Edward Albee wrote The Zoo Story when he was thirty and in a gloomy mood over his own lack of achievement. Rejected by New York producers for being too short and experimental, the play was eventually staged in Berlin before its American premiere at the Provincetown Playhouse, New York City, in 1960. Although there is some of Albee’s own personal history in the play, with its orphaned central character and his deep unhappiness, rootlessness, and sense of failure, The Zoo Story is more important as a formal breakthrough in American playwriting. The plays of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Jean Genet had already given Europe its avant-garde Absurdist theater, but America had not yet shown any serious inclination to explore modern existential crises. Albee’s one-act play rocked critics and audiences with its social criticism in a form that defied conventions of well-balanced exchanges of dialogue and neat resolutions of problems. The Village Voice awarded The Zoo Story an Obie Award, and Albee’s appearance on the scene was consolidated by subsequent successes with The Sandbox (pr., pb. 1960), The Death of Bessie Smith (pr., pb. 1960), and The American Dream (pr., pb. 1961)—all highly original one-act plays and all taking up his favorite themes of death, racism, indignation, illusion, sex, power, social climbing, and myths of success. At this time, other American avant-garde playwrights such as Jack Richardson, Jack Gelber, and Kenneth Brown also began to find popularity, and the age of American Absurdist theater had begun.
The Zoo Story was merely a first step, however, for Albee’s real significance rests on larger, more complex works, such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr., pb. 1962), Tiny Alice (pr. 1964), and A Delicate Balance (pr. 1966), which mix symbolism and naturalism, allegory and realism in liberal doses of black comedy, ghastly irony, and abrasive drama. These ambitious works reveal Albee’s debts to Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and August Strindberg, and they represent artistic and dialectical challenges to establishment audiences while being far more than merely plays of protest.