Edward Franklin Albee was adopted when he was two weeks old by the prosperous Reed Albee, an active partner in the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville houses, and Frances Albee, a former fashion model. Albee, something of a problem child, attended a procession of private schools, finally being graduated from Choate in 1946. He enrolled in Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and attended it for three semesters. He became a Western Union messenger in New York, where Thornton Wilder, whom he had met while a student at the Lawrenceville School where Wilder taught, encouraged him in his writing career. During this period, he came to know W. H. Auden, who also supported his writing efforts.
Albee published and produced his absurdist play, The Zoo Story, in 1959. The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox, and Fam and Yam were all produced in 1960, followed in 1961 by The American Dream and Albee and James Hinton, Jr.’s libretto for Bartleby, based on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”
Albee’s greatest triumph in the 1960’s, however, was the production in 1962 of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a dazzling play that questions many of America’s most cherished values and traditions, such as beliefs about the family and the child-parent relationship. The play received the Drama Critics Circle Award and the Tony Award for best play of the year. The drama jury awarded it the Pulitzer Prize, but its vote was overturned by the advisory board of Columbia University, which administers the Pulitzer Prize, because of the play’s strong language and general iconoclasm. This decision caused John Mason Brown and John Gassner to resign from the drama jury.
Ironically, Albee subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for A Delicate Balance (produced 1966, published 1967), although the play was not equal to the standard Albee had set in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one of the most thought-provoking and insightful plays of the twentieth century.
In one decade, Albee saw eleven of his plays produced professionally, including, besides those already mentioned, The Ballad of the Sad Café (pr., pb. 1963), based on Carson McCuller’s novel; Tiny Alice(pr. 1964, pb. 1965), a play in which a church barters a soul for a donation; Malcolm (pr., pb. 1966), adapted from James Purdy’s novel; Everything in the Garden (pr. 1967, pb. 1968), based on Giles Cooper’s play; and Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (pr. 1968; pb. 1969).
Although his productivity peaked in the 1960’s, Albee continued to write plays in the years that followed. His Seascape (pr., pb. 1975) and Three Tall Women (pr. 1990, pb. 1991), a play of considerable substance, both received Pulitzer Prizes.
Albee, with plays such as The Sandbox, The Zoo Story, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, altered the course of American theater by applying elements of absurdist theater, such as brutal, almost sadistic dialog and frequent non sequiturs, to plays that had broad public appeal. Albee also contributed significantly to the training of future...
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