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dward Franklin Albee, one of America’s foremost
dramatists, was born on March 12, 1928, either in Virginia or in Washington, D.C. Two weeks after his birth, Frances and Reed Albee, the inheritor of a large stake in Keith-Albee Orpheum, a coast-to-coast chain of vaudeville theaters, adopted him. Edward grew up in their affl uent home in Larchmont, New York. From the age of six Albee knew Frances and Reed were not his biological parents; he later claimed he was adopted to fulfi ll his ailing grandfather’s wish for a grandson. With a controlling mother and emotionally distant father, Albee felt alienated during his early years. This feeling of abandonment greatly infl uenced his art, inspiring the biting satire and profound sense of estrangement found in many of his works. Author of more than 30 plays—three of which garnered the Pulitzer Prize in drama— Albee led a generation of American playwrights throughout the 1960s with his overtly critical, often controversial dramas. Responding to the American dream–inspired, conformist culture of the 1950s, Albee shocked audiences, rendering the failure of social institutions—especially the family—in the moment of their collapse. At an early age Edward was sent in the family limousine to Broadway matinees, where he developed a love for the stage. He formed an especially strong relationship with his nanny, who exposed him to opera and classical music. Edward also met famous theater performers; the Albees entertained many celebrities at their mansion, including the comedians Jimmy Durante, William Gaxton, and Ed Wynn and the Academy Award winner Walter Pidgeon. During his adolescence Albee wrote poetry; he fi nished his fi rst play, a sex farce named Aliqueen, at the age of 12. Despite his literary interests and productivity, Albee was expelled from three private schools before settling in at the Choate School in Connecticut, where he wrote poems, short stories, a play, and a novel with the encouragement of his teachers there. His fi rst published work, a poem, appeared in the Texas magazine the Kaleidoscope in 1945. Graduating from Choate, he attended Trinity College for a year and a half before he was dismissed for nonattendance (1947); the same year, his mother found out he was homosexual and forced him to leave home. Moving to the Greenwich Village area of New York City, Albee worked a variety of jobs before he inherited the majority of his grandmother’s trust fund at the age of 30. These jobs included a program-writing stint at a radio station, an offi ce position at an advertising agency, sales, and a job delivering telegrams for Western Union. During this time, Albee immersed himself in 1950s bohemian
The Zoo Story script was turned down by New York producers but soon was produced in Berlin. Albee showed some of his poems to the noted poet W. suffering beings—questions regarding our seeming lack of purpose. posing methodical and tidy answers to the larger questions we encounter as mortal. William Edward Albee (1928– ) [The] health of a nation. 1959. Though most of the playwrights who belong to . a society. one-act play with two characters and a lengthy narrative. Seeking advice. Albee decided to concentrate solely on playwriting. This movement in mid-century drama—taking some of its inspiration from French existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus—focused on the failure of humanity’s attempts to construct rational explanations and ordering principles of the world. he purportedly wrote volumes of material. a composer and music critic for the Herald Tribune. Albee moved in with his lover and mentor. The challenge for the absurdist playwright then is either to strip commonly held illusions from the action of the play or to create a play that tries to make its audience aware of the inadequacy of these illusions. and if we demand this same function of our live theatre. Premiering in New York in early 1960. We have insisted of television and our movies that they not have anything to do with anything. At the recommendation of Wilder. that they be our never-never land. which proved to be a sound course. viewing art exhibits. and so forth—breeds ignorance.culture. the absence or presence of God. what will be left of the visual-auditory arts—save the dance (in which nobody talks) and music (to which nobody listens)? (“Which Theatre Is the Absurd One?” New York Times Magazine. Three years after he arrived in New York. mingling with other writers and artists. A one-hour. Though none of Albee’s work from this 10-year period has been published. can be determined by the art it demands. The Zoo Story marked the beginning of Albee’s association with the “theater of the absurd” movement. On the eve of his 30th birthday Albee sat down at his kitchen table with a stolen Western Union typewriter and wrote The Zoo Story (1958) as a birthday present to himself. According to this perspective. 25 February 1962) 2 Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers Flanagan. in German to critical acclaim. The Zoo Story established Albee’s reputation and won him a Village Voice Obie award. Auden and the novelist-playwright Thornton Wilder. and attending Broadway shows. H. Performed alongside Samuel Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). where it was performed for the fi rst time on September 28. disguising the fundamental absurdity of life.
The triviality and callous detachment of the characters.” This fantastical fi gure deviates from what most theatergoers consider plausible. The strategy of using nonspecifi c names based on broad character types enhances the degree of abstraction in The Sandbox and is employed by Albee in many of his plays. “normal” nuclear family. Harold Pinter. The American Dream (1961). which is fi lled with clichéd phrases and meaningless exchanges. and dialogue. this play resembles works by absurdist playwrights. which related the tragic circumstances surrounding the famous blues diva’s demise. where it was not performed. characterization. especially in The American Dream. Both contain theater of the absurd thematic and stylistic elements. The overriding concerns of Mommy and Daddy.this movement—Samuel Beckett. and others—created plays with surrealistic elements. center on material goods and conforming to rigid expectations. and placed them in a different context. Albee’s works are often characterized as more “realistic.” depicting concrete situations that are often jarring but less pessimistic than those of his European absurdist counterparts. Albee followed a minimalist. Lasting only 14 minutes. abstract approach to plot. The Sandbox was written as a commission for the Festival of Two Worlds at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. Instead. the play contains two interwoven plots with eight scenes in fi ve different locations. foreground the artifi cial and dehumanizing nature of Daddy and Edward Albee 3 Mommy’s illusion—the 1950s American ideal of the modern. Rather than writing completely new material for the festival commission. for instance. Premiering in Germany. Dealing with racism in American culture. Four months after The Zoo Story’s New York debut. Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith (1960) and The Sandbox (1960) were performed. Albee used characters from his work in progress. Eugene Ionesco. The American Dream (1961) shares these autobiographical elements with The Sandbox. stage setting. It is ironic that Albee’s most implausible scenario at that date had the largest number of elements drawn directly from his life: Albee modeled the play’s central character after his recently deceased grandmother (to whom he dedicated the play) and created dismal caricatures of his adoptive parents in the characters Mommy and Daddy. Jean Genet. Albee attacks such indifference. with the exception of the grandmother. The Death of Bessie Smith was inspired by the back of an album cover. Abandoning the realism of The Zoo Story and The Death of Bessie Smith. implying that American consumerism . who (as the stage directions indicate) represents the “Angel of Death. in the constant presence of a young man performing gym exercises in the background. the play was fi rst produced in New York in 1960.
Albee completed his fi rst full-length play. he helped form the Playwrights Unit in Greenwich Village. the Pulitzer Committee overrode their choice because the play did not represent a “wholesome” view of American life. Kennedy. as Albee suggests. where he met President John F. A 1966 screen adaptation of the play directed by Mike Nichols and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton received even more positive press than the play. including the Pulitzer Prize winners Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson. but with an additional character based on his alcoholic aunt Jane. The play centers once again on an upper-class couple resembling Albee’s foster parents. Returning to New York. Albee’s adoptive father. Opening in January 1961. After the fi nancial success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee championed playwrights excluded from the mainstream commercial theater. A psychological portrait of a delusional and dysfunctional marriage that. The American Dream was double-billed with Albee’s operatic adaptation of the Herman Melville short story “Bartleby” (1853). Both of these plays won the Foreign Press Association Award. Albee’s strikingly autobiographical play A Delicate Balance premiered on Broadway in 1966 and won the Pulitzer Prize. Reed. Fostering a generation of experimentalism and creative independence in American drama. especially the emptiness and frailty of social . in January 1962. passed away. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sparked a critical controversy. the workshop supported controversial and recognized dramatists. The play garnered Albee worldwide recognition and won numerous prizes despite reviewers’ polarized reactions. In 1967 the cast and crew won fi ve Academy Awards. it was paired with The Death of Bessie Smith. When the Pulitzer Prize drama panel voted to award Albee the year’s drama prize. During this trip. a workshop that subsidized more than 100 performances of works by unknown young writers. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. the play was nominated in eight other categories. can be read as an allegory for contemporary America or the decline of the West. it won fi ve Tony Awards and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play and narrowly missed winning the Pulitzer Prize. Instrumental to the “off-off Broadway” movement of the 1960s.and conformity create a sense of isolation. The play’s success on Broadway earned him an invitation to the White House. Focusing on the sanity of each character as he or she relates to the sense of familial belonging they all share. In the same year Albee traveled with a production of The Zoo Story to parts of South America on a culturalexchange program. Albee returned in A Delicate Balance to themes found in his early work. After poor reception of the latter. Running for 664 performances.
Albee explores the complex and often selfi sh reactions people have to death.institutions that people construct to shield themselves from terrifying realities. Box was supposed to be performed before and after Quotations. also a couple. Finishing another adaptation (Giles Cooper’s play Everything in the Garden) in 1967. Two one-acts from . During this hiatus he wrote four plays that were performed at American university theaters and overseas. Albee wrote a number of plays that. was inspired by the death of his longtime friend and mentor. Having the closest thing to a happy ending in Albee’s work. The 1970s and 1980s marked a drop in Albee’s prolifi c productivity of the prior decade. Seascape (1975). “Life. After completing two short experimental plays in 1977 (Counting the Ways and Listening). Seascape is set on a beach where an elderly retired couple contemplates their future when they are accosted by two large lizards hoping to make the transition from sea to land. are invited to stay with their human counterparts at the play’s close. forced Albee from Broadway for over a decade. Albee intended the performance to be musical in structure. which were designed to be performed together. William Flanagan. the 1981 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955). Box is an offstage monologue bemoaning the current state of art and society while the audience stares at a box. By dramatizing a confrontation between humans and creatures on the brink of change. the speeches functioning as notes or motifs that converge and diverge around the themes of social and moral decline in the Box monologue. focusing on the interactions that transpire between the doctor’s attendant family and friends. Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung has three characters—the Long-Winded Lady.” All Over centers on the imminent demise of a doctor in his screened hospital bed. when initially produced. 1971’s All Over. Albee wrote his two most experimental works: Box (1968) and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968). but it demonstrated his creative independence and integrity as an artist. and the Old Lady—reciting monologues that are related to the Box monologue. the play introduces the concept of evolution into Albee’s ongoing exploration of life and death. This experimentation in dramatic form did not win Albee a large audience. Chairman Mao. in effect. His next play. This. 4 Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers Originally entitled “Death. Tony Richardson directed Katherine Hepburn and Paul Scofi eld in a 1973 fi lm version of the play. The lizards. All Over’s planned companion piece. and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982).” was revised into Albee’s second Pulitzer winner. were not successful: The Lady from Dubuque (1980).
New York. In 2005 Albee received another Lifetime Achievement Award (this time from the American Theater Wing) and published a collection of essays dating back to 1960 entitled Stretching My Mind: The Collected Essays 1960 to 2005. The Play about the Baby (1998). Stevie. Since his reemergence Albee has written the experimental and improvisatory Fragments (1993). leaving none of her assets to him. A has a stroke at the end of act 1. and Jerry. Two women. insisting that the end was the happiest. Frances. or Who is Sylvia? (2002) is one of Albee’s most controversial plays. after Martin admits to being strongly attracted to a goat named Sylvia. 1960) is a one-act play with two characters: Peter. Three Tall Women resurrected Albee’s career. The former play is signifi cant in that it is Albee’s fi rst work to deal directly with homosexuality. prompting all three to exhale. and homosexual son. Finding the Sun (1983) and Marriage Play (1987). In the midst of their conversation. his most autobiographical work. who enters and leaves without saying a word. winning him his third Pulitzer. the play explores the unpredictable nature of love and its often harsh consequences. and the discussion that ensues includes an examination of their stormy relationship with their son. the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Running for 582 performances. found their way to New York stages in the mid-1990s. As the two talk and Jerry asks persistent questions. and a homage to the sculptor Louise Nevelson entitled Occupant (2002). Billy. Referencing the ancient Greek sacrifi ce of a goat to the god Dionysus that precedes tragedy. the audience sees how the two characters differ. Perhaps an attempt by Albee to put his antagonistic relationship with his foster mother behind him. a lonely bohemian man in his late 30s. The Goat. In 1989 Albee’s adoptive mother. The play’s premise centers on Martin’s estranged relationship with his wife. passed away. Marking his return to Broadway. 1959. and an Obie Lifetime Achievement Award. Jerry abandons . a middle class publishing executive reading on a bench in Central Park. This scathing rejection prompted Albee to write the two-act play Three Tall Women (1991).this period. the second act opens with the three characters in a hospital room gathered around a mannequin corpse. B and C. who says he has been to the zoo. A wins the argument. The Zoo Story (1959) The Zoo Story (Berlin. Each now represents A at different stages in her life. The conversation ends with a debate about which time in their life was the happiest. the play ends as Stevie kills the goat and takes it back to their apartment. attend A as she tells various stories about her past. Winning a Tony Award for best play among other distinctions. the fi rst act is set in A’s (an elderly rich woman’s) bedroom.
a man comfortably deceived by his middle-class nuclear family status. humanity. Justifying his actions. Jerry. and Jerry ultimately intentionally impales himself on a knife in Peter’s hands. Through the subtle use of foreshadowing and Jerry’s explicit linking of the situation to his confrontation with the dog. his distinctive way of knowing. which was a reenactment of a scene he witnessed at the zoo. Notably. For Discussion or Writing 1. What Beat values does Jerry portray? What outlook on society does Jerry embody? Explain your answer. an age focused on the home front and terrifi ed about the cold war and the spread of communism.his interrogatorlike posture to deliver a lengthy monologue entitled “The Story of Jerry and the Edward Albee 5 Dog.” an antiestablishment. Albee suggests that the entire action of the play lies within the confi nes of the zoo Jerry has visited. sharing with Peter his anguish. Consult an encyclopedia or trustworthy Web site and learn about the Beats. Thematically. explains he planned the whole encounter. Thus. Throughout the play Jerry tries to communicate across many socially constructed boundaries. Jerry’s lines target Peter’s middle-class. Jerry. is intimately acquainted with this isolation and desperately tries to convey it to Peter. Albee renders the power of art to overcome such illusions. . through acts of love and hate. Through Jerry’s suicide—an act motivated by his loneliness and desire to force Peter from his complacent position—Albee comments that sacrifi ce is essential in overcoming and conveying an understanding of the illusions that mutually bind the characters. Albee places many of the play’s critical lines in Jerry’s mouth. Through the exchange the two men share. Peter and Jerry then fi ght. and William Burroughs. The Zoo Story deals with failed communication in a complacent society characterized by anonymity. harsh critiques that rang sharply in a conservative age enjoying material goods and prosperity. Jerry is a “beatnik character. countercultural hero who resembles characters and ideas of Beat generation writers such as Jack Kerouac. as he announces in his fi rst line of dialogue. the two characters can be seen as animals separated from one another by cages that inhibit communication. his ideas and language not only critique a character but also make social statements.” which deals with his landlady and her black dog Jerry has bribed and poisoned. dying. is motivated by his profound isolation from man and animal alike. by analogy. and. Allen Ginsberg. both the ability for language to mediate the many paradoxes that the two characters embody and the power of the stage to challenge the status quo. Thus. Jerry explains that his desire to make the dog understand. “bourgeois” values and the conventional role Peter plays.
A one-act play taking less than 15 minutes to perform. independent of each other. an ineffectual. together. with its empty dialogue and meaningless and virtually nonexistent plot. At the conclusion of “The Story of Jerry and the Dog. creates any effect beyond themselves. but never performed at. As do Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952). What have they gained? What should we make of Jerry’s pronouncement that. what do his actions teach? Why are his actions signifi cant? 3. While in Beckett’s play the two vaudevillesque bums wait for the mysterious “Godot. at the same time. whose dramatic likeness appears in both plays. which. in Albee’s play the characters wait for Grandma’s death. cruel mother.” that he is no longer a vegetable anymore. Albee dedicated The Sandbox to his recently deceased maternal grandmother. who arrive with Grandma and have a Musician to ease Grandma’s dying in the sandbox. Grandma buries herself in sand . “I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves. and a genuine grandmother terrorized by her own 6 Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers daughter. are the teaching emotion” (Zoo Story 43–44).giving support from the play. her resting place. is an absurdist play that parallels the works of Samuel Beckett. After telling the audience about her sad past and talking with the Young Man about his biceps and acting. “what is gain is loss” (44)? The Sandbox (1960) One of the shortest of Albee’s plays to date. He says hello to Mommy and Daddy. Jerry claims in his dying remarks that Peter has been “dispossessed” of his bench in the process of “defending [his] honor. and I have learned that the two combined. The Sandbox was written for. the Spoleto Festival and uses several characters who later appear in The American Dream: a hostile. Albee’s Sandbox characters engage in inane conversation as they wait. powerless father. in such encounters. Nonetheless. but an animal like Jerry (61). Beyond Jerry’s treatment of the dog. and surreal elements characterize The Sandbox. the comforting lie of having a child.” Jerry states. The Sandbox takes place on a beach where a handsome Young Man exercises behind a large raked sandbox. The predicament the two characters are left in at the end of the play is remarkably similar to George and Martha’s relation to their dead imaginary son at the close of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both Peter and George and Martha have defended their dignity in the face of severe scrutiny and lost their “bench”—in the latter case. a minimalist stage setting. 2. Albee implies in both cases that these characters have progressed in some way to a better state.” who never arrives. Simple characterization.
. .and plays dead so Mommy and Daddy will leave. Contributing to the play’s absurdity. who resembles Winnie. “Shouldn’t it be getting dark now dear?” (152). the central character of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1960) buried in sand throughout the play. Mommy. Like Grandma. . a ceremony presided over by Mommy. cruelly ignored by her family. including William’s Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603). Though she does not control her fate in the ceremony. After they depart swiftly. tries to orchestrate her mother’s death. who is submissive to Mommy for the entire play aside from the occasional . boring people (143). I have a line here” (157). For example. this technique is one of the hallmarks of postmodern style. resembling Albee’s descriptions of Frances. Grandma sees past the illusion of her situation and is able to interact with it. Grandma. While such devices can be found in literature from all ages. in which the title character enacts a play within a play to comment upon the action taking place. These acts demonstrate that Grandma is fully aware: When addressing the audience or controlling the set. Grandma. After “breaking the fourth wall” (a phrase referring to the usual. At this point. a technique that calls attention to the way the play is constructed and breaks with realistic conventions. ma’am. In literary studies this technique is often called selfrefl exivity or self-referentiality. I . The result of using such techniques is that the audience refl ects on the artifi ciality of the play. she dies after consoling him about his acting ability. Grandma interacts with everyone in the theater. the actors break character and comment upon the play itself. Toward the middle of the play. The most interesting example of self-awareness in the play is Grandma’s direction of lighting cues.” Mommy and Daddy are cruel. realizes she cannot move under the sand she has piled on herself. they are modeled after Albee’s parents Frances and Reed. . invisible barrier between stage and audience). This culminates in the Young Man’s hilarious line: “Uh . only Grandma’s lines contain genuine emotion: Her language is expressive when she tells the audience about her suffering or uses her last breath to comfort the Young Man. she commands that it be nighttime by shouting offstage. addresses the audience to complain about how she is being treated (149). Daddy. Grandma proceeds to talk with the Young Man in a manner that slowly reveals that they are aware of being actors on a stage. the Young Man tells Grandma he is the Angel of Death and kisses her on the forehead. In a play fi lled with the clichéd and unconvincing language of Mommy and Daddy. Defi ned by the initial stage note as having “names [empty of] affection [that] point up the pre-senility and vacuity of their characters.
captures Reed’s nonpresence in Albee’s life.selfi sh whine. As they sit down and wait for Grandma to die. Daddy tries to start a conversation. Neither Mommy nor Daddy is given much depth. . Even their dialogue reveals nothing further about their personalities.
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