Edward Albee H’09

Edward Albee H’09 died on September 16, 2016, in Montauk, New York.

(The following was published in The York Times, September 16, 2016:)

Edward Albee, widely considered the foremost American playwright of his generation, whose psychologically astute and piercing dramas explored the contentiousness of intimacy, the gap between self-delusion and truth and the roiling desperation beneath the facade of contemporary life, died on Friday at his home in Montauk, N.Y. He was 88.

His personal assistant, Jakob Holder, confirmed the death. Mr. Holder said he had died after a short illness.

Mr. 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. From them he inherited the torch of American drama, carrying it through the era of Tony Kushner and “Angels in America;” August Wilson and his Pittsburgh cycle; and into the 21st century.

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 theater movement that became known as Off Broadway.

Mr. Albee’s Broadway debut, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” the famously scabrous portrait of a withered marriage, won a Tony Award in 1963 for best play, 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 Mr. 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 representative, too, an early example of the heightened naturalism he often ventured into, an expression of the viewpoint that self-interest is a universal, urgent, irresistible and poisonous agent in modern life — “There’s nobody doesn’t want something,” as one of his characters said — that Mr. Albee would illustrate again and again with characteristically pointed eloquence.

A half-century later, Mr. Albee’s audacious drama about a love affair between man and beast, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” won another Tony, ran for nearly a year and staved off the critical despair, however briefly, that the commercial theater could no longer support serious drama.

Edward Albee in 2012: “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.”
In between, Mr. Albee (his name is pronounced AWL-bee,) 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.

As Ben Brantley of The New York Times once wrote, “Mr. Albee has unsparingly considered subjects outside the average theatergoer’s comfort zone: the capacity for sadism and violence within American society; the fluidness of human identity; the dangerous irrationality of sexual attraction and, always, the irrefutable presence of death.”

His work could be difficult to absorb, not only tough-minded but elliptical or opaque, and 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.

In 1965, after “Tiny Alice,” his drama about Christian faith, money and the ethics of worship opened on Broadway, causing much consternation and even outrage among critics who had failed to discern meaning in its murky symbols and suggestions of mysticism, Mr. Albee attended anews conference ostensibly to discuss the play but ended up lecturing on the subject of criticism.

“It is not enough for a critic to tell his audience how well a play succeeds in its intention,” he said; “he must also judge that intention by the absolute standards of the theater as an art form.” He added that when critics perform only the first function, they leave the impression that less ambitious plays are better ones because they come closer to achieving their ambitions.

“Well, perhaps they are better plays to their audience,” he said, “but they are not better plays for their audience. And since the critic fashions the audience taste, whether he intends to or not, he succeeds each season in merely lowering it.”

Several of his plays opened abroad before they did in the United States, and his work was often more enthusiastically welcomed in Europe than it was at home; even some of his most critically admired plays never found the wider audiences that only a Broadway imprimatur can attract.

“Maybe I’m a European playwright and I don’t know it,” he said in an interview with The Times in 1991, adding: “Just look at the playwrights who are not performed on Broadway now: Sophocles, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Molière, Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett, Genet. Not a one of them.”

Never a Critic’s Darling

A clever speaker in interviews with a vivid sense of mischief and the high-minded presumption of an artist, Mr. Albee was wont to confront slights rather than dismiss them, wielding his smooth, sardonic wit as a verbal fly-swatter. “If Attila the Hun were alive today, he’d be a drama critic,” he said in 1988.