Edward Albee

Edward Albee (1928-2016) is a master of strange, funny dramas that explore the depths of humanity through its eccentricities. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning playwright from New York is best known for his 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee also wrote numerous other works and adaptations that humorously and evocatively present dysfunctional people in familiar places. 

Edward Albee Edward Albee

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Table of contents

    Edward Albee, Photo of Edward Albee, StudySmarter

    Fig 1: Edward Albee is one of the most famous American dramatists of the 20th century.

    Edward Albee: Biography

    Edward Franklin Albee III was born on March 12, 1928, in Washington, D.C. He was put up for adoption by his biological mother two weeks after his birth and was adopted by a wealthy, socialite family in Larchmont, New York. Albee grew up in New York and his relationship with his parents was quite strained. Edward Albee's famous drama, Three Tall Women (1991) is based on stories from his adoptive mother's life.

    Edward Albee was was sent to several prep schools and boarding schools. He was expelled from the prestigious Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and later from Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. However, while attending The Choate School in Connecticut, he wrote numerous poems, short stories, essays, a play, and a 500‐page novel. Albee decided to be a writer from a young age, and his teachers encouraged him in this pursuit. Edward Albee attended Trinity College for a year, but he was expelled in 1947 for skipping classes and not attending chapel.

    At 18, Albee left home. He had a difficult relationship with his parents, who did not approve of his writing aspirations or his homosexuality. Edward Albee moved to Greenwich Village in New York supporting himself by doing various jobs while working on his playwriting skills. Albee's early writings were not successful and he faced a lot of rejection. His early writing focused on representing the gay community and criticized traditional marriage and the American dream.

    Albee wrote his first successful play, The Zoo Story (1959) in three weeks. From 1958 onwards, Albee became a well-known, prolific playwright, producing many Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning plays such as ‘A Delicate Balance’ (1966) and ’Three Tall Women’ (1994). Many of his plays have been translated into popular screen adaptations. He is best known for the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf????? (1962), which was made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Burton.

    Edward Albee had several partners during his lifetime, but he lived with a sculptor named Jonathan Richard Tomas from 1971 until his death. In 2016, Albee died of unknown causes at his home in Montauk, New York at the age of 88.

    Edward Albee: Writing Style

    Edward Albee had a versatile writing style, which shifted from Naturalist to Absurdist styles. Albee wrote psychological and satirical dramas in which the characters are realistic but also act in strange, absurd ways. Albee's writing style was influenced by the Naturalist and The Theatre of the Absurd movements:

    Naturalism is a European drama and theatre movement that was developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It focuses on realistic, fully human (not mythical or supernatural) characters whose motivations and behaviors are guided by human nature and circumstance.

    The Theatre of the Absurd is a primarily European theatre movement made up of plays between the 1940s and 1960s. These plays focused on existentialism, or the meaning and purpose of human existence, and the breakdown of human relationships. Ultimately, they present that there is no easy answer to the meaning of life. The characters end up in the same state at the end of the play as they were in the beginning. Dramas within The Theatre of the Absurd often use logical reasoning in characters' speech within an illogical context.

    Edward Albee's playwriting is considered by some critics to be an American counterpart of the Theater of the Absurd. Albee's most notable play, 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf???' is a good example of Absurdist theatre. The main characters in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ are a couple whose relationship breaks down through a series of logic-driven, yet ultimately wildly irrational, humorous arguments.

    Edward Albee: Famous Plays

    Edward Albee won three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and two Tony Awards for Best Play. Here are some of his most notable plays.

    The Zoo Story (1959)

    The Zoo Story was Edward Albee's first acclaimed play. It is a one-act play centered around two characters who meet on a bench in Central Park, New York. One man, desperate for conversation and connection, forces the other to listen to his life story and about his trip to the zoo. The Zoo Story ends in an unexpected stabbing, revealing the craze created by human isolation, loneliness, and miscommunication in a materialistic world.

    Edward Albee, Central Park Benches, StudySmarter

    Fig 2: In The Zoo Story, the two characters Jerry and Peter meet on a bench in New York’s famous Central Park.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is Albee’s most notable play. The three-act play follows the strange, volatile relationship of an intellectual middle-aged couple, George and Martha. George and Martha host an uncomfortable and inappropriate dinner party, and their guests watch as the couple’s relationship issues spiral into satirical, heated arguments.

    Edward Albee, Dinner Party, StudySmarterFig: 3 In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a dinner party with too much alcohol spirals out of control.

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was initially controversial due to it’s sexual references and profanity. However, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is now regarded as Albee’s most successful play.

    A Delicate Balance (1966)

    A Delicate Balance is a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about an upper-middle-class couple, Anges and Tobias. Issues surface as Agnes’ alcoholic sister, the couple’s unstable 36-year-old daughter, and a couple of family friends escaping an unknown terror come to live in their home.

    Three Tall Women (1994)

    Three Tall Women is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a wealthy 90-year-old woman who looks back on the pleasures and disappointments of her life. Edward Albee wrote the play about his adoptive mother. Three Tall Women recounts the conservative woman’s strained relationship with her gay son, who leaves the family at 18. In the play, the son does not have a speaking role, but is a frequent topic of conversation and a cause of great despair to the woman.

    The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (2000)

    The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is a Broadway play written about a 50-year-old successful architect named Martin Grey, who lives with his wife Stevie, and teenage son, Billy. The apparently happy, normal family falls into crisis when Martin, whose only love in his life has been Stevie, falls in love with a goat. The family must question moral and social standards to navigate the strange circumstance.

    Edward Albee: Other Notable Works

    Edward Albee was a highly prolific writer. He wrote 28 original plays between 1959 and 2009, in addition to several adaptations. Additional notable plays by Edward Albee include:

    • The Sandbox (1959) — A play about an elderly lady who is put in a sandbox by her daughter and son-in-law, who treat her like an obligation rather than a human being.
    • The Death of Bessie Smith (1960) — A play about the day the American blues singer, Bessie Smith died from a car crash after being denied entry into a white hospital (this rumor of Smith’s death has since been disproven)
    • The American Dream (1961) — A one-act satirical play about American family life
    • At home at the Zoo (2009) — An additional act that provides context to Albee’s 1959 play, The Zoo Story

    Edward Albee helped write theatre adaptations of famous novels including:

    • Breakfast at Tiffany's (1966) — adapted from the 1958 novel by Truman Capote
    • Lolita (1981) — adapted from the 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov

    Edward Albee: Quotes

    Although Edward Albee was a successful writer for over five decades, he initially wrote poetry, novels, short stories, and even plays that were unsuccessful. He displayed fortitude and conviction in his calling to be a writer:

    I failed as a poet, a novelist, a short-story writer, and as an essayist, but I was determined to be a writer. So I began writing plays." 1

    Edward Albee strongly believed that an artist's personal life should not define their work. He often said that he did not want to be known as a gay writer, but a writer who happened to be gay. He wanted his writing to speak for itself:

    A playwright or any creative artist is his work. The biography can be distorting, or it's just gravy. The work is the essence of the person." 2

    Edward Albee often explored the psychological states of his characters, revealing humorously absurd traits and behaviors in everyday people. Although his plays are associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, Albee believed that his characters should always reflect something true about human nature:

    All plays, if they're any good, are constructed as correctives. That's the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people. We're not merely decorative, pleasant, and safe." 3

    Edward Albee - Key takeaways

    • Edward Albee (1928-2016) is a famous Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright from New York.
    • Edward Albee is best known for his 1962 Broadway play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf????
    • Other plays by Edward Albee include: The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, The Sandbox, The Death of Bessie Smith, The American Dream, and At Home at the Zoo.
    • Edward Albee’s writing style reflects the Naturalist and The Theatre of the Absurd drama movements.
    • Edward Albee often writes satirical, psychological dramas.

    1 Nosheen Iqbal, 'Portrait of the artist: Edward Albee, playwright,' The Guardian, 2010.

    2 Tim Martin, 'Edward Albee interview: 'I think of myself as a composer,' The Telegraph, 2016.

    3 Aida Edemariam, 'Whistling in the dark,' The Guardian, 10 January 2004, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/jan/10/theatre.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Edward Albee

    Who is Edward Albee? 

    Edward Albee is a famous American playwright.

    What was Edward Albee known for? 

    Edward Albee is known for the 1962 play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    Who influenced Edward Albee?

    Edward Albee was influenced by playwrights such as Anton Chekov, Luigi Pirandello, and Samuel Beckett.

    Where was Edward Albee from? 

    Edward Albee was from New York.  

    How old is Edward Albee? 

    Edward Albee was 88-years-old when he died in 2016. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: Edward Albee’s parents did not approve of his homosexuality. 

    Which of Albee’s plays is based on his adoptive mother’s life?

    Which novel did Albee write a play adaptation of?

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