In 1960, Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, a one-act play written as a 30th birthday present to himself, opened at the Provincetown Playhouse. In an accompanying essay, he noted, “Careers are funny things. They begin mysteriously, and just as mysteriously they can end; and I am at the beginning of what I hope will be a long and satisfying life in the theater.” Though he doesn’t count prophecy among his skills, the 82-year-old writer has since won Obies, Tonys, Pulitzers, and membership in a pantheon of American playwrights that includes Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. (He thinks Thornton Wilder ought to make the list, too.) His latest work, Me, Myself & I, a comedy about identical twins and their flummoxed mother, begins performances this week at Playwrights Horizons. Recently, Albee spent a morning at his maddeningly lovely Tribeca loft discussing he, himself, and him.
The Village Voice: It’s 50 years since The Zoo Story opened Off-Broadway. Did you have any idea then of the course your career would take?
Edward Albee: Well, having started by writing poetry and short fiction and novels, and knowing that none of it was any good, when I wrote The Zoo Story I was aware that I had finally written something that was good and that I might have a career as a writer, so that didn’t surprise me.
VV: What has surprised you?
EA: The unpredictability of critical response, vicissitudes of having a career in the arts—sometimes you’re in favor and sometimes you’re so completely out of favor that you could have written the best play in the world and they would still give it a bad review.
VV: And now you’re back Off-Broadway with a new play.
EA: I much prefer being Off-Broadway. Always have. The audiences are younger and more intelligent. Well, younger and/or more intelligent. The theaters are the proper size. The only problem there is the economics of the theater. The people who run the economics of the theater should be shot.
VV: How has Off-Broadway changed in 50 years?
EA: When we did Krapp’s Last Tape and The Zoo Story, ticket prices were $2. It cost $1,500 to produce. Now, it would cost $300,000, and tickets are $65 to $70. And it has very little to do with inflation. Everyone’s greedier these days.
VV: Have your literary tastes changed much over the years?
EA: No, although I’ve become more and more impatient with mediocrity. I’ve always liked the tough ones, the ones who try to make everyone think differently about the possibilities of the art form.
VV: Who are the tough ones?
EA: In the 20th century, it’s Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett, Brecht.
VV: Are there any of their plays that you would like to see revived?
EA: Yes, the good ones.
VV: And which of your plays do you wish would be revived more often?
EA: I’m selfish. All of them.
VV: All of them?
EA: All of them. The world would be a better place if theaters were filled with my plays all the time.
VV: Do you have any favorites?
EA: No. Not really. I like them all. Though I wish people would pay more attention to the ones that haven’t had much attention paid to them. The ones that haven’t been very successful. A play of mine called Box and Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung is practically never performed. It’s a very good play. The Man Who Had Three Arms was a disaster on Broadway, so people have been informed they shouldn’t do it. That’s a very good play.
VV: What makes someone a good director of your work?
EA: To realize that the proper function of a director is to do an accurate translation of the play from the page to the stage. If the play is lousy, I suppose a director could improve it, as can actors. The better the play, the more damage they and the actors can do.
VV: So you’re not a great believer in director’s theater?
EA: Good God, no. We don’t write plays to have them fucked over by other people.
VV: Now, some academic critics—
EA: Oh, academic critics, that’s a whole other thing! These so-called scholars who write endless, boring papers on one’s work having nothing to do with one’s intention or result at all? Those people?
VV: Yes, those people. They talk about you as part of a tradition of great American playwriting, as an inheritor to O’Neill, to Williams, to Miller.
EA: Everybody forgets the most important of those: Thornton Wilder. If you’re going to have those three others on that list, you have to include Wilder. O’Neill is a very powerful playwright, but he has a tin ear. Wilder had a beautiful ear. Especially with Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. That talent is extraordinary.
VV: Have you seen the revival of Our Town?
EA: Oh, it’s the best production of it I’ve ever seen. Without question. Because it understands that the play is not a Christmas card. It’s a tough, existentialist play. If you’re not crying in the first 10 minutes that you’re there, you’re at the wrong play.
VV: I think I started crying during the last 10 minutes.
EA: Once you’ve seen it, when you go back and see it again, you start crying a lot earlier.
VV: Have you ever thought of working with [Our Town director] David Cromer?
EA: I would love to.
VV: Does he know this?
EA: Well, I met him. He asked me if I’d come in and take over the stage manager role for a few weeks. I couldn’t. I was deeply tempted. I’m not a bad actor. But I was too busy. It would have been nice.
VV: How often do you go to the theater?
EA: Too often. I try to see new plays, new talent. Some young playwrights are overrated and others are undervalued. I don’t want to mention names.
VV: You won’t tell me? That’s so cruel!
EA: It just wouldn’t be fair.
VV: Now, you don’t like to have your plays interpreted using your biography—
EA: I never put me in a play. I don’t write about me. I write about more interesting people, more dramatic people. More dramatically interesting people.
VV: And yet when I was reading Me, Myself, and I, I couldn’t help noticing biographical resonances.
EA: Like what?
VV: A difficult relationship between mother and son, a mother who can’t or won’t recognize her sons.
EA: How I wish I’d had that mother, compared to the one I had. The only autobiographical thing you might find in this play is that I probably thought that maybe I must have had a brother somewhere. Identical twins turn up in a few of my plays. So, maybe I thought I had an identical twin. I don’t know.
VV: Do you have other plays that you’re working on?
EA: Yes, two.
VV: Can you reveal anything about them?
EA: I have one that I believe is going to be quite funny. And the other is not.