Week 1, Archives and Manuscripts: Honor a last Wish or Broaden the Archives?

After the death of renowned American playwright Edward Albee on September 16, 2016, the fate of his last known project “Laying an Egg”— a story about a middle-aged woman­ trying to become pregnant—was legally ordered by his own will to be destroyed. A provision in Albee’s will clearly states ““If at the time of my death I shall leave any incomplete manuscripts I hereby direct my executors to destroy such incomplete manuscripts.”[1] Albee later strictly clarifies ““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any way.”[2]  Should the executors honor the legality of Albee’s will while looking for a loophole which may allow the unpublished play to be preserved or should the they honor the clear intent of his will and destroy the work?


As a student new to the world of archives and manuscripts, I wonder the value an unfinished play may have to a future researcher looking to write about Albee or playwrights from his generation. Albee’s latest work, and one which has not explicitly reached the stage of a final draft, may give future scholars and enthusiasts of Albee’s plays a rare window into his writing process and how recent times have shaped his last known project. This opportunity to view an Albee work that did not receive his final stamp of approval may tell us many things; will it perform differently than a finished Albee play? Do we see an evolving artist overtime? What works did playwrights create in our times?


The historian and researcher in me would like to read this unfinished play; the last brilliant story from the mind that created Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But, the human being in me knows this play must be destroyed.


Archival theorist Sir Charles Hillary Jenkinson believed it was solely the creator’s responsibility to destroy material prior to its arrival at an archive. While Jenkinson’s theory seems to speak more against the archivist as an appraiser of value, it acknowledges the control the creator has over what he or she creates. The creator inherently has the ultimate right to control his or her own “archive/ manuscript collection” prior to its arrival at an archive or manuscript repository. Creators have the inherent right to control how narratives of their creations are shaped and what will be available to the public (at least in the terms of what the creator has legal ownership of).


Do we honor the wishes of a creator and relinquish control over material? Or do we disregard a creator’s wishes in a legal way for the sake of the public?



[1] Paulson, Michael. “Edward Albee’s Final Wish: Destroy My Unfinished Work.” New York Times, July 4, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/theater/edward-albees-final-wish-destroy-my-unfinished-work.html?mcubz=3.


[2] Ibid.

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