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Unfinished Work of Famed Playwright to be Destroyed

Published August 7, 2017 by Brady Cobin Law Group, PLLC

It’s not always easy for the living to honor the wishes of the dead, and in this case, we may never know what Edward Albee was working on, if his wishes are carried out.

Edward Albee was very specific in the directions included in his will, as reported in The New York Times in “Edward Albee’s Final Wish: Destroy My Unfinished Work.” Known as “dead hand control” in estate planning, he specifically asked his executors to destroy any incomplete manuscripts, if any were left behind if he died before completing them. The request is a little unusual, but it is not unprecedented.

The effect of Albee’s will is currently a mystery. Albee’s executors are an accountant and a designer, both longtime friends of the playwright. The two wouldn’t say if any papers had already been destroyed, although the executors have been carrying out other aspects of Albee’s will.

Albee’s estate asked that Sotheby’s auction off more than 100 artworks he collected. The proceeds—estimated at more than $9 million—will benefit his namesake foundation, which maintains a residence for artists in Montauk, N.Y. It’s the primary beneficiary of his estate, since the playwright never married and had no children or close relatives.

Albee’s executors say they plan to honor Albee’s instructions, even though it’s controversial. Drafts of Albee’s final known project, “Laying an Egg,” are about a middle-aged woman struggling to become pregnant with one plot element about her father’s will.

Albee, best known for “Virginia Woolf,” died in September at the age of 88. His will, which he signed in 2012, was filed in the county court. The will states, “If at the time of my death I shall leave any incomplete manuscripts, I hereby direct my executors to destroy such incomplete manuscripts.”

Until the manuscripts are destroyed, the will instructs that the executors should “treat the materials herein directed to be destroyed as strictly confidential and to ensure that such materials are not copied, made available for scholarly or critical review or made public in any way.”

Some playwrights say these drafts aren’t public property and belong to the author. The author has the right to decide their fate. However, attorneys who specialize in estate law and intellectual property say the issue is less clear. There’s a long history of heirs substituting their own judgments for those of deceased artists, and little case law about whether it’s okay.

The president of the Edward Albee Society and a professor of playwriting noted that it was disappointing, but not surprising, since Albee maintained strict control over materials available for the public. The dean of the Yale School of Drama also noted that this was entirely in keeping with Albee’s standards.

Reference: New York Times (July 4, 2017) “Edward Albee’s Final Wish: Destroy My Unfinished Work

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