Edward Albee: Playwright, Defiant Adoptee

“What could be worse than getting to the end of your life and realizing you hadn’t lived it?” – Edward Albee.

Despite having watched numerous films by W.C. Fields, tons of films from the ’50s and ’60s, and such cult films as Withnail & I, when I sought out stories where drunkenness and/or drinking played a pivotal role, where the Liquid Vampire’s influence was pervasive, my first thought was of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a 1966 American black comedy/drama film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, directed by Mike Nichols, based on a play by the same name by Edward Albee, which I recently completed. The play premiered at the Billy Rose Theatre in New York City on October 13, 1962.¹

(b. March 12, 1928).

Edward Albee is an American playwright known for works such as The Zoo Story (1958), The Sandbox (1959), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

His works are considered well-crafted, often unsympathetic examinations of the modern condition. His early works reflect a mastery and Americanization of the Theatre of the Absurd that found its peak in works by European playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet. Some credit Albee’s daring mix of theatricality and biting dialogue with helping to reinvent the post-war American theatre in the early 1960s.

Albee was born somewhere in Virginia* (one popular belief is that he was born in Washington, D.C.). He was adopted two weeks later and taken to Larchmount, New York in Westchester County, where he grew up. Albee’s adoptive father, Reed A. Albee, the wealthy son of vaudeville magnate Edward Franklin Albee II, owned several theaters. Here the young Edward first gained familiarity with the theatre. His adoptive mother, Reed’s third wife, Frances (Cotter), tried to raise Albee to fit into their social circles.

Lousy student, Defiant adoptee.

Albee attended the Clinton High School, then the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, from which he was expelled. He then was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he was dismissed in less than a year. He enrolled at The Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford, Connecticut, graduating in 1946. His formal education continued at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was expelled in 1947 for skipping classes and refusing to attend compulsory chapel.

Albee left home for good when he was in his late teens. In a later interview, he said:

“I never felt comfortable with the adoptive parents. I don’t think they knew how to be parents. I probably didn’t know how to be a son, either.”

More recently, he told interviewer Charlie Rose that he was “thrown out” because his parents wanted him to become a “corporate thug” and did not approve of his aspirations to become a writer.

Albee moved into New York’s Greenwich Village, where he supported himself with odd jobs while learning to write plays. His first play, The Zoo Story, was first staged in Berlin.

The following Biography was written by Lincoln Konkle, a founding member of the Society and Professor of English at The College of New Jersey.

Edward Albee was given up for adoption shortly after his birth March 12, 1928 in Washington D.C. Although Albee knew he was adopted by the age of six, and therein lay the beginning of his alienation, he only learned the few details of the circumstances of his birth and adoption after his adoptive mother’s death in 1989: his biological father abandoned his mother Louise Harvey and she gave up her son Edward Harvey to an adoption agency two weeks after his birth. Reed and Frances Albee became his foster parents, bringing him to their home in Larchmont, New York when he was only 18 days old; they officially adopted him on February 1, 1929, and changed his name to Edward Franklin Albee III.

The Albee’s were an old American family, having immigrated to Maine in the seventeenth century; an ancestor was one of the original minutemen in the Revolutionary War. Albee’s grandfather, Edward Franklin Albee II (1857-1930), was co-founder and partner with B.F. Keith in a chain of vaudeville theaters located throughout the U.S. Consisting of over 400 theaters, the Keith-Albee circuit, which later merged with other theaters to form RKO (the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation), made the elder Albee millions, subsequently inherited by his son. Reed Albee was the rich-man’s son-type; he worked as an assistant general manager in the company until he retired the year he and his wife adopted their son. Reed had married Frances Cotter in 1925, a year after his first marriage of ten years ended in divorce; it was the first marriage for “Frankie,” who was twelve years younger than Reed. She was tall and imposing, he short and dapper. He bought thoroughbred horses for showing, she rode them and won the ribbons. Frances was working in a department store in Manhattan when she and Reed met; she came from a family of upstate New York farmers that apparently were not a significant part of young Edward Albee’s life, except for his grandmother, who eventually came to live with the Albee’s.

In his own estimation, Albee did not have the kind of carefree, nurtured childhood one hopes for every child growing up. His mother was emotionally cold and domineering; his father was distant and uninvolved in his son’s rearing. Albee’s closest adult relationships were to his nanny, Anita Church, and to Grandmother Cotter. The affluence of his family did expose him to culture: his nanny introduced him to opera and classical music; the library in the Albees’ large Tudor house contained the classics of world literature (though Edward was scolded for removing the volumes which were intended for show and not actual reading); he was driven in a limousine to see Broadway productions deemed appropriate for his age (for example, Jumbo with Jimmy Durante, Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, and Hellzapoppin’); and famous actors and other entertainers such as Ed Wynn were frequent guests in his parents’ home. The Reeds were nouveau riche in an upper-class neighborhood in Larchmont, which is in Westchester County, New York; they were members of the country club and the yacht club, and they had servants. Albee has said that he was in rebellion against their snobbery and prejudice early on, and would later satirize these traits in characters that resembled his adoptive parents socio-economically as well as psychologically. His unhappiness as a child was evidenced by his expulsion from three private preparatory schools: Rye Day School in New York, the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, and Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. However, he found his niche at Choate in Wallingford, Connecticut where he wrote a play, a novel, poems, and short stories in the manner of those published in The New Yorker, an early inspiration (especially the work of James Thurber). Some of these juvenilia were published in the school literary magazine and one poem was published in a Texas literary magazine in 1945. Albee has said that he decided he was a writer as a young child; his teachers at Choate encouraged him in that pursuit. Upon graduation, he matriculated to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he published in the literary magazine and acted in a couple of plays, but was expelled in his second year for not attending required courses and chapel. In that same year he left home (or was thrown out) after a fight over his late night drinking, which ceased all contact between him and his adoptive parents for twenty years.

Riding the swell of the success of 1960 and early 1961, Albee went on a cultural exchange program to South America, along with the production of The Zoo Story, which was actually assailed on the floor of the Senate as filthy, not the last time an Albee play was branded with that label. While he was in Brazil, Reed Albee, his adoptive father, died; Albee did not attend the funeral. Upon his return to the States, he continued writing his first full-length play that he had begun working on the previous year; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was finished by January 1962. As with his one acts, there was praise from readers for the new work in manuscript but it did not immediately find a theatre and the backing to stage it.

Although Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is now canonized as one of the greatest American plays ever written, the critics’ reviews were mixed; that is, they were generally either all praise or all pan, with few in between. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play and five of the six Tony awards for which it was nominated: best play, production, director (Alan Schneider), actor (Arthur Hill), and actress (Uta Hagen). It was denied the Pulitzer Prize, however, because the board of directors did not want to give the award to a “dirty” play. John Gassner and John Mason Brown, the widely respected drama critics who recommended Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the prize, resigned from the Pulitzer committee in protest, and no award in drama was given that year. However, the play was commercially successful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, running for 664 performances. With his earnings Albee purchased a house in Montauk on Long Island and with his producers formed “The Playwrights Unit,” a workshop that helped young playwrights by staging their early dramatic works. Over a hundred plays were produced by Barr/Clinton/Albee between 1963 and 1971, many of them by beginning playwrights who would go on to have successful careers in the theatre: Sam Shepard, John Guare, Lanford Wilson, Amiri Baraka, and others. It was also around this time that Albee started lecturing at colleges. The culmination of the hype over Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Albee meeting President Kennedy at the White House. Thus, he had become a FAM (though not like FAM) with his first full-length play. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? went on to even greater success when Ernest Leman adapted it for the screen, with Mike Nichols directing and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who won an Oscar for best actress in 1967.

Sources:

¹ The Collected Plays of Edward Albee, v. 1 (1958-1965), 2007
* According to Magill’s Survey of American Literature (2007)

Bio: http://edwardalbeesociety.org/biography/

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