Albee is one of the most discussed and analyzed playwrights of American theater. Many books, countless reviews, and hundreds of articles have been published examining the artist and his plays. Most critics agree that Albee is an important writer whose recurring themes include the condemnation of cruelty, emasculation, social complacency, and vacuity. His characters appear to wallow in their own fantasies; the plays exhibit a pervading and overwhelming sense of loss, probably triggered by his own disturbed childhood. Albee is concerned with the illusions that keep people from seeing reality. He believes that he lives in a time when religious, moral, political, and social structures have collapsed. The dramatist is also preoccupied with the fear of death—a continuing motif since his first play. Albee’s plays do not end happily, but he never strains to make them tragic.
Albee has a love-hate relationship with his critics, submitting to numerous interviews in which he proceeds to give cryptic answers. He is alternately praised for his consummate craftsmanship, intelligence, and sensitivity and criticized for his clumsiness, dim-witted mentality, or crassness. Albee looks with scorn at attempts to analyze him or his work. He consistently reads all material written about him but derisively views it as well-meaning fiction. Probed about his own artistic credo, Albee is usually coy, but he has written that “the health of a nation, a society, can be determined by the art it demands.” The statement may be a key to understanding Albee’s own work, because he is openly critical at what passes for entertainment today on Broadway, in films, and on television. Albee praises the technological achievements in all three media and the high level of competence in acting and directing, but he decries the stereotyped, superficial, and sentimental literary material.
Albee’s work is unusual for his attempts to fuse comedy and terror. He has said that he wants simultaneously to entertain and offend his audiences. In fact, audience indifference to his plays is one thing Albee abhors. He firmly believes that the theater must be “possessed” by the playwright rather than by the actor, director, producer, or audience. Throughout his career, he has steadfastly refused to condescend to changing theatrical fashions and resolutely follows his own inner visions.
Albee remains one of the great innovators of the theater, having experimented with various genres and techniques over the years, and he has been labeled at one time or another an absurdist, surrealist, existentialist, and satirist. He avoids easy labels or descriptions; about his own work, Albee has said that he does not concern himself with thinking about his style or direction: “I’m interested in the fact that I write plays in such different styles from time to time. . . . I’m not doing it to avoid, or to revenge, or to confuse, or to be fresh in my own mind, even. I just do it because that is the way each one wants to be.”
Whatever Albee’s approach may be, he has not slowed his output of plays, creating at least one a year. Critics and audiences alike think that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains his masterpiece, and The Zoo Story remains his most popular one-act work. Albee himself is noncommittal about naming a favorite play, but he has expressed a fondness for The Sandbox, which he feels is his most perfectly written play (it is also his shortest).
Albee’s weakest literary efforts have not been his own creations but his championing of other writers through his role as stage adapter. He has adapted six works into plays, including Carson McCullers’s 1951 novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1963); Malcolm (1966), the 1959 novel by James Purdy; Everything in the Garden (1967), by playwright Giles Cooper; and Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita (1981), and only the first one received mixed reviews. The other three were rigorously criticized and have rarely been performed. Albee remained particularly incensed about the failure of the Broadway production of Lolita. In the introduction to his Selected Plays of Edward Albee, published in 1987, Albee assailed the production for its “combination of disrespect for Nabokov’s and my text, directorial vulgarity . . . and a lax and insensitive turn by a leading performer.” Bartleby (1961), an operatic adaptation of Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” also failed. An Albee adaptation of Truman Capote’s 1958 work Breakfast at Tiffany’s never opened.
Albee’s work has rarely been adapted to the screen; it is generally viewed by filmmakers as too difficult, talky, uninteresting, and static. The one major exception was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in 1966. The film adaptation starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and was well received by the public. The playwright had nothing to do with the film version, but he has stated that he enjoyed it overall despite certain liberties taken with the text. Albee remains prolific, and no one can say in which direction his career will continue to develop. Time and again, he has been dismissed as washed up, and yet some of his best, award-winning work, such as Three Tall Women and The Goat: Or, Who Is Sylvia?, has come during the latter part of his career.
Albee refuses to be categorized, and each new work is different from the last. He says of his writing simply that “my mind fills with plays, and I write them down from time to time to unclutter my mind.” It is interesting to note that Albee is computer illiterate and writes out all his plays in longhand. When directing his own work, he admits to holding heated “conversations” with the playwright about the use of certain passages, and usually the director wins out. It may be too soon to tell if the death of his life partner, sculptor Jonathan Thomas, on May 2, 2005, will have a significant impact on his future work.
The Zoo Story
First produced: 1959 (first published, 1959)
Type of work: Play
A vagrant’s death wish finds fulfillment after he meets a stranger in New York’s Central Park.
The Zoo Story, Albee’s first important play, was partially written on his thirtieth birthday, in 1958, as a present to himself. Albee composed the play in three weeks but then could not find an American producer who would stage it. Albee had created a highly unusual and original work in his first venture that bears comparison with Samuel Beckett’s first play, En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954). Eventually, a German production of The Zoo Story was arranged on September 28, 1959, at the Schiller Theatre Werkstatt in Berlin. Four months later, the American premiere took place—on a double bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape—on January 14, 1960, at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City and ran for 582 performances. Albee won the Vernon Rice Memorial Award for The Zoo Story.
The Zoo Story is a stunning tour de force by a new playwright. It is theatrically simple yet thematically complex. The long one-act play has only two characters, strangers to each other, who meet in Central Park on a summer Sunday afternoon. When the curtain rises, Peter is sitting on a park bench reading a book. Albee describes him as “a man in his early forties, neither fat nor gaunt, neither handsome nor homely.” The other character, Jerry, walks in and sees Peter. Albee’s brief description is as follows: “a man in his late thirties, not poorly dressed, but carelessly.” He exhibits “a great weariness.”
The Zoo Story is classically structured into three main segments that develop in a climactic order. The introductory section introduces Peter and Jerry and the many differences between them: their clothing, economic and social backgrounds, literary tastes, philosophies of life, and ways of communicating. In the middle section, Jerry narrates a long story about himself and an old, mangy dog that lives at his rooming house. The final section builds to a violent conclusion after Jerry tells Peter what happened to him at the zoo.
Peter and Jerry are oppositional characters in The Zoo Story. The only thing they have in common is their age. Albee’s description of Peter is a man “moving into middle age,” although “his dress and his manner would suggest a man younger.” Peter is in no way remarkable or distinctive. He represents a kind of bourgeois Everyman who is comfortable with his sedentary life and avoids taking risks. Jerry, on the other hand, lives on the outer edge of society. He is a rootless person whose “fall from physical grace should not suggest debauchery.” Jerry immediately goads Peter into conversation, a maneuver that the overly polite Peter finds disturbing, because he does not want anyone to penetrate his carefully polished facade. Peter tries to steer the conversation to duller topics, but Jerry will have none of it. Jerry eventually strips away all of Peter’s protective layers and reveals the raging animal within him.
The separation of humans from their true animal nature is an important theme in The Zoo Story. Peter remains blissfully ignorant of the animal within himself until Jerry, who always knew that he was an animal and that meaningful communication with others is difficult because of the individual’s isolation, makes him face it. Hence the importance of the “Jerry and the dog” story, which reaffirms humankind’s animal heritage and hatred of anything that invades personal security. Jerry finally goads the once-passive Peter into a fight in defense of his honor. The terrified Peter, responding like a savage beast, picks up Jerry’s knife and is tricked into killing him.
Another important theme in The Zoo Story is the salvation of the individual through sacrifice. Jerry sacrifices himself, removing his isolation by reaching out to Peter, changing Peter for the better. The play ends with Jerry giving a Christlike exhortation to Peter, his disciple. The Zoo Story unfolds like a Greek tragedy that builds relentlessly to a horrifying and preordained conclusion. Peter’s final howl, “OH MY GOD,” amplifies Jerry’s onstage whimper as the curtain falls.
The American Dream
First produced: 1961 (first published, 1961)
Type of work: Play
In this savage satire, Albee portrays the American family as substituting artificial values for real ones.
The American Dream was the fourth play written by Albee. It received its American premiere at the York Playhouse on January 24, 1961, and ran for 370 performances. Four of the five characters in the play—Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, and Young Man—also appeared in an earlier Albee work, The Sandbox. Unlike The Zoo Story, The American Dream is an absurdist play.
The long one-act is structured into three major sections and eleven groupings of the five characters. The first part deals with the family unit itself—Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma—and the decision of whether Grandma should be put into a nursing home. The second section involves the introduction of Mrs. Barker, a social chum of Mommy, who once worked for the Bye-Bye Adoption Service. The final part begins with the arrival of the Young Man and Grandma’s attempt to keep from being institutionalized.
In The American Dream, Albee attempts to show that the much-vaunted American Way of Life is absurd. The playwright seeks to show how deprived of meaning Americans’ normal human feelings and relationships have become. He points out that people go through the ritualistic motions of loving and caring for one another, and respond to sexual attractiveness or neighborly...
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