“I try to, but I can’t control the world,” Edward Albee once said. He was being modest — and uncharacteristically so. Because in the world of his creation, a world in which the stage churned with resentment and bubbled with anxiety and simmered in ambiguity, Albee was consummately in control.
A maestro of linguistic control of international caliber, to be sure, on a par with his fellows in the pantheons of modernism and absurdism, Ireland’s Samuel Beckett and Britain’s Harold Pinter. Both of those giants were awarded Nobel Prizes for literature, and how Albee eluded the Nobel Committee’s similar approbation is a puzzlement that leaves, in the wake of his death on Friday at the age of 88, a lamentable missing passage on an extraordinary résumé.
There were loads of other awards — enough Tonys and Pulitzers to fill a trophy case — and for the period after the deaths of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and August Wilson, the unchallengeable distinction of being America’s greatest living playwright. That title, alas, flickers with less radiance now than at previous moments in the country’s cultural history. But Albee’s talent, like that of these other remarkable dramatists, could stand up to such a hyperbolic designation. And Albee, who like them was a dyed-in-the-wool theater man with no small appreciation for his own powers, would have been the first to agree.
At his death, we are left to wonder when next — if ever — will emerge another playwright of such sustained achievement and breathtaking consequence.
Over a career that spanned seven decades, he wrote masterpieces and little pieces, continuing to do so into old age. He won his last major competitive prize, a Tony, at the advanced age of 74 — for “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”— a play as prickly and peculiar and outrageous as any in his canon: the story of a world-class architect who confesses to his family, and the world, that he has fallen passionately in love with a goat. The play, produced on Broadway in 2002 and at Arena Stage three years later, had a premise so laughable it might have been smothered in a cradle of derision. Instead, it spoke to us, touchingly, about love and its absence, about the heart and its inscrutable chambers, about secrets harbored in the intimacy of marriage.
It was hilarious, too, owing to one of the surest tricks up Albee’s sleeve: comic evisceration. If the pregnant pause was Pinter’s calling card, Albee’s was venom. In the play that guarantees him immortality — 1962’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — the titanic clash between George, the milquetoast college professor, and his embittered wife, Martha, Albee invented whole new depths for stage combat of the verbal variety. Their cascade of lacerating put-downs — which will be heard again this winter, in a revival at Ford’s Theatre directed by Aaron Posner — has passed into legend and echoed in pitched marital battles on stages ever since.
Indeed, Albee milled his language so meticulously as theatrical conversation that it comes as no surprise that so little of his work drew major Hollywood interest, aside from the 1966 film version of “Virginia Woolf” directed by Mike Nichols. The movie won five Oscars, including those for Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis who played, respectively, Martha and Honey, the latter an intimidated young house guest toyed with, along with her husband, Nick, by George and Martha.
Such has been the influence of “Virginia Woolf” that it’s impossible today to imagine characters dreamed up by a slew of gifted dramatists who followed, from Tony Kushner to Tracy Letts, having such colorful mouths on them, without the models Albee supplied.
Albee’s childhood in the New York suburbs was deeply unhappy, a boyhood in a home with parents he found domineering or unavailable. Of course that scarring imposed itself on his art, contributing to a jaundiced view of family life and a propensity to abstract the bonds of social interaction. The leading characters in some other significant plays, identified merely by single letters (such as in 1991’s “Three Tall Women”) or generically as “Man” and “Woman” (1998’s “The Play About the Baby”), underline the distancing that goes on in his work that is sometimes interpreted as a tendency toward extreme opacity. But a late allegorical drama such as “The Play About the Baby” represents, for me, Albee’s clear-eyed worldview, in its dramatization of an urbane older couple attempting the daunting task of unloading the burden of their knowledge of life on a couple starting out.
The sense of loneliness in a toxic world that one detects again and again in Albee’s plays gets its most compelling manifestation in his other unqualified masterpiece, the chilling “A Delicate Balance” from 1966. “A dramedy of the inarticulate fears marinating in the martini glasses of the elite,” this reviewer called it, after a seating at a splendid revival at Arena in 2009. In one of the great metaphors theater has come up with for the existential angst of modern American life, a well-heeled suburban couple show up, uninvited, at the home of their equally affluent friends, asking if they can move in. They’re just too afraid, they say, to live in their own house anymore.
The threads of Albee’s greatness all come together in “A Delicate Balance”: the withering comic jabs, the touches of absurdity, the idea of terrors that lurk just beyond the cocoons of our illusions. If we don’t have him anymore, we’re fortunate to still have this, and all of the wisdom of the drama he’s bequeathed.