Edward Albee, Playwright Of 'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?', Dies At 88 : The Two-Way "All art should be useful," Albee said. "If it's merely decorative, it's a waste of time." The Pulitzer-winning playwright of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? died Friday following a short illness.
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Playwright Edward Albee, Who Changed And Challenged Audiences, Dies At 88

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Playwright Edward Albee, Who Changed And Challenged Audiences, Dies At 88

Playwright Edward Albee, Who Changed And Challenged Audiences, Dies At 88

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of this country's greatest and best-known playwrights has died - Edward Albee. He was most famous for "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Zoo Story," but he wrote many more pointed dramas that earned him several Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes. Edward Albee died yesterday at his home in Montauk, N.Y., after a short illness. He was 88 years old. Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When Edward Albee's play "Me, Myself And I" opened at Princeton's McCarter Theatre in 2008, the first page of the program featured the playwright's letter to an audience. He read it for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

EDWARD ALBEE: I tend to become uncooperative and occasionally downright hostile when people ask me what my plays, quote, "are about," end quote, especially the new ones.

LUNDEN: He went on to say...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALBEE: My plays are infrequently opaque, occasionally complex and can be enjoyed to their full unless you bring to the theatre with you the baggage of pre-determination a play must go like this. So pretend you're at the first play you've ever seen. Have that experience and I think what the play is about will reveal itself quite readily.

LUNDEN: Edward Albee's plays have challenged, engaged and at times confounded audiences since he first burst on the scene in 1960 with "The Zoo Story," an unsettling and ultimately shocking encounter between two men in Central Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE ZOO STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Jerry) He smiled benignly, wrapped a hamburger on wax paper and said, a bite for your pussycat. I wanted to say no, not really. It's part of a plan to poison a dog I know, but you can't really say a dog I know without sounding funny. So I said a little too loud, I'm afraid, and too formally, yes, a bite for my pussycat.

LUNDEN: Ben Brantley, chief theater critic of The New York Times, thinks Edward Albee was one of the great American dramatists.

BEN BRANTLEY: Edward Albee asked questions, the most basic existential questions. He confronts death, he confronts sex with, I think, eyes that remain very wide open.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")

BILL IRWIN: (As George) Just try to stay on your feet. That's all. These people are your guests.

KATHLEEN TURNER: (As Martha) I can't even see you. I haven't been able to see you for years.

IRWIN: (As George) If you pass out or throw up or something...

TURNER: (As Martha) You're blank, a cipher.

IRWIN: (As George) And try to keep your clothes on, too, Martha. There aren't many more sickening sights than you with a couple of drinks in you and your skirt up over your head.

TURNER: (As Martha) A zero.

IRWIN: (As George) Your heads, I should say.

LUNDEN: A scene from the Tony Award-winning revival of Edward Albee's most famous play, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. Despite his protests when we discussed his plays, Albee let this slip out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALBEE: You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about, they're about the nature of identity, who we are, how we permit ourselves to be viewed, how we permit ourselves to view ourselves, how we practice identity or lack of identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA?")

MERCEDES RUEHL: (As Stevie) What's my name?

BILL PULLMAN: (As Martin) Pardon?

RUEHL: (As Stevie) Who am I? Who am I?

PULLMAN: (As Martin) You are the love of my life, the mother of my handsome and worrisome son, my playmate, my cook, my bottle washer - do you?

RUEHL: (As Stevie) What?

PULLMAN: (As Martin) Wash my bottles.

LUNDEN: Albee's questioning of identity came from a deep personal place. He was adopted as an infant by Reed and Frances Albee. His father ran a chain of vaudeville theatres, and his relationship with them was chilly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALBEE: These people who adopted me, I didn't like very much. They didn't like me very much, I don't think. We didn't belong in the same family.

LUNDEN: But it did become grist for his mill. The late Marian Seldes starred in several Albee plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Three Tall Women," a play all about Albee's adoptive mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THREE TALL WOMEN")

MARIAN SELDES: (As character B) You were both such children (laughter). The happiest moment of all? Really? The happiest moment? Coming to the end of it, I think.

LUNDEN: Seldes said as an actress she appreciated Albee's precise, grammatically expressive language.

SELDES: I feel it's like a piece of music, a musical score. I think Edward's punctuation, the ellipses, the number of periods of dots after a line. If you allow it to go into you as you would if you were going to sing, you would follow what he suggests.

LUNDEN: Regardless of the style and the language of each play, critic Ben Brantley says Albee displayed a rigorous clarity of purpose.

BRANTLEY: I think he believes that theater should hold up a mirror to society, not just to show us what we have but to show us what's beneath, what's to the side, to force us to look at things from another perspective.

LUNDEN: Indeed, Albee said it was his mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALBEE: All art should be useful. If it's merely decorative, it's a waste of time. You know, if you're going to spend a couple of hours of your life listening to string quartets or being at plays or going to a museum and looking at paintings, something should happen to you. You should be changed.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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