Edward Albee - Not afraid to cut to the bone

By Nelson Pressley

Edward Albee won three Pulitzer Prizes. Photo / AP
Edward Albee won three Pulitzer Prizes. Photo / AP

Edward Albee, one of the most innovative playwrights of his generation, whose raw, unnerving dramas - and even the few comedies - scraped at the veneer of American success and happiness, has died at his home in Long Island. He was 88.

The length of Albee's career and the force of his best works earned him a place in the first rank of 20th-century American playwrights, alongside Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Only O'Neill won more Pulitzer Prizes - four to Albee's three, awarded for the plays A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women.

His most enduring, produced and analysed work was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is now widely regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century American theatre.

A drama interspersed with corrosive comedy, the play charts a single blistering night with a history professor named George and his boozy wife, Martha, and the young couple they ensnare in their destructive, often vulgar role-playing.

Drunkenness, profanity as brickbats, ferreting out secrets and using them to wound - all were part of what in the play were called "fun and games".

The play, Albee once said, was about "the ways we get through life" and spoke to "living life without illusions". The verbal attacks between the two main characters were spectacular and venomous, stirring outrage among more conservative critics and theatregoers but winning plaudits from many powerful reviewers.

Albee was wary of labels. "They can be facile and can lead to non-think on the part of the public," he wrote in a 1962 New York Times essay. Yet his influences included Anton Chekhov and Williams for their nuanced characters and baseline melancholy, and he generally accepted being associated with the absurdist theatre.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1963, when the 14-member advisory board split over the play (some were shocked by the frank, abusive language) and ignored the Pulitzer jury's enthusiastic recommendation.

Who's Afraid endured a run of censorship battles from Boston to London. The 1966 film version, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was initially denied an official seal of approval by movie censors.

Albee left home in anger in 1949, he and his mother did not speak to each other again until 1965.

Three Tall Women, his most autobiographical play, won a Pulitzer in 1994.

That drama, his 25th, dealt with Albee's mother, a stern, disapproving figure who could not bear to discuss her son's homosexuality. After Albee left home in anger in 1949, he and his mother did not speak to each other again until 1965. She died in 1989.

Albee was born on March 12, 1928, in Washington, to a single woman named Louise Harvey. He was adopted by a childless couple, Reed Albee and Frances Loring Cotter, and named Edward Franklin Albee III.

The Albee family was described by the future playwright as wantonly cruel at best. His new father was a womanising cipher of a man, he recalled. But the bulk of Albee's filial ire was aimed at his mother, who was not above taunting her son for being adopted.

- Washington Post

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