Edward Albee burst onto the American theatrical scene in the late 1950s with a variety of plays that detailed the agonies and disillusionment of that decade and the transition from the placid Eisenhower years to the turbulent 1960s. Albee's plays, with their intensity, their grappling with modern themes, and their experiments in form, startled critics and audiences alike while changing the landscape of American drama. He was unanimously hailed as the successor to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill.
Albee's 25 plays form a body of work that is recognized as unique, uncompromising, controversial, elliptical, and provocative. A canon that is, as Albee himself describes it "an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen." No wonder, then, that this forty-year career has seen as many commercial failures as successes. The '80s, in fact did not yield a single Albee play that could be considered a commercial hit. "There is not always a great relationship between popularity and excellence," he says. "You just have to make the assumption you're doing good work and go on doing it." Perseverance ultimately triumphed; his most recent drama reclaimed Albee's position as America's leading dramatists. Three Tall Women enjoyed a stunning, sold-out success in New York and has been staged across the country and around the world. It received Best Play awards from the New York Drama Critics Circle and Outer Critics Circle and earned Albee his third Pulitzer Prize, an honor that is bested only by Eugene O'Neill's four awards.
Born in Washington, D.C., Albee was adopted as an infant by Reid Albee, the son of Edward Franklin Albee of the powerful Keith-Albee vaudeville chain. He was brought up in great affluence and sent to select preparatory and military schools. Almost from the beginning he clashed with the strong-minded Mrs. Albee, rebelling against her attempts to make him a success as well as a sportsman and a member of the Larchmont, New York, social set. Instead, young Albee pursued his interest in the arts, writing macabre and bitter stories and poetry, while associating with artists and intellectuals considered objectionable by Mrs. Albee.
Albee left home when he was 20 and moved to New York's Greenwich Village, where he took to the era's counterculture and avant-garde movements. After using up his paternal grandmother's modest legacy, he took a variety of menial jobs until 1959 when The Zoo Story made him a famous playwright, first in Europe, where it premiered in Berlin, and then in New York. This short work, in which a bum entices an executive to commit murder, together with 1962's full-length Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a brutal portrait of a hard-drinking academic couple, and 1966's A Delicate Balance, his first Pulitzer Prize-winner, created the mold for American drama for the rest of our century.
Throughout his career, Albee has shown a fascination for a wide variety of theatrical styles and subjects. The Zoo Story conveyed the alienation and disillusionment of the existentialist drama. In 1959, Albee explored American race relations in the southern Gothic atmosphere of The Death of Bessie Smith. He gave birth to American absurdist drama with The Sandbox (1959) and The American Dream (1960). Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance are classic studies of American family life in the mode of O'Neill's Long's Day's Journey into Night. 1964's Tiny Alice is a metaphysical dream play in which Albee explores his persistent theme of reality versus illusion, this time out in mystical, abstract, and even religious terms. In 1975, Albee won his second Pulitzer Prize with Seascape, which combined theatrical experiment and social commentary in a story about a retired vacationing couple who meet a pair of sea lizards at the beach. The Lady from Dubuque (1979) is a fable in which the title character is none other than death.
Death, in fact, has been a running character throughout his works. In spite of the wide range in styles and subject matter, Albee has said that all his plays Òconfront being alive and how to behave with the awareness of death. Every one of my plays is an act of optimism, because I make the assumption that it is possible to communicate with other people. The people who think Virginia Woolf was a love story are a lot closer to the truth than those who think it was a tragedy. At least there was communication in that marriage." And like George and Martha, whose long night's journey finally ends in day, Albee and his public have communicated with each other ever since they met--through periods love and exhilaration, anger and neglect, truce and reconciliation.