Sunday, September 18, 2016


Edward Albee, probably the most important American playwright of his generation, has died.  While I wouldn't say he quite matches the triumvirate of O'Neill, Williams and Miller, he's at the top of the next tier.

And he was truly a man of the theatre, sticking with it till the end, rarely venturing out to Hollywood or other literary endeavors.  Of course, he comes from the Albee family that owned many vaudeville houses, so I guess the theatre was in his blood.  (Actually, he was adopted, so maybe not his blood.)

He burst on the scene in the late 1950s, at the age of 30, a fully-formed playwright.  The liveliness and the language that would enthrall theatregoers are there in his earliest pieces, the one-act plays The Zoo Story, The Death Of Bessie Smith and The American Dream.  His work was confrontational and somewhat surreal, and he was thought to be part of the Theatre of the Absurd, but Albee was in his own category.

The early work showed a lot of promise, but he was living in an age when true success still meant a Broadway production, and he got it with one of the most stunning debuts any playwright has ever had--Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? in 1962.  The original production, starring Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, Melinda Dillon and George Grizzard, was more than just a hit, it was a landmark in Broadway history.  When the movie version came out in 1966, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor--and his script intact--it was also a highly-respected hit.  (I'm not a fan--I think it loses too much of its impact on screen).

The play was lauded, winning the Tony Award, but was also controversial, which is why it was not given the Pulitzer Prize. It's not like it was beaten out by a better play--they gave no Pulitzer for drama that year.

His next original Broadway production, starring John Gielgud and Irene Worth, was the highly symbolic Tiny Alice, which has its champions, though I find it inert and pretentious.  Better was his next production, A Delicate Balance, starring Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Albee favorite Marian Seldes.  It's about the existential terror felt by the upper middle class (sounds charming, no?).  This play won the Pulitzer, though many feel it was given to make up for Virginia Woolf.

He wrote some more experimental work in the late 60s and early 70s, and then in 1974 came out with Seascape, about a couple on the beach that meet up with intelligent, human-sized lizards.  The Broadway production starred Deborah Kerr and Frank Langella.  It was not a hit, but won Albee another Pulitzer.

In the 1980s he had more productions of original work--The Lady From Dubuque (1980) and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983)--but they flopped, and Albee started to seem like a figure from the past.

Then, in the 1990s, he wrote Three Tall Women, about three women of different ages (or three aspects of one woman). The play did not make it to Broadway, but became successful nevertheless, with major productions around the world. (It helped that it was cheap to stage and had good parts for women.) The play, more personal than usual, and easier to relate to than the previous decade's work, put Albee back on top.  It also won him his third Pulitzer Prize.

His next--and last--original production on Broadway is one of his best, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (2002), featuring Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman.  It's about a married man who falls in love with a goat, and the fallout that ensues.  It featured the trenchant wit of Albee at his best, and won him his second Tony Award for Best Play.

That was his last original play on Broadway, but in his last decade or so the Great White Way featured no less than four revivals of his work.  With plays that have great parts of actors, and still holds the stage, it's a good bet his work will live on for a long time.

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