Playwright, who won three Pulitzer prizes and helped establish the idea of ‘off-Broadway’ theatre
Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? playwright, dies aged 88
Art and Experience: America’s leading playwright Edward Albee, the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – the bleakest of black domestic comedies – has died aged 88 at his home in Montauk, East Hampton.
His shocking play about a decaying academic marriage marked him out early as what the New York Times has called this weekend “the playwright of a desperate generation”.
A critical success on Broadway in 1962, it is still well known due to Mike Nichols’ 1966 film adaptation, which starred another dysfunctional couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Speaking to the Observer, the actor Tim Piggott-Smith, who played the lead male role in the play on the British stage two years ago, praised the “visceral emotionality” of Albee’s writing.
“He had an absolutely astounding bravery and he was able to just pour it out. He lived to a good age, but it is very sad,” he said.
The fame of Who’s Afraid … ?, Albee once complained, “hung about my neck like a shining medal of some sort – really nice but a trifle onerous”. It centres on the bitter, alcohol-fuddled verbal game-playing between a history professor, George, and his wife, Martha, the college president’s daughter.
Albee said he took the title from a joke he once saw scrawled on a pub mirror: “It did strike me as being a rather typical university, intellectual joke,” he said.
In a typically despairing line from the play, Martha declares she and George are silently crying inside all the time: “And then what we do, we cry, and we take our tears, and we put ’em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they’re all frozen and then … we put them … in our … drinks.”
The play was denied a Pulitzer as its subversive vision of married life was judged not “uplifting” enough. But Albee’s later works, A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women, earned him the award three times over and he was widely regarded as the successor of the great playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, standing alongside Arthur Miller, who died in 2005.
Albee’s major theme was the unpleasant underside of the American dream, with a special focus on self-delusion and the mutually assured destruction that cements intimate relationships. He ploughed a similar furrow to the novelist Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road, in making his points by demonstrating the horror of regret and domestic conflict, rather than by being didactic.
He seldom found commercial success on Broadway and his works helped to establish the idea of “off-Broadway” fringe venues, where serious theatre could thrive.
“Maybe I’m a European playwright and I don’t know it,” he said in a 1991 interview. “Just look at the playwrights who are not performed on Broadway now: Sophocles, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Moliere, Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett, Genet. Not a one of them.”
But Piggott-Smith was struck by Albee’s “un-English” capacity to unsettle his audience without compromise. “I first saw Who’s Afraid? at the Belgrade in Coventry with Margaret Tyzack in 1963. It was shocking. It knocked you off your feet. I had gone in to see this play with this nursery-rhymish title, and then came out having really been through the ringer.”
For an actor, he added, playing George is actually “a pretty horrible” experience. “Albee had his fingers in the dirt.”
The playwright was born in Virginia in 1928, and was put up for adoption in Manhattan as a baby. He grew up with the Albees in financial comfort, but felt he was a disappointment to his conventional adoptive parents. They were, he said, unhappy about his plan to write. He was sent to a number of schools in the north-eastern US.
Albee said he knew he was gay by the time he was eight and that he decided to become a poet soon after. As a young man, he settled into the Bohemian community in Greenwich village, befriending up-and-coming composers including Aaron Copland.
After persisting with poetry for a while, he had sudden success in 1959 with his first play, The Zoo Story, written in two and a half weeks before his 30th birthday. It opened in Berlin on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.
He wrote more than 30 plays, including The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, about a love affair between man and a goat, which won a Tony award and ran in New York for almost a year.
Piggott-Smith said he believed the 1966 play A Delicate Balance was Albee’s greatest: “It is a primal and about people’s sense of territory.”
The playwright believed that a play that was good to the audience was not necessarily good for the audience, and he longed for theatre critics to make judgements about ambition and quality, not just entertainment value.
“All plays, if they’re any good, are constructed as correctives,” he told the Guardian in 2004. “That’s the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people. We’re not merely decorative, pleasant and safe.”
For the latter part of his life, Albee lived among a collection of modern art in a TriBeCa loft with his partner of 35 years, Jonathan Thomas, a sculptor who died in 2005.
Before undergoing a major operation a decade ago, Albee wrote a statement to be released upon his death that is perhaps surprisingly upbeat: “To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love.”