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

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The Independent Culture
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)