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Edward Albee's importance to American theatre
Edward Albee's importance to American theatre
by Mary Machala - Special to the SGN

Why is Edward Albee important to American theatre? Opinions vary but his ability to portray our foibles, follies and ridiculous societal mores in ways that make us laugh at ourselves is unmatched by any other American playwright. He is a groundbreaker, willing to stride into new territory in the best tradition of the American pioneers.

"Albee&is unique in his generation for having tried his hand at extremely diverse dramatic forms: naturalism, surrealism, expressionism, symbolism, the one-act satiric farce, the full-length tragicomedy, and the metaphysical allegory."

- Debusscher, Gilbert. Edward Albee: Tradition and Renewal. Trans. by Anne D. Williams. Brussels: American Studies Center, 1967. "His plays have the formal inventiveness and depth of Eugene O'Neill's and the social acuity and judicial firmness of Arthur Miller's, but he outdoes them both in his wit and grace with words. He is experimental like Thornton Wilder, but his plays have greater passion. In his understanding of marginalized members of society and his ability to produce tight poetic dialogue, Albee is equal to Tennessee Williams, but his work is more consistent than Williams and has a greater intellectual quotient."

- MacNicholas. Twentieth Century American Dramatists Part 1: A-J, Gale Research Co., 1981. Albee is a risk-taker and we Americans love risk-takers, that is, until they venture into areas that upset our peculiar sensibilities. From Jesse Green's article in The New York Times, November 11, 2007, "&[Albee] remains fearless in his embrace of any taboo, especially sexual & recent works include fantasias on bestiality, anal rape, voluntary mastectomy and reverse circumcision. 'I will go absolutely anywhere,' [Albee] said, meaning, perhaps, that, shark-like, he must."

Even though Albee is considered the leading American playwright of the Theatre of the Absurd, his views differ from the beliefs common to his European counterparts. Ionesco, Cocteau and others were concerned with the human struggle to come to terms with the reality of a senseless world. Albee believes that man's struggle is not hopeless. Sometimes that is not readily apparent in his characters who feel like people we know or we've worked with or had to sit next to on the bus. Most of Albee's characters are portrayed as desperate individuals who play cruel psychological games. However, they are often manipulated as much as they manipulate and as destructive as they are destroyed.

If that sounds grim and off-putting, remember the key to Albee's plays: They are funny. Either laugh-out-loud funny or shake-one's-head-at absurd. Very much like life itself, especially American life. Perhaps this final quote (from American Theatre, January, 2008) sums it up best:

Carol Rocamora: The critic Martin Esslin called you the first American playwright who translated the theatre of the absurd into a genuine American idiom.

Albee: That's very flattering. I believe Esslin was using the term "absurdist" in its original context as "post-existentialist" and not as a stylistic matter. I am the former, meaning that I write about man's absurd position in a world that makes no sense. We have to create our own sense.

Courtesy of Stone Soup Theatre

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