Best playwright, ‘bar none,’ passes at 88
The questions that great writing pose, ones that force you to see the complexities of life, are often rare — much like the masterworks of University of Houston professor and award-winning playwright Edward Albee.
Considered by critics and fans alike to be the premiere American playwright post-Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Albee died Friday at his home in Montauk, New York at 88 years old. Aside from his time spent writing over 30 critically-acclaimed plays, including the Tony award-winning “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Albee dedicated over 20 years to teaching at UH.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that, he was, up until his passing, the most important living American playwright, bar none,” dramaturge and director of the School of Theatre and Dance Robert Shimko said. “To have him in Houston and at UH for literally decades is just incredible.”
Albee became a professor at UH in 1989, teaching an advanced playwriting course for graduates each spring semester. He also donated some of his time to a question-and-answer session with undergraduate students every year. To those who knew him during his years spent on campus, he was unexpectedly humble despite his significant fame.
“We are grateful for the years Edward Albee spent with the University of Houston,” President and Chancellor Renu Khator said of Albee’s passing in a news release. “Through classes and workshops, he shared his creative insights with young writers eager to transfer their stories from the page to the stage.”
Shimko considered Albee a personal idol and mentor during his experiences working alongside him in the theatre department.
“There’s this great quote of his: ‘If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly,'” Shimko said. “That, in many ways, was the key to his teaching. He was very interested in working with student playwrights who were willing to try new things and who were willing to, in his terms, fail interestingly, so that down the line, they could succeed in a way that was new and unique to them.”
In 2003, Albee left his post at UH to aid his partner, sculptor Jonathan Thomas, after he fell ill. Thomas passed away in 2005. Although Albee only returned to UH for a short stint in the following years, his profound impact on both students and faculty persisted throughout the past decade. After news of his death was released, an outpouring of love for the playwright and anecdotes from former students appeared online.
Shimko said Albee wielded a powerful influence over his students to be original in their work, as he cared deeply about the future of playwriting.
Theatre graduate Craig Putman was a freshman when Albee held a reading for his 31st and final play, which he never completed. Putman recalls Albee’s commanding presence and admired how he listened to students’ suggestions for his play in a conference after the reading.
“He was going through rewrites, and I read for a character in one of his new works,” Putman said. “While I was intimidated by him — his play, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” is one of my favorite plays — I was inspired to know that he never settled and believed that he could always improve.”
The curtains fall with love
Some of his most beloved works, such as “A Delicate Balance” and “Seascape,” were met with reverence by audiences nationwide for their psychological exploration into the pitfalls of human relationships.
His most well-known piece, the aforementioned “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” is a raw depiction of the marital breakdown of two middle-aged scholars. It was famously adapted into the 1966 film of the same name starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
The play solidified Albee as one of the few American playwrights to revolutionize American theater.
According to the Associated Press, after undergoing a complicated surgery several years ago, Albee wrote a message to be released to the public in the event of his death.
“To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love,” Albee said.