The legendary, indispensable (and greatly lamented by me) Circle Theatre was a movie house famous for its double features. The program changed every two or three days. As an adolescent, I spent more hours at the Circle than I did, say, doing sports, which may explain a lot about me, but that’s another story.
One Saturday afternoon, we at the Circle saw first The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was followed by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Hello, Edward Albee. Extremely pleased to meet you.
Virginia Woolf, I would argue, is one of those perfect plays. It’s so precise, so immediate, so involving, so effervescent, so fucking funny. It has become iconic. Our memories are filled with favorite productions and performances, while at the same time the script invites nearly constant reexamination.
Also, the movie is one of the most accomplished adaptations of a great play from stage to film. The wonderful cast, guided by a young Mike Nichols to trenchant performances, and stunningly shot by Haskell Wexler in black and white (just as color had pretty much become ubiquitous), would likely ensure inclusion on any top ten list of the best filmed plays. (And what a treat it was to see it projected and not on telly.)
I wrote in my recent appreciation of Zelda Fichandler about seeing Virginia Woolf on-stage not long after I first saw the movie, at Arena, directed by Alan Schneider, the visionary who directed Albee’s early work and the Broadway productions of many of his plays, including Virginia Woolf and A Delicate Balance. (Martha, in that Arena production, was Peg Murray, who had created roles for Tennessee Williams and won a Tony for the original production of Cabaret. It must have been intimidating for her to be directed by someone who could say, “When I directed Uta Hagen in the premiere…”)
Later in the 70s, I saw the first Broadway revival of the play, which starred a pair of my favorite-ever actors, Coleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara. That production was directed by the author — and it was revelatory.
Have you ever seen a production of a familiar play and thought to yourself, “Oh, that’s what that really means.” That was my experience of Albee directing Albee. Suddenly, certain things made so much more sense.
As an example, the wonderful movie did skew the socio-economic setting a bit, um, low. Burton’s cardigan notwithstanding, Taylor’s Martha seemed as if she’d be as comfortable at a trucker bar as at a faculty wine-and-cheese party.
The curtain raised on Dewhurst and Gazarra entering a well-appointed home, books carefully arranged on shelves, not piled in corners as in the Nichols film. And the play started to make sense as regards milieu in a fresh way.
Albee is frequently paired with Samuel Beckett when theatre people speak about the writers who are known for holding the reins tight, exerting unusual control over productions subsequent to premieres. Both are famous for shutting down experiments that, for instance, switch character gender. Interestingly, both also became frequent directors of their own work.
Albee came to Washington to accept the Helen Hayes tribute, as did (earlier!) his ex-lover Terrence McNally. I can’t remember which tribute included the memory of the two living together as the film of Virginia Woolf was being put together. Anyway, Albee and McNally lived at the time in the kind of strange apartment some of us might remember from those days: you could actually be locked inside by someone who has locked the door on the way out, and be left without the ability to unlock the door from the inside. (If you think that’s implausible, call me and I’ll recount the time I was locked into my Adams Morgan apartment by a roommate. I had to climb out the fire escape.)
The story goes that McNally went out to give Albee time alone with Bette Davis, who had come to talk about potentially playing Martha in the eventual film of Virginia Woolf. I don’t know what would have been more interesting to witness as a fly on the wall: the legendary Hollywood star’s reaction to being trapped in a tiny apartment with a young, gay playwright, or her pitch as to how she could play a part that involves doing an imitation of herself. (Both exchanges might have involved the phrase, “What a dump.”)
It was Albee’s remarks at the Helen Hayes ceremony that stuck with me, though, when he spoke so impersonally about his adoptive parents, referring to them as, I recall, people who used to live in the same apartment, not as family. That stood in stark contrast to the warmth with which he referred to his longtime partner Jonathan Thomas when Albee accepted a lifetime Tony Award shortly after Thomas’ death: “He made me a happy playwright.”
The sense of being a stranger at home is a recurring theme in his plays, and also in his relationship to critics, audiences, even to his country. His phenomenal success notwithstanding, his voice was not a comforting, reassuring one. The Zoo Story, his first play, was premiered in Berlin, not in New York. “Maybe I’m a European playwright and I don’t know it,” he once said.
Anyone who has seen The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, his play about a man’s romantic obsession with an animal, can attest that he was willing to take us to difficult, challenging places. (My brother Edward cheekily pointed out that, with the recent death of Gene Wilder — who courted a sheep in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex — it’s been a rough year for artists who explored inter-species sex.)
He always spoke of his work in almost mystical terms, as if the plays were not something that he created and had agency over, but rather were sort of channeled, were autonomous, and would speak — or not — for themselves. He was not a broker between script and audience, but a conduit.
I first saw him at a talk in the Hampton’s. Some guy who, I was told, had made a killing by inventing patterned seat covers for use in airplanes had this incredible estate, which featured a stunning sculpture garden. He would use it to hold talks about the arts, and I was lucky enough to get invited to what was billed as a conversation between Albee and the avant-garde director Robert Wilson.
Albee engaged Wilson in a fabulously intriguing way. He recalled seeing the Werner Herzog film Aguirre, The Wrath of God, and how a certain sequence, involving the death of a young soldier, had burnt itself into his psyche. After many years, Albee viewed the film again, anxious for the memorable scene. It was, he told us, not nearly as beautiful as what he had remembered.
He then described in detail a moment from an early Wilson production, and asked Wilson if his (Albee’s) memory was accurate. When the much-less voluble Wilson answered with a terse “No,” we all erupted in delighted laughter.
Not long after, I saw Albee on a panel at Lincoln Center, during a festival that was focussing on Harold Pinter. I’m a huge Pinter fan, and it was an extremely memorable weekend for me, as I watched Pinter actually play a role of his that I had played (in One for the Road).
The panel (and I know this is mind-blowing) assembled to talk about Pinter as a writer and about his enormous influence included not only Albee, but also Arthur Miller and John Guare. (It was moderated, by the way, by Albee’s biographer Mel Gussow, the long-time Off-Broadway critic for The New York Times, whose Edward Albee: A Singular Journey was published in 1999.)
An off-topic highlight of that exchange was when Miller spoke about how the success of Tennessee Williams had allowed U.S. writers the ability to develop a discernible writing style. Before Williams, he argued, it was the characters in a play one expected to evidence a distinct voice, not the play’s author.
I thought of that when I read McNally’s reaction to the death of Albee, his ex-lover: “He invented a new language — the first authentically new voice in theater since Tennessee Williams. He created a sound world. He was a sculptor of words.”
So many of the characters in the plays of Edward Albee are intelligent, articulate, precise, insightful, and it falls upon the actor to understand the sort of mind which will speak like that; the sort of world from which such a mind will have come.
Another comparison to Williams could also be made. Both achieved wild success early in their careers. Before the age of 40, each had established himself as a preeminent voice in the theatre.
After a string of successes, though, each experienced a wilderness period, during which new work failed commercially and critically. Comparisons were made — the latest plays against the established early masterpieces — and the more recent work was found wanting. Both writers were frustrated by a public which seemed to expect routine replication of A Streetcar Named Desire or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and were disappointed when the playwrights went in different directions.
However, both also leave (or left) a treasure trove of compelling mid- and late-career work that is ripe for rediscovery, as audiences and critics realize that second-drawer Williams or Albee can stand far above top drawer work by lesser talents — or as they realize that wonderful plays have been unwisely consigned to the second drawer.
Unlike Williams, Albee saw out his lean years and had a late-career renaissance, his third Pulitzer coming when he was pushing 70, a Tony coming well past 70.
And those less-successful plays began to get second looks. When I was still running WSC Avant Bard, I had my eye on one of his more notorious flops. My rights request, however, was denied. This was around the time of a New York revival of The Lady from Dubuque. The only reason I could see for withholding the license to that other play, I inferred, was that Albee had hopes that neglected plays from his oeuvre might get a similar revival, and that he wanted to keep them off the field in order to maximize the power of rediscovery.
Another memorable moment from the Lincoln Center panel with Miller, Guare, and Gussow came when Guare attempted what I thought was an insightful comparison between Albee and the panel’s subject, Harold Pinter.
Both writers had a period following success during which their work became sort of abstracted — both Pinter and Albee produced a series of one-acts that were almost like word poems as opposed to conventional narratives.
Guare noticed this career similarity, and observed how both rediscovered narrative (Pinter with Betrayal, Albee with Three Tall Women) in a manner that resolved a not-fully-satisfying detour in their work.
As Guare made his case, Albee sat motionless, glaring at Guare. Guare became uncomfortable, began to lose a bit of his assurance, and to sputter toward a concluding question to Albee, along the lines of, “Don’t you think so?”
We all (I, anyway) began to feel horrible for Guare, who had exposed himself somewhat by proposing what I thought was a thoroughly supportable comparison. Suspense built, as we wondered how Albee would respond. Would he agree? Would he throw Guare a rope by disagreeing with the conclusion while saying that he understood what Guare was reacting to?
Albee did not throw a rope. With calm composure, he said, witheringly, “I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.”
Guare’s line of argument dissolved in the ensuing laughter.
Albee’s response gets back, I think, to his attitude toward his plays, and toward the activity of writing. I don’t believe he intended to be unkind toward John Guare as much as he just didn’t think about himself or his work from that kind of perspective.
That suggests a distinction between Williams and Albee. Williams was an inveterate tinkerer, often returning to plays and revising plays, in ways small and large.
Albee took pride in his work being finished. Back to that conversation between Albee and Robert Wilson: For reasons I won’t go into now, after that event I ended up in the Albee receiving line with someone who wanted to speak to him but who, upon shaking hands with the great man, froze. So I felt called upon to make conversation.
I began by remembering the production of Virginia Woolf that he had directed; how astounding Dewhurst had been as Martha. He enthusiastically agreed.
I then challenged him. He had said during his talk that he had never changed a line of a play after it had been produced and published. But wait, I said. I knew the script of Virginia Woolf quite well, and I had noticed that, during the Broadway revival, he had taken advantage of the looser language restrictions in 1976 as against those from 1962. He had, I thought, added the odd four-letter word to the script.
Oh, no, he replied. What he had done was to restore to the script the words that had been expunged from his original text by its producers. He then rattled off, one by one, the censored lines and the euphemisms that had replaced the offending words.
However, there was one play that he did revise, and it provided the occasion for my closest encounter with the great man.
Tiny Alice was his first original play following Virginia Woolf, and it famously perplexed many upon its Broadway premiere. The play ended with a twenty-minute monologue, first delivered by John Gielgud, who was quoted as claiming that he didn’t understand it or the play.
Around the time of a revival in New York at Second Stage in 2000, directed by Mark Lamos, Albee either initiated or agreed to a severely edited third act of the play. This edited version then became the official approved text.
In DC, and at what was then Washington Shakespeare Company, I had (having seen that Second Stage production) been planning our own production of Tiny Alice. We were blissfully unaware of script changes and were basically working off of the version that had been published as a paperback in the 60s.
We opened and I got a call from our director, John Vreeke, who had sent the reviews to Albee along with an invitation to come see the show.
Albee called Vreeke to say that he was surprised to read our Post review referencing the 20-minute monologue, since it had been reduced in the revision to a matter of just a few minutes. If his publisher, Dramatists Play Service, had not provided to us the revised script, he wanted to know that, and there would be “hell to pay.”
Vreeke called me. I called the WSC office. (I had a full-time day-job during the years I was Artistic Director.) I asked our tiny full-time staff (okay, it was one person) to check our contract with Dramatists to ensure that we had been directed to the revised script. Shortly thereafter, I learned the awful news that the rights request to Dramatists had never been made and was sitting in a “to do” pile on the desk of a part-timer who had moved on.
Back on the phone with Vreeke, we decided that I should call right away to explain the situation to Albee. Vreeke passed along to me the number Albee had left.
To be honest, I was petrified. I didn’t know what his reaction would be, but figured at best that I would be torn a new one, at worst that the production would be shut down. After all, he had warned that there could be “hell to pay” and it was looking as if it was I who owed the debt.
I realized in the moment that I needed to just jump in and call; had I allowed myself time to consider the situation at all, I would have been too terrified to tell the famously exacting and formidable Edward Albee that I was bootlegging his work.
I called; he answered. I introduced myself and explained the situation.
“Well, these things happen,” he said. “And people lose their jobs and reputations when they do,” I thought to myself, but kept the thought to myself.
Albee made it clear that he would prefer us to swap out the old script for the new. I further explained that I was not only the Artistic Director of the company, I was also the actor who, as Brother Julian, speaks that final monologue. “Then you will definitely want to do the revised version,” he replied.
Albee’s preference was clear, and he was in a position to insist on that preference, but he did not. He left it up to us.
We agonized, but decided against a change that would have involved a rather major re-teching of that final act (which involved a model of a house lowered onto the stage in precise time to numerous sound and light cues) and would also have involved eliminating the arc resolutions for some supporting characters; those had been excised along with the bulk of the monologue.
And Vreeke argued to me that we had proven his initial script playable, and not the impossible, un-performable oddity that many had presumed it.
I wrote Albee a letter explaining our choice, and received a gracious response, which I keep in my copy of the Gussow biography and which I pulled out and re-read over the weekend.
Having determined to his satisfaction that our infraction had been “careless” and not “willful,” and even understanding that our decision wasn’t the one he had hoped for, he wished me well.
You work in theatre for a long time and you know the difference between the exacting artist as against the person who will reliably be a jerk if he has the power to do so.
So, yes, he could be fierce and intimidating, for sure. But I hope that my experience with him shows another side. He demonstrated to me that he was respectful of other artists — and indulgent of the human propensity for error.
Because, you know, these things happen.
Upon Albee’s death, his colleague playwright John Patrick Shanley tweeted:
Edward Albee is dead. I saw his darkness, which was vast and intimidating. I saw his kindness too, quiet and unassuming. His kindness won.
A couple of postscripts:
-The first play I directed in Washington, DC was The Zoo Story for Source Theatre Company in 1980. Featuring an unforgettable turn by Source founder Bart Whiteman as Jerry, the production was revived three times throughout the 80s.
-The WSC production of Tiny Alice was filmed by Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive. You can visit the WAPAVA homepage to learn more about it and about other local productions of plays by Edward Albee that were likewise taped.
[Editor’s note: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Holly Twyford as Martha, opens at Ford’s Theatre on January 21, 2017. Details and tickets.]