Last week we lost the playwright Edward Albee, best known for his caustic views of marriage and family relationships, his flights into seeming absurdity, and his uncompromising commitment to writing in his own voice, snarly and difficult and often funny, despite the shock and disdain it elicited from audiences and critics.
The plays of Mr. Albee were my constant companions on my journey through late 20th and early 21st century theatre – how could it be otherwise? More accessible perhaps than the European absurdists who inspired him, Ionesco, Beckett, Pirandello, in American inflected language and recognizably middle class American settings, Albee’s plays were everywhere, in the classroom, community theatres, feature films, college campuses. That omnipresence made him deceptively familiar, at least to me. I saw scenes from his plays presented in acting and directing classes dozens of times, superficially done, without much context or comprehension. Students loved it – loved the opportunity to scream and swear and threaten, and behave in ways that would alarm their parents. That they were completely unequipped to understand the emotional core of some of these plays, not just the aggression and anguish, but the complex and profound alienation that Albee portrayed, is not surprising. The rage, disgust and exhaustion that envelope souls held in loveless or soured relationships comes, alas, with time.
Every small theatre around the country has done Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf once or twice – I never met any actress over the age of 20 who didn’t want – at some point – to play Martha. A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women are also frequently produced, but the main body of his work is often deemed too difficult for the average community theatre audience. As a student I was in a production of The Sandbox and we played it more or less as a comedy. What did we, in our early 20s, know about death and parents and marriage? However, the play in performance was a surprise, and I could never have predicted how incredibly lonely I suddenly felt, as Mommy, how trapped and afraid. Now that I have an elderly parent in decline and in need of constant care, I cannot read The Sandbox without weeping. Hatred and annoyance and anger are indeed there – those dark colors are all part of the picture even in the most loving of families, and Albee seemed to have understood that better than anyone. He was gloriously brave to paint thorny, often unpleasant scenes of damage and complacency, and shine a light on the nasty things in corners.
What is the purpose of theatre? I defer, as always, to Mr. Shakespeare: “…The purpose of playing…was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature…” In other words, to show us to ourselves. We owe a debt of gratitude to the unflinching and brilliant work of Mr. Albee, who followed this mantra with the utmost integrity. I did not know him personally, but understand from others that he was always a generous colleague, and that he loved, deeply loved, the theatre. And perhaps the best manifestation of love is the legacy of truth left behind.
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.