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Obituary: Edward Albee

Playwright Edward Albee, 88. Photo: UH Photographs

In a career that spanned five decades, Edward Albee brought a critical, often caustic, focus to bear on the American dream. He came to prominence during a time of plenty in the early 1960s when the ‘American century’ was at its height and found it empty and wanting. Invariably, his characters were riven by palpable doubts and unexpressed desires that pointed to a spiritual poverty beneath the material riches.

His most famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, remains his most corrosive – an abrasive, unblinking examination of an alcohol-fuelled college professor and his wife at emotional loggerheads, tearing each other apart, each desperate to leave, both afraid of staying.

So controversial was the pungent acidity of its 1962 Broadway debut that it was rejected for a Pulitzer prize because, not least, of its “elements of adultery”. Had it been awarded, Albee – who went on to win it three times for A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape (1975) and Three Tall Women (1994) – would have equalled Eugene O’Neill’s record of four Pulitzer successes. A Tony award for best play offered some consolation for the oversight.

The play’s controversy followed it to the UK: its arrival in the West End was delayed by the Lord Chamberlain’s demand for 67 cuts. Following Albee’s intervention it was eventually seen with just two minor excisions at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1964.

A 1966 film version featured memorably combustible performances by then husband-and-wife team Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and picked up five Oscars from more than a dozen nominations.

It remains his most performed work, with revivals recently staged at the Theatre Royal Bath in 2014 and at Dublin’s Gate Theatre earlier this year.

Albee had made a splash with his Off-Broadway debut, The Zoo Story (first staged in Berlin in 1959), two years earlier. Depicting a meeting on a park bench between two young men – one successful, the other disaffected – that ends in violence, it revealed, said The Stage, “a fresh gust of creative vitality”.

Betraying a kinship with the plays of Ionesco, NF Simpson, Genet and Pinter, the absurdist quality in Albee’s early plays would be eclipsed in his middle career by a fascination with the often sadistic reality beneath the veneer of domesticity. It resurfaced again in late plays such as The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, about a happily married man who falls in love with a goat. Seen at the Almeida Theatre in 2004 with Jonathan Pryce and a young Eddie Redmayne, The Stage hailed it as “a profound and multifarious masterpiece”.

Albee enjoyed a high profile in the UK. His short plays The Sandbox (Arts Theatre, 1960), The Death of Bessie Smith and The American Dream (Royal Court, 1961) were all subsequently broadcast on ITV.

A Delicate Balance featured in Trevor Nunn’s first season in charge of the Royal Shakespeare Company, when Peter Hall directed a cast that included Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Hordern (Aldwych Theatre, 1969). The following year, the RSC staged Tiny Alice and, in 1972, All Over, which featured Angela Lansbury in her British stage debut and divided critics.

While The Stage found it “a long-winded, banal piece of pretentiousness”, Plays and Players magazine gave it a special prize as “the most underrated play of the year” in 1972.

Two years later, Counting the Ways, with Beryl Reid and Michael Gough at the National Theatre, also failed to sway The Stage’s reviewer, who dismissed it as “a trifling play suitable for lunchtime”.

Albee returned to form with Three Tall Women in 1994, a mosaic of a woman’s life told from the perspective of different ages with vivid performances by Maggie Smith, Sara Kestelman and Frances de la Tour (who had also appeared alongside Alan Howard in 1978’s The Play About the Baby, at the Almeida Theatre).

Smith also returned to Albee in the belated British premiere of The Lady from Dubuque, a tragicomic allegory about death, at the Haymarket Theatre in 2007. Although its Broadway debut in 1980 had received a critical drubbing, The Stage considered it to be the playwright’s “second durable masterpiece”.

Albee proved an astute and able adapter of other writers for the stage, including Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (Worcester Repertory Theatre, 1969) and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which ran on Broadway for just 43 performances (31 of which were previews). He also rewrote Abe Burrows’ book for the equally ill-fated 1966 musical version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

In 1974 he adapted Giles Cooper’s Everything in the Garden for the Dublin Theatre Festival and in 1976 the BBC commissioned his first radio play, Listening, which Albee also directed and played the role of The Voice.

The adopted grandson of his theatre-owning namesake, Albee was openly gay throughout his life but rejected suggestions that his sexuality informed his plays, claiming: “A playwright or any other creative artist is his work. The biography can be distorting, or it’s just gravy.”

Born on March 12, 1928, Edward Franklin Albee III was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1985 and received a lifetime Tony award in 2005. He died on September 16, aged 88. His partner of more than 30 years, the sculptor Jonathan Thomas, died in 2005.

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