Albee Damned?

Keiko Carreiro shares her costume designs for The Shipment. Photo by: Adam Tolbert.

EdwardAlbeeAn Australian writer named Laura Parker, who maintains a blog branded with the Economist (via MoreIntelligentLife.com), has gotten herself in (scolding?) hot water for excoriating Edward Albee for being, frankly, Edward Albee. The initial paragraph of her post offers an impatient, get-the-facts-out-of-the-way-so-I-can-talk-all-about-me tone that distinguishes the blather blogger from the bloggers who, in any other era, would most likely have been a columnist read and debated by the masses.

Notice the tonal problem here — the impending sense of the big, all-but-inevitable “but”:

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In the 50 or so years that he has been writing plays, Edward Albee has remained unchanged as both man and playwright. This, at least, is what he said in a rare public interview at the Sydney Theatre Company earlier this year. The talk was hosted by Jonathan Biggins, an Australian theatre personality, who spent two hours asking Albee questions in front of a live audience. Having never heard the great playwright speak before, I was eager for this rare glimpse at his genius mind. What I got instead was the sense that Edward Albee is an old fogey.

We should accept as a given that Albee said he hasn’t changed “as both man and playwright” — the question here isn’t the accuracy of Parker’s “reporting.” Rather, it’s whether Parker has considered the source. Albee hasn’t changed; it’s not in his interest to chronicle the peaks and troughs of his personal and professional journey. Yet if you know Albee’s biography, you have to know that he has. Parker doesn’t mention whether she has read or is even knows of the late Mel Gussow’s acclaimed 1999 biography, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, but if she has, she’d know how both man and playwright have changed. She might even have gone the extra mile and contextualized Albee’s comment, which must have been, given the source, typically glib and slightly taunting. (When I profiled Albee for Back Stage in 2008, he was more interested in talking to me about gay bars and having sex with other teenage boys when he was going to private school in the 1940s than talking about, for example, Tiny Alice. He has to trust you and you have to work on him, then he reveals.)

Gussow’s 15th chapter, called “Into the Woods,” chronicles Albee’s battle with alcohol; he does a nice job examining how Albee giving up of alcohol is reflected in the quality of his later (at least through 1999) plays. Trouble is, Parker is in such a hasty rush to get to her voice, her view, her grandstand, that she fails to give an uneducated reader any sense of why Albee is worth discussing — why he is a “great playwright” possessed of a “genius mind.” The fact is, the Edward Albee whose The Man Who Had Three Arms was called a “temper-tantrum in two acts” by New York Times critic Frank Rich couldn’t be the Edward Albee whose soul-searching Three Tall Women marked the playwright’s return to the New York theater spotlight. One rule of reporting remains unchanged: do your research. Would that Parker knew as much.

What really rankled Parker, however, was Albee’s view of directors — she’s embarrassingly late to the big news that the playwright hasn’t much use for them as theatrical equals, and especially loathes the directorial breed that believes in concept and the reconceiving of text. Albee has been so clear for so very long on this issue that Parker, learning this for first time, unwittingly reveals what a tyro she really is. As her piece moves along, she uninsightfully compares Albee to Beckett — the latter, of course, being a most extreme case in recent times of a playwright asserting an all-encompassing control over the presentation of authored material. Albee, she warns,

…is almost certainly plotting something similar for his own legacy. He has been a vocal critic of productions that take too many liberties with his plays, such as a 2007 production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”(1961-62) at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre. Staged by Benedict Andrews, a young and audacious director, this version was both terrifying and brilliant. It stripped away Albee’s stage directions and set requirements, and featured a much younger cast than the script calls for. The result was pure, alcohol-fuelled psychosexual warfare, played out on a stark and sleek stage surrounded by a glass cage. It made for a perfect example of how a director’s vision can breathe new life into an old work.

Albee didn’t see it that way. He denounced Andrews’s production, comparing such changes to musicians who tell the conductor they’re improving the piece by playing it differently. “I see and hear my play on stage in my mind when I write it,” Albee told Biggins. “I expect people to perform it that way.” He then recounted a sour experience witnessing a Bulgarian production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that ran without any intervals (“Bulgarians don’t like intervals,” Albee explained). Large chunks of the play were cut. Albee was outraged.

Note the tone here, too: Albee’s evil “plotting”; the “young and audacious” director “denounced” by the playwright who was so easily “outraged” when those Bulgarians removed an intermission. To use Parker’s expression, this is “old fogey” territory, to be sure!

Parker is free to disagree with Albee’s insistence upon purity in the performance of his work. However, it does seem to me that she has a responsibility to understand — and to communicate her understanding of — his viewpoint. Nowhere in her piece, for example, does the word “copyright” appear; she’s as sympathetic toward Albee’s arguments as a lethal injectionist awaiting a death row prisoner who has run out of appeals. Parker notes that Albee finds Shakespeare can “do with a trim,” yet fails to present her own credentials for criticizing Albee’s criticism. In her view, Albee’s views are

…dazzlingly out of date. Theatre is an ever-growing, ever-changing medium. No progress could ever be made if everyone stuck to the rules. To interpret a work from a single point of view (that of the person who created it) is to impose an unreasonable limit on that work. Meaning doesn’t lie with the creator, but with each reader, each observer. In theatre the roles of directors and actors are increasingly important, not just for the growth of theatre but for fresh takes on old works. Albee’s wishes for ceaseless loyalty are not only difficult to implement (how can a theatre company know exactly what was intended?), but disrespectful to those directors and actors who are driving innovation in theatre.

To my knowledge, the theater as an art form is not a race between artisans to determine who is “driving” the highest level of innovation. To suggest that “meaning doesn’t lie with the creator” is to fundamentally misunderstand the beauty and, indeed, the very power of something called interpretation. Parker argues that the creator of a work cannot know that work as well as those who didn’t create it; I believe that interpretation is not the application of someone else’s mastery fo the work, but, more simply, someone else’s reaction to a piece. Directors and actors “are increasingly important…for fresh takes on old works,” that is true. But what of playwrights who freely adapt another playwright’s work? Perhaps this flies in the face of Albee’s insistence on what Parker calls “ceaseless loyalty,” but this is equally why writers like Parker should be careful when launching into generalizations about what makes quality or innovative theater. When she asks, concealed in a parenthesis, “(how can a theater company know exactly what was intended?),” she again reveals her ignorance — they’re called stage directions or whatever instruction the playwright situates within the text, be it character descriptions or prefaces, to indicate what they want. Or it’s called anything that is legally binding and contractual, that the owners of the rights of the play are charged with overseeing. That’s why an all-woman Waiting for Godot is not going to sit well with the Beckett estate. Legally, anyway, Beckett had the right to make sure of it.

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As for whether this is a good thing for the art form, Parker has waded into a debate no side can win. One can yell “art must breathe” on behalf of directors, but the playwright can always yell “I’m the vintner” right back at them. It’s up to each individual playwright to determine what will and will not be acceptable regarding their work for the ages. And if the playwright turns out to be wrong in their choice, will it not be the playwright’s legacy that will suffer over time?

Looking at the comments below Parker’s piece, it’s clear she got herself deep in dramatic doo-doo. But the most recent comment is perhaps most revealing, for it is written by Parker herself:

…The article was not meant to inspire such a frenzied response from readers. I absolutely love Albee, and I have great respect for his work. I took great pains to make that clear in the piece. My opinion still remains that he is one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. My objection was more to his manner during the interview and his views on the role of the director in the creative process….

Parker goes on to allude to something ironic. In a piece she has amusingly titled “On Second Thought,” she writes:

…I now know how Albee feels. A short time after this piece was written I found myself in the throes of a creative battle. There I was, terrified and alone, clutching my newly written work in my hands. And there he was, The Director, somewhat inexperienced and altogether too cocky, eager to rip my play to shreds with his “creative vision”.

“This is my first time,” I cooed. “I don’t know anything about writing for the theatre. Please be gentle.”

“There’s nothing to fear,” he said. “But when your play is performed, all the female parts will be played by men in drag.”

I cried for days. Is this what it’s like for new playwrights? Or am I just being stubborn and inexperienced? Shouldn’t I trust my director and his interpretation?…

You should, Laura Parker. And no, you shouldn’t.

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  • Best title of a post I’ve seen in a long, long time! And the story was worth reading, too!

  • Brilliant piece …

  • Albee is the most curmudgeonly playwright in a sea of old curmudgeons, did she not know that beforehand? It’s the words he gives his characters that create the meaning of the play. His work is not built to be modernized on a shiny white stage only to dilute the meaning of those words. Good God, so what if he wasn’t a kindly old man while being interviewed, he has the right to expect his plays to be done as he envisioned, they are HIS plays! And I love all of them.

  • I agree totally with Albee’s scorn for what I call “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” directors. Usually, such “innovation” is a substitute for a lack of analytic skills.

    That said, Albee is an old fogey, and an unpleasant one at that. And I would go further: like David Mamet, he’s been writing the same play for decades. Just go into analysis, for God’s sake, and spare us yet another play about your issues with your parents!

  • For Scott Walters, chief censorer of the blogosphere, to call anyone else unpleasant is the height of insanity.

  • A pleasure as always, Leonard.