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

In 1966 critic Stanley Kauffmann published an infamous and smug column in the New York Times called "Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises." Along with labeling homosexuals neurotic and subject to histrionics, and dramatic writing by homosexuals (no one used the word gay back in those dark ages) vindictive and "a distortion of marriage and femininity," Kauffmann singled out the work of "three of the most successful American playwrights of the last twenty years [who] are (reputed) homosexuals." Without naming names Kauffmann argued that this anonymous trio was forced to create plays with heterosexual characters because society forbade them to write about the gay life they really knew. General opinion held that Albee, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge were the three offending dramatists. Kauffmann's column gave rise to the rumor about Virginia Woolf and to the idea that Blanche in Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire was meant to be a man.

Albee considers the article, and others like it that appeared during that era, a loathsome example of "journalistic cowardice." The claims of character coverup he says are "preposterous. Nobody asks a straight playwright why he writes about gay couples," he quietly rails. "Why would anybody ask a gay playwright why he writes about straight couples? I've never seen an article or a review or anything about a playwright where in the first sentence it is said, 'The latest play by straight playwright Arthur Miller.' Never. I've never seen it. Ever."

Albee, ever resistant to labeling, refuses to be classified in any way. "I got in a lot of trouble at the OutWrite [National Gay and Lesbian Writers'] conference in San Francisco about five years ago," he recounts, "when I told them I belonged to a great number of minorities. I was a man: I was a minority. I was white: I was a minority. I was educated: I was a minority. I was intelligent: I was a minority. I lived in a democracy, therefore I was a minority. I was creative and I was also a minority, and I also happened to be gay. I don't feel any obligation to concentrate my energies on one of the many minorities I belong to. There's a distinction made about writers who happen to be gay and 'gay writers,' and I have no intention of becoming the second."

He acknowledges that important literature addressing gay themes has been written, but he also believes that "there's an awful lot of soft-porn opportunism going on in gay writing." In gay bookstores he finds some serious writing on the shelves, "but the majority are sort of jerk-off books. It's the same junk that the heteros get.

"I dislike plays by homosexual writers and literature by homosexual writers that really make straight people feel superior, which is why, when my producer [Richard Barr] came up with a piece called The Boys in the Band [in the late Sixties] and asked me to be part of [producing] it, I said no. I thought it was a disgusting play. It had stereotypes and caricatures and was written for the aid and comfort of bigots, and I would have nothing to do with it.

"I get a little annoyed when upper-middle-class straight audiences enjoy a play about gay people too much," he continues, adding that homosexual characters who make straight audiences laugh are examples of a kind of pandering that revolts him. "There's a play of mine called Finding the Sun that has two gay characters who are in a relationship and are forced by their parents to separate and marry. It's so sad. And they're not stereotypes. However, that play is not as popular as some others."

Popular, as in tailored to commercial tastes, is not a word that describes any of Albee's works. And in terms of critical response, not one of his plays, even the most famous, received uniformly appreciative reviews until the recent Three Tall Women. Favored by the public or not, he seems to have lived exactly as he has wanted to, on his own terms, with careful attention to all the details -- as if life itself were a work of art.

Albee glances at his watch. He has a Virginia Woolf rehearsal soon and he wants to consult about the garden before leaving. He steps through the front door to the side of the house. Billy Joel's "River of Dreams" blares from the radio in the gardener's truck. A hose snakes around the gravel in Albee's driveway, across grass and over round stones that create a path through an open gate to the back yard. Although Albee finds himself in Miami only a short time each year, he leaves specific instructions on how his grounds are to be kept. "I suppose I'm a control freak," he concedes. "But if I'm going to live in an environment, I want it to look a certain way."

Albee's body of work -- 26 plays since 1959 -- reflects the human urge to create order, to lend coherence to the often devastating and dangerous forces that control us, as well as the folly of that attempt. "What were you trying to do?" Jerry contemptuously demands of Peter in The Zoo Story. "Make sense out of things? Bring order?"

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