A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Edward Albee

If you visit Albeeland, expect the unexpected. Sea creatures may engage you in conversation, friends may drop in and then move in, and if a stranger joins you on a park bench, beware: the encounter may end in murder. The fascination of a play by Edward Albee is that its unexpected quirkiness is viewed as ordinary and everyday.

In 2007 Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque” was revived at the Haymarket Theatre in London with Maggie Smith in the title role as a mysterious stranger who arrives in the midst of a social gathering to be welcomed by the hostess, who is dying. Michael Billington of The Guardian pronounced it “a metaphor for a dying civilization” in which the stranger, who may be the angel of death, claims, “We’re too bewildered to survive.”

Later that same year “Peter and Jerry” by Mr. Albee premiered at the Second Stage in New York. “Homelife,” act one, explores the relationship of Peter, the buttoned-up middle-class business man and his wife Ann. Act two is Albee’s first play, “The Zoo Story,” in which Peter and Jerry dispute the right to a bench in Central Park, with dire results.

Edward Albee disappeared from sight a few years ago, only to make a comeback with a vengeance.  Within two years, three of his plays premiered in New York, plus one revival, and two were introduced to London. His new play “The Play about the Baby,” enjoyed a good run in New York, and two new ones opened:  “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” and “The Occupant.”  “Tiny Alice,” was revived off Broadway and London welcomed the U.K. premiere of two of his one-acts, ”Finding the Sun” and “Marriage Play.

The history of Albee’s early life is as well known as that of Oliver Twist, for critics see the persistence of a baby, real or fictional, as a reflection of his abandonment by his natural parents immediately after his birth on March 12, 1928.  Two weeks later,  Edward was adopted by the wealthy Albees of Larchmont, New York.  Reid Albee, like his father, Edward, for whom the playwright is named, headed a chain of profitable vaudeville theaters.  Albee has said that “Three Tall Women” is about his mother, Frances, and Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma in “The American Dream” may have been inspired by his family as well. 

A rebellious youngster, Albee was expelled from three expensive prep schools and a military academy, finally attending and graduating from Choate in Connecticut, where his writing was encouraged and published in the school’s literary magazine.  After a year and a half at Trinity College in Connecticut, he was asked to leave at the age of twenty-one.  He left home as well, never to return.

Although he had a monthly income from a trust fund established by his grandmother, he worked at a number of odd jobs, and in 1958, as, he says, “a sort of thirtieth birthday present to myself,” he wrote “The Zoo Story” in three weeks, on a battered typewriter in his Greenwich Village walk-up, on paper borrowed from the Western Union office where he was working as a messenger.  New York producers rejected it, so it was first produced in Berlin at the Schiller Theater, on a double bill with  Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Since then “The Zoo Story,” has been presented all over the world.

In Central Park near the zoo, two men meet and contest their right to a bench.  Buttoned-up Peter is from the affluent East Side: “A man in his early forties, neither fat nor gaunt, neither handsome nor homely.”  He acts as a foil for unkempt, talkative Jerry, from the West Side, whose monologue suggests that he is emotionally and mentally in crisis.  As their confrontation mounts to conflict, Jerry tells his story. Abandoned and buffeted by life, ignored, he is planning an act that will bring him recognition.  Their verbal conflict becomes physical:  Jerry produces a knife, which Peter takes to defend himself.  As he holds it before him, Jerry impales himself upon it.  “I was always delivering telegrams to people living in rooming houses,” Albee explains.  I met all those people in the play in rooming houses.  Jerry, the hero, is still around.  He changes his shape from year to year.”                 In “The American Dream”(1960), wealthy Mommy and Daddy have lost a son, and the Young Man who arrives might be a replacement, or he might be their fictionalized van man who materializes to take Grandma away.  The same characters turn up in the fourteen-minute “The Sandbox” “in a situation different than, but related to, their predicament in the longer play,” explains Albee. “They seem happy out of doors. . .     and I hope they will not be distressed back in a stuffy apartment in ‘The American Dream.’”

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”(1962) is Albee’s best-known and most frequently performed work.  It exemplifies the style that is distinctly Albee’s, ironic, witty, incisive dialogue and a plot that implies more than it says.  Often the characters are personified abstractions rather than individuals, like Mommy and Daddy in “The American Dream” or Man and Woman in “The Play about the Baby.”  At other times they are painfully real, like Jerry in “The Zoo Story” or Martha and George in “Virginia Woolf.”  The title (originally “The Exorcism”) comes from the song Martha sings; at first it was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” from the Disney animation of the three little pigs, but the Disney studio withheld permission, so Albee changed the words but retained the tune.  The award-winning film version (1966) starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, directed by Mike Nichols.

A mature couple, Martha and George, a college professor, are visited by a novice professor Nick and his wife Honey after a faculty party.  Somewhat drunk and certainly uninhibited, Martha taunts George, he returns her insults, and the young couple are drawn into a game-playing conflict.  Revealed in the bitter exchanges between George and Martha is the information that they once had a baby, who died. Albee says the baby is fictitious, but that the one in “The Play about the Baby” is real. This work is like a distillation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  It is even stronger, being more abstract, as if honed down to become sharper in its effect.  A mature couple, Man and Woman, arrive as a young couple, Boy and Girl, are joyously celebrating the arrival of their baby.  The older couple (Marian Seldes and Brian Murray in the New York premiere) are well-dressed, urbane, and witty.

It soon becomes clear that although they are entertaining, they are not to be trusted, for they admit to lying, and the Man is given to addressing the audience (“Pay attention to this.  What’s true and what isn’t is a tricky business, no?”). They announce that they have come for the baby.  The attractive, frolicsome young couple have no defenses against the older, experienced ones who have weathered the trials of the world.  Although the young ones plead for more time, the Man declares, “Time’s up.”  They take the baby. The Man unrolls its blanket to reveal that it is empty, and the young pair must console themselves that the baby never existed, although it is heard crying at the end.

“Tiny Alice” mystified critics and audiences alike when it opened on Broadway in December 1964.  When it was revived off Broadway in the 2000-01 season, it was welcomed.  The first producers of  “Tiny Alice” arranged a press conference for Albee to explain the play, and his remarks were published.  “I suppose ‘Tiny Alice’ is an examination of how much false illusion we need to get through life,” stated the playwright  “It is also an examination of the difference between the abstraction of God and the god we make in our own image, the personification. . . .It’s an examination of the relationship between sexual hysteria and religious ecstasy.”

Julian is a lay brother who has not become a priest because he cannot reconcile his idea of God with that of others who create “the god we make in our own image.”  Sent by his cardinal to negotiate a huge donation from Miss Alice, who lives in a castle, he is met by her butler and her lawyer, as worldly as the cardinal. The furnishings include an exact replica of the castle itself, even down to the lighted areas and movements observed.  In the most extraordinary example (so far) of Albee’s theme of innocence defeated by experience, Julian marries the seductive Miss Alice only to discover, as he dies, that he has married her replica, Tiny Alice, who resides in the duplicate castle.  The play suggests another constant theme in Albee’s works, that of illusion versus reality.

“Finding the Sun” (1983) is a dark comedy about couples on a sunny Long Island beach peopled by the privileged.  Daniel and Benjamin were once lovers who still long to be together, although they are now married to Abigail and Cordelia.  Neither marriage is going well. One wife is on edge, aware of her husband’s former homosexual attachment, and the other complacently accepting the situation. Just as the sun suddenly disappears, so does an engaging teenager, Albee’s recurrent “lost son,” giving the play’s title a double meaning. In the impressive Royal National Theatre production of the 1987 “Marriage Play,” Jack (Bill Peterson) and Gillian (Sheila Gish) have been married thirty years, despite various infidelities.  When Jack enters one evening after work to announce he is leaving, Gillian fails to make the desired response, so he repeats the entrance and announcement – again and again.  Their witty exchanges mount to blows and a resolution that marriage suits them better than the alternative.

In 1996 a revival of “A Delicate Balance”(1966) won three Tony awards. In this Pinteresque work, friends Edna and Harry arrive at the home of Agnes and Tobias and gradually assume control of the household, displacing their daughter Julia.  Julia’s (lost) brother had died in their childhood, and she is insecure and unstable.  Finally snapping at the thought that Edna and Harry have usurped her place in her parents’ affections, she takes her father’s pistol and repeats over and over, “get them out of here.”  The fear that motivated their friends’ visit spreads, but the delicate balance, fed by illusions, is preserved in the marriage of Agnes and Tobias.

“A Delicate Balance,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, was revived recently in the West End in London with Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins as the female leads.  Anthony Page, who directed, also directed the Albee one-acts at the National Theatre.  There is an excellent film of this play, made in 1973, directed by Tony Richardson, with an all-star cast: Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Kate Reid, Joseph Cotten, Lee Remick, and Betsy Blair.

Albee’s second Pulitzer Prize was awarded to “Seascape,” a story about a retired couple on vacation who meet a pair of sea lizards at the beach.  Nancy and Charlie have just finished their picnic, and are discussing how they will spend their time now their children are grown.  Nancy, the optimist, wants to travel and see everything.  Charlie just wants to relax.  Suddenly they encounter two anthropomorphic sea lizards, Sarah and Leslie.  Charlie is defensive; Sarah beckons.  Soon the couples are conversing and explaining their lives to each other; despite conflict, they finally come to understand one another.

“The Lady from Dubuque”(1980) is a fable in which the title character represents death, another of Albee’s recurrent themes.  An earlier play, “All Over”(1971) concerns a dying man and those who gather around his bed waiting for him to expire.  In “The Lady,” dying Jo and her husband Sam are the central couple, compared and contrasted to their friends who gather for an evening of game-playing: Fred and Carol, Lucinda and Edgar, and Elizabeth and Oscar, who could be messengers of death, come for Jo.  Although she dies physically, the others are living spiritually dead, wasted lives. "Three Tall Women” (1991) which Albee says is based on his mother, combines a deep understanding of its characters -- who may be the same woman at three different stages of her life -- a gift for pointed and witty dialogue, and a plot that implies as much as is stated, all characteristic of Albee at his best.  It earned the New York Drama Critics award for Best Play, as well as a third Pulitzer Prize for the playwright, a number equaled only by Eugene O’Neill.  Albee states that his plays “confront being alive and how to behave with the awareness of death.  Every one of my plays is an act of optimism because I make the assumption that it is possible to communicate with other people.” Albee’s latest plays to appear in New York in 2002 are new works.  “The Occupant” concerns the life of sculptor Louise Nevelson, played by Anne Bancroft.  The playwright and Ms. Nevelson, who died in 1988, were friends, and their conversations and friendship form the narrative, which concerns her marriage and subsequent abandonment of her husband and child, as well as her creative years.  Ms. Bancroft comments of the play: “It’s about a woman fighting the traditions and conventions she was forced into in order to find her own path in life.”

“The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia” with Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl, concerns a successful fifty-year-old architect who is faced with the dilemma of admitting to his wife and son that he is involved in an extra-marital relationship that could ruin his marriage, his career, and his life.