Even the gentlest, most tentative outreach from one individual to another may eventually exhibit violence, hatred, and despair. This insight forms a wide significant stream in the plays of Edward Albee (b. 1928), from his earliest one-act The Zoo Story to his most popular play of the past few years, The Goat. Albee’s coruscating wit is matched only by a deep compassion for his characters, and he is the first American postwar dramatist to integrate the anxiety of human community into an often comic vision of an imperfect world.
Albee’s immediate predecessors on the stage were not so much O’Neill and Williams as William Inge — and Noël Coward. The dark vision that informs Inge’s domestic dramas of the 1950s is magnified by Albee’s gift for witty aphoristic dialogue. As perhaps the earliest American dramatist to embrace Samuel Beckett’s lessons for the stage, Albee also engaged in a decades-long investigation of theatrical and dramatic form, and the spectrum of his dramaturgy is dizzying, from the early Absurdist satire of The American Dream (Albee’s only genuinely Absurdist work by Martin Esslin’s definition) to the living-room drama of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which was perhaps more poetic than it’s given credit for) to the allegory Tiny Alice, all the way up to the parable of Seascape and the comedy of manners The Goat. But as I mentioned above, underlying all of this activity was a concern about the limits of communication and the power of shared fictions in a post-war, as well as a pre-war, world.
Faith, in both God and the Other, is also a contemporary concern of Albee’s work, a faith that in a world in which the Existentialism which undermined the dogma of the personal God was harder and harder to keep. The religious and the sexual merged into a single conceptual point in Tiny Alice, and of course the power and fragility of a shared illusion informs not only Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but a number of Albee’s other plays besides. These illusions are held together by a peculiar and particular linguistic elegance. Albee’s writing for men and women — and lizards — is at times as delicate as gossamer, but it is this gossamer thread that holds marriages and relationships — and cultures and societies — together; no doubt it is this sensitivity that has drawn many of America’s greatest actors and actresses to his roles.
For decades there has been a “communications industry,” and for the past few years sites like Facebook and Twitter have created a kind of “virtual reality” of friendship and community, even as the white noise of these communities has suffocated individual expression. Albee’s observation — that all realities are virtual, and that despite communications both industrial and personal, individuals remain desperate, even pathologically so, for any kind of human contact whatsoever — is still applicable to a 21st-century America, especially when so many of us have hundreds of so-called friends in networks whom we have never met. At the age of 83, Edward Albee remains one of the world’s most revolutionary dramatists.
The standard edition of Edward Albee’s plays is the three-volume uniform collection from Overlook Press. Stretching My Mind is a 2005 collection of Albee’s essays and occasional writings which illuminate his dramaturgical approach and reflect the man’s own opinionated and unyielding integrity. The standard life (so far, and let us hope for a much longer one) is Mel Gussow’s 2001 Edward Albee: A Singular Journey. I wrote about Albee’s own recent productions of The American Dream and The Sandbox here.