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Edward Albee: American playwright's goal is to stir humans to change

Albee views drama as a catalyst and creates plays that hold up a mirror to human behavior and make people think.

By Carol StricklandContributor / September 22, 2010

Zachary Booth (l.) plays one of a pair of identical twins, both of whom are named Otto (the other is played by Preston Sadleir), in Edward Albee’s ‘Me, Myself, and I.’

Joan Marcus

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In 30 plays over half a century, Edward Albee has outraged, engaged, entertained, and puzzled – some would say baffled – the public. The octogenarian playwright hopes he has also prodded his audience to think about issues that matter. The legendary actress Elizabeth Ashley, starring in Albee's latest play, "Me, Myself and I," (at Playwrights Horizons theater in New York City from Sept. 12 to Oct. 10), calls him "one of the great artist-warriors" and "a hero of humanity" who is "fighting for that which is most valuable in civilization."

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Although lauded as the conscience of the American theater, Albee doesn't create hortatory, agitprop dramas as were popular during the Depression. Popularity has never been his problem; many plays have been deemed impenetrable, overly cerebral experiments. After his 1983 play "The Man with Three Arms" was roundly denounced (a Variety critic calling it "an intolerable audience ordeal"), no new, full-length plays by Albee appeared in New York for a decade.

During this partial eclipse, Albee kept speaking out for artistic freedom, teaching at the University of Houston, and writing plays, which were produced in regional theaters and Europe.

Not until 1993-94, when the Off-Broadway Signature Theater Company devoted its season to his work and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Three Tall Women" was performed in New York, was his reputation resuscitated. Now he's acclaimed as America's preeminent living playwright, a testament to perseverance and refusal to compromise one's vision.

Rebirth in rebellion

Emily Mann, director of the new play and artistic director of Princeton's McCarter Theatre, calls Albee "one of the true greats" in the pantheon of dramatists, rating his work "at the very top" of world dramatic literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. The accolades are impressive: three Pulitzers (the others were for "A Delicate Balance" in 1967 and "Seascape" in 1975), three Tony Awards, and a 2005 Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.

On presenting Albee with the National Medal of Arts in 1996, President Bill Clinton paid tribute to him, saying, "In your rebellion, the American theater was reborn."

Ever since "Zoo Story" (1958) and his masterpiece "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1962), Albee has been writing complex, complicated plays full of barbed dialogue. His works probe dysfunctional family dynamics and reveal moral and spiritual vacuity at the root of characters' complacency. He views drama as a catalyst for change, saying in a recent interview, "If a play is not socially useful, if it doesn't have content and make people think intelligently, it's a waste of time." He adds, "Plays hold a mirror up to us and show us how we're behaving and why we shouldn't [behave that way], and maybe we should learn how to behave better and more usefully."

Yet he adamantly denies writing plays with an overt message. His works – far from opaque but also far from simplistic – demand audience involvement to decipher their meanings. "My plays are accessible," Albee says, "if you wish to access them."