Tributes to Edward Albee, playwright who defied convention

US playwright Edward Albee, writer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, dies at the age of 88 in New York.
The playwright Edward Albee. Mary Altaffer / AP Photo.
The playwright Edward Albee. Mary Altaffer / AP Photo.

Tributes have poured in for three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, who challenged theatrical convention in masterworks such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, following his death at the age of 88.

Praise for the playwright came from far and wide on Twitter. Actress Mia Farrow, who took part in a staged reading of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1999, called Albee “one of the great” playwrights “of our time”.

Spinal Tap and Better Call Saul actor Michael McKean wrote: “There was only one Edward Albee. #Irreplaceable.”

Playwright Lynn Nottage wrote: “I will miss his wit, irreverence & wisdom. He enlivened the theatre landscape.”

Albee died on Friday at his home in Montauk, east of New York, his assistant, Jackob Holder, said yesterday. He had suffered from diabetes but the cause of death was not disclosed.

Albee was arguably the United States’ greatest living playwright after the deaths of Arthur Miller and August Wilson in 2005.

Several years ago, before undergoing extensive surgery, Albee wrote a note to be made public on his death: “To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love.”

Albee was proclaimed the best playwright of his generation after his blistering Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962. The Tony Award-winning play, still widely considered his finest, was made into an award-winning 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The play’s sharp-tongued humour and dark themes were the hallmarks of Albee’s style. In more than 30 plays, he skewered such mainstays of American culture as marriage, child-rearing, religion and upper-class comforts.

“If you have no wounds, how can you know you’re alive?” a character asks in Albee’s The Play About the Baby (1966).

“It’s just a quirk of the brain that makes one a playwright,” Albee said in 2008. “I have the same experiences that everybody else does, but... I feel the need to translate a lot of what happens to me, a lot of what I think, into a play.”

Albee challenged audiences to question their assumptions about society and about theatre itself. He did it with humour and a sense of linguistic delight, using withering barbs and word play to hint at deeper meaning.

Albee’s unconventional style won him great acclaim but also led to a nearly 20-year drought during which he had little critical or commercial success, before his 1994 play Three Tall Women garnered his third Pulitzer Prize. His other Pulitzers were for A Delicate Balance (1967) and Seascape (1975).

Many of his productions in the years between Seascape and Three Tall Women were savaged by the press as inconsequential trickery, and shadows of his former works.

But after Three Tall Women, which he called an “exorcising of demons”, he wrote several major works, including The Play About the Baby and The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, which won him his second Tony for Best Play in 2002.

Many of his works had common themes: domestic rancour inflamed by booze; a sense of unknown anxiety; a lost child who creates marital friction; and precise but flailing language that alternates between comic and profound.

Albee was born in 1928 and was adopted by a wealthy suburban New York couple. His father, Reed Albee, ran the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theatres. His mother, Frances Albee, was a socialite and a commanding presence who kept a hold on him for much of his life.

Estranged from his parents, Albee moved to New York and worked as a messenger for Western Union before gaining notice with The Zoo Story, a one-act play, written in 1958, about two strangers meeting on a bench in the city’s Central Park.

With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and 1964’s Tiny Alice, Albee shook up a Broadway that was dominated at the time by Tennessee Williams, Miller and their intellectual disciples.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? presents a middle-aged professor and his wife who verbally spar and unravel their illusions during a visit by a younger couple. It won five Tonys, including Best Play, Actor (Arthur Hill) and Actress (Uta Hagen), while the film version won five Oscars including Best Actress (Taylor) and Best Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis).

Albee also directed the US premieres of many of his plays, starting with Seascape in 1975.

His work is frequently revived on Broadway, and Albee brought back The Zoo Story to startling effect in 2007, with Peter and Jerry. The shattering encounter between two strangers from the original version became the second act of the new work. The first act was based on Albee’s much later Homelife.

Albee was honoured by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1996 for his lifetime contributions. He was awarded a National Medal of the Arts the same year.

* Associated Press

Published: September 17, 2016 04:00 AM

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