At 30 years of age Albee descended upon the Berlin theatre scene in 1959 with his celebrated play The Zoo Story, about an encounter between a drifter and a middle-class businessman in New York's Central Park. The drifter manages to goad the businessman into violently murdering him. The play was performed in New York City in 1960, and, from that moment on, Albee was greeted as one of America's finest playwrights, following in the footsteps of Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller (may he rest in peace).
According to theatre professionals, including Jeff Coussens, director of the Augustana College Theatre Program, Albee's greatest contribution to American theatre is his unique style. The Zoo Story gave birth to a new movement - Absurdist Drama. His next two plays, The Sandbox and The American Dream, emphasized absurdity even more.
The Sandbox is an attack on the American family of the 1950s. The main characters - Mommy, Daddy and Grandma - are all represented by cartoon-like figures. Grandma, in her dotage, is banned to a sandbox, where her family treats her like an infant.
The American Dream features Mommy and Daddy once again in an even more grotesque version of the American family. The overbearing Mommy and the hen-pecked Daddy kill their own son because he cannot meet their expectations.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Albee's first big hit. It opened at the Billy Rose Theatre on Broadway in 1962 and won a Tony Award. This vicious depiction of George and Martha, a middle-aged, middle-class, alcoholic couple arguing sadistically in front of their guests, was later made into a popular film of the same title, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Although Albee won Pulitzers for his plays A Delicate Balance (1966), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (early 1990s), many of his admirers feel that he was cheated out of the Pulitzer for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? While the jurors unanimously agreed that he should receive the prize, the Pulitzer trustees felt that the play's language was "dirty" and overruled the decision. Two of the jurors were so upset by this action that they resigned, and no Pulitzer was awarded in theatre that year.
Although a master craftsman and a brilliant social commentator, Albee has not always enjoyed success and popularity in his career. His plays are controversial and provocative and are not considered "easy entertainment." But no one can describe them better than he in his most famous quote, in which he says that his works are "an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."
After his huge successes in the beginning of his career, the 1980s were a dry period in which he did not have a single commercial hit. But, ironically, his box-office failures are thought to be some of his greatest accomplishments by theatre critics. For instance, in 1964 Albee adapted Carson McCullers' story "Ballad of the Sad Café" for the stage. Although reviewers praised the play, it only lasted 15 weeks on the theatre circuit.
Three decades later, Albee had tremendous success with his play Three Tall Women. Different Internet sources give different dates for when this play was written - either 1991 or 1994. No matter: It won a Pulitzer Prize and was hailed by critics as his finest play in three decades.
In Three Tall Women a single character dominates the play. She is shown at different stages of her life, as a young adult, a middle-aged woman, then an elderly matriarch. All the characters appear together on stage in the first act.
Albee based this character on his domineering adoptive mother, Frances Albee, who aspired to make him part of the Larchmont, New York, upper-class social set. He, of course, categorically refused to take part in that lifestyle and lived instead as a Bohemian writer in New York's Greenwich Village.
Today, Albee teaches at the School of Theatre at the University of Houston and gives lectures on his work at colleges and universities around the country. St. Ambrose and Augustana are two of the colleges lucky enough to receive this tremendously talented man as a guest speaker, thanks to the efforts of Quad City Arts.
Albee will be lecturing on "The State of Theatre & the Arts in America" on Friday, April 8, at 7 p.m. at St. Ambrose University's Galvin Fine Arts Center. Admission is free. He will also present "An Evening with Edward Albee: Improvisation & the Creative Mind" on Saturday, April 9, at 7 p.m. at Augustana College's Centennial Hall. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased by calling (309)794-7306.
The playwright will also be presenting a pair of seminars on Saturday for college students and community-theatre participants. To reserve a spot, call Travis at (309)793-1213 extension 106.
For more information on Albee's residency, visit (http://www.quadcityarts.com/albee.html).