Edward Albee

By Farr, Richard | The Progressive, August 1996 | Go to article overview
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Edward Albee

Farr, Richard, The Progressive

Despite wealthy adoptive parents who sent him to exclusive schools like Choate, Valley Forge, and Trinity College, playwright Edward Albee didn't have an easy start. He was expelled from most of the schools, or expelled himself. At eighteen he expelled himself from his parents' home and spent a decade drifting in and out of casual jobs.

He was a messenger for Western Union when, at twenty-nine, he wrote an angry, deeply disturbing one-act play called The Zoo Story, in which a businessman on a park bench is coerced into stabbing a vagrant.

The play was a sensation, the critics hailed it as the first work of a hugely original talent, and Albeen went on to write a series of chilling attacks on the American domestic verities, most notably The American Dream (1961), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and A Delicate Balance (1966)--which won Albee his first Pulitzer prize.

Albee said from the start that he hated the commercial values of Broadway, and he was one of the founders of the Off-Broadway movement. Perhaps the critics decided that the very successful Angry Young Man needed a lesson in humility. After 1966 his reputation went into a quarter-century tailspin, as each new offering "failed" to live up to the promise of the early work. Albee continued to produce original drama at the rate of one play per year. Critics responded by dismissing nearly all of it as willfully experimental and obscure, and Albee responded to their criticism by dismissing the most powerful New York critics, by name, as know-nothings.

Albee has always been an experimentalist, and he seems not to have cared that some of his work has not been well received. So there was some irony in the relief critics expressed in 1992, when he won another Pulitzer for Three Tall Women. "Albee has done it again," was the cry, as if the entire theater community had been waiting thirty years to see if the old dog could jump through the hoop one more time. Albee is a name to reckon with again. A Delicate Balance has just celebrated its thirtieth birthday on Broadway by winning three Tony awards, including Best Revival.

Albee travels constantly, teaching and lecturing, but in New York he can be found in a cavernous TriBeCa loft, an abandoned cheese warehouse he bought eighteen years ago in the days before cavernous TriBeCa lofts were fashionable. Despite the gray hair, he doesn't look close to his sixty-eight years. We sit on black leather couches in the middle of his extraordinary art collection. A Dogon granary door is propped up just behind the author, a Picasso sketch stands in a frame on a desk, and a Japanese grain-threshing device sits on the floor nearby. An Australian aboriginal war axe lies dangerously on the table between us.

Q: Your plays don't express very overtly political sentiments. Is that because you don't want to seem to be getting up on a soapbox?

Albee: I do think that all of my plays are socially involved, but sometimes very subtly and very indirectly. Certainly The American Dream was socially involved. socially involved. It's about the way we treat old people, the way we destroy our children, the way we don't communicate with each other. The Death of Bessie Smith was a highly political play. Sometimes it's subtle and sometimes it's fairly obvious.

Q: It has been suggested that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is "really" about two gay couples.

Albee: If I had wanted to write a play about two gay couples, I would have done it. I've had to close down a number of productions that tried to do that play with four men. It doesn't make any sense; it completely distorts the play. Changing a man into a woman is more than interpretation: It's fucking around with what the playwright intended.

Q: Do you try to exercise strong control over how your plays are produced?

Albee: I always tell actors and directors--whether I'm working with them or not--do whatever you like so long as you end up with the play that I wrote.

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