Edward Albee is known as a vaunted playwright. But really he's a relationship expert.
For more than 50 years, Albee's work has examined the tenuous bonds that bring couples, friends and families together and the all-too-human mistakes that force them apart.
In "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," arguably his most famous play, he introduced the liquor-soaked love story of George and Martha, one of the first on-stage couples who expressed affection through sarcasm and outright jabs. His Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Three Tall Women," explored regrets between a mother and her estranged son. His controversial piece — "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" — looked at a family in crisis when the patriarch acted on a taboo desire.
A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Albee, 85, mines the minutia of the modern condition through his plays and prose and asks us to rethink our values and beliefs.
In recognition of his contributions to theater, literature and American culture, Edward Albee has been named winner of the 2013 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize.
Albee will receive the honor Nov. 3 during the Chicago Humanities Festival, which is scheduled to run from Nov. 1-10. Also on that day, the Chicago Tribune will recognize the winners of this year's Heartland Prizes: "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for fiction and "The Third Coast" by Thomas Dyja for nonfiction.
Speaking from his apartment in New York, Albee said he appreciated having his work recognized.
"You hang around long enough, you win stuff," he said. "Some awards are more interesting than others, and I think this is a pretty good one. Interesting people have won it previously, and I respect the people who are giving it and I respect the award."
The Chicago Tribune began awarding the Literary Prize in 2002 as a way to recognize a writer's distinguished career and its impact on American culture. Previous dramatists who have won the Literary Prize include Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, August Wilson and Sam Shepard.
"In selecting Edward Albee for the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, we honor not only a great playwright, but an artist who is a mentor and an inspiration to new generations of writers," said Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern. "Albee is most recognized for 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,' a work as compelling and relevant today as when it debuted in 1962."
Steppenwolf Theatre Company recently staged a revival of the play. The production won three Tony Awards, including best revival of a play, best direction of a play for Pam MacKinnon and best performance by an actor in a leading role in a play for Tracy Letts.
Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf's artistic director, said Albee's influence is "pervasive" and added that she believes his plays have inspired many writers, including Letts, whose work includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning and extremely popular "August: Osage County."
Albee "is a very, very important modern American playwright," she said. "His plays are so well-crafted; the quality of the writing, the attention to detail, the uniqueness of the voice, very profoundly he owns a particular American dramatic voice. … I think that there is a kind of curious oscillation between a real economy of writing and a terse very direct style, very capable of a kind of arctic, incisiveness and then there are these flights, these almost arias by the characters. There is great command in terms of the verbal acuity of characters. He has a really profound imagination."
In addition to his writing, Albee acts as a mentor to many young playwrights. He established the Edward F. Albee Foundation in 1967 as a way "to serve writers and visual artists from all walks of life, by providing time and space in which to work without disturbance," according to the organization's website.
Albee said he takes time to help young writers because he is "more interested in the future than the past."
Since 1988, the Chicago Tribune has awarded the Heartland Prizes to books that embody the spirit of the nation's heartland. It is not a regional award; in fact this year's prize winners defy physical geography.
Dyja's book centers on Chicago, but has a message for everywhere else about the cultural importance of this city. On the other hand, Adichie's novel is set in Africa, London and the American Northeast, but explores universal topics such as intimacy, identity, ethnocentrism, politics and privilege.
The Heartland Prize for nonfiction winner, "The Third Coast" by Thomas Dyja, is a detailed look at the cultural fruit that Chicago bore between the end of World War II and the early 1960s and the change-makers who called the Windy City home. As part of his research, Dyja leased the archives of the Tribune.
As a Chicago native, Dyja said winning the Heartland Prize was "exceptionally meaningful."
In "The Third Coast," "I wanted to make a very clear statement that America needed to re-evaluate its relationship with the heartland," Dyja said, talking while on vacation in Massachusetts, "and understand how vital and cosmopolitan and transformative the heartland, especially Chicago, has been in the story of America and that this country has worked best when it embraced its heartland fully."
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel, "Americanah," will receive the Heartland Prize for fiction. A native of Nigeria, Adichie writes about two Nigerians: Ifemelu, a driven, gorgeous girl who leaves to study in America and her love, Obinze, a pensive, careful man. When bureaucracy keeps Obinze out of America, he falls into a dangerous life in London, while Ifemelu pursues an education and thrives as a blogger. After years spent an ocean apart, the two reunite, but their lives are not as carefree as they were when they were young.
One of the many ideas that Adichie's book explores is that of American tribalism.
"I think if you (asked) the average American, 'Is there tribalism in this country?' they would say no, but I think America is quite divided in many ways," Adichie said during a phone call from her Maryland home. "There is ideological tribalism, which is fascinating to observe how people on the political left and people on the political right sometimes seem to come from two different planets. I think there is also racial tribalism, so that race doesn't seem to matter until it matters, and I think there is also class tribalism, which has become much worse in the past five years. ... People belong to tribes and these tribes depend on things people have in common whether it is race, class or ideology."
Adichie, a participant in the 2010 Printers Row Lit Fest, said she was surprised and overjoyed to hear she had received the Heartland Prize.
"I was particularly happy about this prize because it just seemed to me to be quintessentially American," she said. "I don't think I necessarily write about the heartland, I don't know what the heck the heartland is, but I do think that I choose to see (this prize) as somebody saying to me that your book has said something about America. Something that is recognizable and something that is interesting and something about America that is worth knowing, and that is a huge compliment to me."
The Tribune will present three awards Nov. 3: Edward Albee will receive the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize at 10 a.m. at Symphony Center Stage, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will receive the Heartland Prize for fiction at 1:30 p.m. at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St.; Thomas Dyja will receive the Heartland Prize for nonfiction at 3:30 p.m. at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St. Tickets are scheduled to go on sale in September. Watch printersrowjournal.com for more.