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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? first opened on Broadway on October 13, 1962. The play won both the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play and the 1962-63 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. It was also selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, though subsequently withdrawn after objections to the language and sexual themes.

In 1966 it was filmed with the then married Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film was the only one to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards. Each of the four main actors was nominated for an Oscar but only Taylor and Sandy Dennis (Honey) won, for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. The film itself won the Black and White Cinematography award for Haskell Wexler’s stark, black-and-white camera work (it was the last film to win before the category was eliminated). The film also received the BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source.

In Albee’s own words, the play deals with, “the destructive forces of various falsities in relationships.”  Interviewed while he was writing the play, he said it also had “something to do with what I thought The American Dream had to do with – the substitution of artificial for real values in this society of ours. It’s sort of a grotesque comedy.”  The title is taken from graffiti Albee saw one night, scrawled on the mirror behind a New York bar; he has said it means, “who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, which means who’s afraid of living life without delusions?” and the play is about stripping away illusion.

Despite the fact that it is only one of over 40 plays written by Edward Albee, its success has been a double edged sword. As Albee himself wrote in the programme notes for the Almeida’s 1996 revival of the play: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hung about my neck like a shining medal of some sort – really nice but a trifle onerous.”  Onerous perhaps, but it is without doubt one of the finest crafted plays with some of the best dialogue ever written.

The playwright - Edward Albee

Edward Albee is one of the most enduring and influential American playwrights of the twentieth century. Born in Washington in 1928 he was adopted at 18 days old and grew up in an affluent if emotionally chilly home with servants and an adoptive mother, Frances who was, according to Albee’s biographer Mel Gussow, “imperious, demanding, and unloving.” Despite being thrown out of various private schools. Albee was writing from an early age.

He was 31 when his first play The Zoo Story was first produced in Berlin. It shared the bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and seemed to herald the arrival of a new exponent of Absurdist theatre. Other plays quickly followed; The Sandbox (1959) and The American Dream (1960), but it was in 1962 that Albee truly found himself universally hailed with his masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

He has been described as a classic dramatist, spoken of with the same respect as Tennesse Williams, Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller. He has inspired playwrights like Sam Shephard and David Mamet and earned the respect and friendship of others such as Harold Pinter. “There is a great sense of danger in Edward’s work, and you never quite know what’s going to happen next,” said Pinter.

During his life Albee has struggled with dangerous demons of his own. Aware that he was gay from the age of 8, he suffered a lack of acceptance from his family, in particular his mother, and developed a self-destructive propensity for alcohol early in his life. When the critics began to turn on him in the 1980s he retreated from Broadway and began teaching drama and directing his own plays. He also established a foundation for promising artists near his second home in Montauk, Long Island.

To date Albee has written 28 plays over 44 years, some of them feted as works of literary genius, others slated as vitriolic rants. He has won Tony Awards and 3 Pullitzer prizes. At his most successful, says Michael Billington, Albee “has the ability to say difficult things within an acceptable framework – he takes what looks like the marriage play, the family play, and then makes you realise that something unnerving is happening behind it all.”

Edward Albee is still alive and at the age of 80 is apparently working on a sequel to The Zoo Story. While his long term partner was undergoing treatment for cancer Albee remained stoical about life. “Remember what Beckett said, ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.'”