Monday, September 19, 2016

Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?

Most of us know Edward Albee through Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the movie version, if we know him at all.  On top of that many of us probably thought the play was about Virginia Woolf when it had nothing to do with her.  According to Albee, the title came from a bathroom mirror in a nameless Greenwhich village saloon, where he saw it scrawled in soap and couldn't get it out of his head.  He saw it as an academic intellectual joke and felt it fit with what he was writing at the time.

The Daily Mirror called it "a sick play for sick people," and when awarded a Pulitzer Prize by the jury, it was rejected by the advisory board, who chose not to give an award for drama that year.  The jury resigned en masse.  But, Albee not only persevered, he flourished in his own inimitable way, turning out plays and eventually winning three Pulitzers for his work, when the committee could no longer summon up the courage to reject him.

To read this New York Times obituary, it all started with The Zoo Story, a one-act play that was well-received in Berlin, and eventually made its way back to America.  Albee knew he wanted to be writer, but was struggling to find his medium.  He fell upon drama after failing at poetry and short story writing.  The one-act play garnered him attention.  Norman Mailer declared it the best one-act play he had ever seen, but others weren't so impressed.  Nevertheless, the play became one of the seeds of the the Off-Broadway revolution that would spawn a new generation of playwrights who explored the human dimension in ways Broadway saw little commercial appeal in.

Albee himself said it was a great environment, as you could see great plays for one dollar.  There were wonderful productions of Chekhov, Ibsen, and Beckett that you would never see on Broadway.  For him, plays were "correctives," a way of holding a mirror up to the audience and forcing them to look at themselves.  Whether a play succeeded or not mattered less to him than whether it made an impact on the audience.  Would they remember it?  Would they talk about it?  This was the way all the good playwrights started out and the great ones never relinquished that hold on the audience.

I did see a Lithuanian production of his Three Tall Women not so long ago.  Albee gets around.  His plays were often better received in Europe than they were in America.  Part of that is because his dysfunctional portraits were also a thinly veiled criticism of American society and politics.  Michael Billington expounds on that link in this review of a recent British production of Woolf.  In many ways, Albee was a contemporary Chekhov, using what seemed like domestic dramas to convey a far deeper sense of the dysfunction in our society. Albee was more combative than Chekhov, fitting the times.

He was also very protective of his productions, not wanting directors to try to make more out of the scripts than there was.  He was particularly upset when one director got it into his head to make Woolf an all-male cast, because of Albee's own homosexuality.  Albee got a court order to shut down the production.

You don't mess with Edward Albee.  Unlike cinema, there is a great veneration for the script in the theater.  A play may be visually re-interpreted but it very rarely ventures very far from the playwright's own words and stage instructions.  In that sense, the playwright is as much a part of the production as are his characters, which is why the plays live on long after the death of the playwright.

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