(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/11.)
After being born – on 12 March 1928, in Washington DC, to Louise Harvey – the writer was “surrendered for adoption” because (according to Mel Gussow’s biography A Singular Life) the father had “deserted and abandoned both the mother and the child”. At the age of 18 days, he was adopted by a rich New York couple, Reed and Frances Albee. The recurrent themes in his work of identity, alienation, inheritance and lost children can be attributed to this pivotal biographical fact. He never sought his natural parents, saying: “I have discovered my identity through my plays.”
The title of Bennett’s 1978 TV play, Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf, answers the question posed by Albee’s most celebrated drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962; see W). Bennett’s protagonist, Trevor, teaches Woolf as part of his adult education course on Eng Lit; a prankster draws enormous breasts on his poster of the author.
Although it is standard for American dramatists to move rapidly from adulatory reviews to critical denigration (the same had happened to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the previous generation), Albee’s downward trajectory was spectacular. In the 1960s, Albee wrote three plays generally perceived as masterpieces (see F, W and Z). But for almost three decades subsequently, his plays either failed horribly on Broadway – The Lady from Dubuque (1980) and an adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita (1981) – or never made it that far (see V).