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Speaking with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Playwright Edward Albee

by Polly Carl

An interview with playwright Edward Albee, director Pam MacKinnon and Artistic Director Martha Lavey

Martha Lavey: Pam, you’ve directed Mr. Albee’s work six times?

Edward Albee: Far too many.

Pam MacKinnon: I think I’ve directed six plays, but I’ve had nine rehearsal processes. I’ve directed two Plays About the Baby, two Sylvia’s and two Peter and Jerry’s.

EA: She keeps doing it until she gets it right.

PM: Well, they’re very hard plays.

ML: And you know, apropos of that, Mr. Albee, you have a sort of singular stature in American playwriting. The plays that you’ve written, a number of them have a really iconic presence, not least of which is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And now you continue to write and you also direct some of your plays.

EA: I direct them when I write them, of course. When I write a play, I see it and I hear it as a play being performed in front of me while I’m writing it. I see the staging as I write.

ML: Yes, I think that one of the things that’s very evident in your writing is there’s a real mastery of rhythm.

EA: I wanted to be a classical composer when I was twelve, but I just didn’t have any talent.

ML: But you clearly had that musical ear. You’ve expressed a willingness to direct your plays and there’s certainly a care in which you choose collaborators, and casts, and directors and so forth. What about that? You’re in a medium that is so dependent on the talents of others and the understanding of others. Can you talk about that? Is there frustration in that?

EA: I have no problem with the collaborative aspect of theater. It’s working with talented people who know their jobs beautifully. That’s wonderful. Goodness, what could be better? It’s having to work with the untalented or the destructive that’s the problem.

ML: Are you able to describe what it is that you look for in directors to direct your work?

EA: I look for intelligence, creativity, respect for text. I look for all sorts of things. Half of it is intuitive and half of it is deliberative.

ML: And, Pam, what is it that attracts you to a writer?

PM: I’m very drawn to a muscularity of language, playwrights that really recognize that one of the big strengths of theater is that it’s an aural art form and that we connect to the story through our ear.

ML: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the second play in our five play season that we are considering under the theme of the public/private self. The reason we’ve chosen that theme is because it seems, particularly with all these technological modes of communications, the fundamental tension in any person between a public persona and a private self, or the multiples of those, has been heightened by, for instance, virtual community. In other words, one can construct a persona on something like Facebook or one of these chat rooms that has some relationship to the other self. But this public/private divide, if you will, feels heightened now.

EA: Don’t almost all plays that are any good deal with that?

ML: I think so. But what about Virginia Woolf? When it was received, it was so shocking.

PM: I remember there was one headline, “For Dirty Minded Females Only.”

EA: Well, that gave us six months more into the run.


EA: What people confuse as being obscenity or profanity in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nothing other than brutal honesty. And brutal honesty still shocks.

ML: Pam, what about that for you? How do you feel about that relative to what is accepted discourse now in terms of the public/private?

PM: Just responding to Edward’s phrase of “brutal honesty,” it’s a play that occurs in living time. We have two 15 minute intermissions, and the off stage time of the characters will also be those 15 minutes. Within this evening, both the audience’s evening, as well as what the characters are going through, we’re slowly peeling this onion, and Edward’s plays really work well in those kinds of compressed time situations. There’s a recognition that everyone in the room is going through this living process. I’m very excited to really try to embrace that kind of pressure cooker over the course of a two hour and forty minute evening.

EA: You know what? The only thing that justifies the two intermissions in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the fact that nobody is on stage for those two points of fifteen minutes. If that had not been the case, I would not have had the intermissions.

PM: Well, your characters have to pee and what not. And Martha and Nick have to go upstairs.

EA: It takes a little while to not do it.

PM: Exactly.

ML: What is it that you want audiences to leave with after they see a production?

EA: I want them to be willing to reconsider whether all the values that they brought into the theater are still valid when they leave. I don’t want to necessarily tell them how to think, but I want them to be examining those values and see if they still believe them.

ML: Do you think that this examination process is something theater has a particular power to invoke?

EA: Well, yes. You go to a play and it is happening. It is real, it is happening to you in the present, and, therefore, whether anybody knows it or not, that engagement is infinitely more persuasive.

ML: The characters of George and Martha are two of the most iconic characters in the contemporary canon.

EA: They’ve been around for a while now.

ML: Do you mind talking about some of the qualities an actor must have to play either of these roles?

EA: The double ability of being able to become the character fully and completely, so we don’t see the actor there anymore, we only see the character. At the same time, the actor being able to retain full control of all of his technical and psychological stuff, so that he can control this transformation.

ML: I read something, Mr. Albee, where you said that when Iceman Cometh premiered on Broadway you saw it five times…

EA: I saw it four times.

ML: If what I’m quoting is accurate, you said that you disagreed with O’Neill’s thesis that illusion is necessary to endure our lives.

EA: I won’t say that that was O’Neill’s thesis; it was certainly his characters’ needs. I don’t like to confuse what the characters believe and what the authors believe.

ML: But it seems to me that the idea of positive thinking is deeply invested in the American sensibility…

EA: Whether it’s right or wrong.

ML: And, this question of self delusion—is that something you feel you address yourself in your plays?

EA: I will answer that by telling you the answer that Beckett gave to the same question, “If I were a pessimist, I wouldn’t write plays.”

ML: That’s interesting. I just had the pleasure of being in the production of Endgame. And you know, I know that it’s not uncommon to say that Beckett was one of your antecedents, right?

EA: Well, I would be a damn fool if I hadn’t been influenced by Beckett, I’ll tell you that.

ML: I didn’t really understand that at a kind of visceral level until I was in Beckett. I think I understood more about how your writing is related to each other.

EA: If you want to look at my sources, look at Chekhov, Pirandello and Beckett. The ones that I think I’ve been most influenced by.

ML: But in beginning your writing life, did you not write prose and poetry?

EA: Oh God, yes. I wrote a lot of poetry, and I wrote two terrible novels. I didn’t know I was a playwright.

ML: How did you discover you were a playwright?

EA: By writing terrible poetry and terrible novels.

PM: But it doesn’t necessarily follow that one is going to become a master playwright.

EA: I figured it might work out sometime.

ML: Pam, how did you know that you were a theater director?

PM: I acted a fair amount as a child and through early college, and while I loved performing, I didn’t enjoy the rehearsal process. And then I stepped away from theatre, and I studied economics and political science. I was interested in storytelling, but the stories that I was being asked to tell as a social scientist, as a political scientist, as an academic were actually getting smaller and smaller and smaller. I was young and I had a big career change. I’ve always known that I’m a storyteller. Theatre was a part of my life and I took a step away from that only to come back to it. The actively analytical side of my brain is engaged as a theater director, and so is the creative side. Directing and being able to work with great writers and great visual thinkers and actors really suits my temperament as a storyteller.

ML: I know this is a broad question, Mr. Albee, but how do you feel about the condition of contemporary American playwriting?

EA: Well, I think we have some very, very good ones, and we have an awful lot more who are mediocre, and a few who are pretty terrible. I care about the ones who understand that every time they write a play, they’re writing the first play that anybody has ever written. I like those guys and gals. I hate the people who try to imitate somebody. I hate the people who imitate the safe ones, the people who compromise their talents for commerce. I hate the people who don’t write the first play ever written the first time they ever write a play.

ML: Mr. Albee, for you, you said you got kicked out of two colleges, so how did you learn how to be a playwright?

EA: As I said, by failing in every other branch of writing. But also, I was fortunate because by the time I got thrown out of school I moved straight to New York to Greenwich Village and immersed myself in avant garde theater and theater in general. It intrigued me, and I was fascinated, and I was learning a lot. I was also learning classical music and avant garde painting, and everything else at the same time, so all the arts.

ML: Do you remember in particular an experience in the theater that you found quite arresting in those early days?

EA: The first show I ever saw was a musical called Jumbo, and the interaction between Jimmy Durante and a small elephant taught me a great deal, when I was six years old. But seeing a very strange musical extravaganza called Pills a Poppin’, which was probably the first existentialist theater I ever saw with all sorts of bizarre things, anti-theatrical things going on during the action and the intermission—the anti-theatricality of it was so brilliant and so exciting. I remember those early things, when I was still a kid, were terribly important to me. They taught me that theater can be anything that it wants to be if it works.

PM: That’s a wonderful lesson.

EA: Yeah, if it works, learn from it. That’s the only thing that matters: does it work? And is it worth doing?