Learning What Living Was All About

By Elspeth Sweatman

Born on March 12, 1928, and adopted by Reed A. and Frances C. Albee—two members of the elite in Larchmont, New York—Edward Franklin Albee III had a coddled but lonely childhood. His parents bought him everything he could have ever wanted: Grenadier Guard toy soldiers, electric trains, a smoking jacket. He went to see Broadway shows and spent the winter months in Palm Beach, Florida. But material possessions and a lavish lifestyle could not hide the fact that his parents were unloving. “Whenever his mother became angry with him, she reminded him that he was adopted,” says biographer Mel Gussow. “The inference was in the air that, if he did not behave, if he did not measure up, he could be returned to the orphanage, like an unwanted possession.”

Edward Albee in 1971. Photo courtesy Cleveland State University.

From an early age, Albee knew he wanted to be a writer. He began drafting poems at six, plays at 12, and novels in his teens. Albee’s dedication to his writing, however, got him in trouble at school. “On the surface he was a poser, a posturer,” said English teacher Porter Caesar, “underneath he was passionately honest, mature and perhaps even wise, with boundless energy for poetry, plays and literature and a bald unwillingness to be forced to do what he had no interest in doing.” Stubbornly refusing to attend classes he thought unnecessary, Albee was kicked out of Lawrenceville and Valley Forge Military Academy (the model for J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye). After getting his act together briefly at the Choate School, he was also dismissed from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut during his second year.

The 20-year-old Albee initially returned home and played the dutiful son, but after an argument with his parents, he cut all ties. Following his love of writing and music, he moved to the artistic enclave of New York’s Greenwich Village. “I saw every gallery, every play, and every concert I could sneak into for free, trying to learn what living was about, what consciousness was about, what I was about,” said Albee. Over the next ten years, he worked a series of odd jobs: office boy at Warwick and Legler advertising agency, clerk in Schirmer’s record store and Bloomingdale’s, and messenger for Western Union. He continued writing, mostly poems and short stories. He sent submissions to literary magazines, but with no success. Nothing he produced sounded authentic, visceral, distinctive.

As his 30th birthday approached, Albee sat down at his kitchen table for one last attempt at writing. What emerged on the typewriter he had “liberated” from Western Union was The Zoo Story (1959), a one-act play in which strangers Peter and Jerry meet on a park bench. From there, Albee’s career took off. He wrote 34 plays, three (and a half) of which won Pulitzer prizes—including Seascape, which begins previews January 23 at The Geary.
Scott Hylands and Robert Goldstoy in The Zoo Story, directed by Richard A. Dysart during A.C.T.'s inaugural season (1967–68).

If you're interested in learning more about Albee, his friendship with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon, lizards, and the limits of language, get your copy of Words on Plays, available in the box office or online.

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