Edward Albee: A Life in Drama

June 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: It’s one of the most famous brawls in American theater history. The combatants: George and Martha: Husband and wife, middle-aged and very bitter. The play: “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

MARTHA: Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want. Don’t you worry about me.

GEORGE: Oh, I gave you the prize years ago, Martha. There isn’t an abomination award going that you haven’t… MARTHA: I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.

JEFFREY BROWN: First staged in 1962, later filmed with another famous couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in the leads, “Virginia Woolf” is now back on Broadway in an acclaimed new production starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. The two actors have received Tony nominations, the production’s been nominated for best revival, and the author is a sure winner.

At the award ceremony this Sunday, Edward Albee will receive a Tony for lifetime achievement. It’s recognition for an extraordinary career that dates back to 1958 and his first play, “The Zoo Story.” Among his other works, “A Delicate Balance” in 1966, “Seascape” in 1974, and “Three Tall Women” in 1991 all won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

In recent years, he’s been on Broadway with “The Play About the Baby” and “The goat, or Who is Sylvia.” I talked with Edward Albee recently at his home in New York City.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you remember the person you were when you started writing?

EDWARD ALBEE: You know, with any luck, I’m still the same person. Do I remember me? I remember a brazen kid with lots of ambitions.

JEFFREY BROWN: What were the ambitions for?

EDWARD ALBEE: To somehow figure out how to be a good version of what I decided I was when I was eight, which was a writer, when I started writing lousy poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what drew you to the theater?

EDWARD ALBEE: Well, several things: having failed at all the other branches of writing, for one. But as a kid, as a really young kid, being taken to the theater and seeing “Jumbo,” for example, with Jimmy Durante and an elephant, and seeing all sorts of wonderful shows when I was five, six, seven years old. I’m trying to think of the plays that I saw that really knocked me out when I went to see them when I was in my teens.

O’Neil’s “The Iceman Cometh.” T.S. Eliot’s… one of the T.S. Eliot’s plays — serious writers. And by the time, of course, when I was living in New York and I was able, you knowm at early 20s, I was able to see Sam Beckett and Ionesco and Genet and all the great avant garde writers from Europe, able to see their work off off-Broadway, that was terribly exciting.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, having struggled to find your way to being a playwright, as you put it, when did you know that that was it?

EDWARD ALBEE: It’s very odd. I’d always been reading a lot, knowing the quality of the work of other writers. And it wasn’t till I wrote “The Zoo Story” that I really felt, “Hey, this is individual. This is something that you have done. Nobody else could have done that. You did it.” And then it occurred to me, “Hey, maybe playwriting is something that I can do better than bad imitations of other people.” And so I’ve kept on. I’ve got 28 plays now.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did that keep on? How did the ambition change?

EDWARD ALBEE: Well, I decided when I was pretty young that I never wanted to be an employee. I wanted to be my own boss. And so, figuring out that I could make enough money to survive by being a playwright, I liked that a lot. You know, I was delivering telegrams for Western Union when “The Zoo Story” had its world premiere. I quit. I was making 38 bucks a week. And off-Broadway, when we did the play in New York at the Provincetown Playhouse, I was making 80 bucks a week. You know, that was enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wow! A rich man, huh?

EDWARD ALBEE: Well, comparatively, yeah. And better hours, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had this tremendous success, of course, with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Did that in some way become a kind of burden?

EDWARD ALBEE: Not for me, for other people, perhaps, because they wanted me to keep on writing that play over and over again. When I wrote a metaphysical melodrama about “Tiny Alice,” that upset people because it wasn’t “Son of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” There are two bad things for a writer: Imitating other people and imitating himself. I never wanted to do either one. So you always keep on guard for both of those.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how do you resist that, especially with something like “Virginia Woolf,” where you’ve got so much attention and that you almost become defined by it at a certain point?

EDWARD ALBEE: I know. Every playwright, you know — Arthur Miller, “Death of a Salesman,” right? He wrote a lot of other good plays. Tennessee, “Streetcar.” He wrote a lot of other good plays. Me, “Virginia Woolf.” A lot of other good plays, I think. It’s better to have one that people know you for than none, and you put up with the other stuff. It should never be comparative, because any playwright, every play he writes is the first play he’s ever written.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had this great success, but then you also had a period where you had great difficulties.

EDWARD ALBEE: You know, twenty-eight plays so far. I think of the ones that have been commercially successful, made their investment back for the producers — five, maybe, out of the twenty-eight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Five out of the twenty-eight?

EDWARD ALBEE: Yeah, sure. You learn quickly you’re going to be the fair-haired boy, then you’re not going to be the fair-haired boy. You’re in favor, you’re out of favor. And it doesn’t necessarily have very much to do with how well you’re writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: It doesn’t?

EDWARD ALBEE: You learn that quick: That if they don’t like what you’re doing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve failed at what you’re doing. It means you’ve failed in doing what they want you to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: If you look back to when you began and you look back to now, where you have this new production of “Virginia Woolf,” has theater changed?

EDWARD ALBEE: We have a wonderfully diverse population. But when you go to the Broadway theater, especially the orchestra seats, you’d think that America was made up of nothing but upper middle-age, rich, white people — the only ones who can afford to go to the theater. The economics of our theater is so destructive.

The cost of doing my play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” in 1962 was $42,000. To put this present revival — I hate the term, and I used it — this present new production on was about $1.5 million. The economics of theater is making it more and more difficult for people who want to do serious plays to be able to find people to invest in serious plays, because we all know serious plays don’t make the kind of money that the junk does.

JEFFREY BROWN: Has the purpose of theater changed from when you began writing to now?

EDWARD ALBEE: No. The purpose of serious theater has always been to hold a mirror up to people and say, “Hey, this is you. If you don’t like what you see, why don’t you change?” That’s always the function of all of the arts, to put us in greater contact with our possibilities. Sure, that’s the function of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: But our society has changed so much. You know, people have so much more to do. They have so many screens they can watch. They have so many places they can go.

EDWARD ALBEE: Yeah, so much they can do that’s not going to be as intellectually or emotionally involving as going to live theater, because theater is real and is happening while you’re there and movies and television are unreal and you know they’re unreal.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re getting this lifetime achievement award from the Tonys.


JEFFREY BROWN: Are you okay with that?

EDWARD ALBEE: Well, sure. But, yeah, it’s very — I’m grateful and it’s very nice that somebody thinks I’ve achieved something so far in my lifetime, but I hope it doesn’t mean that I can’t go on doing stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not finished?

EDWARD ALBEE: Not by a long shot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Edward Albee, thanks for letting us come visit.

EDWARD ALBEE: My pleasure.