Art & Culture

Remembering Edward Albee: The champion of gay rights

Muqbil Ahmar
Muqbil AhmarOct 10, 2016 | 18:22

Remembering Edward Albee:  The champion of gay rights

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and acclaimed author of The Zoo Story (1958), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and A Delicate Balance (1966) passed away recently.

I first came across Edward Albee when I got hold of a pirated copy of Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? the movie, going on to read the play later. The stirring drama is a stinging depiction of the contentiousness of relationships and intimacy and the crack between truth and self-delusion.


Albee wrote frankly about the hollowness of modern life; his characters are always fighting their own individual battles against loneliness in the age of plenty. Virginia Woolf is a scathing commentary on the wasted marriage of a couple whose relationship is ruined by disillusionment, dashed hopes, corrosive reproaches and alcohol.

The drama revolves around a party thrown by an aging professor and his spouse for a new professor who had joined recently and his wife. Martha and George are so unhappy and bitter and frustrated! Their withering humour and emotional aloofness chewed at my inner self. I could see Albee using illusion to keep the reality at bay. The vacuity of the decadent lives of the main characters leads to lines such as:

When people can't abide things as they are, when they can't abide the present, they do one of two things ... either they ... either they turn to a contemplation of the past ... or they set about to ... alter the future. And when you want to change something ... YOU BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!

Albee always stood up for his sexuality

An avowed homosexual all this life, Albee was a harbinger of hope for gay rights movements throughout the world. And Albee was never apologetic about his sexual orientation. In fact, he was one of the few who stood steadfast for his beliefs and never considered it to be an impediment.


He was very matter-of-fact about his homosexuality and took it as naturally as a heterosexual male and was a firm believer in the naturalness of being gay, he found nothing odd about it. To him, being gay was just one of the several variations provided by nature and he saw nothing wrong or abnormal about it.

He could never understand why his sexual status should colour his writings and he used to hate being labelled a gay writer, finding the entire idea highly ridiculous and offensive and spoke openly against it. "A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend the self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay,” he said. The iconic words would provide inspiration to a generation of gay rights activists.

When Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? debuted in the 1960s, a few critics panned the play, accusing Albee of portraying two gay couples.  

Albee had a legitimate point. Why should gay writers be treated any different from the rest? Why should their sexual instincts be a basis for judging them? Why should one expect them only to write about homosexuality? Albee was spot on.

Any talk about gay rights is meaningless unless there is societal assimilation, unless they are made to feel comfortable as ordinary members of society. Awards and jobs won’t go far. At the sociological and psychological level, they will have to be accepted as legitimate voices.


“Maybe I'm being a little troublesome about this, but so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers and I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can. Any definition which limits us is deplorable,” he said.

Being of an intrepid constitution, Albee was never afraid of taking up subjects that were outside the comfort zone of the average theatre-goer and commented with elan on violence prevailing inside the decaying American society. His scathing biting humour possibly stemmed from his own experiences of being treated as a pariah.

Consequently, Albee viewed self-interest in contemporary society as a universal, tantalising and pestilential agent and it’s one of the recurring themes of his writings. “There’s nobody doesn’t want something,” says one of his characters in the Three Tall Women.

Albee was panned for being a gay writer

When Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? debuted in the 1960s, a few critics panned the play, accusing Albee of portraying two gay couples. Needless to say, all of them were heterosexuals with most of them being Jewish. In their reviews, they openly displayed their dislike for the playwright and his work.

They said the plays failed because their author was gay. Critic Robert Brustein sniffed a “masochistic-homosexual perfume” in The Zoo Story. Another noted critic of The New York Times, Howard Taubman, claimed that in plays written by gay writers, the “unpleasant female of the species is exaggerated into a fantastically consuming monster or an incredibly pathetic drab".

He found a homosexual theme lurking underneath in intensely heterosexual situations and tried to look for surreptitious gay messages. Richard Schechner, a New York University professor, located “morbidity and sexual perversity which are there only to titillate an impotent and homosexual theater audience,” in his assessment of Virginia Woolf.

Martin Gottfried attributed the lack of children to the men in the couples being homosexual. They also panned the author for creating and focusing on the hideous wife that wreaks havoc in a marital relationship. They often claimed that gay playwrights cooked up phony heterosexual situations as they were not able to write about gay themes and therefore ended up presenting a horribly distorted image of American women and marriage.

To the utter chagrin of naysayers, Virginia Woolf won the Tony Award for best play in 1963 and ran to packed houses for quite some time. Albee went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for best drama.

I read Albee plays again and again trying to find the so-called “hidden messages” myself and could find none. If a person who is completely ignorant of Albee reads his works, can he detect the “perfume of homosexuality?” I doubt anyone would be able to do that.

How is Albee different from his other contemporaries? Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is also a bitter depiction of marital strife, but why weren’t there any efforts to locate homosexual biases and hidden messages? The critics saw it in a particular light only because they were already aware of Albee’s sexual orientation and tried desperately to delegitimise and discredit his works.

Albee himself believed he was discriminated against by critics as they already knew about his sexuality. And how did they come to know about it? It was only because Albee never made a secret of it.

“Why would I keep it a secret? It’s my nature…. I’m not embarrassed by it…. I’m not ashamed of it. Why should I go along with people who are idiotic?” he asked.

Albee, the fearless champion of truth

Albee was a fearless man who acknowledged the unassailable presence of death. “That's the happiest moment. When it's all done. When we stop. When we can stop” - (Three Tall Women)

When the end came, he was fully prepared - had written a death note long before his demise: “To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love.”


Last updated: October 10, 2016 | 18:22
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