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BOOK REVIEW: Mel Gussow's Edward Albee: A Singular Journey

by Charles Tatum

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

Albee was adopted by a wealthy, yet 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. Yet, 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 seventy 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.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1176
originally posted: 08/04/04 05:01:12
last updated: 08/15/04 03:47:11
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