One of America's finest playwrights has left the stage. Edward Albee, a winner of two Tony awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama, died yesterday at his home in New York. He was eighty-eight. The playwright was known as someone who enthralled - and sometimes repulsed - audiences with his unsparing portrayals of contemporary life.
Albee's first professional production, The Zoo Story, opened in Berlin in 1959 on a double bill with a play by Samuel Beckett. Albee's play told of the encounter of two men sitting on a bench in New York's Central Park. It was followed two years later by his best known play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play which won the Tony award for the year's best drama.
I have told this story here before, but in 1966 when the movie version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf came out, it was a highly controversial film. I was just out of high school and in my freshman year at Southwest Missouri State College in Springfield when the movie came to the Gillioz Theatre. It was probably not something that I would have rushed out to see - if not for the fact that a group of fundamentalist Christians led by a former conservative congressman and regular Reader's Digest contributor, O.K. Armstrong, held daily protests outside of the theatre. Those protesters made the Fox company - which owned the Gilloiz - a pile of money!
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was a twisted tale of two couples having dinner together. George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) were an older couple, a college professor and his wife, and their guests were a young professor and his wife (George Segal and Sandy Dennis). The social evening quickly descended into a mudslide of drunkenness, cursing, and serious psychological abuse. There was however, no nudity.
At the same time, across town at the Tower Theatre where I worked selling concessions, a Swedish movie was playing called Dear John which was a love story of sorts between a shipmaster and a waitress - with an abundance of nudity. The manager of the Tower, A.C. "Mac" McDonald was incensed that the Gillioz was getting all of the attention and free publicity from the sign-carrying fundamentalists, while he was showing the dirtier of the two movies!
Edward Albee, who was not yet forty at the time Mike Nichols made Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf into an American cinematic classic, still had five more decades of good writing ahead of him. His dramatic oeuvre would grow to become one of the more extensive and respected in the annals of the American theatre. Albee was a skilled observer and reporter of American life and culture.
A great writer has taken his final bow and left the stage - but his work will live on.