SEPTEMBER 9, 2020
EDWARD ALBEE’S FORGOTTEN PLAY Malcolm was a Broadway flop lasting only seven performances. The play’s premiere, on January 11, 1966, followed 20 half-price preview shows at the Shubert Theatre. Adapted from James Purdy’s darkly comic novel, which had been celebrated by Dorothy Parker on its publication in 1959, the play was a critical and commercial failure. “Of all Albee’s plays,” biographer Mel Gussow reckons, “Malcolm is probably the one with the fewest admirers, the easiest to categorize as a mistake.”
Just as dreamy teenager Malcolm was ill-fated in Purdy’s novel, so was his namesake play destined to die young, or so it seemed. This outcome was painful for Purdy; had the adaptation been a success, it would have promoted his career a good deal. But the play’s failure had the effect of diminishing the reputation of the novel and of Purdy in general, after he had received mostly praise for his first five books. With Purdy’s next novel, the harrowing Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967), the author would receive some praise but also damnation from the critics. By contrast, Albee, propelled by the success of the 1966 film adaptation of his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), survived the Malcolm debacle unscathed.
Albee’s adaptation of Malcolm was panned by drama critics. Despite the playwright’s huge past success, not a single critic complimented his insipid adaptation. Facing low ticket sales and half-empty houses, Albee’s devoted producers, Clinton Wilder and Richard Barr, decided to close the show. To some observers, it seemed incredible that a playwright of Albee’s caliber could have taken such a steep fall. After all, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had run for almost two full years on Broadway. In the aftermath of Malcolm, critic Richard L. Coe broke down the financials and concluded that “there is certainly something grievous wrong that any play by a leading playwright, no matter how poorly received, is unable to survive better than this.” Tickets should have been offered at half-price rather than canceling the show after just seven performances, Coe reasoned. To insiders, the rapid shutdown was perplexing.
The adaptation, however, was ultimately built to fail. Albee stripped from Purdy’s story a number of thematically central characters, including Estel Blanc, an African American undertaker whose appearances bookend the novel. Albee also removed a Black jazz musician, George Leeds, and whitewashed two other Black characters, Gus and his ex-wife, Melba. Finally, Albee removed the tattoo parlor that was based on a boutique run by Purdy’s friend, Samuel Steward, the former professor turned sexual revolutionary. As a result of Albee’s unhappy choices, his adaptation is, unlike Purdy’s lively novel, drab and unengaging.
Beyond the inherent problems involved in adapting such a maverick text, Albee, who usually held a tight rein, was oddly disengaged from the production of Malcolm. According to Gussow, Albee decided to regard Malcolm as “an experiment” and let director Alan Schneider “run the show.” Experiment involves risk, and Albee was ready to take a big risk with Purdy’s story, but Schneider “was never enthusiastic about the project.” Even the Shubert Theatre, a huge musical house, was a poor selection as a venue; the producers could not have expected to pack such a house with an experimental play like Malcolm.
Purdy was allowed little input into Albee’s dramatic choices and could offer feedback only toward the end of the process. When he viewed rehearsals, he sent Albee telegrams containing brief but urgent suggestions. Albee, who had planned to finish the play in August 1965 and begin rehearsals in October, was still completing his revisions at the end of the year, amid preview shows. There was thus very little time to make significant changes in response to Purdy’s concerns. This was likely by design; director Peter Hall, who worked with the playwright in the late 1960s, said that Albee “makes a religion of putting people off. He loves destabilizing people.”
But to write a bad adaptation — what could have motivated Albee to make such a self-destructive move? Albee was attracted to Purdy’s picaresque tale because of its theme of corrupted innocence, which runs through many of his own plays. “But why tell [this story] again,” Gussow reasonably asks, “unless he had something to add to it?” Albee added nothing good but instead sucked the lifeblood out of Purdy’s best-known novel. As Gussow shows, Albee was not psychologically well during 1965 when he was working on Malcolm, often drinking to excess, and his focus was dispersed across various projects. Many noted that Albee exhibited “a prickly personality marked by malice.” Paranoia, mind games, and maliciousness were traits that became more prominent during this period. Albee had come to regard Purdy as at once a genius, a rival, and a growing threat. All of this suggests that he adapted Malcolm in less than good faith.
The critics agreed that Albee’s play seemed meaningless or impenetrable, and Albee seemed strangely content with that judgment. Interpreting the play as a religious allegory, New York Times theater critic Stanley Kauffmann posed a series of possible readings before concluding that “these questions might be stimulating except for one lack: we are never convinced that Mr. Albee himself knows the answers or — which is worse — that he cares.” Albee’s play, he went on, is “more pretentious than pertinent, is fashionably disdainful of communication, is shiny with an artistic veneer that may cover as much vacancy as depth.” The adaptation failed to do what Purdy succeeds in doing throughout his corpus — “sustain mystery.”
Albee’s play was less an adaptation than a hostile takeover. The “property” was now half Albee’s, and he succeeded in co-opting and degrading Purdy’s signature work. After the debacle, Purdy wrote in the Harvard Advocate: “I think that Malcolm would do better as a film […] it really requires the camera.” But, in fact, no film, musical, or opera was ever made from Malcolm, unlike many lesser-known Purdy works that have been optioned, and in many cases produced, in North America and Europe. Why? Because Albee controlled the rights, and he was extremely envious of the praise Purdy had received, which Albee privately felt was overinflated. No less than Susan Sontag had declared in 1964: “Anything Purdy writes is a literary event of importance. He is, to my mind, indisputably one of the half-dozen or so living American writers worth taking seriously.” In Malcolm, Albee saw an opportunity to control Purdy’s story, refusing to relinquish the rights despite Purdy’s repeated requests. The merger placed Malcolm in the middle of two mad geniuses; as editor and publisher Don Weise, who worked with both authors, told me: “When you put Edward Albee and James Purdy together, it’s like an explosion.”
Albee and Purdy are both gone now, and their reputations are wildly divergent, with Albee a globally famous playwright and Purdy for the most part forgotten, aside from a small but diverse cadre of intense admirers that includes John Waters and Jonathan Franzen. The debacle of Albee’s Malcolm has been expunged from history. In his 2012 book Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, Christopher Bram excises Purdy from the narrative entirely, and although he discusses Albee’s career in the 1960s, he never mentions Malcolm. On the other hand, Gore Vidal hailed Purdy as an “authentic American genius” in a long New York Times essay entitled “The Novelist as Outlaw,” and novelist and critic Jerome Charyn has called Purdy “America’s outlaw of fiction” and “one of the very best writers we have.”
Purdy began writing stories as a boy in Findlay, Ohio, and became serious about trying to publish them after graduating from college in Bowling Green. Through graduate school at the University of Chicago, service in the Army, employment with the US government, short teaching stints in Cuba and West Virginia, and a professorship at Lawrence College in Wisconsin, Purdy continued writing short stories. But he had a hell of a time getting them published. His first publication was in 1939, but he did not publish again until 1946 (in Prairie Schooner), and then not again until 1955 (in The Black Mountain Review). The world, it seemed, was not yet ready for Purdy’s pursuit of the outrageous and (as he put it) the “impossible.”
In 1956, with financing from his friend Osborn Andreas, a Chicago businessman and literary critic, Purdy privately published a collection of stories. Later that year, his partner, Jorma Sjoblom, a chemist who had been Purdy’s colleague at Lawrence College, financed a private edition of Purdy’s novella, 63: Dream Palace. Purdy mailed out copies of these two books, adorned with his Cocteauesque line drawings, to writers, critics, and others he intuitively felt would resonate with the work. Before long, letters filled with praise and appreciation poured in from Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, John Cowper Powys, Elizabeth Bishop, Thornton Wilder, Virgil Thomson, Tennessee Williams, and many more.
The grandest figure of all to reply was Dame Edith Sitwell. At the time, Sitwell was revered by many as a magnificent poet and influential tastemaker — a visionary, a great English eccentric. As Albee noted in a New York Times piece appearing soon before Malcolm opened, her “opinions were strong and more often than not unfavorable.” After receiving Purdy’s collection at Montegufoni, the Sitwell family’s Tuscan castle, Sitwell wrote to say that she thought several of the stories to be “superb; nothing short of masterpieces,” possessing a “terrible, heart-breaking quality.” Stunned, Purdy was prompted to send her 63: Dream Palace. In late 1956, Sitwell wrote: “What a wonderful book! It is a masterpiece from every point of view,” and Purdy was “truly a writer of genius.” Through Sitwell’s auspices, Purdy found a publisher in England, which led to a contract with New Directions in the United States.
Sitwell broadcast her praise in published reviews starting with his first British book: “Mr. Purdy is a superb writer, using all the fires of the heart and the crystallising powers of the brain.” She was “convinced that, long after my death, James Purdy will come to be recognized as one of the greatest writers America has ever produced.” This kind of lavish praise inspired many readers to seek Purdy out, but it also caused some of his contemporaries, including Albee, to seethe with envy. In 1980, Albee confessed that Purdy had “received public praise of a fulsomeness — the extravagance of enthusiasm — that may have sown envy and maggoty urgings toward revenge in the hearts of many.” Malcolm was Purdy’s follow-up to his 1957 collection Color of Darkness, his first commercial book, and many critics were curious to see whether Purdy could produce longer work that might justify accolades such as Sitwell’s.
Malcolm remains Purdy’s signature book, an enigmatic tale of a towheaded teenage cipher adrift in a large city, searching for his missing father. Sent to various “addresses” by Professor Cox, he encounters all kinds of fascinating and sometimes slippery adults. Chapters focus on characters who are based on colorful people Purdy had met and befriended in Chicago from the late 1930s through the 1950s. For example, the models for Eloisa and Jerome Brace were Gertrude Abercrombie, the bohemian surrealist painter, “jazz queen,” and friend of Dizzy Gillespie, and her second husband, Frank Sandiford, an ex-con and memoirist; and the characters of Girard Girard and Madame Girard were based on Osborn Andreas, Purdy’s friend and benefactor, and his imperious, hard-drinking wife, Miriam. Most notoriously, the model for Professor Robinolte was Samuel Steward, the English professor turned tattoo artist, pornographer, and sexual revolutionary (who became much better known after Justin Spring’s 2010 biography, Secret Historian, was published).
Purdy’s Malcolm was mostly favorably reviewed. R. W. B. Lewis situated the novel in the “fine old comic picaresque tradition,” calling it “a work of baffling, perverse and very real distinction” and praising Purdy as “a writer of exceptional talent, who must be acknowledged in the company of Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison.” Dorothy Parker, known more for her biting wit than for her generosity with praise, hailed Malcolm as a “most prodigiously funny book” and called Purdy “a writer of the highest rank in originality, insight and power.” This was the kind of praise that made Albee turn green.
Purdy became known for his tight dialogue, which led playwrights like Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams to encourage him to write plays. Hellman not only connected Purdy with potential producers, but she also proposed him for the Academy of Arts and Letters, a nomination seconded by Dorothy Parker and Glenway Wescott, the poet and novelist. Although the first play Purdy wrote, Madonna, was not ultimately produced, the experience empowered him to compose two short dramas, Cracks and Children Is All, which were published in book form in 1962 (and which influenced some of Tennessee Williams’s later work, according to John Uecker, who was Williams’s last assistant and Purdy’s longtime friend and assistant). The attention of theater heavyweights like Hellman and Williams was likely vexing to the up-and-coming Albee.
In 1961, Gene Andrewski, a Paris Review editor, adapted some of Purdy’s stories, mounting them as Malcolm and Others by James Purdy at the Poetry Center in New York. The production featured a famed acting couple, Zachary Scott and Ruth Ford, and Purdy himself played the narrator; also starring were Betty Field and Eli Wallach, whose Broadway debut had been in Williams’s The Rose Tattoo in 1951. Albee was thus not the first to put Purdy on stage or even the first to show interest in bringing Malcolm to Broadway. In 1962, newspapers reported that playwright William Archibald was adapting Purdy’s novel into a Broadway play. Archibald had adapted Henry James’s short novel The Turn of the Screw as a successful play, The Innocents, in 1950, which was produced as a film (with a script by Archibald and Truman Capote) in 1961. Of course, his plans for Malcolm would not come to fruition once Albee became involved.
In 1963, the play Color of Darkness: An Evening in the World of James Purdy, directed by Bill Francisco of the Yale Drama School, was performed at the off-Broadway Writers Stage Theatre. Composer Ned Rorem, who wrote incidental music for the production, wrote in his diary: “Not the least effective element of Color of Darkness […] is the music which plays almost constantly, even during intermission when the taped saxophone wails into the washrooms.” Gloria Vanderbilt, a future admirer of Purdy’s poetry, was Rorem’s “date” for the performance. Purdy and Rorem became friends. The culmination of the evening was a performance of Purdy’s short play Cracks starring Eleanor Phelps, who had just returned from touring My Fair Lady. Edward Albee was in attendance, and seems to have been inspired, since he began adapting Malcolm in 1965.
Why was Albee’s play such a miserable failure, receiving universally unfavorable reviews, despite the involvement of a big-name playwright, not to mention the veteran actress Estelle Parsons? In his stage debut, Matthew Cowles played Malcolm and, by all reports, handled the role well. Privately, Purdy wrote that Cowles had “much of the naiveté and innocence — very good — but lacks the ‘divine’ or ‘princely’ aura” and “doesn’t suggest deeper meaning.” But “anyhow Matthew Cowles was fine.” The director, Alan Schneider, had previously helmed the US premieres of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tiny Alice (1964), along with a number of other Broadway hits. He was not excited about Albee’s take on Malcolm, however, and it showed. Moreover, Albee allowed the production to fall out of his control for some reason, perhaps because he knew his adaptation was lackluster. The New Yorker panned the play, and Kauffmann in the Times, after praising the production as “exquisite,” dismissed Albee’s adaptation as hollow and boring. Although the critics were hostile, most of them made clear that Purdy’s novel was not the source of the problem. Kauffmann, for instance, took care to stress the many “changes from Mr. Purdy’s novel (too lengthy to examine here),” and the review in Choice noted that Purdy’s book is a “clever and well written novel.”
In the late ’60s, Purdy stated publicly that he had liked Albee’s adaptation, but his personal notes on the script make clear that he did not. In these notes, Purdy recorded that “Albee’s concept of Malcolm” was “very different from” his own and complained that the removal of key characters was not based on “dramatic exigency but show[ed] a radically different concept.” By 1989, Purdy was complaining openly about the changes, telling Patricia Lear that Albee “couldn’t find anyone to play the midget, or dwarf, so he changed it to a one hundred and twenty-year-old man, and that doesn’t work at all.” Privately, he wrote that “Albee removed two crucial characters,” which is “like removing Hamlet’s ghost father and the Queen from Hamlet” — the play “can’t work as Malcolm without these.” By 2000, Purdy was even more forthright, revealing to Richard Canning that he found Albee’s adaptation “terrible. Awful. I like Edward Albee, though. I’m glad he did it. It had moments, but I don’t know that anyone could put Malcolm on the stage.” According to Purdy’s notes on the first page of the playscript, “none of this worked dramatically or visually — Dead.”
Remarkably, Albee removed all the African American characters, draining the story of much of its richness and diversity. As Purdy complained in his private notes, “Albee ignored the fact that nearly half the characters in Malcolm are colored. He made it all white.” More pointedly, he remarked that the adaptation “excludes carefully and thoroughly all the Negro elements (I can only guess why).” Albee also did not include much of the modern jazz that Purdy had heard at Gertrude Abercrombie’s salons, which plays an important role in the novel. For example, he stripped out the character of George Leeds, a Black jazz pianist who is based upon John Lewis, a future member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, whom Purdy met at Abercrombie’s house. On top of all this, Albee whitewashed some of Purdy’s Black characters, including the leather-clad motorcyclist Gus and his ex-wife, Melba, a nightclub singer. In the production, white actors played Gus and Melba.
It’s possible that deeply seated racism may have played a part in Albee’s purging of Blackness from Purdy’s story. Notably, the Albee estate, in 2017, denied a small professional theater company in Oregon permission to cast a Black actor as Nick in their planned production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The director subsequently aired his indignation on social media, and online outrage ensued, with pundits asserting that, if the Albee estate was racist and out of touch, then, by implication, Albee was too. The New York Times covered the story under a sensational headline: “A Black Actor in ‘Virginia Woolf’? Not Happening, Albee Estate Says.”
Born in 1928, Albee grew up in a wealthy family. His adoptive father owned a few theaters, and his grandfather had been the general manager of the Keith-Albee circuit, which held a near-monopoly on Vaudeville theaters and talent in much of the United States. Albee’s mother, with whom he had a torturous love-hate relationship, was an overt racist. The composer Noel Farrand, Albee’s neighbor and longtime friend, said that the “regal and forbidding” Mrs. Albee was “a very bigoted woman” who was “ruling Edward in a far from benevolent way.” Albee himself said that the representation of his mother as a censorious termagant in his 1991 play Three Tall Women was “fairly accurate.” As he commented to Gussow, aside from “vile remarks” about Blacks and Jews, the Albees would have passed “as a perfectly normal middle-class WASP family.” Another friend recalled that “nobody even had black help; it was all Irish and Scottish.”
While Albee grew up in an over-privileged, toxic environment, Purdy, by contrast, came from a humble, struggling Midwestern family, and he felt looked down upon by his more affluent peers. Purdy would often linger to listen to the stories of two older African American women who prepared desserts for his mother to serve at their home, which she had converted into a boarding house after her divorce in 1930. Purdy’s early story “Eventide,” which featured dialogue in vernacular between two Black women, was inspired both by these early experiences and by his absorption of jazz culture in Chicago. This story, along with the title of his collection Color of Darkness, caused early readers of his privately published manuscript, including Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, Angus Wilson, and Edith Sitwell, to believe that Purdy was African American.
Unlike Purdy, Albee hardly ever featured Black characters in his works. Despite the resistance of his estate, however, he was not personally opposed to Black actors starring in Virginia Woolf and had, in fact, supported an all-Black performance of the play at Howard University, even writing some changes to facilitate the production. Another all-Black production was mounted in Chicago not long after the Oregon fiasco. The Albee estate has said that making only Nick African American “essentially transforms George and Martha into older white racists, which is not what Edward’s play is about,” but that “virtually all the roles” in Albee’s plays “can and should be done in a diverse, color-conscious way.”
In short, it wasn’t mere racism that caused Albee to expunge the Black characters from his adaptation of Malcolm. Perhaps he removed the African American elements of the novel for the same reason he removed the tattoo parlor: to drain the story of life and relevance. Combined with a lifeless set centered on distracting treadmills, which never quite worked right, and Albee’s persistent delays and lack of focus, the result, predictably, was a disaster. Even the music, composed by Albee’s former romantic partner, William Flanagan, lacked dynamism and was ill-suited to Purdy’s vision. Purdy told Marie-Claude Profit that Albee’s play “was not my work. It was rather gloomy. He cut out all the humor. And he changed all the blacks to whites and the musical score, instead of being jazz, was sort of avant-garde music of many years ago. It had a very ambitious score.” Flanagan was not associated with jazz but rather art music, so he would not have been able to compose convincing bebop. As Purdy wrote in his private notes, “Mr. Flanagan’s musical score was distinguished, but doesn’t convey all the shades of the novel — it is sparse like everything else in the production.” Ned Rorem, who had written to Purdy expressing interest in composing music for the play, wrote in his diary that Flanagan’s music betrayed “an absence of direction, hence its untheatricality.”
Albee’s radical changes to Purdy’s novel drained meaning and pleasure from the work. In the draft of an article intended for Life magazine, Purdy revealed his suspicions about Albee’s character. He complained that Albee “altered some of the [novel’s] characters in line with his own concept of ‘evil.’” None of his own characters were evil, Purdy wrote, they simply lacked “values by which to live,” but Albee, either for dramatic reasons “or because he reads life this way,” made two characters “actively evil […] purposely harmful and conniving.” Art imitates life: Albee was notoriously fascinated with — and given to — petty mind games, and some commentators have identified his ferocious spats with Flanagan as a key source for the verbal warfare in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As Blanche DuBois remarks in A Streetcar Named Desire, “[S]ome things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable.”
Against all good sense, Albee courted not success with Malcolm but outright failure. He was willing to suffer the play bombing to ensure taking down his rival. As Robert Brustein wrote in The New Republic, “Albee’s declared intention was to attract readers to Purdy’s writings, but he seems to have precisely the opposite effect.” The retrospective conclusion of Malcolm’s producer, Richard Barr, is revealing: “Edward wrote that play with a sword instead of a pen and we overproduced it.” In a dark emotional place, often pickled in alcohol, feeling “envy and maggoty urgings toward revenge,” Albee plunged that sword into his rival. Purdy intuited this motivation, stating in the Harvard Advocate that, “[a]s a matter of fact, I never believed Malcolm was on Broadway, and I don’t now, and it probably never was.” After the play closed, he told Roger Straus that he was “recovering from Armageddon at the Shubert! Let’s have the Mafia sprit away the next adapter.”
For his part, Albee had some final thoughts about the catastrophe, which he shared in a letter to Flanagan. The letter was sent from Europe, where Albee was on an extended tour, dining with Dick and Liz in London, discussing a potential film collaboration with Franco Zeffirelli and Rudolf Nureyev in Rome. All this excitement had quite wiped the disaster of Malcolm from his mind. In fact, he felt good, though he admitted to being a bit “guilty and uneasy” about his sense of well-being. “Indeed, why was I not going into a decline?” he wondered. “Why was I not sleepless, disoriented, and given to feelings of worthlessness and subject to writers-block?” On the contrary, after the regenerative violence of taking down Purdy, his next big hit, A Delicate Balance, was flowing rapidly from his pen.
I am of good mind, am working, resting, and — at most — mildly curious to know, when the time comes, whether or not the commercial failure of Malcolm was a true statement of its artistic value, as well. Otherwise, I couldn’t care less about it. (Had it not been an adaptation!!!! Well now!!!).
Albee’s coldness toward Purdy here is astonishing. Clearly, for Albee, Malcolm’s failure was a kind of twisted success, with Purdy rather resembling his own creation, a naïve innocent exploited and discarded by a jaded sophisticate.
Michael Snyder, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, is completing a biography of James Purdy. Snyder is the co-author and editor of a new book, Our Osage Hills, which features lost early work by John Joseph Mathews (Lehigh University Press), and the author of John Joseph Mathews: Life of an Osage Writer (University of Oklahoma Press).