Edward Albee’s Vortex of Violence

Edward Albee did not write feel-good plays with happy endings. He wrote difficult, uncomfortable, and often violent plays that were hard to understand. They were controversial because people didn’t know how to feel about Albee’s work; they only knew they felt something.

One such controversy was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1963, but when it was chosen by the jury as the 1963 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, the advisory committee at Columbia University, which administers the prize, intervened. No such prize was awarded that year, and two jury members resigned in protest.

His next play was Ballad of the Sad Café, a stage adaptation of a Carson McCullers novella. It, too, would be nominated for the Tony for Best Play. Post writer John Skow caught up with Albee at the show’s premiere, and what followed was a sketch of the early career of a man who would go on to become one of the greatest American playwrights of all time.


Broadway’s Hottest Playwright, Edward Albee

By John Skow

Originally published on January 18, 1964

The big woman greases her arms with hog fat. The man sullenly does the same. A lame dwarf lurches from one to the other like an evil Cupid, insane with glee. Townspeople whisper excitedly. When the woman and the man have finished readying themselves, they face each other, crouch, and spring. Their fight is brutal, and for a time it is even. Then the woman’s greater strength begins to tell. She has nearly strangled the man, when the dwarf shrieks and jumps on her back. The man recovers, clubs the woman to the ground, then gouges out her eyes. The Ballad of the Sad Café is over.

The cast takes its bows, and the cash customers walk up the aisle wearing a look that Broadway has come to know well. It is shock, but not simply that. The audience has had its emotions wrung out by something it does not understand and does not like, but cannot dismiss. After Ballads opening performance, the first man interviewed by TV reporters was crying.

An hour or so after that opening, a thin young man at the cast party turned to Colleen Dewhurst, the show’s star. “Why do we have to put up with this?” he asked, in a voice edged with boredom and irritation. “This” was the roomful of 32-toothed smilers waiting to widen their smiles or narrow them to smirks, depending on the reviews. The young man, who was Edward Albee, author of the stage version of Ballad, did not look as if he could possibly have attended enough opening-night parties to have become bored. He is 35 but looks 26, and his face is the kind you see waiting in an ad agency, 15 minutes early for an appointment with the assistant head of personnel.

But Albee, bad type-casting or not, can look, on a good night, very much like the New Thundering Savior of the American stage. There is no denying that the credentials he has presented both on and off Broadway are impressive. So impressive, in fact, that although he is supposed to be a ferocious critic of the American society, State Department Chautauqua officials recently booked him into Russia under the cultural exchange program.

Less than six years ago, however, the only thing impressive about Edward Albee was that a grandmother had left him $100,000 in trust. The income allowed him to slop through a comfortably shabby existence in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, as one of the late-rising legion of tennis-shoed young men who were, someday, going to write something. Then, a few weeks before he turned 30, A!bee did write something. “I was desperate,” he recalls with no pleasure. “It had begun to look as if I wouldn’t make it.”

He made it with The Zoo Story, a brief, two-character play that, like the rest of his work, cannot be summarized precisely. It is about a homosexual who, despising the square world and unable to live in his own, tricks an inoffensive stranger into killing him. It is flawed by easy symbolism, but does contain two qualities that have marked almost everything Albee has written since. The first is a punishing force of dialogue: Every line has the inevitability of falling rock. The second is the author’s ability to draw the emotions of actors and audience into a vortex of unbelievable violence.

Since Zoo Story, audiences have dazedly applauded five more gloomy, puzzling plays. Their themes are grounded in the destruction of children by parents, and of men and women by each other. The best of these is not Ballad, but a rackingly funny, astonishingly unpleasant three-and-a-half-hour drunk scene called Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which has been on Broadway for 15 months.

Virginia Woolf — the title refers to a drunken joke and may be ignored — deals with two married couples who gnaw away at each other for three acts like dying hyenas. There is no letup except to pour more whiskey. At the end, the actors do not bow, they slump.

Virginia Woolf is clearly the most powerful play by an American author since A Streetcar Named Desire, and most critics praised it. Others, upon being fanned back to consciousness, pronounced that society’s moral fabric, that tattered dropcloth, was being unraveled again. When the Pulitzer Prize nominating committee voted in favor of Albee’s play, the trustees of Columbia University, who control the award, rose up righteously and refused to give the play their approval.

What is this alarming young man like, and what is he up to? Before rehearsals began this season, Albee took time from polishing Ballad to answer some questions. The place was a beach house on Fire Island, a rookery for Manhattan’s artists and almost-artists. Albee wore a three-day beard, short hair, and his customary solemn expression. Speaking in a barely audible, buttoned-down voice, he said that he was not indulging in “attack for the sake of attack. But I don’t write reassuring plays, not opiates. …” He smiled a faint, cold smile at his understatement. “I’m not interested in the kind of problems that can be tied in a bundle at the third-act curtain. You walk out of that sort of play, and all you think about is where you parked your car.”

Symbols? Albee’s plays are hung with tempting but somewhat unripe symbolic fruit, and more than one critic has come away with a stomachache. The older married combatants in Virginia Woolf, for instance, are called George and Martha. They have pretended to each other for years that they have a son, who is, or would be if he existed, 21 years old. If the playgoer is intended to think of George and Martha Washington, does Albee mean the whole of the gloomy play to be a dissection of the American culture? And does the son “represent” something? Capitalism, Christianity, the perfectibility of man?

Albee shrugged off the son, a startlingly inventive parody of whatever cherished falsities suggest themselves to the viewer. George and Martha? “This country hasn’t lived up to its beginnings,” Albee said. “But the naming of George and Martha was supposed to be a small irony, not a large truth.” He was quiet for a moment. “It all starts out terribly private. Then somewhere along the line you realize you’re talking about general matters. If it stays private, it’s no good.”

Some critics have suggested that the “terribly private” origins of Albee’s plays, like those of many writers, lie somewhere in his personal background. At the age of two weeks, he was adopted — he knows nothing of his natural parents — by Reed Albee, heir to the Albee theater fortune, and his wife Frances. Reed was a small, vague man whom not even money could make vivid. Frances was, and is, tall, imperious, and social.

There are some observers who see certain similarities between these two and the protagonists of Albee’s cruelly satiric fantasy, The American Dream, but the nervous laughter from theater audiences indicates that many people can recognize a more universal drama in the conflict between Albee’s anonymous caricatures. Their dialogue deadens the ear.

In Dream, Albee portrays Mommy and Daddy as a couple who once adopted a son, whom they crippled with psychological torture of a classic Freudian kind. The only character treated with sympathy in Dream is “Grandma.” She also appears in Sandbox, a one-acter in which she commits suicide by sitting in a child’s sandpile and slowly burying herself with a toy shovel.

No outsider can know at this point what Albee’s real relations with his foster parents were like. The record suggests that Edward was pampered clumsily with expensive toys and exotic pets, but that he was still a lonely child. Does Albee have any resentment toward his foster parents as a result of his confused childhood? “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “But I find it hard to forgive my real parents.” He has not seen Frances Albee in years, he said. What does she think of his plays? “I don’t know whether she has seen them.” The subject closed with an audible click.

During his youth, Edward was kicked out of a succession of prep schools for refusing to prep, but graduated from Choate, where masters praised his wildly self-pitying verse. He tried Trinity College for three semesters, cut too many classes and was bounced.

When he was 21, he began receiving about $50 a week from his inheritance. He moved to Manhattan and for a while dated a debutante. Then, drifting into New York’s bohemia, he shared an apartment with William Flanagan, a composer who later wrote the incidental music for Ballad and is currently collaborating with Albee on an operetta.

To pad out his inheritance, Albee worked at a string of dreary jobs, among them, messenger boy for Western Union. (“I liked delivering telegrams; it got me out into the air,” he says.) And, recalls Flanagan, “every six months he had a fit at the typewriter.” In 1953, Albee met Thornton Wilder, who read his verse and suggested that Albee write plays.

But it was five years before Albee wrote anything. “Things just ran down,” he said. Then came Zoo Story. The play opened in Berlin in 1959 and was a huge success. Albee, however, showed no particular elation; he didn’t kick up his heels, he didn’t buy a new suit. And that has been the pattern for the unbroken string of successful openings since. After the opening of Ballad, he thanked the cast for a fine performance, then withdrew to nod and smile his cool, unearthly smile. And yet, says Colleen Dewhurst, “you put your arms around him and you feel a terrible warmth.”

Theater people who have worked with Albee agree that he has enormous talent and a complete professionalism. Actors love to play Albee parts. “You’ve always got a chunk to get into,” said Miss Dewhurst. “His theatrical instincts are phenomenally sure,” said Alan Schneider, perhaps the best of the younger generation of directors, who has directed everything Albee has written since American Dream. Albee maintains a firm control over his scripts, and although he will make changes with good grace, the final decisions are his. And since Albee believes he can write plays better than the Boston critics, he refuses to open his shows out of town. For Ballad, he refused to grant an intermission, thus forcing his audience to give up smoking for more than two hours. “Why not?” Albee says. “They do it in movies.”

Critics who are disappointed in Ballad say it is not really a play at all, but a talking novel. An omniscient narrator stands between the audience and Colleen Dewhurst’s hulking Miss Amelia, the country girl who marries the strongest man in her Georgia village, throws him out of her house when he wants to make love, and years later fights him in the terrible battle — waged over the friendship of the dwarf — that ends the play.

It was not an accident, however, that Albee chose the Carson McCullers story to adapt. The novella follows a theme that runs through Albee’s work — that love between men and women is impossible except as a kind of total warfare.

This theme obviously arises from somewhere near the center of Edward Albee. But it is not quite the core of Albee’s plays. It may not be possible to say what this core is until Albee has written more — currently he is working on two plays and a novel. His writing invites speculation but resists analysis; he is an emotional rather than an intellectual writer.

But any understanding of Albee probably should begin with his preoccupation with hate. Hate is the clay in which he works. The Sandbox and The American Dream, despite their humor, are pure hatred. In The Zoo Story and Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, hate is masked by a contorted face called love. The Ballad of the Sad Café inverts the theme — love wears the face of hate.

Is Albee mellowing in Ballad, and can he stay angry enough to write good plays? No say some observers — his life is too pleasant now.

Still, the inclination is to bet on Albee. No play will be watched more critically than his next one; he is the heir apparent. And it may be that soon the crown will be placed on his neatly furrowed brow, if only Tennessee Williams can remember what he did with it.