Edward Albee, whose scathing, dazzling, unflinchingly grown-up plays invigorated the theater for more than 50 years, died Friday at his home in Montauk, according to his personal assistant, Jakob Holder. No cause of death was given. He was 88 years old.
The American master, who wrote more than 30 plays, won three Pulitzer Prizes and two Tony Awards (including one in 1962 for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), vigorously continued writing and supporting young playwrights.
In 2007, during an 80th birthday interview with Newsday at his oceanfront home on Old Montauk Highway, he insisted, “I still think I’m 15 most of the time. I go to the gym four days a week and ride bikes. I used to smoke and I used to drink and I stopped both of those around 30 years ago . . . I seem to have far more energy than most people at that awful phrase, my age.”
The vitality, the wit, the purposeful crankiness were always daunting, even if, through the years, they became almost as endearing as they were intimidating.
Ever since he broke into theater history, fully formed, with “The Zoo Story” in 1958, his work crackled with his singular combination of absurdism, hyper-articulate candor and dark humanism.
“I’d been writing an awful lot of mediocre poetry and two terrible novels,” said Albee, who migrated to Greenwich Village after a troubled academic life, including being expelled from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1947 for missed classes and compulsory chapel. “All of a sudden, I was turning 30 and, if I was going to write anything worthwhile, I should start.”
His early life was luxurious but unhappy. Adopted as an infant by Reed Albee, the powerful vaudeville producer, he was reared in affluence in Larchmont. “I felt a sense of myself pretty young, being an orphan and adopted into an environment that I loathed and people whose values I despised and having to grow up around all of that,” he explained. “It gave me a sense of self that perhaps other kids don’t get as early as I got it.”
“Three Tall Women,” which won the Pulitzer in 1994, was based on his conflicted but compassionate memories of his estranged adoptive mother, who rejected him for his homosexuality and threw him out of their privileged home when he was 18.
The drama, one of his many with extraordinarily strong and complex female characters, is the rare work specifically inspired by his own life. He always bristled at attempts to interpret his work through his biography. “Every character I write is limited by my perceptions, of course . . . But I don’t like biography. I invent. These biographers who say, ‘well, obviously if he hadn’t done this in 1971, he wouldn’t have been able to write this in 1999.’ . . . That diminishes people’s awareness of invention. And it’s just ridiculous.”
“Virginia Woolf,” his most famous title, brought its own controversy. Although the Pulitzer jury voted it the prize in 1963, the board — reportedly shocked by the language and the bitter candor — overturned the decision and gave no award that year. In 1967, he won for “A Delicate Balance,” a chilling and exquisitely subtle psycho-social dance about a rich suburban family whose neighbors move in because they are suddenly, mysteriously afraid.
Rosemary Harris, who created the role of the alcoholic sister in the original “Delicate Balance” and switched to the main character in the 1996 Tony-winning revival, once said that Albee’s wild verbal demands are like “riding a tidal wave. You have to trust him to take you to shore. It is thrilling . . . and addictive.”
The middle of his career was not all smooth sailing. In 1983, Albee fell out of fashion after the Broadway failure of “The Man Who Had Three Arms,” a surreal nightmare about the seduction and destruction of sudden failure.
For most of the next decade, he was in unofficial New York exile but worked in Europe and regional theaters. Asked about that time, he said with a characteristic mix of defiance, humor and fatalism, “I started getting lousy reviews after I decided not to write ‘Son of Virginia Woolf II.’ So I shrugged and went about my business. You can’t let them make you a victim, they can’t make you afraid of yourself.”
Vindication began with an all-Albee season at off-Broadway’s Signature Theater in 1993-1994, when his merciless emotional terrorism and wildly articulate language were appreciated anew.
In a 2011 interview with the London Telegraph, Albee traced that soaring language to his childhood love of classical music. “I think I learned something about the nature of dramatic structure from the nature of the music I was listening to,” he said. “I probably think of myself half the time as a composer.”
He did not, however, think of himself as a gay playwright, but, rather a “playwright who happens to be gay. I’m white. I’m male. I’m educated. I belong to many minorities and being gay is one of them. So what difference does it make?”
Sculptor Jonathan Thomas, Albee’s companion for 35 years, died of bladder cancer in 2005. Albee kept his ashes in the main house of the three-home Montauk estate, bought with the profits from “Virginia Woolf.” He filled his residence with contemporary art, most by his accomplished friends. Albee also kept an apartment in downtown Manhattan, but he called the East End house his “heaven. This is where I do an awful lot of work.”
Devoted to nurturing new talent, Albee continued to oversee the Edward F. Albee Foundation — a summer colony for artists — on 4 ½ acres near his home. Among his many honors are the National Medal of Arts, the MacDowell Medal, the Kennedy Center Honors, and, in 2005, a Tony for lifetime achievement. He judged many competitions, including, for many years, Newsday’s Oppenheimer Award for first plays produced in New York. He also taught playwrights for two decades at the University of Houston.
He was touchingly hopeful about the future of theater. “There is nothing to replace the present tense, the live experience,” he said. “It is happening while you experience it, which is quite wonderful.”
Several years ago, before undergoing extensive surgery, Mr. Albee penned the following note to be issued at the time of his death: “To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love.”
Highlights of more than 30 plays by Edward Albee
- “The Zoo Story,” 1958
- “The American Dream,” 1960
- “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Tony Award, 1962
- 1966 movie, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, won five Oscars
- “Tiny Alice,” 1964
- “A Delicate Balance,” Pulitzer Prize, 1967
- “Seascape,” Pulitzer Prize, 1975
- “The Play About the Baby,” 2001
- “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?,” Tony Award, 2002