Saturday, September 17, 2016

Edward Albee — 1928-2016

Alas, we will be planting yet another tree in the playwright’s garden at the Inge Festival next spring. We have lost a great voice of truth and raw humanity.

Edward Albee, widely considered the foremost American playwright of his generation, whose psychologically astute and piercing dramas explored the contentiousness of intimacy, the gap between self-delusion and truth and the roiling desperation beneath the facade of contemporary life, died Friday at his home in Montauk, N.Y. He was 88.

His personal assistant, Jakob Holder, confirmed the death. Mr. Holder said he had died after a short illness.

Mr. Albee’s career began after the death of Eugene O’Neill and after Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had produced most of their best-known plays.From them he inherited the torch of American drama, carrying it through the era of Tony Kushner and “Angels in America” and into the 21st century.

He introduced himself suddenly and with a bang, in 1959, when his first produced play, “The Zoo Story,”opened in Berlin on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” A two-handed one-act that unfolds in real time, “The Zoo Story” zeroed in on the existential terror at the heart of Eisenhower-era complacency, presenting the increasingly menacing intrusion of a probing, querying stranger on a man reading on a Central Park bench.

When the play came to the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village the next year, it helped propel the burgeoning theater movement that became known as Off Broadway.

In 1962, Mr. Albee’s Broadway debut, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, the famously scabrous portrait of a withered marriage, won a Tony Award for best play, ran for more than a year and half and enthralled and shocked theatergoers with its depiction of stifling academia and of a couple whose relationship has been corroded by dashed hopes, wounding recriminations and drink.

Edward Albee was the honoree at the William Inge Festival in 1991, my first year there.  I was sitting in the lobby of the Apple Tree Inn on the first morning of the festival and in he walked in a sweatsuit; he’d been out for a walk or a jog.  I nervously introduced myself and he smiled and sat down on the couch next to me.  I have no idea what we talked about; I was still in shock that I was sitting in a hotel lobby in the middle of Kansas chatting with one of the most important writers of the 20th century.  We chatted for a few minutes, then he patted me on the thigh and went back to his room.

Just about everyone knows “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” because of the film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but the play in its immediacy and brutality works best on the stage when you can’t look away or change the channel.  His other works — “The Zoo Story,” “A Delicate Balance,” “Three Tall Women,” and his short pieces — are just as honest and tightly wound.  Albee never used a paragraph where a word would do, and he used them to define his characters and places with exacting detail.

I know a lot of playwrights of my generation see him as a mentor and an inspiration even if they do not see the world as he did.  I admired him when I was learning about writing plays, and to this day I still read his works with awe.  I followed a different path in my writing, but I think that’s one thing I learned from his works: we are on our own with our own thoughts, and find our own way to share them.