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Laughing in the Dark

Photo by Meg Henson

From this spot on Tribeca’s Greenwich Street, you can look out across the Hudson River to New Jersey. At a quarter to 10 in the morning, there are few pedestrians about and not much traffic either, and the new sun fails to blunt the cold stab of a brisk breeze. A pair of chilled Dalmatians, tied to a bicycle rack outside a bookstore, await their owner. Former warehouses, manicured with potted plants and glossy paint, have been transformed into artists’ lofts, coffee shops, clothing stores and apartments. Carved into the brickwork on one such building is a reminder of its commercial heyday: “Mercantile Exchange 1872–1884.” Standing on what was once the loading dock, I can see five nameplates, each with a little round button to the right. The rectangle at the very top unceremoniously frames the name “Albee,” as it has for about half a century. In that time, its occupant has traveled on and off (and off-off) Broadway — and all points in between.

Despite creating fairly recognizable characters, and motives for them, Edward Albee was associated early on with the absurdist wing of America’s avant-garde theater. His initial contributions to that movement were one-acts such as The Sandbox (1960), Zoo Story (1960) and The American Dream (1961). Albee was fleetingly embraced by arbiters of commercial taste with his Broadway premiere, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and nabbed a Pulitzer Prize (the first of three) for A Delicate Balance (1966). It was about this time that “reality” in his plays grew increasingly ambiguous, his prose strategically more obtuse, in conjunction with his attraction to elliptical dramatic structures. Everything in The Garden Box (1967), Quotations From Chairman Mao (1968) and All Over (1971) demonstrates Albee’s skin-dive from the comparative shallows of marital discord in Virginia Woolf into the tangled depths of linguistic abstraction and symbolism. Seascape (1975), for which Albee received his second Pulitzer, features two characters that are large creatures from the sea boasting lizardlike features.

“Mr. Albee is still working in an ornately convoluted ‘literary’ style that has no conversational feel to it,” Walter Kerr complained in The New York Times about Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque in 1980. “By the time we get the syntax unraveled, the play has moved on to new difficulties.” Kerr never stopped complaining about Albee’s detachment and artifice until Frank Rich pounded that gavel with even more fervor after Kerr’s retirement.

By the mid-1980s, none of Albee’s other plays had achieved the critical success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and most stage pundits were chalking him off as a has-been. Yet he kept writing, working, unperturbed, in American universities and European theaters. Well, maybe he was a little perturbed, until 1994, when Three Tall Women, based on his adoptive mother, received a third Pulitzer and Time magazine proclaimed, “Albee is back!”

This month, in which he turns 74, Albee is back once again with three plays — one old and two new — arriving in the New York region simultaneously: The McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, is hosting a revival of All Over with Rosemary Harris, Michael Learned and Myra Carter that is rumored to be NYC-bound. Meanwhile, off-Broadway at the Signature Theater: Peter Norton Space, Anne Bancroft — as soon as she recovers from pneumonia — stars as sculptor Louise Nevelson in Albee’s new biographical play, Occupant. And finally, most remarkable in an era when even Neil Simon can’t land a Broadway opening, Albee’s much-anticipated new play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, opens this week on Broadway at the John Golden Theater, with Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman.

Standing on the loading dock at 9:59 a.m., with all this and the playwright’s reputation as a formidable interview subject in mind, I press the buzzer a couple of times and wait. Nothing. Then I notice a bespectacled man in an overcoat, with a shock of silver hair and a mustache, and a newspaper under his arm, striding toward an elevator door on the other side of the dock. On seeing me approach, Albee extends his hand for a firm grasp.

At the fifth floor, the elevator opens directly into Albee’s cavernous two-tiered loft. The main room is a broad expanse of polished hardwood floor, raw brick walls, and, all the way at the far end, a kitchen and a spiral staircase. When Albee slips into the kitchen to get some coffee, I wander through a small forest of primitive-looking sculptures (including the work of his friend Nevelson) and abstract paintings. Sunshine pours in from above, warming the interior brick. Albee, now wearing a leather jacket and a hearing aid, returns from the kitchen, his shoes squeaking. We settle around a glass table. He speaks gently, softly, but with a twinkle in his eye, and occasionally he holds out a crooked finger to accentuate a point.

 

 

L.A. WEEKLY: In the late ’70s, you came to UCLA and spoke to a graduate seminar I was in. I remember asking you then whether you felt language had any capacity to actually convey ideas, and you said no.

EDWARD ALBEE: I was probably talking about the fact that people hear only what they want to hear.

 

And now, almost 25 years later, how would you answer the same question?

I’d say that people hear only what they want to hear. [He smiles.] I do feel that in a serious play, people should be prepared to listen. Plays do come at you more through the ear than the eye. Movies come at you through the eye. A play is 90 percent an auditory experience. I don’t trust people to pay the attention they should, to listen to language in drama. So my lack of confidence then and now has to do with people’s reaction to their responsibility to language. Then there’s the issue of the reduced attention span. People used to be able to listen to and comprehend an entire paragraph at a time.

 

In 1962, the week before Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened, you wrote a commentary in The New York Times about the difference between Broadway and off-Broadway, how friends were congratulating you for finally making it to Broadway — as though years of work off-Broadway had been merely an apprenticeship or even an indulgence — and about how value on Broadway is equated with money, a complaint that today seems ever so familiar. Has anything changed?

The value system then was all crap, and still is today; it just manifests itself differently. In an ideal world, Beckett and Chekhov would be much more popular than they are, and the theater would be properly funded. The only thing that has changed, unfortunately, is that commerce owns theater much more than it used to. The costs are preposterous, it makes cowards out of producers. When we did Virginia Woolf in 1962, our total cost to open the production was $42,000. Off-Broadway, we produced Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape with my Zoo Story for $3,000. It just means that as the ticket prices go up, it drives the audiences that you want out of the theater. And you can’t just turn your back and write for movies, because there you have no control of your work, and no protection from them simply dismissing you from it and hiring somebody else to take it over.

 

But isn’t the theater, even off-Broadway and in the regions, adopting much the same philosophy — with committees and dramaturges “developing” new theater works to their satisfaction?

The Dramatists Guild contract protects us. Not a word of the play can be changed without the playwright’s consent.

 

Yes, but you know the subtle, real-life pressures that accrue. The fear of being “difficult” combined with the desire to keep working in a particular theater, or one in its network.

You have to stand up for yourself from the very beginning of your career. The playwright doesn’t have to make changes, and the playwright would be wise not to. I never went into the theater to be an employee. If you refuse to be owned and refuse to be an employee, they’ll probably start to revile you. You’ll know what’s going on, and you have to laugh a little. You can’t get hurt and enraged by it, because that cripples you. And of course that makes them angrier and angrier, because they can’t cripple you, which is even more amusing. Sometimes the laughter is in the dark.

 

You’re speaking from personal experience? From your relationship with the critics?

[Albee does not respond.]

 

For well over 15 years, Walter Kerr kept complaining that you weren’t present in your plays, too distant . . .

Yes, it’s easy to talk about poor Walter; he’s dead now and I’m not. Walter Kerr couldn’t even figure out in Virginia Woolf how two enormously intelligent and sensitive people can play games. (I once told him that Irish Rose is a better play than King Lear, and he stopped talking to me for a month.) But Walter had another problem, he had a problem with any play that went beyond the fourth wall ...And I don’t write about me to begin with. I write about my characters. Who was the one who now writes columns but used to be the theater critic? His columns are much better than his drama criticism, by the way . . . [It’s hard to discern whether Albee is being playfully forgetful, or simply doesn’t wish to say the name Frank Rich in his home.] He had his enemies list. I never got a fair shake from the guy. I remember once he introduced me at a benefit reading we were doing; he was so effusive, his praise of my career, I got up and turned to him and said, “Thank you for the lovely words, but where were you when I needed you?” Sometimes I think the critics have a pack mentality, as though they have drinks and decide what they are going to write. None of them liked The Man Who Had Three Arms, because it’s about them — a man who grows a third arm and becomes enormously famous. And then the arm goes away and his career vanishes. It’s about the arbitrary creation. They, of course, decided that I was writing about myself, even though my talent had not gone away.

 

 

I was going to ask you — no, it’s a foolish question.

Did I ever doubt myself? [He smiles.] If you don’t have a rod of steel in your spine, you’re never going to survive in the arts in this country.

 

If you were 20 again, knowing what you know now, would you go into the theater?

I tell my students, “If you can find anything else in your life that will make you happy, do it. Because in the theater, virtue is not its own reward. But if you’ll be unhappy if you’re not in the theater, if you like swimming in polluted water with sharks, come on in.”

 

You grew up as the only son of adoptive parents, and a particularly assertive mother. In Three Tall Women, for which the critics welcomed you back into the fold, a rather difficult young man appears in Act 2 at the bed of his particularly assertive mother. In Occupant, the character of Louise Nevelson speaks at length about her rather difficult son — not the same situation literally, but there are parallels . . .

[Quizzically] Really?

 

In The Goat, a very strained episode of marital discord is punctuated throughout by the appearance of the couple’s troubled gay son.

I’ve never written autobiography. Three Tall Women was based on my adoptive mother, but I had the oddest sensation through the writing process that I was inventing the character. A friend told me I had been much too kind to her.

 

Is it possible you write plays to purge yourself of troubling emotions?

I don’t know. I write plays to find out why I’m writing them.

 

And now you have a play on Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway running at the same time. That’s truly remarkable.

Yes, it is.

 

I just want to say, almost a quarter of a century after that seminar at UCLA, how privileged I feel to be here, in this situation.

[Albee smiles, and strokes his mustache.] As well you should.

 

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? opens Sunday, March 10, at the John Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St., New York; Occupant will resume previews Tuesday, March 19, at the Signature Theater: Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St., New York; All Over is currently playing at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey.


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