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A CurtainUp Book Review
Edward Albee: A Singular Journey

by Susan Davidson

The first reading of The Zoo Story showed me how the theatrical cobwebs that eternally hand over stages then and now can be swept away by a bench, two characters, and the plain truth. All the splendors of seemingly profound films, beautiful musicals, dazzling performances, electrifying directorial concepts and all that, were suddenly childish compared with the bone simple shattering truth that play dramatically expresses, which a whole country faced thereafter.
--Romulus Linney quoted in Edward Albee: A Singular Journey

In Edward Albee, A Singular Journey, biographer Mel Gussow makes two telling references. The first is a photograph of the biographer with his subject taken in Albee's West 10th Street apartment in 1963. Gussow, who has written on theater and the arts for the New York Times for decades, also mentions that he too was living in Greenwich Village at that time, across the street from Albee. The second reference is to a dinner party chez Gussow, at which Albee and fellow guest Joseph Papp screamed epithets at one another. These guys go back a long way. Then why, a reader might ask, is Journey not a better book.

I cannot answer that question. But I do know that Gussow is long on some details and very short, abysmally short on others.

Edward Albee is the adopted son of an affluent and previously childless couple who seem to epitomize the hard drinking WASP country club couple whose marriage as well as their scotch is on the rocks. They do not divorce; theirs is a living hell a scene played out again and again in their son's writing. Neither parent could be bothered to spend any time with their adopted son whose rebellious nature and alienation manifests itself early in life. For twenty years, Albee had no contact with either parent. He failed to return from Brazil for his father's funeral and, although in her later years, Albee's mother was visited regularly by her son, her death was followed by what many consider Edward Albee's most vitriolic and autobiographical play, Three Tall Women.

Journey is long on chronological details we are treated to the number of women Albee slept with (3) and the names of the West Village bars habituated by gays in the pre Stonewall era. What Gussow fails to expose though is the intellectual ambiance of the time. The West Village circa the late 1950's up until Stonewall was more than a meet/meat market. It was a place of enormous creativity and originality of thought. Similarly Gussow fails to give the reader even a precis of some of Albee's plays especially the early ones The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith. Those scripts may have been hot topics on campus thirty-five years ago. Today, they are virtually unknown.

The genesis for Albee's middle and later plays is easily discerned. Gussow's list of artistic influences on Albee includes such diverse cultural icons as August Strindberg's Dance of Death, and the Punch and Judy-like television puppet show Kukla, Fran & Ollie. Marital discord and the imaginary child have always been at the heart of Albee's writing, culminating in the author's greatest success, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And even when dealing with Albee's early adulthood search for his biological parents, Gussow drops the subject as quickly as he brings it up. We never do find out who they were.

Meanwhile, what we do learn about Albee that his home life was that of a poor little rich kid; that boarding school afforded him opportunities for homosexual liaisons and not much academic instruction; that he has a life-long history of being kicked out of schools, bars, dinner parties and so on. That his favorite job was (when he was very young) as a messenger for Western Union -- "Outdoors. Exercise. Interesting people. Typewriters to be borrowed or stolen." That his alcoholism and temper were frequently uncontrolled. That his life (real and artistic) is dominated by the notion of the discrepancy between the child as idealized by parents and the child that exists. That his artistic bent is not just verbal, he collects art and knows how to live well. But what makes this very complex man of no small intellect tick remains a mystery.

Editor's Note: The only way to see if you agree or disagree with Susan's assessment is to read the book. To read other reviews or buy a copy on line go here

©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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