Three Pulitizer Prizes for Drama, two Tony Awards, and numerous other honors are testimony to the eminence and influence of playwright Edward Albee. His 45-year career took off quickly with The Zoo Story in 1959, zoomed to the stars with the 1962 Broadway success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, and continues today with the Broadway production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Although he frequently has been raked over the coals by the critics, Albee nonetheless has scored more great successes than most authors, among them A Delicate Balance, Seascape, Tiny Alice, Three Tall Women and The Play About the Baby.
In addition to his writing, the openly gay Albee is a stalwart political liberal, longtime member of the Dramatists Guild, and has a 15-year affiliation with the University of Houston where he conducts a playwriting workshop each spring. Albee has a long friendship with Chicago director Ina Marlowe, who has directed several of his plays, among them the current Organic Theater production of The Lady from Dubuque (through June 1).
Albee recently granted an exclusive interview to WBEZ Chicago Public Radio theater contributor Jonathan Abarbanel, who also is theater editor of the Windy City Times. Following is an edited transcript.
WCT: You began writing plays when people still used manual typewriters, and now we're in the age of voice-recognition computers that can take dictation. How do you work? Long-hand? Typewriter? Computer?
Edward Albee: I seem to do things the opposite of everyone else. I began typing, and now I'm back to writing by hand. Within a week after I've written by hand, I have to type it up, because my handwriting is very mysterious. After about a week, I can't read it accurately myself, and if I don't type it up within a week after I've written it, my plays turn out to be a lot more experimental than I intended. But I don't do major revisions. When I finally do type up the script, that's—basically—the script I go into rehearsal with. I don't do four, five drafts of a play.
WCT: Do you do a lot of revisions in rehearsal?
EA: Very few, a few cuts occasionally.
WCT: Once you have the idea for a play, do you write quickly?
EA: I don't know. When do you get an idea for a play? When you start thinking about it before you know you are thinking about it? When you become aware that you've been thinking about it? Or when you start writing it down? I don't know when the writing process begins.
WCT: That could be months, weeks, years.
EA: Yeah, sure. I've had one play in my head, about Attila the Hun, that I've been planning to write for 25 years now.
WCT: Is it really about Attila the Hun, or is it about a theater critic?
EA: Attila the Hun was much more organized than most terrible theater critics, and much more powerful in a world sense. He also had compassion; yes, he did. He was raised at the court of the Roman Emperor, as a sort-of hostage. So Attila the Hun, raised in Rome, was one of the most educated men of the time. And it's interesting that one of the most educated men of the time decided to destroy civilization. The great fun about that play, if I ever get to write it, is there weren't too many journalists around in those days—300 something A.D.—and so I can make up all my facts. Which I do usually anyway.
WCT: To the best of my knowledge, you haven't written historic drama.
EA: Well, let's see, I have a play floating around on my desk now about Federico Garcia Lorca, which I'm still working on. And I wrote a play about Bessie Smith.
WCT: Right. The Death of Bessie Smith was one of your early—late 1950s or early 1960s—one-act plays.
EA: 1960, I guess.
WCT: Very few of your plays have been turned into films—
EA: Very luckily!
WCT: Is that a matter of choice, does Hollywood not pursue you?
EA: Well, they used to pursue me more, but then they realized I was a really a difficult guy. Only three of my plays have been made into films. One of them, The Ballad of the Sad Café, was made into a film so dreadful that nobody ever saw it, fortunately. But both Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? and A Delicate Balance were shot, basically, without distortion. The plays were filmed pretty much intact, and so I got spoiled. So, now, when anybody comes and says 'We want to make a movie of a play of yours,' I say, 'OK, that's fine. The way I work is really quite simple. I choose the cast, I choose the director, and I'll write the screenplay.' So, you know, they don't call back very often. I suppose I should take the money and run, but I don't like that.
WCT: Tell me about the Edward Albee Foundation.
EA: A long, long time ago, back in 1962, I was making a lot of money. Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe was on Broadway and everywhere else. Taxes were very high. I had a good financial guy who said why don't you start a foundation? Instead of paying the government all this money, put it into a foundation, which I did. Bought some land and buildings out in Montauk at the end of Long Island, and have provided ever since a place where young composers, writers, painters and sculptors come out and live ... I call it an advance, more than a retreat.
WCT: A few weeks ago, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was announced. Your current New York play, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, was touted as one of the two top contenders. Well, neither of the top contenders won—
EA: I think that's nice. I've got three Pulitzer Prizes, and I'm not hurting for them.
WCT: You are a mature artist now who's received many awards and honors—Pulitzers, Tony Awards, American Academy of Arts. Is there any public recognition you still seek or covet?
EA: Covet? I think it's dangerous, I don't think in those terms. The work should be it's own proof. Yes is better than no, if people want to give you a prize, an award, I think that's great. The only time you get upset is if somebody you know couldn't write their way out of a paper back ends up getting a prize. Look at the Nobel Prize. Over the years, think about the people who haven't gotten the Nobel Prize. Nabokov, who deserved it so much. But you can't need prizes, you can't want them, you can't be greedy for them, because then you become an employee.
WCT: The Lady from Dubuque is running at the Organic Theater, through June 1. It was first produced in 1979. I noticed references in it to a microwave oven and a Cuisinart. Were they around in 1979? Or did you update the play at some point?
EA: I don't recall making any changes in the play at all. I don't invent stuff like that. With Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, which was written in 1960-1961, all this DNA stuff that everybody knows about now, was just beginning to surface. So I was really on top of medicine in those days.
WCT: You've never had legal training?
EA: Well, listen, if you're going to be a playwright, learn as much as you can about all of your rights, and how to read contracts.
WCT: That's one reason you've been a prominent member of the council of the Dramatists Guild for many years.
EA: Yeah, to try to help playwrights not get screwed by the Forces of Darkness.
WCT: The Lady from Dubuque has a number of interesting themes working in it.
EA: Including the fact that our reality is, basically, determined by our need.
WCT: It has a great deal of comedy in it. In fact, all your plays do. Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe is a richly comic play. A production of it in Los Angeles that you, yourself, directed extracted more comedy from it than any production I've ever seen. Do you think you're underrated or under-appreciated as a comedy writer?
EA: I don't do sitcoms or anything. But one of the reasons I decided a long time ago that I preferred Chekhov to Ibsen, is that there aren't too many laughs in Ibsen. I think that comedy and tragedy are very, very close together. So close. Laughter in the dark.
WCT: Have you written plays you would define as out-and-out comedies?
EA: I decided at the very beginning: what should I call this? A drama? A comedy? I call it a play. The other terms are limiting.
WCT: Starting in the fall, the Goodman Theatre will be staging something of an Edward Albee festival in honor of your recent 75th birthday. I know you're not coy about your age.
EA: It's the only virtue I can find in becoming 75. I'm not coy about it; I don't approve of it.
WCT: Will you be here in Chicago?
EA: Oh, sure, as much as I can be. I'm a snoop and I like to interfere with what everybody's doing.
WCT: Well, we'll look forward to seeing a whole mess of Edward Albee plays.
EA: That's the way to put it. A whole mess, good!