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For Albee, Theater Is a Mirror

On Tuesday, February 5, there were a noticeable number of unfamiliar faces in Room 304 scattered among the drama students, as well as faculty members from other divisions. Almost everyone came a few minutes ahead of schedule, and there were no latecomers. There was an excited buzz of conversation, but it was instantly quelled as Edward Albee made his entrance.

Edward Albee

Playwright Edward Albee spoke to Juilliard drama students on February 5 in Room 304.

(Photo by Jessica Katz)

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He came in smiling, and within five seconds was motioning in vain for all of us to sit down, as our applause had spontaneously brought us to our feet.

The next two and a half hours were a true listening experience. The renowned playwright who sat before us needed no cajoling to speak about his life, his work, or any of his unequivocal opinions. He spoke for the first 45 minutes without interruption, giving us the dramatic highlights of his early years.

“I was an orphan,” he began, as if that one sentence explained a fundamental truth about him. He described a childhood of bad parenting and good education. At an upper-league private school he “majored in extracurricular activities.” He had creative impulses from a young age. His attempts to draw began at 7 and ended at 16, his poetry began at 10 and ended at 28, and his prose writing didn’t reverberate in an authentic way. “The short story and I didn’t agree,” he said, though “I was a good imitator.” His ambition was to be a writer, but he struggled to find the right medium. Finally, at 28, he wrote a play called The Zoo Story, and had found his calling. “I’ve always been fairly accurate at what I’m good at,” he said, without the least shred of hubris.

Although the play is set in the middle of Central Park and explores quintessentially American themes (isolation, social disparity, the dehumanizing effects of consumerism), the play’s first staging was in West Berlin. It was on a double bill with Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, an author revered by Albee. During the play’s success in Berlin, a journalist from The New York Times saw it and wrote a review shaming New York for the current state of theater, wherein an American author had to travel all the way to Germany to get his plays produced. That review and the play’s popularity got it produced Off-Broadway, where it ran in various theaters for three and a half years. “I quit [working at] Western Union and went on writing plays for the next 50 years,” Albee said.

His next few plays continued to be produced off Broadway, which is his preferred venue. “I write chamber plays,” he explained, “which don’t play as well in houses over four or five hundred seats.” Nevertheless, the play that would canonize him, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, came to Broadway in 1962. The first reviews were mostly unfavorable. One reviewer described it as a play that should only be seen by “dirty-minded women.” However, the public quickly recognized it as a work of genius, and it went on to win a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; but this was overruled by the advisory board for its controversial subject matter. Always one to glory in controversy, Albee went on to write several plays that weren’t as popular as Virginia Woolf—or in his words, “not as flashy.” They were less favorably received plays such as Tiny Alice and A Delicate Balance, though he considers them just as good, if not better. “I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing”—that is, making plays as popular as Virginia Woolf, and soon he was persona non grata on and off Broadway. “I couldn’t even get arrested in New York,” he said good-humoredly.

Albee then caught most of us in the room by surprise when he acknowledged that his rebirth in New York was in large part due to Jim Houghton, now director of Juilliard’s Drama Division. The Signature Theater, Houghton’s then-fledgling company, chose to devote its 1993-94 season to Albee’s work. At the same time, the Vineyard Theater produced Three Tall Women, which had been a success in Europe. After not working in New York for a full decade, Albee found himself with nine plays being produced at the same time during that season.

Publicly, this was his “comeback,” though in a literary sense, there had been nothing to come back from. Albee, who turns 80 this month, is one of the most prolific living playwrights, having written more than 30 plays, and is not planning on stopping anytime soon. “I’m always about two plays behind myself,” he said. Two new plays, for which he gave us vague outlines, are currently in the works.

He composes his plays in a self-described “anti-intellectual” way, beginning with an image or a voice and letting it mature for months in his head before he writes anything down. “I find that the unconscious brain is a lot more organized in its structure than the conscious part,” he said. “Before I write [my characters] I take them on a long walk … if they can handle themselves well in a situation which is not in the play, then I can trust them in the play.”

For Albee, the entire process of playwriting appears simple yet difficult; hard work but fun. He maintains unwavering artistic control over his work, and has revoked and even discontinued the rights to productions he feels fight against the true nature of his play. “When I write a play, I see it and hear it as a performed play as I write it,” he explained. He collaborates, but does not compromise.

When asked about the political and socially relevant nature of his plays and of theater in general, he denounced propaganda in theater but held to the belief that all theater comes out of a place of agitation, of wanting to change something in the world. Theater holds a mirror up to its audience which says, “This is who you are. You don’t like it, tough. Change.” After saying this, he struck a gentler, more self-aware tone: “What could be worse than getting to the end of your life and realizing that you haven’t participated?”

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