AMERICA’S leading playwright provocateur, now an octogenarian, Edward Albee—whose plays include the scalding Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Woman, and the taboo-smashing The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?—is hardly resting on his accumulated laurels (three Pulitzer prizes and three Tony awards). In fact, the playwright is now directing new stagings of two of his one-acts, “The American Dream” and “The Sandbox,” with the assistance of a hearing aid, and is proving as durable as his work. When his The Play About the Baby ran at New York’s Century Center in 2000, he underwent an operation to have two stents inserted to bypass a 95-percent blocked artery to his heart, and stayed conscious to observe the entire procedure. He gamely recommends that “life should be lived at the precipice, so that we don’t come to the end of our life with regret for what we have not done.”
An ardent Democrat, he laments the Bush regime and its current “destruction of democracy in this country,” and observes: “I don’t know a single artist today who doesn’t believe this administration is terrible…that it was not elected, but was put in power by a coup d’état. It worries me to see that it believes the only way to save democracy is to repress it at home, by silencing journalists and writers.” There is still evidence of the angry young man who penned “The American Dream,” willing to call things as he sees them. A recipient of Kennedy Center honors when Bill Clinton was in office, Albee has refused to attend any Kennedy Center ceremonies under George W. Bush. “One doesn’t like some presidents,” he remarked, but “this is the first president I’ve despised. What’s worse is the fucking passive American people. Remember what Adlai Stevenson said? In this country we can still have anything we want—but we’re going to end up with what we deserve.”
Albee has earned his honors the old-fashioned way. After his searing breakthrough play The Zoo Story was mounted on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape for $1,200 in 1960 at Greenwich Village’s Provincetown Playhouse, he would finally conquer Broadway in 1962 with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his three-act Walpurgis Night drama about two married couples living on a college campus, widely heralded but excoriated by some mainstream critics who objected to the explicit sexual scenarios and suspected homosexual undercurrents. Since then, he has experienced the entire gamut of critical exposure and has survived to see many of his early detractors humbled. Sure, there have been some off days, such as his quixotic experiments and miscalculations with a translation to the stage of James Purdy’s “Malcolm,” Nabokov’s Lolita, and “The Man Who Had Three Arms,” which many reviewers interpreted as a self-indulgent diatribe against critics.
Now the prolific author is enjoying the opportunity to actively revisit and shepherd his past work for new audiences and new critical scrutiny. Decades after The Zoo Story’s first incarnation, Albee felt that the character of Peter deserved to be explored in more detail, so he devised a prequel, Homelife, that together with The Zoo Story comprises the updated Peter and Jerry, which premiered at the Hartford Stage in June 2004. The director was Pam MacKinnon, who is also directing Albee’s newest play, Occupant, a portrait of the flamboyant sculptor, Louise Nevelson, played by Mercedes Ruehl, which recently premiered Off-Broadway.
Last year, Albee’s enigmatic meditation on mortality, The Lady from Dubuque, which closed after only twelve performances when it debuted on Broadway back in 1980, opened on London’s West End, starring the redoubtable Dame Maggie Smith, inciting both raves and raspberries. The play’s theme of the social angst and domestic disorder attendant upon losing someone to an early death by cancer is eerily premonitory in light of the playwright’s loss of his life partner of 35 years, the painter Jonathan Thomas, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer and died after a two-year battle with the disease in May 2005 at 59. “I was expecting to die way before Jonathan did,” Albee observed. “He was 18 years younger than I was, and the whole idea was that when I got to be my age, he’d be taking care of me, you know? But life doesn’t always work out the way it’s supposed to.”
“I couldn’t write for a long time,” Albee confessed. “I mean, I didn’t feel like it. One thing I learned was that grief is easily turned into self-pity. Yes, someone that you’re with is fading, going out of focus. But, my God, if we ever lose sight of the fact that they have had the greater loss, then we’re being selfish and self-indulgent.” However, after a period of mourning Albee resumed work on a play titled Me, Myself & I, which had its world premiere last January at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, New Jersey, directed by Emily Mann and starring Tyne Daly as the bewildered mother of twins.
Albee, who quips that he’s survived five decades in the theatre on “pure orneriness,” is a notoriously devious interviewee who can deflect his interrogator’s queries with Pirandellian persiflage or the timing of a seasoned vaudevillian. He’s well known for not liking to explicate his work in interviews. When asked to describe for a playbill blurb what Me, Myself & I is about, he replied: “About two hours, including intermission.” When questioned about how he managed to balance his queer sensibility with the demands of commercial theatre during his long career, he explained: “Well, I didn’t run around screaming, ‘I’m gay! I’m gay!’—except to the right people, the people you wanted to know. Back then, it was a period when hideous homophobia was just one of the many things people had to put up with. It was just one of the many minorities. We still have witch hunts, but things are a little better.”
When not writing at his home on the East End of Long Island, Albee resides in his well-appointed, art-laden loft in New York City’s Tribeca district, which he currently occupies with his sleek, part-Abyssinian flat mate Abigail, whom he rescued as a kitten. Barely a week after his 80th birthday, which was marked by a number of productions in the New York area collectively titled “the Albee Season,” the peripatetic author graciously took a break from his busy schedule and latest projects to be interviewed in person for the G&LR.
Note: Here we follow the convention of placing full-length plays in italics and one-acts in quotation marks. As it happens, this is a distinction that Albee himself has questioned.
Michael Ehrhardt: Does it feel a little surreal, now that you’ve reached your venerable milestone?
Edward Albee: It does indeed. Nothing to look forward to except getting to ninety.
ME: Another playwright, Arthur Laurents, is still in the game at ninety. Has arriving at eighty made you more spiritual, optimistic, misanthropic?
EA: I don’t know. Is life supposed to change at eighty? Is this a time when I’m supposed to look back?
ME: Well, from the perspective of experience accrued—a Proustian summation of things?
EA: Oh, I’ve been trying to look back. But the problem is, I’m just too fucking busy to look back. No profit in it. I really don’t have time to sit back and relax. I really don’t have time to sit and contemplate things. Anyway, what’s the difference between eighty and 79 or 81? It’s just a calendar thing. Somebody sent me a birthday card, which I found pretty funny. On the front it says: “The old rabbi will tell you how to live to 120.” And on the inside the old rabbi advises: “Live to 119, and then be very careful.”
ME: Back in 1961, in a preface to “The American Dream,” you observed that, as a society, we were ruled by “artificial values” and the belief “that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy keen.” Notwithstanding your subsequent acceptance and preeminence, do you see any reason to be more hopeful?
EA: I guess writing is a continual act of hope. But, as far as perspective, the thing that shocks me most is what’s happened in Washington since I was a kid. Things seemed so optimistic when we got rid of Eisenhower. Of course, before that Roosevelt had accomplished so much when I was just a baby—saving the country and moving us towards responsible socialism and the birth of unions. But then you realize that today union membership is now at just eleven percent! And the unions, unfortunately, have become corrupt. Then, somewhere around 25 years ago, the Republicans planned to keep themselves in power by re-titling the working class and calling them “middle class” instead, so that way they think they’re better off than they really are—and, in turn, they’ll become more reactionary and start voting Republican. Which is exactly what happened; no one talks about the working class anymore.
ME: I know you’re a big fan of the poet of paradoxes, Samuel Beckett, whose absurdist, positive negativity on the apparent futility of all human endeavor is, and I quote, “Try again… Fail again… Fail better.”
EA: Yes, I love Beckett, and he is a big influence. I’ve learned so much from him. His great language, so musical, and unique. How he writes “the dark vast” instead of “the vast dark.” You must remember what he wrote in one of his lovely late monologues: that birth was the death of him. In a play titled A Piece of Monologue, this old man comes, looks out a window, and says: “It’s out there in the dark vast.” Now that’s breathtaking! Any other playwright would have said “in the vast dark.” That’s the difference between a good playwright and a great one.
ME: Is that the best we can hope for as a civilization? To “fail better”?
EA: Well, I’ve watched the gradual dismemberment of democracy, and I don’t know if we have the courage, or even the interest, in recovering from that. Max Lerner, who actually used to write for The New York Post, used to wonder if we are going to be one of those civilizations that starts its way down well before it reaches its zenith. That seems to be what we’re in danger of today. The so-called religious Right of the Republican Party—the Christian Right, they call themselves, although in my view they are neither Christian nor right—is after a totalitarian state.
ME: You’ve always experienced a love-hate relationship with the critics. You were excoriated for Tiny Alice and The Man Who Had Three Arms. Does winning three Pulitzer prizes serve as a form of compensation? From your preeminence, you can afford to gloat now.
EA: It’s nicer to be in a position to gloat. Everyone likes to receive prizes. The Man Who Had Three Arms is one of my favorite plays. The critics were under the impression that it was all about me, which is nonsense.
ME: Frank Rich was annoyed with your tendency to give your characters generic titles, such as Himself.
EA: I’ve always had trouble with certain critics, like Walter Kerr, who couldn’t tolerate any play in which the “fourth wall” convention was broken. Any time an actor talked to the audience—to him, Walter—from the stage, he gave it a bad review. The one thing I find interesting is that when plays of mine are given major revivals, the reviews are always better than when the plays came out for the first time. I’m not going to speculate on what that means.
ME: They’re currently referring to your ubiquitous stagings as the “Albee Season.” I suppose you “failed better.”
EA: Yes, that must be it! As for Tiny Alice, I suppose the critics thought I should have followed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with “Son of Virginia Woolf” instead of giving them a lot of “metaphysical crap.”
ME: Do you believe that, if it hadn’t been for the breakthrough hit of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, you might have withered on the vine, as just another downtown, anti-establishment playwright?
EA: Well, The Zoo Story, which opened first in Germany, had already made me internationally familiar. And that certainly helped. The early 1960’s was a great, exciting time to be in New York City. There were all the great plays by Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet. And it was easy to get laid. It was paradise.
ME: What do you think it was about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that clicked with the mainstream?
EA: Well, I told the truth as I saw it, and the audience responded to it.
ME: The Goat, or Who’s Sylvia?, your play with extramarital bestiality, enjoyed a good Broadway run. Did some people express shock over it?
EA: I would hope so. I tend to have ambivalence about all of our absolutisms, so some people were shocked, of course—and in the most amazing places. A lot of them were shocked when the gay son kissed his father sexually—with a great big mouth-to-mouth kiss. That was the limit of their tolerance, and they walked out.
ME: Have you been following the current extramarital political sex scandals?
EA: It’s all so ridiculous! I mean, come on! Thomas Jefferson had a black mistress, Abraham Lincoln was probably gay, Roosevelt had a mistress.
ME: Eleanor, too…
EA: Kennedy, Johnson. Our morality is jejune, preposterous! For god’s sake, I’d rather have a president who fucks!
ME: Of course, it was hubris that brought Spitzer down. It was like a classic Greek play—minus the buskins.
EA: Sure it was hubris! Spitzer was no fun—but when he went down, they were delighted—they were exactly those who thought: “Wow! Now he won’t be around to get me!”
ME: Do you believe being a queer playwright obligates you to take an actively political stance on gay rights?
EA: Well, mind you, I am very active politically, not only in Democratic politics and PEN, but also pushing for absolute equality of gay relationships. I belong to so many minorities, and my identity is not determined solely by the fact that I happen to be gay. I’m delighted that I am. Being at Lawrenceville, an all-boy school when I was twelve years old—come on!—I had a wonderful time coming out as a teen. And I’ve enjoyed it ever since. I’m very happy being gay. I’m sure if I was straight, I’d be very happy, too.
ME: What’s the significance of being gay in today’s theatre world?
EA: The theatre community couldn’t survive without the large minority of gay playwrights, directors, designers, and actors and actresses. There’s probably still some prejudice, but people will use you if you’re valuable to them no matter what your sexuality. Critics are another matter. A lot of them are homophobic.
ME: Where do you stand on the gay marriage issue?
EA: I personally would leave marriage to the religious people. Legally, yes, of course. Anything that would grant gays every single equal right. But certain Episcopal bishops have been thrown out of their churches over the religious factor. If marriage is posed as a religious matter, leave it to the religious. On the other hand, civil unions are not as absolutely equal as all that. But if you’re two religious guys or gals, and you’re offended by your church’s attitude, then fight them to have a ceremony! Otherwise, if you get absolute equality, what difference does it make? Jonathan and I would have never even thought about a religious blessing of our marriage. We cared about each other, imagined we were going to be together forever, or as long as we could, and that everything was economically all settled.
ME: Did you ever imagine how gays would be so willing to assimilate into general society?
EA: I worry about people trying to assimilate too much, because identity vanishes, and everyone becomes like everyone else.
ME: How do you feel about the trend of gay adoptive parents?
EA: I worry about that. It’s fine when you assume you’ll be in a relationship that endures. But knowing the short-term longevity of the majority of gay relationships—and I’ve seen an awful lot of relationships in which kids are involved and things break up after three or four or five years. Every relationship has its duration. I was lucky with Jonathan—35 years. My first lover, William Flanagan, who wrote the music for “The Sandbox”—we had seven years together. With Terrence McNally—we had five-and-a-half years. But every relationship has its duration and usefulness and purpose.
ME: What about polyamorous relationships?
EA: I think any relationship should be handled the way it works best—for both people. Not just for one of them. The trouble comes when it works for one but not the other. If it works for both people—or three or four people involved, whatever, that’s fine. As long as you don’t frighten the horses.
ME: Turning to your current projects, your dance card is really full. Talk about “the man who had three arms”! You seem to have as many arms as Shiva.
EA: Well, I’m currently directing “The American Dream” and “The Sandbox” at the Cherry Lane. I’ve always liked the Cherry Lane—ever since I saw a play there when I was a teenager, The Dog Beneath the Skin, by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. We start previewing it next week. We had to postpone the opening because Myra Carter, who was playing Grandma, fractured her back and we had to replace her.
ME: Obviously, “The American Dream” is fairly autobiographical, as far as you being the adopted “bumble of joy.” And “The Sandbox”?
EA: They’re about the way we treat old people, the way we destroy our children, the way we don’t communicate with each other.
ME: And then there’s “Occupant” on the horizon….
EA: Yes, but I won’t be directing that. It’s being directed by Pam MacKinnon, who also directed my Peter and Jerry.
ME: Do you have any input in the production?
EA: Yes. I choose the director, cast, and set designer.
ME: I hear that Richard Chamberlain will be appearing (with Jan Maxwell) in the Berkshire Theater Festival’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? late this summer.
EA: Yes, but I won’t be directing that. The last time I saw Richard was in 1966, when I worked on the book for the musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
ME: That became a legendary Broadway flop. It had Mary Tyler Moore, Sally Kellerman, and Larry Kert, too, with music by Bob Merrill and choreography by Michael Kidd. What happened?
EA: It started as one thing… and I had only three weeks to bring the book back to Truman Capote’s intentions. I was supposed to be the play doctor, and I soon realized that the patient was moribund, so I killed it.
ME: The Lady from Dubuque, which had its Broadway debut in 1980 in a production that starred Irene Worth and lasted for twelve performances, was produced on the West End at the Royal Haymarket with Maggie Smith in the lead—
EA: Yes. It was a very nice production, a lovely production with Anthony Page directing, who also directed the recent revival of Who’s Afraid on Broadway and in London. He and Maggie did a splendid job.
ME: Did the critics concur?
EA: As is usually the case with my work, the perceptive and intelligent critics liked it.
ME: Maggie Smith got very good reviews. Why won’t it come to the States?
Because Maggie hates America. She won’t come here to work. She’s not very happy with the country now. And also, she’s been through a rough time, having lost her second husband.
ME: What’s happening with your García Lorca play?
EA: That’s still in my head. I don’t know whether I’ll revise that or not. I’ve just been so damn busy, I haven’t had time to bring it out. I think the next play I’m going to write is about losing Jonathan.
ME: You’re moving on from grieving?
EA: For myself, of course! It’s selfish to grieve for oneself. One should never lose sight of that. Never start getting fixated on your own loss rather than the person who’s dying. They’re the ones who are going into that endless blackness and silence.
ME: Is that how you visualize it?
EA: I suspect so, or I have no idea. When I die, and it turns out that there’s a benign God to whom I’ll say “Hi, there. Edward Albee. Absolutely delighted. Do I get to see all my friends and avoid all the ones I didn’t like?” and he says, “Sure, Edward”—that would be great.
ME: You visited Easter Island a little while ago—a lifelong dream of yours—how did the experience resonate with you?
EA: It was remarkable. One of the most extraordinary trips I’ve ever taken in my life. I wanted to go there with Jonathan and regret that I never had the chance. I do want to go back again before long. I was there for a week, and it wasn’t enough. There are great horses there, so you can ride.
ME: A perfect setting for a play?
EA: I really think so. The silence there is amazing. I’ve been to a lot of amazing places, but never as amazing as there. I’m currently knocked up with the idea. It will probably be called “Silence.” The set design could be so beautiful.
Michael Ehrhardt is a freelance writer based in New York City.