When Edward Albee conceded defeat in the eternal battle for corporeal immortality, he composed a kind little farewell message for his fans, to be released after his death. Had he given the matter a little more attention, he may have considered writing his own obituary, too, and given it a nice headline — nothing absurd about that, is there? As it turned out, the pioneering absurd playwright’s death was reported in headlines the world over as the passing of the writer of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which he would have abhorred.
Every headline on earth, from the pages of The Guardian to those which presumably appeared in Pyongyang, was a variation on the theme. Perhaps, some agency hack put it out on the wires, sparking off a viral outbreak of Virginia Woolfosis. Perhaps, it was inevitable, since the Mark Nichols production with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead had put Albee’s name up there in lights, turning him from a slightly esoteric playwright into a universally recognised public figure. He disliked it for the same reason that Erwin Schrödinger was exasperated with the famous cat. Dead or alive, dead and alive, the cat which brought him out of the laboratory and into the public imagination, which still appears on T-shirts and in internet memes, seemed to overwrite the body of his work.
As always, location matters. Very few theatre fans in India have seen Burton and Taylor play their bizarre games in the film version of Who’s Afraid…, and even fewer have had the good fortune to see the 1996 stage production starring David Suchet (Hercule Poirot to us). We remember Albee as the American voice of absurd drama, because his play, The Zoo Story, closed off the Penguin absurd theatre collection of 1965, which also featured Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Adamov and Fernando Arrabal. It was edited by Martin Esslin, who had coined the critical term “Theatre of the Absurd”. While the original A-list of the genre was European, admitting only Harold Pinter as an afterthought, Albee took the footprint of absurd drama across the Atlantic, and gave it a violent edge that is very American. While absurd drama does violence to several eternal verities — that’s what it was for, really — it is unusual to find an absurd play ending with reluctantly assisted suicide, as The Zoo Story does.
Though it premièred in Berlin in German translation, The Zoo Story (which is never actually told, absurdly enough) made Albee’s name on Broadway, bringing down the lights on the age of Tennessee Williams. Admittedly, Who’s Afraid… was easier to get along with. It had a logical plot located in real space-time, while The Zoo Story was a series of eccentric ellipses, highlighting humanity’s growing estrangement and loneliness in the face of an uncaring universe.
Absurd drama is no longer avant-garde, perhaps, because everyday reality has caught up with it. Read the news, turn on the telly, and you are a spectator of the theatre of the absurd. Walk out into the street, and you are an actor in a meaningless drama. The sensation of being a helpless bystander, disconnected from electronic mass manias like the warmongering seen on TV after the Uri security breach, is the essence of the theatre of the absurd. Press the button on your smartphone and you have lent your voice to the global background noise of estrangement, where communications are engaging cultural artefacts rather than human connections, rather like the dialogue between the two protagonists of The Zoo Story.
On February 25, 1962, Edward Albee wrote a broadside against Broadway in The New York Times, in response to the observation by a theatre professional whose instincts he respected, who thought that absurd drama was on its way out. Only a year earlier, he wrote, he had been informed that he was “a member in good standing of the Theatre of the Absurd… I was deeply offended because I had never heard the term before and I assumed that it applied to the theatre uptown — Broadway.”
A diatribe followed against the mainstream commercial theatre, “in which real estate owners and theatre party managements predetermine the success of unknown quantities; a theatre in which everybody scratches and bites for billing as though it meant access to the last bomb shelter on earth; a theatre in which, in a given season, there was not a single performance of a play by [Samuel] Beckett, [Bertolt] Brecht, [Anton] Chekhov, [Jean] Genet, [Henrik] Ibsen, [Seán] O’Casey, [Luigi] Pirandello, [George Bernard] Shaw, [August] Strindberg — or [William] Shakespeare.” In contrast, he recommended the theatre of the absurd as “fun, free-swinging, bold, iconoclastic and often wildly, wildly funny.”
At the end of the article, possibly for the last time ever, NYT had to introduce the playwright to its readers: “Edward Albee is a 33-year-old playwright with several plays to his credit, perhaps the best-known of which is The Zoo Story. He is at present working on a new play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for fall production.” And there in print, over 50 years ago, was the seed of Albee’s obituary headline, which appeared the world over last week.