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Albee, Edward (b. 1928)  

Edward Albee holds a problematic position in the histories of American drama and of gay drama. For a handful of years, he seemed to be the heir to the late Eugene O'Neill and to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, who had, by the early 1960s, lost their winning streaks. However, Albee was something of a has-been by the mid-1960s.

Unlike his predecessors, Albee had his early success off-Broadway with a series of one-act plays, The Zoo Story (1958), The American Dream (1960), and The Death of Bessie Smith (1961). His first full-length play was the controversial three-and-a-half-hour Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1963), his first Broadway hit.

During the ensuing years, Albee alternated increasingly arid original plays with adaptations of stories and novels by contemporaries like Carson McCullers (The Ballad of the Sad Cafe [1964]) and James Purdy (Malcolm [1966]).

By 1970, Albee was a forgotten playwright whose later plays, The Lady from Dubuque (1980), Lolita (1981), and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983), hold places only in the pantheon of major Broadway disasters.

In 1991, however, Albee had a major success with Three Tall Women, a play whose central character is a dying woman who has spurned her gay son. In 2001, Albee's The Goat or Who Is Sylvia, a tale of taboo love, which may be a parable about homosexuality, won the Tony Award for Best Play.

Albee's place in the history of gay drama is as ambiguous. His early off-Broadway work was, for its time, daring in his mention of homosexuality and its implied . The Zoo Story is a Central Park confrontation between Peter, an ineffectual wealthy man, and Jerry, a counter-cultural figure intent on telling his life story and driving someone to kill him. Jerry's world is the zoo of the title, a brutal universe in which God is "a colored queen in a kimono," indifferently filing his nails. Here, as elsewhere in Albee, love and violence are conjoined: Loving is the ultimate act of violence, violence is the most effective expression of love. The American dream is a scantily clad, beautiful but heartless male hustler.

Yet Albee's homosexuality and the gay subtext of his early work came to haunt him. Some critics, angered by Albee's scathing picture of modern marriage in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, insisted that George and Martha, the feuding central couple in the play, had to be a crypto-gay couple (by this logic The Taming of a Shrew is a crypto-gay play) or that the play was an act of homosexual spite. By this time, leading New York critics were becoming increasingly hostile toward the more openly gay work of Williams, William Inge, and Albee.

When Albee's allegorical Tiny Alice, in which a cardinal and a lawyer are bickering ex-lovers, opened in 1964, critics attacked furiously. Phillip Roth, chronicler of heterosexual neuroses, lambasted the play's "ghastly pansy rhetoric." Indeed, the most famous production of Tiny Alice, by William Ball at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, turned Albee's obtuse religious allegory into a homoerotic camp extravaganza.

It is true that Albee's only theatrically vital women have more than a touch of the about them and that there is always a hint of the homoerotic about his male-male confrontations. Conventional heterosexual marriage, which is always depicted as infertile, and heterosexual all-American boy-men are his favorite targets. However, Albee saw himself as a satirist of the American condition and not a dramatist of the gay community. As a playwright who staked his success on Broadway in the 1960s and 1970s, he had no choice. However, his critics, though seldom fair, were partly right: It is impossible to ignore the far from gay homosexuality in Albee's plays.

John M. Clum


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Edward Albee in 1961.
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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Although largely invisible to the general public, a large body of twentieth-century gay male literature by American authors was published prior to Stonewall, some of it positive but most of it tinged with misery or bleakness as the price of being published and disseminated.

literature >> Overview:  Modern Drama

Before Stonewall, censorship of the theater caused authors to encode homosexual content in publicly-presented plays.

arts >> Barr, Richard

Theatrical producer Richard Barr is most famous for producing the works of Edward Albee, introducing the European Absurdists to Broadway, and presenting the seminal gay drama, Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band.

arts >> Diamond, David

One of the leading American composers of the twentieth century, David Diamond created music that is melodic and lyrical even as it jumps with modern energy.

arts >> Drivas, Robert

Actor-director Robert Drivas brought a provocative sexuality and an emotional intensity to his stage and screen performances at a time when the male body was being liberated as the object of the audience's gaze.

literature >> Inge, William Motter

Although he was closeted and created few homosexual characters, playwright and novelist William Inge frequently acknowledged the existence of gay culture and desire in both his dramatic dialogue and prose.

arts >> Innaurato, Albert

Playwright Albert Innaurato's plays are as remarkable for the marginalizing ethnic identity, sexual orientation, and body image of their characters as they are for the author's refusal to adopt politically correct attitudes.

arts >> Kert, Larry

Gay actor and singer Larry Kert introduced some of the most memorable songs in American musical theater.

literature >> McCullers, Carson

The fiction of the sexually ambiguous Carson McCullers offers uncomfortable resistance to the social ideal of neat heterosexuality.

literature >> Purdy, James

James Purdy's novels often describe obsessive love between men for whom homosexuality is unthinkable and whose fate is inevitably bleak.

arts >> Shaffer, Sir Peter

British dramatist Peter Shaffer emerged in the 1960s in the paradoxical guise of the last great twentieth-century poet of the numinous who was also capable of writing commercially successful plays that could be turned into equally successful films.

literature >> Williams, Tennessee

Conflicted over his own sexuality, Tennessee Williams wrote directly about homosexuality only in his short stories, his poetry, and his late plays.

arts >> Yeomans, Lee Calvin "Cal"

A trailblazer in post-Stonewall gay theater, Cal Yeomans explored sex and sexuality so directly in his critically-acclaimed plays that it made his work difficult to produce even in the gay community.


Albee, Edward. Selected Plays of Edward Albee. Garden City, N.Y.: Nelson Doubleday, 1987.

Bigsby, C. W. E., ed. Edward Albee, A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1987.

_____. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, II: Williams, Miller, Albee. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1982.

Clum, John M. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia, 1992.

Sarotte, Georges-Michel. Like A Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theatre from Herman Melville to James Baldwin. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978.


    Citation Information
    Author: Clum, John M.  
    Entry Title: Albee, Edward  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 24, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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