UPDATED with more information throughout. Edward Albee, the Pulitzer-winning playwright behind some of the most important and groundbreaking works of American theater and whose 1962 drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was famously snubbed by the Pulitzer Board despite the recommendation of the drama jury, died Friday at his home in New York’s Montauk, on Long Island’s East End. He was 88; his death, confirmed by his longtime personal assistant, Jakob Holder, followed a brief illness.
Beginning in the late 1950s with the one-act play The Zoo Story, Albee transformed the landscape of the American theater just as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had done before him. Embracing the avant-garde techniques advanced by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter, Albee combined hyper-realism with a kind of explosive surrealism that revealed as sour a view of the American Dream (a title of one of his plays) as Miller’s had been.
“I went to see Virginia Woolf and I was stunned, paralyzed,” Mike Nichols said. “I’d never seen such a play.”
Nowhere was that more evident than in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? which is set at an elite Eastern college campus where “George” and “Martha,” a professor and his wife, the daughter of the college president, consume astonishing quantities of alcohol as their rancorous and scabrous dialogue segues from their own spats to a young couple who have come for drinks. The original production was staged by Alan Schneider, who had introduced American audiences to Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Although it won the Tony and most other major prizes, Virginia Woolf was found by the Pulitzer board to violate their charter, which required the winning play to reflect “American values.”
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The snub hardly slowed down Albee’s career, which included later Pulitzers for A Delicate Balance (1967; revived recently on Broadway with Glen Close and John Lithgow); Seascape (1975); and Three Tall Women (1994). The 1966 film version of Virginia Woolf? was directed by Mike Nichols in his Hollywood debut and starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
“I went to see Virginia Woolf and I was stunned, paralyzed,” Nichols later told director Jack O’Brien in an interview filmed for HBO. “I’d never seen such a play.” At the time, Nichols and his partner in comedy Elaine May were performing around the corner from Camelot, where Burton was playing King Arthur. They became friends. “Two years passed, and I read that they’d hired Elizabeth Taylor to do Virginia Woolf,” Nichols recalled. He sent a message saying that he should direct it, and she agreed.
“I cast Burton—because they’re already there,” Nichols added. He didn’t mean merely that Burton was around the corner at the Majestic Theatre. He meant that it wasn’t too much of a stretch to see parallels between the stormy Burton and Taylor and the central couple in Albee’s furious, alcohol-fueled fever dream of a play.”The people in the play loved each other, as they did,” Nichols said. “And they had issues…”
The film was nominated for Oscars in every possible category and won five, for Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis as Best Actress and Supporting Actress, along with statuettes for Best Art Direction, Black and White, Best Cinematography, Black and White, and Best Costume Design, Black and White.
Born in the Washington, D.C. area in 1928, Albee was adopted by Rex Albee, son of Edward Franklin Albee II, founder of the company Keith-Albee-Orpheum that was eventually taken over by Joseph P. Kennedy, then sold to RCA and turned into the major movie studio RKO pictures. Albee had a difficult childhood and as he would later recall, differed sharply from his adopted parents who, he said, disapproved of his ambition to become a writer instead of a businessman. Kicked out of several secondary schools before receiving a high school diploma, Albee spent one year at Trinity College before being expelled. He moved to Greenwich Village in New York City soon after, where he worked at various jobs while learning to write plays.
Albee later would receive two more Tony Awards, with The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? picking up Best Play in 2002, and himself receiving the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2005.
Albee also broke barriers as an openly gay man from very early in his public life. Albee’s longtime partner, the sculptor Jonathan Thomas, died in 2005.
Albee’s failures were nearly as famous as his hits, most notably a Broadway adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita that starred Donald Sutherland. The show was panned at both its Boston tryout and on Broadway, where it closed following a brief run. Although Albee received most of the critics’ brickbats, he disavowed the production and claimed it was not the script that he had written. The playwright had an often contentious relationship with critics in general and New York magazine’s John Simon in particular.
But Albee was a fierce and committed advocate for writers who put his fame and reputation in the service of international writers’ causes. He was a leader of the PEN American Center and frequently could be seen in the line or on the podium at protests on behalf of artists in jeopardy around the world. And, as was the case with a revival of his play The Lady From Dubuque a few years ago, what seemed avant-garde and inscrutable at the time of its premiere could often reveal itself as prescient in later revisits.
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