Edward Albee Biography
Edward Albee’s reputation in many ways began with the words “What a dump!” The phrase is featured in the opening scene of his groundbreaking work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The 1962 play shocked audiences with its salty language and frank depiction of a drunken couple mired in a bitter middle-aged malaise. Highly influenced by the absurdist work of playwrights like Samuel Becket, Albee would later craft plays that were increasingly anti-realistic. His hallmark as a writer is the way he balances the realistic and the absurd, packaging big ideas in sharp, often biting dialogue. Albee’s writing is frequently heralded for its intellectuality, and Albee himself has worked as a lecturer and educator, inspiring future generations of dramatists to find their own unique theatrical voices.
Facts and Trivia
- One of Albee’s best-loved (and harrowing) short plays, The Zoo Story, was reworked by the author more than four decades later into the full-length piece Peter and Jerry.
- Fractured family dynamics figure prominently in many of Albee’s plays. That has led some critics to suggest that Albee’s tense relationship with his adopted parents was instrumental in shaping him into the writer he would become.
- Albee’s play Seascape features a decidedly Daniel-Pinkwater-ian conceit: two of the main characters are giant lizards.
- Albee’s 2002 Tony Award-winning play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? deals with a most unusual subject: the disintegration of an upper middle-class family upon the revelation that the father has been carrying on an emotional and sexual affair with the titular goat.
- Albee has received the Pulitzer Prize for A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women. Tellingly, he did not win it for his most famous and respected work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mystery surrounds the origins of Edward Franklin Albee III. He was born to Louise Harvey (father unknown) somewhere in Virginia on March 12, 1928 (not in Washington, D.C., as is frequently listed). Almost three weeks later on March 30, Albee was given up for adoption to Reed A. and Frances Albee (twenty-three years younger than her husband). He was taken to Larchmont, New York, where he was raised in luxury. The name Edward was taken from Reed’s father, wealthy theater magnate Edward Franklin Albee, who owned part of the Keith-Albee Theater Circuit until businessman Joseph P. Kennedy forced him out in 1929. Despite several efforts, the playwright has never been able to trace his natural parents. He did discover, after his adoptive mother’s death, that his birth name was Edward Harvey.
Albee grew up in a large, luxurious stucco Tudor house. He was surrounded by servants, horses, toys, tutors, and chauffeured limousines. His winters were spent in Palm Beach, Florida, or Arizona and summers sailing in Long Island Sound. Albee developed a love for horses and riding from his adoptive mother, whom he adored as a child; she was a tall, beautiful woman who once modeled for Bergdorf Goodman. He was quite close to his grandmother. It was her trust fund that later enabled Albee to leave home and sustain his efforts as a writer.
Albee’s love for the theater developed very early, fueled by his frequent trips to Broadway matinees (in a Rolls-Royce) and by the visits of famous theatrical guests to the Albees’ sprawling estate. Excited by meeting such show business personalities as Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, and Walter Pidgeon, Albee began writing plays at an early age. He penned his first play at the precocious age of twelve—a full-length sex farce titled Aliqueen, about passengers on an English ocean liner.
Albee suffered from a troubled childhood despite his apparent social, economic, and cultural advantages. Keenly aware that he was adopted, the future dramatist harbored a deep-seated resentment against his biological parents for abandoning him. That resentment resonated throughout his plays. Albee’s hostility, however, was not reflected toward his adoptive parents. Still, he gave them enough concern about his disruptive behavior that his mother enrolled the eleven-year-old boy in a strict boarding school in Lawrenceville. It would be the first stop of many schools, including Valley Forge Military Academy (termed by Albee the “Valley Forge Concentration Camp”) and Choate School. An indifferent student at best, Albee received tremendous encouragement as a writer from his instructors at Choate. During his one-year stay there he wrote numerous pieces, including poems, short stories, a novel entitled The Flesh of the Unbelievers, and a play titled Schism. Much of his work appeared in the Choate Literary Magazine, and one poem was published in Kaleidoscope, a Texas literary magazine.
Following graduation from Choate, Albee attended Trinity College beginning in 1946, but he did not apply himself to his studies. He became involved in dramatics, however, and played the role of Emperor Franz Joseph in Maxwell Anderson’s 1936 play The Masque of Kings. Midway into his second year, Albee left Trinity (actually, he was ordered to leave because he would not attend math lectures or chapel); he never completed his college education. His first job was at radio WNYC, performing a variety of assignments. In 1950, he moved out of his adoptive parents’ home despite their entreaties to stay, and moved to Greenwich Village. He was determined to become a writer.
For the next ten years Albee moved around frequently and took numerous positions, including office boy, bartender, book salesman,...
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record clerk at Bloomingdale’s, and Western Union messenger. All these jobs gave him ample opportunity to communicate with people. Albee also met and corresponded with playwright Thornton Wilder, who encouraged him to write for the stage. Saddled with job instability, Albee was able to survive because of the $100,000 trust fund established by his grandmother. Its provisions spelled out that Albee should receive fifty dollars a week until his thirtieth birthday, then the remaining sum. During the decade, Albee would write a number of poems and plays that he repudiated in later years.
Albee’s coming-of-age as a playwright occurred in 1958, on his thirtieth birthday, when he quit his Western Union job, cashed in his grandmother’s inheritance, and sat down and wrote The Zoo Story (1959) in three weeks. No Broadway producer was interested in it. Fortunately, William Flanagan (Albee dedicated the play to him), who had roomed with Albee for about nine years, sent the script to a friend in Italy, and it eventually ended up on the desk of German producer Boleslaw Barlog. Barlog presented it at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin on September 28, 1959. Albee attended the Berlin production, despite the fact that he could not understand German. Almost four months later, on January 14, 1960, the play received its successful New York premiere, in conjunction with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Albee’s playwriting career was launched; he would soon be known as the “King of Off-Broadway.”
In that same year, 1960, Albee would produce three more plays—The Sandbox, The Death of Bessie Smith, and Fam and Yam. Every year thereafter he wrote or adapted one or more plays for the New York stage, and each new Albee work would be eagerly awaited. His biggest success and first Broadway production occurred in 1962 with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which won numerous awards. He later won Pulitzer Prizes for A Delicate Balance (1966), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1991) and a Tony Award for The Goat: Or, Who Is Sylvia? (2002).
Albee continues to turn out new plays each year, conducts workshops for aspiring dramatists, lectures extensively in the United States and abroad, serves as artistic director for various theater companies, and often reads or directs revivals of his plays. He serves as president of the Edward F. Albee Foundation, Inc., an organization that funds the William Flanagan Creative Persons Center, which actively supports the writers and artists colony in Montauk, New York.