A playwright who keeps pushing the boundaries
NEW YORK — The passage of time has neither mellowed three-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee nor changed his perspective about the human condition.
He has been hammering at conventional morality from the stage since 1958, when his one-act drama, "The Zoo Story," about despair on the city streets, was first produced. It was followed by the one-act plays "The American Dream" and "The Sandbox," which pictured the members of a middle-class family acting out their nightmares.
The 1961 Broadway première of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" catapulted Albee into the public consciousness and brought him his first Tony Award. He has continued to write dramas that have by turn engaged, baffled, or enraged the public, and this season is no exception. The mid-March Broadway opening of "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?" divided audiences into opposing camps: those sympathetic to Albee's demons, and others who felt he has pushed the boundaries too far.
" 'Who is Sylvia?' is about something that happened to a successful family that more than rocks the boat," Albee says. "It creates a chaos that I'm not even sure they can recover from. I never know. Look at the end of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Are George and Martha [the play's leading characters] going to be able to make it? I don't know, do you?"
The plot for "The Goat" relates the story of a supposedly happily married man who falls in love with a goat named Sylvia. Albee's version of the emotional ties within a family and the behavior of the husband's "best" friend suggest a bleak outlook for a society that reverts to primal instincts when threatened.
"The Goat" returns to the theme of the problems within a marriage, which were brutally explored in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But it makes the gender warfare between the warring couples in the earlier play seem like a mere game.
Another new Albee play, "The Occupant," about the renowned sculptress Louise Nevelson, started performances at the off-Broadway Signature Theatre Company in late-February, but was delayed by the illness of Anne Bancroft, cast in the central role. Ms. Bancroft recovered in mid-March in time to appear during the last few weeks of the limited run, which ended April 7. Signature Theatre Company is hoping to remount the play at a future date.
"The Occupant" dramatizes the life of a real person a departure for Albee, but he knew Nevelson well.
"We got to be very good friends," he said, speaking by telephone from New York, where he keeps a loft downtown. "The more I knew her, the more I thought about her. It related to something that had been interesting to me for quite a while: how creative people create themselves as well as their work."
Nevelson, who was born in Kiev, Russia, immigrated at age 6 with her family to Rockland, Maine, "where nobody liked her or Jews very much," Albee says. "She was forced into a terrible marriage in New York City, had a kid she didn't want, broke away from all that, and lived in poverty and rejection for 27 years while she tried to find a way to express herself. She finally made a breakthrough. She created this persona, the way she dressed, the way she presented herself publicly."
The publicity around Albee's early works earned him a reputation as a difficult personality.
"I was very shy as a kid. Until I learned to handle myself in public with interviews and questions, the gruffness was probably because I was insecure and shy," he says. "So I got the reputation of being a snarler. I've learned to be a human being."
Four decades of writing have brought him Pulitzer Prizes for "A Delicate Balance" (1966), "Seascape" (1974), and "Three Tall Women" (1991); the Gold Medal in Drama from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980); the Kennedy Center Honors; and the National Medal of Arts (1996).
After the openings in New York this spring, Albee returned to Texas to teach a graduate seminar in playwriting that he has led for the past 14 years. His next projects include two new dramas, which he'll revise at his summer home on Long Island in Montauk, N.Y.
"The Lorca Play," a commission work about the Spanish playwright, will be presented off-Broadway next season.
"I had been thinking a bit about Garcia Lorca, whose work I admire a lot and thinking about the reasons why he was killed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War ... because he was an intellectual, a leftist, an agitator, and he was gay very good reasons to kill someone in that kind of society," Albee says. "I began to [wonder] if there weren't some parallels between what happened to Lorca and some of the tendencies that I don't like that are going on in this country."
Albee says it's "too soon" to talk about his other work, but he'll stay true to his beliefs as a dramatist. "There are all sorts of ways of having tension in a play. You can't write a very successful serious play about people without any problems sitting around being happy together.
"I don't believe in tying things up in ribbons and bows at the end. I like the catharsis of the play to take place in the mind of the audience after they leave the theater."