Edward Albee's first produced play, the canny, eruptive two-character drama "The Zoo Story," reinvented Off Broadway as the locus of experimental theater at almost the moment the '50s flickered into the '60s. Three years later, Albee became the first American playwright nurtured on the work of Samuel Beckett and the other absurdists to open a show on Broadway -- and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," though it shocked and upset some of New York's more conventional critics, provoked much comparison, just or unjust, to Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.
But slowly at first, then with increasing speed, Albee lost his foothold. The plays that followed "Virginia Woolf" baffled and alienated audiences and many critics (though two of them won Pulitzer Prizes), and a mere decade after the fireworks over "Virginia Woolf" he was already thought of as a has-been. By the time he wrote what would be his comeback drama, "Three Tall Women," in 1991, he had disappeared so effectively from the cultural consciousness that it took him three years to get the play produced in Manhattan.
I'm not drawn to the Albee plays between "The Zoo Story" and "Three Tall Women," despite having enjoyed the theatrics in Mike Nichols' 1966 movie version of "Virginia Woolf" and the high comedy in Gerald Gutierrez's 1996 Broadway revival of "A Delicate Balance." So I approached Mel Gussow's biography, "Edward Albee: A Singular Journey," hoping it might bring me closer to the playwright, or at least show me what I've missed and why I shouldn't dismiss the lion's share of his work as rhetorical rather than dramatic, ostentatious rather than probing.
But I came away from the book without much additional insight. Gussow is a longtime champion of Albee's work, and he's known Albee for more than three and a half decades -- which makes him the playwright's logical first biographer but not, perhaps, his most perspicacious one. He rarely offers a negative response to any of the plays, and his attempts to accord the worst duds some value can make your eyes glaze over. Here he is (quoting his own radio review) on 1980's "The Lady from Dubuque": "Mr. Albee contemplates the appearance of truth, man's need for an identity even if assumed. In this game we can choose our own roles to play ..." Based on that assessment, would you buy a ticket?
In Gussow's scheme, Albee's "singular journey" from initial stardom and promise to the triumph of "Three Tall Women" parallels his growth into self-knowledge (and sobriety). It's not a terribly original idea, and it's persuasive only in the most generalized way: Presumably any artist who's spent his life reflecting on the elements that have shaped him -- Albee's work has always been infused with details from his own life, particularly his unhappy childhood -- would attain some degree of self-understanding by the time he reached 63 (his age when he wrote "Three Tall Women"). But the conceit does give the book some shape and some forward drive.
Gussow isn't a compelling stylist:
[Writing a play] is, one might suggest, something like the birth of a baby, and as Beckett said, it can be "a difficult birth." The baby -- the play -- emerges intact. It would not be a reach of the metaphor to add that some "children" are healthier than others, but that Albee, as mother and father, loves them all.
And his puzzlement over how best to assemble the information he's gathered about the influence of Albee's personal life on his plays keeps leading him back to the same points.
Moreover, Gussow's affection for Albee causes him to shy away from a gossipy tone even in his report on Albee's youth in Greenwich Village, when he became part of a hard-drinking gay crowd presided over by his mentor and first partner, composer William Flanagan. You may respect Gussow's reluctance to dish, but the humorlessness with which he renders Albee's relationship with the wealthy, unloving Westchester WASPs who adopted him, Reed and Frances Albee, weighs down the book. Frankie Albee was, by all accounts, a character and a half: elegant, aristocratic, bigoted, self-willed, domineering, perverse -- and given, in her later years (when she and Edward, who left home at 21, had effected a fragile reconciliation), to repeating extraordinary stories about her sex life with Reed. A less reverential biographer would have a lot more fun with her.
Gussow supplies a handful of good theatrical tales -- Donald Sutherland's outrageous behavior during rehearsals for Albee's disastrous dramatization of "Lolita" in 1981; a 1978 dinner party at Gussow's where a sozzled Albee took on Joseph Papp. And he's sharp at locating Albee's dramaturgical sources: not only Strindberg, Pirandello and the absurdists but also "The Iceman Cometh," "Suddenly, Last Summer" and, surprisingly, James Thurber.
"Edward Albee: A Singular Journey" is worthy -- too worthy, finally, to make Albee's journey seem convincingly singular.