This month, Edward Albee will join the ranks of famous American artists Merce Cunningham, Georgia O’Keefe, Leonard Bernstein, and Chuck Jones. What do a choreographer, a painter, a composer, and a filmmaker have in common with the playwright? They have all been recipients of the distinguished Edward MacDowell Medal, a national award granted to an artist, like Albee, “who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field.” The medal is awarded annually by the MacDowell Colony, a sort of haven for artists, founded in 1907 by composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, pianist Marian MacDowell. It was the first artist colony in the United States, and to this day, it provides a nurturing studio environment where writers, visual artists, filmmakers, and composers come to work and be inspired by the creativity of their peers. This year, on Sunday, August 14th in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the colony will honor the celebrated American playwright.
Albee, best known for his plays The Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and more recently, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, is one of the most prominent voices in 20th Century American theater. His work draws from the theatre of the absurd, and investigates, in deep and provocative ways, the darker side of our modern human condition. His plays are unexpectedly theatrical, as they are usually framed by realistic settings and naturalistic dialogue. Albee digs deep into the psyche, and through his depictions of troubled relationships, unearths the dark complexities of human nature.
Though he was always artistically inclined, it took some time for Albee to discover his true calling as a playwright. He was raised in Larchmont, New York by wealthy adoptive parents with whom he never really connected. As a young boy in prep school, he decided he wanted to be a poet, and at age eighteen, he moved on his own to Greenwich Village, where, among fellow artists, he really began to be inspired. But it wasn’t until he was 28 that Albee fell into playwriting. By this point in his life, Albee says, he had tried and “failed” at composing, painting, and writing poetry and novels. But he recalls his first play, The Zoo Story, “was the first thing I’d ever written that I knew was good.” And soon after it was published, Albee began to be widely recognized for his work, winning his first Drama Desk award for Zoo Story, his first Tony Award for Virginia Woolf, and three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama within the next 30 years.
Fittingly, Albee has dedicated much of his career to funding and teaching young writers. In 1967, he used proceeds from the success of Virginia Woolf to found The Edward F. Albee Foundation, a summer residency program meant to foster the growth of fellow artists. This, at the height of his success, was how Albee put his wealth to use—by giving back generously to his community. He formed a creative environment for artists much like the one in Greenwich Village that first inspired him. For this reason, it is perhaps most appropriate that Albee be honored by the MacDowell Colony, whose mission is to foster artistic growth. Albee has contributed significantly, not only to the canon of American drama, but to the burgeoning writers and artists who are sure to shape the future of our theater.