These Illusions Are Real

Edward Albee
Edward Albee; drawing by David Levine

1.

You are an adolescent boy, struggling with all the clumsiness and uncertainty of that awkward age. In the wide world of America, the heady atmosphere of wartime has gone to the nation’s head. The energy of danger is pulsing through the dancehalls and surfing on the radio waves, taking its defining shape in the sexy, sophisticated, blue-collar glamour of Frank Sinatra. You, however, are a poor little rich boy, an adopted son imprisoned in a private boarding school at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, whose starchy pretense at being a military academy merely underlines its distance from the real world war that is raging in Europe and Asia.

Home in New York on vacation, you are staying with your wealthy parents in their fabulous Park Avenue apartment. Your mother makes you take her two French poodles for a walk. So there you are, a boy in a silly uniform being led along by two fey dogs, praying for the ground to open up and swallow you, when the worst imaginable thing happens. As you are passing the Liberty music store on Madison Avenue, the door opens and a dapper man comes out. Frank Sinatra takes a look at you and gives you a withering look that you will never forget. “He saw me standing there in my military school outfit with those poodles,” Edward Albee told his biographer Mel Gussow. “I’ve never seen a stranger expression on anyone’s face.”1

Though Gussow mentions this incident only in passing in his highly revealing biography, it is hard not to see it as a kind of absurd, parodic epiphany. If, as he suggests in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce became an artist when he encountered a young girl on the shores of Dublin Bay and “her image… passed into his soul for ever,” Sinatra’s contemptuous glance seems to have taken up permanent residence in Edward Albee’s soul. The muses who arranged that chance encounter ensured that whatever else he might do as a writer in later life, he would never, ever, be uncool again. However bitterly he might be attacked by critics, however bewildered he might sometimes leave his audiences, Albee ensured that the one thing he could never be accused of is smug conformity. That determination is the source of both his successes and his failures, of his courage and integrity as well as of his perversity and willful obscurity. Depending on which particular grain he is going against, he has created either remarkable dramatic images of families and relationships or, in Seascape, giant lizards discussing evolution on Montauk beach.

The impulse to avoid the obvious at all costs has produced a body of work so uneven that Albee’s is the most unstable of contemporary dramatic reputations. On the one hand, he is rightly recognized as one of the key figures in twentieth-century American drama, a peer of…


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