Edward Albee's Mindscape

The acclaimed playwright (and part-time Coconut Grove resident) remains an unparalleled observer of our culture -- and a genuine stickler for details

"Why do they say that?" he demands, piqued, as he settles back into his seat. Without waiting for an answer, he suggests, "Well, I've had a reputation from years in the theater for being a stickler for plays being done the way I see them. But that's the way it goes."

Of course, there's also the exactingly written, demanding quality of the roles he has created, and the formidable intelligence behind them. Albee stretches his legs as much as he can in the cramped space and places an arm across the back of the chair next to his. "But I'm a pussycat," he says. Then, with a piercing gaze, he appends: "Unless I'm crossed."

Agile and handsome at age 68, with a mustache and salt-and-pepper hair worn long, Albee speaks with a patrician lilt to his voice, softly and with such economy that listeners are forced to pay close attention to catch everything he says. Despite his status as a dramatic innovator, his Old World formality precludes questions about his private life. "There is a relationship between a writer and his work," he says, "but what difference does that make? Let's judge a play completely divorced from an author's source material. That's the only way we can judge the artistic merit of the work."

Notoriously skeptical of the press, he is in a mischievous mood at the Deli Lane Cafe, a South Miami restaurant he enjoys for its stone crabs. "The trouble with traditional interview questions is that you know they're coming and I know they're coming, so we should get them over quickly," he says over lunch on the restaurant's patio. "What I should do is come to an interview with a list of answers to predictable questions and you should come with a list of predictable questions and we should just pair them up."

Albee proves more forthcoming when talking about his writing process: He writes his plays by hand, in a cryptic shorthand only he can decipher, then translates them on a manual typewriter. But he does not write every day. More important than physically writing, he contends, is being a writer every day -- observing, absorbing, filing away images and events for future use. Usually he's got several plays in the works simultaneously. Three-quarters of something he's calling The Play About the Baby has already been committed to paper, and he hopes to finish it this month because another play, The Goat, is anxiously waiting to be written. "Getting [words] down on paper is the very last step," he explains. "First I think about it without knowing that I've been thinking about it. Then I become aware that I've been thinking about it. Then I think about it. And then I think about it some more. Then I write it down. So I don't have to write as much as most people do."

When he finally does undertake the act of writing, he draws on his lifetime interest in classical music and composers. "There's a relationship between the way a composer notates and a playwright indicates how things should sound," he says. "Composers use whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, dotted eighth notes. [They indicate] how soft, how slow. So do we. We notate in exactly the same way. I tell my students you must learn the difference in duration between a semicolon and a period, because there is a difference and you want to be very specific about how you want your lines spoken. If you hear it like music, you can write it down like a musician. You underline and you capitalize. You punctuate oddly, so you're actually writing a score.

"You have to hear what you are writing. I think some people hear very well, other playwrights don't hear at all. Take Eugene O'Neill. There is great staged force to his work and it was very powerful. But he had a tin ear. I can't tell one of his characters from another. Chekhov heard beautifully. Chekhov heard better than Ibsen heard. I think Tennessee Williams heard better than Arthur Miller hears."

At the age of eighteen, Albee fled from the family who raised him in Westchester, New York, and headed for the fertile milieu of postwar Greenwich Village. As a baby he was adopted by heirs to the Keith-Albee Theatre Circuit, a chain of vaudeville theaters. "I didn't like the people very much," he says today with cool detachment. They were wealthy, conservative, insulated. "I don't think they liked me either, so I left as soon as I legally could." He was liberal, gay, an artist who started writing poetry at the age of six and who attempted his first play, a farce called Aliqueen, at age twelve. Although estranged from his adoptive mother for many years, Albee says he based the steel-spined 92-year-old grande dame at the center of Three Tall Women on Frances Cotter Albee. He insists, however, that through the alchemy of creative writing, he made her "more interesting and more coherent."

Stage manager Mark Wright, who has worked with Albee on almost every one of his plays -- from 1959's The Zoo Story to 1991's Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women -- laughs when asked if Albee has changed over the years. "He's mellowed," he observes. "He's as intelligent as he was 30 years ago and just as perspicacious, but directing, teaching, and lecturing have brought him out of himself a little."

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