Theater

Remembering the Audacious and Unyielding Edward Albee

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If you love Edward Albee’s playwriting, this is no time to grieve. His plays remain as challenging, troubling, audacious, and hackle-raising as ever. Albee himself has gone, at the ripe age of 88, after a bout of illness at the end of a long period of increasing frailty. But for his friends, and for those of us who shared his belief in the important possibilities of theater, Albee was not only a maker of plays but also a philanthropist and an inspiration to others who made them. The spiky, disputatious personality displayed in the great confrontation scenes of his scripts — and at times in his personal conversation — concealed, as a spiky manner often does, a generous heart.

Brought up in wealth, and having achieved still greater wealth from the worldwide success of plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, he devoted much time and money to encouraging other playwrights. [He partnered with his producers, Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder, in the creation of the nonprofit Playwrights Unit, and in a series of Off-Broadway productions — Lanford Wilson, Adrienne Kennedy, Sam Shepard, and Amiri Baraka were among the early beneficiaries of their attentions. On his own, he founded and operated the Albee Foundation near his home in Montauk, Long Island. And that barely scratches the surface: Stories of his generosity, support, and encouragement to writers and theaters are legion; many more will undoubtedly emerge over the next few weeks, as the theater community takes stock of what it has lost.

Most of all, Albee served those who write for the stage as a role model. Obdurately determined to have his plays performed as written, he was notoriously stringent with actors about adhering to every last comma, and ferocious at curbing what he viewed as directorial excesses. While this did not always breed optimal results, actors and directors, compelled to dig for whatever they could find within the limitations he laid down for them, produced performances of astonishing glory. His career is also both a chronicle of great American acting — it begins for me with the memory of Uta Hagen leaning drunkenly into the doorway at the opening moment of Virginia Woolf — and an inventory of aesthetic truth-or-dares, built to test critics and audiences as well as his interpreters.

In this latter category, Albee achieved his iconic stature: He was the only American playwright ever to command mass attention in the commercial arena while writing plays that insisted, with obstinate fierceness, on their uncommercial individuality. Next to him, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and in most cases even Tennessee Williams appear to be purveying traditional narratives through conventional means. Albee cheerfully violated both those rules. When he wrote a play about marital love and child-rearing, it was Virginia Woolf. When he wrote a play about neighborliness and hospitality, it was A Delicate Balance. And when he wrote his most conventionally structured play, on the ultra-familiar topic of an adulterous love affair, it was The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?

And these were his Broadway successes. His ability to make audiences accept and applaud these extreme departures from the norm proves that his power as a dramatist equaled his independence of vision. The works in which he dared even further — always in an eerily quiet, impishly metaphysical way — met with a far colder reception. Broadway had no patience for the philosophical conundrums of Tiny Alice. After the comparative triumph of A Delicate Balance came the long commercial downslide from All Over to The Man Who Had Three Arms, with a corresponding personal downslide into his struggles with alcoholism.

What brought him back, after years of stock-taking, teaching, and mentoring, was Off-Broadway. The Albee who returned in glory with Three Tall Women and the one-act plays of his 1993-94 Signature season was not so much a “new” as a refreshed Albee, still feisty and unyielding in his theatrical ideas, still playful in his language and his metaphysics — and still seemingly eager to trouble audiences with his contradictions. Works like The Play About the Baby and Me, Myself & I gave Off-Broadway theatergoers no more comfort than Quotations from Chairman Mao and The Lady from Dubuque had granted their Broadway counterparts decades earlier. But here, Albee could move as his own artistic self, liberated from the commercial pressure to aim for mass appeal.

While his new works were now greeted with cautious, puzzled respect instead of naked hostility, and the troublesome works of his middle period were revived for serious reconsideration, Albee himself seemed to mellow, becoming sociable even with critics, whom he had once viewed chiefly with dark suspicion. I was honored to be one of the select members of that tribe whom he respected; he once paid me the compliment of saying that mine were among the only reviews from which he could actually learn something. I accepted this happily, even while recognizing it as hyperbole, for I knew I had nothing to teach an artist whose vision was as deep as his knowledge of the theater was wide.

On several occasions I heard Albee, addressing audiences, recall affectionately the first piece of theater he remembered attending, producer Billy Rose’s giant musical spectacle, Jumbo (1935), staged at New York’s huge Hippodrome Theatre not many years before it was torn down. The story of a shabby one-ring circus being forced into bankruptcy by a bigger, gaudier rival, Jumbo contains one celebrated comic moment. Jimmy Durante, as the owner of the failing circus, has resolved to steal an elephant from the rival troupe. As he leads the gigantic beast across the empty arena, he’s stopped by a tough roustabout twice his size. “Hey,” says the roustabout, “Where do you think you’re going with that elephant?” Looking up at him innocently, Durante replies, “What elephant?” and he and the beast go placidly out while the befuddled roustabout gapes openmouthed. In some ways, I see that moment as a magic key to Albee’s theater — to the missing twins, disappearing babies, inexplicable fears, invisible presences, otherworldly intruders, and nameless needs that drive his characters. The world he created, so full of terrors and blank spaces, contains at its core the homegrown comic absurdity of a giant beast that either is there, or isn’t there, depending on how you look at it.

Off-Broadway theaters will dim their lights on Wednesday, September 21 at 7:45 p.m. in memory of Tony and Pulitzer award-winning playwright Edward Albee.

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