Edward Albee has been a force for the stage for around half a century. But while his plays endure, the man himself is a bit dated, Laura Parker writes ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
In the 50 or so years that he has been writing plays, Edward Albee has
remained unchanged as both man and playwright. This, at least, is what he said in a rare public interview at the Sydney Theatre Company earlier this year. The talk was hosted by Jonathan Biggins, an Australian theatre personality, who spent two hours asking Albee questions in front of a live audience. Having never heard the great playwright speak before, I was eager for this rare glimpse at his genius mind. What I got instead was the sense that Edward Albee is an old fogey.
According to Albee, the problem is that the world of theatre has changed in ways he disapproves of. He is especially irked by the increasing importance of a director’s vision, which is now understood to be just as valuable as what is being directed. In interviews and public speeches, Albee has been vocal about his distaste for those who neglect his strict stage directions. In his eyes, directors who foist their own vision on a production are nothing but "interpretive types that think they know our work better than we do".
Albee’s formative years were bittersweet: adopted by a very rich family who owned and managed a chain of Vaudeville theatres, he was treated to the best education that money could buy (not to mention free trips to the theatre). But he hated his adopted parents, who were racist, anti-Semitic and, worst of all (to his mind), Republicans. So he up and left New York's suburbs for the city when he was 18, and began his education in the "serious" arts, as he called them.
Literature, art, theatre and music filled his eyes and ears until one day he found himself writing his first play, "The Zoo Story" (1958), in three weeks when he was 30. Although it was rejected by producers in New York, it was successful in convincing Albee that playwriting was what he wanted to do. And there’s no denying that he has done it well. His works are biting satires of modern life and the family unit, which lay bare the tribulations of social disparity and the negative effects of an ever-changing commercial world. All in all, an heroic contribution to theatre.
During his early years Albee (pictured right in 1987) was greatly inspired by Samuel Beckett, whom he continues to revere. Albee's affinity for Beckett goes beyond their similarly dark preoccupations with the human condition. Beckett also took a hardline view of adaptations of his works. He was notoriously meticulous in his stage directions, supervising rehearsals of his plays whenever he could. He would often sideline directors to tell actors their intonations were wrong, or they were not moving the way they should, or the lights were too bright, or not bright enough. He even tried to close down one or two productions when he felt his work was being misrepresented.
Following Beckett’s death, the playwright’s licenses and rights to perform his plays fell into the hands of his nephew, Edward Beckett, who has maintained an iron-grip on his uncle’s work. He is known for refusing to grant licenses for productions that do not strictly adhere to Beckett’s stage directions.
Albee is almost certainly plotting something similar for his own legacy. He has been a vocal critic of productions that take too many liberties with his plays, such as a 2007 production of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"(1961-62) at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre. Staged by Benedict Andrews, a young and audacious director, this version was both terrifying and brilliant. It stripped away Albee’s stage directions and set requirements, and featured a much younger cast than the script calls for. The result was pure, alcohol-fuelled psychosexual warfare, played out on a stark and sleek stage surrounded by a glass cage. It made for a perfect example of how a director’s vision can breathe new life into an old work.
Albee didn’t see it that way. He denounced Andrews’s production, comparing such changes to musicians who tell the conductor they’re improving the piece by playing it differently. “I see and hear my play on stage in my mind when I write it,” Albee told Biggins. “I expect people to perform it that way.” He then recounted a sour experience witnessing a Bulgarian production of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that ran without any intervals ("Bulgarians don’t like intervals," Albee explained). Large chunks of the play were cut. Albee was outraged.
Yet on the topic of stage adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, Albee suggested that a few of the Bard’s plays could do with a trim. “We have to accept that not all Shakespeare plays are as good as others. We all know that 'Hamlet' should end with Hamlet’s death. There’s no point or need for any of that other stuff afterwards. All productions of 'Hamlet' should end with his death, but for some reason they don’t.”
The problem is not only that Albee is selective with his dismay, but that his views are so dazzlingly out of date. Theatre is an ever-growing, ever-changing medium. No progress could ever be made if everyone stuck to the rules. To interpret a work from a single point of view (that of the person who created it) is to impose an unreasonable limit on that work. Meaning doesn’t lie with the creator, but with each reader, each observer. In theatre the roles of directors and actors are increasingly important, not just for the growth of theatre but for fresh takes on old works. Albee’s wishes for ceaseless loyalty are not only difficult to implement (how can a theatre company know exactly what was intended?), but disrespectful to those directors and actors who are driving innovation in theatre.
Biggins suggested these views to Albee, but the playwright was not interested. Instead he grew increasingly rude, occasionally cutting Biggins off or ignoring a question altogether. When Albee was asked what he thought of the enduring success of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", the playwright's best-known play, he responded that he hates it when people ask him what his plays are about. Instead, he chose to end the discussion by stating that, like all his plays, the Virginia Woolf characters were drawn from real life and did not require too much scrutiny. “It’s just a play about university professors and their wives.”
Perhaps the same can be said for Albee. Despite his enduring impact as a playwright, it seems best not to scrutinise him too closely.
Picture credit: Film still from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?", MDCarchives
(Laura Parker is a writer based in Sydney. Though soon after writing this piece, she found herself reconsidering her theory on overprotective playwrights.)