Edward Albee is a national treasure, recipient of the National Medal of Arts and the 2005 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. Albee worked in the experimental off-Broadway movement in the early ’60s. The Broadway premiere of his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (first produced in 1962) and the subsequent film version with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton landed Albee on the international stage. Despite Pulitzer Prizes for A Delicate Balance (1967) and Seascape (1975), Albee’s maintained a continuing attraction to the Theater of the Absurd (first revealed in his 1959 one-act Zoo Story, about a drifter who acts out his own murder, with the “help” of an upper-class editor). His growing disinclination to write plays with walls and couches, and his emulation of dramatists and poets such as Samuel Beckett, kept The New York Times’ drama critic, Walter Kerr, at a critical distance from a series of plays written by Albee. Kerr was partly responsible for relegating Albee’s works toward European and university stages, and away from commercial venues. That changed somewhat in 1994 with Albee’s quasi-autobiographical Three Tall Women, which earned Albee his third Pulitzer Prize, and inspired Time magazine to proclaim, “Albee is back!” — as though he’d been orbiting Jupiter. In 2002, Albee’s comedy, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? — concerning attempts by the wife and son of an otherwise respectable man to comprehend his adultery with a goat — opened on Broadway, which also saw a new production of Virginia Woolf in 2005 starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. After performing in London, the pair have brought their performances to the Ahmanson Theatre, where the play performs through March 18. (For a review, see New Reviews here.) Albee spoke to the Weekly from New York, days before returning to London to assist with a new production of his play The Lady From Dubuque.
L.A. WEEKLY:You’ve gone on record expressing disgust with critics and the commercial system of theater for either excluding or hampering the careers of thoughtful playwrights, such as yourself. But in 2007, given the extraordinarily high regard that audiences and critics now hold you in, have your views softened?
EDWARD ALBEE: My views on what?
On critics and commercial theater.
It obviously means that the criticism has improved greatly and that the audiences want quality theater. (He chuckles.) Actually, I think audiences have grown up, maybe more than the critics. Commercially things aren’t any better. I still have 29 plays, and I don’t think more than seven or eight have been commercially successful. When nine of my plays had been flops, not returning their investment, it was hard to make a case for doing my next one. I think that the economics of theater are more destructive than ever before. The fact that the cost of producing serious plays has shot up, the fact that the movie studios are infesting the Broadway theater with dreadful movies, the attempt of the movies to corrupt the Dramatists Guild, getting playwrights to do piecework, makes it tougher now. The only person who has lost income percentages over the past 20 years has been the playwright. We used to get 10 percent of the gross. The most you can ask for now — if you have a reputation — is 5 or 6, and they try to put you in a royalty pool if it’s a hit. We’re the only theater artists who don’t have a union. We can’t become a union because we’re not employees. I don’t know what inflation has done in the past 40 years, but it hasn’t gone up as much as the cost of doing theater: Virginia Woolf cost $45,000 on Broadway in 1962. It just cost a million and a half in London last year. The cost of living hasn’t gone up that much.
[Statistics compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis from the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Consumer Price Index support Albee’s assertion: In 1962, a $1 bill had the purchasing power of about 12 cents today. At this rate, the $45,000 it cost to produce Virginia Woolf on Broadway in 1962 should translate to a budget of around $400,000 today. The $1.5 million budget for the London production represents more than triple our national rate of inflation in the years between 1962 and 2006.]
Do you still like Virginia Woolf?
I like it still. I’m a little bit more objective about it now. I haven’t cut much of the play. Only some youthful excess; the fondness for the sound of one’s own voice leads to overwriting. Nobody will notice the cuts I’ve made. I think it holds up very well.
Does it match up to what you were imagining when you wrote it? And can you even remember that?
I guess I can recall the experience of having written it. I can imagine remembering. I know what it should look like, I know when it’s working. I’ve directed it with Colleen Dewhurst.
How does the chemistry of Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin differ from that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the movie, or other Marthas and Georges?
I don’t think of the film in the same terms. As a commercial film I think they were very lucky. Would I have been happier with James Mason and Bette Davis? I don’t know. They didn’t fuck up my play. They only way they fucked it up, I saw a rough cut, the movie was so much tougher before they put in that awful soppy music. I don’t like movie music, being told how to react. The music softened the film. Kathleen [Turner] and Bill [Irwin] are absolutely ideal. Arthur Hill played it originally. Irwin also has that dry intellectual quality.
Any new plays on the horizon?
Me Myself and I. It’s a play about identical male twins.
Can you expand on that?
I’d rather not.
Reflecting on 40 years in the theater, is there anything you might have done differently?
Every new play I write, I think, ‘Well, this one will kill my career.’ But if you worry about fashion and reviews, you can’t do your work. I didn’t know so much about acting and directing as I do now. Probably what mistakes I make are more subtle and interesting. Every time I write a play, I remind myself this is the first play I’m writing. Someday I’ll write a play and I’ll discover it’s the same play I wrote 37 years ago, and I won’t remember.
Any hopeful signs in the American theater?
We have no paucity of good young playwrights, and good older playwrights; we don’t have the happiest environment for them to work in. Like in the art world and in literature, the theater’s just as trendy, as dangerous and corrupt. The big problem is the assumption that writing a play is a collaborative act. It isn’t. It’s a creative act, and then other people come in. The interpretation should be for the accuracy of what the playwright wrote. Playwrights are expected to have their text changed by actors they never wanted. Directors seem to feel they are as creative as the playwright. Most of these changes are for commercial reasons. I know a lot about it because I’m on the council of the Dramatists Guild, but of course the pressures are on all of us. I’m in the lucky position where I just say, ‘Go fuck yourself; if you don’t want to do the play I wrote, do another play.’ The forces of darkness would back down if everybody said that. Theater wouldn’t go away and Disney wouldn’t go away. It’s all because people believe that entertainment has to be superficial.
Maybe we’re headed for a reincarnation of the Roman theater.
Actors’ Equity would never allow for Roman theater. You can’t kill artists, not on the stage. You can destroy their talents, but you can’t kill them.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is performing at the Centre Theater Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. Performances continue through March 18. (213) 628-2772 or www.taperahmanson.org.