When playwright Edward Albee was honored by the annual Lambda Literary Awards in 2011, he told the audience, “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.” He added “Any definition that limits us is deplorable.”
Because the Lambda Awards celebrates writing from a queer perspective, his words weren’t exactly what his hosts and the gathered crowd wanted to hear. But that was Albee. He spoke his mind, sometimes ruffled feathers and wrote great plays.
On Sept. 16, Albee, the towering mainstay of American theater who gave us “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” died after a short illness at home in Montauk, N.Y., the beach town on the tip of Long Island. He was 88.
Albee’s long career which garnered three Pulitzer Prizes and three Tony Awards (two for best play and one for lifetime achievement) began in earnest in 1958 when he was 30 with “The Zoo Story,” a one act about two very different and unacquainted men who uncomfortably meet on a park bench. Albee followed up this off-Broadway success with absurdist one-act plays “The Sandbox” and “The American Dream,” and a more traditional drama concerning racism “The Death of Bessie Smith.”
Next, he achieved big Broadway success with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1962. Five years later he scored big with his drawing room alienation drama “A Delicate Balance.” And in 1975, “Seascape,” an expressionist fantasy in which two couples (one human and the other, a pair of anthropomorphic lizards) meet on the beach to talk about love, relationships and the evolutionary process.
Throughout the following years he wrote many plays, allowed remounts of early works both with varying degrees of success before making a sort of a comeback in 1994 with “Three Tall Women,” an autobiographical work describing a mother who can’t handle her son being gay. In 2002 he enjoyed great success winning the Tony for “The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia,” (2002) the story of a successful Manhattan architect who has an affair with a farm animal.
Though not a Pulitzer winner, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is considered the playwright’s masterpiece. Set in a small college town, the action unfolds over one late night of booze-fueled misbehavior and psychic combat. Awash in booze, middle-aged hosts George, a swampy professor, and his louche wife Martha welcome the college’s new fit young professor and his mousy wife Honey with drinks and an array of unnerving party games that keep the older couple both at odds and glued together and the younger pair on edge. Still, the play’s brilliant dialogue with its nonstop onslaught of unmatchable searing repartee and heartfelt words has proved a favorite of gay audiences of a certain age.
“Virginia Woolf” was adapted to the screen in a successful 1967 film starring then-real life raucous couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha, and the younger couple was played by George Siegel and Sandy Dennis. Taylor and Dennis both won Academy Awards for their efforts.
Some critics averred that Albee was in fact portraying two gay couples in “Virginia Woolf.” Substituting straight for gay relationships was a claim sometimes thrown at gay writers. Albee patently rejected the idea, and while he may have benefitted by retreating to the closet, he was out his entire career. Albee counted famed playwright Terrance McNally among his early lovers and sculptor Jonathan Thomas was his partner from 1971 until Thomas’ death in 2005 at 57.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1928 to an unmarried woman, Albee was quickly adopted by wealthy New York couple Reed Albee, a vaudeville theater chain heir, and socialite Frances Cotter Albee. Rebellious from early on, Albee was expelled from a prep school and a military academy before graduating from the prestigious Choate School. His formal education ended when he was expelled from Trinity College in Connecticut. After leaving college, he lived in Greenwich Village where he wrote, did odd jobs and got by on trust fund payouts. More than once Albee told reporters that his parents didn’t know how to parent and he didn’t know how to be son.
Ford’s Theatre Artistic Director Paul Tetreault is saddened by the loss of his friend. Prior to taking the helm at Ford’s, Tetreault produced six or seven Albee plays at Houston’s Alley Theatre where Albee was often present and sometimes directed the productions. He describes Albee, who was known in theater circles as short tempered and difficult, as a bit misunderstood.
“Underneath the gruff exterior, he was a teddy bear,” Tetreault says. “And he believed in helping young theater artists and fine artists and would do almost anything for them. His commitment and dedication to young people was extraordinary. Eight years ago when Albee was 80, I heard him speak at Dickinson College. He spoke for an hour without notes, and took questions from the students for 45 minutes, standing the entire time. It was remarkable.”
Ever since arriving at Ford’s in 2004 with the intention of producing American classics, Tetreault wanted to do an Albee play. And now he’s realizing the goal with a winter production of “Virginia Woolf” staged by Aaron Posner and featuring a local cast including out actor Holly Twyford as Martha.
“We scheduled this long before we knew he wasn’t going to make it,” Tetreault says. “The play is one of the greatest ever written. It has comedy, drama, tragedy and pathos. As Martha, Holly will stretch every muscle she has as an actress. I think she’s going to be a complete revelation. I’m sorry Edward is going to miss it.”
Over the years, numerous Albee plays have been produced in the Washington area by both big and little theaters. D.C. likes Albee, and Tetreault explains why: “Albee has a layer and depth and intelligence that I think this city wants to embrace or believes they’re smart enough to watch. When people used to ask Albee what ‘Virginia Woolf’ was all about, he’d reply, ‘It’s about three-and-a-half hours long.’ He didn’t want to be whittled down to a sound bite. His work is complicated and nuanced and layered. He was a real genius and will be missed.”