He wouldn't correct you if you said it wrong, but if you wanted to earn his respect you needed to pronounce his name the way he preferred: Edward All-bee and not Al-bee. Widely regarded as "America's Greatest Living Playwright" following the death of Arthur Miller, Edward Albee died Sept. 16 after a short illness. He was 88. Albee's partner of 34 years, sculptor Jonathan Thomas, died in 2005.
Albee was famous for his acerbic wit, intellectual disdain for those who could not understand his work and a seriousness of attitude sometimes bordering on priggish. In a writing career spanning six decades, Albee enjoyed a meteoric rise to international success in the late 1950s and 1960s, winning the 1963 Best Play Tony Award for Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice for A Delicate Balance ( 1967 ) and Seascape ( 1975 ). Nonetheless, much of his work in the 70s, 80s and 90s met with popular and critical failure within mainstream commercial theater. He came roaring back, however, with late-career successes which won him a third Pulitzer in 1994 for Three Tall Women and another Best Play Tony in 2002 for The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
Three Tall Women was his most autobiographical work in which he created an openly homosexual character for the only time in his career, although one who does not speak. It's a son dealing with his formidable mother who is seen as three different women at different ages. Nonetheless, a gay undercurrent can be detected in a number of his works, sometimes bordering on the overtly homo-erotic. One can look to his early short plays such as The American Dream and The Sandbox as examples, featuring an athletic young man in bathing trunks. Several later works confront sexual ambivalence, repressed homosexuality and alternative sexuality among them Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, Malcolm, Tiny Alice and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
Despite his reputation for aloofness and acidity, Albee was generous with both time and money in his support of fellow artists. With his substantial earnings from Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? he established a foundation in 1967 which still functions in support of The Barn, a center in Montauk, New York, providing residential support for artists of all disciplines. Albee was at The Barn when he died. In addition, he was for many years a member of the governing council of The Dramatists Guild, and he had a long teaching association with the University of Houston. He also gave active support to several theatre festivals honoring his work, notably a far-afield annual fest in Valdez, Alaska which Albee attended four times.
To be accepted as a peer by Albeeand worthy of his warmth, consideration and keen sense of humordid not require one to be as famous or successful as he was, but only to be an artist laboring seriously in the vineyards of theater. I learned this myself over several decades.
I first met Edward Albee in August 1968, during the raucous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I was 21, just weeks out of college, a newly-graduated theater major and I was a press assistant in the campaign of anti-Vietnam War candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Albee supported McCarthy and came to Chicago to speak to McCarthy delegates and campaign workers. My boss, completely unaware of my theater interest, assigned me to host Albee for an evening.
I met him at his hotel, took him to a local Dixieland jazz club ( as I was told to do ) and dropped him at his hotel a few hours later. Albee, then 40 but boyish, still looked and dressed conservatively ( he later let his hair grow shaggy and sported a moustache ) and was on the wagon ( he had alcohol issues which he eventually controlled ). He wasn't looking for conversation. My efforts to talk about anything, especially theater, were met with answers of a few words or less. He expressed interest in me and my thoughts only once the entire evening. I had studied theater in London that academic year ( Sept. 1967-July 1968 ), and just before I returned to America the Royal Shakespeare Company ( RSC ) announced they would present the British premiere of Albee's prize-winning A Delicate Balance. I brought this up. "I don't know if I'm going to let them do it," he said to me. "What do you think of the RSC?" My answer was the only time that evening that Albee paid attention to me. I was not his peer.
Cut to 1982. As well as being a theater critic, I then was a member of The Dramatists Guild, the national association for professional playwrights, composers and lyricists. I'd had a few shows produced in Chicago, Milwaukee and one Off-Broadway, and I did unpaid work for the Guild organizing workshops and seminars in Chicago. Several members of the Dramatists Guild Council came to town for a three-day series of events, Edward among them. At the end of the first day, I found myself having dinner with Edward and Jimmy Kirkwood ( A Chorus Line ) at the Pump Room. I told Edward that we'd met before and recounted my story . . . and he apologized to me! "I'm so sorry. How could I have behaved that way? How terrible of me!," and he meant it! I now was his peer.
The next night, even better, was dinner at the long-gone Corona CafÃ© with Edward, John Guare, fellow Chicago critic and writer Albert Williams and the distinguished Welsh actor and playwright, Emlyn Williams. Stories flooded the table over dinner and wine, dominated by Edward and Emlyna smart and warm old pixie then almost 80 years old. Emlyn ( who picked up the check ) brought something out in Edward, who was more personable that evening than I ever saw again.
My last conversation with Edward was over the phone a few years ago when I did an interview with him for WBEZ Public Radio. I made the mistake of referring to some of his plays as full-length and others as one-acts. "All my plays are full length plays," he corrected me, "but some of them aren't as long as the others." He was being acerbic, but I also knew he was teasing me just a bit. He rewarded me with a chuckle when I referred, moments later, to one of his "short full-length" plays.
Arranging that interview, Edward and I also exchanged phone messages on our home answering machines. It was October, andas is true each yearmy message began with me saying "The frost is on the punkin," a favorite line of my dad's. What I didn't know is that it was the first line of a classic piece of 19th Century American verse by Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. Edward knew, and recited the complete first stanza of the poem in leaving me a message!
Did I erase it? Not on your life! Edward's poetry recitation remained a treasure of my answering machine for several years until a thunderstorm electrical outage wiped out everything. I still record the first two lines of the poem in my message every October. This year they will have extra meaning for me, and perhaps a touch more sadness at how quickly time marches on.
With Edward Albee's death, there isn't an obvious heir to the title of "America's Greatest Living Playwright." It should have been August Wilson, but Wilson died prematurely in 2005, only 60 years old. The long line of overlapping careers that encompassed Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and August Wilsona full century of glory in American drama comes to an end with the passing of Edward Albee.