Few American playwrights have revealed an anger as sharp and sustained as that of Edward Albee (AL-bee) or have imposed such great emotional demands on audiences. When he is compared with such contemporary absurdist playwrights as Jack Gelber, Jack Richardson, Kenneth Brown, and Arthur Kopit, Albee is generally shown to be the most challenging and searching among them. His particular talent lies in writing plays in which human emotions alternate drastically at such breakneck speed that audiences, emotionally drained by what they experience, nevertheless emerge with a renewed vision of human relationships, though self-knowledge remains elusive.
Edward Franklin Albee was born somewhere in Virginia and, before he was two weeks old, was taken to Washington, D.C., where his parents gave him up for adoption to Reed and Frances Cotter Albee of Larchmont, New York. Reed Albee, part owner of Keith-Albee Theaters, was wealthy, so Edward was reared in a privileged atmosphere. One of his early pastimes was attending matinees of Broadway plays. He came into contact, too, with the theater people who were frequent guests of his adoptive parents.
An indifferent student, Albee attended private schools. He left Trinity College after studying there for one and a half years. For the next decade he lived in Greenwich Village on the income from a small trust fund, supplementing this income with paychecks from menial jobs. While he was working as a Western Union messenger, Albee met poet W. H. Auden, who encouraged his writing, as had his high-school teachers a decade earlier.
At thirty, Albee reassessed his life and decided to redirect it. He spent three weeks writing the brief The Zoo Story, which remains one of his most celebrated plays. It is a minimalist, absurdist drama, simply set, using only two characters, Peter and Jerry. Jerry lures Peter into a fight and dies on Peter’s knife, ironically a gift from Jerry. The language and sense of confinement the play projects are intense and deliver an impact like that of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis clos (No Exit, 1947).
Albee carried the same minimalist effects into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play which has been performed around the world, was popularized through a film version, and undoubtedly belongs to the classic repertory of the twentieth century. George, a history professor, and his wife, Martha–named for George and Martha Washington–entertain a new faculty couple, Nick (a biologist) and Honey, in their home during a prolonged evening of drinking. The tensions of this long play are heightened by the confinement of the set itself, a living room in which the past (history, a humanistic outlook) is pitted against the future (biology, a scientific outlook). Raucous Martha, several years George’s senior, ineffectually seduces Nick, while George extracts personal secrets from Honey. Emotionless Nick and timid Honey are childless, but George and Martha have long nurtured the creation of a fictional child, their “bumble of joy” (a term which may reflect Albee’s self-image as a foundling), a dream which Martha savagely destroys in the course of the evening.
The Sandbox and The American Dream, one-act plays, have identical casts of characters modeled on Albee’s adoptive parents and on his maternal grandmother Cotter. Both plays expose an antiseptic and emotionless society that values appearances only, while the satirical Fam and Yam makes interesting comments on modern theater. “Fam” refers to “Famous American” writers, “Yam” to “Young American” writers.
Albee received Pulitzer Prizes in drama for A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women. Also significant is Tiny Alice, a Faustian play with a twist. Church administrators barter lay brother Julian’s soul, sacrificing Julian to Miss Alice in return for a two-billion-dollar gift to the church; the work is somewhat reminiscent of Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit (1956). Albee has adapted Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951), James Purdy’s Malcolm (1959), and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) for the stage, imposing on himself an artistic discipline he believed he needed. The McCullers adaptation was the most successful of the three.
Three Tall Women, which had its American premiere in New York City in 1994, is based on portraits of Albee’s adoptive mother at three ages: as a young adult, at middle age, and in old age. Albee admits to not having liked his adoptive mother very much, finding it difficult to abide her loathings and her paranoias–while at the same time admiring her pride, self-possession, and survival instinct. Three Tall Women epitomizes an important aspect of a number of Albee’s plays, namely that the female characters function as blazing sources of energy (in the words of critic Ben Brantley, they both “nurture” and “scorch”), while the male characters tend to stammer, hedge, or wilt. Albee’s drama pulses with tensions inherent in conflicting desires, moral dilemmas, and the double-gaming of truth and illusion. He is a master of language and absurd humor, whose dialogue ignites uneasy but compassionate repartee between married couples, ethnic communities, generations, and divergent social classes.