Edward Albee: Theatre's True Revolutionary

Edward Albee changed my life when he gave me a residency to his Foundation in Montauk. It didn't make my career as a playwright. It confirmed my commitment to be a writer for the rest of my life. In honor of his life and his passing, September 16, I am sharing this piece I wrote for Backstage West.
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Edward Albee, arguably our greatest living playwright, is sitting in his Tribeca loft home, pondering the lingering effects of his Tony Award-winning play The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (recently seen at the Mark Taper Forum). Adamantly opposed to the idea of purposeful shock or controversy in playwriting, he nonetheless enjoys the imprimatur of a theatre artist who has shaken the thematic boundaries of commercial theatre. The Goat, a play in which a man admits to his wife, best friend and gay son that he has a physical relationship and is in love with a goat, manages to both amuse and upset in the best tradition of the theatre.

"You know," Albee muses, a slight smile curling about his lips, "it's nice to trap people into laughing until it finally catches in their throats. That's nice. I like that."

Ever since he wrote The Zoo Story in time for his 30th birthday, and in 1960 shook up the New York theatre world, and beyond, with its production, Albee has been an agent for change, clearly set against the safe, the overly commercial, the reassuringly mundane.

The playwright's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has reopened on Broadway at a time when powerful dramas in that district are in short supply. Scattered among the musicals, one can find challenging straight plays like Michael Frayn's Democracy at the Brooks Atkinson and at the Mint Theatre, Arthur Schnitzler's The Lonely Way, never before performed in America.

Albee's bold playwriting requires exceptional performance skills from the actors involved. But the playwright is dead set against his conceptualizing casting before or during the writing process. "I don't think about actors while I'm writing. I see and hear the play being performed before me as I write it. And I see the characters. I don't necessarily see faces. If I ever have to start thinking about actors while I'm writing a play, I stop until that goes away."

As a playwright and director, Albee recognizes the contributions of the many actors he has worked with over the years. He recalls with great fondness the late Myra Carter, who along with Albee regular Marian Seldes and Jordan Baker, performed in his third Pulitzer Prize winning play, Three Tall Women.

"I've had a lot of good experiences with actors and actresses over the years," Albee acknowledges, "starting with Virginia Woolf and Uta Hagen, Colleen Dewhurst and Jessica Tandy and Marian and a lot of good people."

The landmark 1962 stage production of Virginia Woolf led to a widely heralded film version, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton famously descending into the bowels of the married characters George and Martha. Here, Albee pays tribute to the male performer. "I think Elizabeth Taylor did...the best film acting she could. I couldn't believe her as being six years older than Richard for a second. He was marvelous. He was absolutely right on top of it." To this day, Albee claims Taylor's work has unfairly overshadowed Burton's accomplishment, even more notable because many film roles Burton accepted were beneath his stature and ability, what Albee gently refers to as "hack work."

Time passes and the only constant, apparently, is that everything gets more expensive. Albee cites the initial cost of Virginia Woolf as $42,000. The version that just opened in March on Broadway with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin came in at one and a half million dollars. But the playwright is ebullient regarding this pairing. He has admired Irwin's mime and clowning abilities for years, and they share a particular fondness for Samuel Beckett.

"He and Kathleen have to work in different ways in this production," Albee explains, and a sense of delight enters his voice. "She goes over the top toward her motive and he goes underneath and back up towards his. Just an acting way to describe what happens there. They both end up going where they should be and the fact that they can--they are so different and play it so differently--it's very exciting to watch that happen."

While Albee exhibited great patience in finding Turner and Irwin for the production, and revels in their unique chemistry, he is quite adamant that variance in acting technique can destroy the chances of a production before the first day of rehearsal. "Well, here's one of the most important things...You have to understand that some actors just will not mesh with other actors. They won't be believable to the others in the same reality, the same stage reality."

Albee emphasizes how crucial it is for playwright and director to recognize incompatibility between otherwise talented actors during auditions and readings and he stresses the importance of musicality in playwriting, referring to Beckett's work as a prime example. He has advised his playwriting students to listen to the music of Bach to both clarify the mind and explore the association between playwriting and musical composition, which must then be communicated to the actors. "So, you've got to have actors who are capable of doing the rhythms of the play and a director who understands the rhythms of the speech of the play, and the way different characters have different speech rhythms and speech patterns. And you start realizing that you can indicate all of this very, very clearly for directors and actors by the way you notate."

Albee recognizes that there must be room for both honoring the sound, rhythm and flow of dialogue and the shadings brought to same by the actors. But he draws a clear distinction about the problems of performers who throw off the somewhat delicate balance, as it were, between writer and performer: "That's what I hear when a character speaks and that's what I put down and that's I expect the actor to do. I expect them to pay attention to the score the same way a musician does playing a piece of music. No less. Exactly the same. Interpretation is based on doing things right and finding the individuality in doing them the way they are intended, not distorting them. That's the problem with so many actors. They feel they have the freedom to distort, to fit their temperament. That's not allowable, as far as I'm concerned."

As a coda to his musical monologue on the relationship between playwright and actor, Albee wryly adds, "There's more than one way to skin a cat. So I want you to--as long as you say my lines correctly, in the order I wrote them, paying some attention to indications--I want you to do whatever you want, as long as you end up with exactly what I intended."

His love for and commitment to the theatre is borne out in his Edward Albee Foundation, providing residency grants for artists and writers, and his work at conferences around the country. He refers to as "destructive" the development process that had proliferated throughout theatres across America. Albee was particularly repulsed by numerous regional theatres and their failed attempts to force him and his cohorts at the Dramatists Guild to accept contracts forcing playwrights to work with dramaturges.

The revolutionary whose ardor never diminishes, whose accomplishments do not cease, is at work on his next play. In his typically atypical, effortlessly inimitable way, here is how he describes it: "If anybody asks me, when you're writing a play, what's it about, I say, well it looks to me like it's about an hour and a half. But what's it about? The play's about every single thing that happens from the beginning to the end. And everything that's happened to the characters from the beginning of their lives to the end of their lives, after the play is over."