Edward Albee, the author of dozens of bitingly funny and scabrously caustic dramas, and one of the most important American playwrights for much of the last fifty years, died September 16 at age 88. He passed away peacefully at his home in Montauk, NY, following a short illness, according to his longtime personal assistant, Jakob Holder.
Mr. Albee, the unhappy adoptee of Reed A. Albee, wealthy scion of theatrical family, and his socialite wife Frances Cotter, burst onto the theatre scene at the advanced age of 30 with his piercing, unsettling, two-character drama The Zoo Story, a violent depiction of disaffection and class struggle which premiered in Berlin and then appeared Off-Broadway in 1960.
Two years later, he rocked Broadway with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The three-act, three-hour, foul-mouthed and booze-and-sex-drenched play was a portrait of the tortured union of George and Martha, a academia couple at a small college who compete at drinking, cosmic disappointment, wounding one another and competing as to who can more savagely “get the guests.”
The play shocked many, thrilled many more, and helped usher in a more brazen era of American playwriting. It also solidified Mr. Albee’s reputation as an uncompromising talent with a razor-like intelligence for the foibles and terrors of modern American—and particularly married American—life. Many count the original production, which starred Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, as one of the most seismic cultural events ever to grace the Broadway stage.
Uta Hagen in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Friedman-Abeles / The New York Public Library)The writer became a sensation. His “broodingly handsome face,” as the New York Times put it, was put on the cover of Newsweek under the title “Odd Man In” (The editor of the magazine originally wanted the cover line to read “Sex + Sadism = Success.”) and people heatedly debated his merits. “I don’t get much indifference,” he once observed of his reputation. Instead he is a lightening rod for an “almost pathological hostility.”
He sustained his fame and standing throughout the 1960s, despite a roller-coaster output of hits and misses. He curiously followed up Woolf with The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, an adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel, then confounded critics with the symbolic and willfully obscure religious tract Tiny Alice. But he rebounded with A Delicate Balance, a probing and somewhat abstract look at family, fear and tolerance that won him his first of three Pulitzer Prizes. (He was denied the Pulitzer for Woolf when, in a controversy, Columbia University, objecting to the play’s content, refused the recommendation of the award’s drama jury. The play did win the Tony, however.)
The 1970s, however, saw more failures, though he did collect another Pulitzer in 1975 for the allegorical Seascape, in which a human couple encounter a lizard couple on the beach. After his 1983 play The Man Who Had Three Arms was famously damned by New York Times critic Frank Rich as “a temper tantrum in two acts,” and closed after one week, Mr. Albee’s career seemed finished. He filled in his time in the wilderness with productions in London and Europe, and by teaching at the University of Houston.
In the early 1990s, however, he enjoyed one of the most unlikely and unpredictable third acts in American Theatre history, and was restored to a ranking that even surpassed that of his early years. The revival was instigated by two things. The Signature Theatre Company, a new Off-Broadway company, decided to dedicate its entire 1993-94 season to the playwright’s work. Simultaneously, the Vineyard Theatre produced the American premiere his Three Tall Women. The later was a critical hit, transferred to a long commercial run, and won the writer his third Pulitzer Prize.
Mr. Albee’s reputation was restored. Once again, his new works—such as The Play About the Baby and The Occupant—were fought over and received high-profile New York productions. The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? became his first new work on Broadway in nearly 20 years, and won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2002. And revivals of his old works abounded, many accompanied by a critical assessment of a formerly dismissed work. He wrote Peter & Jerry, in which his joined a new one-act to his work The Zoo Story, creating a full-length play.
Through this time, Mr. Albee himself, too, changed. The young literary lion of the 1960s, as prickly, scowling and irascible as the characters in his plays, was succeeded by a mellower man, one still equipped with a cutting tongue, but more willing to take things in stride and even smile for the camera on occasion. He remained, however, stubborn, almost unyielding, on the subject of his work. More that most playwrights, an Edward Albee production was ruled by Edward Albee. His name was above the title on every marquee and on the cover of every published manuscript. Actors and directors knew not to stray far from the playwright’s intent. He would not even grant that right to himself.
“I don’t believe in revising my work or rethinking it,” he once said. “I would never do what Bernard Shaw is reputed to have done... simplify all his plays so that he could understand them. I don’t believe you should go around second-guessing yourself.”
“And I’m such a nice guy,” he added, “until crossed.”
Edward Franklin Albee was born Edward Harvey to unknown parents, in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1928. He was adopted a couple weeks later by the influential Albee clan and raised in Larchmont. Reed A. Albee, was the son of vaudeville theatre magnate Edward Franklin Albee II. (Albee Square in downtown Brooklyn is named for the site of a former Albee theatre.) Reed and his wife Frances—who was ultimately the subject of Three Tall Wome and the model for many of her son’s intimidating female characters—tried to get young Edward to adapt to their high-toned social circles, but he rebelled almost from the first. He was expelled from the New Jersey prep school Lawrenceville; was dismissed from Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania; and finally graduating from Choate School in Connecticut.
College didn’t go much better; he was expelled from Trinity College in Hartford in 1947. He regularly bristled at their attempts to get him to accept a life in business, and they were contemptuous of his plans to become a writer. Edward Albee left his home permanently while in his late teens, moving to Greenwich Village. He never saw his father again, and would not see his mother for 17 years.
“I never felt comfortable with the adoptive parents,” he said. “I don’t think they knew how to be parents. I probably didn’t know how to be a son, either.” Mrs. Albee, said the playwright, had the habit of reminding him he was adopted whenever she got angry.
Funded by a small inheritance from his maternal grandmother, he lived on his own, trying his hand at poetry and fiction, and soaking in the influences of Beckett, Ionesco and Genet. He described the original Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh in 1948 as a pivotal moment to him and added that, to a certain degree, he regarded Virginia Woolf as a response to that play.
“You know, some of my plays seem not quite as naturalistic as others — seem,” he told Playbill. “But they’re all just as naturalistic asZoo Story or [Who’s Afraid of] Virginia Woolf. Everybody tells the truth. Whatever resonance or metaphors there are, everything’s clearly embedded in fact.
With the profits from Virginia Woolf, Albee created the Edward F. Albee Foundation in 1967. The foundation sponsors a summer artists’ colony in Montauk, Long Island, where the playwright made his summer home.
His home in Manhattan was in a loft in a former egg warehouse in TriBeCa, which he bought long before the neighborhood became trendy. Always interested in art, he filled it with large African and pre-Columbian sculpture and abstract paintings.
Several years ago, before undergoing extensive surgery, Mr. Albee penned the following note to be issued at the time of his death: “To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love.”
Mr. Albee wrote more than 30 plays, including Zoo Story; The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox, Fam and Yam, The American Dream; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (Tony Award); The Ballad of the Sad Café; Tiny Alice; A Delicate Balance (Pulitzer Prize); Box and Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung; All Over; Seascape (Pulitzer Prize); Listening; Counting the Ways; The Three Arms; Finding the Sun; Marriage Play; Three Tall Women (Pulitzer Prize); Fragments; The Play About the Baby; The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (Tony);Occupant; At Home at the Zoo (Homelife/ The Zoo Story); and Me, Myself and I.
He was a member of the Dramatists Guild Council and president of the Edward F. Albee Foundation. Mr. Albee was awarded the Gold Medal in Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1980 and in 1996 received the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts. In 2005 he was awarded a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.