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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the February 6, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Albee on What’s Right & Wrong with Theater

Producers will produce anything that will make

money,"

says playwright Edward Albee. "That’s why you see so many musicals

and trivial comedies on Broadway. They aren’t in it for art. They’re

all out to make a buck."

Ask Edward Albee about the current state of American theater and

you’re

in for an interesting ride. For over 40 years, Albee has been one

of America’s most successful, if somewhat peevish playwrights,

regularly

denouncing greedy producers, dimwitted critics, and the saccharine

tastes of audiences raised on heaping helpings of TV sitcoms.

It is no small part of Albee’s enduring charm that despite having

written some of the 20th century’s most distinguished plays —

including "Zoo Story," Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and

"Three Tall Women" — and garnering a fistful of Pulitzer

Prizes and other prestigious awards, he has never been shy about

sounding

the alarm.

Albee will be speaking on the problems, strengths, and future of the

American theater in a Princeton University public lecture, "The

Playwright vs. The Theater," at McCosh 10, on Thursday, February

7, at 8 p.m. Previous speakers in J. Edward Farnum Lecture Series

that dates back to 1939, have included John Gielgud, Robert Frost,

and Martin Buber. Playwright Tony Kushner, whose plays include

"Homebody/Kabul"

and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America," will speak

in the series on Thursday, April 4.

In a recent phone interview from his New York home, Albee pledged

not to reveal the contents of his Princeton lecture, but was more

than willing to discuss some of the problems that theater and the

other arts face in the new century.

"The arts have become big business in the United States,"

Albee says. "The theater is beginning to take up the methods of

the movie companies. Movie companies have staffs of people taking

polls trying to find out what people are going to want to see. And

then they make movies based on the results of those polls. What a

way to run art!"

Some experts believe that the arts in America are

healthier

than they have ever been. It is a fact that more people attend art

events in the United States — theater, dance, art galleries,

museums,

and classical music — than sporting events. Yet hidden in the

riches are a few complications that point to a less rosy picture.

"We produced `Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ on Broadway in

1962 for a total expense of $42,000," says Albee. "Now it

would cost close to $2 million to put that play on. In that time,

ticket prices have gone up 10 times, but the production costs have

gone up 20 or 30 times. Because things have become so expensive, it’s

much harder for the people who invest in plays to get their money

back. Investors don’t want to take as many chances as they used to.

They’ll produce only what they think people will pay to see. So in

that way, the arts are not as healthy."

Despite the economic pressures to prosper in the ’90s, young people

have flocked to university arts programs, and as a result, college

art programs have been churning out more artistic wannabes than the

market could bear. Bloated numbers created heightened competition,

leading some emerging artists to reach for glitz and shock value over

substance.

But Albee maintains that serious writers and artists have a need to

steer clear of commercial considerations, especially when in the midst

of making new work.

"The danger of considering the market is that you become an

employee,

and I can’t think of any self-respecting writer who ever goes into

the craft to be an employee," says Albee. "Maybe people who

write movies do. They’re hired hands. Nobody that I respect writes

anything with one eye on the market to see what will sell. Because

then you don’t do what you’re supposed to do. You can’t have it both

ways. You have to be very, very careful."

"It’s okay to want to be popular," says the playwright whose

popularity, at one time, was such that he became a household name,

yet whose career has periodically sagged. "But you want to make

sure you get popularity on your own terms."

On the other hand, Albee is not harboring any illusions that the

majority

of people working in the arts can be considered serious artists.

"Integrity

is relative," he says flatly. "Some people just can’t wait

to sell out."

For Albee, art goes beyond mere entertainment or diversion, and is

very difficult to ascertain even when standing in front of it.

"How do you know if it’s really art or not," Albee asks.

"It

may take 150 years to really be able to make that determination. The

majority of work that is presented in all the arts just isn’t worth

the time or the trouble. Let’s say that there are 60 plays on Broadway

a year. Out of those 60, maybe one or two will be worth the trouble

of going to see. It’s the same with novels and paintings."

Albee was born in Washington, D.C., in 1928, and adopted as an infant

by Reed Albee, the son of Edward Franklin Albee, a successful

vaudeville

entrepreneur. Albee’s grandfather ruled the vaudeville circuit for

more than 40 years, beginning in the 1890s, until his company was

absorbed into RKO in 1928. Growing up in affluence, Albee was

nonetheless

strong-willed and repeatedly clashed with his mother, Frances, who

tried in vain to steer him toward the more genteel pursuits of

sportsmanship,

wishing to see him become a respected member of the Larchmont, New

York, social set.

Albee was sent to various preparatory and military schools that

included

Valley Forge Military Academy, the Choate School, and the

Lawrenceville

School. At Lawrenceville, where he arrived at age 12, he chose to

attend only the classes that happened to interest him; he was booted

out at the end of his second year.

The future playwright eventually left home at the age of 20 and moved

to Greenwich Village, where he gravitated to the counterculture and

avant-garde movements of the era. He lived off his paternal

grandmother’s

inheritance until he was forced to support himself with a variety

of menial jobs.

In 1959 Albee’s "Zoo Story," a short play in which a bum

convinces

an executive to commit a murder, was produced in Berlin, Germany,

on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s "Krapp’s Last Tape."

Although "Zoo Story" had been rejected by a number of American

producers, it proved a hit, and much to his surprise, Albee discovered

that he was famous.

He went on to write "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," a

Broadway

success that became the 1966 acclaimed film, directed by Mike Nichols.

It won an Oscar for Elizabeth Taylor, although not for her co-star

and husband Richard Burton. Next came "A Delicate Balance,"

for which Albee won the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes.

With his career in theater now stretching into its sixth decade, Albee

is as busy now as he ever has been. He has three plays set to open

in region in the coming weeks.

His 1971 drama, "All Over," will be presented at McCarter

Theater, directed by Emily Mann, and featuring Rosemary Harris and

Michael Learned. Previews begin Tuesday, February 12, for the show

that opens Friday, February 15, and runs through March 3. Albee’s

brand-new play, "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?" begins previews

on Broadway on February 16, and opens March 10. At Off-Broadway’s

Signature Theater, another new Albee play, "Occupant," began

previews in early February and opens on February 24.

Asked about the difficulty of having three plays in

rehearsal at the same time, Albee says, "Not too much bad happens.

As long as you’ve got a good director, a good cast, and the play’s

okay, it’s sort of fun. I’ve known Emily Mann for many years, and

she’s a good director, so I’m not worried."

When "All Over" — a drama that centers on a dying lawyer

whose family members are gathered for a deathbed vigil — premiered

at the Martin Beck Theater in 1971, with Colleen Dewhurst and Jessica

Tandy, it was savaged by the New York critics. Yet Albee says he had

no desire to rewrite the play for McCarter’s 2002 production.

"Why would I want to rewrite a play I wrote 30 years ago? I’m

not the same person I was then, so I can’t go back and rewrite."

Since September 11, Albee has often been asked to give his opinion

of how the terrorist attacks changed the world or the arts in some

intrinsic way. He says this has proved an impossible question to

answer.

"I haven’t got the foggiest idea," he says.

"How do you know instantly? Something happens to you, it burrows

deep into your unconscious, and eventually you react to it. It may

not come out in your work for 10 years. I get awfully suspicious of

those knee-jerk reactions that everybody is supposed to have.

"People are interviewed on radio and television and they’re asked

how they feel and how they’re different and what their reactions

are,"

he continues. "But all they say is what they were told on

television —

about how they were supposed to have reacted. It’s an exit poll

reaction."

When it comes to the future of theater, Albee has few illusions.

"It

will manage the same as always," he says. "In the Greek and

Elizabethan days, theater was the most popular entertainment. But

there wasn’t anything else to do. If there had been television or

movies back then, theater wouldn’t be any more popular than it is

today."

Albee agrees that the importance of theater lies in its immediacy.

"It’s tougher, and it’s a real experience," he says.

"Everybody

knows that movies are a fantasy experience. They know it’s not

happening.

And television, it wrecks your life in your own home. Good theater,

like all good art, is meant to transform, to make us different people.

It is corrective and instructional and entertaining. But if it’s only

entertaining, it just wastes time."

For Albee, now in his early 70s, writing in 2002 isn’t much different

than writing in 1959. "I approach things now just as I did

then,"

he says. "With the same trepidation, lack of preparation, and

sloth that I always have." But he adds, "I may know my craft

somewhat better. I still seem to get one play written every year and

a half or so. And that’s not bad."

— Jack Florek

Edward Albee, Princeton University Public Lecture,

McCosh 10, 609-258-2742. "The Playwright vs. the Theater,"

a discussion of the state of American theater, its problems, its

strengths,

its future, by the distinguished American playwright. Free.

Thursday,

February 7, 8 p.m.

All Over, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. Previews begin February 12 for the production, directed

by Emily Mann, that runs through March 3. $23 and $27. Tuesday,

February 12, 8 p.m.

Edward Albee One-Acts, Theatre Intime, Murray

Theater,

Princeton University, 609-258-4950. "The American Dream" and

"The Zoo Story," two Albee dramas, running February 28 to

March 9. $12.50.


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