At a little before 2 pm on February 24th, I called the phone number which Arena Stage had provided. A thin, cultured, cheery voice said, “Hello?” I explained who I was and asked to speak with Edward Albee. “This is he,” the voice said, and just like that I was on the phone – with all respect to Tom Stoppard – with the world’s greatest living playwright.
Albee, who writes fierce dialogue, has a reputation as a fierce, and fiercely guarded, man. I found him to be completely otherwise – open, gracious, optimistic and full of laughter. His answers to my questions were enormously polished and succinct, but they were also thoughtful and substantive. He spoke extensively on his writing process, which many writers are unwilling to do, and he gave an understanding of characters and events in A Delicate Balance which help us unlock the human heart of that play.
His mind is capacious and thorough. When I misremembered a quote from the play – which he wrote forty-three years ago – he corrected me. When I cited an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1966, he remembered it – remembered the interviewer and what he had said in it. (You can read that interview, which includes a page of the original Delicate Balance with Albee’s handwritten notes here.)
Albee, who some describe as a symbolist with a penchant for obscurity, came across to me as a person who can be taken at face value, and is best understood when approached with a simple heart. If, instead of considering him an enigma, we think of him as a humanist with profound moral values, we may better appreciate the true value of his work. And we will certainly come closer to the man I interviewed on Wednesday.
DC Theatre Scene: I thought maybe we could start by talking about A Delicate Balance, in production, as you know, at Arena Stage. Now, I understand that when you write a play you get to know your characters so well before you start that you could have a walk with them and a conversation about things that have nothing to do with the play.
Edward Albee: If I know them well enough I can. I don’t start writing my plays on paper until I can do that.
DCTS: I understand. Now, could you have such a conversation with Claire? And if you did, what would she say about her drinking?
EA: I think Claire is really true to herself when she says she’s not really an alcoholic, She’s merely a drunk. What she means, she understands the extent of her self-destructiveness and self-pity. And she could stop anytime she wanted to, in other words. But she prefers not to.
DCTS: She enjoys being drunk, basically.
EA: No. She enjoys being a cripple and martyr.
DCTS: I see. You know, a lot of scholars have called you an absurdist, though I have to tell you that most of…
EA: What do they mean?
DCTS: Well, that’s an interesting question. I assume that what they mean is that what you’ve written is to be a mystery and make us reflect on the absurdity of the human condition.
EA: Well, look. The whole concept of the Theatre of the Absurd began as an existential or post-existentialist concept of man’s absurd position in the universe which makes no sense, where we have to invent whatever sense exists. That was the original concept of absurd theatre. But a lot of critics found that too complex. And so they turned it into anything that was not naturalistic, which is just foolish. So the original concept is my concern.
DCTS: In that original concept, would you find yourself in that tradition?
EA: Well apparently a lot of good critics did…European critics did. So yes.
DCTS: You’ve called the Arena Stage production ‘important’. Why do you think so?
EA: It’s important because it’s a very nice, accurate production of the play.
DCTS: It turned out to be important. It wasn’t intrinsically important, it was…
EA Well, I think the play probably has some value.
DCTS: Oh, yeah.
EA: It probably teaches us a few things. But you can have an unimportant production of an important play (laughs).
DCTS:I see what you’re saying, and I would agree. Let me ask you – the fear that drove Harry and Edna to Tobias’ and Agnes’, and the emotion that made Tobias want them to stay …
EA: It’s the fear that any thinking person has about being conscious, and all the death all the rest of it. But probably most people don’t admit it to themselves very often.
DCTS: Is it a fear of being by themselves? Is it loneliness?
EA: There was a musical called Lost in the Stars, written by Kurt Weill. Remember that musical?
DCTS: I’ve heard of it. I have not seen it.
EA: There’s a wonderful song in it. The title song has a line in there “We’re all out there, lost in the stars.”
DCTS: Hmmm. And so that’s something that Harry and Edna experience.
EA: Or are aware of. They’re bright people. Intelligent people. A lot of dumb people don’t have that problem at all.
DCTS: Is the fear connected with self loathing at all?
EA: No, I don’t think so. It’s an awareness of everything we’ve been talking about. Self-loathing? No. They don’t loathe themselves. They think they’re reasonably good people.
DCTS: Is this fear a constant in our lives? Is it the same in 1966 as it is now?
EA: Oh, it’s a constant, whether we admit to it or not. Yeah, sure. People close down so they don’t have to worry about stuff, you know?
DCTS: But Harry and Edna didn’t. They were open to what they were…
EA: Well, it surprised them a little bit. They thought they accommodated nicely, but something happened and it got to them.
DCTS: Was going to Tobias’ and Agnes’ a remedy for that? Do we seek out a remedy in other people?
EA: We do indeed, yes. Especially in our best friends in the world. We can’t find it in ourselves.
DCTS: Um-hum, sure. And that must be what Tobias meant when he said “I deserve this”.
EA: Well, he doesn’t say that exactly, does he?
DCTS: I’ve earned…
EA: I don’t think that line’s in the play.
DCTS: Oh – ‘You’ve earned the right.’ I guess that’s the phrase.
EA: Yeah. Yeah. “You’ve earned the right,”. Sure. Even though he does find something a little lacking in the fact that his “best friend in the world” should be a little more than he made it.
EA: Allowed it to be.
DCTS: Let me ask you how you came up with the title for Delicate Balance.
EA: I never know where my titles come from. With any luck I get a good one.
DCTS: Forty three years ago when you were writing this play, you did an interview with The Paris Review.
EA: That would be…Bill Flanagan, right?
DCTS: Yes, exactly so. Now, in that interview you said that with the possible exception of The Sandbox, nothing you’ve ever done has worked out to perfection. Do you still feel that way?
EA: Well, The Sandbox, mind you, is only 11 minutes long. And you can’t make too many mistakes in 11 minutes. And I didn’t make any mistakes in The Sandbox. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my longer plays. But the nice thing is I think most of them are interesting mistakes. There’s nothing worse than a dull mistake.
DCTS: Did you make interesting mistakes in Delicate Balance?
EA: Oh, probably, sure. I wouldn’t be surprised. I think I made mistakes in all of my plays. You know, I try to accomplish a fair amount and if you try to do that, you’re bound to screw up somehow.
DCTS: In that same interview, you said Samuel Beckett is the only playwright you admired unconditionally. How about now? Are there playwrights you admire unconditionally?
EA: Oh there are a lot of playwrights I admire, of course. Sam Beckett is still I consider the most important playwright of the second half of the twentieth century. I admire him still. Unreservebly. And I keep learning more and more from him all the time.
DCTS: He is a formidable presence on stage.
EA: Sure is. And in the novel too.
DCTS: Oh that reminds me of something. You wrote a novel when you were young – when you were in Italy.
EA: I wrote two of them. Terrible things.
DCTS: Have you given thought to revising them and having them published?
EA: No. If anybody tried to do that, I’d shoot them.
DCTS: Oh, all right. I’ll let people know.
EA: Be sure you do. (They laugh).
DCTS: Are there any young playwrights you identify as particularly promising?
EA: There are. But I never give anybody a list because five years after I give people the list, half of them will have fallen off the list. I don’t like to do that. The problem is never with enough young good writers. We’ve got a lot of them. The problem is young good audiences, and young good critics.
DCTS: That’s an interesting thing because we’ve had a lot of discussion about that recently here in Washington. Do you believe theatre has to do something new to renew audiences and bring young people into the theatre?
EA: I think there’s a double responsibility. I think there’s the responsibility of the audience to bring to the theatre an interest in interesting and new work and a willingness to have a play be complex, offensive, disturbing .. but theatre shouldn’t exist only to be escapist. And the responsibility of the writer to tell as much truth as he knows. And you put those two together, theatre works. And if you don’t, it’s a waste of time.
DCTS: Do you think there’s something about young audiences today which makes them reluctant or unwilling to take on that responsibility?
EA: Well, the arts aren’t taught much to young people in schools in this country anymore. Most people don’t even know what theatre is when they get out of college. They really don’t. And also it’s too damned expensive.
DCTS: Theatre is?
EA: Yeah. Theatre is. And a lot of people think it’s something for older folk. It’s nice for us older folk. But it really should be there for young people too because it’s a lot more interesting and intellectually involving than most movies.
DCTS: Yes. And it addresses, I think, themes that are important to folks starting out in life.
EA: Of course. Certainly.
DCTS: Let me ask a little bit about your writing process if I may. Do the characters come to you before the story idea, or does the plot come first or is it catch as catch can?
EA: Let’s put it this way. I don’t think the characters will start emerging in my head if they didn’t belong in a play that I hadn’t figured out yet. I’d say it’s not Pirandello.
DCTS: Um-hum, yeah. Gotcha.
EA: It’s anti-Pirandello.
DCTS: Is there a subject you wouldn’t tackle in a play?
EA:Well, name one. I’ll let you know whether I’ve tackled it. I’ve tackled just about anything.
DCTS: Well, I’ve seen The Goat. So…
DCTS: … I believe you. For example, would you tackle an overtly political theme?
EA:I think all of my plays are political, you see in a way, because they involve how we lie to ourselves. And how we don’t participate in our lives, and therefore we don’t involve ourselves seriously in how this country should be handled and run. We withdraw as a society from our political responsibilities as well as we do our social and emotional responsibilities too. But overtly political? There’s a difference between drama and journalism. And I’m not interested in journalism that way.
DCTS: I understand. Well, for example, religion. Is that a subject that you would handle in a play.
EA: Well, look at a play of mine called Tiny Alice. It considers practically nothing but religion. Religion and physics.
DCTS: All right. Is there a subject about which you’ve said ‘I just have to write about that.’, that’s resulted in one of your plays?
EA: I don’t start with subjects consciously. Obviously I must be thinking about something, but by the time I’ve become aware of it, it’s already in play and I don’t think about what it means or what it’s about. I don’t think about those things. Consciously, anyway.
DCTS: In that Paris Review interview, you indicated it took about four months, once you sat down …
EA: Usually, yeah. Usually that’s about it.
DCTS: And that’s still the case.
EA: .Yeah, pretty much.
DCTS: Tell me what advice you’d give to a director who is handling an Albee play for the first time.
EA: All of the words are there for a reason. They should be spoken in the order I wrote them.
EA: … and by the characters to whom they were assigned. And you may not cut. And you may not rearrange.
DCTS: But I get a sense from that response that you believe that a good director will understand all of the characters simply by looking at the text. That there’s no gloss he should put over them.
EA: No. You can’t act or you can’t direct metaphor, or symbolism or meaning. You can’t act or direct those things. All you can direct is what’s happening to real people. In real time. That’s all that can be acted.
DCTS: Well that certainly makes sense. Recently here in Washington we’ve seen premieres of a couple of plays written by two 1920’s era Russians Nicolai Erdman and Michail Bolgakov. Do you think there’ve been playwrights from the last century who have been overlooked and ought to be…
EA: .Sure. A lot of important ones. I don’t have the list with me, but of course, a lot of them. And many more good things written: not only plays, but string quartets, and poems, and paintings and sculpture. A lot of good stuff gets overlooked. And a lot of bad stuff gets praised.
DCTS: Yes, yes. That’s an unfortunate thing, I suppose. Do you still play tennis?
EA: Now and again, yeah. I just had my tennis court resurfaced. Boy, that costs a lot now.
DCTS: I’ve been told that, although I haven’t had occasion to get my court resurfaced. It’s clay?
EA: No. I’m out here in Montauk. Near the ocean. My next door neighbor has a clay court which keeps, from time to time, leaking into my swimming pool.
DCTS: Oh boy.
EA: .It doesn’t do that any more. But it used to. Until he moved the court.
DCTS: Are you thinking about a play right now?
EA: Sure. Yes. Two plays. One is sort of a nice rest for me, one from the other.
DCTS: Rest in what sense?
EA: Well, you know, thinking about one of them is involving, but I start thinking about the other, taking my mind off the one I was thinking about. I don’t know which I’ll put on paper first. I haven’t figured that out yet.
DCTS: All right. This has been a terrific interview. I appreciate you affording the time to me. And my hat’s off to you. Loved your play. And I loved the Kennedy Center production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
EA: That was a good production. Wasn’t Bill Irwin extraordinary?
DCTS: He was. He was absolutely fabulous.
EA: He’s a wonderful actor.
DCTS: I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who could interpret that role with his body that way that he did.
EA: He’s probably – how old are you?
DCTS: I’m 58.
EA: Well you’re probably still too young to have seen the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
DCTS: I was only 9.
EA: Yeah, well, you could have gone.
EA: Arthur Hill played the role of George in that production. And if anybody resembles Arthur Hill, it’s Bill Irwin. Much the same intelligence. So happy to have him.
DCTS: Again, thank you very much. Not only for this interview but for your great body of work.
EA: Thanks a lot. Take care.
Note: In addition to teaching young playwrights, Mr. Albee has provided an artists retreat a few miles from his Montauk home in the Hampshires, run by the Edward Albee Foundation. It was the earnings from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf which made that possible.