Everything is Albee
Edward Albee talks about his legendary career and his continued popularity.
He seems fairly sanguine about this profusion. "I may not always have three plays on at one time," he says, "but I usually have at least one play on somewhere." This fall, Seascape--his second Pulitzer Prize-winning play (1974)--will be revived at Second Stage. In a recent telephone conversation, Albee was happy to share with TheaterMania some thoughts on his legendary career and his close involvement in productions of his works.
Harold and Colleen and Liz and Kate
In 1966, when the 38 year old Albee won the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes for A Delicate Balance, critic/director Harold Clurman wrote: "I shall be able to offer you a more considered judgment [of Albee] when he is 58." Clurman went on to note that Ibsen didn't write A Doll House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, or The Wild Duck until after he was past 50 and concluded, "The point is that Albee is a talented young playwright in the process of growth." Well, that talented young playwright turned 74 on March 12; he jokes that, "these days, it seems as though I have a birthday every three months." In the ensuing 36 years, Albee has garnered two more Pulitzers (Seascape and Three Tall Women, '91), and a few more Tonys to celebrate his constantly produced oeuvre.
Ever since the first production of Zoo Story in 1958, Albee has been a commanding and prolific theatrical presence. He's also very much "hands-on" during a production. "Well, they're my plays," he says emphatically. "According to the Dramatists Guild contract [Albee is a member of the D.G. Council along with such other luminaries as John Guare, Wendy Wasserstein, Donald Margulies, and Tony Kushner], we have complete approval of directors and actors and not a word or interpretation can be changed without the author's permission. If you're going to make sure that that happens, then you've got to be around. Of course you have to trust people. But every once in a while you need to check that they're doing what they should be doing."
Albee has directed several of his own works, most notably the 1976 Colleen Dewhurst-Ben Gazzara revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He celebrated his 58th year by directing several of his one-acts in an evening called Albee Directs Albee at Columbia. So, how does he decide when to direct a play himself? "It all depends on what else I'm doing," he says. "And usually, if I've already directed a play once, I don't need to direct it again [although he has directed several more than once]. I only work with directors I like--and the ones that I've worked with more than once are the ones I really like," he explains, adding impishly: "Of course, I'm one of the ones I like."
What he definitely hasn't liked is most of the screen adaptations of his works. "For Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they promised me Bette Davis and James Mason. Liz Taylor was 20 years too young for the role!" he says. And he dismisses the Simon Callow/Vanessa Redgrave film version of his stage adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café as "a simply awful film." But he still likes the movie he remembers being "more involved" with: the American Film Theatre's 1973 adaptation of A Delicate Balance, co-starring Katherine Hepburn and Kate Reid in the roles that Rosemary Harris and Elaine Stritch played in the '96 Broadway revival.
Albee claims to have been mightily influenced not only by "Sophocles, Shakespeare and Chekov" but also by what he dubs "that great '50s vaudeville act: Beckett, Ionesco and Genet." While he felt compelled earlier in his career to dramatize such novels as Carson McCullers ...Sad Café, James Purdy's Malcolm, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, he hasn't done an adaptation in years. And play doctoring the disastrous Breakfast at Tiffany's in the '60s cured him of musicals. "Being a proper doctor, I saw it was a terminal case," he says now, "but I still managed to bring it back to what Truman had intended before they closed it in previews. I really didn't like working with twelve other people--a composer, a choreographer, etc. And I was the only one not in deep analysis!"
It Ain't Over Till It's Over
The original, 1971 production of All Over, directed by John Gielgud, starred Jessica Tandy and Colleen Dewhurst. Although the play was a critical and box-office flop in New York, a production starring Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Angela Lansbury, directed by Sir Peter Hall, had a more successful run at the RSC in London. As in The Play About the Baby and a few other Albee works, the characters in All Over are generically named "the Wife," "the Mistress," "the Nurse," "the Best Friend," "the Son," etc. Albee explains: "I find most people do not address each other by name when speaking, so why waste perfectly good names?" (There's also a husband, wife, best friend, son and "mistress" in The Goat, but each of them--including the eponymous animal--has a name.)
All Over concerns a rich man dying in his mistress's home, with not only the mistress but also his wife, children, best friend, a doctor, and a nurse on hand. In keeping with Albee's penchant for working with favorite actors, the McCarter production that will move to the Gramercy features a favored foursome: The Wife is Rosemary Harris, the Mistress is Michael Learned, and two completely unrelated Carters--Myra and John--are the Nurse and Best Friend, respectively.
"This is a real chamber piece," says Learned back stage at the McCarter during a break between matinee and evening performances. "Working with Edward is such a treat. He's always very nice, very respectful. We all get very nervous but, basically, he listens. He really listens and catches rhythms and emphases." Harris, for her part, enthuses: "This is such an amazing play to do. It gets richer every time. I haven't had this much dialogue since A Delicate Balance, and I still get those actor anxiety dreams."
According to Harris, both she and Learned started memorizing their lines long before rehearsals began "so we could enjoy the rehearsal process. Michael and I talked by phone several times before we all got here." Harris lives in North Carolina and Learned resides on the West Coast, but their long-term friendship dates back to the mid-'60s and included Harris's then husband, the late actor/director Ellis Raab. "We were all joined at the hip," Harris recalls, beaming. "It's so wonderful to do this play with Edward. He thinks of us--Michael, Myra, John, and me--as his own 'repertory company.' He stood and cheered opening night."