On March 12, 2008, playwright Edward Albee will mark his 80th birthday. With four major productions in New York City and environs during the current season, however, he doesn’t have much time to focus on it. “Some people are going to believe that I thought this year up—that I tried to arrange this four-production season as a self-celebration,” he grumbled recently, “which of course is totally untrue. It’s just happening in my 80th year, that’s all. I worry that someone might think it’s an ego trip on my part, whereas it was the worst of accidents.”
Most playwrights dream of such “accidents”—four productions, three of them premieres, over a seven-month period in some of America’s finest not-for-profit theatres. One, a double bill at New York City’s Cherry Lane Theatre, features the playwright directing his own work. Albee’s protestations aside, this celebratory season can hardly be considered accidental. Rather, it is the culmination of a remarkable life in the theatre that spans 50 years, the authorship of some 30 plays, directing, teaching, mentoring, philanthropic activities—and the winning of three Pulitzers, three Tonys and numerous other awards. It is also the culmination of a singular journey (as his biographer, the late Mel Gussow, refers to Albee’s life) in search of family and identity—a journey marked by struggle and determination, a journey that has finally brought him to his true home, the American theatre, and to his place at the head of the table.
Albee’s career as a playwright began in 1958, when—just two days shy of 30, while working as a Western Union messenger in New York—he finished what he calls “my first real play,” a one-act called The Zoo Story. The play debuted in September 1959 at Berlin’s Schillertheater on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. A subsequent production at New York’s Provincetown Playhouse in 1960 identified him instantly as an important new voice in the theatre. (Playwright John Guare wrote later: “You can’t imagine the debt that every American playwright writing after 1960 owes to Edward Albee.”) His first full-length play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?—a profanity-laced quartet that comments on the corruption of American values and the nature of illusion—was a succés de scandale in 1962, and has gone on to achieve the status of a modern classic; his numerous plays of the middle-to-late ’60s (including the Pulitzer-winner A Delicate Balance) earned him international recognition as the first American writer to introduce the theatre of the absurd to our tradition.
Albee earned his second Pulitzer for Seascape in 1975, but after the critical failure of The Lady from Dubuque in 1980, he descended into what Gussow called (with considerable understatement) a “down period” that would last a decade. Despite numerous setbacks, both professional and personal, in the early ’80s he launched what would become a distinguished 15-year teaching career at the University of Houston, where that city’s Alley Theatre also gave him a home. His years of “critical exile” (as Albee’s friend, director Michael Wilson, refers to those years) ended in a triumphant comeback with Three Tall Women in 1994, which earned him a third Pulitzer, and The Play About the Baby in 2001, which was a finalist for that prize. The past decade has seen numerous revivals of his plays in New York, London and across America, and has garnered him a dazzling array of awards, including the Kennedy Center Honors and National Medal of Arts in 1996, the Lucille Lortel lifetime achievement award in 2002, Tony Awards for The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in 2002 and for lifetime achievement in 2005, and, most recently, the 2007 New Dramatists and Booth awards for lifetime achievement. He continues to serve as president of the Edward F. Albee Foundation, a fund that he founded in 1967 with royalties from Virginia Woolf to benefit writers, visual artists and composers.
Unlikely as it may seem, there are signs that Albee’s most prolific decade is yet to come. Albee’s celebratory season of four productions has opened this fall with a unique pairing of one-acts—the celebrated The Zoo Story (his most widely produced play), written 50 years ago, and the brand-new Homelife, which he wrote in 2003 as a prequel. Homelife delves deeper into the character of Peter before his fateful meeting with Jerry on a bench in Central Park in The Zoo Story. Under the new umbrella title of Peter and Jerry, the one-acts were first paired in 2004 at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage; the expanded drama’s New York premiere ran through Dec. 30 at Second Stage Theatre under Pam MacKinnon’s direction, with Bill Pullman (Peter), Dallas Roberts (Jerry) and Johanna Day (Ann, Peter’s wife) in the cast.
The second production of the Albee season features the writer’s newest full-length play, Me, Myself and I, which premieres Jan. 11–Feb. 17 at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., under the direction of Emily Mann, the theatre’s artistic director. The play deals with a pair of identical twins—a theme that has haunted Albee since childhood—and their relationship with their mother. The cast includes Tyne Daly and Brian Murray.
Albee’s own mountings of two of his acclaimed early one-acts, The Sandbox and The American Dream, run March 11–April 9 at the Cherry Lane. The Sandbox had its New York premiere in 1960 at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan;The American Dream premiered the following year at the York Theatre under the direction of Alan Schneider, with a cast including Sudie Bond, who would thereafter specialize in Albee’s grandmother roles. Of the latter production, critic Harold Clurman wrote that its author was “a new American playwright from whom much is to be expected.”
Rounding out the celebratory season will be Occupant, Albee’s portrait of sculptor Louise Nevelson, running May 6–June 29 at Signature Theatre Company. Occupant had a number of performances at the Signature in fall 2001, in which the charismatic and complex artist was played by the late Anne Bancroft (who fell ill, so the play never officially opened, nor was it ever reviewed). Under James Houghton’s artistic direction, Signature hosted an Albee season in 1993–94 ( Marriage Play , Counting the Ways, Listening, The Sandbox, Finding the Sun), giving the playwright a new home after a decade of critical exile from New York. Occupant will also be directed by MacKinnon, and Mercedes Ruehl will star.
How does America’s preeminent playwright feel about this landmark year? In a conversation with me on Oct. 10, then in a considerably less private discussion with Emily Mann at the Dramatists Guild on Oct. 11, Albee spoke about his 80th birthday season and about his life in the theatre.
CAROL ROCAMORA: You once said “I was born at the age of 30,” the year The Zoo Story was first produced. What are your reasons for having written Homelife as a prequel to your most acclaimed short work?
EDWARD ALBEE: The Zoo Story was the first thing I’d written that I thought was any good, and it turned out I was right. Still—and here’s the important thing—it has always troubled me that the play was just a tiny bit off-balance, in that the character of Jerry was larger than that of Peter. Peter served as a backboard; still, the play worked, so why worry? Then about six years ago it occurred to me that there was more to the play, so I thought: I’ll create a play with a new first act to The Zoo Story, featuring Peter at home. And he has a wife….
So Homelife fell out of my mind. I knew who Peter was after 44 years, and I knew who his wife Ann was, even though I hadn’t consciously thought about her; still, she’d always been there. I think the play is now a more complete experience for an audience. Also, I have contractual approval for the pairing of my one-acts when they are produced. I’ve always had to put The Zoo Story either with one of mine or approve somebody else’s as its partner. Sometimes a theatre will come up with a pairing that’s interesting, and other times they’ll propose something preposterous. So now I don’t have to do it anymore, because—unless the critics tell me I’ve lost my mind completely—we now have a two-act play. The person who has never experienced The Zoo Story will see the two acts together and be convinced that they were written at the same time—because I’m convinced they were.
How do you feel about the one-act form? Would you encourage young writers to use it?
Every play has its own proper duration. I’ve written plays as short as Box (eight minutes long) and The Sandbox (13 minutes long), and as long as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (two-and-a-half hours long). You wouldn’t make a short play longer just to fill time, nor should you cut a play for commercial reasons. A play is as long as it should be and as many acts as it should be.
What inspired you to write Me, Myself and I?
I found out I was adopted when I was five-and-a-half years old, but I must have hoped that I was, long before, because when I was told about it I was so relieved that I hadn’t come from those people. I was an orphan. I wasn’t happy with my home environment—I had adoptive parents who spent no time with me, sent me to camps and schools, and I was very lonely. So I invented an identical twin.
When did you write Me, Myself and I?
I started that play five years ago, and then Jonathan [Thomas, Albee’s longtime partner] got sick with cancer and I took two years off. Six months after he died, I picked up the play and wrote the second act. If anything, the second act was more complete in my mind than the first act had been. Meanwhile, Emily Mann—with whom I’ve worked happily and who did a lovely production of [Albee’s 1971 drama] All Over five years ago—said she wanted to commission me to write a play, so I said “sure.”
How many drafts of the play did you write?
What do you mean “drafts”? I don’t write drafts. A draft could give someone a cold. No, I think you should write the entire play down the first time, and then fix it with a few touches here and there. You shouldn’t write it down until you think you have the whole play. Playwrights get in terrible trouble when they write a play too soon, and then hope that it finds its shape. Writing is a far longer process than you know. A play begins as an idea translated from the unconscious to the conscious. You’ve been thinking about it a long time and creating it a long time before you’re even aware of it. The longer you wait, the less likely you’ll discover that you have written a “first draft.” Wait as long as you can.
But surely you make changes after you get a play on the page.
What I do with my plays is cut them a little bit. We are all terribly fond of the sound of our own voices, but I’ve discovered every once a while that I’ve got too much there, so when it begins to bore me I try to trim it down to a kind of essence. Here’s an extreme example: Seascape was originally a three-act play. The second act happened at the bottom of the sea. As I was directing the Broadway premiere production in 1974, I realized after the first rehearsal that not only was the play almost as long as Parsifal (if somewhat funnier), but also that it would create terrible production problems. So on the second day of rehearsal I cut the entire second act, and there was the play. The fact that I was present, directing, helped me to realize that I had a lot more material than I needed. Meanwhile, I’m proud to say that I have never changed a play of mine knowingly to make it more commercial. I’m too much an egotist to do that.
So do you see Me, Myself and I as autobiographical?
I’ve never written myself into any of my characters. None of my 200 characters is me; all come through me, but I hope they have sufficient individuality. I like to think my plays will not only heal me but also possibly others, that they have enough universality, that the writing of them is not a private act. All art must be useful. If it’s merely decorative, that’s not enough. It must tell about our society, about realities we pretend to face. If it’s only about us, it’s limiting. Most of us are not interesting enough to deserve an entire play. Most of what we invent is a lot more interesting than we are. Otherwise we limit ourselves terribly.
How did the upcoming production of The American Dream and The Sandbox come about?
Years ago, our theatre group, called Theater 1960 [the name changed with the year], made up of Richard Barr, Clinton Wilder and myself, produced a whole series of plays at the Cherry Lane. So then last year the theatre came to me and said: “Would you like to do something?” I like the space and the people and thought it would be fun to do my one-acts there.
You dedicated The Sandbox to your maternal grandmother.
Yes. She was the only one in the family I cared about. She was being pushed to one side, so we were in league against the enemy in the middle. She liked me. She smoked a lot, had a Pekinese and a good sense of humor. I think that whatever you have in life, at least one of those things has to be a sense of humor. Of course, I hate to say it, but the grandmother in The Sandbox and The American Dream is more interesting than she was.
You once said that you intentionally “stole” the first scene of The American Dream from Ionesco’sThe Bald Soprano.
The first few minutes of The American Dream are an homage to Ionesco, and the rest is me. I was exposed to the works of Beckett, Ionesco and Genet in the ’50s and I’m sure all three of them influenced me a lot, just as Pirandello, Brecht and Chekhov did. I saw their works, too, but the three avant-garde ones had a particular influence on me.
You admire Beckett greatly, don’t you?
I love Beckett. His writing is about precision. For example, there’s a line in one of his plays: “the dark vast.” Any other playwright would have written “the vast dark.” That’s what makes Beckett a great playwright. No word of his plays should ever be changed.
The critic Martin Esslin called you the first American playwright who translated the theatre of the absurd into a genuine American idiom.
That’s very flattering. I believe Esslin was using the term “absurdist” in its original context as “post-existentialist” and not as a stylistic matter. I am the former, meaning that I write about man’s absurd position in a world that makes no sense. We have to create our own sense.
Why did you decide to direct The Sandbox and The American Dream yourself?
I thought it would be fun. I’ve directed the American premiere of Seascape on Broadway and various productions of The Zoo Story. I directed the first production of Three Tall Women at the English Theatre in Vienna, as well as dozens of productions of my plays elsewhere—Off Broadway, at the Alley Theatre, the McCarter Theatre, and so on. I enjoy directing—it’s a lot of work, but it’s always interesting.
Did you study directing?
I started off as an actor, actually, in private school. But after The Zoo Story was produced, I realized I could direct my own plays if I wanted to. After all, I knew what I wanted things to look like. There were plans for a production of The Zoo Story deep in the foothills of West Pennsylvania, and I thought: I have director approval, so why not? After all, I couldn’t do the play any serious harm. So I directed it, and looking back on it, it was probably the worst production of any play of mine that I’d ever seen. It occurred to me that maybe there is some craft needed in directing and I’d better learn it. But where was I going to get the training? Then I noticed that some very interesting directors were at work around the world, and I thought I’d watch Peter Hall, Jean-Louis Barrault, Franco Zeffirelli and Alan Schneider—and that became my school of learning the craft of directing. So I emerged from being terrible to not so terrible.
When I direct Beckett, for example, I love it, because I learn so much about playwriting—about comedy, and accuracy, and all the things you need to know about your own work. I remember that in Krapp’s Last Tape there is an indication of two seconds of silence. (Pinter learned that from Beckett, by the way.) I was directing the play and wanted to see how precise he could be, so I tried a three-second silence instead—and I realized that he was right in his precision. It’s the playwright’s responsibility to be precise (although if you do this you sometimes run into trouble with directors who think their creativity is the same as yours). So I use directing to learn more about my own craft. As far as my own plays are concerned, when I write a play, I see it and I hear it as I’m writing it, as if a play is being performed right in front of me—it’s not a kind of ephemeral reality, and that saves me a lot of time. When I’m directing a play of mine that has never been directed before, I try to direct exactly what I saw.
How did the writing of Occupant come about? Why will it be at the Signature?
I once interviewed Louise Nevelson for the catalogue to accompany her show at the Whitney Museum. I soon came to be one of her “familiars,” had dinner from time to time at her place and got to like her very much. She seemed to like me, too, and what I wrote about her. She once said she was convinced that every piece of sculpture is part of one large sculpture. I, in turn, suspect that every play I write is part of one large play. Everything I feel about her is right there in Occupant .
I have a long-term relationship with the Signature. They produced a season of my work when I was “out of fashion” in 1993–94. That season reminded me I was alive. Then, after I wrote Occupant, I gave it to Jim Houghton and Anne Bancroft performed it for a week or so. Then she got sick and had to drop out, so we never opened. I read it with Marian Seldes—once in Washington, D.C., and once for the Jasper Johns Foundation here in New York. It was great fun, but I don’t want to get on stage and do eight performances a week.
All the productions in this 80th birthday season are being produced by not-for-profit theatres.
That’s because they take chances. Not-for-profits have been my home from the very beginning. I’m ultimately happier in a small theatre and a protected environment. You can get shot out the sky often, you know.
So you see commercialism as a danger?
Audience taste is in part due to what producers are willing to produce and what critics believe that audiences want. This has led to a gradual lessening of the importance and power of the theatre. It has become basically an escapist engagement. Look at Broadway—now there are just a few straight plays and the rest are musicals. I’m convinced that if we’re lucky, we’ll get two good serious worthwhile plays a season, but because of cost it makes cowards out of people. In 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? cost $42,000 to mount and tickets were $7 each. In 2005 it cost more than $1.5 million to produce the same play. Now it’s about trying to do what is safe and easily satisfying instead of what is valuable. It all has to do with commerce. The best work doesn’t get to Broadway more often than not.
When Dick Barr bought the rights to The Zoo Story in 1959 and produced the play Off Broadway, he said: “I produce plays because they should be seen.” He never suggested I should alter anything for commercial reasons. Of course, he went broke….
Are the critics at fault for undermining your work?
I have been overpraised and underpraised. I assume by the time I finish writing—and I plan to go on writing until I’m 100 or gaga—it will all equal itself out.
So you don’t plan to retire?
Retire? Some people seem to. Not me. Too much to do. I get busier all the time. Years used to be a year long—now they are two months. Don’t worry about turning 80. Just turn the corner and there you are.
What young writers do you like?
I never name the names of young writers I’m excited about—except to say that the problem with the American theatre does not have to do with the paucity of talent. We have more great writers than we’ve ever had. But the killing hand of commerce is making theatre so difficult in our country. As for MFA programs in playwriting, since I got thrown out of college in the middle of my sophomore year, I didn’t do any MFA program. You’ll learn more practical stuff about the theatre outside of university than inside.
Are you working on a new play?
It’s ruminating around in my head. I keep on getting images from time to time.
What is the title?
It’s called Silence.
What is it about?
Carol Rocamora has translated Chekhov’s complete dramatic works, published in three volumes by Smith & Kraus.