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Interviews: 1960s

Edward Albee

Edward Albee

undefinedEdward Albee. Photo by Monica Simoes.

 

The interview happened on a scalding, soggy-aired Fourth of July in a sunny room in Albee’s small, attractive country house in Montauk, Long Island. Keeping in mind his luxuriously appointed house in New York City’s Greenwich Village, one finds the country place dramatically modest by comparison. With the exception of a handsome, newly built tennis court (in which the playwright takes a disarmingly childlike pleasure and pride) and an incongruously grand Henry Moore sculpture situated high on a landscaped terrace that commands a startling view of the sea, the simplicity of the place leaves one with the curious impression that the news of the personal wealth his work has brought him has not quite reached the playwright-in-residence at Montauk. Still, it is in his country house that he generally seems most at ease, natural, at home.

   Albee was dressed with a mildly ungroomed informality. He was as yet unshaven for the day and his neo-Edwardian haircut was damply askew. He appeared, as the climate of the afternoon demanded, somewhat uncomfortable.

   The interviewer and subject have been both friends and composer-writer collaborators for about eighteen years. But Albee’s barbed, poised, and elegantly guarded public press style took over after the phrasing of the first question—though perhaps it was intermittently penetrated during the course of the talk.

 

INTERVIEWER

One of your most recent plays was an adaptation of James Purdy’s novel Malcolm. It had as close to one hundred percent bad notices as a play could get. The resultant commercial catastrophe and quick closing of the play apart, how does this affect your own feeling about the piece itself?

EDWARD ALBEE

I see you’re starting with the hits. Well, I retain for all my plays, I suppose, a certain amount of enthusiasm. I don’t feel intimidated by either the unanimously bad press that Malcolm got or the unanimously good press that some of the other plays have received. I haven’t changed my feeling about Malcolm. I liked doing the adaptation of Purdy’s book. I had a number of quarrels with the production, but then I usually end up with quarrels about all of my plays. With the possible exception of the little play The Sandbox, which takes thirteen minutes to perform, I don’t think anything I’ve done has worked out to perfection.

INTERVIEWER

While it doesn’t necessarily change your feeling, does the unanimously bad critical response open questions in your mind?

ALBEE

I imagine that if we had a college of criticism in this country whose opinions more closely approximated the value of the works of art inspected, it might; but as often as not, I find relatively little relationship between the work of art and the immediate critical response it gets. Every writer’s got to pay some attention, I suppose, to what his critics say because theirs is a reflection of what the audience feels about his work. And a playwright, especially a playwright whose work deals very directly with an audience, perhaps he should pay some attention to the nature of the audience response—not necessarily to learn anything about his craft, but as often as not merely to find out about the temper of the time, what is being tolerated, what is being permitted.

INTERVIEWER

Regarding adaptations in general, can you think of any by American playwrights that you admire at all?

ALBEE

No, I can’t think of any that I admire. I’ve done adaptations for two reasons: first, to examine the entire problem of adaptation—to see what it felt like; and second, because I admired those two books—The Ballad of the Sad Café and Malcolm—very much and thought they belonged on the stage; I wanted to see them on the stage, and felt more confident, perhaps incorrectly, in my own ability to put them on the stage than in most adapters’.

INTERVIEWER

One of the local reviewers, after Malcolm came out, referred to it as Edward Albee’s “play of the year,” rather as if to suggest that this is a conscious goal you’ve set for yourself, to have a play ready every year.

ALBEE

Do you remember the Thurber cartoon of the man looking at his police dog and saying, “If you’re a police dog, where’s your badge?” It’s the function of a playwright to write. Some playwrights write a large number of plays, some write a small number. I don’t set out to write a play a year. Sometimes I’ve written two plays a year. There was a period of a year and half when I only wrote half a play. If it depresses some critics that I seem prolific, well, that’s their problem as much as mine. There’s always the danger that there are so damn many things that a playwright can examine in this society of ours—things that have less to do with his artistic work than have to do with the critical and aesthetic environment—that perhaps he does have to worry about whether or not he is writing too fast. But then also, perhaps he should worry about getting as many plays on as possible before the inevitable ax falls.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by “the inevitable ax”?

ALBEE

If you examine the history of any playwright of the past twenty-five or thirty years—I’m not talking about the comedy boys, I’m talking about the more serious writers—it seems inevitable that almost every one has been encouraged until the critics feel that they have built them up beyond the point where they can control them; then it’s time to knock them down again. And a rather ugly thing starts happening: the playwright finds himself knocked down for works that quite often are just as good or better than the works he’s been praised for previously. And a lot of playwrights become confused by this and they start doing imitations of what they’ve done before, or they try to do something entirely different, in which case they get accused by the same critics of not doing what they used to do so well.

INTERVIEWER

So, it’s a matter of not being able to win either way.

ALBEE

Actually, the final evaluation of a play has nothing to do with immediate audience or critical response. The playwright, along with any writer, composer, painter in this society, has got to have a terribly private view of his own value, of his own work. He’s got to listen to his own voice primarily. He’s got to watch out for fads, for what might be called the critical aesthetics.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think the reviews were so lacerating against Malcolm—a play that might simply have been dismissed as not being very good.

ALBEE

It seemed to me the critics loathed something. Now whether they loathed something above and beyond the play itself, it’s rather dangerous for me to say. I think it’s for the critics to decide whether or not their loathing of the play is based on something other than the play’s merits or demerits. They must search their own souls, or whatever.

INTERVIEWER

When you say that the play was badly produced—

ALBEE

I didn’t like the way it was directed, particularly. It was the one play of mine—of all of them—that got completely out of my hands. I let the director take over and dictate the way things should be done. I did it as an experiment.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean “as an experiment”?

ALBEE

As a playwright, one has to make the experiment finally to see whether there’s anything in this notion that a director can contribute creatively, as opposed to interpretively.