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 is a freelance writer based in New York City.