theater historians — resigned in protest.

In 1967, Albee won the Pulitzer for “A Delicate Balance,” prompting director Mike Nichols to cable him: “Well, you can’t lose them all.”

Meanwhile, “Who’s Afraid” endured a run of censorship battles from Boston to London. The 1966 film version, directed by Nichols and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was initially denied an official seal of approval by movie censors. The film, for which Taylor won an Academy Award, was later credited with helping usher in the new G-to-X rating system.

Albee, who once declared “I despise restful art,” practically went out of his way not to try to top the commercial success of “Who’s Afraid.” He pursued experimental styles and wildly imaginative premises that included talking lizards, a man with three arms and a man romancing a goat; for many years, his avant-garde approach made him persona non grata on Broadway.

“Most people want tidy, frivolous stuff,” Albee told the Los Angeles Times in 2002, “so they can go home and not worry about what they’ve seen.”

He was rehabilitated, commercially speaking, with the popular success of “Three Tall Women,” his most autobiographical play. It also won a Pulitzer in 1994.

That drama, his 25th, dealt with Albee’s mother, a stern, disapproving figure who could not bear to discuss her son’s homosexuality. After Albee left home in anger in 1949, he and his mother did not speak to each other again until 1965. She died in 1989.

“The play is a kind of exorcism,” Albee said of “Three Tall Women.” The technically daring, emotionally draining play put his mother on stage in triplicate: The woman is simultaneously seen as young, middle-aged and elderly, and is played by three separate actresses.

In the New Yorker, critic John Lahr wrote, “The energy underneath ‘Three Tall Women’ is the exhilaration of a writer calling it quits with the past.”

Albee was born March 12, 1928, in Washington, to a single woman named Louise Harvey. He was placed in an adoption nursery in New York, where he soon was adopted by a childless couple, Reed Albee and the former Frances Loring Cotter. He was named Edward Franklin Albee III.

His namesake — his new paternal grandfather — ran the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters, off of which the Albees lived a comfortable life in Larchmont, N.Y., during the Great Depression. Cooks and servants attended to the family needs, and the pampered young Edward began wearing a smoking jacket at age 7.

Although he never wanted for material comfort, the Albee family was described by the future playwright as wantonly cruel at best. His new father was a womanizing cipher of a man, he recalled. The bulk of Albee’s filial ire was aimed at his mother, who was not above taunting her son for being adopted.

In return, Albee often made bitter comments about being “bought”; babies and their neglect would be a recurring theme in many of his works.

He rebelled early and often, putting so little effort into his studies that he was thrown out of a series of private schools in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Even so, his potential was apparent, at least to some of his school supervisors. One headmaster recommended Albee to another school despite the student’s failures, noting the particularly bad match between mother and son.

“She is, in my opinion, a selfish, dominating person,” the headmaster wrote, as Albee biographer Mel Gussow recorded, “whereas Ed is a sensitive, perceptive and intelligent boy. He feels he is not really loved and the psychological hurdle which had been built up in front of him was simply insurmountable.”

Albee wrote poems and stories from an early age, and he was taken to the theater because of the family business. He wouldn’t see the works that influenced him most deeply until his Greenwich Village years in the 1950s, when he fell in with a circle of avant-garde artists, musicians and intellectuals.

His own path was indistinct for years; in his 20s, Albee’s longest, happiest job was delivering messages for Western Union, which he liked for the exercise and flexibility. It also fleshed out the small income he drew from a trust fund from his maternal grandmother that paid him $25 a week beginning in 1949.

Albee’s career did not really begin until 1958, when he dashed off “The Zoo Story” over three weeks “as a 30th birthday present to myself.” The one-act play was a single uninterrupted scene at a bench in New York’s Central Park, in which a random encounter between a nervous, edgy character named Jerry and a middle-class publishing executive named Peter ends in violence.

The drama seemed to capture a jitteriness and alienation that would become increasingly characteristic in the more cynical 1960s, but that registered as brash and fresh at its debut.

“That’s the best [bleeping] one-act play I’ve ever seen,” Norman Mailer exclaimed after a reading held at the Actors Studio in New York.

In 1961 Albee attacked racism in “The Death of Bessie Smith,” based on the refusal of a white-run Southern hospital to treat the critically injured blues singer. The same year, Albee wrote a vicious satire called “The American Dream,” caricaturing a family headed by Mommy and Daddy and featuring their little adopted “bumble of joy,” a son they destroy — a strong hint of what was to come in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

For much of the 1960s, Albee abandoned the emotional clarity and explosiveness of “Virginia Woolf” for more abstract premises. John Gielgud and Irene Worth signed on to star in “Tiny Alice” (1964), but Gielgud was not alone in his confusion over the meaning of the complicated religion-sex-metaphysics drama.

With “A Delicate Balance,” Albee resoundingly made good on his “Virginia Woolf” promise. The brilliantly original “Balance,” which featured Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the Broadway cast, studied a long-married couple whose neighbors — suddenly terrified of something they can’t name — arrive at the door and ask to move in.

For the next two decades, however, Albee produced more prickly puzzles. The twin bill “Box” and “Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” (1968) reinforced his enchantment with abstraction.

“Seascape” (1975) won a Pulitzer, but baffled some audiences with its plot about a couple on the beach encountering two sea lizards (although Frank Langella won a Tony playing the male lizard). It ran for 65 performances.

“The Man Who Had Three Arms” (1983), which ran on Broadway for 16 performances, was seen as criticizing critics. That play, like most of Albee’s output through the 1970s and 1980s, drew hostile reviews.

The same period saw a worsening of a decades-long drinking problem that began in the 1950s, sometimes leading to public tirades and blackouts.

“When I was drinking, I would feel the need to set people straight,” Albee told Gussow. “I knew what phonies they were, what duplicity and hypocrisy I saw. . . . You’re either going to be a nice Irish drunk or you’re going to be a monster. I turned into a monster.”

Albee quit drinking after “The Man Who Had Three Arms” was pronounced his third straight Broadway flop. The motivation was pride. According to Jonathan Thomas, Albee’s partner from 1971 until Thomas’s death in 2005, “He just didn’t want to present himself as a drunk.”

“I’d be dead without him,” Albee said to Gussow about Thomas, a Canadian-born sculptor and artist.

Albee, whose romantic relationships included several years with playwright Terrence McNally in the 1950s, always presented himself as comfortable with his sexuality. Yet he seldom wrote directly on gay themes, even though the subject grew increasingly popular during the course of his career.

“I don’t find that much difference between straights and gays in the problems of life,” he told the New York Times in 1994. “I don’t believe in ghettoization.” (Albee also refused to authorize same-sex versions of “Who’s Afraid,” saying the hysterical pregnancy of one character would be made “ludicrous” by an all-male cast.)

The subject of homosexuality was unmistakable in “Three Tall Women.” In the second act, the woman’s grown son, who is gay, sits by her bed and listens, but never speaks.

“Three Tall Women,” which ran 582 performances off-Broadway, was a triumph that overnight transformed Albee’s reputation from Broadway has-been to a dean of American playwrights. In 2002, “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?,” an uproariously funny yet eventually tragic drama about a successful Manhattan architect’s marital infidelity with a goat, marked the first Albee play on Broadway in nearly two decades.

“The Goat” brought Albee another Tony and, three years later, he was awarded a special Tony for lifetime achievement. (He received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1996.)

Almost from the moment he broke through with “Zoo Story,” Albee was a mentor and teacher of new playwrights.

In the 1960s his Playwrights Unit (created with producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder) nurtured such emerging writers as Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard. In 1967, he established the Edward F. Albee Foundation, which offers residencies to writers and visual artists in a barn at Albee’s home in Montauk, Long Island. Starting in 1989, Albee taught playwriting each spring at the University of Houston.

Albee, who began collecting art as a young man, made sculptor Louise Nevelson (a friend) the subject of his admiring 2002 play “Occupant.” His loft in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood — a residence he long maintained, along with the property on Montauk — was well-known for its abundance of fine works. A 1980 New York Times feature described the loft as having “28 paintings, including a Vuillard and several Kandinskys, and 26 sculptures on display.” (He earlier had to sell paints by Rothko, Miró and Picasso to cover an Internal Revenue Service debt of more then a half-million dollars.)

But it is the cantankerous body of plays and the daunting, rewarding gallery of roles for which Albee will be remembered. In 2013, actor Tracy Letts became the third man to win a Tony for playing George in “Virginia Woolf.”

In 1991, Albee told the Times, “I suppose I could have gone on writing ‘Son of Virginia Woolf’ forever. But I never believed my own publicity. The mistake was thinking I was a Broadway playwright. I am a playwright, and for a while, Broadway was receptive.”

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