Show People: Reach out, Albee there: Edward Albee

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The Independent Culture
THE AUTHOR whose play Three Tall Women opens in London next month is the winner of three Pulitzer prizes for drama - a jackpot trumped only by Eugene O'Neill's four. Yet Edward Albee's work has not been seen on Broadway since a 1983 production of The Man with Three Arms which lasted barely a fortnight after the New York Times described it as 'a temper tantrum in two acts'. No new play of his has appeared in London since All Over in 1972.

Albee's zigzag career between the heights and the pits can be matched by more than one English playwright over the same period. But to spectators of my generation, for whom Albee embodied the American avant-garde - the youngster who came out of the lofts and church halls of the East Village to conquer Broadway - there is a fairy-tale unreality in witnessing the golden boy's come-back as a battle-scarred Rip van Winkle.

Albee first emerged in 1959 with The Zoo Story, which put him straight on the international map. In this park-bench one-acter, a nervy young drop-out forces himself on a staid middle-class citizen, teases him with confessions and barbed ambiguities, and finally goads the inoffensive victim into killing him. It was a clear fable, dazzlingly told, which lent itself to multiple interpretations. On one point all parties were agreed; Albee had moved beyond the shadow of Ionesco and Pinter, and established a new front line in the drama of human contact.

Three years later he followed this up with his first full-length play, still by far his best-known one - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This posed no interpretative problems. It offered, under cover of an all-night campus drinking party, a marital fight-to-the-finish, stripping off layer after layer of comforting illusions and exposing the stone-age savageries of American academe. Denied a Pulitzer prize because of its naughty words, the play was a worldwide success and earned Albee (not entirely to his pleasure) a reputation as an American Strindberg.

He never enjoyed such a triumph again. The plays that followed - notably Tiny Alice (1964), A Delicate Balance (1967) and All Over - had their supporters, transferred to foreign stages, and sometimes achieved good runs. But something fundamental had changed. Albee, the newcomer with fire in his belly, was now writing as an eminent artist with a name to keep up. Where formerly he had just been a thrilling dramatist, he became known as a baroque stylist.

Now, in the case of Three Tall Women, it may be that Albee has regained the attention of the American public through a return to autobiography. The character of the footloose Jerry in The Zoo Story related to his memories as a Western Union messenger; the new piece represents an attempt to exorcise the memory of his adoptive mother. For many authors it is a point of honour to disclaim autobiography; not for Albee, an orphan of unknown origins, who acknowledges that he turned to writing as a means of inventing an identity which society failed to supply.

Born in 1928, he was adopted by Frances and Reed Albee; Reed was heir to the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville houses. So Edward had a privileged childhood, marred by a series of Holden Caulfieldesque educational misadventures (including a head-on collision with the Valley Forge Military Academy), and by a stormy relationship with Mrs Albee, who threw him out of the family's Westchester County home when he was 18. He then moved to New York and took the job with Western Union which, he once told me, was the happiest time of his life.

I met him in 1969, before the RSC production of A Delicate Balance. It was a guarded encounter. I did not care for the literary turn his plays had taken. Their echoes of Eliot and Beckett seemed a smokescreen, simultaneously asserting high-culture credentials and laying claim to non-existent profundities. Albee, on his side, denied that his work posed any problems. How could anyone fail to understand Tiny Alice? It was 'a simple, straightforward metaphysical melodrama'.

His plays, he said, were musical compositions, and really required critics versed in the rules of counterpoint. Writing, he said, was a process of knowing when he was 'with play' and then handing creative responsibility over to the unconscious. If the work sometimes lacked any resolution, this was because 'catharsis should take place in the mind of the spectator some time afterwards. The objective is to infect audiences with the plague.' (An unnamed plague features prominently in A Delicate Balance.)

And so on. Some of it made good sense. But for a Broadway-based writer it sounded not so much aesthetically courageous as suicidal. And so it proved.

For a time the ritual slaughter of the latest Albee piece was a regular Broadway event. Finally came The Man With Three Arms, in which the hero becomes a celebrity after sprouting a third arm, and a nonentity again when it withers away. Reviewers were quick to draw the parallel with Albee's own supposedly atrophied talent. After which, he embarked on a peripatetic life, directing his plays around the country and teaching a playwriting course at the University of Houston, while nourishing the idea of writing under a pseudonym.

His exile ended with the 1991 premiere of Three Tall Women at the American Theatre in Vienna. In this piece, it seems, Albee has come out into the open as never before. If he has done so with anything like the energy and insight of his early work, then London audiences will have a night to remember.

'Three Tall Women', starring Maggie Smith: Wyndhams, WC2 (071-369 1736), previews from 28 Oct, opens 15 Nov.

(Photograph omitted)