Portents of doom from the outsider at the table

Biblical: Edward Albee. photograph: chester higgins jnr/new york times

Biblical: Edward Albee. photograph: chester higgins jnr/new york times

Sat, Feb 16, 2013, 00:00

Edward Albee is 85 next month, which makes him the grand old man of English-language drama. (Brian Friel is almost a year younger.) And yet no major playwright has so uncertain a reputation – perhaps because no major dramatist has written so many bad plays.

Albee has been showered with prizes: four Tony Awards, three Pulitzers, the National Medal for the Arts. Yet he has also been dogged by hostility, ranging from the prejudice he attracted by being the first major playwright to be openly gay from the start of his career to allegations of pretension and obscurity and to the vague aura of disappointment that clings to an artist whose greatest work came so early.

I’ve seen large-scale productions of arguably Albee’s two most important plays in the past week: a very good staging of A Delicate Balance (1966) by Emily Mann at the McCarter theatre in Princeton and a stupendous one of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) by Pam McKinnon for the venerable Chicago ensemble Steppenwolf on Broadway. They clarified one thing at least: that Albee is indeed a crucial American dramatist, a peer of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard and a writer of exemplary scope and ambition. Yet they also brought home something rather odd: that Albee, for all his assaults on American convention, is in fact a highly traditional kind of American prophet.

When you write something like this, it is usually to suggest that what Robert Hughes called “the shock of the new” has worn off and that what was once radical has become cosy. But, certainly in relation to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this is not at all the case. It still, after 50 years, delivers an almost lethal voltage. The brilliant Steppenwolf production, with Tracy Letts (himself a distinguished playwright) as George and Amy Morton as Martha, is perfectly paced and acted with an almost balletic precision. It brings out the mastery of Albee’s design and reminds us why this play is so much better than all the shouty dramas that came in its wake.

But it is also genuinely shocking in its relentless psychological violence. Even in the age of Quentin Tarantino, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? packs a terrible punch. Indeed, George and Martha’s flaying of each other’s psychic skins, and those of their young guests, Nick and Honey, make mere cinematic massacre seem tame. It may well be that in 1962, when audiences were ill prepared for such searing verbal aggression, the shock was even greater. But it sure as hell hasn’t worn off.

One of the main sources of the shock is actually the element of the play that makes it look superficially conservative. Before Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee was at one with most of the post-Beckett avant garde in setting his short plays in imagined, non-naturalistic spaces. But here the setting is almost exaggeratedly domestic: there is a fireside, a sofa, a cardigan, even a pipe. Both this play and A Delicate Balance take place in high-bourgeois sitting rooms and almost literally revolve around the equivalent of its household altar: the drinks trolley. (The thought occurred watching both plays that, dramatically speaking, Albee can match the Irishmen Eugene O’Neill and Tom Murphy drink for drink.) As a gay man and an adopted son, Albee casts an outsider’s cold eye on heterosexual home life. His great achievement is reclam- ing bourgeois domestic space for serious drama. He made the hackneyed territory of domesticity, marriage and family history as wild as any 1960s happening.

The idea behind both plays is, however, a classical American notion, even a religious one. Underneath the sexual, psychic and alcoholic rampages that unfold on stage, there is a familiar cry: repent – or else? Repent of what? Inauthenticity, illusion, what O’Neill called, in The Iceman Cometh, pipe dreams. In that play, whose premiere the young Albee attended in 1946, the conclusion is that mankind cannot in fact stand too much reality.

Albee’s insistence, to the contrary, is that mankind must live without illusion. Or else what? The apocalypse.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance are both backlit by the glow of the end of the world. The campus town where the action of Virginia Woolf unfolds is called New Carthage, a reminder of a civilisation that was wiped off the face of the earth. George also refers to the town as Gomorrah and as Anatole France’s doomed Penguin Island. In A Delicate Balance, the house is invaded by a late middle-aged couple, old friends of the protagonists, who have suddenly been gripped by a nameless terror.

At this distance, we can name that terror as the cold war or nuclear catastrophe. These plays are as much expressions of contemporary paranoia as is The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (It does not seem at all coincidental that Virginia Woolf opened at exactly the start of the Cuban missile crisis.)

But if that were all there was to it, Albee’s major works would seem now like period pieces. Instead they have the perennial force of the thunderous warning of an Old Testament prophet: mend your ways or face fire and brimstone. Who would have thought that so scandalous a figure as Albee would turn out to be so utterly biblical?