Edward Albee Albee, Edward (Vol. 113) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Albee 1928–

(Full name Edward Franklin Albee III) American dramatist, poet, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Albee's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 13, 25, 53, and 86.

An acclaimed and controversial playwright, Albee is best known for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), his first full-length drama. Although initially characterized either as a realist or an absurdist, Albee combines elements from the American tradition of social criticism—established by such playwrights as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill—with aspects of the Theater of the Absurd, as practiced by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. While Albee's plays often portray alienated individuals who suffer as a result of unjust social, moral, and religious strictures, his works usually offer solutions to conflicts rather than conveying an absurdist sense of inescapable determinism. According to Allan Lewis, Albee "writes plays that grip an audience, that hold with their elusiveness, their obscurity, their meaning; and he has functioned in the true role of the playwright—to express the human condition dramatically and metaphorically." In a career spanning more than thirty years, Albee has received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama three times: for A Delicate Balance (1966), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1991).

Biographical Information

Albee is the adopted child of Reed and Frances Albee, heirs to the multi-million dollar fortune of American theater manager Edward Franklin Albee I. He began attending the theater and writing poetry at the age of six, wrote a three-act sex farce when he was twelve, and attempted two novels while a teenager. Many critics suggest that the tense family conflicts of Albee's dramas are derived from his childhood experiences. After attending several private and military schools and enrolling briefly at Trinity College in Connecticut, Albee achieved limited success as an author of poetry and fiction before turning to drama. Although he remained associated with off-Broadway theater until the production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he first garnered critical and popular acclaim for his one-act dramas, which prompted comparisons to the works of Williams and Ionesco. Albee has received three Pulitzer prizes, as well as several other prestigious awards, for his dramatic works.

Major Works

Albee's first one-act play, The Zoo Story (1959), is a satire set in New York City in which a young homosexual attempts to force conversation on a reticent conservative. After intimidating the man into defending himself with a knife, the homosexual purposely impales himself on its blade. His next one-act drama, The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), revolves around the demise of black blues singer Bessie Smith, who died after being refused treatment at a Southern hospital that catered exclusively to white patients. The American Dream (1961), another one-act play, focuses on a mother and father whose severe punishment of their adopted son resulted in his death many years before. Albee's most acclaimed drama, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has generated popular and critical notoriety for its controversial depiction of marital strife. The play depicts the alternately destructive and conciliatory relationship between George and Martha, a middle-aged history professor and his wife, which is demonstrated during a late-night party in their living room with Nick, George's shallow colleague, and Honey, Nick's spouse.

As the evening proceeds, George and Martha alternately attack and patronize their guests before Martha, intent on wounding George, seduces Nick; George retaliates by announcing the death of their nonexistent son, whom they had created to sustain their relationship. The conclusion suggests that George and Martha may be able to reappraise their relationship based on the intimacy, which was both feared and sought all evening, that arises from their shared sorrow. In A Delicate Balance, a troubled middle-aged couple examine their relationship during a prolonged visit by two close friends. In The Lady from Dubuque (1980), Albee posited that reality is a subjective phenomenon open to multiple interpretations. This drama concerns a dying woman who vents her pain and hostility on her friends and husband prior to the arrival of an ambiguous, commanding woman who alternately evokes the images of archetypal mother and angel of death. The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983) centers on Himself, a man who acquired wealth and fame after growing a third arm that later disappeared. Addressing the audience from a lecture podium, Himself alternately pleads for sympathy and attacks his audience for his loss of prominence. Albee described his stylized drama Finding the Sun (1983) as "pointillist in manner." This play counterbalances characters, in one example contrasting a young man's forthcoming freedom with an old man's awareness of his impending death. In Marriage Play (1987), Albee returned to the themes of his earlier plays to portray the ambivalent relationship between a cynical woman and her detached husband. Three Tall Women (1991) begins with a meeting between an elderly woman in her nineties known as A, her middle-aged caretaker B, and a young lawyer named C who has come to help A settle her affairs. As the three women interact, each becomes aware of and impatient with the others' shortcomings. The first act ends as A suffers a stroke, and in subsequent scenes Albee departs from a strictly linear plot, having all three characters appear as various manifestations of A at different times during her life. The play concerns stereotypes and familial ties, and is considered largely autobiographical; the character A was based on Albee's mother and the relationship between parent and playwright mirrors that of A and her homosexual son. In The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life (1995), Albee presents the story of Federico Garcia Lorca (1900–1936), a Spanish poet and playwright executed during the Fascist reign of General Francisco Franco.

Critical Reception

Beginning with reviews of his earliest works, Albee has garnered a wide variety of critical opinion, ranging from scathing to adoring; many commentators note Albee's inventiveness and insight into society and human nature while at the same time responding negatively to the tone or structure of his dramas. For example, although it was faulted by some as defeatist and nihilistic, The American Dream was also commended for its savage parody of traditional American values. Albee commented: "Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so; it was my intention to offend—as well as amuse and entertain." Similarly, even though some critics considered it morbid and self-indulgent, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was honored with two Antoinette Perry Awards and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Variously interpreted as a problem play in the tradition of August Strindberg, a campus parody, or a latent homosexual critique of conventional relationships, the drama has generated a wide array of critical analyses. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has more recently been assessed as a classic of American drama for its tight control of form and command of both colloquial and abstruse dialogue. While several of Albee's plays written since 1962 have failed commercially and elicited stinging reviews for their abstract classicism and dialogue, many scholars have commended Albee's commitment to theatrical experimentation and refusal to pander to commercial pressures. A Delicate Balance, while garnering approval for its synthesis of dramatic elements, was widely faulted for lacking action and cohesive ideas; when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, most regarded the decision as a belated attempt by the Pulitzer committee to honor Albee for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Although The Lady from Dubuque closed after only twelve performances, Gerald Clarke deemed it Albee's "best work since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and Otis Guernsey included it in The Best Plays of 1979–1980. The Man Who Had Three Arms also failed financially; although Albee denied any autobiographical intent, critics dismissed this play as a self-pitying portrayal of Albee, whose plays had been poorly received since the early 1960s. Critical reaction to Three Tall Women, for which Albee received a New York Drama Critics Circle Award as well as his third Pulitzer Prize, was generally positive. Although commentators have consistently identified C as the weakest character in the play, they have lauded A and B as well-defined portraits and praised Albee's focus on universal concerns. Many critics have additionally asserted that Three Tall Women is the most successful work Albee has written in years; they also note that due to its autobiographical content the play offers invaluable insights into Albee's life and career. John Lahr observed: "Far from being an act of revenge or special pleading, the play is a wary act of reconciliation, whose pathos and poetry are a testament to the bond, however attenuated, between child and parent. Three Tall Women bears witness to the son's sad wish to be loved, but with this liberating difference: the child is now finally in control of the parent's destiny, instead of the parent's being in control of the child's."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Zoo Story (drama) 1959
The Death of Bessie Smith (drama) 1960
Fam and Yam (drama) 1960
The Sandbox (drama) 1960
The American Dream (drama) 1961
Bartleby [adaptor; from the short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" by Herman Melville] (opera) 1961
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (drama) 1962
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe [adaptor; from the novel by Carson McCullers] (drama) 1963
Tiny Alice (drama) 1964
A Delicate Balance (drama) 1966
Malcolm [adaptor; from the novel by James Purdy] (drama) 1966
Everything in the Garden [adaptor; from the play by Giles Cooper] (drama) 1967
Box (drama) 1968
Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (drama) 1968
All Over (drama) 1971
Seascape (drama) 1975
Counting the Ways: A Vaudeville (drama) 1977
Listening: A Chamber Play (drama) 1977
The Lady from Dubuque (drama) 1980
Lolita [adaptor; from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov] (drama) 1981
Finding the Sun (drama) 1983
The Man Who Had Three Arms (drama) 1983
Marriage Play (drama) 1987
Three Tall Women (drama) 1991
Fragments: A Sit Around (drama) 1993
The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life (drama) 1995

∗First produced as a radio play.

Whitney Balliett (review date 4 February 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Three Cheers for Albee," in New Yorker, Vol. 36, No. 51, February 4, 1961, pp. 62, 64-66.

[In the following excerpt, Balliett offers a highly complimentary assessment of The American Dream and a negative appraisal of Bartleby.]

Classic tragedy is still kaput, and that rare and most admirable acrobat who, by managing the almost invisible tightrope between tragedy and comedy, produced the incalculably effective form known as tragicomedy no longer exists. He has been replaced by the horror-comic writer, who, like his progenitor, must have perfect equilibrium. If he slips, the results are either cruel or empty. Fortunately, it doesn't look as if Edward...

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Robert Brustein (review date 27 March 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fragments from a Cultural Explosion," in New Republic, Vol. 144, No. 13, March 27, 1961, pp. 29-30.

[In the following excerpt from a review of The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith, Brustein argues that Albee's talent as a playwright is underdeveloped and his plays lack depth, focus, and direction.]

It is often taken as a sign of progress and maturity that our formerly Philistine fatherland has now begun to consume artistic objects with an appetite fully as ravenous as that once reserved for comic books. The phrase for this awesome phenomenon, I believe, is "cultural explosion"—but out of this explosion have come only scattered shell...

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Harold Clurman (review date 27 October 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in Nation, Vol. 195, No. 13, October 27, 1962, pp. 273-74.

[In the following excerpt, Clurman acknowledges Albee's technical skill, but faults his characterizations in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as one-dimensional.]

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?… is packed with talent…. It may well prove the best of the season. Its significance extends beyond the moment. In its faults as well as in its merits it deserves our close attention.

It has four characters: two couples. There is hardly a plot, little so called "action," but it moves or rather whirls on its own...

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Robert Brustein (review date 3 November 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Albee and the Medusa Head," in New Republic, Vol. 147, No. 18, November 3, 1962, pp. 29-30.

[In the following excerpt of a review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Brustein recognizes Albee's talent for compelling and clever dialogue and his inventiveness, but also notes what he perceives as the author's failure to create a cohesive drama.]

Edward Albee's new work embodies both the failings and the virtues of his previous plays. But its positive achievements are substantial, and I am finally beginning to regard this playwright's future with real expectation. Albee's technical dexterity has always been breathtaking—for sheer theatrical skill, no...

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Gerald Weales (review date 25 October 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 4, October 25, 1968, pp. 120, 122.

[In the following excerpt, Weales provides a favorable assessment of Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.]

Edward Albee's new play and/or plays, Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, came into New York, burdened with a reputation that set up the worst kind of expectations. Reports from Buffalo, where the work had its premiere last spring at the Festival of the Arts, told of boredom and impatience. The creators' reaction to the critical response, both public (in the New York Times...

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M. Patricia Fumerton (essay date Summer 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Verbal Prisons: The Language of Albee's A Delicate Balance," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 201-11.

[In the following essay, Fumerton provides an analysis of Albee's use of language in A Delicate Balance.]

A Delicate Balance forms part of Edward Albee's continuing exploration into the potentialities and limitations of language. Surprisingly, however, no one has yet provided a detailed analysis of the play's language. This work intends such a study. The characters of A Delicate Balance are conscious manipulators of their language: a frightened people who use language in an attempt to control or simply to...

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Katharine Worth (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee: Playwright of Evolution," in Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, Max Hueber Verlag München, 1981, pp. 33-53.

[In the following essay, Worth examines Albee's treatment of evolution in his plays.]

Albee is a playwright whose great distinctiveness is peculiarly hard to name and define. He has been claimed for the Absurdists and linked with Ionesco on the strength of his early plays, The Zoo Story (1958) and The American Dream (1960); comparisons with Strindberg have been prompted by his relish for comic/ferocious sex battles, as in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1961); and his use...

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Leonard Casper (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tiny Alice: The Expense of Joy in the Persistence of Mystery," in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman, The University of St. Thomas, 1983, pp. 83-92.

[In the following essay, Casper explores the enigmatic quality of the structure, themes, characters, and language of Tiny Alice, and offers his own interpretations of the play.]

When Edward Albee was asked by his publisher to provide a preface for Tiny Alice which would explain its peculiarities, he at first consented; then recanted, having decided that "the play is quite clear." Further, he declared that even more people shared his view than found his work...

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Julian N. Wasserman (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Pitfalls of Drama': The Idea of Language in the Plays of Edward Albee," in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman, The University of St. Thomas, 1983, pp. 29-53.

[In the following essay, Wasserman surveys the significance of Albee's treatment of language in his plays.]

In response to an interviewer's question concerning the supposed lack of "realism" in his work, Edward Albee noted the implicit contradiction between the nature of drama as imitation, in the Aristotelian sense, and the expectation of realism on the part of a play's audience. The importance of this argument is that such a recognition goes far beyond the...

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Edward Albee with Jeffrey Goldman (interview date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Edward Albee," in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1991, pp. 59-69.

[In the following interview, conducted in 1989, Albee discusses his works, his artistic approach, critical reaction to his works, American theater, the arts, and contemporary social issues.]

It was perhaps the most appropriate environment in which to interview Edward Albee: the rehearsal set for the Los Angeles production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). At center stage, a chipped wooden coffee table wobbled in front of faded green couch. Upstage right sat the play's ever-present bar, stocked with a variety of bourbon and whiskey...

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Mickey Pearlman (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "What's New at the Zoo? Rereading Edward Albee's American Dream(s) and Nightmares," in Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, edited by June Schlueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989, pp. 183-91.

[In the following essay, Pearlman studies what she terms Albee's bitter, negative, and harsh treatment of women in The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and The Sandbox.]


To reread Edward Albee's one-act play The Zoo Story (1958) is to reexperience the caustic, cryptic vision of an angry playwright thirty years after the play was performed (1959), in German, in Berlin.

The Zoo...

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Marian Faux (review date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 46, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 541-3.

[In the following review, Faux provides a laudatory assessment of Three Tall Women.]

Edward Albee's third Pulitzer prize-winning play Three Tall Women is a meditation on a woman's life and mortality cleverly viewed from three different stages (no pun intended) of life: youth, middle age, and old age. In the first act, a woman known only as "A," played splendidly by English actress Myra Carter, who originated the role at Vienna's English Theatre in June 1991 (see Theatre Journal, 44: 251-52), is a stately and very rich powerhouse trying to come to...

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Jeane Luere (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Elegy for Thwarted Vision: Edward Albee's The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life," in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 143-7.

[In the following essay, Luere examines The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life, in which, he asserts, Albee presents "an elegy for an artist's thwarted vision."]

For over three decades, Edward Albee's controversial drama has kept him in the critical and public consciousness. With self-assurance, Albee has disregarded commercial pressure, experimented with dramatic form, and thrust innovative theater at his audiences. How natural, now, to find Albee evolving a play on artistic...

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William Hutchings (review date Autumn 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 799-80.

[In the following review, Hutchings examines Three Tall Women, comparing it to works by Samuel Beckett.]

Identified only as B and C, two of the three tall women of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama are engaged in a deathwatch for the third, the ninety-two-year-old, bedridden, bitingly sarcastic A. B, according to Albee's production notes, "looks rather as A would have at 52," while C "looks rather as B would have at 26." In the first act the three are distinctly separate characters, generationally different but sometimes overcoming their...

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James Campbell (review date 11 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Habit and the Hatred," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4880, October 11, 1996, p. 23.

[In the following excerpt of a review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Campbell surveys the history of the play.]

It is worth remembering, while enduring the three-and-a-half hour comic nightmare of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that the play emerged from the Theatre of the Absurd. Albee's early one-acters, such as Zoo Story and The American Dream (in which a couple have gruesomely disposed of one of their sons in order to fit the picture of the American way of life), suggested a line of inheritance from Adamov and Ionesco. Who's...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Campos, Carlos. "The Role of Beyond the Forest in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Literature/Film Quarterly 22, No. 3 (1994): 170-3.

Studies the significance of the film Beyond the Forest in terms of character, theme, and plot.

Herr, Denise Dick. "The Tophet at New Carthage: Setting in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" English Language Notes XXXIII, No. 1 (September 1995): 63-71.

Discusses the degree to which the ancient city of Carthage and classical myths inform the setting of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


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