Edward Albee 1928-
In 1962, responding to critical reviews linking him to the traditions of the European Theatre of the Absurd, Edward Albee remarked, "Which theatre is the absurd one?" He was pointing scornfully at the commercial Broadway theater, which had fallen on dismal days and stood in sharp contrast to the vitality of Off-Broadway theater, the milieu from which Albee himself had come and for which he has written his finest work.
Edward Franklin Albee III was a foundling, adopted in infancy by a wealthy theatrical family. Expelled from two private schools, he did better at a third, where he had the opportunity to spend many hours writing poetry and fiction. Much of his real learning, as with Eugene O'Neill, came later from odd jobs: office boy, restaurant counterman, Western Union messenger Except for one juvenile experiment, a three-act farce composed when he was twelve, Zoo Story was Albee's first play. Written in 1958, it was first produced in September 1959 in Berlin; the first American staging was Off-Broadway in 1960. Like most Off-Broadway plays, Zoo Story is short, has a small cast, and deals with human encounter and the search for communion. Its author's structural pattern is revealed: normal opening, increasing emotional tangle, peak of intensity, quick drop-off.
Following Zoo Story came a series of one-act plays: The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), a drama of social ostracism based on the life of a famous African American jazz singer; The Sandbox (1960); and The American Dream (1961), which displayed a situation increasingly familiar in Albee's plays: the middle-class American family living on illusion and dominated by an overbearing woman.
Albee's first full-length play, and his greatest hit, was “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962), which ran on Broadway for two years, won many awards, and was made into a memorable and successful film. Notable plays followed: “Tiny Alice” (1964), “Seascape” (1975), his second Pulitzer Prize winner. Albee's work continued to appear on Broadway and continued to startle and agitate his audiences, earning him the dubious title of "Shockmeister."
Critics of Albee's plays argued that he made dubious excursions into metaphysics. He was said to "abhor plots," to rely overmuch on the psychological games and linguistic skirmishes of his characters to carry the action. As his plays became more cerebral and less conventionally dramatic, his audience dwindled. In 1983, his play “The Man Who Had 3 Arms” was savaged by the New York critics and ignored by playgoers. A financial disaster, it closed after only sixteen performances, and for more than a decade, no new Albee play was presented on Broadway; no producer was willing to risk money on a playwright Who seemed to have lost touch with his audience.
Undaunted, Albee Married his Broadway failures on New York's super-sensitive, "skirt-hiking" critics and on theatergoers who were, he said, incapable of understanding serious drama and wanted merely a "literate middle-browism." In an interview in 1991, he pointed out that he was only one of a number of illustrious "playwrights who are not performed on Broadway now: Sophocles, Aristophanes, Shakespeare…" And he continued his prolific writing of plays, averaging almost one a year. He directed productions of his works in regional theaters in the United States and began teaching drama at the University of Houston. In Europe, where his reputation as a playwright remained high, he directed productions of his plays that attracted large audiences.
Albee once proclaimed, "I am not a Broadway playwright," but in 1994 he made a triumphal return to New York with a production of “Three Tall Women”. Highly autobiographical, the play is centered on his adoptive mother in her old age as she confronts her past and a menacing future. For one play, at least, Albee had turned from the concentrated abstractions that had made his work inaccessible to audiences. “Three Tall Women” partially reestablished his reputation with critics and playgoers, and it won for him his third Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Over the years, as public tastes and standards have altered, Albee's plays have come to seem far less licentious than they were first thought to be. In 1961 “The Zoo Story” was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate as an example of dramatic "filth." Thirty-five years later President Clinton praised Albee for his radical dramas, saying, “In your rebellion the American theater was reborn." Nevertheless, critical reaction to Albee's work can still be sharply divided. When his “The Play About the Baby” opened in New York in 2001, it was praised as truly "accomplished" and panned as being "not merely awful, it is offal."
Albee, now the most notable living American dramatist, continues to teach, to direct, and to take new directions in his writing. But his best work remains, as it has always been, iconoclastic and abstract—dramas of physical and psychological violence that strip men and women of their comforting illusions and repudiate cozy pieties about the modern world that is, to Albee, chaotic, brutal, and lost to hope.