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).
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.
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.
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."