Edward Albee has evolved over the course of his 84 years from One Fabulous Babe
to one Even More Fabulous Old Man
He has been a part of my life ever since I saw the original production of The Zoo Story back in the day, followed shortly thereafter by The American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – to which I took my entertained but slightly bewildered parents. I was, needless to say enchanted. Here were characters that enthralled me armed with dialogue I could sink my teeth into. The Albee works that followed were a mixed bag. Tiny Alice , a metaphysical mystery, remains the most terrifying piece of theater I’ve ever seen. A Delicate Balance was memorable for Marian Seldes copying Delphine Seyrig’s hairdo from Last Year at Marienbad
Malcolm was a fascinating failure. Adapting James Purdy’s marvelous novel (which in high school I used to swat away students pushing Little Jerry Salinger on me) seemed a perfect libretto for a musical. Too bad he didn’t team up with Sondheim. The Play About the Baby featured a naked David Burtka.
Three Tall Woman finally nailed the woman who bought him for $310 The one consist element has been Albee’s ommitment to language – both its expressive power and its plastic beauty. Subjects today’s “CBS Sunday Morning” interview never manage to touch
“Playwright Edward Albee lives by a simple rule: “‘Yes’ is better than ‘no.’ In all things.”
But Albee is neither a pushover nor a simple man. After all, he breathed life into George and Martha, the married couple who battle ’til dawn in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on stage and on screen (played by the real-life battling Burtons, Elizabeth Taylor and then-husband Richard Burton).
In fact, George and Martha are still going at it, 50 years later, in a new staging on Broadway.
Who could resist the chance to ask the playwright everything we want to know about one of America’s greatest plays?
“Specifically with George and Martha, are those based on people that you knew?” Smith asked.
“There are probably elements of the personalities of some people that I’ve know that turn up there,” Albee said. “I find people I can invent are usually more interesting than real people!”
At times, interviewing Albee can become a game of wits.
When asked what “Virginia Woolf” is about, he replied, “It’s about two and a half hours, three hours. That question troubles me so much — ‘What is your play about?’ It’s about everything that happens in it!”
“You don’t like to boil it down,” Smith said.
“Any play that can be described in one sentence should be one sentence long,” he said.
Albee controls all aspects of productions of his play, from selecting the actors, director, and even how his name and the play’s title are written on the marquee. It’s a way of protecting his work from the commercialism that he says is destroying Broadway.
“It’s all about not doing the best plays but doing the ones that will sell the most tickets [which are] usually junk,” Albee said.
“Do you go see them?”
“Very seldom. I used to go see more since I’m one of the voters for [the Tonys]. Now I just lie,” he laughed.
Albee’s written some 30 plays in all, and won his first Tony Award for “Virginia Woolf” back in 1963. It is by far his most famous, and early on, it was a bit infamous, too.
“Going back to ’62, a lot of people who were involved in the production of ‘Virginia Woolf’ were nervous about the subject matter, about the language. Were you nervous?” Smith asked.
“Well, I would hope so.”
“You wanted them to be nervous?”
“Well, no, I mean, I knew the play was going to be a little troubling to some people. But I write what the play needs.”
“And if that means it offends some people?”
“Well, I think if you don’t offend some people, you’re probably failing in some way,” he laughed.
And if you think he’s kidding, just watch him as he talks about the award that got away:
“The Pulitzer jury chose ‘Virginia Woolf’ for the Pulitzer . . . ” Smith said.
Albee interjected, “And I thought it was a fairly reasonable choice, yes!”
“And then the Board said no, no, no. We’re not awarding it to him. What did you make of that?”
“I realized fairly quickly that I was going to get much more publicity out of having the Columbia University Board turning down ‘Virginia Woolf’ [for the Pulitzer Prize] than I would have gotten just for getting it,” he laughed.”
What happend was he “scandal” manufactured by homophobes who decided that George and Martha weren’t genuine heterosexuals but (clutch those pearlslike there’s no tomorrow) GAY MEN IN DISGUISE! It was all part of an evil plot men with “strange twilight urges” were inflicting on unsuspecting heteroseuxal Americans .
Stanley Kaufamn, then The World’s Worst Newspaper’s drama critic raised quite a ruckus about this which “CBS Sunday Morning” declines to mention.
Albee went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for drama, for “A Delicate Balance” in 1967, “Seascape” in 1975, and “Three Tall Women” in 1994.
“When people ask you how many Pulitzer Prizes you have, I say, ‘Three-and-a-half,’” Albee laughed. “The Columbia University drudges took it away from me.”
Edward Albee was adopted as a baby in Washington, D.C., by Reid and Frances Albee. The Albees were heirs to a vaudeville theater chain. Young Edward grew up rich . . . financially, at least.
“I didn’t like them very much and I don’t think they approved of me very much, either,” he said.
“But they were stuck with me and I was stuck with them, you know, until I was 18. But they gave me a first-rate private school education. I’m enormously grateful that I was adopted and given all the comforts that one could possibly have. I just don’t think we were the right people for each other,” he said.
He cut off contact with them as soon as he legally could, at 18. “I left and gave up all the creature comforts.”
It was 1948. Albee came to Greenwich Village, New York, a place where he could thrive as an artist and as a person who’s openly gay.
“Why would I keep it a secret? It’s my nature,” he said.
“Did you run up against any barriers because of that?”
“Are you kidding? Of course.”
“Well, so that’s why you might want to hide it,” Smith suggested.
“Yes, but I’m not embarrassed by it. I’m not ashamed of it. Why should I go along with people who are idiotic?”
His relationship with his parents was another one he struggled to understand.
“Did you try to reconcile?” Smith asked.
“Not with my adoptive father. He died before I could. And my mother, adoptive mother, started growing old and so I was a dutiful son. But I don’t think we ever really related to each other,” he said.
“It seems that she was quite proud of you,” Smith said.
“She was quite proud of Edward Albee,” he replied.
“Edward Albee, not you? Is there a difference?”
“Edward Albee the playwright, the well-known playwright, yes. She liked [the fame] a lot.”
See also the (albeit natura) mothers of Stephen Sondheim and Gore Vidal
While Albee didn’t find parental love, he did find romantic love with sculptor Jonathan Thomas, who died of cancer in 2005.
“The longest relationship I’d had — 30, 35 years, yeah.”
“I think you’ve said the love of your life,” Smith said.
“Yeah, really good guy.”
Albee had his own brush with mortality last summer, when his doctor posed a question:
“‘Do you want to have open heart surgery or not?’” Albe recalled. “And I said, ‘If I don’t?’ and he said, ‘You will die.’ It occurred to me either it’s going to work and I’ll be an awful lot better and then I can go on, or it’s not going to and I won’t know. So there’s really no choice there, is there?”
For now at least, he walks slowly and with a cane. He’s 84 — and back to what he loves, three-quarters of the way through a new play, “Laying an Egg.”
Edward Albee says it’s his plays that are important, not him. But as the world continues its appreciation — not only of his writing but of how his plays are performed — you can’t help but realize how important Edward Albee, the man, remains.
When asked if he is optimistic, especially after surgery, he replied, “I think it’s all a crap shoot. Am I optimistic about what, being alive? I’ve always been optimistic about being alive, because as I said, I prefer ‘yes’ to ‘no.’ I prefer being alive to being dead. I prefer all those things, yes.”
I for one certainly prefer a live Edward Albee.
And now in tribute to Jonathan Thomas, Doris Day will sing a song from the musical that made such an impact on little Edward