by R. S. Stewart
Broadway producers, directors, actors, fellow playwrights, and audiences, that’s who–at least during the early years of his success and fame, marked by the two-year run of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1962. Three years earlier the unknown Edward Albee had to go to Berlin, Germany, to get his first play produced, the one-act “Zoo Story”, still an unnerving perennial classic of compression, character, narrative, and shock. After its European success, it returned to New York for a long run at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, ushering in a new theatre movement called “Off-Broadway.”
Albee, who died on September 16th at the age of 88, was one of the most controversial of American playwrights, bringing new themes, stories, and language to the stage where Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams dominated. His public and private quarrels with directors and actors are legend, as well as his anger over the changes made in the film version of “Virginia Woolf”, much of it shot outside the claustrophobic setting of the play and casting an Elizabeth Taylor 20 years too young for her role as Martha, although Albee praised her performance as her best ever. His increasingly bad reviews from theatre critics in the 70s led them to turn one of his own titles, “All Over”, into the watchword for his career.
A tower of resistance, Albee survived, in spite of decades of depression, alcoholism, and a rocky road of productions that were a mix of good and bad. In 1994 even John Simon, the critic who had given him his cruelest reviews, wrote that “Three Tall Women”, which earned Albee his third Pultizer Prize, was an illuminating return to his previous powers.
Albee was adopted by a wealthy Long Island family, making his own identify a recurrent theme in his plays as the absent child. He even titled his 1998 play “The Play about the Baby”. Also gay, Albee lived openly with his life partner, the sculptor Jonathan Thomas, but never wanted to be identified as a Gay Writer, believing that all artists must transcend themselves. It took him decades to convince critics and audiences that the two couples in “Virginia Woolf” are not men.
Albee was generous to other playwrights, offering his name to their productions and establishing a foundation whose funds still enable writers and visual artists with a residency in Montauk, New York, to work undisturbed.
My own involvement with Albee began in 1971 when I directed “The American Dream” as my first production in founding a theatre group at the small college in Virginia where I taught English. In 1972 I saw “All Over” on Broadway, directed by John Gielgud, who in 1965 had starred in “Tiny Alice”, directed by Albee himself.
To represent this extraordinary voice of the human dilemma who left behind a legacy of 26 plays, theatres have a wealth to draw from, including our own Pentacle, which is presenting “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in July.
R. S. Stewart is a volunteer consultant in the Writing Center at Chemeketa Community College.