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Edward Albee…an interview

                           By David Schultz

In the spring of 2009, I had the distinct pleasure and honor of meeting with Mr. Edward Albee in Philadelphia. The double bill of The Zoo Story was being paired with a new One Act prequel entitled Edward Albee’s at Home at the Zoo. In the span of one hour we discussed a wide range of topics. At first guarded and suspicious, no surprise…since I am a theater critic, he slowly opened up and spoke in great detail on his craft. Since his recent passing there is no better time than now, to let the man speak in his own words.  

A conversation with Edward Albee

D.S. I would like to start off our conversation touching upon your first play “The Zoo Story” which you wrote in 1958. Was there anything you wrote before that work?

E.A. My first play? Well before “The Zoo Story”, I wrote a three-act sex farce when I was fourteen. And I knew very little about either one and I wrote a …I’m embarrassed to admit…. a play in rhymed couplets when I was about twenty-two. Neither one was a rather auspicious beginning as a playwright, but I had been writing poetry and novels, short stories. It was all bad. Everything was bad until I wrote ‘The Zoo Story’.

D.S. Did you think your pre-Zoo work was really bad?

E.A. I realized the more I looked at it, the less good it was. But I also realized that ‘The Zoo story’ was good when I wrote it.

D.S. This play did not premiere in America first?

E.A. No, it was done first in Berlin in German; it was translated, but in New York I don’t think the producer had any problem. It did not cost much to produce Off-Broadway then. It opened at the Provincetown Playhouse where O’Neill had his first plays produced. It was on a double-bill in Berlin and in New York with Beckett’s “Krapps Last Tape”. The total cost of producing this thing in 1958 in N.Y.C. was eighteen hundred dollars. So I don’t think there was any problem raising money for it. There was a lot of difficulty raising money for ‘Virginia Woolf” on Broadway, but that was much later.

D.S. What were your other plays before “Virginia Woolf” made you a household name?

E.A. I wrote three plays “The Death of Bessie Smith”, about the great black blues singer who was allowed to die after an accident, on her way to a white hospital, and she was refused admission because she was black. Segregation was fiercer than it even is now. And then followed by “The American Dream” and “The Sandbox”. Those four plays were written first, then “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was written.

D.S. Back to “The Zoo Story” for a minute…. this new first act, which you have recently written…would you call this a prologue to “The Zoo Story”?

E.A. No…I wouldn’t, I would say that it is a new play. In the first Act ‘Homelife’ we understand why Peter reacts the way he does (in ‘The Zoo Story’). That’s why I wrote the first act, to fill in the gaps.

D.S.  Don’t you think this is an unusual thing? To revisit a play after almost fifty years has elapsed?

E.A. Well, I don’t think of it as revisiting, as I didn’t rewrite the ‘Zoo Story’…I merely made it clearer, by writing a first act for it. I don’t think that happens very often either. I’m not aware of other people doing it. Some people go around and revise something they have written thirty or forty years ago, but I wouldn’t do that.

D.S. Do you recall what the reaction was to ‘The Zoo Story’ back in 1958?

E.A. Well…. like most of my plays the critical reaction was split…between favorable and unfavorable. Audiences seemed to like it fine, but that does not seem to affect the minds of critics.

D.S. You do have a rather ahemm… barbed opinion of the critical establishment in general.

E.A.  The only thing that amuses me… and sometimes confuses me about critics…about my work…is how, I open a play, and the critics…some of them are very intelligent about it…by which I mean they like it. And the next play I write, they become stupid because they don’t like what I’ve written. They don’t like it…how can that happen? The only thing that really troubles me about critics is that unless they read the play before they see it, they are reviewing the production and not necessarily the play. And that is unfortunate. It is almost second-hand, unless you have read the play beforehand.

D.S. You have in your book of essays described and compared reading a play to listening to an orchestral score.

E.A. Well the composer and the author are similar, you get what the author and composer intended, intact…when you read the play first, you don’t get the distortion.

D.S. This play has had many titles…’The Zoo Story’, then a year and a half or so ago, Off-Broadway, it was called?

E.A. It was called Peter and Jerry. But I didn’t like that, because it IS accurate…but it sounded too much like ‘Ben & Jerry’s’ ice cream. So then I decided to call it ‘At Home at The Zoo’. Which is a much better title.

D.S. You frequently work closely with productions of your work, a collaborative process with actors and directors. Are there questions asked of you during rehearsal periods?

E.A. What you do first is that you try to hire actors that you know are right for the roles, and that is the author’s prerogative. And I try to hire a director who is going to direct the play you wrote, not some approximation of it.  And once you have the right director and the right actors, 90% of the work is done.

D.S. Your work has spanned fifty-years. How many plays have you written?

E.A. Thirty

D.S. Are there certain actors or actress that you enjoy working with?

E.A. There seem to be some that you can call Albee actors, that seem to like my work and I like their work…in the old days, back in London, I worked with Peggy Ashcroft a lot…she was a wonderful actress.

D.S. I was fascinated to learn that Uta Hagen was not your first choice to play Martha in ‘Virigina Woolf’, but it was Geraldine Page.

E.A. Yes that’s true, but that did not work out. I must say, I was rather pleased with the last Broadway revival a few seasons back with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin.

D.S. Have you ever directed ‘Woolf’ before?

E.A. Yes, of course…. a few times. I directed it on Broadway with Colleen Dewhurst, and Ben Gazzara. I directed it in Los Angles with John Lithgow…. I’ve directed it three or four times.

D.S. You don’t like the theory that your plays have a ‘timeless’ quality about them?

E.A. I would never think to say that my plays are timeless…somebody else decided that! If I want a play set in 1937, I’ll say it’s from 1937. But if I think it is more or less contemporary, I don’t say anything.

D.S. With this new ‘Zoo Story’, you have changed very tiny, incremental things?

E.A. Yes, I’ve brought it up to date. Peter’s salary, etc… but rather small changes.

D.S. You do seem to have a knack for creating simultaneous emotional moments throughout your work. Bemused laughter at first… then getting the guffaws caught in your throat with a swerve of emotion that careens to a shocking scene that the audience is sometimes not prepared for.

E.A. That’s the way life goes. Most playwrights don’t bother with that. Maybe they don’t hear it. Well I think the fact that I wanted to be a composer when I was very young made me listen carefully. I’ve always been drawn to music, ever since I was 10 years old. I know a great deal about it. I think I listen to dialogue the same way, and I hear and write dialogue in a similar manner. 

D.S. Here is an odd question. How if possible would you compare your plays to a style of music?

E.A. No, not a style, a style is a style of composition. To me, most of my plays are akin to chamber music.

D.S. I really enjoyed your play ‘Three Tall Women’. I’ve seen a few productions of it, the best being the original Off-Broadway cast. It is an amazing work…. How autobiographical is that work for you? You based the lead character on your adopted mother?

E.A. It was not completely autobiographical, because I was not in it of course. Biographical…yes.

D.S. Well, the shy young man in this play can of course be construed as a stand-in for you as a young man. You stood in, at one point during rehearsals as this young man if I recall?

E.A. Yes…during a rehearsal one day, I got so fascinated by playing the character to facilitate I forgot my lines. I’ve been on stage before…I’ve acted before when I was younger. I just didn’t forget my lines usually. I got so involved with being the character.

D.S. Very few of your works have been transferred to film. I’d almost venture that you might be happy about that?

E.A. I’m happy about that.

D.S. What would happen to your plays, if they were transferred to another medium…film in particular?

E.A. Well I must say I was lucky with the two plays that were made into films; ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and ‘A Delicate Balance’. In neither case was there a screenplay that was used, lots of screenplays were written, but none of them were used because they were preposterous. ‘A Delicate Balance’ was shot as a play. It was a filmed play. In ‘Woolf’ the producer had written a variety of screen treatments that the actors refused to do. And so they ended up shooting the play that I wrote. So I got spoiled. It is VERY unusual for things to go that way. But I’m not going to let someone come in and completely rewrite my work. If they want to make a film of a new play of mine they have to work with me. Do you ever notice that the most important person in the film is not the author…it’s the director…. star…. and the text is altered to fit those other talents.

D.S. You have made some interesting comments…. among them, to paraphrase “When you see a play, when you go to the theater, you should presume that in some way that THIS play, is the very FIRST play I have ever seen” To in effect wipe the slate clean, and have no preconceptions. Can you elaborate on this?

E.A. You see the problem; we all bring so many prejudices to the theater. “Oh..I don’t want to see an’ unhappy’ play” or “I don’t want to be troubled”…or this or that. We refuse to participate in the play that is written. Many audiences are so passive these days. Another thing is that one of the problems with theater is that tickets have gotten so expensive. I told you earlier that the ‘Zoo Story’ cost eighteen hundred dollars back in 58. If you wanted to do that production today it would cost something like four hundred thousand dollars. There is a big difference now. The original production of ‘Virginia Woolf’ cost thirty eight thousand in 1962. And the last production on Broadway cost something like a Million-four. So obviously it has become a lot more expensive. The price of theater tickets has gotten ridiculous.  It used to cost five or six dollars to go the theatre. Now it’s a hundred on Broadway. It’s going to kill theater.

D.S. When some people pay that much for theater they want to be entertained. The mindset is ‘show me’ ‘give me my monies worth’…’impress me’…etc…

E.A. “I’ve paid all this money, I don’t want anything to upset me…I don’t want anything to happen to me”. “I want to have a ’totally’ empty’ time”. “I want to spend my money having nothing happen”. I guess that is people’s prerogative.

D.S. There still are a few good writers out there, that still shock, provoke, stir the pot so to speak…yes?

E.A. Why of course, any good writer seeks to do that. But you know, I find it harder for serious plays to get done these days, because most audiences seem to want the emptiness of escapism. So a tough play is harder to get financed.

D.S. And a shorter run as well?

E.A. Almost always.

D.S. I was quite surprised to see that ‘The Goat or who is Sylvia”? Opened on Broadway a few years ago.

E.A. I have a very courageous producer named Elisabeth McCann. She replaced Dick Barr who was my original producer when he died. And she believed…she is one of the rare birds that believe excellence deserves production, over commerce, deserves production. So she works with my plays.

D.S. There is an ironic tale about the birth of this production back in its early stages.  What happened?

E.A. Well. It is a rather complicated tale…I had an idea for a play and I happened to mention it to a couple of people, that I was writing a play about something. It was something that you should NEVER do…you find out, because about 6 months after I mentioned it to a couple of people that I had this idea for a play. Someone else came up with a play with exactly the same idea. There are big ears…in the theater. It might have been an accident, but I don’t think so. So now I don’t tell anybody anything. I think it’s safer that way. Once I have it copyrighted, then it o.k. But of course you can’t copyright ideas.

D.S. Do you write on a computer?

E.A. Good God…No. Its called manuscript. I write longhand.  The sounds of the machines get in the way of my rhythms.

D.S. Are you writing anything currently?

E.A. Well, I have two plays in my head…and I suppose that’s the beginning of writing.

D.S. Back to the ‘Goat’ if I may…. I am fascinated by the fact that it seems to be about one thing, but its really not. It is a supremely complex and emotionally devastating roller coaster ride.  

E.A. The play ‘The Goat’ is basically about the limits of our tolerance. And how stupid some of our tolerances are. The play is NOT about fucking a goat. (Laughs).

D.S. There is something you mentioned in one of your essays about being aware of your consciousness for the very first time? Does that ring a bell?

E.A. Oh…I was a few months old…and I remember being held in my nanny’s arms.  With my adopted family, and I was looking at a house they were building. And I remember SEEING the house. I recall the scaffolding all over it…. so I was just a few months old when I saw that. And then I don’t remember anything until I was thirty. (Laughs)

D.S.  You were born in Washington?

E.A. No, I was born in Virginia, but adopted in Washington. I can’t find out much about that…I was raised just outside of New York City.

D.S. Anyone who has a lifetime of difficulty or situations that they have to overcome…

E.A. Everybody does.

D.S. Would you be the writer with your mindset, curiosity, and dare I say sublimated anger, curiosity and raw honesty without those travails?

E.A. Well…I would always have those things built into my nature. Whether I would have been a writer or not…without the good education that I received… I don’t know. I mean, if I had grown up like my adopted family, then I would have ended up as a horrible Republican.

D.S. How old was your adopted mother when she passed away?

E.A. Well she lied, was 92…she said she was 91. Why anyone would lie about one year is beyond me, especially at that age. I think she forgot.

D.S. Did she see your work?

E.A. Yes she did…I don’t think she liked it…. or approved of any of it. I’m sure she didn’t. I wrote ‘Three Tall Women’ after she died.

D.S. Would it be incorrect to call that play an exorcism’?

E.A. No…. I don’t think so…the purpose of writing something like this is that I was trying to write a good play; about a fascinating and destructive woman. I got her out of my system a little bit more. But a exorcism?? No. She wasn’t bothering me then. I left home when I was eighteen. I was nice to her when she got older, but no, I’d recovered from the psychological l abuse that I got growing up then.

D.S. You have always had a passion for art, music, and painting?

E.A. Well…I did have a good education at private schools where they ‘taught’ you things, that they don’t teach anymore. Like the appreciation of the arts. Now it is considered useless. You can’t get a job, necessarily from that.

D.S. But these things form a person, it grounds them in a way, opens them up to fresh ideas.

E.A. Of course it does…. but tell that to the people who run our education system.

D.S. You have been known to balk at this name of being a ‘collector’. You do have a passion for art.

E.A. No…I am an ‘accumulator’. I prefer that term. I can afford things and I like to have things around me that I can look at. But there are so many people with a lot of money and they hire people to collect famous art for them. You go into their houses, and you realize that these people have no personal taste. They have hired someone to go and collect the work for them. So they can have famous, expensive ‘Art’ on the walls.

D.S. You on the other hand collect mostly 20th century art?

E.A. Yes, I do, and I do love African work as well. I like the constructivists; I like a lot of the abstract work of the twentieth century and the cubists as well.

D.S. When you look back at all the things you have written…is there any one….

E.A. That’s not something that I do very often. I’m more interested in the plays that I’m planning to write. Here is the thing…. I don’t think about myself in the third person very much. I don’t think back about my work. That ‘HE’ wrote this…I don’t think about it too much.

D.S. The topic of breaking the ’fourth wall’ has cropped up frequently in your work…any comments?

E.A. Well, I have been doing that ever since the beginning …ever since ‘The American Dream’ and ‘The Sandbox’. I have used that collapsing wall in at least half my plays.

D.S. Do you find a visceral reaction from the audience when this happens?

E.A. It still upsets some people. There was a critic named Walter Kerr, had a pretty good mind…. you couldn’t trust him very far into the twentieth century, but you could trust him somewhat…but he said he hated any play when the actor spoke to him. (long pause) Who relies on critics??

D.S. I’ve read that there are certain playwrights that you are very drawn to, that have been had a very strong influence in your life and work.

E.A. There are some playwrights that I think that are very essential. Three twentieth century playwrights that I think everyone has to know. They are Chekov, Pirandello and Becket. There are a lot of other good ones, but those three are the essential ones.

D.S. Do you frequently see new plays?

E.A. I spend more time, more happy time Off-Broadway than on Broadway, with the smaller theaters because the plays are generally better, more experimental, by younger newer people. I’m always interested in new experiences. I’m also a voter for the Tony Awards, so I have to see all that stuff on Broadway too.  I’ve seen some pretty bad productions of great plays this year.

D.S. Some of the newer revivals and new plays this season has cast big name film actors to draw in the audiences I’ve noticed.

E.A. Yes…someone who can’t walk across the stage, without falling down, but is a Big Name. I personally don’t mind working with ‘name’ actors, if they can act, and they are right for the role.

D.S. Do you have a ‘green-light’ for the actors who perform in your plays?

E.A. Yes, totally. It’s yes or no. All playwrights have these rights. A lot of playwrights don’t bother to exercise them. The playwright sometimes gets so enamored with the star-power of the film star attached to their play, and sometimes these actors ruin the play.

D.S. Do you have a sense of when everything comes together and the actors in your work are ‘getting it’ and speaking your lines with the proper nuances?

E.A. I can tell when it’s coming together. I can also tell the problems that are stopping it from coming together. And then, I do have to talk to the actors.

D.S. You have mentioned that you think that serious drama will never be a popular art form. Will that ever change, or are we doomed?

E.A. Maybe… If we can get ticket prices down…where they should be. Then maybe it would be a more popular entertainment. So many of the good smaller theaters, to make money are doing bad work, or bad musicals to survive.

D.S. Tell me about your writer’s foundation.

E.A. Well…I have a foundation, it’s a place where writers and painters and sculptors live and work in the summer. Its in Montauk, near the ocean where I have my own house. I’ve been doing this for about forty years now. They come for a few months and work on their projects, and live and work for free. I like to work with the visual artists since I am so visual. I have other people recommend the slew of plays that the writers work on and pick among them as well. I don’t have the time to read the two hundred or so odd plays or so that come across my desk each season.

D.S. Your love of those three playwrights that you mentioned earlier, Chekhov, Becket, and Pirandello  …can you elaborate why they affect you so?

E.A. I find these three have so much more to teach us. They teach other playwrights. Much more than other playwrights do in the twentieth century. I have trouble though with Ibsen, in that I never know if we are ever getting good translations.

D.S. Your dramatic style, your way of ‘seeing’ the world in your work has disturbed a hell-of-a-lot of people.

E.A. Sure it has…I don’t think a play should be a waste of time. It should change your perspective; change your point of view. Broaden our perspectives. But most people want to go to the theater and not have anything happen to them and certainly not have anyone going around questioning the stuff they believe in.

D.S. …..which you do time and time again…

E.A. All art must be useful…if it’s useless and merely decorative, it’s a waste of time. I like beautiful things as much as anybody else does…but they damn well better be useful. It has to teach us something. The first time that Cezanne painted a blue tree was the first time we were ever aware that trees were blue. And ever since Cezanne painted a blue tree we look at trees now and we see they are blue. The first person who saw that painting with the blue tree must have said ‘Trees aren’t blue”! But trees became blue because Cezanne made them blue.

D.S. Do you find now at this stage in your life you are still engaged with the world?

E.A. I still think I’m fifteen. I don’t think the mind has collapsed yet. I can’t remember names, as much as I used to… but neither can you.

D.S. Have there been plays of yours, that you revisit that are remounted and see something that was hitherto unknown to you?

E.A. I think with a good play and a good production its impossible to find stuff that wasn’t there. It may not have been as noticeable…you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Most of the virtue of a good production is built into the play. You want to make sure the viewer can take the play away with them. And if…in my case you tidy everything up too completely there is nothing for them to think about. My motto: Don’t provide ALL the answers. Leave them with a lot of questions.

D.S. To wrap up, is there anything either emotionally or politically on your mind of late?

E.A. What’s on my mind more than anything right else now…. is my disgust on the Republican party’s intent to destroy the Obama administration. And if they succeed in destroying the Obama administration they will succeed in destroying democracy in the United States. But that would not make TOO many Republicans unhappy.

D.S. The media’s response to what is happening now in your opinion?

E.A. Well…people are not being allowed to come to their own conclusions about anything anymore. They are being told how to respond, either by the Liberal or Reactionary press. So people are not thinking things through. But, then again how can people think things through anymore when we don’t teach what we used to call civics. Which was how Democracy functions and how Government functions, and how shall we be informed and respond to it. It is not taught in schools anymore. We have a generally ignorant electorate, which is responding to sound bytes from commentators. People aren’t thinking their problems through anymore. We have more than two centuries of Government behind us… and most people don’t know much about what happened.

D.S. So what you are saying…

E.A. The dumbing down…. yes…. and oversimplification is the result of what has happened to our country in the past few years.

D.S. Is there any way to reverse that trend?

E.A. Why of course…. educating our kids. In the arts and in government…educate people in these things. Being engaged and thinking about government and our current politics is the most important thing of the moment. I’m basically concerned that the people who are trying to do the right thing, and there are a number of them in the Obama administration, are being attacked by destructive reactionary forces. We have to bring the New Deal back, which the Bush people tried to destroy, and almost succeeded, in destroying. We have to get back to that. Which means higher taxes, taxing rich people and a lot of other things that need to happen. Obama is getting such resistance. He wasn’t elected to be cautious. He was elected to create a revolution…. and he is trying to do it. I’m just afraid they can do too much damage to him in the first four years that he won’t get re-elected. It will take at least eight years to fix this. I’d worry about this country a great deal more, if he is not allowed to succeed.
The last administration?? …. That was a criminal administration, Bush was not even elected…it was a fucking XXXXXXX. Why didn’t people march on Washington and throw the guy out?

D.S. I bet the populace in the 60’s would have been much different in their reactions and passion and protest if these events had occurred then.

E.A. The only problem with the student anger in the 60’s is…I would talk to those kids… their minds were in the right place, their hearts were basically. But you couldn’t talk dialectic for more than five minutes with them. They didn’t have the facts. They had all the passion, but they didn’t have the firm enough intellectual background for what they were talking about.

D.S.  And now?

E.S. It’s even worse. Well (smiles wanly) with luck we will make it through it. I hope we do.

D.S. Is there anything else of late that has been beckoning you, either work wise or in your personal life?

E.A. Oh…there are a lot of things I want to do in the future…including parachute jumping.