The best American playwright since Arthur Miller. ” A master of depraved obscenity. An unflinching dissector of dysfunction. A willfully abstract audience-basher. For about four decades, critics and theater-watchers have been calling Edward Albee names. His harsh wit and language and amazing endings have won him three Pulitzer Prizes and cost him a fourth. Once off-Broadways leading light, Albee lasted for a close to 20-year drought before capturing his most recent Pulitzer, in 1994. Albee can handle it.
He thinks that the acclaim and neglect, the overpraise and underpraise, his 27 plays have earned will even out in the end as long as he doesnt screw-up his thoughts with other peoples. “I enjoy being a playwright,” he said during a recent Northeastern University visit. “Playwriting at its very best is an act of aggression against the status quo. It says, This is who you are and how you behave. If you dont like it, why dont you change? ” Tall, slim, tweedy, with a patrician accent and looking a bit younger than 70, Albee would have changed his own sad past if he could.
An orphan raised in chauffeured luxury, Edward was packed off to the first of three boarding schools at age 11. At Trinity, “I discovered that the required courses were not the ones I required. ” So he cut the classes that bored him and audited the ones that didnt. “It tells you something about the management of Trinity at the time that they didnt catch up with me until the middle of the sophomore year,” he recalls. “That ended my formal education, and I suppose it didnt matter much. Id figured out how to educate myself, and keep on doing it. To be fair to Trinity, I would have been unhappy at any college or university.
Albee was even more unhappy when his adoptive mother ejected him from the family mansion for homosexuality. He moved to Greenwich Village, surviving as a luncheonette counterman, office boy and telegraph messenger, and devouring the Absurdist plays of Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. His favorite gig was at Western Union. “I didnt use my mind at all, and walking around the Upper West Side was good exercise. ” As a 30th birthday present to himself, he quit the $38-a-week job but not before “liberating” a beat-up typewriter and curling yellow copy paper from his employer.
After two and one-half weeks at his kitchen table, hed finished The Zoo Story a play about a middle-class man in the publishing business hounded into killing an alienated man who happened to confront him in Central Park. Foreshadowing the future, New York producers rejected the mordant one-acter. But after its success in West Germany, Albee recalls, “my life changed. ” The play ran three and one-half years off-Broadway, while his next works, The Sandbox, The American Dream, and The Death of Bessie Smith, entranced theatergoers with their attack on a complacent society.
And then came Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rst a phrase Albee saw scrawled on a Village mirror and then, as a play, the biting study of a couple clawing themselves into what? – destruction or hope? Can they survive? Like his other endings, this is one Albee wants audiences to figure out for themselves. The play earned him the greatest-since-Miller accolade and the “depraved obscenity” tag. Pulitzer drama judges, apparently torn between the two, selected and then denied him the l962 prize. A Delicate Balance, a study of a family unable to communicate, won him the l966 Pulitzer, but his cerebral, clinical later works earned him faint praise and many damns.
His l975 Pulitzer winner, Seascape, closed after only 65 New York performances. Three Tall Women, which won the 1994 prize, premiered in Vienna and opened off-off-Broadway before success moved it to a 402-seat off-Broadway theater. Critics have called him puzzling and unpleasant, accusing him of writing temper tantrums, not plays. Hes replied in kind, calling it “indecent to fault a work for being difficult,” bragging that he doesnt mind seeing audiences uncomfortable or unhappy, blasting what hes termed Broadways “pandering to the publics need for self-congratulation and reassurance as the real theater of the Absurd.
So Albee roams from university teaching stints to European premieres. Hell start his next play when characters force their way out of his mind, after hes improvised scenes for them to make sure he knows them well enough to hand-write their lines, make a few corrections, revise quickly on a manual typewriter and go into rehearsal. That next play will be like the others an attempt to shake people up, to ask questions theyd rather not think about. He warns that his is a “tough racket.
We probably have five or six absolutely first-rate playwrights in America whose work we know nothing about. Making an income has nothing to do with the quality of your work. Excellence doesnt guarantee acceptance. If theres anything else you can do and be a full person, do it. ” Albee contends that its “more and more difficult for a serious playwright to have work done in American theaters. What audiences there are feel they have a right to determine the content, that they have the right to be lied to. ” Why? Because of the “destructive growing force of commerce in the arts. ”
Hes distressed by what he sees as Congresss attempt to “destroy aesthetics by destroying the National Endowment for the Arts. The time may come when there will be no relationship between artists tough truth and what government is willing to put up with. ” If were not concerned about this, Albee thinks we should be. “We use art to define ourselves to ourselves. The most important arts are there to remind us who we are and what we can be. ” Albee thinks a “growing passivity in our society” is “self-censorship more insidious than anything imposed” by the right-wing politicians he so despises.