Not Afraid: Upon hearing of Edward Albee’s death at 88
September 2016 (published in Contemporary Theatre Review Backpages 27.2 July 2017)
In my high school theatre classes, we enjoyed riffing on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, talking-back to a script that provided such a thrilling template for emoting, snarly adult-speak, and the erotics of attack. We so wanted to be clever, having very little ground for what we were saying or what Albee was doing in this play, but aspired to its over-the-top passion. Saying the words, the feelings followed. Good writing can do that.
Now Edward Albee has died, news which sweeps me back to the Fall of 2001. My partner and I had just moved to Phoenix, Arizona to begin what I thought would be a brief inundation in academia. Prior to hosting a party for my new colleagues, we thought it might be amusing to watch Mike Nichol’s film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?As a fledgling adult academic, could I have selected a more toxic training film? Since that high school viewing, I had mentally replaced the corrosive and cruel dialogue of the play with a more palliative irony, so the viciousness and tragedy startled us. Was this the life I was now to be living? Are these healthy aspirational goals? We tried to laugh it off, telling my new colleagues of our silly preparations. Was this a cry for help?
Eight years later, in the fall of 2009, hoping to escape academic preoccupations (and Arizona) for a month, I was awarded a residency at Albee’s William Flanagan Creative Persons Center in Montauk, NY. The Center is a badly maintained farmhouse at the end of Long Island, where the artist-residents, a group that changes every month, are expected upon their arrival to clean up after the preceding creative persons. Or not; the caretaker seemed not to care or feel the need to provide equipment: the vacuum cleaner hose snapped in two, the washing machine’s agitator had the strength of an 85-year old on Ambien, only one of the bathrooms was fully functional. Surely a bit more effort could be taken to make the guests comfortable? Like the dialogue in many of Albee’s plays, this was elevating and vulgar, challenging and slightly insulting; you invited me here so you could treat me like this? Foolishly (arrogantly?) I arrived late, so was left the worst room, off the first floor hallway and thus subjected to every heavy tread on the stairway, every dining room conversation, every hallway encounter. A free month in Montauk and I’m complaining; such are the burdens of first-world privilege. My intended project was to plow through the overwritten memoir I had drafted (the Center admits visual artists and writers), and turn it into something dramatic, performable. One gets the feeling, reading Albee on his own youth, that he was seldom comfortable. Perhaps my own slight discomfort would be stimulating, as the spirit of one of the greatest American playwrights drove me forward.
Days consisted of writing/rewriting, finishing my labors by mounting one of the barely functional bicycles (it took several complaints to get pedals attached) to glide down to the beach and the fish store. Evenings were often collective cooking in a kitchen so grimy you could etch your name. Yet my gang of 3 visual artists/3 writers got a lot of work done, balanced with beach and socializing. Montauk in the early fall; how could I complain? Visits by Albee were anticipated, though it was made clear he would never interrupt our work or enter a studio without asking, we might spy him dropping off the mail. There was no internet connection, so mail delivery had quickly reclaimed significance. I glimpsed him once. I think.
Early in our final week, the breezy caretaker of the place, a painter who had to be cajoled to make even the simplest repairs, announced that we guests were to prepare a dinner for “Edward,” adding that “Edward is diabetic so please take that into consideration.” We were not asked, but told. Did I mention that the resident creative persons purchased their own groceries? This state dinner for the patron was, I suppose, our payment for being allowed to be temporarily in-residence, but also made clear the hierarchy. Since my early career involved 10 years in food service, I found such an expectation irritating. You invite me into your home (indirectly; Albee had a much grander place on the water, to which we were never summoned), expect me to clean the place and then cook you dinner, according to dietary rules I am not familiar with? My fellow artists were not nearly so snarky, and we worked together to improvise the meal, with pleasing results. Edward arrived, initiating the embarrassing display of rank when lesser-known artists cluster around an eminence. I had not experienced this in the few art colonies I had been to, but they were not owned by famous living artists. Two of the painters, wise women in their 60’s, were uncharacteristically cooing (Albee, they informed me, had a discerning eye for visual art) while the young male playwright circled the table like a hungry dog. No one would sit down, so hesitant were we as to who would sit next to the great man. I asserted middle-aged, professorial guidance: “Sean (the playwright), for Chrissakes sit down next to Albee. He selected you so he’s interested.” My own initial attempt at chat had already fallen flat. Besides, that isn’t why I came here. I spend too much of my work life being diplomatic and strategic. Not here.
Perhaps I came with baggage, balanced between the good and bad I had heard about Albee. Two years prior, he had visited the University where I teach, distinguishing himself through his gruff demeanor and both endearing and en-sneering himself to our graduate playwrights by that demeanor, several times correcting their mispronunciation of his name (it is “Awlbee” not “Al-be” or god forbid “I’ll-be”). Having made such correction to a Latino grad student, he received the retort, “Fine. Now would you like to hear the proper pronunciation of myname?” Well no, he wouldn’t. Given what I knew of Albee’s history, however, I realized a bit of snark might be well-earned. Should one suffer schools lightly?
The man knew how to craft an insult, to up the acid content. Grandma’s retort to Mommy in the absurd and delicious The American Dream, “Well, you got the rhythm, but you don’t really have the quality,” is a line one longs to use offstage as well as on. Every play by Edward Albee I have read or seen has made me speak chunks of it out loud, impressed and also upset, confused, stimulated. One can’t improve the dialogue in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf(unless your name is Oscar Wilde). His Seascaperightfully shared a stage with Beckett, and A Delicate Balancenailed modern anxiety. The magisterial and surprisingly tender Three Tall Women(I clearly remember each of the actresses/icons from the NY premiere) showed a generosity perhaps not clearly seen from him before. The Goat (or Who is Sylvia? is one of the great revelators of the human soul in all its glorious perversity, right up there with Lolita(which Albee, in a version I have not read, adopted for the stage). His writing is fearless and ferocious.
From what I know of Albee’s life, I sense a man who moved around, sliding between schools, family structures and shifting economic status; he was not attached in his early life. That perhaps made his observations sharper, his ability to absorb the language and attitudes of others yet not be taken-in, either literally or metaphorically. He remained watchful, retaining some critical distance. I recently screened the 2011 documentary The Making of the Boys, focusing on the production of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Bandin 1968, in class. There is Edward Albee, not-so-sheepishly admitting that he advised his partners in The Playwrights Unit not to invest in Crowley’s play. He doesn’t quite come out and say it, but clearly thought at the time that the play’s overt gayness would never go over (“It did serious damage to a burgeoning gay respectability movement among human beings in New York City. That’s why I was opposed to it being produced.”) Albee was wrong (the play was a success commercially), but he was also right. though the play’s effect is more about gaining respect than respectability. And he wasn’t apologizing, simply copping to a judgement, his own, that was miscalled. And even Mart Crowley cannot deny The Boys in the Band being deeply influenced by the dialogue and situations of Albee’s earlier Who’s Afraid…I recall in the 1980’s, when Albee had slid into the discard status American artists are too often disappeared to, considered insufficiently gay, not aggressive enough with liberation politics, and artistically tapped-out. He was accused of hiding behind heterosexuality; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?is really about gay men, is it not? Reading the 1962 play, watching Mike Nichol’s subsequent film, puts the lie to that facile theory; the play is about exactly who it claimed to be about. Yes, there are some universals in human viciousness and pain, but Albee absolutely knew who (and to whom) he was writing, as did Crowley a few years later. Though course the people Albee wrote into life were not an oppressed minority. He could attack them, and did, but also uncovered a deep and damaged humanity.
Violence and damage lurk in Albee’s work, even when the language and the tone sounds slightly patrician. Towards the end of The Making of the Boys, he looks at the camera and says, in regard to the great advances in gay rights, “I remain totally vigilant, because I’m not convinced that the good things that have happened are necessarily there permanently.” I write this as Donald Trump is running for President, LGBTQ people continue being attacked, and in many states of the U.S. you can still lose your job for being gay, your vote for having been in prison, and your life for being something other than white. Albee cuts through the sentimentality into which we often fall, for perhaps all the right reasons. He provides a literate lifeline.
Back to that dinner. We circle our guest/host and finally settle. Albee announces that he is leaving the next day for eastern Europe, for Budapest (or was it Bucharest?) where he will oversee a production of Who’s Afraid…. But how, someone queries, will he be able to direct in a language he does not speak? A sharp look. “I know every line of that play by heart. I should be able to direct it, don’t you think?” Oh, right. “The company did a pirated production of another play of mine. I could have closed them down, but I decided better just to go over there and help them. They can’t afford a lawsuit.” Thus the generous and generative side of the man. At this point, what mattered was the play, the playing, not the paying. Pay attention to that, I thought.
The dreaded dinner was rather enjoyable. There was backstory, there were plots (minor while hinting at major), there was revelation (the impending trip). It’s a bit of All Over, Albee’s 1971 play putting us in the midst of a family waiting for the patriarch to die, as the family itself dissolves in the dying man’s sitting room. The anger, the pique between them all is purgative for some, ruinous for others, but a particularly sharpened truth claws its way out. We put ourselves into fraught situations with difficult people, because they push and pull on us. Albee wasn’t writing to make us feel good about ourselves, nor was I on holiday in his grimy/glorious retreat in order to have a good time. There is always work to be done, and to be done to us. The proceeds from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfallowed Albee to buy this place I was to be creative in, so I should expect some discomfort, disorientation, and despair, but also the delight of finding the right way to express it, and the right to do so.