Death was never far from the center of an Albee play. He did not shy away from reminding us of our inevitable end and the terror a glimpse of it can arouse. I wonder whether an artist like Albee, whose work consistently engages with death, acquires some immunity against its terror.
The gap between self-delusion and reality was frequently examined in his work. The truth, he firmly believed, was always morally superior to sentiment or willful ignorance, regardless of its astringency. When someone once remarked that he had enjoyed one of his plays, Albee replied that he hoped he hadn’t enjoyed it too much.
The critic and biographer John Lahr once observed that “Edward Albee is not a friend of mankind.” Perhaps Albee saw himself as a Cassandra, obliged to reveal harsh truths. His plays, vibrating with frightened characters and scabrous dialogue, had the power to scrape the lid off civilization and show us the beast within. In this regard he subscribed to a Freudian orthodoxy.
Prickly, difficult, sharp-tongued, demanding of directors and actors – these words were often applied to Albee. I wish to add three more – kind, empathetic, generous.
In the summer of 2001 I had the good fortune to spend an intensive week with him in Valdez, Alaska. My very first play, Rousseau and Hobbes, had been selected for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference and Albee was our host. Joining him there was an impressive collection of his theatre friends, including August Wilson, Ed Bullins, Arnold Wesker, Mel Gussow and John Guare. They all led workshops and critiqued play readings.
Mine wasn’t a very good play, which, being a novice at this playwriting business, I did not appreciate. When it came time for the public reading of my script, Albee sat in the front row for all of its defective two and a half hours. Not only did he not walk out or take a nap, he sought me out as soon as it was over and gave me notes on where the play might be improved. One reason for his interest in my play, which included several talking chimpanzees, was that he also had read widely about primate research. We discovered we had read several of the same books on the subject.
The great value I received from Albee’s generosity was not his notes on my play, which I later concluded was helplessly flawed. It was the respect with which he treated me and his kindness in taking an interest in my nascent writing career. When we corresponded a few years later he wrote that he recalled my “chimpanzee” play.
The author of more than 30 plays and recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes (for Seascape, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women), Albee is one of the five foremost American dramatists of the 20th Century. My list also includes Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and Arthur Miller (1915-2005). Albee was the last writer standing. In recent days I have watched two videos: a ten-minute survey of Albee’s life and work produced by the New York Times, and a one-hour interview with Albee and a playwright he was a mentor to, Will Eno, recorded at the New York Public Library in 2010. For theatre folk I recommend both.
In the library interview Albee was asked if he rewrote much. His reply: “More than I admit to but less than most people do. . . I wait a long time to get to know my characters fairly well so that I can give myself the illusion that they’re writing the play. And then I can turn it over to them.”
Elsewhere he has said, “There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of your life and figuring out that you hadn’t participated in it.” Last Friday the great author did arrive at the end of his life. He had no need to worry about having been a bystander. Edward Albee participated fully.
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