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Best known for his first full-length drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), Edward Albee is among the United States’ most acclaimed contemporary playwrights. A multiple Pulitzer Prize-winner, Albee’s peak came in the 1960s when his controversial dramas were both celebrated for their intensity and reviled for their graphic nature. Albee has continued to write plays over subsequent decades, finding success into the twenty-first century with the Tony Award-winning The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (2002).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Rich But Lonely Life
Albee was born Edward Harvey on March 12, 1928, most likely in the state of Virginia. He was adopted at birth by Reed Albee and Frances Cotter, who renamed him Edward Franklin Albee III. Albee’s adoptive father was heir to the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters. This theater circuit controlled many playhouses across the country, at which vaudeville acts, plays, and movies were shown.
The Albees were wealthy and as a child, young Edward was spoiled and pampered. Yet despite his indulgent childhood, Albee’s early years were generally unhappy. His domineering mother took every opportunity to remind him that he was adopted, especially when she was angry with him. He had a similarly troubled relationship with his father. As a result, Albee was a bit of a loner, and took up writing poetry at the age of six. He found solace in parental surrogates, including a beloved governess and his maternal grandmother.
A Blossoming Playwright
Albee was exposed to theater at an early age. The family chauffeur would regularly drive him and his nanny to New York City where they would catch matinees of Broadway shows. When he was twelve years old, Albee wrote his first play, a three-act sexual comedy called Aliqueen. It was perhaps his early exploration of sex through writing that helped Albee realize he was homosexual by the age of thirteen.
By this time, Albee was being educated at private boarding and military schools as his parents traveled to the South each winter. After being expelled from two schools for his sometimes rambunctious behavior, Albee completed his education at Choate, an elite, private, boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. There, he blossomed intellectually. At Choate he wrote his first novel, The Flesh of Unbelievers, and became a prolific poet. In fact, Albee published his first poem in a professional publication, the Kalediograph, while still attending the school.
After graduating from Choate in 1946, Albee attended Trinity College, where he spent three semesters. However, he was an unenthusiastic student, and was expelled in 1947 for skipping classes and other behavior. Albee returned to his parents’ home for a time, then moved to New York City, living off a small trust fund he inherited upon the death of his paternal grandmother in 1949. Albee cut off communication with his parents at this point. He made his home in Greenwich Village, but traveled to Italy, where he wrote a novel. When he was not writing or traveling, Albee held various odd jobs, such as a messenger for Western Union. It was also during this time that he befriended other authors, including poet W.H. Auden and playwright Thornton Wilder. It was these relationships and his love of writing that helped him decide to pursue writing as a career.
As Albee’s thirtieth birthday approached, he felt intensely dissatisfied. While he had written many plays during the 1950s, most were never published or produced. In a blitz of inspiration, in February 1958 he quit his Western Union job and wrote what became his first hit play, a one-act called The Zoo Story, in just three weeks. The play was a darkly humorous exchange between a disturbed outcast and a conventional, middle-class man. Unable to find a U.S. producer for The Zoo Story, Albee premiered the work in Berlin in 1959. The play debuted in the U.S. in 1960, when American theater was beginning to examine a seamier and more graphic side of life.
New York Star
In 1960 and 1961, Albee wrote four more one-act plays which met with great success Off-Broadway. These included The Sandbox (1960) and The American Dream (1961). In 1962, Albee’s first full-length play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was produced on Broadway. The play focuses on two couples—one of whom verbally abuse each other in front of the other—who come together in a harrowing, drunken, late-night journey into truth and illusion. Audiences both laughed and gasped at the play’s passion and maliciousness. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1963, and cemented Albee’s success as a playwright.
Despite his professional triumphs, in the 1960s, Albee—along with playwrights William Inge and Tennessee Williams—became the victim of several vicious homo-phobic attacks from the press, particularly the New York Times. Critics accused him and his gay colleagues of sullying American theater with homosexual influences. Despite such accusations, Virginia Woolf was embraced by homosexuals as an important part of gay culture.
Triumphs and Flops
After two adaptations of other author’s works which were relative failures (The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, 1963; Malcolm, 1966); and the problematic original play Tiny Alice (1964), Albee won his first Pulitzer Prize with the well-received A Delicate Balance (1966). He rounded out the decade with an adaptation of Everything in the Garden (1967) and two inter-related abstract works, Box (1968) and Quotations from Chair man Mao Tse-Tung(1968).
Albee continued to write for the next five decades, though critics did not always embrace him or his plays. While he won his second Pulitzer Prize for the 1975 play Seascape, other plays, such as The Lady from Dubuque (1978) and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982), became legendary Broadway disasters. Perhaps Albee’s most ill-fated work during this time was his adaptation of the novel Lolita (1981), originally by Vladimir Nabokov. Albee’s play was rejected by audiences and critics alike.
The Dropout Returns to University
By the 1980s, Albee became involved in teaching, an ironic turn for a college dropout. He taught at several universities, including the University of California at Irvine from 1983 to 1985. He also formed a long-term relationship with the University of Houston beginning in 1984, and served as the chairman of the theater department at Fordham University for a time. Albee’s creative writing during this period did not abate, however, and he honed his skills on a series of short plays. He returned to writing full-length dramas in the early 1990s, at which point he won his third Pulitzer Prize for Three Tall Women (1994). This play was as intensely autobiographical as any of his other works, but stylistically experimental. Three Tall Women featured an ineffectual father and a monstrous mother who spends a significant portion of the play attacking her gay son. The characters clearly reflected the troubled relationship Albee had with his own parents. Interestingly, his mother died in 1990, just before the play was written.
Albee wrote at least two more full-length plays in the early twenty-first century as he continued to teach at the university level. The Play About the Baby was produced in London and Off-Broadway in 2001, and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (2000) garnered him another Tony Award in 2002. Albee continues to live and write in New York City.
Works in Literary Context
Albee usually combines elements from the American tradition of social criticism established by such playwrights as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams (a primary influence), and Eugene O’Neill with aspects of the Theater of the Absurd, a style of writing practiced by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, which views the human condition as meaningless and inexplicable. However, while Albee often portrays alienated individuals who suffer as a result of unjust social, moral, or religious strictures, he usually offers solutions to conflicts rather than conveying an absurdist sense of inescapable determinism. In many of Albee’s plays, especially the quasi-autobiographical ones, he writes about his troubled relationship with his adoptive parents, a source of inspiration for much of his work.
Albee and Absurdism
In absurdism or the ”Theater of the Absurd,” writers address the absurdity of modern life. Such writers believe the world is full of evil and view life as a malevolent condition that cannot be explained by traditional standards of morality. Since there can be no certainty that God exists, individuals find themselves forced to live without hope in a chaotic world filled with irrationality and certain death. Albee wrote at least four plays considered by critics and scholars to be absurdist. The characters in these plays struggle with moral issues and have to learn the lesson that truth is what an individual thinks it is.
The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), for example, commented on the absurdity of race relations in the United States at that time. The story focuses on the demise of an African-American singer who bled to death after a car accident because she was denied care at an all-white hospital. Through his characters, Albee criticized the American values and social institutions that would allow such a death to occur. Albee took the opportunity to comment further on American society in The Zoo Story, (1958) which focused on the material comfort, hypocrisy, and optimism that pervaded American culture in the 1950s. The play reflects his disillusioned cynicism as well his rebellion against a world filled with conformity.
Dysfunctional, Cruel Families
As a result of his own negative childhood and difficult relationship with his parents, especially his mother, Albee often depicts family life in the United States as complacent and cruel. Plays such as The American Dream and The Sandbox reflect the playwright’s concern with the lack of true family values. In The American Dream, for example, an adopted son is punished to death by his middle-class parents for misbehaving and failing to meet their expectations. After he dies, his long-lost twin appears as a young man and is adopted by the same family, but the twin carries the emotional scars of his deceased brother’s abuse. Albee portrays a similarly dysfunctional family in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? via the relationship of George and Martha, who are verbally abusive to one another. Albee returns to more specifically autobiographical family matters in Three Tall Women. The primary character was inspired by his own mother, and the play by their troubled relationship. His mother was a bigoted, insensitive woman who pushed her homosexual son out of her life, as does the woman in the play.
Works in Critical Context
In his best works, critics believe that Albee successfully combined the experimentation of modern British and continental playwrights, such as Jean Genet, with the American fascination with the family. Yet Albee’s detractors criticize the chilly, intellectual quality of his work. Thus, his position in the history of American drama is difficult to assess. He has ardent admirers who laud his dialogue and technical skills, while others lament his popular and critical success as disproportionate to his talent. He is generally congratulated, however, for being willing to experiment (even if he sometimes failed) with blending the surreal, the poetic, and hermetic into a naturalistic tradition, all while committing himself to the serious articulation of the existential questions of our time.
The American Dream
When The American Dream debuted in 1961, it received mixed reviews. While some critics praised the play for its insight into the contemporary mindset, John Gassner in Dramatic Evaluations and Retractions Culled from 30 Years of Drama Criticism wrote, ”The trouble with Albee’s acutely original play, The American Dream, is that its bizarre Ionesco details don’t add up to an experience.” Other critics initially characterized The American Dream as defeatist and nihilistic. Yet the play was also com mended for its savage parody of traditional American values. More recent critics appreciate the play’s break down in conventional dramatic language. In American Playwrights Since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance, Matthew Roudane writes ”In both text and performance, Albee’s technical virtuosity emanates from an ability to capture the values, personal politics, and perceptions of his characters through language.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Albee’s most acclaimed drama when produced on Broadway in 1961. Since its original production, it has generated popular and critical notoriety for its controversial depiction of marital strife. Yet Virginia Woolf was also faulted as morbid and self-indulgent by early critics. Over the years, many scholars have offered different interpretations of the drama. Some see it as a problem play in the tradition of August Strindberg, a Scandinavian author who experimented with Natural ism and Expressionism. Others view it as a campy parody, while still others interpret it as a latent homosexual critique of conventional relationships.
Since the 1960s, Virginia Woolf has also been assessed as a classic American drama for its tight control of form and command of both colloquial and abstruse dialogue. Of the play, Robert Corrigon in The Theater in Search of a Fix observed, ”Great drama has always shown man at the limits of possibility. . . . In Virginia Woolf Albee has stretched them some, and in doing so he has given, not only the American theatre, but the theatre of the whole world, a sense of new possibility.”
- Corrigan, Robert. The Theater in Search of a Fix New York; Delacorte, 1973.
- Gassner, John. ”Edward Albee: An American Dream?” In Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled from 30 Years of Drama Criticism. New York: Crown, 1968, pp, 591-592.
- Gussow, Mel. Edward Albee: A Singular Journey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
- Roudane, Matthew. ”Edward Albee [28 March 1928-].”In American Playwrights Since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.
- Carter, Steven. ”Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Explicator (Summer 1998): 215-218.
- Kuhn, John. ”Getting Albee’s Goat: ‘Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy’.” American Drama (Summer 2004): 1-32.
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