Obituary: Edward Albee: 1928-2016

September 29, 2016 in General

Gay US playwright Edward Albee died, aged eighty eight, in mid-September 2016. Albee won multiple Tony and Pulitzer awards for his high quality drama and is perhaps best known for his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, filmed with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the lead protagonists.

Albee was born in 1928. Adopted as a baby, he became a member of one of Westchester New York’s leading families. He had a patchy educational background, being expelled from a series of august institutions such as Clinton High School, Valley Forge Military Academy, the Choate School and finally Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He argued that his rich adoptive parents were seemingly unsure about how to parent their son, sending him to the aforementioned institutions with little parental interaction. He realised that he was gay at twelve years or age, although he didn’t want to be known as a ‘gay playwright’ arguing when he accepted a Lambda Literary Foundation lifetime achievement award that lesbian or gay authors need to learn to ‘transcend self.’ He had a closeted relationship with fellow playwright Terrence McNally in the 195Os but settled down in 1971 with Jonathon Thomas, a sculptor, until the latter’s death in 2005.

As noted above, his lifetime of distinguished dramatic achievement included Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1972), as well as the American Theatre Hall of Fame (1985). He also received Kennedy Centre Honors and the National Medal for the Arts (1996) and the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre Award for his dramatic oeuvre (1999).

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf centred on the dysfunctional, unravelling marriage of George and Martha, two tenured university professors amidst a welter of alcoholic recriminations, passive aggression, prop fake firearms and finally, a broken bottle. George’s growing alcoholic belligerence echoed Richard Burton’s own frequent alcoholic inebriation when it was adapted for film. A newly tenured science lecturer, Nick, and his wife Honey witness the painful interpersonal taunts and exchanges. George and Nick talk about the past, and George hints at the madness of some of his school classmates, before the two men grow increasingly estranged. Back inside, Martha and Nick dance together, as she flirts with him to humiliate her husband. Nick discloses that Honey faked a pregnancy to force him to marry her. Nick and Martha disappear upstairs, but nothing comes of the scenario, as Nick is too drunk to sexually interact. George and Martha insult him, before George discloses that their son is ‘dead’- but there is no son, as the couple invented him to paper over their actual infertility. Nick and Honey leave, horrified at the spectacle, but George and Martha appear trapped in their charnel house wreck of a marriage.

The play proved to be a smash hit after it opened in October 1962 and closed in May 1964, after several hundred performances and critical acclaim. Adapted for film in 1966, Burton and Taylor and their co-stars were all nominated for Academy Awards- Taylor won for Best Actress that year, and co-star Sandy Dennis (Honey) got the Best Supporting Actress Award. It also won awards for Best Black and White Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction. In addition to Who’s Afraid, Albee also adapted work from Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffanys) and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita). Three Tall Women (1990) dealt with the estrangement of a ninety year old woman from her gay son and her divorced husband and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1994. The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia (2002) dealt with heterosexual zoophilia.

Recommended:

Wikipedia/Edward Albee: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Albee

Edward Albee: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? London: Vintage: 2001.

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