Edward Albee--quintessential famous American playwright, author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and nearly 20 other plays, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, native New Yorker--says he doesn't mind visiting the West Coast. Except, he adds, "when you get there, the ocean is on the wrong side."
A pause for laughter.
What a relief to have Albee break the ice with chit-chat about geography and the weather. Albee's ice can be impenetrably thick: One of the most important and influential American playwrights of the last 50 years, he has a reputation for being abrasive when pressed to discuss life and work.
Surprisingly, I found Albee's attitude mild, although he does not waste words. He may create hopeless communicators for the stage, but he is not one himself. The gruff clarity of his voice reflects the precision of his thoughts. He replies to questions quickly, honestly and with the self-confidence of an artist who has been asked repeatedly to explain himself over the past 40 years.
Although Albee's name is often mentioned in the same breath as those of more naturalistic countrymen Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller, his work reflects an interest in more difficult experimental theater. He would prefer to disrupt an audience's expectation of what theater should be. Unfortunately for Albee and other would-be innovators, Broadway, American theater's taste factory, subsists on big, bombastic musical moneymakers. The Great White Way has little to gain by shaking the values of its customers.
So I ask Albee if it is important for his work to succeed--or even exist--on Broadway.
"It doesn't matter," he responds. "Broadway hasn't mattered much to a serious playwright for 20 years."
Personal experience doubtlessly informs this strong opinion. At first the critics loved him, and he was the next big thing. Then they hated him and called him a hack. They loved him and said he was breaking new ground. They hated him and called his work self-indulgent. Albee's encountered this schizophrenia ever since 1959's The Zoo Story. It continues to this day.
Does he ever go to shows on Broadway these days?
"Well, I get free tickets for everything because I'm on the council of the Dramatists' Guild, so I will occasionally attend," he says. However, apart from a few new and revived productions of Tom Stoppard's work, he says he finds nothing worthwhile.
To his credit, Albee has not merely criticized a flawed American theater landscape from within it. Several of his plays, including The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), Three Tall Women (1991) and his most recent work, The Play about the Baby (1998), were first produced abroad before finding a home in this country. It's a fate that has also befallen the recent work of Miller and new productions of O'Neill.
The themes in Albee's plays are indifferent to anything as trivial as geographic borders. He writes about people, who happen to be American, in conflict, and he hopes they speak to a universal audience.
"I'm an American and I like to share," he says. "But I'm not a regional playwright. I like having people pay attention to me at home. That's nice. I like having them pay attention to me elsewhere, too. But I don't live for acceptance. Lucky me."
And they have always paid attention. Books have been published about the politics of his writings. Definitions--"absurd," "naturalistic," "heightened realism"--flow freely in various analyses. His homosexuality spawns speculation that the many married heterosexual couples in his plays are really gay men in disguise. Critics and fans alike search for links to his childhood as an unhappy orphan bought (literally) by a well-to-do New York family. As often as these theories are propounded, Albee ridicules them.
Regardless of the psychological roots of his creativity, Albee is notoriously close to his work. He sits in on rehearsals, directs and has even stopped productions he considers distorted. And why?
"Because it's mine," he says.
At 73, Albee comes to town to speak about a tumultuous and scrutinized career, which continues with a play called The Goat, opening on Broadway next year.
"But," he clarifies, "it's pretty outrageous and pretty shocking. And it may just possibly work."
And can he say what it's about?
Fair enough, Mr. Albee, fair enough.
Presented by Portland Arts & Lectures
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
1037 SW Broadway,
7:30 pm Thursday, Nov. 1