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An Interview with Edward Albee

Holding a dialogue with Edward Albee about theater can be likened to playing chess with a grandmaster. He’s more knowledgeable on the subject than any interviewer could ever be, and he’s always one or two steps ahead of you. His mind is quick, and he’s the one that controls the flow of the conversation, expecting you to try to keep up and capture his attention in order to receive an answer. He’s enjoying himself, as his twinkling blue eyes show. You two may be talking, but he’s the one crafting the conversation.

Edward Albee has been a major figure in the theater for five and a half decades. Now 85 years old, he is a distinguished living American playwright and one of the most highly-respected writers in the US. He has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award (with a special recognition for his lifetime achievement), Drama Desk Award, National Medal of Arts and numerous others.

A list of Albee’s greatest works would likely miss some of his most remarkable plays. Those he is famous for, such as _Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), A Delicate Balance (1966), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1991) are known for their wit, wordplay, and critiques of human relationships. However, his debut work, The Zoo Story (1959/60) is also of great importance. Tiny Alice (1964) is a perplexing play that has divided critics, and The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? (2002) is a moving exploration of bestiality. Throughout his five-decade career, Albee’s plays have consistently been unexpected and daring.

In February, I had the opportunity to go to Albee’s home in Tribeca, near the conclusion of the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? _ – the show that popularized Albee and resulted in the Oscar-winning movie featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Subsequently, Albee has been engaged in putting the finishing touches on a play called_ Laying an Egg. This will be his thirty-first work.

Jakob Holder, Albee’s assistant of twelve years who is also a renowned playwright, joined us for a chat. The three of us were in Albee’s living room, surrounded by a remarkable gathering of African and pre-Columbian sculptures.

–Linda Leseman’s words

The way of expressing ideas can be altered without changing the main message and the meaning. One can change the structure of the text and avoid plagiarism.

I. MAKING AVAILABLE FOR SALE

Commercializing has become an essential part of the modern business world. Nowadays, products and services are being made available for sale on a large scale. This has opened up the possibilities of many new opportunities for businesses.

When comparing the current state of theater in New York to when they first achieved recognition, how does one view the difference?

Edward Albee declared that he did not have ample time.

BLVR: Is there a shortened summary I could have?

EA: Yes, I can answer your question. The topic of New York City is a lengthy one, and we don’t have the time to cover it all. I was recently in Lincoln Center, and it had pictures of the playwrights all around. I remembered when I first arrived in the city and it was a totally different experience. A lot has changed since then. What do you specifically want to know?

BLVR asked, “Since you were there and I wasn’t, would you mind sharing with me all the details?”

EA: I’m trying to figure out the best way to explain this. Over the years, the commercialization of off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theater has become more and more pronounced. Before, it was a very spontaneous process; “Let’s just do it!” There were no costs to worry about and people took the roles with great enthusiasm, working for practically nothing. Now, it’s become so commercialized that the spontaneity of it is almost completely gone. You had a group of people that got together and did it because it was there and had a great time, and audiences were delighted. But now, it requires a tremendous amount of planning and the commercialization has taken away a lot of the fun.

BLVR: Are you of the opinion that your actions opened up a pathway to–I’m in no way suggesting that you are accountable for any of it, but–

EA: It is not my duty to make the plays commercial. It is the task of those who put the plays together to do that.

BLVR: So, when it comes to the pieces you perform, such as Virginia Woolf, do you feel…

EA asked about the theatrical productions prior to Virginia Woolf, inquiring about the three- to four-year span before its debut. Was the other person familiar with any of these works?

Without a doubt, this is the case.

EA: You are aware of everything related to this.

BLVR: Affirmative.

EA: Therefore, we don’t need to discuss the matter any further.

BLVR stated that they were not present, while they asked if the other person had been.

EA: I am aware, however, Mel Gussow was at the scene, and he wrote about it in his book Edward Albee: A Singular Journey. Have you glanced at what Mel wrote in his book?

BLVR: I finished the book and I can provide it to you if needed. It’s stored on my computer.

EA inquired if the entire book was true?

BLVR: It’s available on Amazon in digital format.

EA: Oh, how intriguing! So, what were we discussing?

BLVR: The renowned Virginia Woolf was referred to by many.

EA: We haven’t reached Virginia Woolf yet. Why are you jumping ahead four years and neglecting all the essential components?

What could I be overlooking?

EA: All the productions we got to experience together at the start of off-off Broadway theater, you are overlooking them.

Certainly, I am aware of this.

EA: Why did you decide to relocate to Broadway?

BLVR: It occurred to me that I would like to take a brief break–

EA: Would you like to bypass those four years?

II. MANY ARE BEWILDERED BY THE WORD ‘HELLO’

BLVR: Let’s consider the scenario in The Zoo Story, in which two individuals are seated on a bench in the park, ultimately leading to one of them stabbing themselves with a knife. It is certainly an unexpected and shocking turn of events.

EA asked if that was the case.

Did the situation not surprise you?

In what way is it shocking?

BLVR: Astonishing.

EA asked to whom the statement was directed.

Addressing the viewers, BLVR has something to say.

EA nodded in agreement and said, “Of course.”

BLVR asked why Peter had not chosen to depart.

EA: If it weren’t for the play, there would have been absolutely nothing.

BLVR: What are some methods for sustaining an engaging dialogue between two people?

EA: I am not participating in the conversation; they manage to keep it going without me.

BLVR: Is it your opinion that the protagonists are personas?

EA: Those who inhabit the world are living, breathing individuals, not simply characters.

BLVR asked if the person they were speaking to did not view any parts of themselves in the topic being discussed.

In response to the question, I do not agree.

BLVR: Is it too optimistic to believe that?

EA claims that it’s ill-advised for a playwright to compose a script about themselves, as individuals are unaware of who they truly are and therefore should not be the focus of their writing.

BLVR: It’s intriguing to me, as the biography was written in a manner that appeared to be implying–

EA stated that he had not composed the text.

BLVR: Is it true that Mel Gussow claimed your plays to be like a personal journal? Would you agree with that assessment?

Did I ever make that statement?

BLVR indicated that Mel made the statement, not them.

EA suggested inquiring the person in question.

BLVR: He is no longer present.

EA: I am not in a position to speak on behalf of him. There were several assertions made in his book that I disagree with.

BLVR asked incredulously.

In the opinion of EA, too many writers about playwrights often try to introduce a lot of connective tissue. It is not the job of the writer to create characters, as they already exist. EA believes that the characters should always be allowed to talk and act as they would naturally, without being shoehorned into a specific action. Whatever decision the character makes should be based on what they would want to do at that moment, not what has been predetermined by the writer.

BLVR: Do you feel that your stories are focused on the characters and their development?

EA: What other motivations could be at play?

It appears that for some playwrights, the primary focus is on the plot, rather than the motivations of the characters.

What would you say is the definition of plot?

BLVR: What takes place in a theatrical performance?

EA: The plot is what happens in a play. How does that relate to the characters’ actions?

Do you find yourself having a pre-planned storyline or does the narrative unfold as you explore the motives of the characters?

EA: Before I begin writing, I don’t always know exactly what is going to happen. I get some intriguing people together and see what transpires. If the characters desire to act in a different way, I let them, as long as it fits into the bigger picture of what I want to happen. It’s too intricate to simplify. What takes place in a play is partially determined by the ideas I had in mind before the characters were created, since they are people with depth, and I can’t direct them. Once I give them their personality and their nature, they begin to write the play.

BLVR: Are there some unanswered questions for you when it comes to your plays? Do you have a comprehensive knowledge of them?

EA: Are you suggesting that we discuss all of the plays in one conversation?

BLVR: It’s not necessary for you to do so.

I remain inquisitive and continue to ask queries.

BLVR: That’s what I observed.

EA: I’m attempting to discern the topic of our conversation.

As the author composes the story, the characters begin to take control.

EA: It’s absolutely necessary for them to be multidimensional characters. What other way is there for them to be portrayed as realistic individuals?

BLVR: When you reach the conclusion of it, do you determine that there are queries that remain in the play which Edward Albee has no answers to?

EA: Can you provide a query for which I would have no knowledge of the response?

BLVR posed the question: Why did Peter remain?

EA: He has been so captivated by the atmosphere and the events that he cannot seem to tear himself away. If I, as the writer, had to logically explain why he would stay, I would have him leave and choose an alternate plot line. I never purposefully kept him around to fulfill certain story points. He, and the other characters, become living, breathing persons that can act and react independently.

BLVR: Do you have any queries that linger in your mind concerning the plays you have written?

EA: Throughout the rehearsal process, directors and actors may ask many questions due to a lack of comprehension of the characters. But if the play has been properly constructed, then these problems should be solved within the rehearsal. In the event that an actor does not understand the character, they will be replaced. However, if the question asked is not relevant to the play, then it should not be asked.

BLVR: Take, for example, Tiny Alice. This work appeared to befuddle a great many people.

Many individuals are perplexed by the phrase “hello.” It is surprising how many people are befuddled by matters that should be simple.

Do you find it perplexing?

EA: No. If I had difficulty understanding the text, I would have clarified it. Although I found some parts of it to be a bit hard to comprehend, shouldn’t a play contain more than just simple, straightforward lines?

I’m fond of that.

EA: I do too. A bunch of folks don’t, but that’s not my issue.

THIRDLY, BEING A PLAYWRIGHT

BLVR: As I was perusing your biography, I kept pondering if we currently esteem playwrights sufficiently? Do you think so?

EA: Don’t put too much effort into focusing on that. That’s simply events that occurred in the past. Those are just the facts.

BLVR: Would it be fair to say that you were viewed as a sort of celebrity due to your accomplishment as a playwright?

Do all playwrights with a good standing share the same sentiment?

BLVR responded with a definitive “No”.

In what way was I any more of a renowned figure than any other drama writer? Did you look into the lives of all the other playwrights who were contemporaries of mine?

BLVR responded with a “No.”

EA: Wow, I had no clue that I was famous.

BLVR: You did not.

EA: I felt that I wasn’t being fairly credited or blamed for certain things. I felt I deserved some credit and some blame for things I didn’t do. Additionally, I even thought I should be held accountable for being cryptic in my plays. Acknowledging that I sometimes write with both diatonic and dodecaphonic music.

Jakob Holder pointed to the effort of Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder–his producers–in making the playwright a focal point of the production, something that had not been done before.

EA: I never asked to be the star of my plays. If the focus was more on the playwright, it was because of the quality of the writing. It was engaging and captivating.

Is there a well-known playwright who is currently writing that comes to mind?

EA: I’ve been involved in the activity of writing for a considerable period of time.

At the time when composing was not a frequent activity for you, your name was still known by many.

At the start of things, there were many of us, including Jack Gelber. Do you remember him? Have you ever watched a play he created?

BLVR responded with a firm “No”.

EA urges the reader to become more familiar with the works of playwrights from the same period in order to understand what the atmosphere was like during that era. He emphasizes that, to really grasp the experience of being a playwright at that time, one must be aware of the work of all the authors, not just his own, and the environment they were all working in. He ends with a call to action, telling the reader to read all the plays to truly comprehend what it was like to be a playwright then, and to avoid claims that he was the only one who achieved success.

BLVR: I contemplate the present, considering the literary celebrities of the current day–

EA asked what the connection was between “star” and the current topic.

BLVR: It’s an intriguing development that a playwright was given such a high status in society. Nowadays, nobody really knows who wrote any plays on Broadway, whereas people can easily name the author of Harry Potter.

EA stated that the majority of plays on Broadway are typically composed of a collaborative effort. Consequently, it is not of much importance. He then asked if anyone could think of any renowned playwrights.

BLVR: Off the top of my head I could think of a few, yet I am not convinced somebody–

EA: [ To JH ] Can you name some of the prominent playwrights of today?

JH inquired about the lack of Edward Albee’s name being mentioned at the dinner table in 2013. He further questioned if people still discuss theater in the same manner as they did in 1962.

BLVR responded with a resounding “no”.

JH suggested that the lack of recognition for those currently striving to achieve success in the theatre is likely due to the fact that theatre is no longer seen as a necessity by many today, compared to how it was viewed in the past.

BLVR: Who do you believe is responsible for this?

At age thirty-four, I can’t say I was around during the time of which is being discussed, however, after observing the life I have lived and the attention I have paid, I believe the fault lies with both the audience and the producers. They both contributed to the direction of where the money should go.

EA: Out of nowhere, a group of talented and ambitious American playwrights appeared. It had been a long time since anyone had seen this. It was brand new and the audience seemed intrigued and willing to engage. So all of us joined in the fun, and we had a great time. As is usually the case, some stayed in the game and some moved on. That’s how it goes.

BLVR: It is typical for something new and innovative to always be arising in the realm of popular music, and it seems that the rest of the world is aware of it.

EA: It looks like you are trying to combine art and commerce, but they are two distinct things.

Both of your plays were more artistic than commercial…

Commercial success seems to be more of a priority for individuals who achieve the greatest level of fame than artistic expression.

BLVR: What is the answer?

EA: People should be allowed to do what they prefer, and more attention should be given to the beneficial acts instead of the detrimental ones. Why are so many Broadway shows undesirable? It is because they are advertised as something people should be involved in, not because it will make a difference in their lives or in the theater industry. Other incentives are provided, such as movie stars being part of the cast and it being a humorous experience.

JH mentioned the lack of a “bankable star” in the present rendition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

It’s no secret that Tracy Letts is a well-known figure.

JH: From a theatrical standpoint, Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad may not be a movie or television celebrity, but if he were to appear in Edward Albee’s Who ‘s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the production would likely be extended due to people wanting to witness Walter White on stage. This is the only way new plays make it to Broadway – with a celebrity attached to it. Without this star power, the play may not make it.

Commerce is the driving force behind it all, not art.

BLVR: In what locations do you now search for art?

From time to time, something from the Broadway scene can be seen, such as a poorly executed performance of a Beckett play. Nevertheless, most of the time one will find off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway performances.

IV. A LACK OF CRITICAL THINKING IS NOT LEGALLY BINDING

BLVR: These days, the experience of a playwright as they attempt to get their plays on stage is markedly distinct from the process they would have gone through when they initially began their career.

EA: Needs to progress?

BLVR suggests that playwrights submit their work to a theater’s literary manager with the expectation that the plays will eventually be read by an intern.

EA stated that they are not participating in that activity.

BLVR: Not specifically you, but not anyone in particular.

JH stated they do.

The sentiment is somewhat melancholic, don’t you think?

EA: Is it necessary that that occur? Must it happen?

What other avenues do playwrights have for their works to be produced now apart from Edward Albee?

EA: Is there any other way to get a play produced without having to wait for ten years? It seems to me that if we were to encounter a particularly talented playwright from the past two decades, they would not be required to wait that long for their first performance. I believe that if someone recognizes the talent, they will be able to figure out that this is a great play and get it on the stage. Critical mistakes are not a guarantee, after all.

BLVR: One would hope that is not the case. I admit that my faith may not be strong enough to…

EA: It’s most likely more challenging to make it through the maze of distraction, due to the increase in commercialization of theatre. Never has a play by Samuel Beckett been as successful as a trashy production. Why have people been conditioned to crave junk plays? It’s because it’s been promoted to make money. Audiences and critics are content with less than what theatre has to offer. If people are continuously urged to accept less, there will be less to be had.

BLVR noted that the phenomenon is especially prevalent in the commercial sector.

What was the expense of producing a play in an off-Broadway theater in the year 1960?

BLVR answered in the negative.

EA: I can’t recall the exact sum needed to put on The Zoo Story when it was first performed in New York; however, it was very little – likely only eleven hundred dollars. Nowadays, you need to invest at least sixty thousand. This is due to inflation, but also because of the avarice of those involved in the production. They will not work unless they are overpaid, and there is a level of resistance to the budget-friendly ticket.

What is the reasoning behind this?

EA: You won’t make much money if you don’t charge us a hefty price for the show.

BLVR: That is completely ridiculous.

EA: It’s certainly ridiculous. I assumed we were discussing U.S. theater.

There is no relation between V. and the theater

BLVR: In your opinion, what is your take on the MFA degree program? It appears as though playwrights nowadays are obliged to pass through a kind of approval process. If an individual had the MFA credential, would that be seen as a sign of approval?

EA: Could you explain what the MFA is?

JH holds a Master of Fine Arts degree.

EA: That had not been something I was cognizant of.

BLVR asked in surprise, “Is that the case?”

EA was not aware that this was a current law.

BLVR: Not a legal requirement, but–

Do you need to possess an MFA to achieve success in the field of theatre?

When questioned, BLVR responded, “No, it’s clear that if you’re…

EA: What is the source of your query?

BLVR: A trend I have noticed is that a lot of people have been asking me the same question.

The reason why a lot of trends have been able to survive is because they have not been stopped or eliminated.

BLVR highly approves of the statement made.

EA admitted to having the same opinion as they expressed.

JH commented that, as budding playwrights, it is not as though they are in a hermetic environment, though they don’t have an MFA and declined to pursue one. That does not indicate that there is not…

EA: I was expelled from college.

JH commented that Samuel Beckett did not have an MFA, but in the modern day it seems like one is needed if one is to be recognized by theaters. He suggested that there is almost a tunnel between MFA programs and artistic directors’ offices and those who do not pass through that tunnel face a difficult, if not impossible, time in being acknowledged.

If us youths who write plays got together and said, “We won’t pay $100,000 to get permission to be a professional playwright,” maybe theaters would put on shows by folks without MFAs. But there’s so much money to be made from MFAs that there’s hardly any chance of that system ending.

BLVR: Having a job at a university can be appealing due to the security it offers. It may be a comfortable role to have after having attained higher education.

EA: What did you say?

BLVR: Comforting, like a cushion.

JH inquired if playwrights were able to both instruct and generate income.

BLVR commented that it was a continually repeating pattern.

JH: In order to be able to teach in a theater department, having an MFA is usually a requirement.

EA: Is that so? I was able to do it. I’m cognizant of all this foolishness. But it has nothing to do with theater. It is related to the evil forces that are restricting the theater from going on as it should.

What other sources of wrong influence exist, other than producers and commercial entities?

EA: Audiences that are being taught to expect and want less each year are lazy. With the lack of quality theater that is available, people without a formal education in the arts would not have the chance to experience the best works. But, the confusion between commerce and art means that a successful play is no longer necessarily the best written, rather, it is the one that sells the most tickets, which is ultimately destructive.

BLVR: Should the entire group be given freedom?

EA: People have a desire to attend the box office smash and not necessarily because of the quality, but because it is the popular movie of the moment. Why is that the case?

To be aware of and knowledgeable about something.

EA: What am I getting myself into? I’m completely lost on this one.

BLVR: It doesn’t have any personal significance to me, yet I understand that certain individuals would like to be able to proclaim, “Ah, I attended this major event.”

JH expressed the concept of the “having-your-ticket-ripped phenomenon,” in which annually, an individual expends $150 –

EA suggested that it could be more.

JH suggested that in order to say to one’s friends that they had gone to a show at a New York City theater, one should purchase a T-shirt. Furthermore, they could show that they had fulfilled their cultural duty for the year by having their ticket torn.

EA: How is this relevant to the art of theatre? It appears that the appreciation for it is no longer a priority. That is largely due to the people who just accept whatever is offered to them. If that is what the majority desires, then it should be provided since it’s a democracy.

VI. HEREIN THIS PLAY I HAVE A GOAT

BLVR: In your opinion, what would be the most unexpected thing to include in a theatrical production today?

EA: What would you consider to be the most unexpected thing? How do you define “shocking”?

BLVR: It produces a highly controversial reaction.

What has been the critical reception from critics to EA?

BLVR: It is also noticeable in the reactions of those attending the film; it tends to evoke divided emotions and a mix of reactions.

EA: Answering this is definitely an intriguing challenge. Are you asking for both beneficial and unhelpful points?

BLVR: Your plays had a lot of interesting reactions. What do you think would be the most controversial thing to present on stage today?

EA: Most likely crafting a truly marvelous piece of literature with nothing that would be unsettling. No unexpected or unusual elements, as many of those are placed deliberately to jar the viewers and prevent them from engaging with the play.

The first production I ever watched on Broadway was The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? This is something I will never forget.

EA: Goodness gracious! That’s a strong start.

It was unexpected to witness the bond between the protagonist and the goat in BLVR.

He was not taken aback by it; who, then, was?

Some of the viewers of the play were taken aback by what they saw.

I assumed that some individuals would be displeased or irritated by it, yes.

BLVR: Was the inclusion of that element a deliberate choice? Was it done to surprise people?

I did not have the intent of shocking anyone when I included it. The reason it was put in there was because it was factual – don’t blame me for trying to startle anyone.

BLVR acknowledged with an affirmative “OK.”

EA’s response was an affront.

BLVR posed a query.

EA: Absolutely not! I would never do something like that. Certain playwrights might, but I think it’s inappropriate. There are people capable of writing a play with a goat in it, but nothing comes of it. However, in my play, the goat interacted with one of the characters. The purpose of this wasn’t to shock the audience, it’s just what happened. I didn’t come up with the idea to have them doing something outrageous for the sake of it.

JH: Envision the scene if they performed something outrageous onstage. That would be a deliberate attempt to startle the audience. In that sense, you chose not to do so.

BLVR suggests that what our minds envision can be more disturbing than what might have actually occurred.

EA suggested that it is presumed that individuals living in an orderly society do not partake in sexual relations with goats.

VII. A CENTURY INTO THE FUTURE

It is difficult to imagine what the world will be like a hundred years from now. Nonetheless, one can hypothesize that there will be tremendous changes in the way we live and work, with technology likely playing a huge role. Even our environment and the way we interact with it may be vastly different.

BLVR: Is there satisfaction for you in regard to the past life you have lived?

EA: If only I could recall more. My mental faculties are deteriorating. Slowly, but I’m losing more and more memories every day.

BLVR asked, “Is that true?”

EA confirmed that they would do what was asked of them.

What examples are you thinking of?

EA: So, what I was doing ten minutes ago.

BLVR asked in surprise, “Is that right?”

Once you get to be my age, you’ll be able to understand what I’m saying. Just you wait and see.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind?

EA wished that others would postpone something until after their death.

BLVR: What about a hundred years from now?

In a century from now, having that be the case would be satisfactory.

It’s foreseeable that it will occur.

EA: Will I be remembered a century from now, or will I have already passed away?

BLVR: The two items mentioned.

It is not certain that people will still recall me a century after I have passed away.

It is my belief that you will remain in people’s memories.

EA expressed that it would be pleasant, yet they did not appear to be exceedingly passionate about it.

BLVR: Are you concerned about your legacy that may be remembered one hundred years from now?

My pride is the one that speaks up.

BLVR: Is that right?

No, I’m sure I won’t, since I won’t be alive to see it happen.

BLVR: How does that make you feel?

I have yet to determine the impact of not being present for the experience.

BLVR: How does it feel to understand that the words and actions you have expressed will be discussed even after you are gone?

Whenever I go out, it seems like it happens without fail.

BLVR: You comprehend my thought.

EA: I don’t refer to myself in the third person. It’s not he, I, he but simply “me”. Occasionally, I’m taken aback when I’m told, “We were discussing you the other night”. Why in the world were they doing that? Then, I learn there must have been something worthy of discussing that could have been accurate or inaccurate. If the information was wrong, I will set it right. If the information was right, I’m glad. I don’t step out of my door and think to myself, “Ah, here comes Edward Albee”. It is just me walking out the door.

JH: It was amazing that he didn’t know about the vast majority of the internet. One time, I attempted to clarify it for him, saying, “Look at this. Someone made a post about you walking on the street and entering a certain structure while holding a pear. Isn’t it bizarre that you did something so normal and humble, and somebody thought it was important enough to share with millions of people?”

EA was surprised that others perceived it as odd that they were merely walking with a pear.

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