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
By Pamela Gordon
Edward Albee stands in the light while everyone else is in the dark, and he doesn't like it that way. Two giant spotlights are trained on the playwright as more than 100 students and faculty at Miami's New World School of the Arts lean forward in their seats, obscured from his vision. He is visiting the school to conduct workshops with play-writing students and then answer questions. Moments earlier he had been greeted with a standing ovation he acknowledged with a wily smile -- both pleased and amused -- and an appreciative wave. But now he wants to get down to work.
Shielding his eyes with one hand, he peers into the darkness and says, "We can't have a conversation if I can't see people." Theater dean Jorge Guerra signals to technicians, who scramble off to the lighting booth. The students and faculty who had been awaiting the author with excitement bordering on frenzy now fidget uncomfortably. But Albee puts them at ease. "Playwrights are in the dark too often," he quips. Suddenly the lights behind him go on. Without missing a beat or altering his tone, he notes, "Those are the wrong ones." For a couple of heart-pounding seconds no one is certain if the guys will get it right before the famously acerbic playwright lays into them. "Those are the difficult ones," Albee says, pointing up at the two lights. "This is called theater," he tells the audience, defusing the tension one more time, then adds, "I'm being a troublemaker."
With a slightly audible and satisfying click, the spotlights go off and the house lights come on. "That's nice. That's better," he says. With student playwrights and renowned playwright now fully illuminated, the conversation can begin.
As the New World students get over the initial ecstasy that propelled them out of their seats when Albee entered the room, papers begin to rustle, backpacks are rifled through; in the uppermost rows of the risers on which they sit, kids snap gum and whisper to each other. Albee sits on a chair, a floor microphone by his side. He listens.
Amos Mendez and Raquel Almazan are perched on stools beside him, reading a scene from Mendez's play in progress, in which an eighteen-year-old rapper hits on a woman during a party. The language is punchy, colloquial.
"I want you," the rapper says.
"I belong to no one," the woman shoots back. The audience giggles.
Albee then fires off a series of questions: "Where does this take place? How many people are in the first scene? Do you know what's going to happen in the piece?"
"They get together," Mendez offers.
"What does that mean?" Albee wants to know.
"They go out."
"What does that mean?" Albee presses, not letting him off the hook.
When Mendez explains that the play includes drugs, rap music, dirty cops, and guns, Albee jokes that it sounds as though it could be a film. But he tells Mendez: "Your dialogue is good. Your ear is good. The only thing I worry about is this becoming impersonal. Keep to the people you care about as much as you can without the other things overwhelming them."
Albee seems to be at ease with the students, energized by their enthusiasm and his own ability to penetrate to the heart of the work.
"I like the aggression," he tells Erica Boynton, who has just read a monologue called Anger. Clad all in black (including finger and toenails), Boynton wiggles on the stool and looks pleased. "But every once in a while I hear a few too many words before a noun. Every once in a while I hear writing. I don't want to hear writing. I want to hear a person speaking."
After he offers his comments, Albee asks the students if they have anything to add. New World faculty members sitting around a table next to Albee's chair prefer that he save questions for after the workshop. A professor leans over to suggest that the students would benefit more from him than from each other. Albee hears him out but counters: "It helps them."
Several days in advance of the recent press opening of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Albee sits near the back of the empty theater flipping through old playbills from past productions on this stage.
He opens to the title page of a 1965 road show of Virginia Woolf starring Shelley Winters, whose name is emblazoned in thick, mile-high type over the title. Pointing to his own name below the play's title in much smaller letters, he says, "I would never allow that to happen now."
From the outset of his career, he fought for control of the presentation and interpretation of his work. "I go back far enough that we still had segregated theaters in America, so my first contracts said [the plays] must be performed in an integrated theater." He has subsequently insisted on contract clauses to ensure that the actors in his plays are the same gender as indicated in the script -- this the result of speculation in the press during the Sixties that Virginia Woolf was really about two gay couples instead of two heterosexual couples. His contracts also grant him approval of translations, casting, set design, costuming, and lighting. Recently he learned of a Swedish director who inserted an intermission in the middle of Act Two of Virginia Woolf. He held up the show until the theater restored the work to its original form: "So I'm going to have to put in [my contract] now that there must be intermissions where the author has intended.
"I may be far too protective of authors' rights, but someone's got to protect them," he continues, turning to the next playbill. A Delicate Balance won Albee his first Pulitzer Prize in 1967, then traveled to the Playhouse for the debut of its national tour. Alan Schneider, the director long associated with Albee's work until his death in a car accident in 1984, directed the play in both New York and Coconut Grove. (Also known as Samuel Beckett's premier American interpreter, Schneider was familiar with the Playhouse, having opened its first season in 1956 with the legendary Waiting for Godot.)
Albee opens to the cast page and recalls that Jessica Tandy as Agnes, Hume Cronyn as Tobias, and Rosemary Murphy as Claire reprised their Broadway roles in Miami. And he notes that not only did A Delicate Balance enjoy a Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway last year, but Rosemary Murphy undertook the part of Edna later in the run.
Slipping A Delicate Balance under the stack, he rifles through Seascape, the 1975 comic-drama that earned him his second Pulitzer. The play centers on the encounter between a human couple, Charlie and Nancy, vacationing at the seashore, and a lizard couple, Leslie and Sarah, who emerge from the ocean and surprise them. Albee directed the show himself during the 1985-86 inaugural season of Playhouse artistic director Arnold Mittelman. And he inspects the cover of 1987's Marriage Play, directed by Mittelman in 1992 in the theater's Encore Room. Missing is the playbill for The Man Who Had Three Arms, a work commissioned by the late Miami impresario Bob Herman and his New World Festival of the Arts. In the play, which opened in June 1982, Albee tackles the issue of fleeting fame in America and chastises the press for, as he puts it, "creating false gods." Although Miami News critic Bill von Maurer called it "outrageous, touching, and deliciously funny," when the show reached New York, critics almost uniformly panned it. While in Miami to direct the play's premiere at the Playhouse, Albee decided to buy a house in the South Grove, and he has spent at least two months a year here ever since.
Having perused the collection of old playbills, he leans back. The seat creaks; the sound reverberates through the empty auditorium. Up front, the Virginia Woolf set awaits. An appropriately massive living room from a rambling New England house in a university town, it features wooden moldings, a comfortably worn sofa and several chairs, a desk, shelves stuffed with books, and a liquor cart stacked with bottles whose spirits will exacerbate the war between George and Martha and Nick and Honey when they take the stage that night.
Virginia Woolf director Michael Wilson, an associate director at the Alley Theatre in Houston, met Albee in 1989 and considers him a mentor. In the past year and a half, Wilson has directed imposing dramas such as Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, and Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. He was at the Alley several years ago when Albee himself directed Virginia Woolf there. In Miami, Wilson, his actors, and Albee have been meeting throughout much of the rehearsal process. "After all that you would think this is surmountable," an exhausted Wilson says during an interview in the Coconut Grove Playhouse's main rehearsal room. "But this is the big one. This is Everest."
By preview night Wilson and his accomplished cast have scaled the heights to deliver an emotionally searing rendition that gives more dimension, wit, and heart than the Virginia Woolf interpretation known to most people: the 1966 Mike Nichols film adaption starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. (Albee says the movie is "famous and tough" but "not as funny as it should be.") On-stage at the Playhouse through this weekend, Elizabeth Ashley and Frank Converse star as the university couple who draw a new faculty member and his wife (William Westenberg and Angelica Torn) into an intricate maze of mental skirmishes fought with verbal weaponry. It is a multilayered production -- unrelenting, uncompromising, cerebral, subversive. Much like the mind of its author.
The unmistakable sounds of kids in a pack -- running footsteps, high-pitched voices -- intrude on the quiet of the theater. Albee steps down the row to the aisle and walks toward the stage to investigate. He looks up at the balcony, where a group of schoolchildren is being shepherded around by Playhouse staffer Fred Salancy as part of a class. "That's Edward Albee," Salancy tells them urgently. "He's the man who wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Years from now a few of the children may retain the memory of meeting a legendary figure, but at the moment Albee is just a regular guy. "Yo!" they call down to him.
"Hey!" he calls back playfully. "You've got good seats, the best in the house."
He ambles back up the aisle, wearing shirt sleeves, loose-fitting trousers, and aviator glasses. It's easy to forget that this man who has been called the "elder statesman of the American theater" and a "living national treasure" by his peers has also been described by those who know him -- and by those who only know of him -- as seriously intimidating.
"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."
The young Albee, according to Wright, was extremely shy when dealing with people, though never reticent when it came to his work, and as meticulous then as he is now in his attention to details. "He can look at a set and say, 'That's an eighth of an inch not horizontal,' and sure enough the carpenter or the prop man will go and measure it and it's an eighth of an inch off."
Along with Albee, Wright was part of a theatrical team that included director Alan Schneider, set designer William Ritman, and producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder. The late Fifties and early Sixties, Wright says, "were an explosive time because we were all doing something extraordinarily different. We didn't realize it then but it was the beginning of off-Broadway." Albee, Barr, and Wilder operated a theater in the Sixties that produced cutting-edge noncommercial work. They also hosted the New Playwrights' Unit Workshop in a rented space, where aspiring playwrights could work on low-budget productions of their work: Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. LeRoi Jones), Adrienne Kennedy, Sam Shepard, John Guare all found shelter there.
Albee continued his nurturance of young talent when he founded the William Flanagan Memorial Creative Person's Center (otherwise known as the Barn) on property adjacent to the home he keeps in Montauk, New York. Since its inception more than 30 years ago, the Barn has awarded monthlong residencies to writers and visual artists in need of a quiet place to pursue serious work.
Wright notes that Schneider, Ritman, Barr, and Wilder all died in the Eighties. "They're gone. It's just Edward and me," he muses, acknowledging the depth of the loss of such a creative family. "I'm sure it has affected him as deeply as it has me. But you go on. As Edward says often in his plays, 'You go on.'"
In 1988 Albee accepted a professorship in the theater department of the University of Houston. He spends the spring semester in that city, living in the same rented apartment every year. He selects his students carefully. "I wanted to choose students I thought I could help by making their plays closer to what they intended. I don't want to change them, to make them more commercial or anything of that sort. Let's make them exactly what the playwright intended, not what he should have intended. Writing is not a collaborative act."
Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. An irreproachably blue-skied Miami day. The coffee is on in Albee's compact, sunny house, which is ringed by a wooden fence and a maze of small outdoor decks in a tranquil South Grove neighborhood. Glass walls bookend the central room, a combined living and dining area. Through one wall of glass, a gardener and an assistant can be seen rooting about in tall grass under the tropical trees Albee has planted over the years. Houseguests have been coming and going all week, but this morning only his tenant, a friend who lives in the house year-round, goes quietly in and out.
Sparsely furnished in simple lines, the house has an open, airy feel, a place in which one can think clearly and breathe easily. A vase of orchids and a bowl of bananas and oranges accent the sense of order and peace. African and contemporary art hangs on the walls, sits on shelves, stands on the floor -- a sampling of Albee's extensive collection of works by artists both known and unknown.
"That is a whole other side to Edward," notes his friend, art dealer Bianca Lanza, who first encountered Albee when he visited her former gallery in SoHo. Several years later, having left New York for South Beach, where she opened the Bianca Lanza Gallery off Lincoln Road, she ran into the playwright-art collector again. "He walked in and I recognized him immediately. We got into a conversation, and he started coming to the gallery every time he was in Miami. He had a wonderful characteristic of going into the back room just to peer in, and he'd find things that were hidden that he liked.
"He has a loft in New York that is spectacular," she goes on. "A vast two-story space full of art. His tastes tend to be pretty black-and-white and pretty minimal. And then he likes African art, and he combines things. You'll see something on the floor and you don't know whether it's a contemporary thing or something primitive, because his tastes all blend together in a very cohesive way. Then he has the place in Montauk, on the ocean, and that is full of art inside and sculptures outdoors. It's a very wonderful setting."
The contrast between Albee's often unremittingly fierce writing and his apparently tranquil home life recalls a Gustave Flaubert quotation: "Be regular and ordinary in your life ... so that you may be violent and original in your work."
Albee, who has written about the ravages, the compromises, and the poignancies of married life with scathing accuracy in play after play, has been in a relationship with a male artist for 27 years, and he doesn't see a great deal of difference between heterosexual and homosexual partnerships. "Except for kids," he says. "But aside from that there shouldn't be. People should be together whoever they are because they like being together and because it's good for both of them. Maybe there's less husband-wife role playing between two males in a homosexual relationship or two women in a lesbian relationship, but I don't think there's a huge amount of difference, except in society's eyes."
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?"
"You take the trouble to construct a civilization," George tells Nick during a speech in Virginia Woolf, "... to ... to build a society, based on the principles of ... of principle ... you endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man's mind ..."
"-- I wonder if that's why we sleep at night, because the darkness still ... frightens us?" Agnes muses at the end of A Delicate Balance, closing her speech with: "And when the daylight comes again ... comes order with it."
In our desire to subdue the terrifying unknown, Albee tells us, we traffic in illusions that, while they may temporarily shield us from the pain of reality, also render us less alert, less alive. Loosen that survivalist's grip on illusions and find the courage to live without them -- that is the challenge posed by Albee's plays.
"Art is meant to change us," the playwright insists, "to increase our perceptions, make us examine our values. You want that which is escapist, easy, self-congratulatory. But art is not meant to be any of those things. It's meant to be disturbing, to ask hard questions. Art is not meant to take us out of ourselves. It's meant to put us more into ourselves."
Albee the philosopher and Albee the social critic may posit such ideas in conversation, but Albee the artist knows better than to construct his plays around such ephemera. "I worry about your characters talking theory," he tells Mary Manning at the New World School of the Arts in response to a scene in which a mother and daughter begin speaking naturally but then indulge in speeches about the nature of art. "Theory gets boring on-stage." Turning to the student audience he warns, "Don't worry about what things mean. If you do you won't write a dramatic piece. You'll write a thesis."
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He encourages the young writers to concentrate on real people in real situations, and on what happens to those people in those particular situations. "The implications of what happens are what we think about only after we leave the theater," he emphasizes.
Albee rises at the end of his talk and the students rush around him. He autographs copies of his plays and blank sheets of paper; he poses for photographs. Someone hands him a script and he promises to read it. He speaks individually to everyone who approaches him, giving each his full attention. Although he needs to be at the airport in half an hour for a flight to Washington, D.C., where he's slated to receive a National Medal of Arts award, he seems in no hurry to leave.
Not long ago Albee was in Washington for another prestigious acknowledgement -- the Kennedy Center Honors. In fact, he has recently received a host of awards and other adulatory recognitions. Though he is pleased by the accolades, the bedrock of his seemingly unshakable confidence has never been external rewards. Light-heartedly he says the honors are "better than a kick in the teeth." But he counters the humor with this: "You're in fashion. You're out of fashion. When people tell me, 'Isn't it wonderful now that you're back on top again?' I say, wait five years: Edward who?
Owing to a reporting error, two actors were misidentified in a photograph that accompanied Pamela Gordon's profile of playwright Edward Albee ("Edward Albee's Mindscape," January 23). The actors flanking Albee in the photograph (reproduced here) are Jacqueline Brookes and Henderson Forsythe. New Times regrets the error.Info:Published: