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Edward Albee (1928-2016): America loses one of its greatest playwrights

Written by
David Cote

Edward Albee detested cant and vagueness and might have scoffed at the epithet “America’s greatest living playwright.” Then again, he was a writer who believed strongly in himself despite a rotten system, so maybe he enjoyed getting his due after many struggles. Contrarian and dissident by nature, even he couldn’t dispute the fact that the last 20-odd years of his career and life were filled with praise, collegiality and deep respect. At any rate, he’s probably glad to be rid of the morbid title: Let it pass to Mamet or whomever wants it.

He leaves behind as powerful a body of stage work as any American since O’Neill, Miller and Williams, and one that should shine a light for younger writers. Three Pulitzer Prizes, two Tony Awards and a Tony for Lifetime Achievement, around 30 plays, many of which ought to be revived regularly, and not just the greatest hits (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women). Let’s revisit his infamous 1980 flop The Man Who Had Three Arms. I personally would love to see revivals of The Play About the Baby and The Death of Bessie Smith. Tiny Alice was revived Off Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in 2000 starring Laila Robins and Richard Thomas, and it has fascinated me ever since. The Play About the Baby had its New York premiere the next year and I was truly hooked on this dark, elegant genius, whose chiseled sentences and swooping arias were both diamond-hard and elusive as smoke. The Signature Theatre Company did a wonderful job with The Lady from Dubuque in 2012. I hope they can stage his final works, Laying an Egg and Silence. I interviewed him in 2008 for Occupant and still regret the questions I didn't ask.

If you’ve been on social media since the news of Albee’s death broke on Friday, you’ve seen an outpouring of affection from actors, directors, writers, producers and even critics (a race he distrusted instinctively). He was loved intensely, although that might seem a surprising response. His public image was cool, patrician and sardonic; family love, romantic love, self-love—all were illusory or toxic in his plays; in the middle part of his career he was betrayed and abandoned by the theater; and he was not a sentimental man or artist. And yet, as a highly supportive teacher and theatrical elder statesman, to many he was like a loving father.

I use the paternal simile for a reason. While still an infant, Albee was adopted by a family he grew to despise, who seemed unable or unwilling to give him the love a child needs. In his indispensable biography of Albee, A Singular Journey, author Mel Gussow makes Albee’s hostility to his adoptive family the key to unlocking the work. For anyone who has studied Albee or read reviews of his work in the past couple of decades, this is a familiar topic, but bears repeating. In Albee you keep finding fictional babies, false parents, artificial families, deferred desires erupting in "abnormal" behavior (The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?). Albee’s adoption anxiety may not illuminate every play or every theme (being gay was hugely important, too), but it’s at the root of much of the cryptic, ambivalent weirdness in his plays. Human connection, belonging, home, identity—all are interrogated in his slippery, silvery language.

If you want details about Albee’s life and career, or analysis of the plays, you can find those with a few clicks elsewhere. I’ve included links above to share what I wrote about his work in recent seasons. I’ll end on a personal note. Like Albee, I'm adopted. That simple fact doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it opened up the work for me. The terror of not knowing who you are, feeling surrounded by strangers, fearing that your cozy surroundings are just theatrical dressing for something sinister—these Albee-esque motifs suddenly came into sharp focus when I learned his story. There are bright colors in his world, of course: warmth, wit and a certain rueful resignation. Maybe even the redemptive power of love. But Albee never made theater to soothe or merely amuse. He wanted you to sit there, in the dark, and be alone together. So. Who’s afraid?

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