A great talent. RIP.
In 1996, I had the opportunity to interview him at his home in Manhattan. Along with my introduction, this is what he had to say, twenty years ago, about American politics, the state of the theater, and his own work:
Despite wealthy adoptive parents who sent him to exclusive schools like Choate, Valley Forge, and Trinity College, playwright Edward Albee didn’t have an easy start. He was expelled from most of the schools, or expelled himself, and at 18 he expelled himself from his parents’ home and spent a decade drifting in and out of casual jobs.
He was a messenger for Western Union when, at 29, he wrote an angry, deeply disturbing one-act play called The Zoo Story, in which a businessman on a park bench is essentially coerced into stabbing a vagrant. The play was a sensation, the critics hailed it as the first work of a hugely original talent, and Albee went on to write a series of chilling attacks on the American domestic verities, most notably The American Dream (1961), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and A Delicate Balance (1966) — which won Albee his first Pulitzer prize.
Albee had said from the start that he hated the commercial values of Broadway, and he was one of the founders of the Off-Broadway movement. Perhaps the critics decided that the very successful Angry Young Man needed a lesson in humility: after 1966 his reputation went into a quarter-century tailspin, as each new offering “failed” to live up to the promise of the early work. Albee continued to produce original drama at the rate of one new play per year. Critics responded by dismissing nearly all of it as willfully experimental and obscure — and Albee responded to that by dismissing the most powerful New York critics, by name, as incompetent know-nothings.
Albee has always been an experimentalist, and he seems not to have cared, much less been surprised, that some of his work has not been well received. So there was some irony in the patronizing relief with which critics and public alike changed their tune (again) in 1992, when his Three Tall Women won another Pulitzer. “Albee has done it again” was the cry, as if the entire theater community had been waiting thirty years to see if the old dog could jump through the hoop one more time. And now Albee is a name to conjure with again: ‘A Delicate Balance’ has just celebrated its 30th birthday on Broadway by winning three Tony awards, including Best Revival.
Albee travels constantly, teaching and lecturing, but in New York he can be found in a cavernous TriBeCa loft, an abandoned cheese warehouse in fact, which he bought eighteen years ago in the days before cavernous TriBeCa lofts were fashionable. Despite the gray hair he doesn’t look even close to his 68 years. We sit on black leather couches amid his extraordinary art collection. A Dogon granary door is propped up just behind the author, a Picasso sketch stands in a frame on a desk, and a Japanese grain-threshing device that looks like a wooden sled with stones embedded in it sits on the floor nearby. As we talk, an Australian Aboriginal war axe lurks dangerously on the table between us.
Q: In, 1961, in the preface to your play The American Dream, you said that we were ruled by ‘artificial values,’ and you spoke with contempt of the view ‘that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy keen.’ Have we slipped further into ‘artificial values’?
Albee: I think we’ve slipped a lot further. We have to go back to the fundamental responsibilities of democracy. Democracy is fragile and it must be made to work, which demands an awful lot of effort on everybody’s part. I find the real and planned incursions against our civil liberties frightening and dangerous. 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 — are after a totalitarian state. But none of these thing would be allowed to happen if we had a population (a) that bothered to vote, (b) that informed itself of the issues, and © that understood that democracy is a participatory governmental system. We don’t live up to our responsibilities to democracy.
Q: Isn’t it hard to live up to those responsibilities when the system has only provided a choice between parties which may seem very similar?
Albee: I think that if people would examine the differences between the two parties they’d find the difference is much larger than it appears. When Clinton was elected President and got in front of Congress — almost four years ago now — and proposed his legislation on health care reform — that was an extraordinary document, probably as progressive, as liberal, as dangerous to the establishment, as anything that Franklin Roosevelt proposed in 1932–33. An extraordinary document — and that, I am convinced, is the true Clinton. Since then he has waffled and weaved and been pragmatic almost to the extent that Dole has, though nobody could quite match Dole in that respect. I think there is a greater difference between the parties than some of our journalists allow us to understand. If he had caved in to the Republicans completely, I hate to think where we would be now — it would be appalling.
Nothing matters if you don’t have an informed, activist, voting population. Then it doesn’t matter if the parties are similar or dissimilar; it doesn’t matter what happens to our civil liberties because you’ve got a passive, lying down, indifferent, selfish electorate. You can have anything you want in a democracy, and you end up with exactly what you deserve. I think we’re seeing a lot of what we deserve.
Q: More and more people are criticizing Clinton for being too conservative.
Albee: Clinton needs a lot of criticism, but don’t let’s criticize him so much that Dole gets elected. Wait until he gets his second term, if he gets it. Then you’ll find a much more liberal President because he won’t be up for re-election.
Q: You are putting a lot of blame for Clinton’s move to the right on the voters. Surely he’s also under a lot of non-democratic pressures?
Albee: He’s under a lot of skidding-along-the-surface opportunistic journalism too. The sound bite! If you analyze any article longer than one column, then you’re going to find some stuff that qualifies and backtracks and makes a rational argument for both sides. It’s the headline journalism, the TV journalism, which is filling people with — what? — with what they think is information but is not.
Q: Would you describe yourself as a capital-D Democrat?
Albee: The first time I ever voted was in a NYC mayoral election. There were three candidates: a Democrat who was perfectly OK but a hack; a Republican who was probably not as terrible as all Republicans are these days; and a candidate for the American Labor Party who everyone said was a Communist. He was actually a left-wing socialist, and he was the only person who a sensible person could have voted for. But the whole question of what is left-wing has shifted so. My God, Nelson Rockefeller would be considered left-wing now.
I not only voted for the American Labor Party once, I also voted Republican once — no, twice — to get Javits re-elected. But yes, I’m a Democrat, though I’m afraid I’m much more of an unreconstructed New Deal Democrat than most, perhaps because that was when I first had some political consciousness.
Q: You have taught at various institutions. Do you make any conscious effort to radicalize your students?
Albee: I do, yes. I probably shouldn’t because I’ll probably get thrown out — we’re talking about Texas, where I teach now. I don’t give them grades on how radical they’ve become but I do talk a lot about their responsibilities. And I do often mention right at the beginning that there isn’t a single creative artist whose work I respect who has been anything other than a liberal.
Q: Ezra Pound?
Albee: Well … there are exceptions.
Q: Have your students changed, politically?
Albee: Even back in the ‘activist’ ’60s and ’70s, I would talk to a lot of students and most of them couldn’t argue dialectics for more than thirty seconds. They had an emotional involvement and they had a few slogans but they were not informed. Anyway, I teach aspiring writers, almost all of whom are liberal because they realize that anything that is not liberal is not going to respect their freedom of speech, freedom of activity. So quite selfishly, they are liberal, though how they will vote when they make it I have no idea. Some of them will get rich, go to Hollywood, and start voting Republican. Even in a democracy, things like that happen!
Q: Your own work deals with political and social issues only very indirectly …
Albee: Yes, with the exception of The Death of Bessie Smith and maybe one or two others.
Q: Does the artist have a duty not to preach politics in his work?
Albee: Most serious drama is trying to change people, trying to change their perceptions of consciousness and themselves and their position as sentient animals. Sometimes it’s very overtly political and sometimes very subtly so. I do think that all of my plays are socially involved, though sometimes very subtly and indirectly.
The way we vote, the way we function as a society, is determined by our sense of ourselves and our consciousness, and to the extent that you can keep people on the edge, alive, alert, and re-examining their values, then they will deal more responsibly with the particular issues. I think that’s why I work that way. Besides, didacticism belongs in essays. I find myself getting more didactic in my speeches all the time as the situation in this country gets worse and worse. I have to. In my plays I’m trying to examine how we view ourselves as sentient creatures.
Q: Isn’t there any good art that’s didactic? Dickens? Goya?
Albee: In the second half of the twentieth century things get more complex and it’s harder to think of examples. David Hare does write didactic plays: Racing Demon, for instance, which I have retitled, not unaffectionately, Raging Didacticism. When there’s too much didacticism going on I start sighing. I say: I know this stuff — dramatize it for me!
Q: You have always opposed the commercial pressures and values associated with Broadway. Do you feel uncomfortable with the success that ‘A Delicate Balance’ is enjoying there now?
Albee: The plays that seemed to matter on Broadway this year were very different from what usually wins. None of them originated on Broadway. So maybe something better is happening, though I think it’s a little strange. The quality of the work on Broadway this year was better than usual, but it was better than usual because it wasn’t originated on Broadway. I never feel badly about getting awards; if they’re giving out awards I’d like to have them. But I don’t care. They don’t matter.
Q: What’s it like, in these conservative times, working as you have done on bodies like the NEA grant committees?
Albee: I don’t get asked as much as I did. I’m a troublemaker. The pressures that were put on us occasionally to find as many worthwhile sculptors in North Dakota as there were in Brooklyn … well, I’m in favor of populism within rational limits, but …
I also served for a while on the New York State council for the arts, but I was equally vocal there, and I’m not invited to do those things too much now.
Q: Did you enjoy them?
Albee: Yes … I considered it a civic responsibility … sure. You know, in the ’30s there was a huge arts program, for the visual arts especially, where a great generation of abstract painters were put to work, decorating public buildings. And a lot of writers were put to work in schools. But nobody remembers that: they all think the National Endowment was the first time anyone had thought of using creative artists for the public good. The NEA is a different kind of thing, and in fact in no year has more than 4% of NEA funding gone to individual artists.
Q: Is that appropriate?
Albee: No. I think much more should have gone to them. But all the howling that’s taking place in the fens of ignorant Republicanism is attacking these supposedly huge grants to individual artists when in fact virtually no money went to individual artists.
Q: How do you respond to the minimum-wage worker who asks why any of her taxes should go to, say, funding a new mime troupe?
Albee: We spend about 38 cents per person per year on support of the arts in this country. In Germany it’s five or six bucks. The whole economic argument is preposterous, it seems to me; sinister and cynical and totally fallacious. This is less money per year than you pay for one pack of cigarettes. If you don’t want to educate yourself, you have a responsibility to educate other people, educate your children, this is part of the responsibilities of democratic life.
Q: However there’s a widespread sense that art is really just entertainment for highbrows.
Albee: Not only that! Art is dangerous. It’s obscene. It’s anti-god. And these arguments that the philistines come up with wouldn’t work if people were educated to want art.
Q: So how could we make American education better, for democratic citizens?
Albee: You’ve got to pay teachers more than you pay garbage men. That would be a start.
Q: You helped to create the Off-Broadway movement in the early ’60s, which seems to have been a period when anything was possible in the arts. Why have things gone from there to here?
Albee: A combination of fear and greed. I remember a time, I can’t give you a date, but all of a sudden college students were informed — I don’t know by whom — that what you did was graduate, get a cushy job, and vanish into society. I see it more and more. Mind you, my play-writing students haven’t figured it all out yet. They still think that individuality has some virtue; they still think that their responsibility, if they possibly can, is to change the way people think.
Q: So, despite the slough of cultural-conservative despond, you see grounds for optimism?
Albee: How old are we, as a country? Two hundred years? I think we’ll survive Gingrich and Dole.
Q: If I may be permitted one personal question … I notice that in one of the theater reference books your religion is given as Christian, and for an Absurdist playwright that seems …
Albee: That may just be a weird oversimplification of something I said at one time. I’m a great admirer of the revolutionary leftist politics of Jesus Christ, and I am a Christian in the sense that I admire him a great deal. But I don’t have any truck with the divinity or with God, or any of that stuff. I just think he’s an interesting revolutionary social thinker — and that makes me a Christian, does it not?
Q: It should. But apparently it doesn’t. Not according to Ralph Reed, anyway.
Albee: Oh, goodness. Goodness.
Q: Do you write every day?
Albee: If writing is thinking about writing then I’m writing all the time. There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not thinking about a new play, but the literal writing down of a play, I seldom do that more than three or four months out of the year. That happens only after the play is fully formed in my mind: I wait until I can’t do anything else but write it down. I never make notes because I make the assumption that anything I can’t remember doesn’t belong there in the first place.
Q: Do you do much rewriting?
Albee: I may, in my head, before I write things down. A lot of the writing is in the unconscious. I do very little rewriting once I write a play down on paper, very little.
Q: Do you try to exercise strong control over how your plays are produced?
Albee: I always tell actors and directors — whether I’m working with them or not — do whatever you like, so long as you end up with the play that I wrote. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, lots of different interpretations. The only time I really complain is if, either through intention or inattention, the director distorts my play.
Q: It has been suggested that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is ‘really’ about two gay couples.
Albee: If I had wanted to write a play about two gay couples I would have done it. I’ve had to close down a number of productions of that play, that tried to do it with four men. It doesn’t make any sense … it completely distorts the play. Changing a man into a woman is more than interpretation: it’s fucking around with what the playwright intended.
Q: Early in your career you had the Angry Young Man label pinned on you even though your plays didn’t express very overtly political sentiments. Was that because you didn’t want to seem to be getting up on a soap-box?
Albee: I do think that all of my plays are socially involved, but sometimes very subtly and very indirectly. Certainly The American Dream was socially involved — it’s about the way we treat old people, the way we destroy our children, the way we don’t communicate with each other; The Death of Bessie Smith was a highly political play. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s fairly obvious.
Q: Are you working on a play now?
Albee: I have two plays, one that I’m writing now called The Play About the Baby — that’s the title of it — which I’m about halfway into, and there’s another one floating around in my head called The Goat, which very much wants to be written down.
Q: Do you accept the sanguine — or sentimental — view that great literature is worth consuming because it teaches us things we didn’t know?
Albee: Most serious drama is trying to change people, trying to change their perceptions of consciousness and themselves and their position as sentient animals … I think a play should do one of two things, and ideally both: it should change our perceptions about ourselves and about consciousness, and it should also broaden the possibilities of drama. If it can do both, that’s wonderful. But it’s certainly got to do one of the two.
Q: What’s the role of comedy in drama?
Albee: I’ve found that any play which isn’t close to laughter in the dark is very tedious. And conversely, even the purest comedy, if it isn’t just telling jokes, has got to be tied to reality in some way.
Q: Many of your plays seem to be about the maintenance or collapse of illusions. As if the goal is to live life without illusions.
Albee: I don’t think there’s any problem with having false illusions. The problem is with kidding yourself that they’re not false. O’Neil said, in that extraordinary play that nobody does, The Iceman Cometh, that we have to have pipe-dreams …. I think Virginia Woolf was in part a response to that; it’s better to live without false illusions, but if you must have them know that they are false. It’s part of the responsibility of the playwright to help us see when they’re false.
Q: What is Three Tall Women about? What are audiences supposed to get out of it?
Albee: Those are unanswerable questions. If you can tell what a play is about in a couple of sentences then that should be the length of the play. The play is about every single thing that happens from the beginning to the end of it — and no two audiences will get the same thing because no two audiences will be willing to get the same thing. I can’t do anything better than that on that one.
Q: Do you have an aversion to musicals, in general?
Albee: I think it’s a bastard art form. The music isn’t usually very good. I used to like junk musicals when Rogers and Hart wrote them, and Cole Porter, but then they didn’t have any pretense. The stuff that’s on now is supposed to be serious music writing and serious theater, but it’s just pretentious, middlebrow junk. I dislike it a lot. The last musical I liked a lot was Evita, because it was politically interesting.
Q: When you are on a grant-giving committee, or curating an art exhibition, is there any way to distance yourself from the purely subjective?
Albee: Not at all. I’m told I have a fairly educated and responsible taste in the visual arts, and people wouldn’t want me involved to do shows unless that was what they wanted to see. I wouldn’t include anything in an exhibition that I didn’t like.
Q: Why is so much of Broadway theater so bad?
Albee: Money. If someone could be persuaded to give me $500 million, and I could be persuaded not to run off with it, and I was allowed to fill every Broadway theater, for a ten-year period, with the plays I wanted to see, I’m convinced that that would become the taste of the theater-going audience. And there would be Beckett, and Brecht, and Shakespeare, and Aristophanes, and Molière.
Q: What is the influence on you of the playwrights you admire most? There are clearly Chekhov-like and Beckett-like elements in your plays.
Albee: I certainly hope so. You learn from people who’ve come before you and done wonderful things. The trick is to take the influences and make them so completely you that nobody realizes that you’re doing anything else but your own work?
Q: What is the current state of American theater?
Albee: I’d need an hour to tell you that. Which perhaps is the point: there’s a growing chasm between what the creative artist wants to tell people and what they want to pay attention to.
Q: And what’s best in contemporary American theater?
Albee: I don’t make lists. I always leave somebody good out. We have so many good playwrights in America now, a whole new generation.
Q: No favorite playwrights?
Albee: I don’t want to do that.
Q: Is there any dominant theme or style emerging?
Albee: We have great diversity of style. I do find that the more naturalistic a play is the more popular it tends to be.
Q: Is that a criticism?
Q: Why is naturalism a problem artistically?
Albee: Theater audiences have been trained towards naturalism. The critics don’t like experimental plays generally, and they steer audiences away from them. It’s part of the fear of the intellectual in American culture. A big problem in this country.
Q: Many of your plays are about families, especially about family dysfunction …
Albee: This has been going on ever since drama was invented. Oedipus Rexis about family and family dysfunction; King Lear is about family and family dysfunction. Nothing new about it. If I wrote plays about everyone getting along terribly well, I don’t think anyone would want to see them. All serious theater is corrective. You have to show people things that aren’t working well, and why they’re not working well, in the hope that people will make them work better.
Q: But some playwrights don’t focus on the family so much.
Albee: Which ones? Brecht maybe. But the atomic family is such a central part of human society. You can’t get away from it.
Q: What is your attitude to marriage and the traditional families?
Albee: As with all things: when it works, it’s fine, when it doesn’t, do away with it.
Q: Is the legalization of gay marriage an important issue?
Albee: Why do you ask? Look, one day I’ll write a play about a dysfunctional gay marriage. OK?
Q: You have said that plays are about ‘changing our perceptions of ourselves as sentient animals.’ What’s the significance of your using the word ‘animals’ there?
Albee: In society we become very inhibited, and it’s important that we maintain the free range of our instinctual reactions. And I do think that we have so many animal-like qualities: our senses of danger, and dislike, and foreboding, these are all very important, and if we become too ‘civilized,’ and lose contact with our animal self, we’re probably in serious trouble.
Q: But isn’t there something ‘civilizing’ and intellectual about experimental theater? Aren’t you asking people to analyze and think?
Albee: Yes, and that’s a very dangerous thing to do, in the theater. But it means that you are asking people to broaden their perceptions of what a theater can be.