I just learned that Edward Albee died yesterday. It isn’t a shock; he was 88 years old. Still, it is sad. He was a hero of mine.
I first discovered him in high school. I went over to the college, which was performing The Zoo Story. It was a total mystery to me going in. And it was performed in a converted classroom. There were perhaps 50 people in the audience. I was blown away. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could do so much with just two actors and a bench. Now, of course, I see it in context. But then it was totally new to me.
It started my obsession with Theatre of the Absurd. But that term always brings to mind Eugène Ionesco. It’s actually much broader than that. Albee was more in the tradition of Samuel Beckett. Although clearly The Zoo Story was influenced by John Osborne. Albee was at his best when he was at his most real. Things like The American Dream are at best uninspired, and certainly nothing worth reading more than once.
Edward Albee’s Work
The truth is that Albee’s work was quite uneven. But I think that says something good about him. He was always searching. At the same time, it is hard not to think he was just a bit evil. I read Tiny Alice many times in high school — trying to figure out what Albee was on about. I finally went to the college library and researched the play. After it opened in New York, reporters asked him what the play meant. He replied that he knew when he was writing it but that he had forgotten. It was a good response, but I think Albee was rarely clear what he was doing.
Edward Albee is best known for his 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’ve cooled to it over the years. It is such hateful play about four unlikable people. I have a bleak outlook on life, but it isn’t that bleak. Don’t misunderstand: the play is brilliant and there is much truth in it. But I think his aim was much more true in A Delicate Balance.
After that, Albee got a little soft with two of his best plays: All Over and Seascape. He seemed to get to the point where he could see past alienation. Both of those plays triumph over alienation in their way. And then, Edward Albee went rudderless — for about a decade.
That’s not to say the work was bad. Certainly he got lots of bad reviews, but that was true of most of his work. He never wrote the kind of stuff that was meant to be fully appreciated in one viewing or reading. But he wasn’t doing anything he hadn’t done before. But all that changed in 1991 with what I consider his masterpiece, Three Tall Women.
Three Tall Women
It’s hard to say just what is so great about the play. The second half is simply a conversation between the same woman at three different ages: 20s, 50s, and 90s. And it shows, in such a powerful way, how cynicism grows in us. I’ve done a lot of writing trying to mimic what Edward Albee does in that play. But like the greatest art, it’s obvious yet elusive.
Anyway, it’s sad that Edward Albee has died. But he left us a lot of great work. And I assume he had as good a life as anyone could reasonably expect.