With his first play, The Zoo Story, Edward Albee must have realized he had done something not just good, but extraordinary. That first effort came forth, not as an experiment, not as a tentative piece, but fully perfected as a new kind of play written in a new kind of language for a new kind of theatre. That was over forty years ago. But American audiences would have to wait for our critics to recognize what would become the major landmark of our American contemporary theater.
Albee continued to write plays about the American experience as a compelling open-ended search for certainty. Like Pirandello, he lures us into familiar settings to shock us out of complacency with the unexpected. He has restructured the American stage in the same way that Pirandello gave Europe a new stage at a time when realism and the well-made play, with its predictable structure and characters, seemed to have found a permanent audience.
But times were changing, had changed. The First World War had begun to raise existential questions that invited probing, that replaced objective with subjective correlatives. Pirandello's theater had restructured the dramatic experience along those lines. And, in his own independent awareness of the microcosm each of us has to explore for himself or herself, each new day, in order to find definition in our many-faceted roles in life, Albee redesigned the American stage as an ongoing journey of discovery. Like Pirandello, he invites us across the solid threshold of familiar realism into the unmapped territory of the self. The process, like Pirandello's is a dialectic of inverted logic, paradoxical spiraling to new intuitions. It is a structure built in Albee's case on echoes, resonances, reverberations, rather than direct statement. In forcing us to adjust to this new language, Albee, like Pirandello, has led us to a new awareness of what must always be the center of human consciousness: the search for personal identity.
In these terms, Albee's plays rate high in what T.S. Eliot tells us is the "test" of greatness in new works of art: a combination of strong local color and unintentional universality.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, The Zoo Story, Tiny Alice, Seascape, The Man Who Had Three Arms, all depict familiar settings transformed imperceptibly into disconcerting, at times metaphysical questions. If we lose our bearings here and there, it is only because we are not accustomed to being jolted into awareness. But art does that if it's any good. In an age that has long since accepted painters like Picasso and Paul Klee, composers like Stravinsky, architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, American drama critics and audiences lag far behind.
Back in the late 40's, drama critic John Glassner had the guts to say that our American theater was in a state of "protracted adolescence" and could only be described as :provincial." Things have not really changed much, since then. We are still far behind with respect to European theater, where playwrights like Pirandello, Sartre, Beckett, Ionesco, Giraudoux, Dario Fo and many others have forged their way into existing tradition.
Our theater has yet to reach that point. Albee is still a difficult subject for a number of critics, audiences and drama teachers. Some plays have found their way into drama syllabi, but if discussed at all, they are often given token treatment as unsettling departures from the Aristotelian categories used in teaching drama.
Still, we've come a long way from the first production of The Zoo Story! With each play, Albee has surprised us anew, maintaining throughout, his integral vision of the stage as process and product.