“On close examination, the bitterest dramatists today prove to be the most moral. Albee condemns the vulgarity of an age that refuses to perceive the sanctity of the human condition and the responsibility for mutual respect. Instead of struggling for balance amid the conflicting drives within us, we retreat to hypocritical subterfuges. Albee decries the younger generation not for its well advertised ‘sins’ but because it refuses to comprehend the validity of tradition which the past has so valiantly fashioned to convert chaos to order. He also accuses the older generation of having depleted tradition of its content by neglecting to persevere in the arduous task of maintaining it.”
—HAROLD CLURMAN, 1971
Craig Lucas One of the things I’d never read before and that excited me the most was Box/Mao/Box.
Edward Albee Interesting play, yeah.
CL Really very beautiful. Closer in many ways to poetry, I thought. And music. The Mao quotations, I presume, are really …
EA They were taken from The Little Red Book as translated and published in this country and I took them in sequence from the book.
CL Juxtaposed with The Long-Winded Woman and the poem.
EA The poem, “Over The Hill To The Poor House,” of course, was in public domain. I wrote the speech of the Long-Winded Woman … the Long-Winded Lady, actually, and then what I did was I got my scissors out and I cut everything into paragraphs and I had it all over the floor and I put it all together in the sequence that I wanted it to be.
CL Well, it works in ways that are funny and then suddenly very disturbing…. On first reading, it seemed to me to be about the horrible things that had been done in the 20th century to masses of people, the powerlessness one feels over those huge exterminations, and art as probably the only solace that …
EA You got it.
CL … we have. I found it very moving. Probably what’s difficult about it, not having seen it, it’s bad to presume … but because the characters don’t talk to one another, because they talk to us, we must make the construction for ourselves which is something I don’t think audiences like to do very much.
EA No, they don’t, no. Audiences don’t like being talked to. And of course, Chairman Mao wanders throughout the audience and talks to individual audience members; he walks through the set and down into the house and observes …
CL At first, so much of what he’s saying seems … quite reasonable. Coming from a onetime Marxist background, I found it very reasonable, and then I began to listen and the justification of war-to-end-war comes right into your face. I was also put in mind—because of the references to music—of Lenin’s hatred of music, because it made him feel. The Long-Winded Lady says something about it, “We cannot listen to music … because we cry.”
EA That’s in Box. That’s not The Long-Winded Lady.
CL Yes, and then it weaves through Mao. I’d love to see it.
EA Yeah, it was beautifully done on Broadway with, uh … Who the hell was in it?
CL I think Ruth White did the …
EA Ruth White.
CL … Wow.
EA Oh gosh, she was wonderful. What an actress. There’s a recording of that somewhere.
CL One of the things that was very apparent to me in reading all the plays … and also hearing you talk at the Dramatists Guild … is the matter of control. You seem … to be very invested in …
EA Well, composers don’t let musicians play notes other than the ones that they’ve written, painters don’t let galleries hang their paintings upside down, why does it suddenly seem to be the playwrights who should let all sorts fuck around with their work.
CL I’m the same way, though maybe not to the same degree, in terms of putting the number of seconds for a pause.
EA These are things you learn from Chekhov and Beckett.
CL It’s very much like Beckett.
EA And I’ve talked to Beckett about this a lot … music and drama are so closely aligned … they’re both sound and silence; they’re about durations. And if you hear … what you write when you write it, you’re hearing duration. You’re hearing sound and silence. And therefore, it’s your responsibility to put it down. And I’ve also written endlessly about the ways composers and playwrights should notate … similarly … the difference between the duration of a comma and a semicolon and a period. And fast and slow, and loud and soft, and all, it’s the same as musical notation, because theater … one of the wonders of it … is it is a spoken, seen and heard, as well as literary form. It’s the only one that has all of them.
CL Let me ask a devil’s advocate kind of question. If someone … if world-class actors, say, were to get together with a new script of yours and … either distort it or reveal to you things that weren’t intended to be there, but in some way to disregard your parenthetical directions to them … and were to have a huge success with it … would you find that…?
EA Well, you’re making a set of assumptions here. First, that world-class actors behave that way. They don’t. I’ve worked with some world-class actors … you know, Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Scofield and John Gielgud and Irene Worth and Colleen Dewhurst and various other people. World-class actors don’t act that way to begin with. While I’m perfectly happy to make adjustments in my work if it is revealed to me that something I’ve written doesn’t work, I’ve had very few occasions where first-rate actors have felt the need to do that. And I make an awful lot of revisions before I write a play down. I do go in rehearsal with my first draft, ’cause I don’t write my first draft down until I’m pretty sure what I want to do. So this hasn’t happened. John Gielgud could not perform or did not want to perform the entire last monologue of Tiny Alice, so I said to him finally, “John, would you like to do the first half and then stop or pick it up and do the second half or should we do hits from the final monologue?” And John said, “Very funny, Edward.” So he did hits from the monologue. And it didn’t work. You have to do that whole long monologue for it to work. But that’s a rare occasion. You know, if a speech is one sentence too long, I can tell five minutes before a world-class actor tells me. As to having things revealed to me by good actors, sure, this happens all the time. But what is revealed usually is something that I have done, without being consciously aware that I’ve done it. There’s the fine dividing line between interpretation and distortion. But world-class actors do not distort. It’s the premise of your question that’s faulty. World-class actors reveal.
CL Gielgud then went on to direct All Over. Were you hesitant going in on that, having had this other experience?
EA No, I thought it’d be an interesting experience. It turned out to be a relatively cold production, and I’ve seen better productions of it, but no, that was another matter totally. That play he seemed to understand far more than he understood…. It was a perfectly naturalistic play, well, given the levitation of the dialogue sometimes, it’s a perfectly naturalistic play. And he wouldn’t have any metaphysical problems with it.
CL You have three plays that haven’t been seen in New York yet.
EA More than that.
EA Well, Counting The Ways and Listening.
CL Have not been done in New York.
EA They were done at the Hartford Stage Company.
CL Has anyone asked to do them?
EA A few people have, but I’ve been busy. Doing other things. Nor has Finding the Sun.
CL That’s what I was thinking of. And Three Tall Women and Marriage Play.
EA And also my adaptation of Lolita has never been done in New York.
CL You seem very bitter about it in the introduction to your selected plays.
EA A complete travesty. It was not my play. So, well, there are five that literally have not been done in New York yet.
CL Where are you about that? Do you want them on Broadway? Would you let Circle Rep do them?
EA Certainly Counting the Ways and Listening are not Broadway plays. God knows. Nor do I think Three Tall Women is necessarily, unless you’ve got some pretty extraordinary actresses and maybe that would be interesting to do. To get three top-flight women and try to do it. Marriage Play I think could survive in the commercial theater; it’s quite possible. That takes care of them, doesn’t it?
CL I have no idea what the commercial theater is any more, if it’s a hospitable environment at all for plays in New York.
EA I have no idea.
CL That’s why I asked about Circle and Manhattan Theatre Club.
EA Oh, sure, yeah. But the thing that I constantly resist is the desire of the commercial theater to make serious playwrights second-class economic citizens. I mean, it’s nice to have your plays done where they’re appreciated, but our commercial theater should not be so that it’s difficult for serious plays to get performed.
CL Why is that so, do you think?
EA It’s such a round-robin of opportunism and then pressure…. The people who run the commercial theater, the people who own the theaters, of course, want them filled and they want them filled with that which audiences will see. And there is some kind of intentional or unintentional, I’m never quite sure which, collusion between the managements and, oh, let’s say the New York Times which makes so much money out of theater advertising to see to it that it hires critics who are not going to rock the boat too much. There’s a collusion to make the theater safe for the middle-brow and the middle-class. And it’s unfortunate. And that’s what happens. There it is. What is happening is that our audiences are no longer being allowed freedom of choice between serious and excellent and mediocre and popular. They’re being offered choices between degrees of mediocrity.
CL Unless they’re willing to do a certain amount of looking for themselves.
EA Yes, but they’re not, as you know. And also, our Broadway audience, made up for the most part of middle-aged or young Yuppie and Middle-aged white upper-middle-class people, trained on the stuff they get from movies and television, are not interested again in having the boat rocked or having to think differently. A lot of our regional theaters are violating their mandate by turning into try-out houses for the commercial theaters. It’s not a healthy situation. But theater’s always been a minority participation. We just were fooled into thinking it was something else.
CL I found Finding the Sun one of the most beautifully constructed and winning plays in your entire …
EA Winning. What a strange word.
CL It charms you with humor. You do some things in it that you don’t always do. You give characters specific names; they’re not abstracted—
EA Most of the characters in most of my plays have names.
CL I’m talking about WOMAN A, B, and C in Three Tall Women or He and She in Marriage Play—
EA Yeah, but that’s the exception. I’ve written 25 plays, now most of the characters have names.
CL Well, I was struck by how many have Mommy, Daddy, The Mistress, The Son, The Daughter …
EA Yeah, a lot of them do. But … also, why waste names? I’ve noticed that most people who are talking to each other don’t use names. You notice something interesting about the names of the characters in Finding The Sun?
CL Some are Shakespeare. Are they all?
EA Notice something else? Look at them.
CL Oh, the names begin with A, B, C, D, E, F?
EA Yes, you noticed that.
CL Susan Sontag has done something similar in The Way We Live Now. There are 26 characters and they—
EA And it’s all alphabetical?
CL Have you ever written a play for a specific actor?
EA No. I’d never do that, because then you write a role and not a character. You write to the limitations or the peculiarities of the particular performer. When I know a character well enough while I’m writing it I will toward the end of writing start thinking about who I want in it and start hearing actors, but I would never start out that way. What if you wrote a role for somebody and they either died or didn’t want to do it? You wouldn’t have a character really.
CL You’re that rare playwright who directs his own work.
EA Mmmm, it’s not so rare. Really, it’s not. You think of the 20th century playwrights who directed their own work: Brecht, you have Beckett, you have Anouilh, I think O’Casey did some of his, Pinter, Gelber, a lot of others. The virtue in it is that you can get an accurate representation of what was intended.
CL Do you enjoy that process?
EA Yeah, I do.
CL A lot of American playwrights are extremely impatient with the actor’s process. You hear them sneer at “the journey of the ‘character’” and they have no interest in how the actor gets from his/her self to a realization of their character.
EA No, I can stand that tedium. I find it very useful to me as a writer to direct also. It teaches me things about the relationship between author’s theory and stage practice, maybe makes the distance between those two a little less. Makes the plays more stage-worthy. See, when I write my plays I see them and hear them in my mind as I write them, being performed onstage. I don’t see them in some kind of amorphous reality, I see them as a performed stage piece as I write them.
CL You don’t inhabit the characters? You’re witnessing.
EA Yeah. I have inhabited them, obviously, or I couldn’t let them loose to observe them, but since I see them in performance, I see the plays being performed as I write them, that’s what I try to direct, the performance that I see when I write it.
CL There’s also an extremely musical quality to your work. And I notice that three of them are dedicated to composers.
EA Sound and silence again.
CL Did you have a musical background?
EA I did. I wanted to be a composer when I was around 11 or 12 and I was incompetent at reading music and playing the piano, so I didn’t do it. I probably know more about … well, two things that are only vaguely related … are related to theater but are peripheral: classical music and contemporary art … than almost anybody I know … who is not a composer or a visual artist. And since theater is made up of those three elements, I suppose it’s essential. And I’m aware sometimes when I’m working on a play that I am composing music, that it is a passacaglia or a sonata.
CL You didn’t write a play until you were … 30?
CL What did you do in your twenties?
EA Oh, I wrote bad poetry, bad novels, bad short stories.
CL But always writing.
EA Oh, yeah, always writing. And supporting myself with various odd jobs. Delivering telegrams for Western Union being the one I liked the most. The upper west side of New York City. “The sickening rooming houses of the upper west side of New York City which is the greatest city in the world, amen.” As Jerry says in The Zoo Story.
CL I had a question about a line in Finding the Sun. Edmee says “I would love to be able to breathe both water and air” and Abigail says, “We can … in a way.”
EA Well, that’s because she’s going to go down and commit suicide, or try to commit suicide.
CL And does Fergus commit suicide?
EA No. No, Fergus goes off and … we’ll see what happens to him. No, he doesn’t commit suicide, he just goes off.
CL He talks about suicide, adolescents committing suicide.
EA No, I don’t think, oh, I don’t think he does that, no. I just think he goes off and he’ll probably come back sooner or later. I mean, he’s been given something to think about as he overhears what his mother is saying, but I hope that he won’t, that won’t happen to him.
CL Well, why I wondered about the breathing air and water was I seem to remember having read—
EA Yeah, in Seascape, there’s reference to it also.
CL I remember an earlier draft of Seascape which was not realized in New York where they went underwater which I found very beautiful. I wondered why it was cut.
EA Well, it ended up being longer than Parsifal, and not quite as funny. And the fact that I could cut it between the first and second day of rehearsal suggested to me that it probably wasn’t necessary; it was a bit of an indulgence.
CL Reading all the plays through, there’s a constant refrain about cancer. Wasting, painful dying. Which prefigures the AIDS epidemic. I wondered if you had any thoughts about that.
EA Oh, it probably has something to do with the fact that all the living we do ends up in that and raises philosophical questions, I suppose, psychological questions. And I think it also has a good deal to do with the fact that so many of my plays are about people that are avoiding living their own lives, so the first real experience they have is their dying.
CL Wakes them up.
EA And I think we should think about our dying and be aware of it very young, very early on, but live so fully that the dying is not the only full experience we have.
CL That’s what I loved about Finding the Sun, because I felt the characters embracing experience. Henden has a line, “Life is so … ” and you think he’s going to say “awful” and he says “splendid.” Often in the other plays, or at least in my take on first reading, there’s an unwillingness by many of the characters to …
EA Oh, yes, a lot of them are unwilling; I consider myself to have met a lot of people living lives of avoidance. I mean, take A Delicate Balance: it’s not about the demands of friendship, it is about what Agnes says in the third act. Things become too late finally, you do go up on the hill with your sword and shield, there’s nothing left there but dust.
CL It’s much harder to like those people than the ones who are either doing something to make their lives better or at least recognizing—
EA Yeah, but aren’t all plays meant to teach us something … how not to behave as well as how to behave? Delicate Balance tells us a good deal about how not to live our lives. I hope.
CL It’s a cautionary tale.
EA Yes. All plays should be and all plays are written, all serious plays, are written in the hope that they will become unnecessary.
CL Alcohol is something else that goes through the plays … a love of it or an addiction, the pleasure or the dissipation brought on by it. That beautiful little thing the narrator says in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, “A man may suffer, or he may be spent with joy—but he has warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there.” And I actually made a note in my copy of the play, “Have I loved alcohol more than any living human being?”
EA Of course, the climate I grew up in was not a drug culture, it was an alcohol culture. And so I suppose that’s the, uh … symbol or the metaphor for avoidance. Do my characters drink as much now as they used to? I don’t think they do.
CL The man who had three arms seems to me …
EA Oh, yes, he does, he does drink. A good bit.
CL Do you feel that play was misunderstood?
EA Intentionally. The audiences the two weeks we previewed had a wonderful time. They were standing up at the end, applauding, laughing, having a great time…. But no, the play was slaughtered by the critics if you will notice … they intentionally misunderstood.
CL But I actually felt that it was possible to read the play as an admission—I’m just taking a critic’s point of view—of weakness. If growing a third arm becomes a metaphor for talent versus a metaphor for fame, something which just happens to one—
EA But the play says very specifically that it is not. It was the opportunity for people to misunderstand if they wanted to. But the character in the play does say at one point, “I didn’t write 15 string quartets, I didn’t split the atom, I grew a fucking third arm, for Godsake.” I put as many hints in as I possibly could that this has nothing to do about me, has nothing to do about the creative act, it has to do with the false idols we create and then how we treat them. The play was about the people who reviewed it actually. So naturally, they would misunderstand it.
CL As I recall, I haven’t re-read the novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, but I don’t remember there being much dialogue.
EA There’s none.
CL I was astonished at the different voice, voices, you seemed to be throwing in that play compared to the other plays which often have an upper-class setting—
EA Also true of The Death of Bessie Smith.
CL Yes. I was astonished that you could create people from a swamp town in Georgia and make them, you seemed to have a … they seemed to spring full-born from some place, and I was curious about that, because it’s often been said that writers have only a few voices they hear in their—
EA Isn’t that what writers are supposed to be able to do?
CL To invent.
EA Yeah, I mean, after all, there are a number of things we have not been, you and I. We’ve not been women, we’ve not been 80 years old, we’ve not been black. A lot of things we haven’t been. But its our responsibility to be able to be them, isn’t it?
CL I love this. (reading from The Man Who Had Three Arms) “Man A keeps his eyes closed so as not to see too much, to know too much; Man B closes his after he has seen it all, closes with sadness, loathing and relief; and Man C—is there a man C?—never blinks, keeps his eyes wide open, staring into the blinding dark.” That seemed to me to be a kind of credo for your work.
EA That came, from reading about those fakirs in India.
CL (indicating the script) It’s here.
EA It is? It’s still in there?
CL (continues reading) “There were—still are, probably!—holy men in India gaze into the sun from rise to set, never blinking … Man C is the happiest of men; he has seen the futility; it destroys him; he worships it.”
EA I did like that phrase, blinding dark. I like that a lot.
CL Your plays, if looked at back to back, are unflinching and rather uncompromising.
EA Isn’t there enough compromise asked of us in the theater?
CL I think you’re Man C. So …
EA That’s what’s wrong.