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Audacious and Astonishing Still Tough as Nails and Sharp as a Dagger

By Lavender January 16, 2009

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At 80, Edward Albee looms as America’s greatest living playwright. He has won the Tony for Best Play twice and the Pulitzer for drama thrice.

Albee is the last playwright to have been an actual bona fide household name. That was back when titans like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Albee were part of the national discourse. They were read by small-town folks in New Mexico and Alabama who couldn’t get to New York to see their plays performed, but still thirsted to know what all the fuss was about.

Edward Albee. Photo by Jerry Speier

In 1958, Albee shattered New York’s formulaic notions of theater with The Zoo Story, followed the next year with the ferocious The Death of Bessie Smith. The latter ranks as a pivotal American play about racism. Both works were utterly emblematic of the dawn of a zeitgeist wherein humankind’s alienation in a godless universe became the lens of the collective (un)consciousness. “Nihilism” was a term often used then.

Though he rejects being compartmentalized as an absurdist playwright, Albee generally is credited as the figure who gave Theater of the Absurd and its existential consciousness an American voice after its germination in Europe. Similarly, Eugene O’Neill, two generations before Albee, is credited as the figure who brought modernism to American theater after the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg launched a paradigm shift in Europe.

Albee went on to write remarkable plays well into the 1970s, but was targeted by pompous critics who frankly couldn’t handle his honesty—their problem, of course, but critics can wield power. They savaged his brilliant All Over. To hear the rote way many critics chatter, you’d think wrongly that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Albee’s only great play.

Although Albee’s middle-aged career lulled in a way typical of many writers, in his 60s in the 1990s, he was resurgent with the resplendent Pulitzer-winner Three Tall Women. In his 70s, he won the Tony for the stunning The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, which, among other traumas, includes a gay son discovering his father engaged in bestiality.

Indeed, Albee is a guileless explorer of the human psyche and the human heart.

The Guthrie Theater has revived—a term at which Albee would likely scoff—the 1967 Pulitzer-winner A Delicate Balance, directed by Gary Gisselman. Like most great American plays, it looks at the disintegration of family with the unflinching and ruthless honesty for which Albee’s content and style are both beloved and feared.

I spoke with Albee recently about his plays, what some of their meanings might or might not be, and the human and national foible of refusing to examine one’s own behavior.

A Delicate Balance can be viewed from many angles, but it’s certainly fueled by the main couple’s lives being thrown out of whack when they generously shelter another couple. On the surface, that main pair, Tobias and Agnes, seem to be snobby, self-centered, rich people, but they do this generous thing.

The whole point of the play seems to me to concern itself with the way we live our lives, and, when crisis comes, are we able to handle it? Now, the crisis that comes to these people is that they are comfortable, and they don’t have too many worries in their lives. They seem to have closed down to a certain extent, and when the really most important thing that has ever happened to them—they’re asked to do a Christian thing, and take in two desperately unhappy friends—they find they don’t have the capacity anymore. They’ve lost the capacity to do that.

But they are making an effort.

Of course they’re making an effort, but it turns out to be much more of a social effort than something they’re capable of doing. They realize they were not capable of handling it. Then, they had to make the decision: Are we for ourselves, or are we for our friends?

Tell me about Julia, the daughter.

She has her own problems. Probably, being raised the way she was, she lost some of the values that were important to her. And being raised in that insular environment, you lose a lot of your compassion. She was a spoiled girl. She was spoiled when she was a kid, the way an awful lot of rich kids are. And she made bad choices in her marriage.

Harry and Edna, the desperately unhappy couple, were named for two people who lived in your neighborhood when you were growing up.

They were friends of my adoptive parents.


And they were Jewish?

Yes. Peter and Jerry [in The Zoo Story] were named after two friends of mine. It wasn’t as some critics thought: Peter and Jesus.

This couple that moves into the house seems to represent those we’ve ostracized from society. There’s that marvelous line: “We’re not a communal nation, dear; giving, but not sharing, outgoing, but not friendly. We submerge our truths, and have our sunsets on untroubled waters.”

That’s good writing.

It’s marvelous. I love that line. You’re looking at our lack of generosity, and our pretence at being generous, when actually we’re not.

Sure. There are a lot of things to look at, but certainly, the way we pretend to behave as opposed to the way we really behave is something we should reexamine constantly.

The story of Jerry and the dog in The Zoo Story is one of the most succinct portrayals of human alienation I’ve ever come across. The description of the dog is cruel, passionate, and graphic. Was this a harbinger of The Goat, which I must say is a play that I defend and love? It has lots of detractors. People say, “How dare that man even look at that sort of subject matter.”

[Chuckles]

I went back to see it again when nimbus theatre produced it in Minneapolis a few years ago, and I named it as one of the top five productions of that year.

I don’t think that you should say it was a foreshadowing of The Goat, because if you look through my plays, not only do you have the dog in The Zoo Story, but in A Delicate Balance, it’s a cat story. There’s a cat there, which is very important in the course of the play. In Seascape, you have two human beings and two lizards. So, I seem to deal with all animals, not merely humans.

And you’ve made a point in the past about humans being animals.

Of course!

After I saw The Goat, I read the play Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, and I felt that both plays captured our national hysteria around sex, and the destructive nature of that hysteria in the years after there had been an effort to bring down a President for merely receiving a blow job from a consenting adult woman. In The Goat, I didn’t think you were saying yea or nay about whether people should have sex with animals.

I was really talking about—I think, as I remember it now—the limits of our tolerance. And some of the stuff we are tolerant of is preposterous, and some of the stuff we should be tolerant of that we won’t touch. I guess bestiality is beyond the limits of our tolerance. And as long as you don’t give the poor animal any diseases, I don’t think there is anything terribly wrong with it.

Not too long after The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? won the Tony, the Abu Ghraib scandal hit. Many of the images of had implicit bestiality throughout.

Of course. There’s so much that we don’t want to talk about in this country.

I saw the national tour of Three Tall Women more than a dozen years ago, and I reread it recently. Now, I’m really struck by the play’s wisdom, and I really identify with the “B” character, now that I’m so much closer in age to her than the other two. She has this sweeping perspective of what it is to be human.

She’s there at middle age, and she can see the whole perspective—what’s behind her and what’s ahead of her. That’s why she’s such an interesting character.


I’m touched by the male character who comes and sits at the bedside of “A.”

He’s not really there, of course. He’s sort of the old woman’s fantasy of her grandchild. He’s only 18, so he doesn’t have much to say. Also, since he’s not really there, he can’t say anything.

I got the sense that he’s gay.

Oh, really? I hadn’t thought about that. Why?

She seems to have really rejected him.

You might be relating that to my experience with my adoptive parents, and my being gay and all that. It’s quite possible. You may be right. I’m not going to argue the point.


I’ve often wondered if Jerry in The Zoo Story is gay.

Well, he says very particularly that he loves women, but he just can’t relate to them, because he just probably can’t relate to anything. I think that he’s a practicing heterosexual, though like any sensitive person, I’m sure he had a number of homosexual experiences growing up. Don’t we all?

You and Tennessee Williams are widely held as the greatest American male playwrights of female characters. He drew from his mother and you’ve drawn from your mother.
I wouldn’t quite say that. I also think Thornton Wilder was also very good with his female characters. No one pays as much attention to Wilder anymore as they should. God knows, Emily and her mother and the other women in Our Town are extraordinary. And the the mother in The Skin of Our Teeth.

What is it that makes you write such great female characters?

There are only two kinds of people for the most part. I hope I write good male characters!

And you do! But you’ve written so many more plays than Wilder, and so did Williams.

Yes. An interesting plawyright and a good playwright like Arthur Miller – he had trouble writing female characters. (Anton) Chekhov didn’t.  It depends, I suppose, where you’re coming from, what you’re after.

You’ve written some pretty monstrous male characters and very tormented ones. It’s shifting art forms but your men remind me sometimes of those in the films of (screeenwriter/director) Ingmar Bergman. The men in his films are often monstrous, dark, and tormented.

Look at most of the plays that survive over a hundred years. They’re not about happy people getting along well.

You are the premier American playwright of human alienation, people detached in a dark universe. You’re the first American playwright to bring forth the Theatre of the Absurd on these shores.

When I was 15 years old I was reading the existentialists. That had a great deal to do with it.

Why should theater artists today be interested in the existentialists and the absurd? Why should we still be producing Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco?

Because those three are great playwrights. That’s the reason. And also they all point out to us we have to make sense for ourselves and the universe, which probably makes no sense at all. And that’s the existential and postextistential point of view.

They were decomposing and deconstructing reality.

Not decontructing. (They were) analyzing. Taking back to essence. Analyzing and trying to put back together more intelligently.

If you live in a good theater area like Minneapolis, St. Paul, London, or New York, you can choose to see a great deal of theater that tackles edgy subject matter that challenges you in various ways.

Just like Aeschylus and Shakespeare and Chekhov and Beckett and all those good guys.

It seems like the existential writers and what are now known as the absurdist playwrights cracked open more possibilities than before.

Any playwright who keeps his eyes and ears and mind open is going to be learning from the experiments of the great playwrights. If we can’t learn from that, how can we grow as playwrights ourselves?

I’m a Tennessee Williams and an Arthur Miller freak, but what I find so extraordinary about you is that you were in your 60s when you resurged with Three Tall Women which is on a par with anything you’d written previously, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And then, some years later you write the terrific The Play About the Baby. And then a while after that, your write The Goat, which is one of the great plays of our time. Period. And probably your greatest play yet. And these are written when you are much older.

It seems like so many major playwrights, like the major well written filmmakers – Federico Fellini (with Casanova) and Ingmar Bergman (with Fanny And Alexander)- hit their zenith in their middle years. After 50, Williams never wrote a play comparable to his early masterworks. Some good plays, for sure, but nothing extraordinary. Miller did, however, write some very fine plays when he was much older, but nothing to equal what he wrote in his earlier years.

Right.

But you actually resurged with two plays that top your early masterworks and one that equals some of them.

Oh well. I never think about things in those terms. I merely discover that I’m thinking about a play and then I write it down to find out what I’m thinking about. I don’t plan and say, now I must write a play about this or about that at this point in my career when I must do that or something else. I just find out what’s going on in my head and put it down on paper.

You’ve never lost your passion as you’ve gotten older.

Why would you lose your passion? The older you get, the less time you have to tell people how to live their lives.

You were going to write a play about Attila the Hun weren’t you, at some point?

Yeah. I keep that in reserve in case I ever run out of other stuff to write. It is my holdback so I’ll always be able to say, yeah, I’m thinking about a play. Did you know that Jesus had a brother?

No. I didn’t.

Named – I forget what his name was. James, I think. And that being a follower of his brother, he was stoned to death. I’m very interested in that guy, James. I may write about him.

Are you writing on anything now that you can talk about?

No. I can’t talk about it but I’ve got two plays that I’m working on now.

My personal favorite play of yours is All Over. Who is the man in a coma in All Over? It never really comes out and says.

No, no, no. Did I base him on anybody? Not particularly. But I think he was a combination of a great political power and a great economic power. There were people like that who influenced events without ever having been elected to office or ever really ever having been terribly well known by the public. But they were shakers and movers.  And one of those people who was terribly important.

We never know just who this man is but we’re totally enrapt the entire time by his condition. I saw a tremendous production of All Over over 20 years ago at the Germinal Stage in Denver. Riveting. There’s a line The Mistress says: “He taught me a sense of values, you know, beyond what I’d thought was adequate.” I think that line rates with Tennessee Williams’s line of Blanche’s in A Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” as one of the greatest lines in all dramatic literature.

Thank you. He was able to do good things like that.

Way back in the early ’80s, I saw Alan Schneider’s wonderful staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the old Guthrie Theater. I know you liked how he directed your plays.

What I liked about Alan as a director was that he respected the play and was interested in communicating in exactly the way the author wanted the play to be performed. He wasn’t there to show off. He wasn’t there to show us ‘what an interesting director I am’. He was there to show us what a fascinating and involving play this is. So he asked me many, many, many questions during rehearsals to make sure he was getting exactly what I intended.

Alot of directors over the past several decades have been more about concept v. the actual text.

Yeah. So I don’t use them.

What do you think about movies and video games at the end of this decade of militarism, high tech obsession, and fear of terror, etc.?

I go to movies less and less frequently each year because I find so many of them are nothing but commercial enterprises, there to make money and not tell us anything or have us learn anything. I find that true in live theater too. So much of it that’s produced shouldn’t be produced because it’s merely escapist entertainment. I think that every time you go to the theater you haven’t gone to anything worthwhile if you don’t come out a different person than you went in. I don’t think theater or any entertainment should be there to take you out of participating in your own life. (It should) make you participate even more. In other words, escapism is folly.

And can also have terrible social ramifications. People’s attention spans getting shorter. And the violence. It’s odd how the same people who will watch a violent action film can’t handle a play that confronts human conflict.

No, because there’s a reality to plays that movies don’t have. A play we believe. A movie we know is untrue.

We’re conditioned and habitualized toward sports watching, television, action hero movies. What makes the experience of going to theater unique? Some people say it’s boring but often they just haven’t been to the right performances and don’t know what’s really available. But I sometimes feel it’s as it they’re afraid of it.

They have a terrible fear that it’s real. And it might involve them. Here’s the perfect example. I went to a movie a couple of years ago, not a bad movie, in which one of the characters right toward the end was shot through the head. And we saw his brains splatter on the white wall behind his head. We saw that. I looked at the people around me. They sat there eating their popcorn. Perfectly happy. They didn’t believe what was happening. It wasn’t real. They knew it was an entertainment. The thing about live theater is it’s dangerous and it’s real, because it is happening while you are experiencing it.

But couldn’t people argue, well they’re saying lines very well but they’re not actually living the experience? They’re just portraying it.

In the theater, when it gets really good and really intense and really first rate, then the suspension of disbelief occurs and you experience and you believe it.

You once said that you had to write for yourself and not for people.

What I meant is that you mustn’t be an employee. When you write, you write because you have a play in your head that needs to come out. That’s why you do it.  But this whole notion of writing for yourself and other people, that’s nonsense. Obviously, if you’re writing a play down and having it produced, you want it to be experienced by other people and that’s granted. You just take that for granted.
If you write a play and then put it in a drawer and throw it away and never let anybody see it, then obviously you’re only writing for yourself. Of course, you’re writing – to communicate.

When you were interviewed by Jeanne Wolf in the 1970s you said that anyone with any intelligence and any individuality has a responsibility to rebel and rebellion leads to questioning.

If you see something that you don’t like, that you think people are handling badly, then it’s your responsibility to be opposed to that. To comment on it, of course.

That brings to mind, the characters in A Delicate Balance.

I’m sure that A Delicate Balance had alot to do with the families I was raised in. I was adopted, as you know. I was raised by this wealthy family and I found, quite young, that their values, I found, were corrupt and insufficient and so I was opposed to them.

When I interviewed you eight years ago in 2001 (before 9/11), George W. Bush had just taken office. You were disturbed by that. I laughed when you made a comment about Dick Cheney just being a heartbeat away.

I was very disturbed at that because he wasn’t elected President. It was a coup d’etat manufactured by the Republicans, (James) Baker leading it, and with a complicity of a Republican appointed Supreme Court. It was a coup d’etat. Why the army didn’t take over and put Gore in office, I have absolutely no idea.

They’ve wrecked the economy, profiteered on a war they lied us into, put forth the Patriot Act, suspended habeas corpus, Katrina and post-Katrina. I’m surprised he wasn’t impeached.

The attempt to impeach President Clinton was disgusting and it was basically a revenge against them getting Nixon out of office. So impeachment is sort of an awful thing because it’s not being done for the right reasons.

And between Nixon and Clinton was Ronald Reagan, who until Blackwater, Halliburton, the profiteering, etc, presided over what was up to then, the worst scandal the country ever had: Iran Contra.

Exactly.

People have forgotten about that and the Savings and Loan scandal on the heels of that.

People don’t want to know what’s going on in their own country and their lives. That’s the problem. Why people are so misinformed! It worries me every time we have an election because I know a majority of the country is going out there not knowing what the issues are or really knowing what the values (are) that are being questioned.

Do you have an opinion about Prop 8 and the Christian Right?

I’ll tell you something about the Christian Right. I find them neither Christian or right.

I’m disturbed by Rick Warren offering the Inauguration invocation.

I think President-elect Obama is trying to pacify some of the people that he’s going to need to get some important legistlation passed in the first six months of his term. I think that’s the cause for it. I think it’s disgusting but politics, quite often, is disgusting.

What are some of your thoughts on politics in general, right now?

I’m so thrilled to be getting rid of Bush and I hope that President Obama will be able to live up to my expectations of him.

What do you think the top priorities and issues should be?

It’s going to be economics for quite a while and that will tie into socioeconomics because we have to change an awful lot of our social values based on economic troubles.

What about arts funding?

What about arts funding! Come on! Arts funding is difficult in good times. Some of the smaller theaters around the country have tried to survive by doing less interesting work, more popular work, and so they’re becoming owned by their audience rather than teaching their audience anything. I keep hoping that movies will get so bad, it’ll drive people back to the theater.

People don’t read as much anymore and theater audiences tend to be readers.

There are two things we don’t teach people in this country aside from how to read and write. We don’t teach anything about the arts in this country in public schools. And we don’t teach them anything about how government works. Those are the two most important things we can teach people if you want to have a culture and a society.

Why are these not taught?

Because they are not economically practical.

A Delicate Balance
Through Mar. 1
Guthrie Theater
818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
(612) 377-2224
www.guthrietheater.org

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