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Edward Albee: A Singular Journey by Mel…

Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (edition 2000)

by Mel Gussow

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732252,895 (3.88)1
"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 biography he creates a firsthand portrait of a complex genius." "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 writer's as diverse as John Guare and Sam Shepard, and as a teacher and champion of human rights."--Jacket.… (more)
Title:Edward Albee: A Singular Journey
Authors:Mel Gussow
Info:Applause Books (2000), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Tags:Theatre, u

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Edward Albee by Mel Gussow



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Albee, the author of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and other plays, is given a deluxe biographical treatment here from a man who has known him for almost forty years...and sometimes worships him a little too much.

Albee was adopted by a wealthy, emotionless set of parents. His father, Reed, was absent, and his mother, Frankie, was cool and detached. This upbringing, where he was seen more as a possession than a family member, would, of course, affect his writings. Constantly kicked out of schools, and never graduating from college, Albee turned to writing, his first success being "Zoo Story."

"Zoo Story," a short play about a fateful meeting of two men in a park, received mixed notices from assorted playwrights and critics. Here, biographer Gussow overextends his protection of his subject too much. He dismisses the honest critiques of two playwriting giants- Thornton Wilder and William Inge, because they did not understand or like Albee's works. However, a bland positive response by Samuel Beckett is treated like a Dead Sea Scroll, to be picked apart and treasured. I have read "Zoo Story," and it is wordy and preachy.

Albee's next big success was "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," which was turned into the powerhouse film by Mike Nichols. Again, Gussow is flagrant in his criticism of someone involved with the film in order to placate Albee, and here, Nichols. The film's screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, is harshly criticized for opening the play slightly, yet just copying Albee's play. The bio's author, and Albee, make a point of needling Lehman's screenwriting credit on the film. Mike Nichols' former partner, Elaine May, copied the French film "La Cage Aux Folles" word for word, adding what could be described as copious scenes at best, then took a big giant screenwriting credit for Nichols' "The Birdcage." Watch both of those films back to back sometime, it is eye opening.

Gussow also fumbles in his outline of Albee's life. In Albee's less successful years, he is writing weird experimental plays with subjects like a man with three arms, and one play where two of the characters are sea creatures. After mounting all of these failures, Albee is defended endlessly by Gussow, who suddenly contributes an entire chapter about Albee's alcoholism. The alcohol is both a reason his plays were not celebrated, and a defense of the brilliant man.

The entire beginning of the book chronicles the complete lack of love Albee's parents had for him, yet the death of Albee's father is glossed over, barely mentioned. I had to reread the sentence a few times, since no followup is made about Albee's reaction. A whole chapter is devoted to his mother's demise, and her revenge on her own son in her will. More is written about one of his former lovers and honest critics, a frustrated musician. This "A Star is Born" redux is written about nicely.

Gussow does do well in describing Albee's assorted forays into theater, as playwright and director. Dirt about Donald Sutherland and Frank Langella is dished around. The bio's author is honest in Albee's lacking skills as a director, coming to the theater as a playwright and not an actor.

Albee, who prefers to be called a writer who is gay, as opposed to a gay writer, also has kind words for his longtime partner of over twenty years. Albee says a gay writer writes about being gay, whether the work is good or not is moot, since the writer knows the subject and is putting in the final word. A writer who is gay is not tied down to just homosexual topics, and is free to explore society without audiences looking for gay subtexts that do not exist. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a seering look at two heterosexual couples, the sexuality of the playwright is nonessential in light of his characters and their actions.

Gussow wisely keeps talk of Albee's lesser known plays, and the ones readers probably have not read anyway, to a minimum. Albee's triumphant comeback play, "Three Tall Women," is covered extensively. The play is about his mother, and so much more.

Reading this biography will make you curious to seek out some of Albee's other plays, just to see what makes him tick. Over eighty years old now, he is definitely an interesting man, and Gussow does catch that fact better than anything. I recommend this book to theater lovers, and any writer who needs a little inspiration. ( )
  Charles_Tatum | Oct 10, 2019 |
Mel Gussow's abilities as a journalist and his personal friendship with Edward Albee allow him to make this the definitive biography of a great American playwright. I came to read this as I prepared for attending a performance of The Goat or Who is Sylvia?. The theater company had recommended this as the best biography they had found.

Chronicling the life of someone who has become an icon of the American theater is difficult, but Mel Gussow is able to combine the personal, literary, and show business details in a dramatic narrative that does justice to Edward Albee. I was intrigued to discover that among Albee's partners was one of my other favorite playwrights, Terence McNally, but the biography highlights all of Albee's relationships and the importance of each to him and his friends. The difficulties Albee encountered as an adopted child were keen and exacerbated by parents who combined a daunting distance from their son with an attitude that was colder than most New England winters.

His precocity and early development of an inscrutable individuality did not serve him well in the several schools that he more visited than occupied in his youth and it took the combination of Greenwich Village in the fifties and some tentative literary efforts with friends including William Flanagan and McNally among others to bring him to the point of his first success, The Zoo Story. He never looked back and within what would be an amazingly short time for a dramatist of lesser genius he was conquering Broadway with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The rest of the story includes successful dramas (A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women and others); yet there was not always the appreciation his work warranted or he deserved. Published in 1999, Gussow's biography does not include the past decade and Albee's most recent successes as he has achieved the status of America's greatest living playwright, but it provides a rich and rewarding panorama of Albee's ascent to the apex of American literature. ( )
  jwhenderson | Apr 4, 2011 |
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