Biography of Albee: A heroic journey

August 01, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Staff

"Edward Albee: A Singular Life," by Mel Gussow. Simon & Schuster. 432 pages. $30.

Most biographers could not ask for a more challenging subject than Edward Albee, who throughout his career has remained masterfully circumspect about his private life, even while mining it for his most famous plays.

Mel Gussow is equal to the task, and brings extraordinary rectitude and insight to the project of synthesizing Albee's life and work. "Edward Albee: A Singular Life" is a thoroughly absorbing book that functions not only as a biography, but as criticism, social history and psychological allegory.

Gussow, who has written about Albee's work for 30 years as the theater critic for publicatons like Newsweek and the New York Times, approaches his subject with the knowledge of an insider, the unfussiness of a seasoned reporter and the fluency of a gifted writer. After an enticing prologue he begins at the beginning, with a history of Albee's adoptive family, a wealthy clan of show business folk (Albee's grandfather was a vaudeville theater owner) who lived in New York's Westchester County.

Gussow traces the roots of Albee's art -- or at least the anxieties that drive him to create -- to the fact that he was an alien in the Albee family, a tolerated "other" who lived a life of material privilege but emotional neglect, especially from his mother, Frances. Throughout Albee's life -- from his unpromising academic career to his Bohemian years in Greenwich Village, from his quietly revolutionary debut play "The Zoo Story" to the seismic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- Albee's parents remained potent shadow figures who inspired as much as troubled him.

While charting Albee's rise, Gussow tells an even more fascinating tale, that of a man struggling to define himself, carving out an identity as an artist and as a homosexual in spite of a family that comprehended neither. There were low points: Albee suffered from alcoholism and went through a creative and commercial dip during the 1980s and 1990s. Gussow documents some of the more unfortunate events in these years -- one involving a dinner party at his own home -- with discretion and tact too rarely deployed in contemporary biography.

Which is not to say that "A Singular Life" doesn't have its delicious moments. The book is spiced with lots of amusing backstage anecdotes, catty observations and such surprises as the fact that Paul Zindel was a neurotically dedicated fan -- to the point of becoming Albee's stalker -- before he began writing plays in his own right.

Gussow, who gracefully weaves his own critiques of Albee's plays throughout the text, makes sure to give Albee's less famous plays their due in Albee's artistic development, so that even non-fans will feel like compleatists when they've finished.

The author ends where he began, with a quote from James Agee's "A Death in the Family." By the time "A Singular Life" reaches its lyrically wistful conclusion, most readers will be moved unto tears, not only by Albee's inspiring search for his own voice, but by Gussow's intelligent, sensitive and moving depiction of that heroic journey.

Ann Hornaday is film critic for The Sun and before that for the Austin, Texas, American Statesman. She has written on general cultural subjects for the New York Times, New York magazine, the New York Daily News and others. She has critiqued films for the Austin American-Statesman, Premiere, New York magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and on documentary and independent films for the New York Times.

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