x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Playwright Edward Albee to receive prestigious award

The famously acerbic American playwright Edward Albee is to be the next recipient of the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

The playwright Edward Albee will receive in August the Edward MacDowell Medal for Lifetime Achievement.
The playwright Edward Albee will receive in August the Edward MacDowell Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

After a particularly savage review, the famously acerbic American playwright Edward Albee once spat, "the difference between critics and audiences is that one is a group of humans and one is not." His response to another: "The only time I'll get good reviews is if I kill myself."

Of course, as the many Pulitzer and Tony awards over the years have proved, the author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has not, in the end, had to carry out that particular threat.

But you could excuse Albee a wry smile this week. After years of battling with the establishment - "There is almost nothing on Broadway that engages the mind," he once said - and barely disguising his contempt for the idea of the American dream, last Wednesday the 83-year-old won his remaining critics around. Not that there were many of them left. It was announced that in August Albee is to be the next recipient of the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

Since the inception of this annual American award in 1960, The MacDowell Medal has been awarded to writers such as Alice Munro and composers such as Leonard Bernstein, but to only two other playwrights: Thornton Wilder (1960) and Lillian Hellman (1976). Albee was, then, an obvious choice for the selection committee, with chairman Andre Bishop calling him a "towering presence in American theatre… his plays have influenced our culture and our discourse for over 50 years."

Such announcements are often prone to hyperbole, but Albee unquestionably deserves these plaudits. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, from 1962, remains his most famous work: a raw, emotionally naked, and razor sharp chronicle of a destructive marriage in middle-class America. In 1966, Mike Nichols adapted it for the big screen, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton playing the couple who spar with each other in front of their friends. But revivals since then have revealed the witty side to this coruscating play - and Albee himself is said to believe it's a love story in its own peculiar way. Burton and Taylor (who won an Oscar for her performance) will forever be associated with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but the high praise afforded to the current production in the UK suggests Albee's lacerating words still have huge potency.

His subsequent plays similarly punctured the myth that all was well in the American middle class. Perhaps his lack of regard for social status comes from his own background - Albee's adoptive family tried as best they could to ease him into affluent New York circles, but quickly found he was intent on being his own man. Albee was expelled from two fee-paying boarding schools and then college - before his own parents threw him out too. All of which, one suspects, was useful material for his first Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1967. A Delicate Balance ripped open the lives of anxious, semi-alcoholic upper-middle-class suburbanites for all to see. His next Pulitzer winner, 1975's Seascape, was more fantastical (there are talking lizards), but still investigates a couple with deep life and relationship problems.

The third Pulitzer came for Three Tall Women, which again drew from his personal experience (specifically the strained relationship with his mother) to reflect more broadly on dysfunctional lives. Typically, Albee told The Economist at the time: "It was a kind of exorcism. And I didn't end up any more fond of the woman after I finished it than when I started it.''

It was the timing of the play that proved as interesting as its subject matter - Three Tall Women was written a full 30 years after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Albee's work has, at times, been a little uneven - but he's one of the few living playwrights who've continued to actually write, rather than be seduced by Hollywood or fall gracefully into retirement.

One of Albee's most famous sayings (and there are plenty of them) is: "If you're willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly." And he has certainly done both. It was an interview in the Los Angeles Times in 2009 that revealed what makes him tick - and, perhaps, why he's become so important. When Albee was asked what his function is as a playwright, he replied that he wished to hold the mirror up to people and say: "This is the way you're behaving. If you don't like what you see, change."

In Albee's plays, then, the truth doesn't just hurt. It stings.