The vain and difficult old lady is dying. Set free in these last moments on earth, her spirit takes the stage to reflect on her sad, selfish life. Her son returns — decades after he left home — and sits by her bed. ”He never loved me,” she says quietly, and then calls a truce. ”Twenty-plus years?” she asks. ”That’s a long enough sulk on both sides.”
So goes Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, the Off Broadway hit based on the last days of his own domineering mother. The play, which won Albee, 66, his third Pulitzer Prize, has not only helped him exorcise some fierce family demons (at one point, Albee went 25 years without speaking to his own parents), it has ended a long sulk between the once-revered playwright and the theatrical establishment. After nine months, the play remains among New York’s hottest theater tickets, and a London production starring Maggie Smith opens next month.
Albee’s brutal early works — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), the searing portrait of a hard-drinking academic couple, and The Zoo Story (1960), in which a vagrant drives an executive to murder — helped clarify the blueprint for postwar American drama. But since the late ’70s, the critical consensus had been that his risky avant-garde work never fulfilled his early promise.
Then again, Albee, a cool, somewhat standoffish blue blood, has never cared much for critics: ”I’m not sure that Three Tall Women is any better than a number of other plays that have gotten blasted,” he says one morning, at the opulent Long Island beach house that he shares with his lover of 25 years, an artist. And bad reviews never slowed him down. During his years out of vogue, Albee lectured, continued to write one play about every 18 months, and began teaching playwriting at the University of Houston. ”Don’t get in the racket unless you have to be a playwright,” Albee tells his students. ”It’s unfair, rough, and ugly, but if you are a playwright, don’t lie. Tell the truth.”
Three Tall Women is ripe with truth; the young man who enters in Act 2 for a silent vigil is based on Albee himself. At 18, he rebelled against his wealthy adoptive parents, deserting suburban Larchmont, N.Y., for Greenwich Village, where he supported himself as a Western Union messenger. Though it’s often printed that Albee’s mother, Frances Cotter Albee, banished him because he was gay, his homosexuality was never discussed at home. ”I left because of the suffocation,” he says. Albee began Women after her death in 1990. ”I didn’t want to write her as a bitch,” he says. ”I wanted to end up with an accurate portrait.”
This penchant for accuracy makes Albee wary of Hollywood. He was never thrilled with the stark 1966 film version of Woolf, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; he wanted Bette Davis and James Mason to play the leads. Will he allow Hollywood a crack at Three Tall Women? ”I don’t know whether there will be a movie,” he says dryly. ”There aren’t any car chases. We would probably be happier with a serious TV movie, I think.”