Thoughts today on the great playwright Edward Albee (1928-2016)
Albee was the grandson by adoption of the top vaudeville magnate Edward F. Albee whom I wrote about extensively in my book No Applause and a little about here. The elder Albee, though superficially a successful man (and the entire reason the playwright was raised in wealth and privilege) was so notoriously ruthless an individual that such a connection would do no one any credit, which is why (I surmise) it never gets mentioned. Still, the connection exists, and the younger Albee’s exposure to the theatre as a child, was its most happy result.
I was fortunate to stay at Albee’s Montauk writer’s colony in 1994. I had a golden opportunity to have dinner with him and talk with about my play Kitsch (and the play I was supposed to write then—Tricculus of Trinidad), but was in the throes of a personal crisis and missed the appointment! But I met him on a couple of occasions after this, and sent him a copy of my book since his grandfather figures so prominently in it.
I think of Albee as the great pivot that separates the old world from the one we know now. Despite the fact that his initial success was off-Broadway, and he went immediately to Broadway thereafter, he is what makes the first generation of off-off-Broadway playwrights possible in the early 1960s. His writing was a bridge from the European Absurdists (I think of Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter especially) to American theater. There is an angry, aggressive, anti-social stance in the writing that goes far beyond where previous generations ever dreamt of going. The word nihilism feels right…there is a laughter there that seems to have given up on correcting the iniquities of the world. One of our first “non-commercial” playwrights, though he was writing for a commercial theatre. Something like that. Thus, it’s hard to imagine Indie Theater coming into being without him, or someone like him.
Is he my favorite American playwright of all time? No, I’d have to stop short of that, but he’s up there. While he has an amazing verbal acuity, a terrific wit and an amazing mind, I find his writing a little bloodless and antiseptic. Equations in isolation. It’s a trait he shares with Beckett. One can admire these plays to no end, but they don’t stick to you like dirt…and I like writing with dirt in it. This doesn’t mean he’s not in my pantheon, for God’s sake! He’s near the top, he’s just not Zeus. And for that matter, I have quibbles with every writer. I’m a critic.
Anyway here are some thoughts on some of his key plays from my notebook.
The Zoo Story (1958). The angst in this play feels like a lot like J.D. Salinger…with that addition of a squalid backstory that attaches the play to bohemia in a way that must have been attractive to the young generation when this came out. The Zoo Story is excellent because Albee’s voice is so strong, and he does end up taking us on a ride. Craftsmanshipwise though it’s a bit annoying. It has the dilettante’s weakness of a crummy initial premise…or at least one that I personally hate: two strangers on a park bench start talking. Right away, that feels to me like the writer has started writing before even having an idea…and THEN midway through the writing, the play started to go somewhere. To me, that’s putting the cart before the horse, and sort of contemptible. But again Albee’s writing is so vivid and passionate and philosophical that in the end he can be forgiven…and it IS his first play. Essentially a disgruntled, intelligent, and deranged young man (Jerry) strikes up a conversation in Central Park with a conventional, middle class, rather thick businessman (Peter, a publisher). Gradually Jerry reveals that he lives in a bleak rooming house…his life sucks. Every day he is accosted by his horny but disgusting landlady, and menaced by her dog. He tries an experiment on the dog…first love (gives it a bunch of free hamburgers), but it doesn’t work. After he eats the burgers, he growls again. Then he tries hate (poisons the burgers). The burgers don’t kill the dog. But now he is more subdued, and so there is a kind of melancholy mutual respect. The conversation between the two men gets more heated until the two are arguing. Jerry pulls a knife, which he contrives to let the other man get. When Peter is holding the knife out, Jerry throws himself upon it and dies. This had apparently been his plan all along.
The Sandbox (1959) A play starring the same characters as The American Dream (see below). This time, Grandma’s in the sandbox. I don’t think much of it at all and find myself baffled by all the early critical plaudits. They must have been REALLY starving for something new in 1960.
The American Dream (1960). I don’t like this play much at all. Feels extremely dated. An allegory like The Skin of Our Teeth. The characters are Mommy, Daddy and Grandma. [Seems influenced by the Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano too maybe: “The Smiths”] They spend most of the play saying cruel horrible things to Grandma, about how she’s useless and they’ll pack her off someplace. Then they talk about their adopted child, whom they mutilated and then killed because it was touching itself. They send for the woman from the adoption agency and end up adopting the identical twin of the other one. This twin is a fully grown, All-American type. I think there must be an autobiographical element to the play…Albee himself was adopted, and there seems to be a lot of animosity and anger towards the well-to-do family that adopted him…their conventionality, their materialistic values. It is present in all his work. Again, this play does feel dilettantish…as though he started with less than an idea and just let the characters talk. Albee has a lot to say, so his characters do bail him out. However, to me, it’s a much better effect when the playwright has clearly devised an interesting situation before hand.
The Death of Bessie Smith (1960). This play is unreservedly terrific. Here we see Albee’s great knack for character and dialogue put to good use, in a worthy and well thought out situation. It’s not really about Bessie Smith…it’s really about a cruel and capricious nurse who uses her sex and her race to lord it over two men…a liberal white doctor, and a black orderly, at a Memphis hospital. It feels like a perfect cross of Strindberg and Tennessee Williams. The beauty part is the way it talks about race relations—a very important discussion in 1960—but takes the moral argument for granted in its pursuit of a higher (metaphysical) objective. In other words, we have a situation where Bessie Smith is bleeding to death but cant be admitted to the all-white hospital. This outrages us morally. But I one for one would be dissatisfied if that were the whole play. If it were the 1980s, someone would make that the whole play. Instead, Albee takes it further. The nurse has threatened the doctor that, if he goes out and helps Bessie (whose music, ironically, she is a fan of), she will get him fired. Then the doctor defies her and goes out to save Bessie, who has already died. That irony, that she was already dead when she arrived, takes it to the next level…feels Absurdist, existential, like the last moment in Hitchcock’s Vertigo
Fam and Yam (1960) A blackout sketch. I don’t know if it was ever produced. The names of the two characters are most Beckettesque. A young playwright is meeting with a famous established playwright. He says all sorts of inflammatory, scandalous things (mostly true) about the state of the theater, and gets the famous playwright to laugh and agree with him. As he leaves, he says “Thanks for the interview!” “Interview?!”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) A very nearly perfect work of art. Its main flaw is a certain rambling quality. One senses that Albee started with no real end in mind and just kind of felt his way through. Eventually he discovers the events…but writing in this fashion means that it’s hard to go back and write a cleaner arc – you’ve written too much cool stuff in between, even if the journey is serpentine. O’Neill had a better method – an outline first. This play is the perfect marriage between European style Absurdism and American commercial realism. Albee gets to have his cake and eat it too. On the face of it, it’s “real”. It’s a “real” situation. The people talk “realistically”. But the extremism of the situation…the epic length of the torture, and the heights and depths of crazy cruelty smack more of what Europeans were doing on the “art” stage – almost an Ionesco idea. Furthermore, there is an aspect of role playing (some of it literal) and “theater” that makes it a play within a play…calling to mind Shakespeare and Jean Genet. I heard Albee say he wasn’t happy with Mike Nichols’ movie…it was designed to be funnier, yet the movie is just a nasty time.
Tiny Alice (1964) Having just come off reading all of Pinter, I saw instantly who was the better of the two playwrights. Albee, sad to say, felt like a comedown. Still, there seems some Pinter influence here, and especially Genet influence, and Absurdist influence in general. This mysterious millionaire (who at first seems elderly and then younger) is going to give her fortune to the church. The church sends a celibate who is actually part of the lay ministry (not a priest) to negotiate with her. Gradually she romances him; he trades in his faith for an intense love for her. Ah, but there’s a very odd twist. In the center of her mansion is an exact scale replica of the mansion itself. At times it seems as though there is some sort of indexical relationship. When there is a fire in the real mansion, there is one in the toy one. When the main character marries the heiress, she and her minions (the lawyer, the butler and the bishop) all turn cold and seem to abandon him. He has actually married the “Alice” in the little house. All he has to do is believe it’s true. There is a fantastic, terrifying scene at the end as his confronts this reality, which seems to confront religion, love and everything we believe in all at once. It’s a bit more literal than Pinter or Ionesco or Genet would have made it, but its very powerful.
A Delicate Balance (1966) I saw this in a Broadway revival in the 90s, starring Elaine Stritch as the drunken sister. I remember being really impressed with it at the time, considering it a sort of mix of drawing room comedy with a touch of Absurdism. It’s all about the boundaries of family and friendship, and just how much those relationships can stand. In the case of these characters, not very much. A bit like Chekhov too. An upper middle class couple sit around having cocktails, then are joined by the wife’s sister, an ascerbic, truth telling alcoholic. They are then joined by the couple’s daughter, who’s coming to stay after wrecking her fourth marriage. The Absurdist moment comes when the couple’s best friends come over…and ask to stay PERMANENTLY…because they are “frightened.” The couple helps these various needy people in their lives but in a sort of ineffectual way. They help by taking them in and not throwing any of them out. Meanwhile, they bitch about them, but they don’t solve any problems. It’s very expertly drawn. I’ve written many times about how I can’t stand plays about people sitting around and talking. But this one has a very definite arc and movement. In the end, the friends move out again, having tested the friendship and found the limits. Everything will go back to the superficial level at which it began. Albee’s first Pulitzer!
Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao (1968) These two inter-related experimental one acts were presented on a double bill at the Billy Rose Theatre. It marked a turning point in Albee’s career, and for Broadway I think. When I say these plays are experimental, I mean they couldn’t possibly be any MORE experimental. In Box there is but one character — a box. The box talks about the tragedy of and waste of dumping millions of gallons of milk into the earth (for market reasons) rather than distribute it to the poor. In the second play Quotations, the box returns, joined by three other characters aboard an ocean liner. They are Chairman Mao, who does indeed read his Quotations; an old woman reading poetry; and another woman who talks about being swept off an ocean liner. The play remained open for less than a month, a miraculously long time, if you think about it. Much like Tennessee Williams at the same time, Albee stubbornly felt all of his plays should be done on Broadway, including radical experiments. At the time, off-off-Broadway did not seem like a legitimate option for an established playwright, although radical work of this sort was being done there all the time now. At any rate, you’re only as good as your last hit. These two play did much to make life difficult for their author in the ensuing years.
Seascape (1974) Albee’s second Pulitzer Prize winning play follows his familiar formula of two feuding couples: this time it’s on a beach, and one of the couples is a pair of SENTIENT LIZARD CREATURES!
Three Tall Women (1991) Albee’s third Pulitzer. I saw this in its first American production in 1994 and was deeply impressed by it, the algebra of it, and the interesting relationship between its two very different acts. It was like a lesson on the possibilities of playwriting. It got an amazing amount of well deserved publicity at the time, for all the wrong reasons. I remember a 60 Minutes interview with Albee, dwelling on the autobiographical aspect, because that is all bubbleheads can latch onto. Much more interesting to me were the formal aspects, which are absolutely dazzling. Theatrical recycling bins throughout the world are overflowing with plays about mothers and grandmothers. There is only one Three Tall Women.
The Goat, or Who Is Silvia? (2002) Controversial play about a man’s romantic love for a goat. I didn’t see it, but followed it with great interest because I had put an incident of goat-love in my play House of Trash a couple of years earlier, and even referred (in the play) to the fact that “tragedy” means goat-song. I later read Albee’s play, which is very different. Critics were (and remain) divided about the merits of The Goat.
Albee’s most recent efforts have concerned writing a first act to The Zoo Story, the combined acts of which comprise At Home at the Zoo. And I left out dozens of his other plays of course — cuz I don’t know ’em. At any rate, I celebrate the existence of this important writer today.