March 12, 1938 – Edward Albee:
”You want to dance with me, Angel Tits?”
The quote is, of course, from Edward Albee’s masterpiece Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1962), a look at the bitter marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. After a university faculty party late one night, they invite an unsuspecting young couple, Nick and Honey, over for fun, games and drinking, and draw them into their relationship.
The title is a pun on the song Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? from Disney‘s Three Little Pigs (1933), substituting the name of English writer Virginia Woolf. Albee claimed that he first saw the title as graffiti in a Greenwich Village bar.
Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1963, plus and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. The original cast featured Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, Melinda Dillon and gay actor George Grizzard as Nick.
The film adaptation was released in 1966, directed by the late Mike Nichols, and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal and Sandy Dennis.
The film was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Nichols, and is one of only two films to be nominated in every eligible category. All four main actors were nominated in their respective acting categories, the first time a film’s entire cast was nominated. It won five Oscars, including for Taylor and Dennis.
In an unusual move, Columbia Records released a four-LP boxed-set recording of the original Broadway cast performing the entire play. It contained a sixteen-page booklet with photos from the original production, cast and crew biographies, and an introduction is by Albee, where he says:
“I cannot conceive of anyone wanting to buy this massive album; but…every playwright wants as much permanence for his work as he can get.”
Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is often revived on Broadway, and in regional theatres and colleges. It was always a dream of mine to do a production featuring sixth graders.
In 1970, Henry Fonda and Richard Burton attempted to mount an all-male production starring Warren Beatty and Jon Voight, but Albee refused to give his permission. Albee was notorious for protecting professional productions of his plays, demanding approval of casting, attending rehearsal and giving notes, even continuing to make changes to his scripts. In 2018, a Portland production of Virginia Woolf had its rights pulled by Albee’s licensing agent because of plans to cast an African-American in the role of Nick, described in the play as ”Aryan”.
Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara starred in a 1976 Broadway revival. Nichols and Elaine May starred in a 1980 production in New Haven. Diana Rigg and David Suchet starred in a production in London’s West End in 1997. In 2005, Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin starred in a Broadway revival. A 2012 Broadway production starred Tracy Letts (the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County) opposite Carrie Coon.
A Broadway revival was scheduled to open in April 9, 2020, directed by Joe Mantello and produced by Scott Rudin. It was canceled because of some damn pandemic after nine preview performances, without ever officially opening. It starred Laurie Metcalf, Rupert Everett, Russell Tovey, and Patsy Ferran. Metcalf won a Tony for a 2018 revival of Albee’s Three Tall Women.
I never slept with him or even met him, but I have performed in two Albee pieces, playing Tobias in A Delicate Balance and Leslie (a talking lizard… really) in Seascape. I especially appreciated Albee’s take on modern relationships: the interactions between members of a couple is his common theme.
Openly gay, Albee was a stalwart political liberal, a longtime member of the Dramatists Guild, and he had a 20-year affiliation with the University of Houston where he taught a playwriting workshop each spring.
Albee unsparingly took on themes outside the average theatergoer’s comfort zone: the capacity for sadism and violence in American society, the fluidness of human identity, the madness of sexual attraction, and the positive presence of death.
Albee had an astoundingly horrible childhood, adopted by careless and callous parents, including a true monster mother, explaining most of the themes in his works. His personal backstory is astoundingly dramatic.
At 18 days, he was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee, of Larchmont, New York. Reed was the wealthy son of the vaudeville theatre-owner. His father was a serial adulterer and his mother had married him for his money.
As a child, Albee was drawn to art and music, and grew up an observant outsider in his own home, ignored by his father and reviled by his mother. Albee:
”My mother and I disliked and mistrusted each other. She would frequently tell me: ‘Just you wait until you are 18, I’ll have you out of here so fast that it’ll make your head spin.”
Albee left home when he was 20, after an argument. He never saw his father again, and he had no further contact with his mother for 20 years, although she was regularly to appear as a character in his plays.
Albee spent the next 10 years living in and around Greenwich Village, living off the $25-a-week interest payments from a trust fund he had inherited from his grandmother, and working as a telegram boy. The ordinary people he met, with their desperation and loneliness, were inspiration for The Zoo Story.
In 1952, he was living with the talented composer William Flanagan. Albee also had a romance for years with playwright Terrence McNally during the 1950s.
A Delicate Balance (1967) was a return to the familiar territory of his parents’ lifestyle. I find it to be an especially evocative play about what happens when we turn our backs upon ourselves. It was a success and won Albee the Pulitzer prize he was unjustly denied for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. But after that his career stalled for the next 20 years; his ability to write was affected by booze, a habit that started while he was still a kid when he would be asked to mix cocktails for his parents.
Albee continued to write plays and have them produced. The death-obsessed drama All Over (1970) and his second Pulitzer-winner, Seascape (1975), are great plays, but All Over closed after 40 performances, even with a cast that featured Jessica Tandy, Madeleine Sherwood and Colleen Dewhurst; and Seascape ran for just two months. The Man Who Had No Arms (1983) closed on Broadway after just 16 performances, suggesting that it was all over for Albee.
He did not need to write more plays. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? made him rich and he amassed an important collection of 20th-century art. His focus shifted from writing plays to teaching and encouraging younger playwrights.
Albee resumed some contact with his mother, but she refused to acknowledge her son’s gayness or his longtime partner, who helped Albee overcome his problem with alcohol. Her death in 1989 inspired Three Tall Women, a look at her as a 92-year-old, by now bed-ridden and incontinent, who is also seen at 52 and 26. It won a Pulitzer in 1996.
Then, when it seemed that he was content with teaching, there came a late career surprise with The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia? (2002), about a successful architect in a happy marriage who falls in love with a goat and has passionate sex with it. A hit, it ran for 332 performances on Broadway and starred Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl, and later in the run, Bill Irwin and Sally Field. It is as powerful and painful as Albee’s masterpiece.
Albee insisted that he did not want to be known as a “gay writer”:
“A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.”
His longtime partner Jonathan Richard Thomas, a sculptor, died in 2005 from cancer. They had been together for 35 years. When Thomas left, Albee wrote:
”I was expecting to die way before Jonathan did. He was 18-years younger than I was, and the whole idea was that when I got to be my age, he’d be taking care of me, you know? But life doesn’t always work out the way it’s supposed to. You know, we had such a good, long relationship: 35 years. That’s a long time, a life in itself. Of course, that makes it worse. But at the same time you can’t just say, ‘How dare you go away from me? ‘ … which is an attitude that a lot of people get. ‘How dare you die! ‘ There’s got to be a lot of ‘Thank you’ too. Thank you for being alive and being with me for so long.”
Albee died at his home in Montauk in 2016. He was 88.
Albee has scored more great successes than most American playwrights with 30+ frequently produced plays, winning three Pulitzer Prizes and three Tonys. He never matched the emotional lyricism of Tennessee Williams‘ best work or Arthur Miller‘s political sharpness, but he did change and shape American playwriting.
Check out the readable, fascinating, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey by Mel Gussow.