Edward Albee Explored the Dark Passages of the American Dream

George Segal and Elizabeth Taylor in a still from the film 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.'

George Segal and Elizabeth Taylor in a still from the film ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’

Every so often you encounter a great figure by accident. Your introduction to him is unsullied by versions of him that others have formed. You have the luxury to take your time to form your opinion about his work. Edward Albee had that ideal materialisation in my life years ago.

I found him in a convoluted manner – in the search for another great figure, Virginia Woolf. I had disliked her famous novel Mrs Dalloway, but she still intrigued me, especially as a woman living at a time that was inhospitable to many aspects of her personality. I lamented the fact that she had not written more on the subject that formed the basis of A Room of One’s Own — feminism. I started looking for versions of her life captured by others. It was thus that I found Albee, with a frail connection between them. The use of Woolf as a metaphor in the title of his play resurrected her in a way that took her out of the annals of an exclusive literary world, and made her socially significant.

The play in question, undoubtedly Albee’s most famous work, has nothing to do with Virginia Woolf, except that revealing that the family lives of “normal people” – the two couples in the play are George and Martha, and Nick and Honey, all from the academic world – can be very problematic. The play was selected by the Pulitzer Prize by the jury in 1963, but the decision was overruled by the advisory committee. No prize for drama was awarded that year, and two jury members resigned in protest. Subsequently he went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for his plays in 1967, 1975 and 1994, cementing his place in the world of drama.

The slow unravelling of Martha and George’s inner lives in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? echoed another play I had read earlier that year – The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. It also had a substantial absurdist features more popularly attributed to the work of Samuel Beckett. What impacted me the most, however, was the intense frustration the two women in the plays experienced. Honey and Martha’s dysfunctionalities were manifestations of the same paralysis – of not having the possibility to pursue their desires within a social structure defined strictly by gender roles. In such a reading of the two characters bound by their context, I found another resonance in the play with Woolf’s own life.

Although the setting of the ‘Virginia Woolf’ – post-war America – was a few light years away from the reality that engulfed us as college students in the India of five years ago, we felt witness to how its larger values could painfully unfold in everyday domestic settings. It taught us to empathise with the wide spectrum of human reality and the many different ways of throwing light on them – even if in an unconventional manner as Albee’s.

I didn’t venture further into his other plays, my curiosity finding home elsewhere. Their grimness and probing qualities too proved difficult to sustain, and as far as memory goes, I don’t recollect any adaptations making their way into visible theatre circuits in India. As I read obituaries that detail his oeuvre, I feel a slight embarrassment. If he is indeed one of the greats of American drama, why had I not felt inspired to read more of his work? Did it have that innate quality that all great works of literature have, and I just happened to not connect strongly with it?

The attention to his work in some of the prominent media channels is reminder that it matters little. Albee’s is the art one can appreciate if on has had the privilege of a long literary education, and the motifs in his plays represent evolved struggles characteristic of, but not always restricted to, the elite. A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women – the ones for which he won the Pulitzer Prizes – are among his most memorable ones, exploring different trajectories of the prominent themes couched in ‘Virginia Woolf?’ The tenuousness beneath an enviable American modernity, the slow withering of marriage and intimate relationships, mortality, the delusions that make living more bearable.

There seems to be a coherence of intent running through his work – to tell an unbridled truth by drawing focus to the superficial layers we build to bury it. I should take care to mention though, that Albee himself was dismissive of judging a play on its intent; the architecture of its execution as important to him. Only the regulars at Off Broadway, where many of his plays were staged, can testify to that. But as is the tendency of critics and applauders alike to identify and place a man of proven talent within a larger legacy, they called him a successor to the greats of American drama – Tennessee Willams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, continuing the tradition of the canon.

Albee himself was not one to play to the gallery, and of his failed plays he maintained that it was for the audience to catch up with him, which of course is a bit condescending but artists cannot be politicians. If I had read more of his plays, or better, seen them on Off Broadway, I would have found validation for my general scepticism of shiny facades, and the compulsive need to dig deeper. In an impulsive moment, I might have even related it to the existential crises taking root in India’s urban modernity. He was an enlightener of the darker, subterranean motions of life, and by virtue of that enabled a catharsis for his audience – perhaps even accelerated sharp realisations that could avert great follies. Astute psychological understanding of situations and their compelling depictions bestow an immediate maturity on people, often moving them enough to live with grace.

Albee may not have been a literary hero but there are parts of his work that evoke association. Upon his death, I do not want to change the impression and feel forced into a retrospective obituary of unrestrained praise. He, I am sure, would have been the first to dismiss it.

Edward Albee passed away on 16 September 2016, aged 88.

Niharika is a freelance writer based out of Mumbai. She writes on books, gender and occasionally, sport.