Multiple outlets are reporting that Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning playwright Edward Albee, whose works, including Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, helped redefine American theater in the post-war era, has died. A titan of the American theater, it would be difficult to encompass Albee’s entire career—which spanned across 30 plays, almost 60 years, and numerous critical examinations of the art of theater—in a single piece. (For those looking for a longer examination of his work, The New York Times has an intimate portrait of his influence on the modern landscape, both on Broadway and off.)
A lifelong writer, Albee burst onto the theater scene in 1958 with The Zoo Story, a tale of two men trying, and failing, to have a meaningful conversation with each other on a park bench, with disastrous results. Like much of Albee’s work, it centers on alienation, human misery, and the ongoing drive toward self-destruction.
Those themes would reach their apex in 1962, when Albee penned Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? The playwright’s most famous work—he once described it as being “hung about my neck like a shining medal of some sort—really nice but a trifle onerous”—the play centers on an older married couple, George and Martha, who spend their evenings playing vicious verbal games and tearing each other apart. The play was selected for the Pulitzer Prize For Drama by a jury of writers and critics in 1963, but the award’s advisory council rejected it for its profanity and sexual nature.
Woolf went from well-regarded Broadway hit to national sensation in 1966, when Mike Nichols adapted it to the screen with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead parts. Despite worries about negative reactions from moral watchdog groups—outraged by the film’s profane language—Woolf was a massive success, earning Academy Award nominations in every single applicable category and netting Oscars for Taylor and Sandy Dennis. (For his own part, Albee seemed happy enough with the film, although he did express a preference for the studio’s original choices of James Mason and Bette Davis, who he thought might have given the film a deeper, less flashy performance.)
But—as he’d be the first to tell someone—Albee’s career didn’t start or end with Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? He published plays for the rest of his life, with works like The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?—a tale of a family’s destruction by social taboos and bestiality—and Me Myself & I arriving as recently as 2007, and other examinations of familial toxicity dotting his resume throughout the intervening years.
Openly gay, Albee rejected labels, saying in 2011—while receiving one of several lifetime achievement awards—that, “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.” His other accolades include three Pulitzer Prizes that weren’t blocked by would-be censors, and a lifetime achievement award from the Tonys for his contribution to theater.
Speaking to The Believer in 2013—in an excellent, prickly, fascinating interview, including exchanges that wouldn’t be out of place in one of his plays, like:
“Albee: Most trends exist because they’re permitted to exist and have not been slaughtered.
Interviewer: That’s well said.
Albee: I know. I thought it was when I said it,”
Albee also discussed his thoughts on his legacy, and his death:
“Interviewer: How do you want people to remember you?
Albee: I’d love if they’d wait until I die.
Interviewer: I mean a hundred years from now.
Albee: Oh, a hundred years from now. Oh, the fact that they do—that would be enough.
Interviewer: You know it’s going to happen.
Albee: That I’m going to die, or that they’re going to remember me a hundred years from now?
Interviewer: Both of those things.
Albee: That doesn’t necessarily mean that when I die they’ll remember me a hundred years after I die.
Interviewer: I think you probably will be remembered.
Albee: It’d be nice. Although I’m not going to care much.”
He died on Friday at the age of 88.