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Edward Albee, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? among many others, died Friday at the age of 88 following a short illness, according to his longtime personal assistant.
Albee didn't particularly like it when people asked him what his plays were "about." As he wrote in a 2007 letter to the audience of Me, Myself and I, that question made him "become uncooperative — and occasionally downright hostile." Albee acknowledged that his plays could be "occasionally complex" but were "infrequently opaque." The best way to enjoy them, he advised, was without any baggage. "Pretend you're at the first play you've ever seen," he suggested. "Have that experience — and I think 'what the play is about' will reveal itself quite readily."
Albee's plays have challenged, engaged and, at times, confounded audiences since he first burst upon the scene in 1960 with The Zoo Story — an unsettling and, ultimately, shocking encounter between two men in Central Park.
Ben Brantley, chief theater critic of The New York Times, thinks Albee was one of the great American dramatists. "Is there anyone else who dares to take on questions that are that big?" Brantley asks. "I'm not talking about questions of politics or immediate topical issues. Edward Albee asks questions — the most basic existential questions — he confronts death, he confronts sex with, I think, eyes that remain very wide open."
Despite his protests, when we discussed his plays, Albee let this slip out:
"You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about: They're about the nature of identity," he said. "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."
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 theaters — and his relationship with them was chilly.
"These people who adopted me I didn't like very much and they didn't like me very much, I don't think," Albee said. "We didn't belong in the same family."
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.
Seldes said that as an actress, she appreciated Albee's precise, grammatically expressive language.
"I feel it's like a piece of music, a musical score," she said. "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."
Regardless of the style and the language of each play, Brantley says, Albee displayed a rigorous clarity of purpose.
Brantley says Albee believed that "theater should hold up a mirror to society — but not just a mimetic mirror — 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."
Indeed, Albee said it was his mission.
"All art should be useful," he said. "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."