Edward Albee, the Cherry Lane Theatre, and the Origins of the Modern Play
By Bruce Poli
Greenwich Village is world-renowned as an origin of American cultural and political arts and ideas. We represent this in our WestView News publication, an eclectic feature-driven content and design community newspaper that holds our attention from the first page to the last: a rare and exemplary gold standard in local media.
Assessing historic Village influence, I can think of three or four themes that represent decades of contributions to our world; civil rights, written and performing arts, politics, and education come to mind.
As for music, Dylan, Seeger, Guthrie, Coltrane, Bird, Miles Davis, Aaron Copeland, Hendrix, Janis, Peter, Paul and Mary, and even Neil Diamond have been residents or frequent visitors who shaped the music world of the ’60s and ’70s.
In theatre, we look historically to Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. However, modern drama is a different story.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, first performed on Broadway in 1962, is perhaps the most riveting, intimate universally acclaimed conversation in theatre and film history. And its creator Edward Albee (1928-2016), a lifelong Villager, was the leading spokesperson and champion for modern theatre. He was a heralded playwright of a dozen well-known dramas and the recipient of Pulitzer Prizes for A Delicate Balance (1966).
After Who’s Afraid’s success, he used the SoHo Playhouse in the South Village to create a more intimate space. Realizing that the future of theater was in jeopardy, without incubator space for emerging writers to experiment with form, style, and content, he used his own funds from the profits of his success to produce the works of other playwrights.
Beginning in the 1950s, Albee wrote and directed some of the most celebrated plays of our times. And his often companion theatre, the Cherry Lane, will forever be associated with him in our minds.
The Zoo Story, a one-act play about two men who meet on a Central Park bench, was his debut, and premiered in West Berlin (alongside a Samuel Beckett play) in 1959. It was performed in Greenwich Village the following year, helping to start the movement to produce plays off-Broadway. Significantly, The Sandbox, a one-act drama, was produced off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre in February 1962 in repertory with other Albee plays in a Theatre of the Absurd series.
The Cherry Lane, the world’s oldest continuously running off-Broadway theatre, which presents classic plays and develops new work, has had its own accolades over the decades. Constructed as a farm silo in 1817, it also served as a brewery, tobacco warehouse, and box factory before Evelyn Vaughn, William S. Rainey, Reginald Travers and Edna St. Vincent Millay converted the structure into the theater they christened the Cherry Lane Playhouse.
Since its opening on March 24th, 1924 with Richard Fresnell’s Saturday Night, numerous other plays have been performed, and many a well-known name has appeared on the marquis: Barbra Streisand, Judith Ivey, Bruce Willis, Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Colin Quinn, Jesse Eisenberg, Vanessa Redgrave, and Kim Stanley.
A succession of major American plays were produced at the theater, by writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, and Elmer Rice in the 1920s; Eugene O’Neill, Seán O’Casey, Clifford Odets, W. H. Auden, Gertrude Stein, Luigi Pirandello, and William Saroyan in the 1940s; Samuel Beckett, Pablo Picasso, T. S. Eliot, Jean Anouilh, and Tennessee Williams in the 1950s; Harold Pinter, LeRoi Jones, Eugène Ionesco, Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, and Lorraine Hansberry, as well as Edward Albee staging a large number of his plays in the 1960s; Sam Shepard, Joe Orton and David Mamet in the 1970s and 1980s.
Beckett’s Happy Days had its world premiere at the Cherry Lane, directed by Alan Schneider, on September 17, 1961.
Kim Hunter, actress in the original 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando, lived in the townhouse above the Cherry Lane and is honored with a historic plaque on the facade.
The theater sits in the most beloved cul-de-sac in New York City, at the bend in Commerce Street towards Barrow Street.
Edward Albee and the Cherry Lane represent the height of progressive theatrical development in America, once again attributed to our Greenwich Village.
We often overlook the great resources at our feet, here in the Village where, it has so often been said, “America happens first.” How fortunate we are to hold such a great legacy.