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University of Oradea Faculty of Letters Specialization: Romanian-English Year of Study: 3rd Year Senior

Edward Albee Life and Career

Coordonator: Pr. Phd. Morgovan Mariana Student: Danciu Diana-Maria

Oradea - 2011

Edward [Franklin] Albee Life and Career


Albee grew up surrounded by the Theatre. His adoptive parents owned and operated a chain of theaters during the height of Vaudeville. Although incredibly bright as a young man, he was expelled from various schools including Trinity College. He was infamous for skipping classes1. Edward Albee was born Edward Harvey in Washington on the 12th of March 1928 (Washington D.C.), D.C. At the age of two weeks, he was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Reed Albee of Larchmont, New York, and he was renamed Edward Franklin Albee III2. Through his family's business, Edward Albee was exposed to the theater at an early age and developed a passionate love for the arts, but his adoptive parents expected him to pursue a more conventional business or professional career. From the beginning, he found himself at odds with his adoptive family over their expectations for him and his own artistic ambitions. At 20, he broke with his family and moved to Greenwich Village. He never saw his father again, and would not see his mother for 17 years. For the next decade, Albee lived off of a small inheritance from his grandmother, supplemented by a succession of odd jobs, such as one delivering telegrams for Western Union. Enthralled with the artistic effervescence of Manhattan in the 1950s, he absorbed every innovation in art, music, literature and the theater. After unsuccessful experiments with poetry and fiction, he finally found his calling in writing theater. Edward Albee's plays feature emotionally charged characters, realistic dialogue, and wonderfully absurd situations3. At age 30, he completed his first major work, The Zoo Story. The play received its world premiere in Berlin, Germany in 1959, and opened Off-Broadway the following year. This startling one-act won Albee an international reputation as a fearless observer of human alienation. Albee brought absurd to the American stage with his one-act plays The Sandbox and

1 2

http://plays.about.com/od/playwrights/p/edwardalbee.htm Dan Grigorescu, Dicionarul literaturii americane, editura Floarea Darurilor, 1999, Bucureti, p. 5 3 http://plays.about.com/od/playwrights/p/edwardalbee.htm

The American Dream. In the same period, he dramatized America's racial conflict in a more conventionally realistic short drama, The Death of Bessie Smith.4 In only a few years, Albee emerged as the leading light of the blooming Off-Broadway movement. By 1962, he was ready to storm Broadway, the bastion of commercial theater in America. His first Broadway production, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was a runaway success and a critical sensation. The play received a Tony Award, and Albee was sat next to the best American dramatists alongside Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. In the four decades since its debut, the play has been produced around the world, and is now regarded as an indispensable classic of modern drama. Albee's adoptive father, Reed Albee, died before the success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but in 1965, Edward Albee attempted a reconciliation with his adoptive mother, Frances. Relations between the two were never easy, but Albee worked hard at the relationship until his mother's death in 1989. With the profits from Virginia Woolf, Albee created the Edward F. Albee Foundation in 1967. The foundation sponsors a summer artists' colony in Montauk, Long Island, where the playwright makes his summer home. Albee's work in the 1960s ranged over a wide variety of forms and styles, from straightforward literary adaptations, such as a stage version of Carson McCullers's novel Ballad of the Sad Caf, to frankly experimental works such as the one-acts Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. The violently anti-clerical allegory Tiny Alice was met with responses ranging from frank bafflement to outright hostility when it opened in 1965. Albee even made one brief, unhappy foray into musical theater with an adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's, cancelled before it even opened. The Pulitzer Committee finally honored Albee in 1967 for his metaphysical drawing room drama A Delicate Balance. Another play dealing with two troubled couples, A Delicate Balance tempered the apparent realism of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with a shallow touch of the absurd of Albee's early one-acts. It foreshadowed the technique of many of his later works, in which improbable situations, expressionistic devices or elements of fantasy mingle with utterly realistic characters and dialogue5.

Arnold Aronson, American Theatre in Context: 1945-Present in The Cambridge History of American Theatre, vol III Post-World War II to the 1990s, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 113 5 Dan Grigorescu, Dicionarul literaturii americane, editura Floarea Darurilor, 1999, Bucureti, p. 5

For many years, Albee was unable to repeat the success he had enjoyed with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but he continued to engage difficult subject matter, as in All Over (1971). Albee won back the New York audience with Seascape in 1975, an expressionist fantasy in which two couples meet on the beach at Montauk. One couple is human; the other, a pair of anthropomorphic lizards who discuss love, relationships and the evolutionary process. As bizarre as the idea sounded on first hearing, the result was both humorous and moving. The play charmed audiences and critics and won Albee his second Pulitzer Prize. After Seascape, the New York theater turned its back on Albee again. In the 1970s, he was drinking heavily and had fallen far behind in his taxes. At his maturity, he quit drinking and embraced a more sober and disciplined way of life. Critics and audiences remained faithful to his work for much of the next decade. Plays such as The Lady From Dubuque (1980) and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983) had their admirers, but met with critical hostility and enjoyed only limited runs. Over the years, he has scrupulously reserved part of his time for the training of younger writers. He has conducted regular writing workshops in New York, and from 1989 to 2003 taught playwriting at the University of Houston. He has persistently asked young writers to hold themselves to the highest artistic standards, and to resist at what he sees as the violation of commercialism on the dramatic imagination. Edward Albee made a triumphant comeback with Three Tall Women in 1994. Praised by many critics as his best play in 30 years, it struck as a final coming to terms with the memory of his vital but tyrannical adoptive mother. The play won every award in sight and earned Albee his third Pulitzer Prize. In 1996, Albee was one of the addressee of the Kennedy Center Honors and was awarded the National Medal of Arts. Albee enjoyed a resurgence of creativity at century's end. The Play About the Baby (1998), was followed by a surprising success, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? (2002). The same year, Albee, a passionate art-lover, unveiled Occupant, a dramatic study of the sculptor Louise Nevelson. Unexpectedly, he revisited the characters of his first play, The Zoo Story, in a new work, Homelife, to be performed with The Zoo Story under the collective title Peter and Jerry. A revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was one of the hits of the 2004-2005 Broadway season. Although the play had enjoyed many successful revivals over the decades, its return to Broadway in the 21st century prompted critical re-evaluation of his long career. Days

after his interview with the Academy of Achievement, the American Theater Wing presented Edward Albee with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, recognizing him as America's greatest living playwright6.

Major Works
An acclaimed and controversial playwright, Albee is best known for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), his first full-length drama. Although initially characterized either as a realist or an absurdist, Albee combines elements from the American tradition of social criticism established by such playwrights as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill with aspects of the Theater of the Absurd, as practiced by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. While Albee's plays often portray alienated individuals who suffer as a result of unjust social, moral, and religious strictures, his works usually offer solutions to conflicts rather than conveying an absurdist sense of inescapable determinism7. According to Allan Lewis, Albee "writes plays that grip an audience, that hold with their elusiveness, their obscurity, their meaning; and he has functioned in the true role of the playwrightto express the human condition dramatically and metaphorically." In a career spanning more than thirty years, Albee has received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama three times: for A Delicate Balance (1966), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1991). Albee's first one-act play, The Zoo Story (1959), is a satire set in New York City in which a young homosexual attempts to force conversation on a reticent conservative. After intimidating the man into defending himself with a knife, the homosexual purposely impales himself on its blade. His next one-act drama, The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), revolves around the demise of black blues singer Bessie Smith, who died after being refused treatment at a Southern hospital that catered exclusively to white patients. The American Dream (1961), another one-act play, focuses on a mother and father whose severe punishment of their adopted son resulted in his death many years before8. Albee's most acclaimed drama, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was selected to win a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, the trustees of Columbia University disapproved
6 7

http://plays.about.com/od/playwrights/p/edwardalbee.htm Laurence Maslon, A Changing Theatre: Broadway to the Regions Broadway in The Cambridge History of

American Theatre, vol III Post-World War II to the 1990s, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 173 8 Gabriel Pleea, Edward Albee Celor Trei femei nalte nu le este fric de Virgina Woolf in the volume Scriitori americani contemporani, editura Vestala, 1997, Bucureti, p. 139

of the play's sexual content. No prize for drama was awarded that year. His dramatic play has generated popular and critical notoriety for its controversial depiction of marital strife. The play depicts the alternately destructive and conciliatory relationship between George and Martha, a middle-aged history professor and his wife, which is demonstrated during a late-night party in their living room with Nick, George's shallow colleague, and Honey, Nick's spouse. As the evening proceeds, George and Martha alternately attack and patronize their guests before Martha, intent on wounding George, seduces Nick; George retaliates by announcing the death of their nonexistent son, whom they had created to sustain their relationship. The conclusion suggests that George and Martha may be able to reappraise their relationship based on the intimacy, which was both feared and sought all evening, that arises from their shared sorrow9. In A Delicate Balance, a troubled middle-aged couple examine their relationship during a prolonged visit by two close friends. In The Lady from Dubuque (1980), Albee posited that reality is a subjective phenomenon open to multiple interpretations. This drama concerns a dying woman who vents her pain and hostility on her friends and husband prior to the arrival of an ambiguous, commanding woman who alternately evokes the images of archetypal mother and angel of death. The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983) centers on Himself, a man who acquired wealth and fame after growing a third arm that later disappeared. Addressing the audience from a lecture podium, Himself alternately pleads for sympathy and attacks his audience for his loss of prominence. Albee described his stylized drama Finding the Sun (1983) as "pointillist in manner." This play counterbalances characters, in one example contrasting a young man's forthcoming freedom with an old man's awareness of his impending death. In Marriage Play (1987), Albee returned to the themes of his earlier plays to portray the ambivalent relationship between a cynical woman and her detached husband. Three Tall Women (1991) begins with a meeting between an elderly woman in her nineties known as A, her middle-aged caretaker B, and a young lawyer named C who has come to help A settle her affairs. As the three women interact, each becomes aware of and impatient with the others' shortcomings. The first act ends as A suffers a stroke, and in subsequent scenes Albee departs from a strictly linear plot, having all three characters appear as various manifestations of A at different times during her life. The play concerns stereotypes and familial ties, and is considered largely autobiographical; the character
9

June Schlueter, Plays and Playwrights: 1945-1970 Edward Albee in The Cambridge History of American Theatre, vol III Post-World War II to the 1990s, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 309

A was based on Albee's mother and the relationship between parent and playwright mirrors that of A and her homosexual son. In The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life (1995), Albee presents the story of Federico Garcia Lorca (19001936), a Spanish poet and playwright executed during the Fascist reign of General Francisco Franco10.

Critical Reception
Beginning with reviews of his earliest works, Albee has garnered a wide variety of critical opinion, ranging from scathing to adoring; many commentators note Albee's inventiveness and insight into society and human nature while at the same time responding negatively to the tone or structure of his dramas. For example, although it was faulted by some as defeatist and nihilistic, The American Dream was also commended for its savage parody of traditional American values. Albee commented: "Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so; it was my intention to offendas well as amuse and entertain." Similarly, even though some critics considered it morbid and self-indulgent, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was honored with two Antoinette Perry Awards and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award11. Variously interpreted as a problem play in the tradition of August Strindberg, a campus parody, or a latent homosexual critique of conventional relationships, the drama has generated a wide array of critical analyses 12. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has more recently been assessed as a classic of American drama for its tight control of form and command of both colloquial and abstruse dialogue. While several of Albee's plays written since 1962 have failed commercially and elicited stinging reviews for their abstract classicism and dialogue, many scholars have commended Albee's commitment to theatrical experimentation and refusal to pander to commercial pressures. A Delicate Balance, while garnering approval for its synthesis of dramatic elements, was widely faulted for lacking action and cohesive ideas; when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, most regarded the decision as a belated attempt by the Pulitzer committee to honor Albee for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Although The Lady from Dubuque closed after only twelve performances, Gerald Clarke deemed it Albee's "best work since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and Otis Guernsey included it in The Best Plays of 19791980. The Man Who Had Three Arms also failed financially; although
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Gabriel Pleea, Edward Albee Celor Trei femei nalte nu le este fric de Virgina Woolf in the volume Scriitori americani contemporani, editura Vestala, 1997, Bucureti, pp. 138-139 11 June Schlueter, Plays and Playwrights: 1945-1970 Edward Albee in The Cambridge History of American Theatre, vol III Post-World War II to the 1990s, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 309 12 http://www.enotes.com/contemporary-literary-criticism/albee-edward-vol-113

Albee denied any autobiographical intent, critics dismissed this play as a self-pitying portrayal of Albee, whose plays had been poorly received since the early 1960s13. Critical reaction to Three Tall Women, for which Albee received a New York Drama Critics Circle Award as well as his third Pulitzer Prize, was generally positive. Although commentators have consistently identified C as the weakest character in the play, they have lauded A and B as well-defined portraits and praised Albee's focus on universal concerns. Many critics have additionally asserted that Three Tall Women is the most successful work Albee has written in years; they also note that due to its autobiographical content the play offers invaluable insights into Albee's life and career. John Lahr observed: "Far from being an act of revenge or special pleading, the play is a wary act of reconciliation, whose pathos and poetry are a testament to the bond, however attenuated, between child and parent. Three Tall Women bears witness to the son's sad wish to be loved, but with this liberating difference: the child is now finally in control of the parent's destiny, instead of the parent's being in control of the child's."14

Bibliography
1. Books The Cambridge History of American Theatre, vol III Post-World War II to the 1990s, Cambridge University Press, 2006 Dumitru Dorob, Din ara fgduinei, Institutul European, 2000, Iai Dan Grigorescu, Dicionarul literaturii americane, editura Floarea Darurilor, 1999, Bucureti Gabriel Pleea, Scriitori americani contemporani, editura Vestala, 1997, Bucureti 2. Internet sources http://www.enotes.com/contemporary-literary-criticism/albee-edward-vol-113 http://plays.about.com/od/playwrights/p/edwardalbee.htm

13 14

Dumitru Dorob, Din ara fgduinei, Institutul European, 2000, Iai, p. 238 http://www.enotes.com/contemporary-literary-criticism/albee-edward-vol-113

Old Albee

Young Albee