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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Edward Albee
(b. 1928)

Albee’s association with the theater began early. Two weeks after his birth in Washington, D.C., Albee was adopted by the wealthy owner of a chain of vaudeville theaters, Reed Albee, and his wife, Frances. Theater people came and went during Albee’s childhood, many visiting the family at their lavish house in Larchmont. The young Albee attended the theater in New York City and began writing both poetry and plays. He continued writing throughout his fitful academic career—he was dismissed from two prep schools before graduating from Choate and was later dismissed from Trinity College while a sophomore. At twenty-two, Albee left home and lived in Manhattan during the 1950s—working as an office boy, a salesman, and a Western Union delivery boy. The constants in his life were writing and theater-going.

According to a story which has by now become legend, Albee wrote The Zoo Story just before his thirtieth birthday on a wobbly table in his kitchen in the space of three weeks. The play then followed a circuitous route that ended with its being produced at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt in Berlin in 1959. That play received American production, on a double bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, in January of 1960; The Sandbox was produced in April of that year at The Jazz Gallery in New York City. With The Death of Bessie Smith, these plays comprise Albee’s first works for theater.

The Sandbox treats characters that were to appear later in his The American Dream. The materialistic, and mechanistic, married couple—intent on killing off the wife’s troublesome, aging mother—create a seaside idyll that must end with the death of the 86-year-old woman. Working within clichés of both language and social behavior, Albee maps the nastiness of the inhuman “Mommy” and “Daddy.” Replete with suggestions of sexual impotence that controls social power, the very brief play (requiring only fourteen minutes to perform) packs a world of content into its few lines. In this play, the son of the couple becomes the Angel of Death; in The American Dream he is a much more active agent of social coercion.

Albee’s first full-length play and biggest box office success, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was produced in 1962, preceded by The American Dream (1961) and followed by Tiny Alice (1964), A Delicate Balance (1966), Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1968), All Over (1971), Seascape (1975), and others. Each play is marked by Albee’s inventive handling of dialogue. While colloquial, his language is pared to essentials. Albee plays with words—from the puns in Tiny Alice to the long sentences filled with qualifiers in A Delicate Balance. Clichés, revivified for the theatrical purpose at hand, appear frequently.

Albee’s earliest plays remain among the best-known American drama of the last century, dealing with human loneliness, the inability or unwillingness of people to connect with others, and about the illusions people maintain in order to ignore the emotional sterility of their lives. Although Albee’s worldview is existential, his focus is psychological, not metaphysical. He is not an absurdist playwright either stylistically or thematically, but rather part of the continuing American (and English) experimentation with basically realistic theater.

Carol A. Burns
Southern Illinois University

In the Heath Anthology
The Sand Box (1960)

Other Works
The American Dream and The Zoo Story (1961)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)
Sandbox and The Death of Bessie Smith (1964)
The Plays, vol. 2 (Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, Box, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung) (1981)
The Plays, vol. 3 (Seascape, Counting the Ways and Listening, All Over) (1982)

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A Timeline
A chronology of Albee's work.

Interview with the playwright Edward Albee
Transcripts of an interview conducted by Eric Marchese.

The Man, the Plays
Provides a biography and a complete list of works.

Secondary Sources