Albee, Edward: Playwright of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Dies at 88

Sep. 16, 2016–Edward Albee, playwright best known for his 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? died Friday at his home in Montauk, Long Island, after a short illness. He was 88.

His work was known for its biting dialogue and absurd elements. Although “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was denied the Pulitzer Prize for being too controversial, Albee won Pulitzers for “A Delicate Balance,” “Seascape” and “Three Tall Women.”

Influenced by Bertolt Brecht and the Theater of the Absurd, Albee invited the audience into his characters’ psyches in a way that challenged both topical and structural theatrical convention. From the wacky-turned-dangerous dinner party games of 1962’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the bestiality of 2002’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, the playwright eradicated the illusion of normalcy by placing seemingly ordinary people in far-fetched situations.

“That’s what happens in plays, yes? The shit hits the fan,” Albee said in an interview with Playbill in 2002.

Albee was presented with the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for A Delicate Balance in 1967, Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1994. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, arguably his most well-known play and Broadway debut, was selected for the Pulitzer in 1963, but an advisory committee overruled the nomination because of the play’s use of profanity and sexual themes, and no award for theater was presented that year.

It did capture the Tony Award for best play, as did The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, and Albee was awarded a special Tony for lifetime achievement in 2005. The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters handed him the Gold Medal in Drama in 1980, and in 1996, he received the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts.

Born Edward Harvey and adopted when he was 18 days old by Reed and Francis Albee, he grew up as Edward Franklin Albee III in Larchmont, N.Y.

Albee was expelled from three schools, culminating in his dismissal from Trinity College in 1947, and he later moved to Greenwich Village.

“I think that’s foolishness on the part of the playwright to write about himself,” he said in 2013 interview. “People don’t know anything about themselves. They shouldn’t write about themselves.”

However, Albee admitted that A Delicate Balance came from his experience growing up with a “right wing, rich, prejudiced family.”  “I wasn’t growing up to be what they wanted,” he told the Dramatists Guild. “They wanted a young corrupt CEO, a lawyer or a doctor. They didn’t want a writer.  I wasn’t going to be what they had bought, so to speak, which gave me great objectivity about them.”

Albee said he decided he was a writer at age 6 and began his career in poetry and novels, neither of which garnered success.

He didn’t author his first play, The Zoo Story, until he was 30. The one-act premiered in Berlin after being rejected by American producers. Albee continued writing one-acts with The Sandbox in 1959 and The American Dream in 1960 before his three-act opus Virginia Woolf premiered in 1962.

“I’m infinitely more involved in the reality of the characters and their situation than I am in everyday life,” Albee told The Paris Review after Virginia Woolf debuted “The involvement is terribly intense. I find that in the course of the day when I’m writing, after three or four hours of intense work, I have a splitting headache.  The involvement, which is both creative and self-critical, is so intense that I’ve got to stop doing it.”

Mike Nichols directed (in his film debut) the Ernest Lehman adaptation of 1966’s Virginia Woolf film that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Albee was skeptical of Taylor’s ability to play Martha (Uta Hagen had toplined the play) but ended up being impressed with her Academy Award-winning performance as well as the film.

In 1973, Katharine Hepburn starred in director Tony Richardson’s film version of A Delicate Balance, for which Albee is credited with the screenplay. (Albee muse Marian Seldes had starred in the play.)

Virginia Woolf has been revived three times on Broadway, with Kathleen Turner, Colleen Dewhurst and, most recently, Amy Morton as Martha. The latest production won the Tony for best revival of a play in 2013, directed by Pam MacKinnon.

MacKinnon also directed Albee’s latest Broadway revival of A Delicate Balance, starring Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Martha Plimpton and Bob Balaban.

Playwright Who Happens to be Gay?

Albee was openly gay, and his longtime partner Jonathan Thomas died of bladder cancer in 2005. Albee avoided the classification of a gay writer. “A writer who happens to be gay must be able to transcend self,” he said when accepting the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011. “I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.”

When this remark was met with critique, he told NPR, “Maybe I’m being a little troublesome about this, but so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers, and I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can.”

Though known for his temper, Albee also was a famous champion of young playwrights. In 1963, he founded the New Playwrights Unit Workshop (renamed Playwrights 66 in 1966).  The organization provided emerging writers, including Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard and John Guare, the first opportunities to have their work produced at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village.

“If you have the ability to help other people in the arts, it’s your responsibility to do so,” Albee told Newsday in 2005.

Playwrights 66 folded after eight years, but Albee started the Edward F. Albee Foundation in 1967, and it operates “The Barn” in Montauk, N.Y., providing residencies for writers and visual artists. He also served as distinguished professor of playwriting at University of Houston.

Will Eno, an Albee protege who had a residency with the Foundation in 1996, interviewed him for The Dramatists Guild series The Legacy Project, in which Albee reflected on his life and influence.  “If you don’t live on the precipice, right close to the edge, you’re wasting your time,” Albee said. “I hope that my plays are useful in that sense, that they try to persuade people to live right on the edge dangerously and fully. Because you only do it once.”