Obituary: Edward Albee, Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright

Three-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning Edward Albee. Picture: AP/Mary Altaffer
Three-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning Edward Albee. Picture: AP/Mary Altaffer
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Edward Albee, foremost American playwright of his generation. Born 12 March, 1928, in Virginia. Died 16 September in Montauk, Virginia, aged 88

Edward Albee, widely considered the foremost American playwright of his generation, has died at the age of 88.

His personal assistant, Jakob Holder, said he had died after a short illness.

Albee was born somewhere in Virginia on March 12, 1928. Little is known about his father. His mother’s name was Louise Harvey; she called him Edward.

Sent to an adoption nursery in Manhattan before he was three weeks old, baby Edward was placed with Reed Albee, an heir to the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theatres, and his wife, Frances, who lived in Larchmont, New York. The couple had no children and formally adopted Edward ten months later, naming him Edward Franklin Albe

Albee’s career began after the death of Eugene O’Neill and after Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had produced most of their best-known plays.

He introduced himself suddenly and with a bang, in 1959, when his first produced play, The Zoo Story, opened in Berlin on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. A two-handed one-act that unfolds in real time, The Zoo Story zeroed in on the existential terror at the heart of Eisenhower-era complacency, presenting the increasingly menacing intrusion of a probing, querying stranger on a man reading on a Central Park bench.

When the play came to the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village the next year, it helped propel the blossoming theatre movement that became known as off-Broadway. In 1962, Albee’s Broadway debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a famously scabrous portrait of a withered marriage, won a Tony Award for best play. It ran for more than a year and half — and enthralled and shocked theatergoers with its depiction of stifling academia and of a couple whose relationship has been corroded by dashed hopes, wounding recriminations and drink.

The 1966 film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, turned the play into Albee’s most famous work; it had, he wrote three decades later, “hung about my neck like a shining medal of some sort – really nice but a trifle onerous.”

But it stands as an early example of the heightened naturalism he often ventured into, and an expression of the viewpoint that self-interest is a universal, urgent, irresistible and poisonous agent in modern life that Albee would illustrate again and again with characteristically pointed eloquence.

A half-century later, Albee’s audacious drama about a love affair between man and beast, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, won another Tony, running for nearly a year.

In between, Albee turned out a parade of works, 30 or so in all, generally focused on exposing the darkest secrets of relatively well-to-do people, with lacerating portrayals of familial relations, social intercourse and individual soul-searching.

His work could be difficult to absorb, not only tough-minded but elliptical or opaque. His relationships with ticket-buyers, who only intermittently made his plays into hits, and critics, who were disdainful as often as they were laudatory, ran hot and cold.

And yet he was among the most honoured of American dramatists. Beyond his Tonys — including one for lifetime achievement — he won three Pulitzer Prizes.

His major works included A Delicate Balance, a Pulitzer-winning, darkly unsettling comedy about an affluent family whose members reveal their deep unhappiness in shrewd and stinging verbal combat; All Over (1971), directed on Broadway by John Gielgud and starring Colleen Dewhurst, about a family (and a mistress) awaiting the deathbed expiration of an unseen, wealthy man; Seascape (1975), another Pulitzer winner, a creepily comic, slightly ominous meditation on monogamy, evolution and mortality that develops from an oceanside discussion involving an elderly human couple and a pair of anthropomorphic lizards; and Three Tall Women, a strikingly personal work drawn from memories of his adoptive mother, scrutinising, in its various stages, the life of a dying woman. The play had its 1991 premiere in Vienna but earned Albee a third Pulitzer after it appeared off-Broadway in 1994.

Albee explained himself as a kind of herald, warning the theatre-goer of inevitable personal calamity.

“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done,” he said in a 1991 interview. “I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”

He wrote, he said, with a sense of responsibility; “All plays, if they’re any good, are constructed as correctives,” he said in 2004. “That’s the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people. We’re not merely decorative, pleasant and safe.”

Copyright New York Times 2016, Distributed by NYT Sundication Service”