Playwright Edward Albee, a three-time Pulitzer winner and the author of around 30 plays (including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, and Seascape), died on Friday, Sept. 16, at the age of 88.
Look, you make your own Mount Rushmore. The ranking of art and artists is, at best, a harmless game, wholly subjective. But no matter what your list looks like, regardless of where the name Albee appears on it, or if it even appears at all, know this: You have been influenced by Edward Albee. His plays not only altered the trajectory of world theatre; their impact is felt beyond the scope of arts and letters. He affected attitudes about race, sex, class, marriage, family, addiction, illness, death. He helped shape the postwar American character. He partly defined the postwar American sense of humor. His influence is immeasurable. He did not influence the world with his charm, good looks, pithy quotes, withering stares, canned interviews, public speaking, magazine spreads, famous friends, public feuds, political positions. He influenced the world through his monumental art.
He stirred European avant-garde into American naturalism, subverted classical roles of protagonist and antagonist, broke with conventional story structure, challenged long-held and deeply felt social mores, even tinkered at the level of the sentence and created deceptively convoluted syntax. (Mr. Albee’s lines are diabolically difficult to commit to memory, but once they’re in, they are forever in.) He invented. He made works of art. He wrote his ass off.
Was there a Serious American Playwright who was funnier? At the end of one of Mr. Albee’s plays, after the emotional payload has been delivered, you are devastated, and the feeling that obtains might be sadness, wonder, fear. But the sense of humor was what hooked you, until it was too late and you were in it with everyone else in the theatre. The comment we heard most frequently after a performance of Virginia Woolf was, “I didn’t remember it was so funny.” Well, it is—riotously funny, in fact, much funnier than Mike Nichols’s brilliant horror film, funnier than most comedies. And while Mr. Albee didn’t invent the form (there are always forebears), he synthesized his comedy and his drama in innovative, startling ways. “Show me the telegram!” “I ate it.”
Also: 50 years of artistic viability? Playwrights just don’t stay relevant that long. I’m not sure why, or maybe I can’t bear to face the reason why. But it’s so provably true that it’s simply no longer expected of us. That Mr. Albee managed to keep the ear of his audience for that long—or more accurately, win it, lose it, then win it back—is not only a testament to his indefatigable nature. It’s clearly the mark of a Man With Something to Say and the means with which to say it. That’s not only rare among playwrights, it’s rare, period.
Finally, none of the above matters without Mr. Albee’s tenderness, his love. These might not be words often associated with his work, but I argue that the real reason you pay money to hear what he had to say is because of Mr. Albee’s aching, generous love. It is the bedrock of his work. (Again, the humor: Love is funny; inversely, making people laugh is generous.) It might be the disappointed love of a crushed romantic, the bitter love of a neglected child, the angry love of a victim of injustice, but as reflected by his characters, that love was pure and primal and it burned hot. Critics and theorists will try to untangle the knot of metaphors contained within Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for as long as critics and theorists try to untangle anything, but that’s not why audiences still want to see the play more than 50 years after its premiere. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a love story. We all wish we had someone in our lives fighting for us the way George fights for Martha.
Performing George in Mr. Albee’s play was a great honor, a treasure of my life; as a playwright, his work is a beacon; and his personal approval meant the world to me. I am awed by the artist and saddened by his death. We are, all of us, diminished by this loss.
Thank you, Mr. Albee.
A version of this story appears in the November 2016 issue of American Theatre.