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Why perform Albee today?

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Photos:  Jack Mitchell/Getty, Fred R. Conrad/NY Times, Gary Landers/The Enquirer, Geffen Playhouse

Lily Janiak, San Francisco Chronicle, September 2016

“We got ... frightened,” says Edna in “A Delicate Balance,” playwright Edward Albee’s most direct and stunning take on the midcentury American condition; she and her husband Harry have just suddenly appeared at the door of their best friends, Agnes and Tobias, asking to stay at their home. At her own abode, Edna can explain only that “we were frightened ... and there was nothing.”

Whatever Edna and Harry are afraid of, we’re all afraid of too. Part of the reason this play and Albee’s full body of work still resonate so strongly is that those same unknowable fears still persist, and we’ve gotten no better at confronting them.

With the death of Albee . . . the American theater lost its greatest living playwright. Albee was a trenchant yet generous investigator of postwar anxiety, a pioneer of absurdism and a wordsmith of such keen, erudite precision — even as he kept his plots and themes mysterious — that his canon can take much of the credit for maturing American drama as a national literature.

That canon includes three Pulitzer Prize winners — “A Delicate Balance” (1967), “Seascape” (1975) and “Three Tall Women” (1994) — as well as an even rarer distinction: that of being recommended for a Pulitzer Prize by the award’s drama jury, for the sexually charged “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1963, but ultimately being denied the honor by the Pulitzer’s advisory board on the grounds of obscenity (which didn’t stop the show from winning a Tony). It also includes the influential plays “The Zoo Story” (1959), “Tiny Alice” (1964) and “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” (2002).

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Ely Landau FILM, 1973

American Players Theater, 2005

Vienna English Theatre, 1991

"Albee came of age with the European absurdists — Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter, among others — but he left his own distinct, American imprint on that literary movement of interrupted logic and non sequitur, of existential questions and sardonic humor.

In Europe, Beckett captured his continent’s Cold War-era dread by transporting audiences to barren, otherworldly landscapes or isolated chambers beyond which, one could only assume, lay a wasted abyss. For Americans, who hadn’t recently seen the devastation of war on their mainland, Albee brought the period’s unease into sharp focus by transferring it into upper-middle-class living rooms, giving American audiences at once a stark reflection of themselves and nowhere to hide from that reflection.

The inhabitants of those living rooms might be boozier and more acerbic than most of us are, but we share the same destiny, Albee warns: to fall apart.

Albee’s domestic worlds were governed by more recognizable rules than those of Ionesco and Pinter. When his characters dispense with polite charades and foray into the unrealistic, they’re often motivated by the human, relatable flaws of selfishness and vindictiveness. If some nebulous external menace plays a part, rewrites a social norm, it never fully takes over; Albee grounded his characters’ decisions at least partly in psychological realism, the truth of who they are."

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"Albee also diverged from his fellow absurdist playwrights in that his characters are strivers. In that way that seems so pointless to Europeans long inured to a status quo of inflexible rank, Albee’s characters want to, and believe that they can, achieve their American dreams: of children and the perfect family, of tenure-track faculty positions and esteem at their social clubs, of one-upping the previous generation in terms of worldliness, liberalism. If postwar fears of mass destruction, of racial and national others, are insidious, Albee posited, the houses of cards we construct to paper over those fears lead us to equally dark places.

In their striving, Albee’s characters veer into mortifyingly intimate terrain.  Yet in this play and all his others, Albee always sustains the possibility that with one genteel corrective, his worlds could right themselves into familiar territory, that each excruciating exchange is but one “just kidding” away from the comfortable arena of bourgeois drama. Of course, the chilling corollary to that is that our own world is just one off-kilter remark away from chaos and savagery."

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Photo by Jerry Speler

"“Do not write something too soon. If you do, and it’s not ready, it will never be finished. Only begin when it is bursting out of you and about to explode. That is when you will know when to write—when it cannot be held inside anymore and has to come out.”

Edward Albee, Teaching at California's Young Playwrights Project

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