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In 1960, Edward Albee electrified the theater world with the American premiere of The Zoo Story, and followed it two years later with his extraordinary first Broadway play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Proclaimed as the playwright of his generation, he went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for his searing and innovative plays. Mel Gussow, author, critic, and cultural writer for The New York Times, has known Albee and followed his career since its inception, and in this fascinating biography he creates a compelling firsthand portrait of a complex genius.
The book describes Albee's life as the adopted child of rich, unloving parents and covers the highs and lows of his career. A core myth of Albee's life, perpetuated by the playwright, is that The Zoo Story was his first play, written as a thirtieth birthday present to himself. As Gussow relates, Albee has been writing since adolescence, and through close analysis the author traces the genesis of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, and other plays. After his early triumphs, Albee endured years of critical neglect and public disfavor. Overcoming artistic and personal difficulties, he returned in 1994 with Three Tall Women. In this prizewinning play he came to terms with the towering figure of his mother, the woman who dominated so much of his early life.
With frankness and critical acumen, and drawing on extensive conversations with the playwright, Gussow offers fresh insights into Albee's life. At the same time he provides vivid portraits of Albee's relationships with the people who have been closest to him, including William Flanagan (his first mentor), Thornton Wilder, Richard Barr, John Steinbeck, Alan Schneider, John Gielgud, and his leading ladies, Uta Hagen, Colleen Dewhurst, Irene Worth, Myra Carter, Elaine Stritch, Marian Seldes, and Maggie Smith. And then there are, most famously, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who starred in Mike Nichols's acclaimed film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The book places Albee in context as a playwright who inspired writers as diverse as John Guare and Sam Shepard, and as a teacher and champion of human rights.
Edward Albee: A Singular Journey is rich with colorful details about this uniquely American life. It also contains previously unpublished photographs and letters from and to Albee. It is the essential book about one of the major artists of the American theater.
The American playwright Edward Albee's greatest glories came early in his career. When his first play, The Zoo Story, debuted in Provincetown, Mass., in 1960, he was called, as Gussow (cultural writer for the New York Times) puts it here, "our homegrown equivalent of Beckett." After his masterpiece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was staged in 1962, Albee was heralded as the voice of his generation. Then came two decades of debilitating alcoholism and commercial and critical flops. However, his most recent play, 1997's Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women, has returned him to the spotlight. In this biography, Gussow demonstrates that Albee's life has always been riven with contradictions. The playwright's youth--born in 1928, he was the adopted son of an extremely laconic owner of a chain of vaudeville theaters--was unhappy. Perhaps as a result, Albee has always been drawn to idyllic images of family life in literature. Still, in his extensive interviews with Gussow, he describes his own escape from marriage and "two-and a half kids" with great relief. "What did I think I was doing?" Albee asks of his brief engagements. "I was going to bed with boys from age thirteen on and enjoyed it greatly." Nonetheless, Albee is still fuming about '60s critics who questioned his ability to understand family life, pigeonholing him as a "homosexual" writer whose female characters are either misogynistic travesties or stand-ins for male lovers. A friend and ex-lover of Albee's once complained of "forever trying to penetrate your iron curtain." Here, Gussow adroitly accomplishes that feat, never shying away from the complexities of the elusive playwright's troubled personality and his still potent artistic vision.