Edward Albee obituary

Playwright whose masterpiece of marital disharmony, Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, delved beneath the surface of middle-class life

Edward Albee, who has died aged 88, has been described as both the first modern American playwright and the last great American playwright after Eugene ONeill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. In reality he was probably neither, although he was undoubtedly a substantial talent, who burst on to a stagnant American theatrical scene with The Zoo Story in 1959 and followed it up three years later with that major masterpiece of marital disharmony, Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Although Albee was to continue writing all his life, and had minor success with plays such as the Pinteresque A Delicate Balance (1966) and All Over (1971), it was not until 1991 that he had a late creative blooming and another theatrical hit with Three Tall Women. Like much of Albees best work, Three Tall Women was strongly autobiographical, drawing on his privileged but loveless childhood and memories of his mother, Frances, a domineering, Junoesque beauty who preferred horses to people, and almost anyone to her adopted son.

He was born in Washington, to Louise Harvey, and immediately given up for adoption. Aged 18 days, he was handed into the care of Reed and Frances Albee, of Larchmont, New York. Reed was the wealthy, womanising son of the vaudeville theatre-owner and manager Edward Franklin Albee, and Frances (nee Cotter), better known as Frankie, was his third wife. It was rumoured that she had married Reed for his money. A childhood friend of Albees was subsequently to remark: Its lucky he was adopted. He would not get much talent from those two.

A dreamy child with a penchant for drawing and music, the young Edward may not have wanted for material wealth, but grew up an observant outsider in his own home, ignored by his monosyllabic father and reviled by his mother. My mother and I disliked and mistrusted each other, said Albee in an interview many years later, recalling that she would frequently tell him: Just you wait until you are 18, and Ill have you out of here so fast that itll make your head spin.

In fact Albee was 20 before he left home, after an argument. Apart from a chance encounter, he never saw his father again, and he had no further contact with his mother for 20 years, although she was regularly to appear in different guises in his plays: as Mommy in The American Dream (1961), Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Agnes in A Delicate Balance and, most famously, as Three Tall Women, written shortly after her death in a creative act that Albee likened to an exorcism. Mother and son may never have reached rapprochement, let alone anything approaching love, but Frankie was as much a muse for Albee as she was a monster.

Albee spent the next 10 years living in and around Greenwich Village, bolstered by the $25 a week interest payments from a trust fund he had inherited from his grandmother, and occasional work as a telegram boy for Western Union. The ordinary people he met while tramping the city, their desperation and loneliness, became the inspiration for The Zoo Story. But he was also moving in artistic circles. By 1952 he was living with, and in the shadow of, the talented young composer William Flanagan.

After the success of The Zoo Story, the myth grew up that it was Albees very first play, apart from a three-act sex farce written when he was 12 and destroyed by his mother. In reality, between 1949 and 1959, he served an intense apprenticeship, writing at least nine plays as well as short stories and poems. The Zoo Story, about two men sitting on a bench in Central Park, was started a month before his 30th birthday as, Albee was later to claim, a birthday present to himself. He was immediately aware that, for the first time, he had written something worthwhile.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the film of Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Mike Nichols in 1966 Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

New York theatre producers took longer to persuade, and The Zoo Story received its world premiere in a German translation at the Schiller theatre in Berlin on 28 September 1959. It was part of a double bill that included Samuel Becketts Krapps Last Tape. It was not until January 1960 that the play had its US premiere, at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. As was to be the case with almost all of Albees subsequent work, the reviews were mixed, but the positive ones were enthusiastic enough to turn him from an unknown into a hot young playwright who was being mentioned in the same breath as Beckett and Ionesco. America had its first avant-garde playwright in the European mode.

The playwright John Guare was to subsequently write of the debt that every American playwright writing after 1960 owes to Edward Albee. The British playwright Tom Stoppard, whose early work was strongly absurdist, has said that it was seeing The Zoo Story that made him determined to become a playwright. But the Beckettian undertones of The Zoo Story, the Ionesco-influenced The American Dream, and A Delicate Balance, with its Pinter-like dialogue and sense of menace, left many wondering whether Albee was anything more than a clever imitator hitching a ride on the coattails of the latest theatrical fashion.

The tendency to imitate was apparent even in his later work. Reviewing The Play About the Baby, which premiered at the Almeida in 1998, Michael Billington in the Guardian suggested that Albee was self-referring and cannibalising his own work. The play is more a treasure trove for Albee scholars and biographers than something of universal concern.

In his 20s, Albee had taken up again and then dropped his childhood hobby of drawing and painting. He was later to remark: I realised I felt nothing beyond a certain curiosity, and I was making imitations that looked, to my eye, every bit as good as the originals. This question of authenticity was always to raise itself in critical assessments of Albees plays. Although his defenders hailed him as a distinctive theatrical voice and great experimenter who refused to be pigeonholed, his detractors claimed that he remained derivative in form and content. Yet if there was any play that countered that latter view, it was Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It also provided Albee with his only major commercial success, and gave the lie to the notion that he was incapable of writing a full-length play.

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The playwright in 1961. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

The title came from a piece of graffiti that Albee had spotted in a Greenwich Village bar some years previously. Set on the campus of a small American college, it has middle-aged Martha, the daughter of the dean, who is married to George, the assistant professor of history, arriving back home after a party. In tow are the new young biology teacher, Nick, and his wife, Honey. What follows is a bilious and drunken few hours in which Martha and George indulge in game playing and fantasy, wounding both their guests and each other. Martha reveals a son that the pair have invented, a revelation that George tops by killing the imagined boy off. This imaginary or absent son was to become a recurring figure in Albees work.

His friend Mel Gussow, the critic, said that, although Albee was to write many more plays, Virginia Woolf was the cornerstone of his career: one play feeds all. In it, we can see strands reaching back to The Zoo Story (the act of confession, death as the final relief) and The American Dream (the household as microcosm) and forward to A Delicate Balance (the meaning of friendship and loyalty) and Three Tall Women (the price of parenting, the tricks of memory).

Although it was a commercial success and in 1966 made into a film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha, Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had by no means wholly ecstatic reviews. A lack of critical appreciation of his work was something that Albee learned to accept. I have been both over-praised and under-praised. I assume by the time I finish writing and I plan to go on writing until Im 90 or gaga it will equal itself out. He almost managed it: Me, Myself and I, another play drawing on mother and son relationships, was produced in 2008, when he was 80.

But at one point it seemed unlikely that Albee would be writing plays in his later years. After Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his career went into serious decline and for the next 20 years his ability to write was affected by his love affair with alcohol, which had begun while he was still a child and would be asked to mix cocktails for his parents.

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Deborah Kerr in Seascape, 1975

Tiny Alice, premiered on Broadway in 1964 with John Gielgud and Irene Worth, was greeted with such incomprehension that Albee found himself forced to hold a press conference to explain its meaning. Even the author could not satisfactorily explain the bizarre story of a lay brother who is sent by a superior to the house of a wealthy woman and is enmeshed in a scenario of sexual hysteria, religious ecstasy and martyrdom.

A Delicate Balance, described by Kenneth Tynan as an exquisite fandango of despair, saw Albee return to the familiar territory of his adoptive parents life style. A beautiful play about what happens when we turn our backs upon ourselves, it was a success and won Albee the Pulitzer prize he had been unjustly denied for Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Although Albee continued to write plays and have them produced, most notably the death-watch drama All Over and his second Pulitzer-winner, Seascape (1975), a play in which two lizards intrude upon a marriage, his reputation was in free fall. Seascape ran for just two months. The disaster of The Man Who Had No Arms, about a man who sprouts a limb and achieves celebrity, only to see it wither as his arm atrophies, which closed on Broadway after just 16 performances in 1983, suggested that it was all over for Albee too.

He did not need to write plays. Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had made him a wealthy man, and he was renowned as a discerning collector of 20th-century art. For the next 10 years, the focus of his life shifted from writing plays to teaching and encouraging younger playwrights. He was a committed and generous teacher.

After his fathers death in 1961, Albee had resumed some contact with his mother, but the relationship remained difficult, not least because of Frankies refusal to acknowledge her sons homosexuality or his long-term partner, the painter and sculptor Jonathan Thomas, who did much to help Albee overcome his dependency on alcohol, and who predeceased him. Her death in 1989 spawned Three Tall Women, a poignant and entirely fictionalised arms-length look at Frankie as a 92-year-old, by now bed-ridden and incontinent, who is also glimpsed aged 52 and 26. In 1994 it was awarded a Pulitzer prize.

There was another unexpected and late career gift in The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, seen in New York in 2002 and at the Almeida in London and in the West End in 2004, about a successful architect in an apparently happy marriage who falls in love with a goat and has passionate sex with it. The London production boasted a brilliant central performance from Jonathan Pryce and an early stage appearance from a young <a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/film/eddie-redmayne” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Eddie Redmayne as his gay teenage son, in a savagely funny and dark examination of the limits of tolerance and the monsters that lurk beneath the exterior of modern middle-class everyday life. It was every bit as powerful and harrowing as Albees masterpiece.

If his upbringing ensured that intimacy remained a problem for Albee all his life, with even some of his closest friends referring to him as mysterious or unknowable, in his best work he was always present and always painfully revealing of his lost childhood and the barren, unhappy lives of his parents and their friends, and the best and worst that lurks in all of us.

His strength as a playwright was that he continued to experiment with form and content all his life. A lazier, less passionate playwright might have contented himself with rewriting Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in different ways, or just quit when the critical reception got rough. Albee may never have been able to summon the emotional openness to match Williamss honesty, grotesque comedy and lyricism, nor the political commitment to match Millers state-of-the-nation acuteness, but he was no also-ran. Rather he was one of the triumvirate who changed and shaped postwar American playwriting. The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance and Whos Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? will never want for production; they dissect our desire to hide behind illusion with a devastating and unflinching accuracy.

Edward Albee, playwright, born 12 March 1928; died 16 September 2016

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/sep/18/edward-albee-obituary

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