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Albee or not Albee

Date: Mar 13, 2008


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Who's afraid of Edward Albee? Not as many people as perhaps once was the case, when the playwright of such acerbic contemporary classics as A Delicate Balance, Zoo Story, Three Tall Women and, of course, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was planting fresh landmines in the American theatrical field. He hasn't necessarily mellowed in recent years--consider his most recent Broadway provocation, 2002's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. But inevitably, this one-time enfant terrible has become, at 80, American theatre's eminence grise.

And though he's working on a new play, he doesn't mind revisiting past works. Last year he introduced Peter & Jerry, a one-act "prequel" to his 1958 one-act Zoo Story; in June, the Signature Theatre will stage the belated world premiere of his 1993 play about artist Louise Nevelson, Occupant.

Currently, Albee can be found in rehearsals and previews at the Cherry Lane Theatre, the West Village fixture where many of his plays have had successful runs over the years. He's directing a double bill of his early '60s absurdist plays, The American Dream and The Sandbox. The opening date, postponed due to a cast injury, is now April 1.

Albee recently spoke to TDF about his work and his craft.

Q: These two plays have a shared history, don't they?

Albee: Yes, they've been done together several times. In fact, I was writing American Dream when I got a commission from the Spoleto Festival to write a 15-minute play. So I took the characters of American Dream and put them in a different setting--sort of, 'The Further Adventures of the American Dream People.' It's nice to have them together, since it's mostly the same characters and the story just continues.

Q: Regarding his season at the Signature Theatre some years ago, John Guare said that it was a little unnerving--that seeing those old plays took him back to the person he was when he wrote them. Does that happen to you, too?

Albee: No, not really. Of course, I remember the experience of writing them. I remember the good times and the bad times, and you have both if you work in the theatre--more bad than good, if you consider what audiences like vs. what they should like. But I never write about me, so my investment is more intellectual than personal.

Incidentally, my own Signature Theatre season (1993-1993) was terribly valuable for me. It was in the middle of that time when nobody would produce my work. I'd had three big commercial flops in New York, and no one even wanted to say hello to me. The Signature season let people see plays that I'd been writing all along, and brought interest back to me.

Q: Do you prefer to direct your own work?

Albee: Well, it took me a while to be a halfway decent director. I started with a production of Zoo Story, which was fortunately done in deep Pennsylvania; it was the worst production of my work I've ever seen. But I learned since then. I ended up winning my first Pulitzer Prize for Seascape, which I directed. So I'm not a bad director. It's just an awful lot of work. But even when I work with other directors, I have a very clear vision of what I want to see and hear.

Q: The American Dream and The Sandbox are about the family. Now that you've lived a few years since you wrote them, do you look at them now and think, "Yeah, I got the family right."

Albee: I'm still working on it. I'm still trying to get my craft under control, for heaven's sake.

Q: So you feel with every new play as if you're starting from scratch?

Albee: Yes, and that's what I tell my students: Every time you write a play it should be your first play. Not only that, it should be the first play that's ever been written by anybody. That's the only way for it to be spontaneous. I don't let any other voices from any other play in, including my own. You can't.

There's a new piece I'm working on that's even greater than real life. I'm upstairs working with all these characters, and then I walk outside and have to interact with all these people who claim to be real people, but they seem totally unreal to me.

Q: Do you hear the characters in the room with you?

Albee: Yes, I see it and I hear it as a play being performed in front of me. That's why I can be so specific as a director. I don't how anybody can write a play if they don't see it that way. It seems that some can.

Q: You don't seem like a playwright who uses humor…

Albee: You mean my plays aren't funny?

Q: No, they're very funny, but it doesn't seem like you use the humor the way some playwrights do: consciously, to disarm the audience.

Albee: No, you don't stick jokes in like raisins in cereal. Like, "Oh, I have a whole bunch of jokes--maybe I can find a play to put these jokes into." It has to be organic to the character. It's the same way I feel about profanity and obscenity; if it's organic to the character, there's nothing offensive about it.

Q: You have a fond history with the Cherry Lane Theatre, don't you?

Albee: I've spent a lot of happy hours there. In the early '40s, when I was 15 or so, I saw a play there by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, The Dog Beneath the Skin. It was a wonderful experience.

Q: Wasn't it Auden who read your poetry and told you you should consider playwrighting?

Albee: No, that was Thornton Wilder. Wystan told me I should write pornography.

Q: It's a good thing you didn't take his advice.

Albee: Who says I didn't?

Q: It's intriguing how writers--Beckett, August Wilson, yourself--start out writing one thing and end up writing for theatre.

Albee: You know, one of the most wonderful experiences I've ever had in a theatre was when I was teaching up at Brandeis University, and August Wilson came up to do a reading of his own work. Nobody spoke August's lines better than he did, and the poetry in his writing came out better than I'd ever heard it before. You'll often find that playwrights are the best readers of their own work, but August was the best I've ever heard.

Q: Do you ever read your work publicly, outside of rehearsals?

Albee: Just last night at the Cherry Lane there was a big benefit; people were supposed to see a preview of Sandbox, but it had been postponed. So I got up there for a hour and a half and did readings from several of my plays. I recite my own plays very well. That's because I hear when I write, and I retain what I hear.

Click here for information about The American Dream and The Sandbox.