Three (and a Half) Pulitzer Prizes

By Elspeth Sweatman

“You either affect people or you leave them indifferent,” said playwright Edward Albee (1928–2016). “And I would loathe to leave an audience indifferent. I don’t care whether they like or hate, so long as they’re not indifferent.” They weren’t. Albee’s unique, provocative brand of truth-telling did not always sit well with audiences and critics, but it secured his place in the American theatrical pantheon. In fact, Albee earned three—or as he was fond of saying, three and a half—Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

Playwright Edward Albee. Photo courtesy University of Houston Photographs Collection.

1963: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Albee made a splash with his first full-length play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and its iconic, warring couple: George and Martha. Showing off Albee’s wit and bite, the games that George and Martha play to entertain their guests are amusing at first, but we quickly see that they are designed to put everyone on edge, including the audience. Reviews were mixed. Richard Watts of the New York Post declared it “the most shattering drama I have seen since O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.” But the Daily Mirror’s Robert Coleman called it “a sick play for sick people.”

Yet, Virginia Woolf firmly established Albee as one of America’s leading playwrights. He received the Tony Award for Best Play and almost the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The drama jury put forward Albee for the prize, but Columbia University’s trustees and the award’s advisory board refused to accept a play with sexual themes and profanity. There was no prize awarded that year, and two jury members resigned in protest. Hence, Albee’s half Pulitzer.

1967: A Delicate Balance
Albee addressed settings and themes similar to Virginia Woolf through a more understated lens in A Delicate Balance. Agnes and Tobias, the leading couple, may not have the explosive battles that George and Martha do, but they can be just as biting. “The clashes, the hatreds, the bitchery—the Albee ‘trademarks’—are, in the characters themselves, muted and subtle,” wrote Albee’s former partner and longtime friend William Flanagan. This time, critics responded more favorably. Albee took home his first full Pulitzer.

A.C.T.'s 1969 production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, directed by Edward Hastings.
1975: Seascape
Having interrogated many aspects of contemporary life, Albee shifted his focus to something more fundamental: evolution. Are humans the master species? What truly separates humans from animals? How do we understand our behavior? “I question everything,” said Albee. The result was Seascape, in which newly retired couple Nancy and Charlie encounter a younger couple, Sarah and Leslie, at the beach. The catch: Sarah and Leslie are lizards. A.C.T. is delighted to present this Pulitzer-winning play at The Geary, beginning January 23.

1994: Three Tall Women
Albee’s final Pulitzer Prize–winning play focused not on a couple, but on an individual. In Three Tall Women, we meet 92-year-old A, 52-year-old caretaker B, and 26-year-old lawyer C. As they watch A die, they bicker, console, and reminisce, asking questions about how our experiences shape us and how we define our lives. Three Tall Women extended Albee’s list of Pulitzers to three (and a half).

Want to read more? Get your copy of Words on Plays to learn more about Albee, his friendship with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon, lizards, and the limits of language. And join us for Seascape, running January 23–February 17. Get your tickets here.

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