‘What could be worse than getting to the end of your life and realising you hadn’t lived it?’ – Edward Albee
It’s never a great omen when a famous person of a ripe old age is trending on Twitter. And so I learnt, yesterday, that American playwright Edward Albee had passed away.
Albee owes himself a post-mortem pat on the back – not just for having reached the impressive age of 88, but for how he lived throughout those years.
Adopted at the age of two by a theatre magnate father and a New York socialite mother, Albee, if not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, certainly landed one quickly.
However, despite his father’s connections, Albee never received a nepotistic leg-up in the arts world. He left home – or was thrown out, depending on which account you believe – before he turned 20, after clashing with his adoptive folks over his aspirations to become a writer. We might safely assume that career was as hard a sell back then as it is now. But it seems the three-time Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist had the last laugh.
Albee was also openly-gay from the age of 12 and a half – a young age to come out even now, let alone in 1940s America – and happy as Larry about it at his all-boys boarding school.
‘I had none of this panic or regret or all this misgiving about being gay or queer. None. I loved it. I thought it was wonderful.’ – Edward Albee
His life embodies the dream of most creative people; a life which, if not as materially rich as Albee’s eventually was, is at least enriched by appreciation of and contribution to the arts. As an ex-boyfriend’s mother used to say – paraphrasing, I suspect, someone a little more eminent – ‘An artist is never poor.’
It was with the same ex-boyfriend that I first watched the film adaptation of Albee’s best-known play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. As precocious 17 year olds left to their own devices are wont to do, we raided his parents’ alcohol supply – and sat drinking White Russians (The Big Lebowski had also featured on our film-watching schedule that summer) as we watched.
Albee’s play is a triumph of art’s ability to explore those dark, disturbing impulses in us all, and how they play out in relationships. The film, starring the irresistible duo of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, is a credit to it.
While there are moments of exquisite tenderness between the pair, most of the action illuminates the ugly, toxic nature of their marriage; how it has intensified and embittered their own personal failings; how they have used illusion as a coping mechanism.
Author Gillian Flynn has even referenced the play as one of her great influences for ‘Gone Girl’. You can read more about her influences here.
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ends with this lethally entwined couple moving into a new phase because they destroy an imaginary child, and Gone Girl had Nick and Amy, a lethally entwined couple, also moving to a new phase.’ – Gillian Flynn
Albee is succeeded not only by his award-winning plays, but also his charitable legacy to the arts. He was, until his recent death, president of the Edward F. Albee Foundation Inc, which provides financial aid to aspiring artists and writers (he was, it seems, a little less idealistic than my ex-boyfriend’s mother when it came to young penniless creatives).
So, while death – all death – is sad, a life as well-lived as Edward Albee’s is worth celebrating. To finish, here’s a letter that Albee wrote to his loved ones to read after his death.
‘To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love.’