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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
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
in for an interesting ride. For over 40 years, Albee has been one
of America’s most successful, if somewhat peevish playwrights,
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
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
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
than they have ever been. It is a fact that more people attend art
events in the United States — theater, dance, art galleries,
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
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
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
of people working in the arts can be considered serious artists.
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.
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
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
strong-willed and repeatedly clashed with his mother, Frances, who
tried in vain to steer him toward the more genteel pursuits of
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
Valley Forge Military Academy, the Choate School, and the
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
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
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
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
"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
he continues. "But all they say is what they were told on
about how they were supposed to have reacted. It’s an exit poll
When it comes to the future of theater, Albee has few illusions.
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
Albee agrees that the importance of theater lies in its immediacy.
"It’s tougher, and it’s a real experience," he says.
knows that movies are a fantasy experience. They know it’s not
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
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
McCosh 10, 609-258-2742. "The Playwright vs. the Theater,"
a discussion of the state of American theater, its problems, its
its future, by the distinguished American playwright. Free.
February 7, 8 p.m.
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.
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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