The Double Life of Albee’s Woolf
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Published in: July-August 2024 issue.

Movies, Marriage, and the Making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Philip Gefter
Bloomsbury. 346 pages, $32.


COCKTAILS with George and Martha is a cultural history that captures the moment when Broadway drama received a jolt from the Theater of the Absurd. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened on Broadway in October 1962, jumps off from the Bohemian precincts of New York City—especially Greenwich Village and Off-Broadway, where Albee’s first one-act play, The Zoo Story, had its American premiere at the Provincetown Playhouse after an unlikely world premiere in Berlin. While Albee’s early career is not a gay Bildungsroman, the first sections of Gefter’s account vividly establish the tenor of condemnation and shame visited upon gay people in the pre- Stonewall period.

            We get a brisk but incisive portrait of the home life endured by young Albee, the adopted son of wealthy but emotionally withholding parents whom he fictionalized in his second one-act play, The American Dream, described by one critic as “a couple who once adopted a son, whom they crippled with psychological torture of a classic Freudian kind.” Albee was sent off to a series of high-end boarding schools and managed to get thrown out of most of them. Following his expulsion from Valley Forge  Military Academy, his imperious and socially ambitious mother had him enrolled in the high-toned Choate, where he “thrived academically.” Yet after admission to Trinity College, he “once again … grew restless and bored,” and flunked out.

            To avoid the draft, he tried joining the Army Reserve. Confronted with the question of whether he was homosexual, he admitted that he was, and was rejected for service. At home, his Army rejection was never discussed, as talk of both feelings and sexuality was avoided, though Albee’s mother Frankie let loose occasional “denunciations about homosexuality [that]were always pointed and emphatic.” Albee and his domineering mother argued frequently, encouraging his truculent behavior. His father gave him an ultimatum to “either straighten up or get out.” Albee packed a single suitcase, and, at age nineteen, fled the chilly confines of his parents’ home. The year was 1947.

            Abandoning the bourgeois comforts and bigotries of the family hearth for the adventures of downtown Manhattan, Albee fell in with a heterodox community of “composers, writers, and poets who personified not only the disaffected artist but, equally, the stigmatized urban queer.” His first adventures led to a strained romance with William Flanagan, a composer and music critic, and later to a relationship with a recent Columbia University graduate and theater enthusiast, Terrence McNally, who would go on to become a major playwright of the gay zeitgeist.

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Allen Ellenzweig, a longtime contributor to these pages, is the author of George Platt Lynes: The Daring Eye (Oxford Univ. Press, 2021).