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If you like Edward Albee's story, you might also like:
Sally Field,
Athol Fugard,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Jeremy Irons,
James Earl Jones,
Trevor Nunn,
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and Wole Soyinka

Edward Albee can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

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Albee Foundation
Kennedy Center
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Edward Albee
Edward Albee
Profile of Edward Albee Biography of Edward Albee Interview with Edward Albee Edward Albee Photo Gallery

Edward Albee Biography

Three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama

Edward Albee Date of birth: March 12, 1928
Date of death: September 16, 2016

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  Edward Albee

Edward Albee Biography Photo
Edward Albee was born Edward Harvey in Washington, D.C. At the age of two weeks, he was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Reed Albee of Larchmont, New York, and renamed Edward Franklin Albee III. From an early age, Edward Albee knew that he was adopted, but he has never attempted to locate his birth parents.

The Albees enjoyed wealth and social position from the family's interest in a national chain of theaters. The Keith-Albee organization had played a dominant role in the American theater since the 19th century, from the days of vaudeville and the great touring companies and into the era of motion pictures, when the chain merged with two other companies to become Radio-Keith-Orpheum, the parent company of the RKO motion picture studio.

Through his family's business, Edward Albee was exposed to the theater at an early age and developed a passionate love for the arts, but his adoptive parents expected him to pursue a more conventional business or professional career. From the beginning, he found himself at odds with his adoptive family over their expectations for him and his own artistic ambitions.

He was expelled from two private schools before graduating from Choate, and dropped out of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut midway through his sophomore year. At 20, he broke with his family and moved to Greenwich Village. He never saw his father again, and would not see his mother for 17 years.

Edward Albee Biography Photo
For the next decade, Albee lived off of a small inheritance from his grandmother, supplemented by a succession of odd jobs, such as one delivering telegrams for Western Union. Enthralled with the artistic ferment of Manhattan in the 1950s, he absorbed every innovation in art, music, literature and the theater. After unsuccessful experiments with poetry and fiction, he finally found his calling in writing for the theater.

At age 30, he completed his first major work, The Zoo Story. The play received its world premiere in Berlin, Germany in 1959, and opened Off-Broadway the following year. This startling one-act, in which a loquacious drifter meets a conventional family man on a park bench and provokes him to violence, won Albee an international reputation as a fearless observer of human alienation. Albee brought absurdism to the American stage with his one-act plays The Sandbox and The American Dream. In the same period, he dramatized America's simmering racial conflict in a more conventionally realistic short drama, The Death of Bessie Smith.

In only a few years, Albee emerged as the leading light of the burgeoning Off-Broadway movement. By 1962, he was ready to storm Broadway, the bastion of commercial theater in America. His first Broadway production, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was a runaway success and a critical sensation. The play received a Tony Award, and Albee was enshrined in the pantheon of American dramatists alongside Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

Edward Albee Biography Photo
A searing evening in the company of two unhappy married couples, Albee's play also drew its share of criticism. When the Pulitzer Prize drama panel voted to award Albee the year's drama prize, the Pulitzer Committee overrode their choice on the grounds that the play did not represent a "wholesome" view of American life. No drama prize was awarded that year and half of the drama jurors resigned in protest. History has long since vindicated their original judgment. In the four decades since its debut, the play has been produced around the world, and is now regarded as an indispensable classic of modern drama.

Albee's adoptive father, Reed Albee, died before the success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but in 1965, Edward Albee attempted a reconciliation with his adoptive mother, Frances. Relations between the two were never easy, but Albee worked hard at the relationship until his mother's death in 1989. With the profits from Virginia Woolf, Albee created the Edward F. Albee Foundation in 1967. The foundation sponsors a summer artists' colony in Montauk, Long Island, where the playwright makes his summer home.

Albee's work in the 1960s ranged over a wide variety of forms and styles, from straightforward literary adaptations, such as a stage version of Carson McCullers's novel Ballad of the Sad Café, to frankly experimental works such as the one-acts Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. The violently anti-clerical allegory Tiny Alice was met with responses ranging from frank bafflement to outright hostility when it opened in 1965. Albee even made one brief, unhappy foray into musical theater with an adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's, cancelled before it even opened.

Edward Albee Biography Photo
The Pulitzer Committee finally honored Albee in 1967 for his metaphysical drawing room drama A Delicate Balance. Another play dealing with two troubled couples, A Delicate Balance tempered the apparent realism of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with a faint touch of the absurdism of Albee's early one-acts. It foreshadowed the technique of many of his later works, in which improbable situations, expressionistic devices or elements of fantasy mingle with utterly realistic characters and dialogue.

For many years, Albee was unable to repeat the success he had enjoyed with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but he continued to engage difficult subject matter, as in All Over (1971), a stark look at death and the aging process. Albee won back the New York audience with Seascape in 1975, an expressionist fantasy in which two couples meet on the beach at Montauk. One couple is human; the other, a pair of anthropomorphic lizards who discuss love, relationships and the evolutionary process. As bizarre as the idea sounded on first hearing, the result was both humorous and moving. The play charmed audiences and critics and won Albee his second Pulitzer Prize.

Edward Albee Biography Photo
After Seascape, the New York theater turned its back on Albee again. In the 1970s, he was drinking heavily and had fallen far behind in his taxes. Ready at last to curtail some of the excesses of his youth, he quit drinking and embraced a more sober and disciplined way of life. Critics and audiences remained lukewarm to his work for much of the next decade. Plays such as The Lady From Dubuque (1980) and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983) had their admirers, but met with outright critical hostility and enjoyed only limited runs. Nearly 15 years passed without a new Albee play enjoying a successful run in New York, but Albee remained committed to the theater, serving on the board of the Dramatists' Guild and directing revivals of some of his earlier plays.

In an era of Hollywood-style "play development" by committee, Albee remained an uncompromising defender of the integrity of his own texts, and a champion of the work of younger authors. Over the years, he scrupulously reserved part of his time for the training of younger writers. He conducted regular writing workshops in New York, and from 1989 to 2003 taught playwriting at the University of Houston. He persistently asked young writers to hold themselves to the highest artistic standards, and to resist what he saw as the encroachment of commercialism on the dramatic imagination.

Edward Albee made a triumphant comeback with Three Tall Women in 1994. Praised by many critics as his best play in 30 years, it struck many students of Albee's work as a final coming to terms with the memory of his vital but domineering adoptive mother. The play won every award in sight and earned Albee his third Pulitzer Prize. In 1996, Albee was one of the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors and was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Edward Albee Biography Photo
Albee enjoyed a resurgence of creativity at century's end. The Play About the Baby (1998), was followed by a surprising success, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? (2002). The same year, Albee, a passionate art-lover, unveiled Occupant, a dramatic study of the sculptor Louise Nevelson. Unexpectedly, he revisited the characters of his first play, The Zoo Story, in a new work, Homelife, to be performed with The Zoo Story under the collective title Peter and Jerry.

A revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was one of the hits of the 2004-2005 Broadway season. Although the play had enjoyed many successful revivals over the decades, its return to Broadway in the 21st century prompted critical re-evaluation of his long career. Days after his interview with the Academy of Achievement, the American Theater Wing presented Edward Albee with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, recognizing him as America's greatest living playwright.

Peter and Jerry reappeared in yet another incarnation as At Home in the Zoo in 2009. In a later work, Me Myself and I, a painfully narcissistic mother and her sons, identical twins both named Otto, struggle with troubling questions of kinship and identity. Me Myself and I opened at New York's Playwrights Horizon in 2010. Admiring reviews and enthusiastic audiences confirmed that in his ninth decade, Albee's work had lost none of its power. Edward Albee's status as America's greatest living playwright remained unchallenged at the time of his death in 2016.

This page last revised on Sep 16, 2016 20:42 EDT
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