Edward Albee, Trenchant Playwright for a Desperate Era, Dies at 88
Edward Albee, widely considered the foremost American playwright of his generation, whose psychologically astute and piercing dramas explored the contentiousness of intimacy, the gap between self-delusion and truth and the roiling desperation beneath the facade of contemporary life, died Friday at his home in Montauk, N.Y. He was 88.
His personal assistant, Jakob Holder, confirmed the death. Mr. Holder said he had died after a short illness.
Mr. Albee’s career began after the death of Eugene O’Neill and after Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had produced most of their best-known plays. From them he inherited the torch of American drama, carrying it through the era of Tony Kushner and “Angels in America;” August Wilson and his Pittsburgh cycle; and into the 21st century.
He introduced himself suddenly and with a bang, in 1959, when his first produced play, “The Zoo Story,” opened in Berlin on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” A two-handed one-act that unfolds in real time, “The Zoo Story” zeroed in on the existential terror at the heart of Eisenhower-era complacency, presenting the increasingly menacing intrusion of a probing, querying stranger on a man reading on a Central Park bench.
When the play came to the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village the next year, it helped propel the blossoming theater movement that became known as Off Broadway.
In 1962, Mr. Albee’s Broadway debut, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” the famously scabrous portrait of a withered marriage, won a Tony Award for best play, ran for more than a year and half and enthralled and shocked theatergoers with its depiction of stifling academia and of a couple whose relationship has been corroded by dashed hopes, wounding recriminations and drink.
The 1966 film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, turned the play into Mr. Albee’s most famous work; it had, he wrote three decades later, “hung about my neck like a shining medal of some sort — really nice but a trifle onerous.”
But it stands as representative, too, an early example of the heightened naturalism he often ventured into, an expression of the viewpoint that self-interest is a universal, urgent, irresistible and poisonous agent in modern life — “There’s nobody doesn’t want something,” as one of his characters said — that Mr. Albee would illustrate again and again with characteristically pointed eloquence.
A half-century later, Mr. Albee’s audacious drama about a love affair between man and beast, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” won another Tony, ran for nearly a year and staved off the critical despair, however briefly, that the commercial theater could no longer support serious drama.
In between, Mr. Albee (his name is pronounced AWL-bee,) turned out a parade of works, 30 or so in all, generally focused on exposing the darkest secrets of relatively well-to-do people, with lacerating portrayals of familial relations, social intercourse and individual soul-searching.
As Ben Brantley of The New York Times once wrote, “Mr. Albee has unsparingly considered subjects outside the average theatergoer’s comfort zone: the capacity for sadism and violence within American society; the fluidness of human identity; the dangerous irrationality of sexual attraction and, always, the irrefutable presence of death.”
His work could be difficult to absorb, not only tough-minded but elliptical or opaque, and his relationships with ticket-buyers, who only intermittently made his plays into hits, and critics, who were disdainful as often as they were laudatory, ran hot and cold.
In 1965, after “Tiny Alice,” his drama about Christian faith, money and the ethics of worship opened on Broadway, causing much consternation and even outrage among critics who had failed to discern meaning in its murky symbols and suggestions of mysticism, Mr. Albee attended anews conference ostensibly to discuss the play but ended up lecturing on the subject of criticism.
“It is not enough for a critic to tell his audience how well a play succeeds in its intention,” he said; “he must also judge that intention by the absolute standards of the theater as an art form.” He added that when critics perform only the first function, they leave the impression that less ambitious plays are better ones because they come closer to achieving their ambitions.
“Well, perhaps they are better plays to their audience,” he said, “but they are not better plays for their audience. And since the critic fashions the audience taste, whether he intends to or not, he succeeds each season in merely lowering it.”
Several of his plays opened abroad before they did in the United States, and his work was often more enthusiastically welcomed in Europe than it was at home; even some of his most critically admired plays never found the wider audiences that only a Broadway imprimatur can attract.
“Maybe I’m a European playwright and I don’t know it,” he said in an interview with The Times in 1991, adding: “Just look at the playwrights who are not performed on Broadway now: Sophocles, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Molière, Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett, Genet. Not a one of them.”
Never a Critic’s Darling
A clever speaker in interviews with a vivid sense of mischief and the high-minded presumption of an artist, Mr. Albee was wont to confront slights rather than dismiss them, wielding his smooth, sardonic wit as a verbal fly-swatter. “If Attila the Hun were alive today, he’d be a drama critic,” he said in 1988.
Referring to the “hysterical, skirt-hiking appal-dom” of critics after his 1983 play “The Man Who Had Three Arms” opened (and quickly closed) on Broadway, he said: “You’d have thought it was women seeing mice climb up their legs.”
And yet he was among the most honored of American dramatists. Beyond his Tonys — including one for lifetime achievement — he won three Pulitzer Prizes.
His major works included “A Delicate Balance,” a Pulitzer-winning, darkly unsettling comedy about an affluent family whose members reveal their deep unhappiness in shrewd and stinging verbal combat; “All Over” (1971), directed on Broadway by John Gielgud and starring Colleen Dewhurst, about a family (and a mistress) awaiting the deathbed expiration of an unseen, wealthy man; “Seascape” (1975), another Pulitzer winner, a creepily comic, slightly ominous meditation on monogamy, evolution and mortality that develops from an oceanside discussion involving an elderly human couple and a pair of anthropomorphic lizards; and “Three Tall Women,” a strikingly personal work drawn from memories of his adoptive mother, scrutinizing, in its various stages, the life of a dying woman. The play had its 1991 premiere in Vienna but earned Mr. Albee a third Pulitzer after it appeared Off Broadway in 1994.
A subsequent work, “The Play About the Baby,” opened in London in 1998 and in Houston in 2000 before finding its way the next year to Off Broadway in New York. In it Mr. Albee revisited, in a more abstract form of harrowing comedy, notable rudiments of “Virginia Woolf,” namely an older couple initiating a younger couple into the grim realities of later life and a child whose existence becomes a matter of ardent and anguish-inspiring discourse.
“Albee is not a fan of mankind,” the critic John Lahr wrote in The New Yorker in 2012. “The friendships he stages are loose affiliations that serve mostly as a bulwark against meaninglessness.”
‘Plays Are Correctives’
Mr. Albee explained himself as a kind of herald, perhaps a modern Cassandra warning the theatergoer of inevitable personal calamity.
“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done,” he said in the 1991 Times interview. “I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”
He wrote, he said, with a sense of responsibility; “All plays, if they’re any good, are constructed as correctives,” he told The Guardian in 2004. “That’s the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people. We’re not merely decorative, pleasant and safe.”
Mr. Albee was born somewhere in Virginia on March 12, 1928. Little is known about his father. His mother’s name was Louise Harvey; she called him Edward. In the 1999 biography, “Edward Albee: A Singular Journey,” the author, Mel Gussow, a former reporter and critic for The Times, cited adoption papers — filed in Washington within days of his birth — that said the father “had deserted and abandoned both the mother and the child and had in no way contributed to the support of the child.”
Sent to an adoption nursery in Manhattan before he was three weeks old, baby Edward was placed with Reed Albee, an heir to the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters, and his wife, Frances, who lived in Larchmont, N.Y. The couple had no children and formally adopted Edward 10 months later, naming him Edward Franklin Albee III after two of his adoptive father’s ancestors.
Patrician and distant, the Albees were unsuited to dealing with a child of artistic temperament, and in later years Mr. Albee would often recall an un-nourishing childhood in which he felt like an interloper in their home. In a 2011 interview at the Arena Stage in Washington with the director Molly Smith, he said that his mother had thrown out his first play — he described it as “a three-act sex farce” — which he wrote at age 14.
“I think they wanted somebody who would be a corporate thug of some sort, or perhaps a doctor or lawyer or something respectable,” he told the television interviewer Charlie Rose. “They didn’t want a writer on their hands. Good God, no.”
In interviews he said he knew he was gay by the time he was 8, that he began writing poetry at 9, that he had his first homosexual experience at 12 and that he wrote a pair of novels in his teens — “the worst novels that could ever be written by an American teenager.”
His education was a hopscotch tour of the middle Atlantic: He attended Rye Country Day School in Westchester County, N.Y., the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, the Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania and finally the Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Connecticut, from which he graduated.
He attended Trinity College in Hartford but never finished, reportedly because he refused to go to chapel and was expelled. Then, in 1949, he moved to Greenwich Village, where his artistic life began in earnest. His circle, made up of painters, writers and musicians, included the playwright William Inge and the composers David Diamond, Aaron Copland and William Flanagan, who became his lover.
The Off Broadway theater was nascent, and he began attending plays in the Village — “You could go to the theater for a dollar!” he recalled — seeing the works of Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello and Brecht and supporting himself with menial jobs.
Poetry as a Dead End
His own writing was less than successful — he tried short stories and gave them up — and though he published a handful of poems, he gave that up, too, when he was 26, because, as he put it to Ms. Smith, “I remember thinking, ‘Edward, you’re getting better as a poet, but the problem is you don’t really feel like a poet, do you? You feel like someone who is writing poetry.”
He added: “I knew I was a writer and had failed basically at all other branches of writing, but I was still a writer. So I did the only thing I had not done. I wrote a play. It was called ‘The Zoo Story.’ ”
It was a month before his 30th birthday, Mr. Gussow wrote in his biography, that Mr. Albee sat down at a typewriter borrowed from the Western Union office where he worked as a messenger, and completed “The Zoo Story” in two and a half weeks.
“I’ve been to the zoo,” the character Jerry says, in the opening line, approaching Peter, who is sitting on a bench reading. “I said I’ve been to the zoo. Mister, I’ve been to the zoo!”
Mr. Diamond helped arrange the Berlin production — in German translation (“Die Zoo-Geschichte”) — and it was well-received. But in New York the play was rejected several times before the Actors Studio agreed to stage a single performance; afterward, Norman Mailer, who was in the audience, declared it “the best one-act play I’ve ever seen.”
When “The Zoo Story” opened for a commercial run at the Provincetown Playhouse in January 1960, reviews were mixed. (The Times’s Brooks Atkinson called it “consistently interesting and illuminating — odd and pithy,” though he concluded that “nothing of enduring value is said.”)
Even so, the play made enough of a splash that Mr. Albee became known as an exemplar of a new, convention-defying strain of playwriting. In an article in The Times with the headline “Dramatists Deny Nihilistic Trend,” Mr. Albee espoused the view that would become his credo: that theatergoers should be challenged to confront situations and ideas that lie outside their comfort zones.
“I want the audience to run out of the theater — but to come back and see the play again,” he said.
‘A Sick Play’
His next three plays, also one-acts, were also successes Off Broadway: “The Sandbox” and “The American Dream” were portraits of family dynamics etched in acid, and “The Death of Bessie Smith,” which bordered on uncharacteristic agitprop, was about an incident (later revealed to be untrue) in which the great blues singer of the title, who died after an auto accident, had been turned away from a whites-only hospital.
Then came “Virginia Woolf.” Focusing on George and Martha, an embittered academic couple — he’s a history professor, she’s the college president’s daughter — it presents a boozy late-night encounter between them and two campus newcomers, Nick and Honey, a young math teacher and his wife, which devolves into a series of horrifying, macabre psychological games, cruel challenges and spilled secrets.
The reactions were virulent and disparate. Some critics were appalled:
“A sick play for sick people,” The Daily Mirror declared.
“Three and a half hours long, four characters wide and a cesspool deep,” said The Daily News.
But others were mesmerized and dazzled. A jury awarded it the Pulitzer Prize, but the Pulitzer advisory board rejected the recommendation, choosing not to give an award for drama that year; the jurors resigned in protest.
In the years since, as the play has grown to become a classic of modern drama and been revived on Broadway three times, most recently in 2012 with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as George and Martha, it has continued to incite controversy. Some critics and directors interpreted the play as being about four homosexual men, a suggestion that distressed Mr. Albee enough to seek legal remedies to shut down productions of the play with all-male casts.
As for the title, another item of speculation, Mr. Albee explained its origin in an interview in The Paris Review in 1966:
“There was a saloon — it’s changed its name now — on Tenth Street, between Greenwich Avenue and Waverly Place, that was called something at one time, now called something else, and they had a big mirror on the downstairs bar in this saloon where people used to scrawl graffiti. At one point back in about 1953 … 1954, I think it was — long before any of us started doing much of anything — I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, who’s … afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical university, intellectual joke.”
Mr. Albee’s other plays include adaptations of the Carson McCullers novella “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe”; of “Malcolm,” a novel by James Purdy, and of Vladimir Nabokov’s great novel of sexual obsession, “Lolita.”
He was also involved in one of the great flops in Broadway history, becoming a script doctor for the producer David Merrick’s 1966 staging of the musical adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which starred Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain and closed on Broadway before it opened, after its fourth preview.
Mr. Albee was especially productive through the 1960s and early ’70s, when he was working as a team with the producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder. But following his early successes, ending with “Seascape” in 1975, he went into a decline, partly owing to struggles with alcohol, and for nearly 20 years he did not write a commercially successful play.
Success Before Sunset
“The Lady from Dubuque” (1980), a drama concerned with the nature of identity and shadowed by the specter of death — it opens with a game of 20 questions, one of whose participants is terminally ill — was savaged by the critics and closed after 12 performances on Broadway. A similar fate befell “The Man Who Had Three Arms” (1983), a bilious discourse on the wages of evanescent celebrity.
Mr. Albee lived for several decades in a TriBeCa loft filled with African sculptures and contemporary paintings by the likes of Vuillard, Milton Avery and Kandinsky. His partner of 35 years, Jonathan Thomas, a sculptor, died in 2005. Mr. Albee leaves no immediate survivors.
It was “Three Tall Women” in the early 1990s that returned Mr. Albee to prominence, and for the next 20 years he continued to be productive, turning out provocative work, including “The Goat” and “The Play About the Baby,” and witnessing (or directing himself) revivals of earlier plays on Broadway and in regional theaters.
He was riding this sunset success — and continuing to write — when he spoke to Ms. Smith in front of an audience at the Arena Stage in Washington, which was then presenting a festival of his work that included readings and performances of more than 20 plays. He recalled the feeling he had at the very beginning of his career, after he had finished writing “The Zoo Story.”
“For the first time in my life when I wrote that play, I realized I had written something that wasn’t bad,” he said. “‘You know, Edward, this is pretty good. This is talented. Maybe you’re a playwright.’ So I thought, ‘Let’s find out what happens.’ ”