Edward Albee, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1961
|Born||12 March 1928
|Writing period||1958 - present|
|Notable work(s)||Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Zoo Story
The American Dream
|Notable award(s)||Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1967,1975,1994)
National Medal of Arts (1996)
Special Tony Award (2005)
|Influences||Theatre of the Absurd|
Edward Franklin Albee III (IPA: [ˈɔːlbiː] "AWL-bee") (born March 12, 1928) is an American playwright best known for works, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, The Sandbox, and The American Dream. His works are considered well-crafted and often unsympathetic examinations of the modern condition. His early works reflect a mastery and Americanization of the Theatre of the Absurd that found its peak in works by European playwrights such as Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, and Eugène Ionesco.
Albee was one of the early American contributors to Theatre of the Absurd. His play, The Zoo Story, was written and debuted in 1958. While Theatre of the Absurb spans a wide range of work, Albee's work tends to focus on the problem of alienation, anomie and isolation in modern society. Even his famous Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which appears to be a simple dinner party between two couples, displays the profound alienation and interpersonal, emotional violence in the relationship between its main pair, "George and Martha."
Theatre of the Absurd broke with the tradition of Realism in the theater that was instituted by modern dramatists like Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen. It reflects the twentieth century sense of the breakdown of a coherent, interconnected moral universe.
According to Magill's Survey of American Literature (2007), Edward Albee was born somewhere in Virginia (contrary to the popular belief that he was born in Washington D.C.). He was adopted two weeks later and taken to Westchester County, New York. Albee's adoptive father, Reed A. Albee—himself the son of vaudeville magnate Edward Franklin Albee II—owned several theaters, where young Edward first gained familiarity with the theater as a child. His adoptive mother was Reed's third wife, Frances.
Albee attended the Rye Country Day School in New York, then the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, from which he was expelled. He then was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1945 at the age of 17. He next enrolled in the graduate studies program at Choate prep school in Connecticut, graduating in 1946. His formal education continued at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, from which he was expelled in 1947 for skipping classes and refusing to attend compulsory chapel.
Albee left home for good when he was in his late teens, later saying in an interview: "I never felt comfortable with the adoptive parents. I don't think they knew how to be parents. I probably didn't know how to be a son, either." More recently, he told interviewer Charlie Rose that he was "thrown out" because his parents wanted him to become a "corporate thug," and didn't approve of his aspirations to become a writer.
The less than diligent student later dedicated much of his time to promoting American university theater, frequently speaking at campuses and serving as a distinguished professor at the University of Houston from 1989 to 2003.
His most famous play is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." The play's title, which alludes to the novelist Virginia Woolf, is a parody of the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from Walt Disney's animated version of The Three Little Pigs. The idea for the play's title came to Albee from a line of graffiti he saw scrawled on a mirror in a bar.
I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf …. who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.
- — Edward Albee
In interviews, Albee has said that he asked Woolf's widower Leonard Woolf for permission to use her name in the title of the play. In another interview, Albee acknowledged that he based the characters of Martha and George on his good friends, New York socialites Willard Maas and Marie Menken—although they are obviously named after George Washington and his wife Martha Custis Dandridge Washington, America's first First Couple. Maas was a professor of literature at Wagner College (one similarity between the character George and Willard) and his wife Marie was an experimental filmmaker and painter. Maas and Menken were known for their infamous "salons", where drinking would "commence at 4P.M. on Friday and end in the wee hours of night on Monday" (according to Warhol associate and friend to Maas, Gerard Malanga). The primary conflict of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? derives from Maas and Menken's tempestuous and volatile relationship. In the play, George and Martha invite a new professor and his wife to their house after a party. Martha is the daughter of the president of a university where George is an associate history professor. Nick (who is never addressed or introduced by name) is a biology professor who Martha thinks teaches math, and Honey is his mousy, brandy-abusing wife. Once at home, Martha and George continue drinking and engage in relentless, scathing verbal and sometimes physical abuse in front of Nick and Honey. Nick and Honey are simultaneously fascinated and embarrassed. They stay even though the abuse turns periodically towards them as well. The play is divided into three acts–"Fun and Games," "Walpurgisnacht" and "Exorcism." The "Fun and Games" include Humiliate the Host and Hump the Hostess. Walpurgisnacht is the medieval night when the dead rise from their graves. Exorcism is the Catholic Church rite of removing demon possession. The "fun and games" turn into the "night of the living dead," and the participants tear each other apart emotionally. The exorcism comes with the new day but the resolution is an ambiguous one. The play ends with Martha answering the titular question of who is afraid to live their life free of illusions with, "I am, George, I am." Implicitly, exposure is something everyone fears; façade (be it social or psychological), although damaging, provides a comfort. There are many darker veins running through the play's dialogue which suggest that the border between fiction and reality is continually challenged.
Younger American playwrights, such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel, credit Albee's daring mix of theatricalism and biting dialogue with helping to reinvent the post-war American theater in the early 1960s. Albee's dedication to continuing to evolve his voice — as evidenced in later productions such as The Goat: or, Who Is Sylvia? (2002) — also routinely marks him as distinct from other American playwrights of his era.
A member of the Dramatists Guild Council, Albee has received three Pulitzer Prizes for drama — for A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape (1975), Three Tall Women (1994); a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement (2005); the Gold Medal in Drama from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980); as well as the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts (both in 1996).
Albee is the President of the Edward F. Albee Foundation, Inc., which maintains the William Flanagan Creative Persons Center, a writers and artists colony in Montauk, New York. Albee's longtime partner, Jonathan Thomas, a sculptor, died on May 2, 2005, the result of a two year-long battle with bladder cancer.
In 2008, in celebration of his eightieth birthday, numerous Albee plays are being mounted in distinguished Off Broadway venues, including the historic Cherry Lane Theatre, where the playwright himself is directing two of his one-acts, The American Dream and The Sandbox, which were produced at the theater in 1961 and 1962, respectively.
All links retrieved July 15, 2016.
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