“A play at its very best is an act of aggression against the status quo. I like that it’s an actively involving event for the audience. I like that I’ve been able to make a living at it. I also teach playwriting. It’s nice to find young talent.”
The speaker is Edward Albee, talking in Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre at the culmination of a four-day residency with the California Young Playwrights Project. This is something Albee has done for 10 years at least: touring the country, working with aspiring playwrights, giving master classes and occasionally directing a play, usually one of his own.
This particular Sunday, Albee was reading from “The Marriage Play,” his latest twist on a favorite subject: The battle of the sexes. He tried the play out in Vienna in May, 1987, and expects to have it on Broadway this fall. It is, as the title suggests, the diary of a marriage, a sardonic score card of sexual encounters--rich in laconic language, stylized and dry as a martini.
Is Broadway ready for this? Is Albee, whose most recent plays have been scorched by the New York critics, ready for Broadway?
“Somebody’s got to keep trying it,” he said later in a nearby coffee house, deploring the state of Broadway, yet rejecting the notion of out-of-town tryouts.
“I don’t see why one should have to try something in a regional theater to find out whether it’s commercial enough to move to Broadway. I wouldn’t mind with this play, if I knew I had a date for Broadway, I wouldn’t mind playing it around a bit, picking up some good reviews. What I don’t want at my age and (with my) experience, I don’t want to try the play out somewhere and have the Shubert Organization come in and decide whether it’s commercial enough to give me one of their theaters.”
At his age--60--Albee is trim and fit and in no mood to play games with the Shuberts or anyone else. Except for strands of gray in his mustache and hair, he looks much younger than his years. There’s a slight edge in the voice, a mild impatience with the world, but never a rudeness. The manner is cordial, ironic, sharp.
“I thought the function (of regional theater) was to give us things that we were not likely to see in the commercial theater, rather than stuff that’s on its way to the commercial theater,” Albee continued, dismissing financial shortfalls as any excuse for catering to public expectation. “You satisfy the audience by creating different expectations than the ones they have.
“The theater is in serious trouble,” he emphasized, “especially for any extended run. It gets harder and harder to find actors of a certain age willing to commit for any length of time on stage. They’ve been bought away by movies and television. Even if they’re willing to work, they’ll say ‘I’ll give you four months, sandwiched in between my film titles.’
“It’s a combination of things. It’s wanting a lot of publicity, greed and, since the agents make their living off of the actors, obviously they push them toward the more lucrative stuff. You’d be amazed at the number of people who’ve turned this, I think, rather good play down because it interferes with their important work in film.”
It is also true that Albee has not had much luck in recent years bucking the commercial theater, despite his unchallenged eminence as a writer, the rampant success of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and his two Pulitzers (the second for “Seascape,” a play currently on view at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills).
Given these lamentable conditions and the near impossibility of earning a living writing plays (unless you’re Neil Simon or Edward Albee), what does Albee tell his young student playwrights?
“I tell them that if it’s something that you cannot be a complete person without doing, do it. I also tell them it’s a real tough racket. It’s got to be something they need. John Guare told me once that until he wrote the screenplay for ‘Atlantic City’ he couldn’t support himself as a writer. And he’d had quite a bit of applause. Sam Shepard has never had a play on Broadway.
“What you do is get them the proper teachers: Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett. Don’t start with a thesis. Start with people. You can’t ever make a good play out of an idea. For young playwrights, it’s important that they start with the psychological urgency and make the assumption that, if there are symbols, they’ll turn up.”
Albee spreads this gospel wherever he’s asked--mostly high schools and universities--and he’s asked a lot. “I also get paid,” he adds, “which is nice. I like money, I hate everything that’s funny. I hate spring--remember that wonderful song? I’m selfish. If I didn’t learn things about myself, if it weren’t stimulating, I wouldn’t do it.”
While Albee may reject Broadway’s increasing crassness and puerility, he clearly believes in structure, in language and in plays being about something . An experimenter himself (with such pieces as “Mao-Box-Mao,” “The Death of Bessie Smith,” “Tiny Alice” and “The Sandbox”), he does not dismiss the avant-garde so much as keep a distance from it:
“Anything that makes us think about the possibilities of theater in a way we hadn’t thought about them before is useful,” he said. “I’m not interested in improvisatory theater; I’m not interested in theater without words. I’m not interested in a lot of the stuff that (Robert) Wilson is interested in, but it certainly shows me other kinds of theater and probably makes me think a little bit differently. That’s important.”
Among his own plays, the unpopular ones get a large share of his affection--"The Man Who Had Three Arms,” “All Over,” “The Lady From Dubuque.” And he wouldn’t dream of changing a line.
“I don’t let anyone else rewrite my plays,” he reasoned. “Why should I let me do it? I’m not the same person I was and I don’t want to go around second-guessing myself.”
And he finds the abstract notion of criticism useful, in spite of the rough treatment he has had at the hands of critics and his own outspokenness about them.
“Ideally,” he cautioned, “criticism should encourage people to participate in those areas of the arts that are going to make them more aware of who they are, of what being conscious is all about. Unfortunately, far too much criticism, as far too much government these days, is finding out what the public taste is and only praising those things that fit into the public taste.
“We are governed by poll-takers. The difference between a great leader and a lousy leader is that a lousy leader is a follower. The great presidents have known what was good for us and given us that. A good critic, it seems to me, should point people towards what they should want, not what they do want.
“I’m convinced a lot of critics are hired by the owners and publishers and editors of newspapers and magazines not to do that, not to rock the boat, but to create a kind of middle-browism that’s safe.”
By extension, Albee sees an America lulled by the media into a cult of celebrity that has gone so far as to even infect good writers.
“People like Jerzy Koszinski,” he offered as an example, “who used to be a halfway decent writer and became a celebrity and a person who’s after celebrity. Look at the quality of novelists who are the most known these days, the young ones who are pushing themselves into becoming celebrities, the Tama Janowitzes of the world, (Jay) McInerney, for example, who’s on the I-want-to-be-photographed cafe society trail every night. It’s preposterous. Samuel Beckett could walk down the street in San Diego and nobody would know him.”
Any chance of turning the tide?
“I don’t know. It seems to be snowballing. The decline of our civilization,” he mused. “Yes. Maybe a terrible economic disaster will produce social change. Possibly. It all has to do partially with hedonism. People want easy instant gratification and they’re encouraged in this curious society where, if we can pay for it, we should get whatever we want. Escapism. Look at our drug culture. We are a nation of ostriches, buried under drugs and all the rest of it.”
The suggestion that things might be different in societies where less freedom means more discipline amuses him.
“Art as a byproduct of repression?” He savored the irony for a moment. “Certainly some of our best writing in the 20th Century has come from people in repressed societies or people exiled from repressive societies. The best Czech writer is (Milan) Kundera. He’s out. (Vaclav) Havel is still there, in prison again, poor guy. Nabokov was an exile. (Gabriel Garcia) Marquez has had his troubles with this and that . . . “
Inevitably, the conversation came around to Salman Rushdie.
“I think it’s wonderful the number of people who are shooting their mouths off on principle without having read the book,” he said. “Especially the politicians who are taking extraordinary positions. Of course I’m appalled by it. I’ve been appalled for years by the Ayatollah’s attitudes about many things. It’s preposterous. If (Rushdie) survives, he’ll be very rich.”