The Death Of Theatre

This week we lost two people important to theatre: Edward Albee and Charmain Carr. Albee was 88, Carr was 73.

Edward Albee was arguably America’s greatest living playwright, entering the world of theatre after the death of Eugene O’Neill and after Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had released their most important work and continuing their legacy. His first play, The Zoo Story, opened in 1959 in Berlin. A year later, his work transferred to New York and was the progenitor to what we know as “off-Broadway”. His most influential work, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, came in 1962. Albee was a master of heightened naturalism that influenced generations of writers, actors, and directors. In a world of commercial, jukebox musicals, Albee’s works showed that high drama could still draw an audience, and influence them.

Albee won three Pulitzer Prizes in his career for A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape (1975) and Three Tall Women (1994). His play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize by the award’s drama jury, but was overruled by the advisory committee due to the play’s “vulgarity”. They elected not to give a drama award at all that year. The jury subsequently resigned in protest. Woolf ended up winning the Tony Award in 1963. Albee won his second Tony almost 40 years later for The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? in 2002. He was nominated for Tony Awards in 1964 (The Ballad of the Sad Cafe), ’65 (Tiny Alice), 67 (A Delicate Balance), ’75 (Seascape).

In addition to his original plays, Albee was also an adaptor to the stage of other’s works,  writing the stage versions of Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita. As a writer who mixes in adaptations in addition to original work, it warms me to see that this amazing playwright did the same thing (Albee did two other adaptations; The Ballad of the Sad Cafe  and Malcolm).

This week we also lost Charmian Carr, best known for playing Liesel in The Sound of Music. Carr was primarily a film actor, but her portrayal as the eldest von Trapp daughter has influenced every ingenue to take up the role since. The daughter of vaudevillian actor Rita Oehmen and musician Brian Farnon, Carr had never taken a singing lesson or tried to act before taking the role of Liesl in Robert Wise’s 1965 film. The audition had been arranged by her mother, who did it without asking Carr if she wanted to do it. Carr agreed to do the audition, thinking her mother would consider getting a part in a motion picture more important than getting a college diploma. Carr got the role, beating out actors such as Sharon Tate, Mia Farrow, Lesley Ann Warren, and Patty Duke.

Director Wise thought the surname “Farnon” would be too long when paired with Charmian and so presented the young actor with a list of single syllable surnames, from which she chose the name “Carr”.

Carr did one other musical, the Stephen Sondheim piece Evening Primrose, which aired on ABC Stage 67 in 1966, before eventually leaving show business to start an interior design firm. One of her clients was Michael Jackson, who was a fan of her performance. But while she left acting behind, she never left Liesl behind, writing two books; Forever Liesl and Letters to Liesl. She also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey show in 2010 with many of her Sound of Music co-stars to celebrate the film’s 45th anniversary and recorded Edelweiss with the great-grandchildren of the real von Trapp family.

These two “theatrical” careers, one stretching out for decades, one very short, serve as a reminder, to me at least, that theatre, music, musicals, and performance, continue to influence and shape our culture and our society. The world of drama wouldn’t be the same without Albee and his body of work and the world of musicals wouldn’t be the same without Carr’s iconic performance.

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