“Sordid, sick and cesspool deep!” With a kind of perverse pride, the 1970 paperback edition of Tiny Alice trumpets quotes like this from those who denounce the author as well as those as “the most distinguished playwright in the history of American theatre.” For book-cover copy, this is a rare instance of truth-in-advertising. I have never met anyone who has only one feeling about Edward Albee.
To interview Albee, as I recently did, is to encounter an icon of American culture, and preparing turns out to be a little bit like approaching the Wizard of Oz. The person you meet at the end can’t help being dwarfed by the reputation that precedes him in the form of controversy and celebration, Pulitzer Prizes and bad reviews. Along that brick road paved with yellowed clippings and golden rules, I spoke to various people inside and outside the theatre world to gauge the temperature of their interest in the subject and test the tenor of their perceptions. I found virtually unanimous admiration for The Zoo Story, the taut two-hander that introduced the playwright to Off Broadway in 1960, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that tsunami of marital discord which was first produced 30 years ago on Broadway, when Albee was 32 and practically overnight established a permanent place for him in the pantheon of American letters.
Different degrees of enthusiasm were expressed for The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith, early one-acts of Zoo Story vintage, and Tiny Alice and A Delicate Balance, the two major plays that immediately followed Virginia Woolf, and there was some residual fondness for Albee’s stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’s novel The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and the eccentric evening of theatre known as Box-Mao-Box, which briefly ran on Broadway in 1968. Beyond that landmark, I found an array of sentiments regarding what can only be called The Problem of Edward Albee—the stretch of his career that extends from, say, 1971 when All Over premiered on Broadway to, well, pretty much this minute.
In academia, for instance, a range of opinions prevail. One theatre professor in Washington sees Albee as a transitional figure, the American equivalent of Jean Anouilh—that is, someone whose work has historical value in that it combines the ideas of postwar existentialism with the techniques of boulevard drama. And she praises the work Albee has done as a mentor (his Edward Albee Foundation maintains an artists’ colony near his Long Island home in Montauk) before mentioning that in her modern drama survey course he has been dropped from the curriculum. A University of California professor considers Albee “safely categorized as a writer way past his important time,” his language “encrusted in layers of scar tissue.”
On the other hand, a drama instructor in Texas who has directed several of Albee’s plays delivers a passionate and persuasive defense of Seascape, a philosophical drama featuring two humans and two lizards which won the Pulitzer in 1975 but has rarely been produced since: “It’s a funny, truthful play about bigotry and making peace with the Other.” While intensely admiring Tiny Alice as “a parable about the nature of God and worship,” the same university professor admits that in production he “cut the hell out of the final speech, which makes the play mystifying in a way it needn’t be.”
Playwrights cite Albee’s generosity as a colleague (his defense, for instance, of younger writers as a member of the council of the Dramatists’ Guild) as well as his pomposity. One writer confides that he finds Albee’s plays “dry as dust,” while another finds it “outrageous” that Albee, like Arthur Miller, should have to look to European theatres to produce his new plays. Meanwhile, the press has its own evolving fascination with Albee. In the early years of his career, every detail of his comings and goings, his public statements and the furnishings of his home were reported in the papers with the slavish attention only accorded to genuine superstars. Over time, a sour and at times savage relationship has developed between Albee and the press. The sickening influence on American society of the media’s fixation on celebrities was the subject of Albee’s 1983 play The Man Who Had Three Arms, which was somewhat overzealously attacked by critics who defensively ignored the play’s truths and concentrated on its considerable disingenuousness. Few successful playwrights in recent memory have fallen so far from critical favor. Reviewing the 1981 Broadway adaptation of Lolita that Albee himself later called “the one really truly ugly theatre experience I have had,” Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, “This playwright, who promised and delivered great things two decades ago, has in recent years abandoned his gifts. Now he’s…forsaken the humane impulse that is the minimal rock-bottom essential of art.” More than one article has suggested that Albee abandon playwriting and take up another career.
Almost universally, though, even among his detractors, mixed feelings about Albee rule the day. Respect mixes with pity, scorn merges with compassion, and dismissive attitudes yield the last word to curiosity: What is he up to now?
That question took me to Houston, where Albee spends four months each spring teaching at the University of Houston and working at the Alley Theatre. As associate artist at the Alley, he has directed one show a year, beginning in 1990 with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and continuing with Albee Directs Beckett, a double-bill of Ohio Impromptu and Krapp’s Last Tape. Teaching and directing have become significant secondary careers for the 64-year-old playwright; after staging the Broadway revival of Virginia Woolf with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara in 1976, he mounted a program of his one-act plays which toured a number of American universities under the title Albee Directs Albee, and in 1989 he directed Virginia Woolf in Los Angeles with Glenda Jackson and John Lithgow. This year brings an unusual amount of new play activity on Albee’s part. In January he directed the U.S. premiere of Marriage Play, a 1987 drama first seen at the English Theatre in Vienna in which Albee returns to Virginia Woolf territory, stripping the situation back to its Beckettian essence: A long-married couple rehearse for a separation that never quite takes place. After opening at the Alley, the production, which features Shirley Knight and Tom Klunis, traveled to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, where it closed in March. His new play about Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca will have its world premiere this month at the University of Houston as the inaugural event of the Houston International Festival.
You might think that Albee’s busy schedule of teaching, directing and writing would keep him out of trouble, but no: One of four keynote speakers at the Out Write ’91 conference for gay and lesbian writers last spring in San Francisco, Albee was roundly booed for his contention that gay writers should aspire to the mainstream and avoid ghettoizing themselves. Then there was that arrest in February for indecent exposure on a nude beach in Florida, which provided an unexpected opportunity to mention Edward Albee and Pee-wee Herman in the same sentence.
Controversy and conflict don’t trouble Albee. If anything, he seems to enjoy them, as I discovered when we met. Someone who has been interviewed as much as Albee is a difficult subject: He’s heard the same questions so many times that he has developed carefully sculpted standard responses which he reels off like so many tape loops on cue. Unless you want to get exactly the same interview he’s given 150 times before, you have to be vigilant about spotting set speeches and punching the “eject” button. Yet he seemed to feel more at home being challenged than being agreed with. In that sense, he lived up to the impression you might get from his plays. In person he’s tense, guarded, spiky; you could not call him friendly. Like many men, he’s emotionally stiff, and he speaks in a muffled, rather distant voice, as if it’s emanating from deep inside the carapace of The Great Man.
The meeting was not without its surprises. One doesn’t necessarily imagine Edward Albee as an animal lover, but apparently he’s always surrounded by them; a very affectionate stray tabby named Biscuit bounced from lap to lap as we talked. The walls of the apartment Albee rents in a Houston high-rise were covered with large, invasive paintings by local art students, the visual art equivalent of stray cats. (An active collector, he maintains art warehouses near the homes in Texas, New York and Florida he shares with sculptor Jonathan Thomas, his mate of 20 years.) Out of the blue he mentioned his desire to try sky-diving. And pondering the mystery of his birth parents—he was adopted as an infant by a wealthy couple (his grandfather, E.F. Albee, founded the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit)—he became almost wistful. In contrast to the tirades on the miserable state of Broadway and the critics and the theatre owners that Albee seems to feel obliged to deliver when provided a public forum, these quirky moments provided a fascinating opportunity to watch him relax his mask. In those moments, I glimpsed the arduous effort it takes to defend an embattled literary legend and to live your life as a working writer at the same time.
We met on a hazy, warm Saturday morning in the midst of previews and last-minute rehearsals of Marriage Play.
DON SHEWEY: The thing I most admire about your work is that you go against the grain, refusing to be consistently upbeat. You don’t mind going for the downbeat.
EDWARD ALBEE: I don’t go for any particular beat necessarily. It’s what the play wants to be about. If we were an ideal society, I suppose there’d be nothing to complain about.
But we’re not in an ideal society. Most people are aware of the disastrous state things are in and how much illusion and deception fill our lives. But after accepting that, we don’t want to think about it anymore. Your plays repeatedly remind people of things they’d rather forget.
But the function of art is to instruct us. To bring order. To make us think clearly. If we want our arts to be escapist, if we want them to conform to our opinions of ourselves, what earthly good are they? I mean, no serious art that’s come down through the centuries has been anything but critical and unpleasant ultimately.
I’m not sure I would call all of Shakespeare’s plays unpleasant.
Ask anybody which are Shakespeare’s major plays. They’re going to say King Lear first, if they have any sense. They’re going to say The Tempest and maybe Hamlet. Those are the three really major ones. And they are corrective and instructive and certainly not escapist. I don’t think he ever wrote an escapist play. A play can be funny and serious at the same time. Certainly Aristophanes was funny. Moliere was funny. Social critics like Shaw and Wilde are funny. Chekhov is funny. Beckett is funny. I don’t think one needs to be humorless. But I don’t think there’s any point in experiencing anything in the arts that leaves you exactly where you were when you started.
Let’s talk about Marriage Play, your new play which I saw in previews. How do you use previews as director and writer?
I use preview audiences the way everyone uses preview audiences, except I don’t do it for 57 performances the way they do it on Broadway—we have six: to test whether or not theory is working out against practice, to judge the interrelationship between the audience and the play. Not that I ever compromise a play to make an audience happy. But if I’ve done something I feel a rational audience is not able to follow, or is bored by, it means maybe I’m being a little self-indulgent.
What have been the kinks you’ve been working out here in Houston?
Oh, maybe the author fighting with the director. The author wanting to keep in some lovely writing that doesn’t accomplish much of anything except being lovely writing. The director wanting to take it out. I always win.
This play was first performed in Vienna. Was it performed in English?
Yes. My most recent play, Three Tall Women, was done there this summer.
So one change between the production in Vienna and the one here is the characters were then called He and She.
No, they weren’t.
They were called Gillian and Jack there.
They were He and She in the script I read. At what point were the characters meant to be He and She?
I just hadn’t given them names yet. Since they never call each other by name, why waste names. But then if you don’t give them names, people say, “Ah, they’re symbolic.” So you have to waste names on them.
You seem to be ambivalent about it. There are a lot of good reasons for them not to have names, but then you go and give them the names Jack and Jill.
No, their names are Gillian and Jack.
Okay, but it conjures the nursery rhyme.
I suppose it might, maybe, if somebody thought about it, except the characters in the script are Gillian and Jack, not Jack and Jill. A lot of people wouldn’t catch that. Local joke. I amuse myself sometimes. In my play Finding the Sun, the characters are called Abigail, Benjamin, Cordelia, Daniel—it’s alphabetical.
A Yale playwright once told me that’s an exercise you’re given in school: Write a play whose characters, names begin with A-B-C-D.
I didn’t know that. Hmm.
Watching Marriage Play, I noted that it seemed explicitly to inhabit a Beckett landscape—it was like Happy Days in a bland suburban living room. It made me look back and see, with interest, the bones of Waiting for Godot in Virginia Woolf.
Well, yes, Beckett’s plays are inhabited by real people, not symbolic people. So are mine. Anybody is making a mistake if they think Beckett is writing about ideas rather than individuals. He’s writing about ideas, too, but his characters are three-dimensional. I directed two of his plays here at the Alley last year, Ohio Impromptu and Krapp’s Last Tape. Fully three-dimensional. But bringing things down to essences, which is what Beckett was all about, is something we all ought to practice a little bit more.
I’m curious to know how explicitly or consciously Beckett hovers over this play.
No more or less than any of the others. He’s one of the major influences on me, along with Chekhov and Pirandello, I suppose.
As I puzzle through the play, I see that there’s something generic about the characters—he talks about his office, the business is never named, he has a generic Irish secretary; she talks about her life almost solely in terms of her diary, her stove, her burners and her refrigerator. Because they don’t talk about anything else, you have to, for the purposes of the play, assume there aren’t other things in their lives. Or it could be an invitation to project your own details onto the play.
Everybody does anyway.
I wonder if that’s a misconception of the play. Are these in fact very rare and special people, because they speak in a special, rarefied way, or are they meant to be everybody?
I think they’re both: highly individual, rarefied people who live in the real world.
The question is whether the audience is meant to see them as Everyman and Everywoman and therefore as reflections of their own lives. That’s how I think sometimes plays that aren’t note-for-note naturalistic get misunderstood. There’s a way you can look at Marriage Play and say, “Well, gee, my wife and I don’t talk like that, therefore there’s something wrong with this.”
Well, I’m not trying for that kind of kitchen-sink realism. I think you have to accept it on its terms. But I do want real people up there. Real individuals and real relationships.
You’ve been misperceived as a playwright almost the length of your career. You started out under the rubric of the Theatre of the Absurd, being lumped together with Arthur Kopit, Jack Gelber and Jack Richardson as if the four of you were the Beatles.
I can’t imagine four more different playwrights. And this shit perpetuates itself. The bullshit that Virginia Woolf was about two male couples—every time some damn fool asks you the question because they’ve read it somewhere, you have to sigh and deny it again, they print your sigh and denial, and it perpetuates the falsehood. I don’t know why people don’t pay attention. When somebody’s told them something isn’t true, why don’t they just accept it?
There’s another way I think you’ve gotten misperceived. Your career has been a bridge between American theatre and the European playwrights you grew up and admired: Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, etc. But because of the big success of Virginia Woolf, all these expectations were created. People looked to you as a Great American Playwright as if you were a sort of Zeitgeist reporter, always taking the temperature of the time and saying everything there was to say. That’s not really what you are at all—you’re more of a dark mirror, a namer of shadows. I wonder if you can talk about the evolution of your feelings about the expectations that play created.
Well, they want that one again. Son of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf Part 3. You know, Tennessee went through the same thing. People start saying, “Gee, he writes the same thing, he’s repeating himself.” Then he writes Camino Real, which is quite different, and everybody says, “Why doesn’t he stick to what he knows?”
Unless you’re sitting there plotting out your entire life career and deciding in advance the kind of work you’re going to write and the kind of impression you’re going to make and what you’re after as a dramatist—unless you’re as calculated as that, you’ve got to be subject to what’s going on in your head, the unconscious, your creativity.
I tell my students down here, “Every time you write a play, it should be the first play you’ve ever written. With any luck, you should try to write the first play anybody’s ever written.” Which permits you to ignore public expectation, what you’ve done before. If you give in to that, you start thinking about yourself in the third person. It’s very dangerous. You’ve got to ignore all that stuff, or somehow you’re going to be inhibited by it.
Do you feel you’ve never been inhibited by expectations?
I hope not. You never know. Self-deception is the sneakiest thing around. You try to be on guard against it. But what can I say? You can deceive yourself into thinking that you aren’t. I don’t pretend to have absolute objectivity. I think I’m a little bit more objective than most people.
Have you ever imagined what your life would be like if you’d written everything you’ve ever written except Virginia Woolf?
I don’t think it would have been all that different. Maybe a few doors would have been closed a little bit longer. Maybe some of the plays would have had a harder time. Everybody has one play that is more famous than others. Then again I haven’t finished. Maybe I’ll have two or three. Who’s to say? These things sort themselves out. I’m not sure the most popular ones are the best ones.
I have the feeling that if it weren’t for Virginia Woolf, you would be thought of as a valuable asset to the theatre and literary community as a playwright, teacher, director and all-around man of letters. You are all those things, but you are also widely perceived as not quite matching the success of Virginia Woolf.
The success they’re talking about is not artistic success. They’re talking about the fame of the play.
What does the fame of the play have to do with its ultimate value? Absolutely nothing. It is a burden, a welcome burden in one way. I’m delighted that I wrote it. It’s a good play, it’s made things financially easier, all that stuff. It’s allowed me not to worry about writing plays like Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. The only disadvantage, as I’ve said, is that everybody’s waiting for that one again, which is so dumb.
A number of fortuitous things happened with Virginia Woolf. It seemed very controversial at the time. Its language seemed far more violent than it was. It was a breath of fresh air, so to speak. Our theatre was a much healthier place, more willing to accept an act of aggression than it is now. People want all of that again. That’s hard to find. Our theatre climate is not the same now. That was the early days of the Kennedy era. I don’t think it’s possible in this country now.
Certainly not on Broadway. Yet, reading old interviews, I noticed that you have an immense loyalty to Broadway.
The loyalty is not to Broadway. I just think that we’re the only country where our major theatre is not where the best plays are done. That’s wrong. That’s why someone’s gotta keep battering his head against the wall. Should serious playwrights become, in a sense, second-class citizens?
I know you’ve used that line before, and it makes me curious. I think you’re the last playwright, probably, to be well-served by Broadway. But the experience you had with Virginia Woolf of speaking to the culture and the culture speaking back to you—I just don’t think that can happen on Broadway today.
You’re more of a pessimist than I am.
About Broadway I am. I think that most people who are serious theatregoers…
We shouldn’t have that division between the serious theatregoer and the theatregoer. In an ideal society, there wouldn’t be that division.
In an ideal society, which is not the one we live in.
In 1959 when I went to Berlin…why are you laughing?
I’m thinking back to 1959. That was even before the Berlin Wall. That was two eras ago.
I saw the Berlin Wall go up. I looked at the plays being done in the big Berlin theatres. They were filled with first-rate playwrights: Beckett, Adamov, Goethe, etc. It was never quite that way on Broadway. But it was better.
It was better in those days, and it was an entirely different economic situation. Now the real American theatres are all over the country—Boston, Washington, Seattle, Los Angeles, La Jolla, here in Texas…
I think they should be everywhere. I think it’s a great pity that Broadway is not feeding these theatres the best of American theatre.
Broadway should be feeding theatres around the country?
It used to.
Of course it used to. It used to be that a Coca-Cola cost a nickel. A lot of things used to be that don’t exist anymore. And at a certain point I think you have to accept that and move on.
Okay. I let go.
There was a time when you wouldn’t think of opening a new play in Houston.
It was going to open straight on Broadway as a matter of fact. But then Richard Barr, who was the producer, got sick and died.
I have a feeling that some of your later plays would have been better received if they’d not been done on Broadway.
Well, it may be my fault. But Broadway should not be given over to junk.
It seems your attitudes have slowly, almost begrudgingly changed toward the institutional theatres, that you used to feel they were somehow a step down.
No. The one thing I don’t like is that a lot of regional theatres are lowering their standards to produce plays that will then transfer to Broadway. A lot of regional theatres are being used as tryout houses, and I don’t think that’s the way it should work.
Is the Alley Theatre lowering its standards to do Marriage Play?
I didn’t say the Alley Theatre does. I said a lot of theatres do.
Yes, but in a sense isn’t this run and the run at Princeton a tryout for New York?
No. Considering what the Alley did last year—Harvey, an awful musical called Jekyll & Hyde, nicely balanced with the Beckett plays and Robert Wilson’s thing on When We Dead Awaken—the Alley Theatre does unnecessary stuff and necessary stuff. I don’t think they lower their standards. I say that some regional theatres quite conscientiously will not do the very best plays like Beckett’s because they want to save the slot for something they think may have commercial value.
If you’re going to make that claim you’re going to have to name names. Who do you think does that?
It varies from time to time. There are some that I think do.
You grew up in a family that came from vaudeville and show biz and Broadway.
They were management.
But it was in the air. The notion of the thriving world of vaudeville and popular entertainment and live theatre was something that was natural.
No, everybody had retired by the time I came along. Vaudeville was dead, my father was retired, it wasn’t a thriving theatre.
But it was a tradition that existed, so for you there was a continuum.
It was not a theatrical household. It was anti-theatrical.
As in management types could care less about what’s on stage?
Mostly. I think my grandfather was a bright man, and he had some sense that there could be some relationship between excellence and popularity.
Did he live long enough to see any of your work?
God, no, he died when I was a year-and-a-half old.
Your father died when you were 31. Did he see some of your work?
I have no idea. We weren’t in touch.
Did he not encourage you as an artist at all?
That must have been very hard.
Ah, no. I never felt that I belonged to my adoptive family anyway.
Did your mother encourage you as an artist.?
No. I was terribly private about it. “Oh, he writes—isn’t that cute? He paints—that’s sweet. He’ll grow up and become a sensible person.”
What was the assumption that you might do as a sensible person?
Damned if I know. Certainly something ten-to-six.
Something like that.
One of the saddest things I found when I did some research in the library was the throughline of covert and overt homophobia in the writing about you in the press. There’s that notorious 1966 New York Times piece by Stanley Kauffmann about Tennessee Williams, William Inge and you (without naming you), putting forth the idea that gay playwrights disguise gay characters as heterosexual. Philip Roth wrote an article about Tiny Alice called “The Play That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Then there are references in various places to “the minority viewpoint” and “the same thinly disguised neurosis.” I wonder if you would talk about how homophobia affected your career and critical perspectives of your work.
I have no idea. People don’t talk to me about it. As I said in the New York Times piece by David Richards, if anybody had ever asked me in interviews if I was gay, I would have told him.
Like the attitudes about Broadway, this is something your career has spanned. In the early ’60s homosexuality was unspeakable. People were afraid of it.
When Mart Crowley wrote that…thing, that play of his, Boys in the Band, we did it at our Playwrights Unit. Richard Barr wanted to produce it and I said I’d have nothing to do with it. I thought it was a loathsome play, because what it did was reinforce the disgusting homophobic attitudes about stereotypical gays. Generally speaking—there are a few exceptions here and there, but only because of AIDS, it seems to me—the plays by gays that have been successful have been the ones that contribute to the heterosexual attitude about what it is to be gay. I found this to be true with Harvey Fierstein. Many audiences came away thinking that the experience portrayed in his trilogy is what “gay” is. I’m very angry at plays that permit that.
I got into a lot of trouble at the Out Write conference in San Francisco when I said that playwrights who are gay must not ghettoize, and that there’s a lot of rotten gay writing being published and gay readers (and straight readers) are being taken advantage of—they think it’s to be read because it’s gay. I said that no writer who happens to be gay has any responsibility to write about a gay theme. Nobody insists that straight writers write about straight themes. Anything that contributes to this awful homophobia that we still have in our society bothers me a lot.
I wanted to ask you about the Out Write conference. What you said was, I think, heard differently from what you meant. You have a personal history of people like Stanley Kauffmann saying, in essence, if you’re gay, you can only write about gays. To the audience you seemed to be saying that if you write as an openly gay writer about gay characters, you are automatically ghettoizing yourself.
I thought the point was the fact that you are gay doesn’t make it mandatory to write about gay themes.
But many writers today feel they have an opportunity and an audience and a responsibility to educate their own tribe. For them it’s a positive value to write about gay characters.
I have no problem there if the writer’s any good.
It had always been assumed that you were gay, but I hadn’t ever seen a declaration of it until I read your keynote address from the Out Write conference in Out/Look magazine, and I thought it was very courageous of you. Did it seem courageous?
No. I’ve never made a secret of it and God knows, those homophobic critics seemed to be aware of the fact that I’m gay.
There’s a difference between not making it a secret and making a positive statement, isn’t there? When the question comes up about Virginia Woolf being about two male couples, which is a homophobic assumption to make, that gives you plenty of opportunities to talk personally about gay couples or your own life or homosexuality. But my impression is that you’ve been reticent about it.
I don’t think I have been. The more important point is that any writer, no matter what he is, if he’s any good should be able to write about straights, gays, blacks, whites, the whole thing.
There’s no law that says anybody has to write autobiographically about their life. That being said, you’ve had a very interesting gay life. You’ve had significant, long-term relationships with several men who were talented artists. These things don’t get expressed in plays a lot, and I wonder about your choice not to portray those aspects of your experience.
Because I don’t see that much difference between gay relationships and straight relationships.
If there’s no difference, then why is Virginia Woolf not about gay couples?
Because it happened to be about straight people. Seriously. I didn’t make a conscious choice that these are going to be straights, rather than gays. There are some gay people flitting around my plays from time to time. I think Butler in Tiny Alice is probably gay. Certainly Jack in Everything in the Garden is gay.
Until Finding the Sun, though, there was never a gay relationship that you could call a real relationship. And even there the two men have broken up and gotten married.
That’s too bad. They should have stayed together. They were much better off together.
If Virginia Woolf is not about two male couples, what would a play about two male couples look like for you?
Well, it probably couldn’t be set in a university in New England, that’s for sure. I don’t think the president of a small New England college would have tolerated his son having that kind of relationship. And we’re talking about up the corporate ladder here. It couldn’t have been a play about the power structure of our society as much. It would have to have been a far more parochial piece. Parochiality bothers me in general. Is there such a word as parochiality?
I wonder what gay plays or playwrights you do admire.
I wish I had liked As Is more than I did. There were some good scenes in that. I don’t know that I’ve seen anything I thought had absolutely first-rate writing.
At the Out Write conference, you also caused an uproar by identifying yourself as a minority as a white man. Apparently people felt it was disingenuous to equate the minority of white men with other minorities, and your statement was taken as a criticism of multiculturalism.
I suppose you can’t stop people from hearing what they want to whether it’s dumb or not. Or maybe I misspoke. I wasn’t as clear as I wanted to be. I tried to point out that I didn’t find that any minority I belong to is limiting. To be white, male, educated, gay—I didn’t want any of these to become limiting. I thought it was a rational point of view. I said I hoped gays would not end up with the same overly self-defeating separatism that a lot of blacks have.
You’re writing a play about Lorca. What aspect of his life is it about?
Oh, it covers most of his life. I’m interested in the relationship between governments and the creative act, the oppression of creative people for a number of reasons. Lorca had three good things going for him, all of which contributed to his silencing: the fact that he was an intellectual, the fact that he was a leftist, the fact that he was gay.
So it’s a biographical play?
I’m not going to go through his life entirely, but yes, he’s the central character. I’m looking at the parallel rise of Lorca and Franco. I’m not sure the Lorca family is going to be very happy about what I do. They’re trying to create this image of Lorca as no different from anybody else. He had a limp? No! Periods of depression? No! Any mention of his being gay creates a blanched silence from the family.
I imagine one of the awkward things about being a renowned writer as you are is that people around you are either intimidated or want to curry favor, so it’s sometimes hard to get an honest reaction from them. Are there people in your life that you look to for honest feedback and whose criticism you can listen to?
There used to be a few more, they’re dying. Time does it. AIDS does it. I still have a few whose intelligence and emotional honesty I respect.
Who are those people?
Uh, goodness, let the guilty be nameless.
Don Shewey writes about the theatre for the Village Voice, the New York Times and other publications, and was a 1990-91 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support from the Jerome Foundation.
An excerpt from Marriage Play by Edward Albee
JACK: (Dogmatic) I’m leaving you. It came on me today; a bell went off.
GILLIAN: A bell went off?
JACK: I beg your pardon?
GILLIAN: Where?! You said a bell went off. Where did it go off?
JACK: In my head. A bell went off in my head. You’ve heard the expression.
GILLIAN: (Thinks about it) Not for years.
JACK: (Not nice) Yeah? Where’ve you been living? (Level) A bell went off in my head; there I was at my desk and all at once it came to me, crytallized, the…made sense of the feelings of doom, the unfocused anxieties, the gnawing discontents, the…
GILLIAN: I get the picture.
JACK: (Sincere) I hope you do.
GILLIAN: Oh, I do! (Tiny pause) Feelings of doom? Really? . . . doom?
JACK: Well, something close.
GILLIAN: Be precise. Doom I’ll really fear for you, really worry. Gnawing discontents? Well, what else is new? Unfocused anxieties? Hanh!! (sees him leaving) Where are you going?
JACK: I’ll try it once again; I’ll give you one more chance!
GILLIAN: (Mock supplication) Weawy? You’re gonna give me one more chance?
JACK: To pay attention! To be serious about it!
GILLIAN: Perhaps we should put in a revolving door.
(JACK walks over to her and raises his arm as if to strike her. )
JACK: Pay. (Pause) Attention. (Turns; exits)
GILLIAN: (After JACK leaves; curiously uninvolved) You have done everything once too often.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!