THEATRE / The tall guy: The playwright Edward Albee has picked up a third Pulitzer Prize. Americans still don't like him. It's a personal problem, he tells Paul Taylor

When the New York critical establishment lavished well-nigh unanimous acclaim on his latest play, Three Tall Women, Edward Albee's first reaction was one of amused suspicion. 'So what did I do wrong?' he asks in a tone which, like much of his conversation, maintains a perfect patrician poise between laconic self-mockery and casually assumed superiority.

A good press for a new work by Albee certainly sounds like a contradiction in terms. Long gone are the days when, as the new enfant terrible of the off-Broadway and Broadway stages, he was being lauded for works like the brilliant one-act duologue Zoo Story (1959), which pushed its way through and beyond Ionesco / Pinter territory, or that lacerating marital slugfest (and major international success) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

And even at that time, he points out, the notices were always (contrary to legend) about fifty-fifty for and against.

For Three Tall Women, 66-year-old Albee has been awarded his third Pulitzer Prize (the other two were for A Delicate Balance in 1967 and Seascape in 1975). Picking up Pulitzers might sound, to the majority of playwrights, like a fairly enviable way of lacking popular recognition in one's native land, but Albee's case sharply illustrates how there's no necessary relationship between winning gongs and finding favour with Broadway audiences or critics. Despite its garlands, Seascape (conversational mixed doubles on a beach between a middle-class American couple and a pair of large lizards, highlighting the shortcomings in human evolution) ran for only two months. And before the current comeback, no work of his had been seen on the Great White Way since 1983 when The Man Who Had Three Arms (a fable in which the hero shoots to celebrity after sprouting this extra limb and slumps back to anonymity when it atrophies) staggered through a 16-day run after a comprehensive critical withering.

It's no surprise to learn that the now-feted Three Tall Women had its world premiere outside the US - at the English Theatre in Vienna, a venue which also furnished the birthplace for Marriage Play (1988), a work as yet unproduced in the States. Europe has proved a more receptive audience for his work since his plays took a marked turn - from the stinging visceral theatricality that got him dubbed the American Strindberg to what some regard as a courageous, never-out-of- the-same-hole-twice experimentalism, and others highbrow anaemic abstraction, full of fancy echoes and fussy compositional devices. England seems to have taken the second position. The last new play of his staged here was All Over (1971).

'Luckily, I have never believed in my own publicity,' says Albee, whose droopy moustache and bony, weathered face bring an incongruous touch of the Wild West to that spruce, East Coast urbanity. 'The great error was to pigeonhole me as a Broadway playwright. I'm not. I am a playwright - and for a period Broadway was responsive to my work.' About the current state of play (and of plays) there, he's scathing. 'There are two straight plays running on Broadway now. One is Tony Kushner's (fastidious pause) semi-musical extravaganza,' he reports with droll disdain, having liked the script but not the production of Angels in America. 'The other is that British play about set changes, because all British plays are about set changes these days, aren't they?' - which is certainly one way of describing Stephen Daldry's expressionist take on An Inspector Calls. 'The rest are those hideous musicals.'

Three Tall Women, the play that has brought him in from the cold, could be seen as an attempt to exorcise the memory of his adoptive mother, Frances Cotter Albee, a head-turning 6ft-tall department store mannequin and the third wife of Reed Albee, heir to the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theatres. The fact that he never knew his natural parents, and grew up as the acquisition of a moneyed, bigoted Westchester-Palm Beach couple whose values he rejected, is crucial to his art. 'It's always allowed me to be objective about them.' The perspective from which his work views the world is that of the outsider-orphan, arrogantly his own self-invention and unconstrained by sentimental pieties.

The mother who threw Albee out when he was 18 (by which stage, he'd had a lot of practice at being thrown out of schools, and was an acknowledged homosexual) turns up in fictionalised form in Three Tall Woman as a senile, incontinent 92- year-old dowager, attended in her grand bedroom by her secretary and young female lawyer. At the end of Act 1, she suffers a stroke, but in Act 2, though a body lies unconscious in the bed, the conventions of this game have changed, passing from exterior realism to internal reality. The dowager reappears, mobile and talking coherently, while the secretary and lawyer have metamorphosed, during the interval, into versions of this woman at the age of 52 and 26 respectively.

Like All Over, Three Tall Women turns into a death-watch play ('What could be worse', says Albee, 'than coming to the end of your life really having failed, and nothing to be done about it?'), but with this difference: thanks to the cross-section of selves convened in the play, the woman forms her own death-watch committee and gets to converse with herself, revealingly, at three different stages of her evolution. We come to understand the pressures and responsibilities that turned her into the monster she became and we see the youngest self recoil in horrified denial of her future fate. What he failed to recognise at the time, Albee now realises, is that Frances herself was 'fighting for survival', translated through her marriage to a swish milieu that did not welcome her and aware that her husband, twice married before in any case, had very nearly got hitched to another tall woman, Charlotte Greenwood, a comedian who did the splits.

Of course, in any settling of accounts with parents, the artist has the final say, even if, as here, it takes the form of giving the parent the final say three times over. In the control seat now, the artist has switched positions with the parent. The three voices with which he endows his fictionalised mother are both lifelines and ropes with which she can hang herself. I wondered how Frances Albee would have reacted to the show. Albee twinkles bitchily, 'Well, we're all good at self-deception. She was even able to see The American Dream and The Sandbox without recognising herself .

. .' Also, though he agrees that the most endearing line of the play is the 92-year-old's 'I mean, give a girl a break', he's careful to point out that it's not something his mother ever could have said. Clearly, this is no rose-tinted reconciliation.

Most artists are genetically fated to share characteristics with the parents they repudiate, characteristics that show up in the work in unconscious ways (one thinks here of John Osborne and his mother). The adoptive Albee rejoices in his freedom from all this, though he realised that the stand he took against the reactionary Albee values might initially have had more to do with his position in the household than with principle. He's never tried to find his real parents, I discovered, but he's now reached an age, he says, when doctors, examining him, ask, 'Do you have a family history of this?' 'I say, 'I haven't the faintest idea.' They say, 'Maybe you should find out.' Well, maybe I will.' In a tragicomedy, of course, he would discover that he was an Albee by blood all along - a situation which would have much to offer that clinical outsider-orphan eye.

'Three Tall Women' opens at Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2, on Nov 15.

Booking: 071-369 1736 (Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain