New York, 1962
Edward Albee was wearing a tweed suit and seemed shy and frightened. In a muted voice he read from his notes about what our playwriting class was to consist of. Each person was required to have a play done in workshop. The class was upstairs over the theatre at Circle in the Square on Bleecker Street.
Outside the wind blew the Circle in the Square sign which still hangs there today. He invited the class to a rehearsal of The Sandbox at the Cherry Lane. During the rehearsal he went up on the stage and quietly spoke to the actors. There was a hole in his sweater, which gave him the air of a struggling writer.
Michael Kahn was the Circle’s brilliant young director. It was his job to cast the workshop productions. My play was to be in April. Michael had mentioned the possible casting of Diana Sands, Yaphet Kotto and others. But during the winter I became frightened. My play seemed far too revealing.
I sat in the bedroom of our Park West Village apartment and carefully edited out the word “nigger” from Funnyhouse of a Negro, the word that Sarah used to define her own self-hatred. Before the next class I took the new edited script up to the office above the Circle and asked for my original script back. I thought it was settled.
When it was time for me to have my meeting with Michael Kahn about my workshop production I discovered he had other copies of my original script and had somehow not received the edited one. I said I would drop out of the class if they used my original script. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll tell Edward Albee you want the new version done.”
I arrived early at the next class to tell Albee I wanted the edited version of Funnyhouse done, unaware that this pattern I had clung to for a decade—editing out the darkness and violence in my work, in this case Sarah’s self-hatred—had very often destroyed my work. It was a problem too big to handle.
Albee was in the theatre alone.
“Mr. Albee,” I said, “I’ve decided to drop the class.” He stared straight into my face.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s your decision. But don’t you want to see your play performed? It is a chance to see your characters on the stage.”
“My play is too revealing,” I said. “I’m embarrassed to have it done. The other plays so far are not so revealing.”
He stuck his hands into his pockets, came closer to me and stared. His gaze was hypnotic.
“Do you see that stage ?” he said, glancing at Circle’s theatre in the round.
“Well, do you know what a playwright is? A playwright is someone who lets his guts out on the stage and that’s what you’ve done in this play.” I didn’t know what to say. That was the point. I didn’t want my guts let out in front of the whole class. I stepped back and started toward the door.
“It’s your decision,” he said.
I remained in the class. For the first time, the anguish that most often I had carefully blotted out in the second and third drafts of my work was revealed, first to my director, then to the actors, Diana Sands, Yaphet Kotto, Andre Gregory, Lynne Hamilton and Fran Bennett, and finally the writers in the workshop. I still wasn’t sure I had done the right thing.
When the play was performed at Circle in the Square in April is was so controversial that Michael, who was a member of the Actors Studio, decided to do it as his project there the following week. While we rehearsed Funnyhouse, as now everyone called it, Michael told me that several theatre people would be there to see it: Rip Torn, Geraldine Page, Harold Clurman.
Although Michael was many years younger than I, he was experienced in the theatre and attempted to be reassuring. The idea of doing a play that these theatre people were coming to see—and were going to comment on afterwards while I sat on a single chair in front of the entire Playwright’s Unit and explained what I was trying to say—made me sick. During one of the last rehearsals I felt so frightened that I ran outside and sat on the steps.
It was on one of those days that I asked Michael why people were suddenly calling me “Miss Kennedy.” He explained it was somehow theatrical. I had heard that after the play it was the practice of the Unit members to demolish the playwright. Although I was totally demolished (despite a final suggestion that the play might have a deep charm and be “important”) I was asked to join the Unit.
By now I had forgotten all about Brando and Kazan. I was too frightened. The next week as I was waiting in the lobby of Circle to go to our last class, Albee came in and stopped and asked me would I be going to the Actors Studio every Tuesday. I expressed uncertainty.
“Tennessee Williams sometimes goes,” he said and turned and walked away.
I went for a while.
People now started to refer to me as a playwright. Even after years of attending playwriting workshops I still wondered how that could be. Shakespeare was a playwright; Miller, Williams, Langston Hughes, Ionesco. A playwright was Sartre standing in a raincoat in a street in Paris.
Adrienne Kennedy’s latest book is People Who Led to My Plays (Alfred A. Knopf 1987).
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