Edward Albee, Audacious American Playwright, Dies at 88

Edward Albee - H 2014
AP Images

Edward Albee - H 2014

His daring body of work includes 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,' 'A Delicate Balance' and 'The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?'

Edward Albee, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who ushered in a new era of American drama with such plays as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, Three Tall Women and A Delicate Balance, died Friday. He was 88.

The playwright died at his home in Montauk, N.Y., after a short illness, his assistant Jackob Holder confirmed.

Influenced by Bertolt Brecht and the Theater of the Absurd, Albee invited the audience into his characters’ psyches in a way that challenged both topical and structural theatrical convention. From the wacky-turned-dangerous dinner party games of 1962’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the bestiality of 2002’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, the playwright eradicated the illusion of normalcy by placing seemingly ordinary people in far-fetched situations.

“That’s what happens in plays, yes? The shit hits the fan,” Albee said in an interview with Playbill in 2002.

Albee was presented with the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for A Delicate Balance in 1967, Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1994. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, arguably his most well-known play and Broadway debut, was selected for the Pulitzer in 1963, but an advisory committee overruled the nomination because of the play’s use of profanity and sexual themes, and no award for theater was presented that year. 

It did capture the Tony Award for best play, as did The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, and Albee was awarded a special Tony for lifetime achievement in 2005. The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters handed him the Gold Medal in Drama in 1980, and in 1996, he received the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts. 

“Among our few genuinely great playwrights, Edward Albee seems to be the most fearless and the most successful at discovering difficulty,” fellow playwright Tony Kushner said at the PEN World Voices Gala in 2012. “Certainly, he’s the one important American playwright who has made the investigation of the meaning of dramatic form, the structure of dramatic language and the contract between play and audience a substantial aspect of his life’s work.”

Born Edward Harvey and adopted when he was 18 days old by Reed and Francis Albee, he grew up as Edward Franklin Albee III in Larchmont, N.Y. Albee was expelled from three schools, culminating in his dismissal from Trinity College in 1947, and he later moved to Greenwich Village. Many hypothesize that Virginia Woolf took inspiration from Albee’s collegiate experience, but the playwright denied autobiographical allegations.

“I think that’s foolishness on the part of the playwright to write about himself,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Believer. “People don’t know anything about themselves. They shouldn’t write about themselves.”

However, Albee did admit that A Delicate Balance came from his experience growing up with a “right-wing, rich, prejudiced family” with whom he never saw eye to eye. “I wasn’t growing up to be what they wanted,” he told told the Dramatists Guild. “They wanted a young corrupt CEO, a lawyer or a doctor. They didn’t want a writer. Good God … I wasn’t going to be what they had bought, so to speak, which gave me great objectivity about them.”

Albee said he decided he was a writer at age 6 and began his career by dabbling in poetry and novels, neither of which garnered much success. He didn’t author his first play, The Zoo Story, until he was 30. The one-act premiered in Berlin after being rejected by American producers. Albee continued writing one-acts with The Sandbox in 1959 and The American Dream in 1960 before his three-act opus Virginia Woolf premiered in 1962.

“I’m infinitely more involved in the reality of the characters and their situation than I am in everyday life,” Albee told The Paris Review after Virginia Woolf debuted and as he was writing A Delicate Balance. “The involvement is terribly intense. I find that in the course of the day when I’m writing, after three or four hours of intense work, I have a splitting headache. … The involvement, which is both creative and self-critical, is so intense that I’ve got to stop doing it.”

Hollywood came calling early for Albee, with Mike Nichols directing Ernest Lehman’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of 1966's Virginia Woolf film that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Albee was skeptical of Taylor’s ability to play Martha (Uta Hagen had toplined the play) but ended up being impressed with her Academy Award-winning performance as well as the film.

In 1973, Katharine Hepburn starred in director Tony Richardson’s film version of A Delicate Balance, for which Albee is credited with the screenplay. (Albee muse Marian Seldes had starred in the play.)

Virginia Woolf has been revived three times on Broadway, with Kathleen Turner, Colleen Dewhurst and, most recently, Amy Morton as Martha. The latest production won the Tony for best revival of a play in 2013, as well as Tonys for lead actor Tracy Letts and director Pam MacKinnon

MacKinnon also directed Albee’s latest Broadway revival of A Delicate Balance, starring Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Martha Plimpton and Bob Balaban. “If you can get over the Edward Albee myth and intimidation, he’s very approachable,” MacKinnon said in an interview with American Theatre.

Albee was openly gay, and his longtime partner Jonathan Thomas died of bladder cancer in 2005. Albee avoided the classification of a gay writer. “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self,” he said when accepting the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011. “I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.”

When this remark was met with critique, he told NPR, “Maybe I’m being a little troublesome about this, but so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers, and I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can.”

Though known for his temper and irascible nature, Albee also was a famous champion of young playwrights. In 1963, he founded the New Playwrights Unit Workshop (renamed Playwrights 66 in 1966), and the organization provided emerging writers, including Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard and John Guare, some of the first opportunities to have their work produced at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village.

“If you have the ability to help other people in the arts, it’s your responsibility to do so,” Albee told Newsday in 2005. Playwrights 66 folded after eight years, but Albee started the Edward F. Albee Foundation in 1967, and it operates “The Barn” in Montauk, N.Y., providing residencies for writers and visual artists. He also served as a distinguished professor of playwriting at University of Houston.

Will Eno, an Albee protege who had a residency with the Foundation in 1996, sat down with him for The Dramatists Guild series The Legacy Project, in which Albee reflected on his life and influence.

“If you don’t live on the precipice, right close to the edge, you’re wasting your time,” Albee said. “I hope that my plays are useful in that sense, that they try to persuade people to live right on the edge dangerously and fully. Because you only do it once.”

Broadway theaters will dim their lights in Albee's memory for one minute Wednesday at 7:45 p.m. ET.