Edward Albee is often considered one of America's greatest modern playwrights, known for being on the vanguard of what would later be called "Theatre of the Absurd."
Albee was born in Washington, DC on March 12, 1928. When he was two weeks old, baby Edward was adopted by millionaire couple Reed and Frances Albee. The Albees named their son after Reed's father, Edward Franklin Albee, a powerful vaudeville producer who had made the family fortune as a partner in the Keith-Albee Theater Circuit.
Young Edward was raised by his adoptive parents in Westchester, New York. Because of his father's and grandfather's involvement in the theatre business, Edward was exposed to theatre and well-known vaudeville personalities throughout his childhood.
From early on, Edward's mother Frances worked to groom her son to be a respectable member of New York society. The Albees' affluence meant that Edward's childhood was filled with servants and tutors. He went to afternoon meetings in the family Rolls Royce, he took riding lessons, he vacationed in Miami in the winter, and he learned to sail on Long Island Sound in the summer.
In 1940, twelve-year-old Edward entered the Lawrenceville School, a prestigious boys' preparatory school. During his high school days, he shocked school officials by writing a three-act sex farce entitled Aliqueen. At the age of fifteen, the Lawrenceville School dismissed Edward for cutting classes. Hoping to inspire some discipline in his wayward son, Reed Albee enrolled Edward at the Valley Forge Military Academy. Within a year, Valley Forge had dismissed Edward as well.
Ultimately, Edward attended Choate from 1944 to 1946. Even as a teenager, Edward was a prolific writer. In 1945, his poem "Eighteen" was published in the Texas literary magazine Kaleidoscope. In his senior year at Choate, Edward's first published play Schism appeared in the school literary magazine.
After graduating from Choate, Edward enrolled at Trinity College, a small liberal arts school in Hartford, Connecticut. While there, Edward irked his mother by associating with artists and intellectuals whom she found objectionable. During his days at Trinity College, Edward gained a modicum of theatre experience, though as an actor, rather than as a writer. During his sophomore year, in 1947, nineteen-year-old Edward was dismissed from yet another school. This time, Trinity College claimed that he had failed to attend Chapel and certain classes.
Despite his mother's objections, Edward moved to New York City's artsy Greenwich Village at the age of twenty. He supported himself by writing music programming for WNYC radio. In 1953, young Albee met playwright Thornton Wilder. Later, he credited Wilder with inspiring him to become a playwright - advice he did not follow for a few more years. Over the next decade, Albee lived on the proceeds of his grandmother's trust fund and held jobs as an office boy, record salesman, and Western Union messenger.
In 1958, Albee wrote his first major play, a one-act entitled The Zoo Story. When no New York producer would agree to stage it, Albee sent the play to an old friend, who secured its first production in Berlin. After its success abroad, American theatre producer Alan Schneider agreed to produce The Zoo Story off-Broadway in a double bill with Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. This early association with Beckett served to cement Albee's connection to the Theatre of the Absurd. In fact, The Zoo Story was at the time of its production hailed as the birth of American absurdist drama.
Immediately, Albee became perceived as a leader of a new theatrical movement in America. His success was in part predicated on his ability to straddle the two divergent traditions of American theatre - the traditional and the avant-garde, combining the realistic with the surreal. Thus, critics of Albee can rightfully see him as a successor to American playwrights Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill, while at the same time unmistakably influenced by European playwrights like Samuel Beckett. Albee has also called Ring Lardner, James Thurber, and Jean Genet important influences on his writing.
Throughout the following years, Albee strengthened his reputation with a series of one-act plays, including The Death of Bessie Smith and The Sandbox, the latter of which he dedicated to his beloved grandmother. In 1961, The American Dream addressed themes that he would continue to explore throughout his long career. That same year, Albee adapted an unsuccessful production of Melville's short story Bartleby with his friend William Flanagan.
Despite the success of his original work, Albee's adaptations - of Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in 1963 and of James Purdy's Malcolm in 1965 - have not been critically or popularly successful. Critics described them as being static representations of literary works, simply transplanting existing scenes from the books to the stage.
Albee's real successes have always come from his original and absurdist dramas. His first three-act drama, and the play for which he remains best known, is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, produced in New York in 1962. It became immediately popular and controversial. When its nomination for a Pulitzer was not accepted unanimously by the prize committee, two members of the Pulitzer Prize committee resigned. Nonetheless, the play received the Tony Award and New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
After the failed McCullers adaptation in 1963, Albee's original drama, a dream play called Tiny Alice, opened in New York. That same year, Albee joined with two friends in creating an absurdist group called "Theater 1964," which produced, among other things, Beckett's Play and Pinter's The Lover at Cherry Lane Theatre. After Malcolm closed after only five days, Albee rebounded with the success of A Delicate Balance in 1966. For this play, he received the Pulitzer Prize.
Albee continued to write plays throughout the 1960's and 1970's. Everything in the Garden, adapted from a play by Giles Cooper, was produced in 1967, followed by: the original plays Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in 1968; All Over in 1971; and Seascape in 1975. For Seascape, Albee was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize. Counting the Ways and Listening, which initially debuted as a radio play in England, was staged in New York in 1977.
Throughout the 1980's, Albee's playwriting career failed to produce a substantial commercial hit. Plays from this period include: The Lady from Dubuque (1980); an adaptation of Lolita (1981); The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983); Finding the Sun (1985); and Marriage Play (1987). During this time, Albee also taught courses at various universities, especially in Houston, TX, and maintained his residence in New York.
In 1994, Albee experienced a much-awaited New York success with the play Three Tall Women. That play earned Albee his third Pulitzer Prize and his first commercial hit in over a decade. Three Tall Women also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award. Since that time, Albee's productions include: Lorca Play (1993); Fragments: A Concerto Grosso (1995); The Play about the Baby (1996); Occupant (2001); The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (2002); Knock! Knock! Who's There!? (2003); a one-act prequel to The Zoo Story entitled Peter and Jerry (2004); and Me, Myself and I (2007).
Edward Albee is a member of both the Dramatists Guild Council and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches courses in playwriting every spring at the University of Houston, the venue where Lorca Play was initially staged. Albee himself sums up his career thus: "I have been both overpraised and underpraised. I assume by the time I finish writing - and I plan to go on writing until I'm ninety or gaga - it will all equal itself out. You can't involve yourself with the vicissitudes of fashion or critical response."
Study Guides on Works by Edward Albee
On June 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy traveled to West Berlin and uttered the now-famous statement, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Nearly two years earlier, on the night of August 13, 1961, the Communist East German government had erected the...
Edward Albee wrote The Zoo Story in less than three weeks in 1958, and originally titled it Peter and Jerry. Although Albee is now widely considered to be among America's greatest living playwrights, this was his first foray into drama...