Sunday, October 9, 2016

In Memoriam: Edward Albee

By Jonathan Price

Edward Albee died last month. It wasn’t exactly a surprise; he was 88 [March 12, 1928 – September 16, 2016]. But like many recent prominent deaths, it made me think. Edward Albee always made you think and feel. He was one of the great American playwrights of the twentieth century, and certainly by far the greatest of my contemporaries. Of course, no one can say such a thing for sure, since it is a matter of opinion – of many opinions over time. Nevertheless, in any week Broadway sports perhaps 30 plays or dramas, and then there is off-Broadway, which Albee helped to invent. Over the years, that’s a lot of plays, and the competition is intense. No one, I guess, sees all the plays, or reads all the plays. But Albee seems to me like a great pro golfer – Tiger Woods, or Jack Nicklaus. In a very competitive field, where audiences and critics are always demanding, he stands out.
    Albee wrote over 30 plays. Shakespeare wrote 33 plays. No, he’s not Shakespeare; he didn’t write in blank verse, create characters that will undoubtedly be remembered years hence – like Lear and Hamlet and Macbeth, characters who transcended their place in history and theatre and have passed over into the culture. But Albee kept at playwriting for over a half-century, and many audiences recognized his power.

I still remember in 1963 sitting in the balcony against the very back brick wall of a prominent Broadway theatre [probably the Billy Rose Theatre, where the play opened in October 1962] and watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It was what a great play should be – shocking, powerful, surprising, funny, destabilizing, memorable. In a long life, it stands out as the best play I’ve ever seen. It stands out in his canon for its own immediate worth, and also because its film version, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, is a memorable and imaginative version of the stage version.
    It’s also the play for which Albee, in a long career, is most remembered. Not his first. Not his last. Didn’t even win the Pulitzer Prize. But it was lacerating for the revelations, between all four members of the two couples, that, as its protagonist George puts it, get beneath the skin to the parts of the human body (psyche) that count and reveal the suffering, the failings, the inadequacy underneath. George and Martha are a remarkable couple, bearing the names of our first President and his wife, and similarly childless, though set in a clearly contemporary environment. But in some sense they, and the play, are a commentary on the American Dream, the title of another Albee play.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ends in almost total disaster, a bitter fight between George and Martha that reveals to Nick and Honey, the other couple who are drinking with them that night, that they [George & Martha] have cultivated a marriage-long fantasy of an imaginary child to cover their sense of emptiness and infertility. And Nick and Honey become aware of the emptiness at the middle of their own marriage, which has grown out of their “shotgun” wedding initiated by Honey’s hysterical pregnancy. The only redemptive quality, albeit a powerful one, at the center of the play is the acknowledgement of painful self-knowledge and potential redemption despite biological and emotional and existential infertility.
    But adjoined with these powerful themes and almost artificial or extreme behaviors, is a language that echoes with the pungent audacity of its time (the 1960s) and a sense of humor that is both teasing and probing. The play’s title derives from a supposed slogan written in a Greenwich Village bar, combining literary allusion to one of the more difficult modernist novelists with an apparently innocent childhood rhyme, “who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?” Combining the two and admitting defeat, Martha confesses to her husband at play’s end, “I am, George. I am.” The childhood rhyme underneath the title suggests also the play’s combination of childish play combined with adult games and pain, as in the supposed party games the four play, such as “Get the Guests” or “Hump the Hostess.”
    Albee received three Pulitzer Prizes, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf received only a Tony, revealing how dubious such awards can sometimes be. It remains for me his greatest play. Like many great Broadway plays, it is a drama of family conflict, not so different in some respects from Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which also ends in radical personal evisceration, revelation, and, to some extent, reconciliation. Perhaps in the recent God of Carnage there are memories of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the internecine and hostile battles of the two couples meeting in a home. Albee’s plays have that rare mixture of powerful, painful realism with an element of the Theatre of the Absurd, reminding us that his career began about the time Waiting for Godot [by Samuel Beckett] became a staple of international theatre and intellectual conversation.
    We can sense Albee’s intensity and his dedication to his art in his demand that “I think theatre should be there to make people uncomfortable.” He also thought people should live in the very best time, the now. The play I first saw 53 years ago still resonates with me now, at Albee’s death, because it combines these qualities of power, discomfort, and contemporaneity.

Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Price


  1. When I read that Edward Albee had died, I too remembered the performance that Jonathan Price writes about in his memorial to the playwright. I was sitting in the seat to Jon's right those 53 years ago.

  2. Pat Rogers commented via Facebook:

    Years ago, my husband and I got stuck in Valdez, Alaska, because of car trouble with our rental car. Once you've toured the oil facility there there's not much to do. We saw a poster that there was a drama festival going on at the junior college. We went to see about tickets to some of the plays and found out that both Edward Albee and Arthur Miller were being honored and were there to receive awards. I remember seeing Zoo Story and I forgot what we saw by Miller. Never forget going to lunch and sitting at the next table to them both! It was one of those unexpected things that happen when you're traveling---and something I'll never forget. (Who would have thought---in Alaska?)

  3. Ralf Klinger commented via Facebook:

    "I will never forget my seeing 'Zoo Story' at Second City Theater in Chicago so many years ago. I reference it often in conversation and in my writing--especially the pornographic playing cards monologue! Classic Albee!"

    This reminds me that while in college, interested in theatre, I acted in Albee's one-act play, "The Sandbox," at Albertus Magnus College, in New Haven, Connecticut. I'm almost certain this was before Jon & I saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

  4. What a great tribute, Jonathan. My youth was far too provincial to have seen any of Albee's plays on Broadway, but I've always liked the film version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" even when I was considered too young to understand it. One odd byproduct of watching the movie was that it made me curious about Virginia Woolf. Thus I owe to Edward Albee, among other things, the unsurpassed debt of "To the Lighthouse" and "The Waves."

    1. And we have a prime exemplar of the "big bad wolf" in one of our presidential candidates! Who's afraid, who's afraid?