Edward Albee, Surgeon of the American Dream

Edward Albee, Surgeon of the American Dream
Photo courtesy the University of Houston

Edward Albee, America's foremost living playwright, died Friday, September 16. He was 88.

He has now joined that ethereal pantheon that includes founding father Eugene O'Neill, the immortal comedy duo of George Kaufman and Moss Hart, wistful fourth-wall breaker Thornton Wilder, the emotionally fraught Tennessee Williams, and maybe America's post-war angst agitator, Arthur Miller. He's in great company, and I think the master stage writers will heartily welcome him home. If he can stand the sanctimony and the prissy harp music.

His life was a play, maybe not quite like his particular dark comic dissections of family dysfunction, waffling integrity and moral ambiguity, but a well-made one that has real rising movement, a splendid second act and then a slow denouement that surprises with a final burst of creativity and acclaim.

He was adopted by wealthy socialite parents – dad was a scion of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain of vaudeville houses, which would morph into RKO Pictures – and his official biography would always state that he felt like an outsider growing up. Drawn to poetry, he wrote his first play, a harmless sex comedy, when he was eight years old. After his mother read it, she threw it away.

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Attending lots of schools and never graduating, he ran away in 1950 to New York City, where freedom beckoned, playing bohemian, working as a bicycle messenger for Western Union, finally coming out, yet always harboring dreams of being a writer. What kind, though? He never felt like a poet, novels were too long, how about the stage? At a dollar a ticket he had seen Ibsen, Strindberg, O'Neill, Ionesco, down in the Village. They spoke to him. He once said, “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.” He was 30 years old.

That blistering one-acter (1960), about an ordinary, complacent man on a park bench who's confronted by a psycho who goads him into senseless violence, launched Albee into what were then called by The New York Times “New Dramatists Who Defy Nihilism.” Zoo? What were they thinking? Defy nihilism? Albee embraced it. Now considered a classic piece of theater, Zoo, actually premiering in Berlin before its off-Broadway debut, gave Albee the fortitude to go on and get some fairly fine notices. So he settled for the stage and never looked back. American theater changed overnight.

When his unconquerable masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) opened on Broadway, his debut on the Great White Way, some critics found his gimlet-eyed view of the American dream overly caustic and terribly disturbing. “Cesspool deep,” was the Daily News's assessment. “A sick play for sick people,” sneered The Daily Mail. It ran 664 performances, an unprecedented run for a straight drama, and won the Tony Award for Best Play. It would have won the Pulitzer Prize that year, also, if the Columbia University committee hadn't been so craven and withdrawn the citation because some on the board balked at the play's overt sexuality, violence and picture of academe that wasn't at all flattering.

Always experimental, a master of structure, a connoisseur of dialogue who rivaled Wilde, Albee continued on a hot/cool streak. Everyone expected more naturalistic scalding Woolfs, but Albee gave them what he wanted: puzzling mind plays (A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women); intricate, surreal tales with prehistoric talking sea lizards (Seascape); his black, ironic take on fame (The Man With Three Arms); inter-species love (Sylvia, or The Goat); a late rehash of Woolf done as vaudeville (The Play About the Baby); his disquisition on death (The Lady from Dubuque); or his last unrecognized statement (Me, Myself, and I), cast with identical twins as protagonists battling over their mother's love and the right to exist.

He was lauded in his lifetime with three Pulitzers, three Tony Awards — including one for Lifetime Achievement — Drama Desk awards, international accolades, the Kennedy Center Honors and a National Medal of Arts. Not too shabby for a failed poet who once wrote a lame sex comedy.

Our theater community is blessed by a continuing interest in Albee's ever-fascinating work, and hardly a season or two goes by without one of his plays being produced. It should be mentioned that he was a revered teacher at the University of Houston Playwrights Workshop, where his wit and knowledge inspired and prodded a new generation of stage voices.

His voice, however, will probably not be equaled in our lifetime. His plays were always so different from everyone else's: wickedly bitchy, elegant in form, deep in thought, mischievous and provoking. Even when you didn't quite figure them out, his plays kept you intrigued long after the curtain fell. Most often, for days later. They swirled into your brain, patiently waiting for you to grow up and into them.

When he greets those other august writers waiting for him, I wonder if he'll use his famous crib from Bette Davis, “What a dump,” drunk Martha's opening screech from Virginia Woolf. I wouldn't put it past him. He was just that kind of guy.

Rest in peace, Mr. Albee.

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