R.I.P.: Edward Albee

September 18, 2016

Edward Albee, the great American playwright who died last week at the age of 88, had one of the weirdest lives of any famous American writer. Adopted as an infant by a wealthy couple, Albee grew up in WASP splendor. He was driven to Broadway shows as a child in one of the family’s two Rolls-Royces, and every winter the clan decamped from the New York suburb of Larchmont to Palm Beach, traveling to Florida in his grandmother’s two private railroad cars hooked to the back of a passenger train. Lavished with money but emotionally frozen out by his pallid father and “dragon lady” mother, Albee fled the family at 20, spent a decade fumbling around Greenwich Village, and emerged at 30 a full-fledged playwright with 1959’s The Zoo Story, an existential encounter between two strangers on a park bench.

Over the next six years, he had four more enormous successes, none greater than the 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play for which he will always be best known. This remarkable explosion of literary talent — all the more amazing for being dyspeptic, intellectually challenging, anything but warm and fuzzy — was followed by nearly 20 years of serious drinking and a string of increasingly mediocre plays. And then, just when it was time for him to die of an overdose or something, Albee zoomed back to prominence in 1994 with Three Tall Women, for which he was awarded his third Pulitzer Prize for drama. That play was an astonishingly gracious and poignant character study of the imperious, bigoted mother who insulted his friends, snubbed his lovers, and ultimately disinherited him because he is gay. This triumph launched a sweet late stage of Albee’s career, which included a number of minor playful new scripts, several major revivals, and one substantial new play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, which won the Tony Award for best play in 2002.

I saw most of Albee’s work – the good, the bad, and the medium – and wrote about some of it. My one and only close encounter with the man himself came when I got the plum assignment to interview him for American Theater in 1992. This was, mind you, just before Three Tall Women zoomed him back to the forefront of the field. At the time I met him, he was teaching at the University of Houston and directing Shirley Knight and Tom Klunis in the American premiere of a tepid two-hander called Marriage Play. I was excited at the prospect – who wouldn’t want to meet the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – yet also wary. I’d spent a couple of days at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts reading every interview he’d ever done and noticed that he was always asked the same boring obvious questions and always gave the same boring pompous answers, practically verbatim. Having recently had a big success publishing an extremely cheeky Q-and-A with Madonna (see “The X-Rated Interview”), I was determined to make this conversation with Edward Albee something other than same-old-same-old.

edward-albee-1961-by-philippe-halsman                                              Edward Albee 1961, photographed by Philippe Halsman

The experience itself was underwhelming. My typewritten transcript begins: “Interview with Edward Albee in Houston, January 4, 1992, at his apartment in Houston House. Met me at the door wearing tinted glasses, familiar wrinkled leathery skin, dark blue knit shirt. A black cat (with white and orange trim) running around the house, a stray named Biscuit. The walls covered with art, most of it ghastly student work. Didn’t offer me anything to drink, just plunked down and started to talk. ‘I’ve been interviewed so much even in the last couple of years that I feel like everything’s been covered…’”

Later that day, I wrote in my diary: “Did the Albee interview at 11, talked for about two hours. Disappointing. What a frightened, tense, guarded man he is. I felt like I should have given him a massage before trying to interview him. Like the typical American man, he has a great deal of difficulty admitting to fear, weakness, self-doubt, vulnerability. Tyrannized by shoulds and imprisoned by his self-image. Deeply disingenuous — wants to have everything both ways. He shouldn’t have to give names to characters because it’s a waste of names — he likes that line and uses it often, ‘it’s a waste of names’ — but then he goes ahead and gives his characters symbolic names like Jack and Jill/Gillian, and then denies that they have symbolic value. He says Virginia Woolf is not about a gay couple but then says that gay and straight relationships are just the same. He’s never denied being gay but until recently he never made a positive statement either, which is like saying I’ve never voted Republican, therefore I’m a Democrat…

“When I came in, we sat right down and started –he didn’t offer me anything to drink, and he didn’t ask me what I thought of Marriage Play. I made cat chat and talked about living in Houston, otherwise there would have been no preamble to the interview. I was very diligent about thwarting him every time he went into one of his tape loops – ‘The purpose of art is…EJECT.’ He sat on the sofa, I sat on a chair, but he was so soft-spoken I moved closer, then partway into the interview I asked him to change places with me because the light from outside was reflecting onto his glasses and I couldn’t see his eyes. He was surprisingly at ease talking about gay stuff, and I got the impression that he would have been perfectly happy to gossip and chat about that stuff for hours. But he had rehearsal at 1, so I didn’t get to ask him everything I wanted to know. Don’t feel inclined to call him up and ask him the other questions, because he’s so clearly full of denial, self-deception, and forgetfulness that it’s fruitless to press for more self-revelation. He seemed to like me, though, and in a veiled way was somewhat flirtatious — asked me how long I would be in town, gave me his phone number. On the elevator he mentioned that Danny Kaye apparently had a love affair with Laurence Olivier.”

I went home, wrote the story, and handed it in to my editor, Jim O’Quinn. Besides being a legendary great magazine editor, Jim was an old friend and champion of mine who supported me wholeheartedly, gave me great assignments, and loved virtually everything I wrote. With the Albee piece, something unprecedented happened. Jim let me know that the publishers of American Theater magazine (Peter Zeisler and Lindy Zesch) objected to my challenging, somewhat bratty tone, thought I was badgering the artist in a way that was unseemly, and insisted that certain passages be cut. I’d never encountered this kind of interference from the upper echelons of Theater Communications Group, and being the stubborn Taurus that I am, I fought the cuts fiercely. In particular I had talked to Albee about his long relationships with composer William Flanagan and playwright Terrence McNally and wondered how come he never portrayed gay relationships like that in his plays. Apparently Peter Zeisler told Jim that “under no circumstances will the names of people Albee slept with 20 years ago, famous or no, appear in our pages.” I found this insulting and offensive and said so. Ultimately, though, I agreed to the cuts, and the piece was published to no big fanfare. Looking back at the correspondence now, it strikes me as pretty funny – I’m sort of impressed at how passionate I felt about these things. On my website, I’ve posted the article as it appeared in American Theater with the cuts restored. You can read it online here.

When I go back and re-read the unedited transcript, I experience Albee’s personality with great vividness, both his brittle exterior and the tender person just beneath that. I frequently quote something he said to me that day: “I suffer from CRAFT disease – Can’t Remember A Fucking Thing.” And I’m amused at the exchange we had about the light reflecting off his glasses. He was in the middle of an oft-repeated stale commentary about how Broadway should function as the American national theater when I interrupted him.

Me: Could we change places? The light is shining against your glasses, and I can’t see your eyes. Thanks. Continue.

Albee: I’ve finished that one.

Me: This is much better. I can see your eyes and get the whole face.

Albee: I’ll have to be more deceptive.



2 Responses to “R.I.P.: Edward Albee”

  1. Steve V. Says:

    This is the most insightful profile of this complex figure that I have ever read. I’m grateful to you for h loping me to arrive at a clearer picture of who Edward Albee was. He has fascinated me for over 50 years.

  2. dshewey Says:

    thanks for your comment, Steve.

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