A Theater Life

BY MICHAEL EHRHARDT | Edward Albee, the playwright who has won three Pulitzers and three Tonys, appeared before a sold-out crowd at the New York Times' new headquarters last month in one of a series of lively panel discussions held during the newspaper's Arts and Leisure Week.

The spry, out-and-about, and impishly ebullient Albee turns 80 in March, and the coming theater season includes several major productions of his work. He was interviewed by Times contributor and author Jesse Green, who received the 1999 Lambda Literary Foundation Prize for his memoir about being a gay dad, “The Velveteen Father: An Unexpected Journey to Parenthood.”

In a 45-minute interview about his life in the theater, Albee, shepherded and provoked by Green's lively commentary, reflected on his past as an adopted child – who came with a receipt for roughly $130 for the parents who “bought” him! – as well as his early experiences finding his voice as a writer for the stage. His earliest output included “two terrible novels in my teens,” and a “sex farce.”

“I think many people write because it's a way of getting revenge on your parents,” he joshed. “I was adopted into a family I didn't get along with – but they did give me an extraordinary education, in private schools… And the interesting thing is that I was educated by people who thought students should learn two things that are very important – they should learn something about the arts, as well as how democracy works.

“We don't teach that any more in our schools. So students are not educated in the arts – and not educated in how to vote… I think kids should learn about the arts as early as kindergarten. During rest hour, they should be listening to Bach – even if they don't know what a Bach is; and there should be reproductions of extraordinary paintings on the walls, so that they're exposed to them, before other people tell them they shouldn't be paying any attention to them.”

Albee's earliest work was done on the QT.

“I was writing from the age of 8 to 28. My adoptive mother found my sex farce, and threw it away. She was my first critic,” Albee observed. “But aside from that, I didn't admit to writing another play until I wrote 'The Zoo Story' in about three weeks. Which wasn't time enough to get bored with it… It was the first thing that I thought was any good.”

Albee would later made some cuts, when he realized Jerry's death scene went on too long, with an “operatic, page-long dying speech, by a character with a knife in his aorta!”

First produced in 1959 at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt in Berlin, the play was well received on its 1960 New York opening.

“The good reviews the play received encouraged me to continue writing plays in the future,” Albee explained.

That first success was followed closely by “The Sandbox” and “The American Dream,” and he would finally arrive on Broadway in 1962, with his three-act theatrical milestone, “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” During the 1960s, Albee was increasingly heralded critically, but occasionally excoriated as well, by mainstream, often homophobic critics. Phillip Roth, author of “Portnoy's Complaint,” a well-known novel about obsessive heterosexual masturbation, referred to Albee's “Tiny Alice” as “ghastly pansy rhetoric.”

Still going strong 46 years after first arriving on Broadway, Albee discussed his new play “Occupant,” about the flamboyant sculptress Louise Nevelson, with Mercedes Rhuel tackling the role. Due to premiere in May at the Signature Theater; the play imagines “a kind of post-death interview between the sculptress and an eager, younger questioner, who is all-too eager to pin down certain biographical details about the artist's life, that she isn't so eager to have pinned down, and connect them to her art. In the play Nevelson basically eats the journalist alive.” (“Occupant” was originally to have starred Anne Bancroft, though plans changedwhen the health problems that led to her 2005 death emerged.)

On January 11, Albee's new play starring Tyne Daly, “Me, Myself and I,” about the existential dilemmas of a pair of identical twins named otto and otto, began a six-week run at the McCarter Theater in Princeton.

Albee talked about the hurdles facing playwrights new to the scene today.

“Unfortunately, commerce is getting more and more destructive in all of the arts in the United States today; and more and more young playwrights are being discouraged from wanting to see their plays as written,” he told the crowd at the Times Center. “They must compromise to see them in some sort of bowdlerized, sanitized version – with all the rough edges cut off to make them safe. That's because of commerce, and because of the great expense of doing productions. We have more great writers than we've ever had. But the killing hand of commerce is making theater so difficult in our country. For example, back in the days when we mounted 'The Zoo Story' on a double bill with Beckett's 'Krapp's Last Tape' – in the Village at the Provincetown Playhouse – we did it for $1,200. And that makes such a difference for a young playwright; if it costs so little to produce it, they're more likely to put it on as you wrote it. But at such a high cost, they get scared, and then want to make the play safe. So they're forcing young playwrights to make a decision – either getting a production that is incomplete, or going somewhere else and not getting a production.

“This has led to a gradual lessening of the importance and power of the theater. It has become basically an escapist engagement. Look at Broadway – now there are just a few straight plays and the rest are musicals. I'm convinced that if we're lucky, we'll get two good serious worthwhile plays a season, but because of cost it makes cowards out of people. In 1962, 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' cost $42,000 to mount and tickets were $7 each. In 2005, it cost more than $1.5 million to produce the same play. Now it's about trying to do what is safe and easily satisfying instead of what is valuable. It all has to do with commerce. The bestwork doesn't get to Broadway more often than not.”

When Green pressed him on the impact of politics on his work, Albee responded that every play is political in its own right, whether about family or individuals, and added, “I don't know a single artist today who doesn't believe this administration is terrible… that it was not elected, but was put in power by a coup d'etat. It worries me to see that it believes the only way to save democracy is to repress it at home, by silencing journalists and writers.”

Green followed up, asking Albee whether as a gay playwright he has a responsibility to assume an active political posture in his work, Albee responded, “I didn't run around screaming, 'I'm gay! I'm gay!' except to the right people. Back then, it was a period when hideous homophobia was just one of the many things peoplehad to put up with. It was just one of the many minorities. We still have witch hunts, but things are a little better.”

About the death from cancer of his life partner of 35 years, Jonathan Thomas, in 2005, Albee explained wistfully: “I thought he would take care of me in my old age. But, he taught me how to take care of myself. But, I have a problem with people selfishly reacting to their loss, rather than the infinitely greater loss of the person who died. I was the one watching the dying.”